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Profile of criminologist Chris Uggen


Sociology chair Chris Uggen on felons, faculty, blogging, and more

By Adam Overland

Chris Uggen
Chris Uggen

November 16, 2010

Criminologist Chris Uggen (you-gun) is busy. He's a Distinguished McKnight Professor and chair of the Department of Sociology. He's both a teacher and a researcher. He's co-editor (with the U's Doug Hartmann) of the American Sociological Association's magazine, Contexts, which, since coming to the U just a few years ago, has grown from having no online presence to receiving a million page views per month. He's co-chair of the CLA 2015 Committee, which on Nov. 8 released its report on the future of the College of Liberal Arts (see sidebar). Away from work, he's a father, a jogger, and a blogger. And he has strong views about bringing complex issues to the public consciousness through solid research.

Faculty too timid

Uggen believes that faculty are too timid; that they should be bold in tackling the issues people care about. And perhaps more to the point—issues that many of us haven't been asked to care about. "One of the reasons we have tenure and we have protections of academic freedom is so we can take on challenging issues," says Uggen.

CLA 2015 Committee

Last July, Chris Uggen began a second three-year term as chair of the sociology department. In that administrative role, he says, he tries to bring the same sort of writing and social scientific approach to his analysis of administrative aspects of the college and the sociology department.

His biggest administrative project over the last year has been his co-chair role, with Gary Oehlert, of the CLA 2015 Committee—a yearlong project that just came to fruition in a final report released Nov. 8.

He calls the report, also known as "The Future of the College of Liberal Arts," a rigorous self-examination of the college, about a broader vision than just solving a budget problem.

When James Parente, dean of the College of Liberal Arts, asked Uggen to chair the committee, Uggen says he was skeptical.

"He called me up and said, there's going to be about 30 people on the committee...and he named the names, and I said, 'What? I just about dropped the phone. My first reaction was, "these people don't agree with each other at all. They really don't. They have different perspectives."

Uggen says that in the end, the committee got together and voted on the report, finding that all voting members either "mostly or somewhat agreed" with the findings. "No one mostly or somewhat disagreed with the report," he says.

Evidence, again, of a job well done.

As an academic, of course, he's held to a standard of "advocating" with facts. If he forms an opinion or takes a policy stance as an outcome of his work, it's based on the weight of the evidence. "I'm not that dug in on a particular position, but I'll form one as the evidence accumulates," he says.

Felon voting rights
Take, for instance, the voting rights of felons. Not many of us probably rank the rights of convicted criminals as high-priority, but Uggen suggests that those who truly believe in a democracy need to take a second look at the line between citizen and criminal. It's a key distinction, he says—at what point do you allow a person reentry into society, returning their rights as citizens?

To answer that with more than opinion, Uggen takes an evidence-based look the cultural perception of the American criminal in society. It may be, for example, that we perceive the criminal as a tainted citizen—unclean, perhaps, and undeserving—even unforgivable (once a criminal, always a criminal). "Does it comport with the facts?" asks Uggen. "And if it doesn't, how do you change that? How do you get the facts out there so that people know them? Understanding criminals as citizens is a way to do that," he says.

In 2006, Uggen co-wrote (with Jeff Manza) the book Locked Out: Felon Disenfranchisement and American Democracy.

"The outline of the book was based on a series of articles, and it was going to close with a public opinion poll and not formulate a policy stance. But the evidence was just very powerful on a number of fronts, and so we ended up taking a position that would lead to re-enfranchisement," says Uggen.

In part, that stance was based on public opinion. Uggen found that a large majority of Americans (80 percent) actually support re-enfranchising those who have completed their sentences, while 68 percent support rights for probationers, and 60 percent for those on parole. The 34 states that disenfranchise parolees and the 30 that deny probationers therefore do so at odds with public opinion, says Uggen. Public support only drops below 50 percent, he says, at the prison walls—only 31 percent of U.S. residents favor restoring voting rights to current inmates.

The laws vary widely from state to state, with the most liberal allowing inmates to vote from prison (Maine and Vermont), and the most stringent denying the right to vote to inmates, parolees, probationers, and certain ex-felons—for life (11 states). In 2009 Uggen authored a paper focused on disenfranchisement in Minnesota, which denies the right to vote for anyone convicted of a felony and who is incarcerated, on probation, or on parole—70,000 in 2007 (nationally, it's about 5 million).

Born of conflict
Uggen says it's helpful when considering these laws to look at where they came from. "We treat laws and practices as the furniture in the room—we don't pay much attention to them. We should be looking at them…to encourage a national conversation," says Uggen.

For example, Uggen found that in many states, passage of U.S. felon disenfranchisement laws was linked to the racial threat posed by newly freed slaves. "One of the things we set about to explain were why the U.S. had such powerful restrictions. Looking at a map, the states that have the harshest laws—a lifetime ban—are former slave states. And, the history of those laws was often in the post-Civil War reconstruction era—you had this wave of disenfranchisement. So, in part, they're tied to the political threat posed by newly freed slaves," says Uggen. Felony disenfranchisement today is exacerbated by racial disparities in the criminal justice system, resulting in an estimated 13 percent of black men being unable to vote.

"The theme here is that often law, and particularly criminal law, comes out of a process of conflict over what should be criminalized, and who should be criminalized, and we forget that when we take laws for granted. Until they're challenged, they largely hold up," says Uggen.

Contexts—magazine or journal?
Contexts cover, Fall 2010 x165 Contexts, Fall 2010 Uggen is bringing the conversation about many complex issues to the public consciousness, and he has a knack for making that conversation participatory and intriguing. Such a knack is no doubt why, since the American Sociology Association's publication Contexts came to be published at the U in 2008, the journal has gone from having no online readership to receiving more than a million page views a month, making it one of the top sociology destinations on the web. While technically a peer-reviewed journal, it has captured the attention of both educated lay readers and those in the field of sociology.

For both his editing and departmental duties, Uggen works closely with professor Doug Hartmann, Contexts co-editor and sociology associate chair. With the small team of managing editor Letta Page, web editor Jon Smajda, and undergraduate Alex Casey, they have managed to catapult Contexts onto the scene. Most of the articles are written by sociologists, says Uggen, but the editors are trusted to make the copy sing. In addition, graduate students sit on the editorial board and often write stories. "Their writing improves dramatically, and they get to meet all these cool people," says Uggen. "It's a way for the students to be in the game instead of in the crowd or on the bench watching."

Perhaps in part because the editors span generations, the content is consistently eye-popping, if not jaw-dropping. The fact that the Spring 2010 issue featured a retrospective on Studs Terkel, illustrations from Harvey Pekar of American Splendor fame, and a podcast exchange with rock critic and cultural jabber Chuck Klosterman, is testament to its growing popularity. The Summer 2010 issue featured sociologists on sex: teenage sleepovers, hooking up, and straight girls kissing—remember, it's peer-reviewed.

But Uggen says they don't treat it like a traditional journal, where the author might submit a paper and it's accepted or rejected regardless of whether it's readable or interesting.

"We're kind of socialized as academics to try to sound smart, and so the normal mode of discourse is 'I will make a statement, and a set of assertions, and then he or she will make a statement and a set of assertions.' And it's not like a conversation. We're waiting for the other person to stop talking so that we can utter something that makes us sound smart and impresses the room. We can't do that with Contexts—we can't do that with a podcast—who would listen to that?" says Uggen.

Blogging and jogging
The easiest way to understand the appeal of Contexts magazine might be to take a look at Uggen's own blog. It's offbeat, humorous, and infinitely surprising. And like his sociological research, it takes an evidence-based approach complete with charts and graphs on such topics as the aptly titled holiday lament "Interim pants," where Uggen writes, "I got little work done this new year's day, but somehow found the time to purchase some interim pants from Target. I define interim pants as trousers purchased as a temporary or provisional stopgap after the holidays, until one can presumably fit into one's real pants once again in March. Or maybe June."

He has hundreds more posts like that—some hilarious, many serious, but every one somehow poignant and relevant. He calls his blogging "cognitive runoff," consisting of topics that he's interested in, but not enough that he'd want to write a paper on the subject. Still, he says, even that leisure work is having an effect. "I get people at meetings saying, 'You know, I wrote my master's thesis based on something you blogged about.' That's cool, you know. I love it. There's an element of narcissism, but for me, some people do crosswords—I just write."