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INTERVIEWER: Welcome.We are very delighted to be here at the 2013 ASCmeetings in Atlanta, Georgia.And it's my pleasure to have the opportunityto interview Professor Steven Messner, distinguished TeachingProfessor from the University at Albany,State University of New York.Professor Messner has many accolades, too many of which
INTERVIEWER [continued]: to list right now, but I want to mention a few.He is an ASC Fellow, past Vice President and Presidentof the ASC, also Chair of the Crime Law and Deviantsection of the American Sociological Association,and has written many very influential books,
INTERVIEWER [continued]: both as an author and an editor, many articles, as well.And we're going to talk a lot about those today.But let's try to get a little sense of where things began.Professor Messner completed his BA at Columbia University,went on to complete a Master's degree and a PhD.At Princeton not so long ago.
INTERVIEWER [continued]: And so, I thought maybe we would startby kind of getting a sense of how your career got offthe ground.So you know, you studied sociology,and so that was a choice you made.I'm kind of curious about what led you to Columbia,what led you to study sociology?
INTERVIEWER [continued]: And then, we'll kind of move from there.
PROFESSOR STEVEN MESSNER: Ah, well Columbia, it turns out,my father is a graduate of both Columbia Collegeand the Engineering School.And so I had that tie, and I actuallyapplied in the early admissions process.So it was kind of a choice that I
PROFESSOR STEVEN MESSNER [continued]: had thought of for a while, although I must say,I certainly didn't start with a self-conscious planto become a criminologist.In fact, I've never taken a criminology course.
PROFESSOR STEVEN MESSNER: No.Ever.I've taught it many times, but I've nevertaken a criminology course.
PROFESSOR STEVEN MESSNER: I really just drifted into it.I did have early exposure to one of the classics,here, as you well know-- Merton's Social Structureand Anomie.At Columbia, at the time, they had
PROFESSOR STEVEN MESSNER [continued]: what they called shared resource courses where undergraduatescould take graduate courses.And I enrolled in Merton's course.And he was amazing.You know, he was a real presence in the classroom.
PROFESSOR STEVEN MESSNER [continued]: I can remember very well being there in Fayerweather Hallwith the students beforehand.And there'd be the normal bustling about,and he'd walk in the room, and then there would be silence.And he'd get up there, and he'd have a glass of water,and just go on.
PROFESSOR STEVEN MESSNER [continued]: So that really impressed me-- one, with the profession,you know, as a role model, there,and of course, the substance, something that followed throughin my own research.
INTERVIEWER: What was the course that you had from him?Was it a theory course?
PROFESSOR STEVEN MESSNER: Social Theory and Social Structure.It was a course he taught-- it was the only course hewas teaching at Columbia.As it would turn out-- as you mentioned,I did my graduate work at Princeton--but my first teaching job was back at Columbia.
PROFESSOR STEVEN MESSNER [continued]: And I did what a lot of faculty membersdid-- sat in on his course
INTERVIEWER: Oh wow.
PROFESSOR STEVEN MESSNER: And at this pointI was at a different stage in my careerand got much more out of it.But he really was a master.
INTERVIEWER: You know, in his interviewfor the oral history project-- I thinkit was with Professor Cohen-- he noted how, in the classroom,he would often kind of work through problemsand talk about how it becomes a reallyimportant part of his research.One of the really neat things about your record, Steve,
INTERVIEWER [continued]: is that you have a fabulous, very influential research--a set of accomplishments that we'lltalk about-- but you're also a distinguished teachingprofessor.I just kind of wonder, you know, your kindof recollection of your experiences with his class,others, but, you know, is that somethingthat's been meaningful to you?
PROFESSOR STEVEN MESSNER: Yeah.Actually, just picking up on the one pointabout how Merton approached his classes,he would refer to his lectures as oral publications.He thought of them that way, in the literal senseof making public your ideas.
PROFESSOR STEVEN MESSNER [continued]: The other thing that impressed me about his teaching--well one, his erudition, he just was so well read--but also his graciousness.You know, there certainly were many criticsof Merton at the time, not always friendly critics,
PROFESSOR STEVEN MESSNER [continued]: you know, hostile.But he would not degenerate into ad hominem types of attacks,and he'd try to give a balanced approach.So in terms of the classroom, he would certainly be someonethat I would see as a model.The other one would be a professor
PROFESSOR STEVEN MESSNER [continued]: I had at Princeton-- Bob Scott.He was not a criminologist.His area was sociology of deviant behavior.But he was a labeling theorist.In fact, he wrote a book, a very nice book,The Making of Blind Men, developing the idea that
PROFESSOR STEVEN MESSNER [continued]: there's something to the idea of being blind as a role,you know, we get labelled, and we adopt the role.But he was also such a good lecturer.And he was teaching, you know, lecture center kind of format,pretty large.
PROFESSOR STEVEN MESSNER [continued]: So I tried to pick up tips from him on not only the substance,but-- well you've probably taught in some big lecturecenters, [INAUDIBLE] too.
INTERVIEWER: Yeah, right.
PROFESSOR STEVEN MESSNER: --how it is a performance.You have to be very conscious of gestures and things like that.So in terms of my teaching, those twowould be persons who really had a profound influence.When you look back, and you think-- boy,
PROFESSOR STEVEN MESSNER [continued]: was I lucky I had those classes.
INTERVIEWER: What did lead you to gravitate towards studyingcrime and deviance?[INAUDIBLE]
PROFESSOR STEVEN MESSNER: Yeah, you know, as I said,I didn't start out that way.I drifted into it.When I started at Princeton, my three areas--we had to have three specialty areas.My main area was political sociology.
PROFESSOR STEVEN MESSNER: Now, of course,you're talking the '70s, here.If you're not at least entranced by Marxist theory,there's something wrong with you.So political sociology was my primary interest going in.Secondary interest was social stratification,and then the third was sociology of education.
PROFESSOR STEVEN MESSNER [continued]: How that fit it, I still don't quite know.I had the course with Bob Scott.I was a TA in the course.And that exposed me to some of the general perspectives-- you
PROFESSOR STEVEN MESSNER [continued]: know, Chicago School [INAUDIBLE] But I stilldidn't have much of an interest until workingon the dissertation.I went into it from the vantage point of stratification.I was interested in inequality in social order-- you know,
PROFESSOR STEVEN MESSNER [continued]: the very Durkheimian sense.And I had to think well, how can I actually come upwith a topic, you know, a defensible topicfor a dissertation?So I had to, kind of, narrow this down,and I thought, well, inequality, that's not too hard to get at.And I wanted to do a cross-national study, I think.
PROFESSOR STEVEN MESSNER [continued]: I thought, and still, see much valuein comparisons of societies.So I was thinking, all right, on the independent variable,here, I can look at income inequality,you know, stratification.But how am I going to study social order?Well, let me turn it on its head to disorder.
PROFESSOR STEVEN MESSNER [continued]: Well, you know, deviant behavior-- how about crime?And so, I went into it thinking, well, I'dreally like to look at the consequencesof different levels of inequality for societal crimerates.The Chair of my dissertation committee
PROFESSOR STEVEN MESSNER [continued]: was Mel Tumin-- probably best knownfor his debates on the functionalist theoryof stratification.That goes way back.That's probably before your time.
INTERVIEWER: No, I'm familiar with it.
PROFESSOR STEVEN MESSNER: Oh, OK.
INTERVIEWER: How did that choice come about?I mean, did you and he have a good relationship?
PROFESSOR STEVEN MESSNER: I had taken his graduate classin stratification.I respected his work.And as I say, I saw this as a study in stratification.The independent variable was the impetus for it.
PROFESSOR STEVEN MESSNER [continued]: Now, Tumin didn't know much about crime, really,but he was a very smart guy.And he could tell right away that I didn'tknow very much about crime.And he really pushed me and said, OK, you know,if this is what you're interested in, fine,but you've got to really get into this literature,
PROFESSOR STEVEN MESSNER [continued]: work hard, and master it.And so I started reading on it.You know, that led me to focus more specificallyon homicide rates, largely from methodological--
PROFESSOR STEVEN MESSNER: --reasons, here.But I started reading the literature,the theoretical debates, empirical studies.And I thought, this is really interesting stuff.And when I defended the dissertation, cross-national
PROFESSOR STEVEN MESSNER [continued]: study of income inequality and homicide rates,I continued to focus on inequality.So I still had sort of the independent variableorientation, but over time, I realized
PROFESSOR STEVEN MESSNER [continued]: what interested me the most was understanding crime.So I had shifted from the independent to the dependent--
INTERVIEWER: I see.Did you think of yourself as a criminologist whenyou started at, say, Princeton?
PROFESSOR STEVEN MESSNER: No.Not at all.Even my first few years at Columbia.I think the first paper, professional paper,that I presented as an Assistant Professor wasin the sociology of sport.
INTERVIEWER: Oh, that's right.Yeah, well, that's your first publication, isn't it?
PROFESSOR STEVEN MESSNER: And it wasn'treally until I started going to ASC conferences,presenting papers initially, building upon the inequalityand crime in different ways.One of the first studies-- look at regional differences
PROFESSOR STEVEN MESSNER [continued]: and drawing on an anomie perspective,but with a dose of regional geography, John Shelton Reedstuff, differences between the impact of povertyand inequality in homicide rates in the southversus the non-south.
PROFESSOR STEVEN MESSNER [continued]: And as I started to go to the ASC meetings,then I started thinking well, maybe these peoplewill accept me as one of theirs.
INTERVIEWER: We're very fortunate that you decidedto move in that direction.Now, I'm kind of curious, sociology stratification seemedto be an early influence, something that you can stillsee throughout your work.Why that?I mean, you know, obviously, at Princeton,there's a lot of neat things going on in that time,
INTERVIEWER [continued]: a lot of neat people could have studieda lot of different things.But was there anything about your background or anythingthat kind of led you to move in that direction,especially stratification?
PROFESSOR STEVEN MESSNER: Yeah, you know,well the political angle, it's almost a cliche-- but you know,this, right, grew up in the late '60s and '70s, Vietnam War.When the draft lottery started, my number
PROFESSOR STEVEN MESSNER [continued]: was-- I don't remember exactly, I think it was 30-something--but I had a 2S deferment, a college deferment.But you know, in that context, youcouldn't help but be very much engagedin the political issues of the time.So the political sociology was a natural.And then, just, inequality, it's such a central aspect
PROFESSOR STEVEN MESSNER [continued]: to sociology.I think most sociologists have at least some interestin inequality.
INTERVIEWER: It seems like a good choice.You mentioned how your dad went to Columbia.
PROFESSOR STEVEN MESSNER: Yup.
INTERVIEWER: What were their impressions or influenceson you, in terms of what you're doing-- anything?
PROFESSOR STEVEN MESSNER: Well, probably oneof the main influences, ironically,was to push me towards grad school.My father was in industrial advertising,
PROFESSOR STEVEN MESSNER [continued]: and I couldn't see myself going into business like that.One thing I couldn't imagine-- havingto wear a suit every day.And this will surprise my colleagues,because I'm the only one in the department who alwayswears a jacket and a tie.But I can choose to do it.That's the difference.
INTERVIEWER: Different, yeah.
PROFESSOR STEVEN MESSNER: But other than that, theywere very supportive of academic accomplishments,and so on, provided that reinforcement.So that also was conducive to followinga scholarly kind of career.My father didn't put pressure on me to go into the ad game.
INTERVIEWER: That's good.I was kind of wondering, if you lookat some of your early work on crime ratesand regional variation of it, a lot of that work was soloauthored papers.And you know, I was surprised to see that,because, you know, you collaborate
INTERVIEWER [continued]: with so many people.And I see that your career-- somewhere in the mid-'80s, youknow, you developed a number of different collaborations.But I just wanted to kind of get your senseof your own reflection on that early work.
PROFESSOR STEVEN MESSNER: Yeah, that's an interesting point.I hadn't really thought about it in those terms.The Princeton graduate program, at the time, in sociologyis very different from graduate programs, today,even at Princeton.They really didn't follow a mentorship kind of model.
PROFESSOR STEVEN MESSNER [continued]: Rather, they pretty much had the philosophythat they would try to bring in qualified students, peoplethey thought were smart and send them to the library.You know, you'd have classes, and you'd take those classes.But then, you know, you should learn this stuff.
PROFESSOR STEVEN MESSNER [continued]: So I was accustomed to the model of working on my own.So that's very different from what I ended up doing laterand I do now, where I work very closely with graduate students,try to mentor them, continue to collaborate,as we have done over the years.
PROFESSOR STEVEN MESSNER [continued]: You know, when I think back on that,that model has gone to the dustbin of history,and I think, for some good reasons.You know, we did lose out on certain things--being involved in research, getting your hands dirty,
PROFESSOR STEVEN MESSNER [continued]: seeing how a research process actually unfolds,learning how to deal with revise and resubmit--you write the memo to the editor, and all of that stuff.You know, I got none of that in graduate school.There were some benefits, though-- one,
PROFESSOR STEVEN MESSNER [continued]: being forced to be independent and come upwith your own ideas for research.And it also did encourage you to at least engagewith big issues.You know, when we do research projects,
PROFESSOR STEVEN MESSNER [continued]: oftentimes, they're very circumscribed, and you know,we're thinking of the journal format.But having that sort of-- well, learna lot about stratification, convince usyou're an intellectual, you're a scholar.There were some plus sides.
INTERVIEWER: Oh yeah.Now, you're [INAUDIBLE] at Columbia with Merton,and as an Assistant Professor, did he ever walk down and say,hey Steve, let's--
PROFESSOR STEVEN MESSNER: He was very--
INTERVIEWER: --let's a follow-up to SS&A?
PROFESSOR STEVEN MESSNER: No.Nothing directly on SS&A. He was generous with his time, open.I can remember going into his office,sitting there, talking with him informally.And he was asking me, how are you adjusting,
PROFESSOR STEVEN MESSNER [continued]: the first year is always a difficult time.Actually, he also offered advice to me about teaching.I can remember saying to him, you know,I think I'm catching on, I'm getting better at it,but I must admit I'm kind of nervous when
PROFESSOR STEVEN MESSNER [continued]: I go into class, get up in front of the students.And he said to me, you know, I still get a little nervouswhen I go to speak before a class, if you're not nervous,you don't care.And that's something that's the last thing--
INTERVIEWER: Yeah, now that's interesting.
PROFESSOR STEVEN MESSNER: Now, here, this guy's a giant.
INTERVIEWER: How did it feel-- I thinkit must have been maybe 15 years later that you and Frank Cullenthen go back and interview him, right?
PROFESSOR STEVEN MESSNER: Yeah.That was a very interesting experience.I had sent him a paper that I had written.It's a paper I'm really quite proud of-- "The RoadNot Taken-- "Merton's Social Structure and Anomie,The Road Not Taken."It ended up in one of the lesser journals.
INTERVIEWER: Deviant behavior.
PROFESSOR STEVEN MESSNER: Deviant behavior--after going down a number of rejections.But I think it's a good paper, and I had sent it to him.And he sent me back a nice, handwritten note-- nothandwritten, but he had signed it, though, at the end,saying, you know, this is an interesting idea, I must admit,
PROFESSOR STEVEN MESSNER [continued]: when I was developing Social Structure and Anomie,I hadn't quite thought about that particular interpretation,but it seems promising.So I was ecstatic about getting that sort of blessing,if you will, from the master.But the interview with Frank that we did
PROFESSOR STEVEN MESSNER [continued]: was fascinating to me, having spent so muchof my career working with social structureand anomie and the elaborations, and so on.We had the opportunity to ask him about his reflections, whathe was thinking at the time.
PROFESSOR STEVEN MESSNER [continued]: It was just a, really, pleasure to have that chanceto talk with him.
INTERVIEWER: "The Road Not Taken,"I tell my students is a classic paper,and I think it's-- more than any other--there are a couple others.I think, you know, Tom Bernard's paper, as well,and that debate between Bernard and Agnew-- All of thatin-- probably those papers were under review at the time.
INTERVIEWER [continued]: And you probably were all reviewing the same papers,I'm not sure.
PROFESSOR STEVEN MESSNER: I hope Tom didn't give methe nasty review--
INTERVIEWER: I don't know.But I was wondering, and actually Merton referenced thisat one point, about how this whole notionof the cross-national testing of these ideas now being exploredis a really important point.And I think it's been highly influential in moving forward
INTERVIEWER [continued]: from that point, too.But where did the idea come up?I mean, I was kind of wondering, do youremember kind of formulating that and saying,you know what, it's time that somebody points outthat there's this great idea out there that hasn'tbeen adequately wrestled with.And if we lay it out there, it can really
INTERVIEWER [continued]: generate a whole new generation of research, which it did.But I mean, were you sitting in your office, and--
PROFESSOR STEVEN MESSNER: No, I thinkit's one of these cases where you keep wrestlingwith something, and you make some progress,but you're not really satisfied with it.You know, when I think back now to my dissertation,it strikes as so primitive and crude,
PROFESSOR STEVEN MESSNER [continued]: not just the methodology, I mean,the theoretical reasoning, it doesn't seem very advanced.But it's the sort of thing, you know, I kept working at it.
INTERVIEWER: Would you approve it, now,if it had been my dissertation, in that quality?
PROFESSOR STEVEN MESSNER: Probably not.[LAUGHTER]
INTERVIEWER: Oh god.
PROFESSOR STEVEN MESSNER: Certainly not on the basisof the methodology.
INTERVIEWER: Oh right.
PROFESSOR STEVEN MESSNER: But you know, we're talking '76,'77, so it's a different time.The theoretical argument, though, Ithink proved to be promising-- taking Merton, but bringingin a little Durkheim in a different way than Merton had.
PROFESSOR STEVEN MESSNER [continued]: But it's something I just kept working with.Just that article, there, I mentioned that deviant behaviorwasn't the first choice.I think that's the one I sent to AJS.Why not?I think I started at the top, here.And it was rejected.
PROFESSOR STEVEN MESSNER [continued]: There were two reviews.They were both very negative.One of the reviewers went to great length--this was somebody who cared about the theory--great length, arguing how I was just flat out wrong,and that this article displayed the most egregious
PROFESSOR STEVEN MESSNER [continued]: misrepresentation of Merton's thoughtthat the reviewer had ever seen.So obviously, it was rejected.And the other person had said, well,what this person says is true, but everybody knows it, so--the two reviewers, so.
INTERVIEWER: You can't please everybody.That's interesting.Now, can you tell me a little bitabout when you met Frank Coglan And Iguess, this was at Columbia?
PROFESSOR STEVEN MESSNER: Yeah.This was early on, probably it was either my first yearor my second year.Frank was doing his dissertation with Richard Cloury.Cloury was the Chair.He approached me to be on the committee.
PROFESSOR STEVEN MESSNER [continued]: I had had no contacts with him prior to that.I hadn't had him in a class or beenintroduced to him or anything.Columbia had a system then-- I don'tknow if they still do-- where therewould be people on the committee who were not providing you
PROFESSOR STEVEN MESSNER [continued]: with feedback all the way along.They were almost like outside readers.So when I attended the dissertation defense,he didn't know what to expect at all.And I, as is the case for budding assistant professors,
PROFESSOR STEVEN MESSNER [continued]: you want to look good to the senior colleagueson the committee, so I came in well prepared.I mean, it was a good dissertation,so it was something that you enjoyed reading,but that was my first contact with Frank.
INTERVIEWER: You know, can you talk a little bit aboutthe relevance of going to Albany,what that meant for your career and kind of how it shiftedthings, or maybe it didn't?
PROFESSOR STEVEN MESSNER: Yeah.It was a pretty important move.And you know, it's kind of ironichow things just play out.As I mentioned, I had the job at Columbia.My wife and I had lived in Manhattan
PROFESSOR STEVEN MESSNER [continued]: while I was an undergraduate.I got married to her when I was in my junior year.We didn't want to go back into New York City,so I never really thought of staying at Columbia.
INTERVIEWER: I see.
PROFESSOR STEVEN MESSNER: Plus, to be candid,the chances of getting tenure were slim.I mean, they had nothing along the lines of a tenured trackposition.When you got to that point, essentially they'dcompare you to anybody they couldrecruit across the country, across the world.So you know, I was realistic, here.
PROFESSOR STEVEN MESSNER [continued]: I was at the point where I had been re-appointed.You know, they were perfectly happy with my progress,but I thought well, you know, it's reallytime to start looking into places to move to thatwould be more long term.
PROFESSOR STEVEN MESSNER [continued]: And one place I applied was St. Lawrence University,up in Canton, New York.It's a teaching-oriented university.For some reason, there was almost a little bitof a feeder network from our high schoolin New Jersey to that.You get that sometimes--
INTERVIEWER: Wow, that's interesting.
PROFESSOR STEVEN MESSNER: I don't know why.And I applied for the position.The Chair got back to me, very nice communication, saying,your qualifications are excellent.To be candid, they're beyond what we would normally expect.However, we're a small department.We have one person who's in that area already, and you know,
PROFESSOR STEVEN MESSNER [continued]: it would just not make any sense.If they had made me the offer, there'sa good chance I would have taken it,and I wouldn't have gotten involved in research the way Ihave, and not criminology.
PROFESSOR STEVEN MESSNER: It's just one of those fluky--
INTERVIEWER: So it came down to one phone call.
PROFESSOR STEVEN MESSNER: Yeah, well, and then for Albany,Peter Blough had two positions.He was on the faculty at Columbia,and he was also at Albany Sociology Department.And Peter, I had talked with about research.
PROFESSOR STEVEN MESSNER [continued]: In fact, some of my early publicationsdrew upon his macro-structural theory,and we talked about that.So I knew him, and when I was going on the market,he was one of my references.And so I would ask him, you know, what's it like in Albany,is that a nice place?And he said, yeah.
PROFESSOR STEVEN MESSNER [continued]: So I pursued that.And that really turned out to be very fortunate for me.I was exposed to Al Liska, who was a fantastic mentor.I don't think, while Al was alive,I submitted any manuscript for review
PROFESSOR STEVEN MESSNER [continued]: without Al having read it and given me comments on it.And I kind of had the feeling, if I could get it by Al,it was publishable.I might not get it in the first journal,but it was publishable.He was really a great person.But other colleagues, this is really
PROFESSOR STEVEN MESSNER [continued]: where I made the transition-- or an important aspectof the transition-- to doing collaborative research.Good colleagues to work with-- Al, Marv Krohn,while he was there-- outside of criminology, Scott South.
PROFESSOR STEVEN MESSNER [continued]: And then I've been fortunate to havea number of more technically trained, methodologicalcolleagues to work with.So that really was important.And that's how I met Rick Rosenfeld.
INTERVIEWER: Yeah, That's certainly-- I'm no matchmaker.But if I did that, I probably-- knowing the two of you welland your work styles-- might not have ever imaginedthe two of you coming together.But it's been a really wonderful collaboration.When did you guys meet, and what were the circumstances?
PROFESSOR STEVEN MESSNER: Rick wasat Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs at the time.And Mitch Channel was a grad student at Albany.He had worked for me.Actually, I had a grant, and Mitch did some data collection.And Mitch was on a panel, an ASC panelwith Rick-- I think it was in Montreal.
PROFESSOR STEVEN MESSNER [continued]: I'm pretty sure it was in Montreal.And they got talking, either before or after the session.And Mitch mentioned to Rick some of the stuff I was working onabout Merton, and so on.And Rick said, gee, you know, I'minterested in the same sort of stuff.
PROFESSOR STEVEN MESSNER [continued]: I'm just up there 35 miles north in Saratoga Springs.So Rick contacted me and said, why don't weget together for lunch.I'll come down there to Albany.
INTERVIEWER: It must have been by phone, right-- no email.
PROFESSOR STEVEN MESSNER: There was no email then,but it was-- we did have phone.So he came down.We had lunch, and we were amazed at the extent of overlapin our intellectual interests.Rick had done his graduate work in Oregon--
PROFESSOR STEVEN MESSNER [continued]: so, the other side of the country, but-- you know,we got to talking about the things we were working on.We really hit it off, and henceforth, at ASC meetings,like this one, sometimes, we'd be on panels together.Other times, we'd make a point of-- you
PROFESSOR STEVEN MESSNER [continued]: know, you're having dinner tonight,or so, after dinner, why don't we meet in the bar,and I've got this idea, I want to bounce it off you.So we spent a lot of time working on cocktail napkinswith this.Our styles are more different, eventhough the intellectual overlap is there.
INTERVIEWER: Yeah.And it's very effective.The way I describe it is, you're early, he's late.
PROFESSOR STEVEN MESSNER: Yeah.[LAUGHTER]
INTERVIEWER: But it works well, and it's been very productive.Now, you-- maybe kind of pushing a little bit ahead, here,but-- I met you, I believe, when youwere working on Crime and the American Dream-- probablya very early draft of this, so-- And I met you in St. Louis.
INTERVIEWER [continued]: I remember very vividly walking down the hallway,and I'm saying, wow, that's Steven Messner.So where was the seed of Crime and the American Dream?
PROFESSOR STEVEN MESSNER: It reallywas on those cocktail napkins.
PROFESSOR STEVEN MESSNER: We would have vigorous debates.It was almost like the way the Marxistsused to debate, what did Marx really mean?We'd get into, no, no I think you're wrong, if you follow,the logical implication would be this and this.And on some substantive issues, I managed to convert him.
PROFESSOR STEVEN MESSNER [continued]: On others, he eventually wore me down-- no, no, you're right.But having gone through this, we certainlywere convinced in the merit of the general approach, here.It had become passe, not particularly influential
PROFESSOR STEVEN MESSNER [continued]: in the discipline.Starting interest was being rejuvenated.Our original idea was to write a bookkind of in defense of social structureand anomie-- the anomie perspective.I make the case that it has been somewhat misinterpreted,
PROFESSOR STEVEN MESSNER [continued]: that there's a richness there, and so on.We couldn't get a publisher, though,to publish that kind of book.And we finally faced up to the factthat we didn't have very good perspectives.We were trying to do something that not many people were
PROFESSOR STEVEN MESSNER [continued]: interested in.And so we took a step back and said,well, rather than approaching it this way,let's rethink the basic project.What do we want to do?We want to understand crime.We want to understand crime in the United States of America.
PROFESSOR STEVEN MESSNER [continued]: And it seems to have distinctive characteristicswhen compared to other advanced developed nations.And can we use the kind of theorythat we've been very partial to for this purpose?And as we got into it that way, then
PROFESSOR STEVEN MESSNER [continued]: we realized we had to go beyond it.We couldn't just try to be the lawyers making the case for it.We had to reframe it in ways and draw upon our broadersociological training.And even though we had been trainedin different institutions as undergraduates and graduates,
PROFESSOR STEVEN MESSNER [continued]: we had read a lot of the same stuff.So we were able to bring that in.And back and forth, it evolved.It's not as if we had a blueprint at the start,and then we wrote it.We had some ideas.
PROFESSOR STEVEN MESSNER [continued]: We worked our way through them, and at the end,we were pretty much as surprised as anyone elsewould be on how it panned out.We had logistical challenges.There was no email then.We worked on floppy disks-- the 5 1/4, or whatever they were--
INTERVIEWER: Yeah, I remember them.
PROFESSOR STEVEN MESSNER: And we'd mail them back and forth.You know, I'd work on the floppy and then mail it to him.And he'd mail it back to me.And then we'd have periodic get-togethers.You know, I'd go out to St. Louis,and we'd spend a couple days working on it.Or he'd come to Albany.
INTERVIEWER: I remember one degree of efficiency--or inefficiency, I should say.I remember being in Rick Rosenfeld's officeon the phone.You two were in New York in your office,and I was doing some typing of a couple of referencesin the book.I think it might have been a final draft, who knows?
INTERVIEWER [continued]: And so, you know, at least several hundred milesjust to communicate a couple referencesbeing inserted there, and so--
PROFESSOR STEVEN MESSNER: Yeah.
INTERVIEWER: A little different, today.Do you think that's the work that you're most proud of,or is there something else?
PROFESSOR STEVEN MESSNER: Probably the single work.You know, we stopped-- what is it,it's in its 5th edition, now?After each one, we said, we will not do another.But we wanted to keep it out there.What's been very gratifying to us--we report this in the preface to the 5th edition,
PROFESSOR STEVEN MESSNER [continued]: here-- is the feedback we get from students, especiallyundergraduate students.It seems to resonate.It seems to make sense to them.But we don't think it would have the same impactif the illustrations get dated.So after the first one and the second one,
PROFESSOR STEVEN MESSNER [continued]: we actually made some substantive changes,more elaborations than rethinking what's in it.From the later ones, though, it reallyhas been more examples, statistics, illustrations.And then the other thing that we tried
PROFESSOR STEVEN MESSNER [continued]: do in it is keep the references upto date for graduate students whoare more interested in what's the current literature.So if we referred to other perspectives,you know, we want to have that.
PROFESSOR STEVEN MESSNER [continued]: So that's something I'm proud of, you know,that worked out well.It was worth the effort.And I was very-- Rick and I, both--very gratified by the reaction to it-- more specifically,
PROFESSOR STEVEN MESSNER [continued]: it's emergence as institutional anomie theory.Again, we didn't go into it thinking of creatinga macro-chronological theory.We just wanted to come up with an explanation for crimein the US.
PROFESSOR STEVEN MESSNER [continued]: But others have used it, now.I'm currently involved in some research in Germany,where we're trying to extend it beyond crime to prejudiceand to prejudicial attitudes.So Crime and the American Dream kind oflaunched for us this institutional anomie theory.
PROFESSOR STEVEN MESSNER [continued]: And addressing the role of institutionsis just something that I think is very importantand continues to motivate my research--institutions, social cultural context.
INTERVIEWER: It may not be causal,but crime has dropped significantlysince you guys published Crime and the American Dream.
PROFESSOR STEVEN MESSNER: If you plot it,you know, you can't miss.
INTERVIEWER: Yeah.But I was wondering, just what doyou think the-- do you think there'ssomething to say about the crime drop with respectto institutional changes, or cultural changes in America?Do you think--
PROFESSOR STEVEN MESSNER: Uh, that'ssomething that Rick and I have been wrestling with recently.Institutional anomie theory clearly was originallycast at a societal level, social systems--Orsonian kind of foundation.
PROFESSOR STEVEN MESSNER [continued]: Societies don't change a lot in the short run.So that raises the question, can you really use it?Is it well suited for, you know, the crime drop,which in historical perspective, you're talking 10, 15 years.
PROFESSOR STEVEN MESSNER: The jury's still out.We gave a paper at the ASA meetings this past August.And we proposed that, to some extent,the theory can help explain relationshipsbetween economic upturns and downturns and crime rates.
PROFESSOR STEVEN MESSNER [continued]: We can apply the logic of economic dominance,here, and so on, you know, to account for that.But what we haven't convinced ourselves, that it reallyworks fully there.Also, whether it-- how to translate itto the micro-level.That's another thing we've been wrestling with.
PROFESSOR STEVEN MESSNER [continued]: It's interesting.At ASA, there, we talked a little bitabout how we made efforts to identify micro-counterpartsto it.And there was somebody in the audience who raised his handand said, I don't know why you're
PROFESSOR STEVEN MESSNER [continued]: doing that, you're going to ruin the theory,I use it in my class, it's wonderful.
INTERVIEWER: Yeah, so that's an interesting--
PROFESSOR STEVEN MESSNER: It's still,you know, to use a cliche, again-- a work in progress--institutional anomie.
INTERVIEWER: So when the 5th edition was published,did you say you're not going to do another one?I'm just kind of curious whether a 6th edition--
PROFESSOR STEVEN MESSNER: I think this one really,really is it.
INTERVIEWER: Well, and then so now you've published this year,I think, right-- Crime and the Economy?
PROFESSOR STEVEN MESSNER: Yup, I did.
INTERVIEWER: And so, is that somethingthat was stimulated by your work,as well, on Crime and the American Dream,or how did that come about?
PROFESSOR STEVEN MESSNER: Yeah.It certainly grows out of it.We try to broaden the focus a little bitand try to call attention to the utilityof an institutional perspective, more generally,
PROFESSOR STEVEN MESSNER [continued]: and not just institutional anomie theory,but tending to institutions.The other thing about coming to Albanythat proved to be very valuable to mewas developing the China connection.
PROFESSOR STEVEN MESSNER [continued]: You know, not only did I have no trainingor interest in criminology as an undergraduate or graduatestudent, I had absolutely no interest in China,you know, area study whatsoever.It just so happened the Chair of the department then, Nan Lin,
PROFESSOR STEVEN MESSNER [continued]: had spearheaded a joint doctoral programwith Nankai University in Tianjin, the city of Tianjin,in China.The program was set up in a way that wewould send faculty to Tianjin to teach core courses.
PROFESSOR STEVEN MESSNER [continued]: And then the students would come to Albanyto write the dissertations.And Nan approached me in, I guessit was '87, 1987, asked me, would yoube interested in teaching the graduate research methods classto the cohort there at Nankai.
PROFESSOR STEVEN MESSNER [continued]: Now, you know, this was early on in the economic reforms.China was still a pretty exotic place.So I said, sure.You know, why not take advantage of it.And then I was just real fortunatethat some of the students in the programgravitated towards crime, completed the program.
PROFESSOR STEVEN MESSNER [continued]: And I had the opportunity and continueto collaborate with them.
INTERVIEWER: So you went over for a semester, or a year?
PROFESSOR STEVE MESSNER: I was there in the summer of 1987for about three months.It was very interesting.One experience I had there that relates to our domain of fearof crime and concern about public safety-- I can remember
PROFESSOR STEVE MESSNER [continued]: shortly into my visit-- the second, third day--one of the students in the program-- he wasthe mentor-- no, I'm sorry, the monitor, who was alwaysa graduate student who was assigned to be the monitorto a visiting faculty member-- handledthe logistics, liaison with the administration.
PROFESSOR STEVE MESSNER [continued]: And he knocked on my door and came in and said,I've been authorized to process your payment for the threemonths' summer salary.And he just took out and put on my deska stack of bills in local currency.I didn't have a bank.I didn't have a safe in the room.
PROFESSOR STEVE MESSNER [continued]: And I thought, what am I going to do with all of this cash?And I learned quickly that, at the time, crime, public safety,really was not an issue.It's changed now.But it drove home to me, again, the basic pointof the social cultural context.
PROFESSOR STEVE MESSNER: --you know,how things have to be situated within that to reallyunderstand what's going on.
INTERVIEWER: And I see a lot of the ideasthat you've developed in your careerin the work you've published in China.Have any of those things, those experiences you've had, though,working with colleagues there-- I mean,you've done victimizations, punishment--has any of that sort of influenced your thinking on howthings work in America or how things, just generally,
INTERVIEWER [continued]: in your research--
PROFESSOR STEVE MESSNER: It's underscoredfor me the utility of comparative chronologicalresearch for developing theory, general theory-- theories thathave been developed, formulated within a particular context,
PROFESSOR STEVE MESSNER [continued]: and to a large extent, that's the US or Western societies.And there are so many implicit assumptionsthat provide the mold for the theory.And when you get out, and you tryto apply the theory in a qualitatively
PROFESSOR STEVE MESSNER [continued]: different setting, you see maybe it works in some ways.But then you discover how it doesn't workand what that tells you about whatthe inherent logic of the theory and howthat might have to be changed.So the China experience has definitely influenced
PROFESSOR STEVE MESSNER [continued]: my thinking very much on that.
INTERVIEWER: Yeah.I think, especially the work-- offendersand how people react to them-- itseems that just fundamentally, youmust have had to tackle this in a unique way,because leaning on the assumptionswe might take into that as Americansdidn't seem to fit there.
INTERVIEWER [continued]: They have different language, a different set of people whowould be relevant in terms of neighborhood-- you know,I forget what the term is for the neighborhood--
PROFESSOR STEVE MESSNER: The neighborhood committees, there,yeah.
INTERVIEWER: I think that's probably been useful.You also then, a decade later, get involved,it seems, in a lot of research in Germany.How did that come up?
PROFESSOR STEVE MESSNER: You know, dumb luck, you know,serendipity, again.Ultimately, I can trace it to an invitationfrom Susanne Karstedt to give a paper at Onatiall on institutional anomie theory.
PROFESSOR STEVE MESSNER [continued]: And I got to know Susanne, which provided me [INAUDIBLE]the University of Bielefeld.I got to know Wilhelm Heitmeyer, the Director of an Institute,there, and got interested also thenin thinking of how some of the research theorizing done
PROFESSOR STEVE MESSNER [continued]: in the US applies in the German context.The other thing that I've gotten out of the German connectionis thinking beyond crime.You know, they're very interdisciplinary in-- as Isay, prejudice is something now I'mtrying to apply the theory to.
INTERVIEWER: One of the papers on Germanylooks at spatial issues.And I was reflecting on that.Your 1999 paper, I think, in the Journal of QuantitativeCriminology, and then later in 2001,criminology paper if not the first,one of the very first set of papers
INTERVIEWER [continued]: that really bring into criminologythis whole body of statistical literature on spatial dynamics.And you know, it's been very influential.But I'm wondering how that got rolling, because that'sbeen really influential in terms of how people who are doing
INTERVIEWER [continued]: research on all sorts of things--I can't tell you how many sessions,whether it's prejudice, crime, whatever the outcome is--those tools have been widely adopted.How did that come about?I mean, that's another interesting collaboration.
PROFESSOR STEVE MESSNER: Yeah.That grew out of NCOVR, National Consortiumon Violence Research.NCOVR had several work groups, and one of themwas time and space-- I think was the name, something like that--
PROFESSOR STEVE MESSNER [continued]: and Luke Ansell participated in it, and I got to know Luke.He really taught me spatial econometrics, exploratoryspatial data analysis.I had had zero training in that at all.Luke hadn't really done anything about crime.
PROFESSOR STEVE MESSNER [continued]: So you know, the coming together,here, allowed us to, you know-- well, theseare really great techniques, let's apply it here.And that's how I got involved with spatial modeling.
INTERVIEWER: Well, I remember somebody in the early 2000ssaying that, well, now, one cannot do an analysis of, youknow, county or neighborhood crime without accountingfor spatial auto-correlation, thanks to Messner and hiscolleagues.
PROFESSOR STEVE MESSNER: Well, I liketo think we contributed a bit.You know, the Chicago stuff, Rob's and Morenoff, and so on.But yeah, it was out of NCOVR.You know, as I go through this, I can't help but think,being in the right place at the right time,and the contacts and opportunities
PROFESSOR STEVE MESSNER [continued]: present themselves.
INTERVIEWER: Now, if you look back,is there something that jumps out at you that you would dodifferently-- you know, something of--
PROFESSOR STEVE MESSNER: If I knewthat I would be studying crime and social control in China,I would probably learn Chinese.That has been a bit of a handicap.I know you've always worked with fluent colleagues.I don't know.The field has become so sophisticated
PROFESSOR STEVE MESSNER [continued]: in terms of statistical techniques,if you do quantitative research, boy, youfeel like you're running as fast as you can just to keep up,to stay in the same place.Sometimes that makes me think, well, Iwish he had a firmer foundation in math.
PROFESSOR STEVE MESSNER [continued]: You know, I had calculus, basic intro calculus.But you know, a little more might be helpful nowin picking things up, but I'm not sure,because time, of course, is the limited resource.So what would that be at the expense of?And I feel that one of the benefits
PROFESSOR STEVE MESSNER [continued]: I got from my undergraduate education at Columbia,in addition to contacts with Merton,was the exposure to social thought,classical social thought.Columbia had then and still has, youknow, these great books, orientation, humanities,
PROFESSOR STEVE MESSNER [continued]: contemporary civilization.And that has been valuable to me.So would it have been better to havetaken Calculus II rather than learn about Descartesand you know, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Pagliani?I don't know.
INTERVIEWER: That's a tough call.
PROFESSOR STEVE MESSNER: It comes in handy as well.
INTERVIEWER: Top three papers?Things that you're most proud of.
PROFESSOR STEVE MESSNER: "Road Not Taken,"would certainly be one of them.I think the ASR inequality paper.And then maybe the de decommodification paper
PROFESSOR STEVE MESSNER [continued]: with Rick as an illustration of howto take this very abstract theoryand actually assess it with data.It's hard to say.I mean, with the collaboration that I've developed over time,
PROFESSOR STEVE MESSNER [continued]: I've really gotten interested in so many different things,but I guess those would three that pop into my head.
INTERVIEWER: Who do you sort of admire in the field,[INAUDIBLE] Maybe over time, were there people--
PROFESSOR STEVE MESSNER: Well, that's a dangerous question,because whoever you leave out--
INTERVIEWER: But I can't tell you who asked me to ask that.Let me pose it a little differently.
PROFESSOR STEVE MESSNER: Can we leave thatto people who are no longer with us?
INTERVIEWER: Yeah.No, but who was, as you were developing your career, whowere some of the people who kind of were, you know,influential, just sort of people you thought,they're doing really good work?You know, you saw them speak, maybe youwere moved by what they were doing or heard something.Were there people that stuck out?
PROFESSOR STEVE MESSNER: Sure, in different respects.One, I mentioned, Al Liska, who Iadmired immensely-- just a real scholar and a very, verydecent person.One person-- actually, he's still with us,
PROFESSOR STEVE MESSNER [continued]: so maybe I shouldn't--
INTERVIEWER: Uh yeah, it's tough to--
PROFESSOR STEVE MESSNER: Yeah, I don'twant to single out that way.
INTERVIEWER: You've been fortunate.I think you've had a lot of people to work withand stuff like that, so-- Is there any project or paper youlook back on-- you did mention your dissertation,but I think we all look back at those.But anything else you look back on and think,oh, you know, I kind of need to revisit thator might do it differently, or anything like that?
INTERVIEWER [continued]: [INAUDIBLE]
PROFESSOR STEVE MESSNER: No.I really can't think of one at this point.You know, I'm sure-- the times that I think of it actuallyare if I've selected a paper to useas an illustration in a graduate class.
PROFESSOR STEVE MESSNER [continued]: And as you know, when you present somethingin a graduate class, you've reallygot to go over it carefully and dissect it.And oftentimes, if I do that, I'll realize,this was limited in this way.And I always try to suggest to graduate students,
PROFESSOR STEVE MESSNER [continued]: well, when you identify criticisms,that opens up the opportunities for you to do research.You follow up, you know.You try to circumvent the limitations.So sometimes when I do that, I'll think of them,but there's nothing that I've really gotten motivated-- well,I'm going to do it myself.
PROFESSOR STEVE MESSNER [continued]: This might be an instance where if a graduate studentwas serious and wants to work on it,that I get involved with the student.I had that actually.When I teach one of the graduate courses,
PROFESSOR STEVE MESSNER [continued]: I always talk about, with IAT, how Rick and I have neverbeen satisfied with our treatment of gender.You know, we touch upon it, but it's tacked on.And I've often said to the students,it would really be great if someone
PROFESSOR STEVE MESSNER [continued]: who is well versed in the feminist literature,feminist criminology, would thinkabout how to improve this.And I do have a paper, right now,with a graduate student who was inspired to do this.She's first author.She presented it last year at ASC.
PROFESSOR STEVE MESSNER [continued]: We've got it under review, now.So those are the occasions when I think, OK,can we build upon it.But right now, I'm filled with new stuff.
INTERVIEWER: You've, As I mentioned earlier,you've been Vice President and President of ASC.You've written several very influential books,including-- we didn't have a chance to talk about it,but I wanted to just ask real quickly--the theoretical integration book, how did that come about?It's been a very influential publication--
PROFESSOR STEVE MESSNER: Yeah.That came out of a conference at Albany.Al Liska, Marv Krohn, and I organized the conference.We were quite pleased with the peoplewho agreed to come and present at the conference.And then that became the edited book.
PROFESSOR STEVE MESSNER [continued]: And Al, Marv, and I wrote the introduction to it.And it's also one piece, where I like that introduction.
INTERVIEWER: Yes, it's very--
PROFESSOR STEVE MESSNER: It's framing of the rest,but that's where that came from.
INTERVIEWER: So you've done all these things.What's next?What do you see on the horizon that's--
PROFESSOR STEVE MESSNER: My major projects noware pursuing this how theory can be advancedby doing comparative research.I've got one project going right now, where we're considering
PROFESSOR STEVE MESSNER [continued]: how self-control theory might haveto be modified and rethought, because notions of the selfdiffer in different cultures.I've gotten very interested in researching cultural psychologyabout the way the self is construed,
PROFESSOR STEVE MESSNER [continued]: and whether it's construed independentlyor interdependently.And so, we've got a project going now, wherewe've proposed some measures.And we're going to try it in Korea,and then maybe do a multi-nation, systematiccomparison about ways in which different aspects
PROFESSOR STEVE MESSNER [continued]: of self-control might vary in Korea, US,and then we think we'll bring China in, too, as well.And then also doing another comparative studywhere we're interested in migration, immigration,and crime.
PROFESSOR STEVE MESSNER [continued]: Going to look again, we hope-- if itpans out-- Turks in Germany, the floating population--rural migrants in China-- they're not immigrants,but they're migrants facing many of the same problems-- and thena US.So that's the thing that I'm really interested in right now.
PROFESSOR STEVE MESSNER [continued]: It fits in with my overarching concern about the influenceof social institutional context, and it also gives meopportunities to travel.
INTERVIEWER: Travel, yeah.
PROFESSOR STEVE MESSNER: Rack up those frequent flyer miles.
INTERVIEWER: What about your thoughtson criminology in the field?How would you characterize the state of the field, right now?And let's talk a little bit also about whatdo you think we need to move?Where do you see it going?Both good and bad.
PROFESSOR STEVE MESSNER: Well, whereit's going-- I'll start with the second,then come to the first-- is I think there reallyneeds to be more of this cross-cultural, internationalwork.I mean, you hear that all of the time.It's kind of like being in favor of motherhood and apple pie.But really, there's no excuse, now with the transportation
PROFESSOR STEVE MESSNER [continued]: opportunities that we have, the electronic communication,and so much just comes out of the fertilizationof these kinds of collaborations.So that's something that I think should be encouraged,and I think it will happen.
PROFESSOR STEVE MESSNER [continued]: Overall, problems in the field, some go beyond criminology.One thing I'm concerned about, and itties in with my theoretical interest,just the commercialization of universitiesand the pressures on universities
PROFESSOR STEVE MESSNER [continued]: to accommodate needs of the local economy and so on.And I worry about the impact thatmight have on scholarship-- pursuing topics,keeping departments that don't measure up very well.
PROFESSOR STEVE MESSNER [continued]: I mean, we hear all the time-- entrepreneurship, you know,so on and so forth.That could be a real serious challenge for higher education.
INTERVIEWER: Do you think that's a threatto sort of a path to think freely and do your work?
PROFESSOR STEVE MESSNER: Yeah.You know, external funding-- that's wonderful.I mean, I've been able to get some.But does that mean somebody who doesqualitative historical research is notvalued when you get into discretionary raises,and things like that.
PROFESSOR STEVE MESSNER [continued]: I mean, the pressures of recruitment--you know, when the Dean gives us a line to recruit in sociology,she reminds us how one thing we should be consideringis what's the potential of the candidate
PROFESSOR STEVE MESSNER [continued]: to bring in external funding.And you know, I appreciate the value of thatand you know, indirect cost helps support a lot of things,and so on.But you worry if it's pushed too far, topicsthat are theoretically important for the disciplineas a science get shunted to the side.
PROFESSOR STEVE MESSNER [continued]: So that's a concern more generally, I have.I feel kind of sorry for our graduate students nowand assistant professors in termsof the pressures for publishing.And I'm not the first person to mention this,but It makes it very difficult to tackle
PROFESSOR STEVE MESSNER [continued]: bigger kinds of projects.When I think of applying to Columbia,you know there's no way they would even lookat my application right now.I think I had one publication in a lesser journal.
PROFESSOR STEVE MESSNER [continued]: So you know, it's a difficult balancing act for the youngergeneration looking for positions,tenure, not to be pushed into-- I need another article, it'sgot to come out fast, yeah, it could be better, significantlybetter, if I put the time into it.But having said that, you know, I'm an optimist.
PROFESSOR STEVE MESSNER [continued]: My presidential address-- you know,I think we're basically in good shape becauseof the community of scholars.And that seems to be vibrant, vital,and so the best days are ahead.
INTERVIEWER: Yeah, sure.
PROFESSOR STEVE MESSNER: How many cliches have I worked in?
INTERVIEWER: I don't know.We might be able to come up with a few.Are there any other thoughts you hadwhile you're kind of reflecting on your career,or anything else that you would want to say?
PROFESSOR STEVE MESSNER: No, not really,other than Rick and I had that chapter in something,where we ended with-- this has been a labor of love.You know, and I think that kind of sums it up.
An Interview with Steven F. Messner
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Professor Steven Messner describes his career in criminology and the work that he has done. Messner has written many influential books on social structure and anomie. He discusses his career path, books that he has written, and people who have influenced him.
Professor Steven Messner describes his career in criminology and the work that he has done. Messner has written many influential books on social structure and anomie. He discusses his career path, books that he has written, and people who have influenced him.