Chris Uggen's Blog: August 2012

Saturday, August 25, 2012

mutual inspiration feedback loop / running in the rain

The rains came at mile 19. If I turned left, I'd face two hilly miles of trails. If I turned right, I'd be home and dry (apart from the post-run beverage) in 3 minutes. I'd wanted to put in 21 miles today, since I've got exactly five weeks to deflabulate before the Twin Cities marathon. I was definitely leaning rightward until I recalled a conversation with (grad student and TSP board member) Suzy McElrath, where she shared her enthusiasm for rain-soaked running.

So I headed left, plunged down the slippery trail, and staggered up the first big hill, hamstrings tight and calves aching. It was just me on the trail, aside from a gang of wild turkeys and a few rabbits. It wasn't a hard rain and the cool water felt good. As I moved farther from the street, everything got quiet except for the steady patter of rain and reverberating footsteps.

I couldn't see much through the rain and fog of my glasses, which seemed to accentuate the sound. I noticed that the rain almost hissed as it slid through the willow tree by the pond. The big oak leaves brought a crisper midrange sound, like the bite of an apple or a '62 stratocaster. But then I turned a corner and hit a patch of broad leaves that looked like rhubarb, close to the ground. The raindrops played these deep and low like timpani drums, but tapped lightly by fingertips rather than mallets.

Suffice it to say that miles 19 to 21 turned out to be really beautiful, and that I wouldn't have run them at all without Suzy's encouragement. This reminds me that when a university brain mill is really humming, there's a mutual-inspiration feedback loop between students and faculty, which surely ranks among the greatest privileges and joys of being a professor.

So after today's rain-soaked training run, I wanted to add a special note of thanks to the TSP grad board as an addendum to Doug's post about the community that came together in Denver. The grad board generally toils anonymously, though our editorial team and WW Norton take care to recognize their contributions. And, if all goes as planned, you'll soon be hearing more about some new pages on the site to more properly introduce you to their great ideas, vision, and scholarship.

Board members like Suzy (at right), Hollie Nyseth Brehm (at left), and their cohorts probably don't know how much they inspire us to build and sustain The Society Pages. But when Doug, Letta, Jon and I confront a fork in the road, time and again our grad board pushes and inspires us to take the route that is both more challenging and more richly rewarding.

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

okay violence is down, but have *mass* shootings increased?

Over on facebook, my friends Raka and Jay asked similar questions about the long-term drop in violence discussed in the previous post.

"They asked, and you answered, about “violence” But what they seem to be thinking about is mass killings by individuals. Are those also on the decline in the US? Who has data on that?"
"I'd be interested in knowing the rise and fall rates of different kinds of crimes -- one on one homicide versus the movie theater/Sikh temple sort. Michael Hout? Chris Uggen?"

Fortunately, criminologist James Alan Fox has conducted precisely this sort of analysis. His chart below shows the annual number of mass shootings, offenders, and victims in each year from 1980 to 2010.

Professor Fox describes how mass shootings remain quite rare in the U.S. (about 20 incidents and 100 victims per year) relative to other homicides (about 15,000 victims per year), as illustrated in the figure above. Since 1980, I see variation, but no strong upward or downward trend -- a non-pattern that we sometimes call "trendless fluctuation," at least until we can identify its correlates (e.g., a pattern that looks like this).

This is important to bear in mind, as Dr. Fox points out, before (a) we assume there's been a big increase in mass shootings; and, (b) we attribute this rise to factors that appear to be steadily increasing or declining, such as weapons technology or the availability of mental health care. I've no doubt that weapons and mental health care play a big role in such cases, but it is hard to see how either factor could explain the pattern shown above -- that is, to predict something that goes up and down with something that just goes up or just goes down over the same period.

The only points I'd add to Professor Fox's careful analysis is to note that when the numbers are this small the picture could change very quickly. First, it might change if one examined different thresholds or constructed other definitions of mass killings. Second, the chart would look radically different if, heaven forbid, there are more events in the next year or two that push the total number of victims past 150. So, it is probably best to be cautious before making any predictions about the future. All that said, however, it doesn't appear that we're currently in the midst of a steep rise in mass killings.

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

are we more violent than ever before?

I'm often hesitant to do interviews in the immediate aftermath of a horrific crime, but I was glad when WCCO-TV asked Are we more violent than ever before? as part of their Good Question series. Jason DeRusha (and his colleague Liz Collin) do a terrific job with this feature, interviewing diverse experts on questions ranging from dandelions and tick spray to ammunition purchases and solitary confinement.

Since one can't really provide a reading list on-air, I'll offer a few supporting citations for those interested in trends in violence and homicide. On long-term historical trends, Steven Pinker's Better Angels of our Nature is an accessible starting point. In my research and teaching, I've been most influenced by Manuel Eisner's work, particularly his 2003 review in Crime and Justice. For more recent years, good data are widely available, especially for homicide. For the United States, I go directly to the FBI's Uniform Crime Reports and the Bureau of Justice Statistics' Criminal Victimization series.

Friday, August 03, 2012

prison images from ackerman/gruber

Minneapolis photographers Jenn Ackerman and Tim Gruber recently shot some powerful images and the short film above to complement an ACLU report on the steep rise in elderly prisoners in the United States. The haunting photo below is from a similar series and film on the emergence of prisons and jails as the nation's default mental health care facilities.


In my view, both series dramatize how prisons must increasingly serve populations and perform functions for which they are poorly suited. Operating hospices, nursing homes, and psychiatric hospitals is certainly difficult enough on the outside. Attempting to replicate such institutions within prisons is often inordinately more difficult and costly.


There are, of course, alternative approaches. I'll offer my two cents on the subject at the American Sociological Association meetings on August 18, but I'm really looking forward to learning from my fellow panelists (Bruce Western, Katherine Beckett, and Marie Gottschalk). Powerful images like these should do more than dramatize prison conditions -- they should motivate us to think critically and to actively pursue alternatives.

reading gore vidal

Writing an essay for Gore Vidal reminds me of picking up a guitar after Segovia passed -- any attempt pales in such close proximity to the master. But I'll offer a few notes in hopes of drawing some new readers to Mr. Vidal's exemplary writing and powerful social critique and analysis.

I encountered many of Mr. Vidal's essays long before encountering sociology, so my mind was effectively pre-blown before entering the field. Just as early exposure to The New Yorker opened new worlds to young Gary Keillor, those wicked-smart essays brought this Minnesota kid a new vision and perspective on American society. He made historical and literary allusions that were new to me, but the writing was richly rewarding and accessible to any 10th-grader with a little patience and a lot of dictionary.

I inhaled the entire Vidal collection in the public library, but today I'm recalling two basic insights. He wasn't the first to make them, of course, but he made them so clearly and elegantly that they quickly took root. First, he offered a sharp-eyed insider's analysis of how wealth and power might really operate in the United States. Now, I can't say I ever swallowed this vision hook, line, and sinker, but it did seem to comport with the evening news about as well as the facts I'd been taught in my history and social studies classes (Dems versus Republicans? That's splitting hairs, my boy. Think: who's pulling the strings?). And by the time I got to college and discovered sociologists like C. Wright Mills and William Domhoff, I could approach their arguments with some degree of familiarity and preparation.

Second, Mr. Vidal's sensitive (and, at times, hilarious) writing on sexual diversity convinced me that the putatively fundamental categories I'd taken for granted were surely oversimplifications. Here too, Mr. Vidal's perspective provided a better fit to the social facts I was encountering as a high school student and music writer. Here's a passage touching on both power and sex, from a 1979 Playboy interview that I likely read behind Ralph's grocery at Charlton and Wentworth:
Today Americans are in a state of terminal hysteria on the subject of sex in general and of homosexuality in particular because the owners of the country (buttressed by a religion that they have shrewdly adapted to their own ends) regard the family as their last means of control over those who work and consume. For two millennia, women have been treated as chattel, while homosexuality has been made to seem a crime, a vice, an illness."
Some of Mr. Vidal's obits hint that his essays are too historically specific to stand the test of time, but I'm guessing that Bernard Shaw's obit writers said the same things about his remarkable prefaces. The excerpt above suggests that either American society has not changed all that much in 33 years or that, like a good sociologist, Gore Vidal's analysis transcends the particular moments and controversies of his research sites. Judge for yourself, perhaps starting online or with United States: Essays 1952-1992.

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

hiring in criminology, statistics, and demography

I try to avoid full-on shameless job plugs in this space, but I've gotta mention that I'm chairing an assistant professor search this fall in the area of law, crime and deviance (deadline 10/1). Send me a note offline if you'd like to chat about the job (especially if you'll be attending the sociology meetings later this month). My department is also conducting a joint junior search with statistics (chaired by Dave Knoke, deadline 10/15). And, as if that's not enough, the Minnesota Population Center is seeking two or more open-rank positions (tenure-track or tenured) positions in population studies and demography.

If your department happens to be hiring in criminology and/or law, I'll even more shamelessly plug two really extraordinary scholars on the market this fall: Heather McLaughlin (in law, gender, and life course) and Sarah Shannon (in crime, inequality, and social welfare). I've worked very closely with them both and would love to tell you more about their research, teaching, and public engagement.