Department of Sociology
University of Tennessee
I was born and raised in New York City, first Brooklyn and then Queens. The desire to leave New York and the desire to return to New York are key themes in my life story. Other themes include driving, culture, community, and gender. I now mostly-joyfully reside in a colorful bungalow in Knoxville, TN, with my children Ansel and Halen.
After receiving my Bachelor’s degree from Cornell University in 1987, I worked for four years as an advocate for elderly crime victims in Manhattan. That experience nurtured an enduring interest in crime, justice, and talk about crime and justice. My studies at Yale in program planning and evaluation, alongside courses that posed critical questions about social institutions and power, led me to research positions at New York City’s Department of Correction and Department of Probation. While working at these agencies, I met academic researchers who introduced me to the world of theoretical criminology. I decided to pursue graduate work in Criminal Justice/Criminology at the University of Cincinnati, and after earning my Ph.D. in 2002, I joined the wonderful Department of Sociology at the University of Tennessee.
I study the role of language and discursive forms in social arrangements and action, including criminal action, and the promises and problems of restorative justice approaches to crime and other conflict. I approach my research from the perspectives of cultural sociology, critical criminology, and discourse analysis.
My first program of research concerns the social construction of life stories and identities. I am fascinated by the ways in which we use stories to construct our identities and the ways that those stories change with time and social setting. My research in this area began with my dissertation, for which I interviewed men who perpetrated serious violent crimes. This work inspired my book, Been a Heavy Life: Stories of Violent Men (2008, University of Illinois Press), which explores how violent men construct themselves as decent, heroic, and masculine in the face of stigma and under circumstances of captivity. I discovered that the interview and interviewer were enlisted in the production of the men’s life stories; I published my findings in an article for Social Problems (Presser 2004). Those findings also led me to reevaluate the possibilities of managing the researcher’s influence on research subjects, as suggested by both traditional standards of social science and feminist research ethics, in an article for Signs (Presser 2005). Related publications focus on the accomplishment of and resistance to conventional gender positions in research interviews and the crafting of identities from situationally available discourses.
My second program of research is the framework known as narrative criminology, which I first elaborated in a 2009 article for Theoretical Criminology. The article has been cited numerous times and the framework has received international attention. It was the focal point of the First International Symposium on Narrative Criminology held in Oslo, Norway May 2014; it is central to the Nordic Research Network, and it is the topic of Narrative Criminology (2015, NYU Press), which I co-edited with Sveinung Sandberg.
My third program of research is the elaboration of a general theory of harmful action based on narratives, presented in my book Why We Harm (2013, Rutgers University Press). There, close-grained study of intimate partner violence, genocide, penal harm, and killing of nonhuman animals for meat allows me to demonstrate that claims of being both licensed to harm and powerless to avoid harming promotes victimization of discursively ‘reduced’ targets. The theory has implications for the foundations of criminology in its primary emphasis on language, its redefinition of crime as harmful action, its radical reflexivity, and its proposition that indifference is consequential to action. In future I will develop the theory as it pertains specifically to mass harms, with their special problems of mobilization and organization.
My fourth and oldest program of research concerns restorative
justice practices, which seek to repair harm and transform
relationships between victims, offenders, and communities.
A recent article in this line of research, based on in-depth
study of a victim-offender mediation program for juvenile
offenders, responds to critics who charge restorative justice
with reproducing structural inequalities (Presser & Hamilton
2006). In studying how restorative justice practices actually
work ‘on the ground’, I follow a time-honored
tradition in critical legal studies of assessing the gap between
the law as written and the law in action. Given my view of
talk and identities as collaboratively constructed, I see
hope, as well as hazards, for social justice in restorative
justice dialogue and other democratic processes. Emily Gaarder,
Denise Hesselton and I critically evaluated the institutional
relationship between restorative justice and correctional
treatment in an article for the Journal of Offender Rehabilitation
(Presser, Gaarder & Hesselton 2007). A current research
project, with Kyle Letteney, on youth courts in Tennessee
inquires into the fusion of restorative justice and procedural
justice, and explores what ‘community’ means to
young people. In addition to my own research, I help build
the knowledge base on restorative justice as an Associate
Editor of the journal Contemporary Justice Review.