July/August 2012 Issue • Volume 40 • Issue 6

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Public Sociology

Finding the Right Fit Outside of Academia

By Henry H. Brownstein

I was introduced to sociology in 1964 as a freshman at Brooklyn College. Against the backdrop of the War in Vietnam, widespread social and cultural upheaval, the looming threat of the draft, drugs, violence, music, idealism, and a great deal of enthusiasm and optimism about the future, sociology was the only relevant major. I learned from professors like Al Lee that sociology is “for people.” So when I graduated in 1968 I set out to save the world. While working on my MA at Brooklyn I was a fourth grade teacher in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn, where I learned a lot about people who lived in a world of scarcity, fear, and despair. By the time I started a PhD program at Temple University in North Philadelphia in 1972 my plan was to become a professor at a small urban college where I could teach and work with lower and working class kids to help them to try to make more of their lives.

At Temple University a fellow graduate student told me that what I had learned at Brooklyn College was not sociology. My five years in Philadelphia did not change my view of what sociology could or should be, but one new thing I did learn was that as a sociologist it was research rather than teaching through which I could have the greater impact. Nonetheless, in 1977 I was offered and accepted a teaching job at a small college in upstate New York.

Teaching sociology at a small college to students more interested in their degree than their education and having little opportunity to do research did not enable me to have the impact I was hoping to have. So less than five years after arriving I took leave from my teaching job.  Despite being awarded tenure during my leave, I resigned. I was offered and accepted a job working for the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services.

At first I led teams doing evaluations of alternative-to-incarceration programs. A decade later I was Chief of the agency’s Bureau of Statistical Services. Our office had three bureaus: statistics, research, and policy. Ideally, we used the statistics from the administrative data our agency collected and maintained to support and conduct research and policy analyses that to information and evidence to help the Governor to make the best crime and justice policy decisions. There I learned how research could and could not contribute to policy.

During the time I worked for the state a drug crisis arose. In the middle of the 1980s crack cocaine arrived in New York City. In 1989 in his message to the state legislature, the Governor declared that the state had three problems, “drugs, drugs, and drugs.” Around that time I formed a partnership with a researcher at an organization in the city called Narcotic and Drug Research, Inc. With funding from first the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) and then the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), I spent the next 15 years conducting studies of the relationship between drugs and violence. We learned, reported and published lots of interesting findings, and my state agency was happy to have someone working for them who could share those findings with them. So as a state employee I did research with various colleagues at NDRI and served as a source of information on drugs and crime for state government policymakers.

Then in 1995 I thought I would try teaching again; a part of me still wanted to be a professor. I was offered a position at the University of Baltimore, and it seemed like a good fit. The university was in the middle of the city serving mostly first generation college students and advancing the slogan “practical applications of the liberal arts.” So I resigned from my state government job and moved with my family to Maryland, though I maintained my working relationship with NDRI. I only stayed at UB for five years, during which time I was awarded tenure and promoted to Full Professor. Even with its policy orientation and connections to state agencies, UB was not the right environment for me to have an impact through policy research.

NIJ, the research arm of the US Department of Justice, was looking for a Director of its Drugs and Crime Research Division, in part to establish a national drugs and crime research agenda. The lure of being part of a national research program specifically designed to inform policy and practice was so great, I left UB and went to NIJ. Over my four years at the agency I got to direct a national program to study the drug involvement of people arrested and booked in local jails. And I get to bring together researchers and government policymakers to develop a plan for policy-relevant drugs and crime research. But nationwide crime rates started to decline and interest in drugs as a problem waned, so funding for the agency was cut. I continued doing research and writing reports, but the resources and support we needed to do the work were diminished. It was time to move on.

Opportunities came along to work at private organizations that do policy-relevant research for government agencies. In 2005 I took a position as a Senior Vice President at NORC at the University of Chicago. But while NORC is a policy research organization, my job was management. About a year ago I noticed that I was rarely doing research but rather spending most of my time doing the business of research. So while I am still at NORC, I am now a Senior Fellow with reduced management responsibility and the opportunity and responsibility to devote myself to doing research. My job is to work with other people to prepare and submit proposals, do research, report what I learn, and be active in my field in ways that allow me to contribute knowledge and information to people who are responsible for social policy and practice. Arguably that is what I set out to do when I left my first college teaching job.

Over the years I have had the opportunity to work directly and indirectly with policymakers and practitioners from both inside and outside of government, changing settings as opportunities arose. Overall, what I learned is that as a sociologist one way to contribute to the social good is through research that produces information and evidence that can serve as a foundation for reasonable, principled, and constructive social policy and practice, and that there are many ways and places to do that.

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