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In the Name of Social Justice

Our mission is the creation of a learning environment that emphasizes the theme of Social Justice. Through coursework and research in the interest areas of criminal justice, environmental issues, and political economy and globalization, students will develop an understanding of everyday social behavior as well as the structural factors that contribute to social injustice. From the seminar room and the field, students also acquire both the intellectual tools to critically analyze social phenomena and trends, and the methodological tools to conduct research, to evaluate social policy.

While we provide a broad perspective on sociology as a diverse field of inquiry, including theory, quantitative and qualitative methods, demography, social psychology, and philosophy of social sciences, faculty research is centered around three major areas:


Audrey Flack's sculpture, The Beloved Woman of JusticeCriminology/Criminal Justice faculty apply a sociological approach to crime and criminal justice, exploring the linkages between crime phenomena, justice practices, and the more elusive social justice. They investigate how race/ethnicity, class, and gender affect criminal offending and victimization as well as criminal justice experiences. They consider the historically- and politically-specific processes whereby some actions are criminalized. Finally, they examine innovative harm reduction strategies, including restorative justice and responsive regulatory mechanisms. Their scholarship explores interpersonal, corporate, and state offending.

Environmental Sociology

Faculty in Environmental Sociology analyze the historical and social bases of environmentalism, the mobilization of grassroots environmental movements, and environmental justice at local and global levels. Environmental policies are examined as sometimes contributing to social justice and, at other times, contributing to social injustice. Faculty members maintain research ties with a large number of organizations and programs outside the department.

Political Economy and Globalization

Political Economy and Globalization faculty analyze the political and economic foundations of change in global society, examining contemporary issues in the context of large-scale and long-term historical shifts to understand continuity and change in global society and local communities.  Instruction is provided in the sociology of development, and political, economic, and social institutions and categories such as classes, the state, race and ethnicity, gender, markets, and social, nationalist, and revolutionary movements.

Faculty Research and Social Justice

  • Stephanie Bohon, Associate Professor
    My work focuses primarily on the migration and settlement of Latinos to the Southeastern United States, an area where Latino populations have doubled in all but three states. My work in the area addresses two primary questions: 1) What are the barriers that Latinos encounter when attempting to adapt to their new environment, and 2) How have communities reacted to the influx of people with different phenotypes, customs, and languages? In a society that idealizes certain ideals of human rights and equal protection, it is interesting to me how quickly we are willing to suspend these rights and protections for newcomers by passing laws to restrict communication, bar health care access, and limit equal protection rights (to name a few). Since these negative reactions are as likely to stem from ignorance as from xenophobia, I focus on reaching an audience beyond other academics by presenting a non-polemic position that appeals to the rationality of people who believe themselves to be just. Through this, I hope to influence policy in ways that, hopefully, reduce the barriers to migrant adjustment or, at the least, dissuade policy-makers from worsening the situation.
  • Michelle Brown, Associate Professor
    My research focuses upon punishment, law and culture.  I am particularly interested in the ways we seek to imagine and visualize identity – including ourselves and others - beyond the law and state.  Legal decisionmaking around citizenship, for instance, is very much about who counts and who does not.  At the limits of law and citizenship, such decisionmaking often involves moderating a literal line between life and death.  Building upon ten years of fieldwork with prisoners, prison staff and their families, my current projects explore how people find ways to survive, endure, and organize at law's limits in contexts of extreme marginalization – prisons, camps, and other total institutions as well as zones of social abandonment and dislocation.  Here, people are stripped of political rights and compelled to improvise new kinds of subjectivities and makeshift communities to survive.  These are the spaces in which emergent models for social justice are often lived and embodied.  I believe these "rightless" actors in ephemeral communities in the worst of contexts have much to teach us about transformative justice.  Because discourses on pain, suffering, and exclusion are often hidden or sanitized, opening up the difficult conversation - asking and debating questions of all kinds and about everyone - is central to the creation of a critical and participatory democratic space.  Here, we might better begin to think creatively, imaginatively about how we frame questions of justice in a globalizing world.

  • Hoan Bui, Associate Professor
    My research focuses on how structural inequalities influence individual experiences with crime offending, crime victimization, and criminal justice policies. For my domestic violence research project, I explore: 1) the influence of the reconstruction of gender-role expectations resulting from the process of immigration, the intersection of race, class, and gender, and community resources on the likelihood of and women's reactions to domestic violence; and 2) the effectiveness of domestic violence policies in protecting the safety of women from different social backgrounds. My research on immigration and crime focuses on the influence of different forms of inequalities caused by the process of immigration, immigration policies, and racial/ethnic and gender relations on individual experiences with crime/delinquency and victimization. My research project on women's re-entry after prison explores how gender practices combined with race and class inequalities influence women's opportunities to obtain human capital and create social capital necessary for successful post-incarceration reintegration.
  • Sherry Cable, Professor
    My research focuses on the social structural causes and consequences of environmental problems, of environmental inequalities at national and international levels, and of the failure of national and international environmental policies to build a just and sustainable world.
    The primary cause of environmental problems is the economic institution – humans' efforts to obtain food, clothing, and shelter from the biophysical world for survival. Economic institutions are intrinsically linked to ecological stability because we strategically intervene in ecosystem processes to secure our survival by continuously increasing the amount of resources available for human use. Our interventions involve the withdrawal from ecosystems of desired resources and the addition to ecosystems of the wastes created by our transformation of the withdrawn resources. Humans' withdrawals and additions violate principles of ecosystem functioning, destabilizing ecosystems by reducing biodiversity. Since the earth's ecosystems are interdependent, unstable ecosystems threaten the collapse of the entire biosphere.
    My work in the field and in the classroom centers on the ways in which our economic imperatives lead us to make decisions about environmental use that threaten humans' economic future. The negative consequences of those decisions are unevenly distributed – the burden of environmental problems is disproportionately borne by poor and subordinated communities and nations. Such environmental injustices increasingly threaten the peace and security of nations.
    I aim in my work to add to the efforts of many others to convince both policymakers and citizens that only a sustainable world can be a just world.
  • Harry F. Dahms, Associate Professor
    For sociological perspectives on globalization to do justice to its many facets, they must be informed by an understanding of modern societies as simultaneously complex, contingent, and contradictory–as modern capitalist societies. Such an understanding of modern societies is the necessary precondition for identifying the defining features of globalization. Yet for the most part, the history of the social sciences did not produce research agendas, theories, and methods designed to grasp complexity, contingency, and contradiction as core dimensions of modern social life that continually reinforce each other. To the extent that scrutinizing the impact of globalization on the future–and possible futures–of human civilization is the primary challenge for social scientists to confront today, the current condition presents a unique, and perhaps most unusual opportunity to conceive anew the promise of each and all of the social sciences, as elucidating how the complex, contingent, and contradictory nature of modern societies, in the name of advancing social justice, has engendered a a highly counter-intuitive regime of managing "social problems."
  • R. Scott Frey, Professor
    My current research is directed at (1) a book on the globalization of health, safety, and environmental risks. Attention centers on how and why core-based hazardous products, production processes, and wastes are exported to the peripheral zones of the world-system; (2) comparing causes and human responses to environmental degradation in several diverse geographic settings, including Cuba, the Ogallala Aquifer region of the US Great Plains, the maquiladora urban centers of northern Mexico, and the Special Economic Zones of southern Guangdong Province in China; and (3) analyzing the cross-national determinants of development, including various forms of human well-being and alternative forms of sustainability.
  • Paul Gellert, Associate Professor
    My research agenda focuses on questions of "development" in the periphery. Specifically, I have investigated processes of commodification of timber in Indonesia and formation of export markets through domestic state-private firm alliances and transnational efforts to access key markets.  This research addresses questions about the "socionatural" processes of production and impacts of decades of authoritarian dominated industrialization and new emphasis on neo-liberalization of the economy following the Asian crisis of 1997-98 and political reform. In this more recent period, I am investigating competing models of governance of society and nature inside Indonesia as the export context of Japan, China and the rest of Asia changes.  This research is centered around the question of whether and, if so, how Indonesia is being re-peripheralized or underdeveloped.  In a separate research project, I critique the seductiveness of a universalist, capabilities approach to development and social justice that ignores histories and structures of global inequality.
  • Asafa Jalata, Professor
    My research agenda focuses on investigating and understanding the dynamic interplay between the racialized and exploitative global and regional economic structures and the human agency of the colonized and dominated peoples. I have been identifying and explaining the chains of historical and political economic forces shaping racial/ethno-national inequality, underdevelopment, and national and social movements on local, regional and global levels. I began my scholarship by exploring the relationship between the colonization and incorporation of Oromia, the Oromo country, into the Ethiopian Empire and the global capitalist world system, and how this relationship facilitated the development of the Oromo national movement. Gradually I have extended the scope of my research to include the Horn of Africa and North America. I have also increased the geographical and cultural context of my scholarship and expertise by going beyond Oromia, Ethiopia, Sudan, and Black America by studying the role of terrorism in the capitalist world system. I am currently engaged in researching and writing a book entitled Faces of Terrorism in the Age of Globalization: From Christopher Columbus to Osama bin Laden.
  • Robert Jones, Associate Professor
    My work examines the human dimensions of environmental change, ecosystem management and environmental policy. I have an interdisciplinary education in the social and natural sciences (Huxley College of the Environment and Washington State University-Environmental Sociology). I co-authored (with Dr. Riley E. Dunlap) a book chapter in the Handbook of Environmental Sociology that helped to establish the conceptual and methodological foundations of environmental concern research. I have worked on funded projects related to the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone, salmon restoration in the Pacific Northwest, water recreation in the Columbia River Basin, hazardous waste management in Washington State, future land-use at the Oak Ridge Reservation in Tennessee, energy-boomtown growth in the West, amenity ("green") migration and water management issues facing Southern Appalachia, the social bases of environmental concern, public support for the environment in the United States and Southern Appalachia, and others related to environmental justice, race and community development. I worked and published the results of many of these projects with graduate students.
  • Lois Presser, Associate Professor
    My research focuses on the storied foundations of injustice. I investigate the grounds for power abuse, including crime, in people's identities and in micro level interactions. Violence is my focal point. My current book project investigates how violent men construct themselves as decent and heroic. I examine the neutralization of violence as an interactional process. Both laypersons and criminologists produce and reproduce the linguistic parameters within which violence becomes possible. My next project will theorize harmful action based on narratives of powerlessness and difference, using as case examples such apparently disparate acts as acquaintance rape, genocide, spanking, and the consumption of meat. Because of my emphasis on talk and identities collaboratively constructed, I see hope (as well as hazards) for social justice in restorative justice dialogue and other democratic processes.
  • Jon Shefner, Professor
    My work is centered on the political economy of development, a sub-field that focuses on explaining different national trajectories and global stratification. My work is multidisciplinary, drawing from anthropology, economics, history, and political science, as well as sociology. My research is largely qualitative, and I have conducted field research in Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico, and New Orleans, LA.

*Note: The photo shows Audrey Flack's sculpture, The Beloved Woman of Justice. The sculpture is displayed in the courtyard of the Howard H. Baker, Jr. Federal Courthouse in Knoxville, Tennessee (formerly known as the Whittle Building). The photo was taken by the webmaster in fall 2006. According to an article by Dolores Klaich posted on Audrey Flack's web-site (under Text, "Artist was "Tuned in'"), "every Cherokee village had an elder woman known as the beloved woman. She took part in local and national councils on all subjects and had the ability to persuade tribal members in making important decisions, particularly in rendering justice." According to a plaque posted next to the sculpture, "the star and eagle on her head are symbolic of the United States and the ideas of justice, righteousness, and integrity. The expression of the face is meditative, pensive, and thoughtful, and is meant to inspire feelings of solace and reassurance.... The facial features of the sculpture are meant to appeal to a broad and diverse group of people and represent the impartiality of the court."

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