The (Chronic) Crisis of Legitimacy in Policing

This guest post is published during the American Society of Criminology conference in Philadelphia, occurring November 15-18, and in relation to this year’s ASC theme of Crime, Legitimacy and Reform: Fifty years since the President’s Commission #ASCPhilly

By Nikki Jones, author of The Chosen Ones: Black Men and the Politics of Redemption (forthcoming June 2018)

Fifty years ago, in the wake of urban uprisings across the country, the vast majority of which were sparked by a negative police encounter, President Lyndon Johnson charged The National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders to answer three seemingly simple questions: What happened? Why did it happen? What can be done?

The five problem areas identified then are familiar now: 1) police operations and misconduct in ghetto neighborhoods, 2) police practices that failed to protect Black residents, 3) the lack of effective and transparent grievance processes to report officer misconduct, 4) the lack of clear policy guidelines to direct officer behavior, especially use of force, and 5) the lack of community support for law enforcement.

In answering the President’s charge, the report did not shy away from the topic of race and racism. Instead, the report linked the problem of policing to histories of racist violence (from which millions of Black Americans fled during the Great Migration) and racist housing policies in American cities that turned ghetto neighborhoods into tinderboxes for the urban uprisings the Commission was called on to explain and, ultimately, prevent in the future.

In addition to highlighting the role that systemic racism played in the problems between the police and Black Americans at the time, the report also drew attention to a culture of racism among police departments.

All in all, the report (along with similar state and local reports of the time) had a dramatic impact on policing. Today, America’s largest cities are home to the most well-funded, well-trained, and professionalized law enforcement departments in our nation’s history. State and local law enforcement agencies receive historically unmatched support from the federal government and a vast network of researchers and academics that supports the development and implementation of policing innovations in cities across the country.

While today’s law enforcement agencies are stronger than they have ever been, they are also, if we are to believe some leaders in law enforcement, the most fragile when it comes to responding to charges of racism. This supposed fragility is evidenced in Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ assertion that the increased scrutiny of law enforcement (or, it seems, any scrutiny at all) is bad for officer morale as well as other calls to quiet (or quash) serious discussion of the ways that race and racism influence policing today.

Fifty years ago, incisive critiques of law enforcement led to monumental changes in policing. Fifty years later, it is clear that much work remains, including the need to acknowledge the historical role that policing has played in enforcing the racial order and reproducing racial inequality in the U.S. – not just in the South and not just decades ago.

Today, the potential for such discussions is limited by the fragility framework and color-blind criminological sound bites (e.g., the common refrain that there are more police contacts in Black neighborhoods because that is where the crime is) that demonstrate a resistance to discussing anything but implicit racism in policing.

Where will that leave us fifty years from now?


Nikki Jones is Associate Professor of African American Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. She is the author of Between Good and Ghetto: African American Girls and Inner-City Violence. 


Not Beyond Racism: Teens Talk about Violence and the “Jacked Up” U.S. System

This guest post is published during the American Society of Criminology conference in Philadelphia, occurring November 15-18. #ASCPhilly

By Katherine Irwin, co-author of Jacked Up and Unjust: Pacific Islander Teens Confront Violent Legacies 

Like many of us, I remember the Obama years fondly. At the beginning of his first term in office, phrases like “the post-racist” society and “America’s color-blindness” were bandied about in the media with a sense that some significant change in U.S. race relations was underway. I can even remember some of my colleagues who were writing about racism in the criminal justice system being somewhat perturbed that their work had instantly become passé after Obama was elected. Then came Trump, neo-racism, and neo-nationalism. Race and racism are squarely back on the table of discussion. It seems that we are not a post-racist society after all.

Given the quickly changing discourses about race and racism, my co-author Karen Umemoto and I thought it was time to illuminate important nuances of America’s racist history as they are felt and experienced by groups of teens who are often overlooked. In our book, Jacked Up and Unjust: Pacific Islander Teens Confront Violent Legacies, we allow girls and boys to tell us about racism, harsh criminal justice punishments, and the use of violence to enact vengeance. Teens in this study spoke of the U.S. as an inherently racist country – a place where the police, teachers, and school administrators were out to punish them and where they had few chances to thrive. The fact that most of the teens who acted violently in this study had at least one family member who had been incarcerated reinforced the idea that the “U.S. system” was much more likely to target than to help the teens in our study.

The story that the teens shared during the nine years that I spent researching violence in public high schools in Hawaii taught me some lessons about using retributive measures to solve deep seated problems in the U.S. As we know, America’s reliance on harsh criminal justice sanctions over the past few decades has made us the most incarcerating industrialized nation in the world. What I learned during this study with Pacific Islander teens is that the punitive turn in the U.S. has also left lasting legacy in the psyche of many young people. Not only did these teens feel the sting of poverty, racism, and political neglect, but they also came to avoid adults and adult institutions in fear of punishment.

There is also good news revealed in Jacked Up and Unjust. High school staff and community leaders provided extensive support services to youth during this study. Kids who started out their school careers as tough fighters, willing to “throw-down” at the slightest provocation, eventually became less violent and more engaged in school because of support services. The takeaway lesson from Jacked Up and Unjust is that young people who behave violently are not headed for a lifetime of pathology, hate, and brutality. Marshaling services and providing spaces for youth to feel connected, cared for, and listened to can change lives. This book instructs us all about how to provide such support for teens.

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Attend Katy’s author meets critic session on Friday, November 17, 2:00 to 3:20pm, Marriott, Room 502, 5th Floor as well as her other sessions too. And learn more about Katy and Karen’s work with teens in Hawaii.


Katherine Irwin is Professor of Sociology at the University of Hawai‘i, Manoa. She is the co-author of Jacked Up and Unjust with Karen Umemoto and co-autho of Beyond Bad Girls: Gender, Violence, and Hype with Meda Chesney-Lind.


Young and At Risk: Canada’s First Nation Women and California’s Latinas

This guest post is published during the American Society of Criminology conference in Philadelphia, occurring November 15-18. #ASCPhilly

By Jerry Flores, author of Caught Up: Girls, Surveillance, and Wraparound Incarceration

Tamara Lynn Chipman, missing since 2005.

Across Canada there has been tens of thousands of missing first nations women like Tamara Lynn Chipman. A similar pattern has occurred near American reservations as well as places like Juarez, Mexico where scores of women as young as 14 years old have been kidnapped, raped, murdered and never returned to their families. Most of these women have received little media coverage, scant support from criminal justice institutions and are seldom found alive, if at all.

As an incoming faculty member in the sociology department at the University of Toronto, a new resident to Canada, and a Chicano feminist I was stunned by these stories. During the last ten years, there have been an increase in documentaries on this issue, scores of independent efforts to find these people, but there has been little government support to successfully find these women or to curtail these disappearances. As I began to read about this issue I was baffled by how similar the stories of these youth compare to the experiences of justice involved Latinas that I interviewed in Caught Up: Girls, Surveillance and Wraparound Incarceration. In this book, I address the multiple home factors that contribute to Latinas in Southern California ending up behind bars and the challenges they face when attempting to return to a “normal life.” I interviewed over 30 young women and included twenty more via group interviews or ethnographic fieldwork.

Identical Challenges

Despite the roughly 4,048 kilometers between my field site in Southern California and the greater Toronto Area, young at risk Latinas and First Nations women experience almost identical challenges when attempting to survive to adulthood. They must negotiate abuse in the home, a lack of social services (even in Canada), the ever-present threat of sexual violence, and the looming possibility of ending up behind bars. Additionally, schools, community centers and even well intentioned adults cannot seem to provide them the tools they need to avoid victimization and to be successful. This—and what seems to be a lack of interest or just plain oversight from various institutions—pushes young women to run away, hitchhike large distances, and participate in other high-risk behavior. As a result, thousands of young native women like Tamara eventually disappear or end up murdered on the side of rural roads across North America.

As an academic, feminist and victim of childhood sexual assault, I hope that we as a society can find a way to stop the continued attack on women and more broadly on all marginalized and oppressed groups. Additionally, I hope we can find these First Nations women and help prevent their disappearance in the first place. It is high time that we make marginalized young women the focal point of our efforts.

Moving forward there are a few simply things caring individuals and policy makers can do to help these young women:

  • First, introduce safe space where youth can report victimization without the fear of retribution.
  • Second, encourage schools and community centers to provide mental health services to anyone in need and free of charge.
  • And finally, make sure that all marginalized people including First Nations women and Latinas have access to quality K-12 education, three meals a day, clean water and a safe place to sleep.

Taken together, this will help address the main issues that encourage young women to leave their homes in the first place.

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Attend Jerry’s author meets critics session on Friday, November 17, 8:00 to 9:20am, Marriott, Room 406, 4th Floor as well as his other sessions. And learn more about the book from Jerry.  


Jerry Flores is Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Toronto.


The Institutionalization of Young People: 50 Years Later

This guest post is published during the American Society of Criminology conference in Philadelphia, occurring November 15-18. #ASCPhilly

By Patrick Lopez-Aguado, author of Stick Together and Come Back Home: Racial Sorting and the Spillover of Carceral Identity (forthcoming January 2018)

When the President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice released its report in 1967, much of the group’s assessment was devoted to concerns about the juvenile justice system. In this report, the commission stressed avoiding the institutionalization of juvenile offenders, both through limiting the range of offenses that would require court intervention (especially for non-violent offenders), and by taking full advantage of any possible alternatives to incarceration.Their hopes in recommending these measures were to minimize the stigmas attached to criminalized young people, and to prevent law enforcement intervention from isolating these youth from their communities.

However, this is not what characterizes juvenile justice today. Instead, much of the policing of youth crime is carried out through a system known as a school to prison pipeline precisely because of how effectively it funnels children into criminal justice facilities. Within this institutional infrastructure,the formal labeling of youth, and particularly poor youth of color, as criminals is often mandated by zero tolerance policies that require schools to report disruptive or troublesome students to local juvenile probation agencies as criminal offenders. Once inside the juvenile justice system, youth are then frequently marked with gang labels that then subject them to ongoing surveillance, punishment, and exclusion from the public sphere.

But this institutionalization is not limited to the management of the juvenile justice system either, as some of its effects may be experienced even before young people are ever placed in a criminal justice facility. The concentration of imprisonment rates condenses many of its collateral consequences into high-incarceration communities, the consequences of prisonization among them. Here, the persistent gang labels used to categorize residents inside justice system institutions (Norteña/os and Sureña/os for example) also regularly appear in the neighborhood, and are similarly ascribed to young residents. The identities and conflicts that stem from these categories then represent an extended socialization of institutional life that now informs the criminalization of poor communities of color.

In the 50 years since the president’s commission, the criminal justice system has wandered far from its stated ideals of minimizing the institutionalization of young people. But it’s never too late to begin moving this system in the right direction. Dismantling the school to prison pipeline stands out as an obvious need, but we also need to interrogate how this status quo has shaped our understanding of youth crime, particularly the need to seek out and control “gang” youth. To this end, the Trump administration’s fixation on “gang members” as folk devils characterizing Latina/o criminality is certainly not encouraging. But we must remember that criminalization is a process that unfolds locally, within the social contexts that we do have the power, and obligation, to change.

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See Patrick at the #ASCPhilly conference during a session on Policing Blackness with his paper on  Constructing Masculine Identity and Performance in the Carceral Social Order on Thursday, November 16, 2:00 to 3:20pm, Marriott, Room 302, 3rd Floor.

And hear more about the book during Patrick’s interview this past July with KZSC Santa Cruz.


Patrick Lopez-Aguado is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Santa Clara University.


Disparities in Perspectives on Addiction

This guest post is published during the American Society of Criminology conference in Philadelphia, occurring November 15-18. #ASCPhilly

by Rashi K. Shukla, author of Methamphetamine: A Love Story

Why do we seem to care more about some than others when it comes to addiction and drug abuse? It is a haunting question that mirrors the realities of today. Nationally, attention to opioids have led to calls for treatment and increases in funding. An estimated 91 people die each day as a result of their addiction. Federally, funds were recently allocated to expand efforts to battle the problem. While those who die as a result of their opioid abuse are often referred to as victims of the drug, there is a disconnect when it comes to how we think about, and more importantly, how we respond to, addiction in the U.S.

Drug addiction is not new. It has plagued individuals and communities for decades. Though policies are in the midst of change, the U.S. has been engaged in a War on Drugs against those who use, abuse, and become addicted to illicit drugs for more than 30 years. Large proportions of the U.S. prison population are incarcerated for drug-related offenses. Take into account other aspects of the system (e.g., probation and parole), and the numbers only increase. What has changed? Why is it that today, many in society are willing to view those who become addicted to certain drugs, such as opioids, with more empathy and concern than those who abuse other illicit drugs?

As someone who has studied methamphetamine for a decade, I have come face-to-face with the demonization, criminalization, and stigmatization that forever follows those who fell prey to addiction and the accompanying lifestyle. While their levels of engagement in criminal and deviant lifestyles may differ from those of suburban drug users, at the end of the day, their addictions were not that different. And yet, the type of drug that one becomes addicted to makes all of the difference in our views and responses. It seems that compassion and calls for treatment that dominate the national discussion on addiction are not equally aimed at all addicts.

Methamphetamine devastates lives and communities, and yet, there is no sympathetic lens for addicts of meth and other illicit drugs. Some who get labeled with felony convictions related to their meth addiction will tell you, “it’s a life sentence.” For some, convictions and addictions are negative labels that stick.

There is a need for a shift in perspective and policy, not just for opioids, but for all who become impacted by drug addiction. Though the increased attention is a step in the right direction, to overlook the devastation being caused by other drugs is a disservice at best.

Those who manage to escape addiction, be it to opioids, methamphetamine, or other drugs, face numerous challenges in the roads that lie ahead. The need for greater understanding and increased resources for all, not just those who use certain types of drugs. Failing to respond more effectively to all of those who are burdened by addictions will only exacerbate the problem.

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See Rashi during her Author Meets Critics session on Thursday, November 16, 9:30 to 10:50am, Marriott, Room 411, 4th Floor.

And hear more about the book from Rashi.


Rashi K. Shukla is Professor of Criminal Justice at the University of Central Oklahoma. She received her PhD in Criminal Justice from Rutgers University and has served as lead investigator of a multi-method study of the methamphetamine problem for more than a decade. Her research, which focuses on offender decision-making and the evolution of drug problems, has been presented in numerous forums, both nationally and internationally.


#7CheapThings: Cheap Energy

excerpted from A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things: A Guide to Capitalism, Nature, and the Future of the Planet by Raj Patel and Jason W. Moore

Welcome to the sixth post in our #7CheapThings blog series! Raj Patel & Jason W. Moore’s A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things focuses on seven areas that are the foundation of modern commerce: nature, money, work, care, food, energy, and lives. How has the cheapening of these things made the world safe for capitalism? Follow along to find out.

#7CheapThings care book coverCapitalism’s ecology has a distinctive pyrogeography, one that is part of the fossil record. Indigenous People had thoroughly modified New World landscapes through fire. In eastern North America, they coproduced the “mosaic quality” of forest, savannah, and meadow that Europeans took for pristine nature. Between Columbus’s arrival and around 1650, disease and colonial violence reduced Indigenous populations in the Americas by 95 percent. With fewer humans burning and cutting them down, forests recovered so vigorously that the New World became a planetary carbon sink. Forest growth cooled the planet so much that the Indigenous holocaust contributed to the Little Ice Age’s severity. By the middle of the seventeenth century, some of the early modern era’s worst winters were being recorded across Eurasia and the Americas. Not coincidentally, it was an era of bitter war and political unrest, from Beijing to Paris. To reprise an idea from the introduction, it would be wrong to characterize this episode of genocide and reforestation as anthropogenic. The colonial exterminations of Indigenous Peoples were the work not of all humans, but of conquerors and capitalists. Capitalogenic would be more appropriate. And if we are tempted to conflate capitalism with the Industrial Revolution, these transformations ought to serve notice that early capitalism’s destruction was so profound that it changed planetary climate four centuries ago.

For many commoners in Europe and beyond, forests and woodlands were—and remain—as essential to survival as food. The destruction of the commons involved more than the creation of hunger. It also removed common rights to gather wood, imposing a poverty of fuel and construction material. In feudal Europe, demographic and settlement expansion in the eleventh and twelfth centuries led to conflict not just over farmland but also over access to forests, which had become lucrative income sources for nobles and kings. When England’s King John was forced to sign the Magna Carta in 1215, it’s significant that he was also compelled to sign a second document at the same time: the Charter of the Forest. Where the Magna Carta turns on legal and political rights, the Charter of the Forest was about “economic survival”: securing for peasants something called estovers, a broad category of subsistence wood products. The Forest Charter was an assurance of English commoners’ access to fuel, food, and building materials.

In Germany, as Peter Linebaugh notes, “the first great proletarian revolt of modern history, the Peasants’ Revolt of Germany in 1525, demanded the restoration of customary forest rights.” These included rights to use “ ‘windfall wood, rootfall trees, and inbowes,’ where these latter were defined ‘also only to so much thereof as the bees do light on, and the honey that shall be found in the tree, but not to cut any main bough or tree itself by color thereof.’ ” People have been fighting for centuries over the fuel and construction material that wood can become. It’s worth mentioning all this because it’s too often forgotten that capitalism’s energy revolution began not with coal but with wood—and with the privatization that forest enclosure implies.

This is not to privilege a European and North American history of energy over the histories of deforestation in, say, China. Notwithstanding the moderating effects of the forest police, China’s great deforestation one thousand years ago had consequences that persist today: at ten cubic meters (353 cubic feet), the country’s per capita forest reserves are an eighth of the world average. But China’s world-ecology wasn’t committed to global conquest. Europe’s was.

The reason to look at energy in Europe lies in the different use of fuel—a kind of cheap nature—as an intrinsic part of capitalism’s ecology. Cheap energy is a way of amplifying—and in some cases substituting for—cheap work and care. If cheap food is capitalism’s major way of reducing the wage bill, cheap energy is the crucial lever to advance labor productivity. The two can function as a logical sequence, even if the actual history is more complex. First, peasants must be ejected from the commons. These new workers must find wage work in some form. Second, the workshops and factories that employ these workers have to compete with one another. And while there’s a long history of bosses’ overworking their employees, the competitive struggle between capitalists is ultimately decided by labor productivity. We normally think of labor productivity—that is, the production of more commodities per average hour of work—as something determined by machines. But capitalist machines function because they draw on the work of extrahuman natures, and these have to be cheap, because the demand is limitless. For this reason, the enclosure of terrestrial commons coincided with the enclosure of the subterranean world. At the very moment when peasant life was turned upside down in sixteenth-century England, the country’s great coal mines were pumping out coal by the thousands of tons. Here a new layer of cheapness emerges in our picture of the world: capitalism’s global factory requires not just a global farm and a global family, but a global mine as well.

In this chapter we explore how energy became one of capitalism’s cheap things through energy revolutions in Europe and the Americas, and what cheap energy means for the twenty-first century’s global ecology. Energy qualifies as a “thing” insofar as it is transformed from part of the web of life into a commodity to be bought and sold. Fossilized life becomes stuff for a fire and an engine’s fuel tank only through capitalism’s ecology. But capitalism’s energy system does several tasks at once. It makes both energy and inputs cheaper: cheap coal makes cheap steel; cheap peat makes for cheap(er) bricks. This reduces the costs of doing business and enhances profitability. Cheap energy also helps keep labor costs down, by controlling one of the largest costs (after food) in a family budget. While enclosure made energy more expensive for most peasants by removing their access to the commons—where, in many parts of the world, collecting resources had fallen to women—it also pulled workers into the cash economy, where they had to pay for their building materials and fuel. Controlling energy costs was another way to manage and sustain cheap work.


Raj Patel care author photoRaj Patel is an award-winning writer, activist and academic. He is a Research Professor in the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, Austin and a Senior Research Associate at the Unit for the Humanities at Rhodes University. He is the author of Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System and The Value of Nothing.

Jason W. Moore author photo careJason W. Moore teaches world history and world-ecology at Binghamton University, and is coordinator of the World-Ecology Research Network. He is the author of several books, including Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital, and numerous award-winning essays in environmental history, political economy, and social theory.


ASC Conference 2017: Author Meets Critics Sessions

This year’s American Society of Criminology conference in Philadelphia from November 15 – 18 includes exciting author meets critics sessions, highlighting titles that serve as a catalyst for change. Get 40% off of these titles by visiting Booth #27 and picking up an order form! #ASCPhilly

Cross-National Public Opinion about Homosexuality: Examining Attitudes across the Globe by Amy Adamczyk

Wed, Nov 15, 9:30 to 10:50am, Marriott, Room 402, 4th Floor.

Attend Amy’s other sessions and read her thoughts on why some countries disapprove of homosexuality.

LGBTQ Intimate Partner Violence:Lessons for Policy, Practice, and Research by Adam Messinger

Wed, Nov 15, 11:00am to 12:20pm, Marriott, Room 404, 4th Floor.

Attend Adam’s other sessions and read an interview about how abuse in LGBTQ relationships are harder to detect.

Methamphetamine: A Love Story by Rashi K. Shukla

Thu, Nov 16, 9:30 to 10:50am, Marriott, Room 411, 4th Floor

See the video about the book and listen to Rashi as she discusses how her research on this topic began. And learn more about the book and Rashi’s current research.

Abusive Endings: Separation and Divorce Violence against Women by Walter DeKeseredy, Molly Dragiewicz, Martin D. Schwartz 

Fri, Nov 17, 8:00 to 9:20am, Marriott, Room 305, 3rd Floor

Attend other sessions forWalterMolly, and Martin. And read about their thoughts on the visibility of violence against women and image-based sexual abuse.

Caught Up: Girls, Surveillance, and Wraparound Incarceration by Jerry Flores

Fri, Nov 17, 8:00 to 9:20am, Marriott, Room 406, 4th Floor

Attend Jerry’s other sessions. And read Jerry’s comments on why he felt it imperative to write the book.

Jacked Up and Unjust: Pacific Islander Teens Confront Violent Legacies by Katherine Irwin , Karen Umemoto

Fri, Nov 17, 2:00 to 3:20pm, Marriott, Room 502, 5th Floor.

Attend Katy’s other sessions. And read Katy and Karen’s thoughts on the book as well as the importance of combatting cultures of youth violence.


Simmering in Hot Water: The Importance of Context in Explaining Attitudes across the Globe

This guest post is published in advance of the American Society of Criminology conference in Philadelphia, occurring November 15-18. #ASCPhilly

By Amy Adamczyk, author of Cross-National Public Opinion about Homosexuality: Examining Attitudes across the Globe

On November 5, 2017 a man walked into a Baptist Church in rural Texas and opened fire on the congregants in the middle of a service. Twenty-six people were killed, about half of them children. Only a week prior, another senseless mass murder had captured the nation’s attention when a man drove a truck through a bike path in New York City, killing eight people.

And just one month earlier a gunman had open fired on a crowd of concertgoers in Las Vegas. Mass shootings in particular and gun deaths in general have historically been much higher in the U.S. than in other wealthy nations.

Many Americans feel that it is normal to be able to obtain firearms so effortlessly. A lot of residents, including myself, grew up with family and friends who had guns, albeit mostly rifles for hunting. The environment in which we are raised and live our lives has a powerful role in influencing what we feel is normal. But, cross-national data show how different the United States is from other countries.

In my recent book, Cross-National Public Opinion about Homosexuality: Examining Attitudes across the Globe, I investigate another issue where people’s views across the world differ considerably. While Americans are relatively supportive of homosexuality, just 10 years ago the majority of Americans opposed same-sex marriage. Currently, LGBT relations are criminalized in over 70 nations and in ten countries they can be punished with death. Additionally, there are many nations including Poland, South Korea and Israel, where only a minority of people feel that homosexuality is acceptable.

Why are there such dramatic differences? My book shows that a big part of the divide in acceptance of homosexuality is related to the degree of economic development, democratic governance, the dominant religion, and religious engagement. The way these forces shape attitudes interact in complex ways with a nation’s unique history and where countries are geographically located.   Regardless of personal attributes, the characteristics of the environments in which people live shape their feelings about a host of issues.

The interesting thing about contextual forces is that we often do not know they are there. It’s only when we look at cross-national data that we can see how similar or different we are.

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Attending ASC? See the author meets critics session on Wednesday, November 15 at 9:30am.

And read more from Amy regarding why some countries disapprove of homosexuality and Donald Trump and homosexuality.


Amy Adamczyk is Professor of Sociology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and the Graduate Center, City University of New York.


Thoughts on the Netflix Documentary One of Us

By Samuel C. Heilman, author of Who Will Lead Us? The Story of Five Hasidic Dynasties in America


The recently released documentary, One of Us, about Hasidic drop-outs and the difficulty of their life’s journey has stimulated much debate, both among the Hasidic community and those who have dropped out of it – the so-called ‘off the derech’ (OTD) [off the path] – as well as in the general community. Some of that discussion is surely driven by the disturbing narrative it portrays on the three people it follows: Luzer, Ari, and Etty. All three have suffered some form of abuse in the community, and each is in one way or another cut off from it as a result of their decision to leave. In the case of Luzer and Etty this means losing free access to their children and with Ari being thrown into a kind of no-man’s-land of non-belonging. All three still miss the sense of belonging and community that they once had as Hasidim but the pain they obviously have been made to feel when they were inside was so great that they were unwilling to stay. The film makes us feel that these people are condemned to suffer, whether on the inside or the outside. It also suggests – in comments by at least one insider, a rabbi counselor who talks with Ari and the camera – that they are a minority in the Hasidic community and that most people are happy with the way of life Hasidism today provides. The unmistakable if not explicitly stated conclusion is that if one size does not fit all in Hasidic life, it does nevertheless fit most and unfortunately there must be something ‘wrong,’ with these OTD people that has led them to this sad end. This blaming of the victim would of course be preposterous.

Nevertheless, missing from this picture of these people the film paints alas is some context, and nowhere do we see what it is actually that the Hasidic life offers to so many. Surely it is not abuse, which seems to be a key factor in these three stories. So what is it? There’s a hint of the appeal in a scene in which some of the OTD people gather for what sounds and looks like a Hasidic tisch, a gathering around a dinner table during which food is shared, Hasidic niggunim (melodies) are sung, and a sense of camaraderie and belonging is deeply felt. But completely missing in this film is a first-hand account of this sort of attachment between the Hasidim and their charismatic leaders – the Rebbes – and of one another that are after all a key element of Hasidic identity and life. How else can we seriously understand a movement that has against all odds grown exponentially since the Holocaust and in places that no one (even the Hasidim themselves) predicted it could or would survive, much less thrive.  All of that is left unexplained. Rather in trying to deepen the tragedy of its three characters, the film stresses only the palpable sadness that this life yields and the fact that those inside do not learn the basic skills of how to adapt or even navigate the world outside their own. That’s a very limited picture at best.

To be sure, as Hasidism has moved from its origins as a folk religious movement led by charismatic leaders, it has become an increasingly insular fundamentalist-like movement that all too often demonizes the secular and liberal world, that limits the education and contact with that outside world its members receive, that controls and effectively diminishes the education of its adherents in order to prevent what some leaders (perhaps most prominently the Satmar Hasidism about whom I have written in my newly published Who Will Lead Us? The Story of Five Hasidic Dynasties in America) think are the terrible risks of culture contact and assimilation. Risks that are all too common in the modern world and urban landscape of New York City where the bulk of Hasidim in America are to be found (not the least being the hip neighborhood of Williamsburg, the Satmar redoubt). In this Hasidic and fundamentalist society that is increasingly scrupulous about separating men and women from free and easy contact with one another, that strictly regulates and arranges marriages (as described in my earlier books: Defenders of the Faith and Sliding to the Right), normal relations between the sexes as well as between different cultures has become unthinkable – a situation that easily can result in all kinds of deviance.

Yet while all of this is true, the picture of contemporary Hasidic life is complex, in ways the film misses. On the other hand, it is not as if the anything-goes ethos of contemporary general society is all sweetness and light. If arranged marriages with lots of children at an early age and a life of regulations and rules that stress the community norms over individual autonomy that is normative among Hasidim can result in some unhappy people – like the three this movie follows – the anomie and search for the perfect life, that unattainable ideal, that is part of the modern west brings its own disappointments and sadnesses. Both sides leave room for abuse. The recent Weinstein scandal reminds us that even the life that seems the paradigm of glamour and freedom can turn out to be one of abuse and sufferings.

Watching the film, one wishes it had shown the nuance needed to understand this story. We really do not know the true sequence of events: the attachment to Hasidism and then the alienation. But instead, we see the main characters unconnected, as isolated individuals. We get no sense of where they were and now where they are in their life’s journey. Luzer, for example, a would-be actor tells us he has left the pain in his Hasidic life behind but at the end of the movie we see him broken by pain in some dark place and looking at photos of his children almost as if in secret and crying. Where is this? When is this? Is it after he has decided to move on in his life or before? What stimulated this review of the photos that seems to cause him so much pain? We don’t know, and one could not blame viewers for feeling manipulated.

Similarly, we see Ari thrown into a tailspin of drug abuse and loss but is that after his counseling with the rabbi who cannot help him or before? We do not know? We see him talking to people in the community and also in a church, but when? There is no clear understanding if life for these people becomes ever darker or if they at last can and do move on to a new dawn.

The Hasidic world fascinates us, not only because it seems so different but also because there is something in it that seems to appeal to so many and we on the outside are curious what that something is. In my work, I have tried to uncover some of this. I have found that when the opaque becomes more transparent and we do understand, we can also also see the common humanity that unites us all. As my Who Will Lead Us?  demonstrates: even the great and grand rabbis and their families are not altogether unlike us. If this film suggests that even the Hasidim that drop out can be considered “one of us,” then, I would add, it should also explain that those who stay within its community have aspects of their lives that would allow us to see them also as ‘one of us.’


Samuel C. Heilman is Proshansky Chair in Jewish Studies at the Graduate Center and Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Queens College CUNY.

Mark your calendars to join him at the Association of Jewish Studies conference for an author reception, co-hosted by Princeton University Press in celebration of new titles in Jewish Studies: Monday, December 18, 12-1:15pm, Marriott Marquis, Archives Room, 4th Floor.


Consent and Control Over Reproductive Medicine

By Jody Lyneé Madeira, author of Taking Baby Steps: How Patients and Fertility Clinics Collaborate in Conception

In the past two years, a revolutionary change has unsettled established informed consent practices in reproductive medicine: educating patients undergoing intrauterine insemination (IUI) or in vitro fertilization (IVF) about treatment risks, benefits, and side effects through multimedia e-learning applications instead of lengthy paper documents. Like other consent aids, these technologies are designed to supplement consent conversations with physicians. While a handful of e-learning applications exist in other medical fields, EngagedMD is the first-to-market—the first application designed and utilized to solve common informed consent problems in Assisted Reproductive Technology (ART), such as ensuring consistent consent presentations and that patients read or understand consent documents.

These applications are marketed as products that have ethical and commercial benefits; they not only improve patient education, but offer subscribing clinics better risk protection, and allow practices to improve efficiency and even increase patient volume. At the same time, these technologies implicate informed consent’s “dark side”—the idea that consent documents fail for reasons other than poor patient recall and comprehension, especially patients’ emotions[1] and their perceptions that these forms are bureaucratic and protect physicians at their expense.[2]

Currently, little research exists on patients’ lived experience of informed consent, despite common speculation about its ineffectiveness. There is a critical need for more systematic empirical evaluation of both patients’ consent experiences and the efficacy of diverse informed consent aids and mediums. Investigating these issues within ART is particularly interesting because patients must confront unique ethical, legal, and medical decisions, and their choices also affect their potential offspring.

What information exists, however, suggests that patients strongly prefer applications  over traditional paper consent forms. In the first survey of patients undergoing IUI and IVF using EngagedMD, 6,333 individuals completed an online survey asking several questions about their perspectives on informed consent and various consent aids. Significantly, patients undergoing IVF and IUI start with a healthy attitude towards informed consent; 99% stated that it was “very important” or “important” to be educated about their care. Moreover, 83% felt that it enhanced their ability to sign informed consent documents, 85% “agreed” or “strongly agreed” that EngagedMD enhanced their ability to converse with their medical team. Patients regarded the application as more educational and efficient than other consent aids; it was second only to physician consultations, and ranked as superior to staff training, internet-based sources, and paper documents. Most patients also indicated that it made them feel more in control of medical decisions (79%).

Of course, technologies like EngagedMD also have their weaknesses. A minority of patients felt that such detailed and visually accessible portrayals of risk information increased their anxiety. Moreover, such applications lack safeguards that prevent providers from using such technologies improperly, relying upon them to satisfy all informed consent duties, in lieu of conversations. As competing products appear, issues such as customization will introduce tensions between providing a very comfortable and customizable patient consent experience and preserving quality – ensuring that all patients have consistent informed consent encounters.

These results suggest that patients’ common criticism of informed consent forms—that they’re too long, and too difficult to understand—haven’t yet tainted their faith in the process. Patients enjoy being informed, and recognize that information contributes to treatment experience, emotional and physical well-being and safety, and cycle outcome—as well as improving treatment relationships.

[1] Jody Lyneé Madeira, Taking Baby Steps: How Patients and Fertility Clinics Collaborate in Conception (forthcoming, 2017).

[2] Jody Lyneé Madeira & Barbara Andraka-Christou, Paper Trails, Trailing Behind: Improving Informed Consent to IVF Through Multimedia Applications, J. of L. & the Biosciences 3(1): 2-28 (2016).


Jody Lyneé Madeira is Professor of Law at the Maurer School of Law, Indiana University Bloomington, and the author of Killing McVeigh: The Death Penalty and the Myth of Closure.