invisible men

Pettit Over the years I’ve written about ongoing scholarship about the phenomenon of mass incarceration in the United States. By now, the basic outlines of the phenomenon are pretty well established and, I hope, widely known. Two features stand out: its sheer scale, and its disproportionate concentration amongst young, unskilled black men. It should be astonishing to say that more than one percent of all American adults are incarcerated, and that this rate is without equal in the country’s history and without peer internationally, or that “five percent of white men and 28 percent of black men born between 1975 and 1979 spent at least a year in prison before reaching age thirty five”, or that “28 percent of white and 68 percent of black high-school dropouts had spent at least a year in prison by 2009”.

Those numbers come from the first chapter of Becky Pettit’s new book, Invisible Men: Mass Incarceration and the Myth of Black Progress. You can read the first chapter for free, but I recommend you buy the book. Pettit’s argument is that mass incarceration is such a large and intensive phenomenon that it distorts our understanding of many other social processes. It extends work she’s done over the years with Bruce Western into some new and important areas.

Pettit and others have been arguing for a long time that incarceration is by now a modal event in the life-course for young black men. Black men are more likely to go prison than complete college or serve in the military, and black, male, high-school dropouts are more likely to spend a year in prison than to get married. These social-structural changes have consequences for measuring and counting those involved. The incarcerated population is hard to count properly, and in many commonly-used data sources, like the Current Population Survey, its size and composition is poorly estimated or simply excluded. This has knock-on effects for our understanding of trends in what we might naively think of as ordinary life away from the carceral system. It especially effects our ability to track changes in racial gaps—in things like rates of educational attainment, the employment-to-population ratio, group differences in average earnings, and voter turnout. In many of these cases, Pettit shows, what look like improvements over time are partly or mostly explained by miscounting due to the sheer size of the incarcerated population. This invisibility can happen both while people are in prison (as many surveys don’t adequately count the prison population) but also on release, where the marginal status of many ex-convicts makes them hard to reach in surveys built around sampling individuals stably attached to single households.

So, for example, Pettit shows that

Reliance on data from the Current Population Survey might lead one to believe that the high school dropout rate has fallen precipitously and that racial inequality has narrowed during the period of penal expansion … [CPS data] imply that the black-white gap in high-school completion, through either formal schooling or a GED, narrowed from 13.6 to 6.3 percentage poitns between 1980 amd 2008. Including inmates, we find little improvement in the black-white gap in high school for the last twenty years … including inmates suggests that the racial gap in high school completion among men has hovered close to its current level of 11 percentage points for most of the past twenty years” (55, 60).

Much the same seems to be true of group-level estimates of employment rates, wages, and voter turnout. Pettit argues in passing that the strong turn in the social science literature towards estimating causal effects (between education and wages, say) has led to a lack of attention to the quality of the purely descriptive numbers, and to a tendency to ignore the “acute sample bias associated with the exclusion of socially marginal groups from sample surveys” (107). This neglect feeds forward into that research, however, even if the research is not about inmates or criminal records at all, as it tends to bias estimates of the effects of, say, education on earnings. Moreover, Pettit argues,

… incarceration is so common in some sociodemographic groups that there are few comparable individuals in the population who have not experienced incarceration. The ubiquity of incarceration among low-skill black men undercuts research designs that require comparison groups to isolate the effects of incarceration from other factors like race, low education, or living in disadvantaged neighborhoods. A significant body of causally oriented research uses quasi-experimental designs … that compare the outomes of inmates or former inmates with similarly-situated indviduals who have not been to prison or jail. There is no valid comparison group for many of America’s inmates exactly because incarceration now inheres in whole sociodemographic groups ..

A broader theme of the book is that inmates and ex-inmates are at once constantly under surveillance and effectively unseen. Crime coverage is ubiquitous even as crime rates have been falling for years. The incarcerated and formerly-incarcerated population is enormous, but its real presence is invisible in many standard sources of data about the American population. The downstream consequences for our basic picture of what America is like and how it has been changing are underappreciated. In an era where “Big Data” is already an overused buzzword, Pettit’s book is a sobering reminder of the consequences of having a numerically large, socially consequential, but often statistically invisible population.


Written by Kieran

February 21, 2013 at 3:16 pm

Posted in sociology

17 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. Legalize drugs, all drugs, and all of this changes.


    Graham Peterson

    February 21, 2013 at 4:02 pm

  2. I have been a lurker on this list for quite a while, greatly enjoying that status and the intellectual stimulation the list provides, But this post struck a chord that resonates loudly enough to jog me out of my radio-silence. The rates of incarceration in this country — especially for black men and to a lesser extent poor white men — are simply mind-boggling. But even more mind-boggling is that the “rest of us” drift through life oblivious to the destruction being wrought in our names and with our tax dollars on the lives of so many. It’s hard to see any other explanation for this blindness than racism and the segregation of black and poor communities (where this issue is a burning one) from white and rich ones. People will look back on this period a few decades from now and wonder why there was so little outrage, so little push-back — why people like us were silent (or at least I hope they do!).
    To Graham’s point: yes, that’s my understanding too: the “war on drugs” is the key driver here. Racism and class arrogance are the permissive conditions. What an astonishing situation: there is no serious debate (that I’m aware of) over the contention that the war on drugs has been an abject failure in terms of its own objective. The massive build-up of the prison-industrial complex is crippling state budgets. All the criminology research shows that this is hugley counterproductive. But year after year the war goes on. Amazing. Tragic, Obscene.


    Paul Adler

    February 21, 2013 at 4:31 pm

  3. Paul: Here is a political action group with the potential to actually achieve a critical mass of opinion on drug legalization.

    And it’s absolutely mind blowing to me that sociologists, with all of the social advocacy they do, have not invested more energy into publishing research on the war on drugs. Economists nearly unanimously agree that it is an awful policy.

    The issue is not complicated. If you take people’s property rights away — they will secure them themselves — with guns. Violence raises costs of doing business in the rest of the neighborhood, and economic development slows. Drug gangs also siphon off would-be legitimate entrepreneurs, by tempting the smartest and most socially agile young men in the community into leadership roles. A quasi-militaristic business emerges promoting a culture of rank, violence, and honor — which looks a lot like pre-industrial aristocratic econo-militarism. And you get the same stunted social and economic development from that situation in the modern American ghetto as you did in the pre-industrial world — nearly none.

    The way that drug gangs erode community trust and in turn erode economic development is a forceful demonstration that markets are socially embedded — and so too that asinine policies will usually degrade social and economic fabric concomitantly. It is completely beyond me why there is not a unified front on this policy issue among social scientists. It’s low hanging fruit for world savers.


    Graham Peterson

    February 21, 2013 at 4:49 pm

  4. Like Graham, I’m also puzzled (actually, it be more precise to say disappointed because I think I understand the reasons) by how sociologists approach the war on drugs. It’s clearly the “cause” of many of the social problems that sociologists study (with the ultimate justification that they will discover solutions to them) but they never reach the obvious conclusion.

    The clearest example of this is the way sociologists love, say, the Wire because it tells us how gangs and police organizations “work”. (I loved the Wire too. Because it was really fucking entertaining.) Or the way Sudhir Venkatesh became star by studying the culture of a gang. “How interesting,” they seem to say, “the way it works!”

    But the original source of interest (or, let us say, the social justification for spending public funds studying social organizations), the human suffering, and the easily discoverable cause of it, the prohibition of drugs, is not in focus. I suspect that’s because the conversation would then immediately terminate in a very rational and immediately implementable policy proposal, drug legalization, which, unfortunately, would then immediately be rejected by the political establishment, beholden to the prison-industrial complex (and whatever other special interest you want, the alcohol lobby, big pharma, etc.).

    Sociologist like to describe complex phenomena, and in this case at least, I believe this quest for more “interesting” descriptive work has made them the drop the ball. Pretty much the whole urban poverty problematic is today explicable in terms of the drug war (the opportunities it creates for organized crime and the power it gives to police to ruin people’s lives). The fact that we think there are “other issues” is an effect of the distribution of interest and resources in the sociological establishment.

    My impression of sociology is that it really does find Venkatesh’s work more interesting than an analysis that “reduces” the problem to the prohibition of drugs. Sociology still favors interpreting the world (however awful it is) over changing it.



    February 21, 2013 at 6:44 pm

  5. I happen to have been discussing drug decriminalization in my class last night. While most of my students are willing to go along with an analysis that suggests decriminalization of marijuana, that is as far as they will go. Even after examining data about how decriminalization in Portugal reduced crime and health problems without increasing drug use, students resist. They are convinced that decriminalizing drugs is “giving in to the criminals” and will lead to some kind of increase in some kind of crime, and they believe this despite the fact that almost all of them know that the war on drugs is a failure. I suspect that many empirical sociologists fall into the same trap of refusing to truly confront the myths that surround drug use, especially those unfamiliar with the historical trajectories of criminalization.



    February 21, 2013 at 8:07 pm

  6. I don’t think it’s a problem with descriptive science. I think it’s a general unwillingness among sociologists to consider that a lack of policy is sometimes (often times?) the best policy.

    Re: what Mikaila said, the trouble also lies in sociologists’, anthropologists’, and political scientists’ willingness to believe that social mores and ethics descend from the top of hierarchies, an in large part from the state — rather than these being anarchic, emergent phenomena. This is as common an intuition in the Street (though I think incorrect), and is why people cling desperately to the idea that if we legalize drugs, all of the sudden it will no longer be seen as morally impure to use drugs and society will fall apart.


    Graham Peterson

    February 21, 2013 at 8:20 pm

  7. I should mention for those interested in activist policy, that were the State to bulldoze the 80 billion dollars a year we spend on raiding homes with children in them and locking up teenagers for getting high, into drug treatment programs, we wouldn’t suffer the impending ethical bane everyone seems so afraid of. The drug problem, to the degree it even is a problem, is a health problem, not a criminal problem.


    Graham Peterson

    February 21, 2013 at 8:25 pm

  8. @Graham: The problem with that analysis is that it implies that sociologists are in favor of drug prohibition. I don’t think that’s true. I think if you scratch them you’ll find that they are against the policy. They may, for example, say it is a failure and the drug war is a waste of resources. But they’ll stop short of saying that the policy *causes* the social problems they study. They just don’t think it’s their job to analyze, say, urban poverty in a way that implicates prohibition as for all intents and purposes *the* cause of the relevant problems. The illegality of drugs is mentioned either in the description of the effects of poverty (e.g., drug abuse and criminality) or as a background condition of a social milieu (as in Venkatesh’s work). Either way, the drug policy’s causal (explanatory) power is passed over in silence.

    A more general observation: Everyone knows that rich drug users get off much easier than poor ones. (Sentences for cheap crack cocaine are much tougher than sentences for expensive powder cocaine.) Nonetheless the conventional wisdom is that drugs ruin people’s lives. Of course, drug *abuse* does ruin people’s lives, but the way middle class white kids are affected by marijuana is very different from the way inner city black kids are. And that difference can be traced to the policy and its enforcement, not the drug. It’s the arrest and incarceration of drug users that causes ruins lives, not the smoking of marijuana itself (except, of course, as in the case of alcohol, in cases of excessive use.)

    One last clarifying thing: I think most sociologists understand the problems associated with drug prohibition (which is why I imagine many of them are against it). But as Kieran emphasizes, “mass incarceration is such a large and intensive phenomenon that it distorts our understanding of many other social processes.” The problem here is not that they don’t understand the sociology of drug prohibition or mass incarceration. It’s that they don’t let this understanding shed light on other problems, which drug legalization would then be seen to solve.



    February 21, 2013 at 8:55 pm

  9. “I think if you scratch them you’ll find that they are against the policy. They may, for example, say it is a failure and the drug war is a waste of resources. But they’ll stop short of saying that the policy *causes* the social problems they study.”

    And I think this is because there is very little sociological precedent for observing the social problems that otherwise well-intentioned government policy often causes, nor especially is there a precedent of consideration of the effects of property rights litigation on social problems (these are supposed to be the province of law and economics). Yet, as you point out, no variable concerning urban degradation (the province of sociology) would seem to carry a larger and more ignored coefficient.

    It’s not just that the war on drugs hasn’t reduced drug use, drug dealing, or raised the price of drugs in real terms. It’s that just about every warrant in support of drug use and manufacture as a social contagion, and a psychologically damaging one at that, is manifestly incorrect. The increase of interdiction efforts, on the other hand, can be shown to correlate directly to every social problem associate with drug use and sale, from the violence, to the degradation of ethics, to the public health consequences, to the breakup of family, and so on.

    The fact that sociologists have systematically understudied a variable in social problems with such a blindingly large magnitude, would suggest that there is an equally large disciplinary predilection to explain why it’s been missed.


    Graham Peterson

    February 21, 2013 at 9:43 pm

  10. Graham said:

    “Re: what Mikaila said, the trouble also lies in sociologists’, anthropologists’, and political scientists’ willingness to believe that social mores and ethics descend from the top of hierarchies, an in large part from the state — rather than these being anarchic, emergent phenomena”

    I’m not so sure about that. I’m not an expert on the sociology of morality, but Durkheim, one of the founders of the discipline, argues the exact opposite of that.

    Graham also says:

    “And I think this is because there is very little sociological precedent for observing the social problems that otherwise well-intentioned government policy often causes”

    I’m not sure sociological research is quite as blindly pro-government-policy-any-policy as you seem to want to imagine it is.



    February 22, 2013 at 12:04 am

  11. “I’m not sure sociological research is quite as blindly pro-government-policy-any-policy as you seem to want to imagine it is.”

    Thank you, at least, for quoting me before you misrepresented my observation. Let’s go one for one with the polarizing straw men: “oh I’m sorry; I didn’t know sociology was commonly laissez faire in its policy conclusions.” We can go on like this all day, but nothing you said adds anything to understanding why sociologists are out to lunch on the war on drugs.


    Graham Peterson

    February 22, 2013 at 12:10 am

  12. I’m not sure how what I said constituted a straw man; I’m just saying I don’t think sociologists are quite as instinctively enamored with government policy and top down processes as you are implying – and yes there is literature in sociology that discusses unintended consequences of well meaning polices.

    Further, I’m generally not convinced that sociologists are out to lunch on mass incarceration. I think it is true that there is not nearly enough activism and public outcry from Sociologists on this issue, but in my experience most sociologists agree that it is a disastrous policy. Most people I know who have taught intro to soc classes (including myself) teach about the problems with mass incarceration to their undergrads.



    February 22, 2013 at 12:21 am

  13. Ok, great. I’ll keep an eye out for unintended consequences in policy lit. I don’t agree that sociologists, or any social scientist, should be engaged in heavy activism. I was arguing for more work establishing the link between drug prohibition and economic and social distress. The link between drug laws and mass incarceration are straightforward and well studied. Somewhere in this literature the root (drug laws) of that incarceration and its knock-on effects gets lost. One sees this in the current debate about gun violence in the U.S. I have not seen any sociologists point out that our draconian drug laws cause our disproportionate violent crime rates — not our gun laws. I have seen at least one economist make that point publicly.

    I apologize for playing into classic pigeon-holing of sociologists as a bunch of Statist social engineers, but I was trying to investigate with some subtlety the theoretical and methodological roots of the lack of scholarship on drug prohibition specifically. So far the main people engaged in this work, as far as I know (which could be not very far), are either journalists, stoned activists, or people who use supply and demand graphs. I think sociologists can add a great deal of moral weight to the debate by demonstrating direct links between legal code and social effects. The issue is much bigger than mass incarceration. Much.


    Graham Peterson

    February 22, 2013 at 12:30 am

  14. Hmmm…let’s focus, for a moment, on criminologists in particular, as they are the ones most likely to do policy-relevant research in these areas. While I think many criminologists would agree that mass incarceration and the war on drugs have been failed policies, mainstream criminologists do tend to think of drug use as a form of deviance which must be responded to through either medicalization or criminalization. The way that deviance is used as a concept in mainstream criminology directly implies an elite-driven set of mainstream standards from which the deviant deviates in a way that is harmful to society. This is certainly not the way all or even most social scientists think, but this way of thinking retains considerable power in those areas of research relating to criminal justice policy.



    February 22, 2013 at 12:36 am

  15. I agree that sociologists shouldn’t, professionally, see themselves as activists, but I mean activism in the sense that climate scientists are activists about global warming. When you have an extremely important, policy relevant and unambiguous research finding you should do what you can to make sure people know about it.

    That being said, one reason why the sociology research on this may seem underdeveloped is that I imagine a lot of it goes on in criminology departments which are, to my understanding, becoming increasingly separated from sociology departments. Again, though, not really my area.



    February 22, 2013 at 12:48 am

  16. Completely agreed — social science that isn’t ethically relevant isn’t science. Logical positivism is a tool *in* a research program — not the program itself. It’s a strange world to work in where the less meaningful a scientific statement seems meant to be, the more meaning it is supposed to convey.

    My beef is probably more with economists here than sociologists, for ignoring the cultural effects of the economic circumstances I pointed out in my OP. Gangs are a cultural response to material circumstances, which are created by drug laws. It’s that simple. That’s the link that people, maddeningly, seem to be missing (though I haven’t read a page of criminology in my life).


    Graham Peterson

    February 22, 2013 at 12:53 am

  17. Thanks, Kieran. My methods class is reading Becky’s book this week as part of a discussion of the value of “descriptive” work and following weeks on strong causal claims. I’m looking forward to the discussion.


    Erin Kelly

    February 24, 2013 at 2:22 pm

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: