an invitation to abolition for the curious sociologist

gabe-pierce-SgXWBOLUNAk-unsplashThe following is a guest post by Mo Torres. 

Abolition is in the public eye like never before. In five years, we’ve gone from “require body cameras and implicit bias training” to “defund the police.” Longtime abolitionist Mariame Kaba is in the New York Times: “Yes, we mean literally abolish the police.”

As a discipline that has had much to say about racism, policing, and incarceration, where do sociologists fit into this new picture, where abolition is not simply a fringe position, but one front-and-center in current debates?

Some sociologists, like Alex Vitale, have already taken to the national stage to support defunding the police. Building on the work of Monica Bell and many others, Vitale’s The End of Policing (2017) argues against a reformist agenda, writing that reforms “fail to directly address how the very nature of policing… [has] served to maintain and exacerbate racial inequality” (p. 14, emphasis mine).

Others remain skeptical. Writing in the Washington Post, Patrick Sharkey warned that movements to defund the police “are likely to have unanticipated consequences and to destabilize communities.”

Of course sociologists would be divided on the question of abolition. For most of us, we’ve simply never had to engage abolitionist theory at all, and certainly not in our graduate coursework in sociology. Philosopher Angela Davis’s (2003) Are Prisons Obsolete? and anthropologist Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s Golden Gulag (2007) are now classic abolitionist texts. How many courses on the sociology of crime engage the work of Davis or Gilmore, to say nothing of the work of Kaba, Joy James, Andrea Ritchie, or the many dozens of abolitionist thinkers who have written on police and prison abolition in recent decades?

As we observe in horror the seemingly endless cycle of police violence against Black communities and other oppressed peoples in the U.S. and globally, many of us are beginning to engage the abolitionist project for the first time. While some may eschew abolitionist theorizing outright, I hope there are many more sociologists who will approach the literature with curiosity. Below, I offer three suggestions to get started.

  1. Start from the position that a better world is possible.

U.S. sociology tends toward the pessimistic. A discipline broadly concerned with social problems and inequality, and one that often treats Black communities as flatly “bounded, plagued by violence” without attending to the more complex realities of human life (Hunter et al. 2016, p. 31), it’s no wonder that sociologists are more often “depressing,” to invoke Mary Pattillo (see Nopper and Pattillo 2020), than hopeful. There is so much so deeply wrong with society. What could we possibly do about it?

Abolitionists understand the stakes of injustice and inequality better than anyone. But rather than surrender themselves to despair, abolitionists maintain a profound commitment to radical change. As Kaba teaches us: “hope is a discipline.” At the center of abolitionist thinking is the belief that the future of the world is never limited to the present.

Of course, radical hope requires breaking with the liberal notion that what is possible is necessarily “close to what exists” (Unger 2005, p. xx). Abolitionist imagination requires first envisioning the world that should exist, and developing a concrete plan (such as defunding the police) to work towards that future. By limiting ourselves to imagining the world only in proximity to what exists today, we’ve already foreclosed our own ability to comprehend, much less support, the abolitionist project.

  1. Read abolitionist thinkers. And read from the assumption that they are right.

Abolitionist thinkers have been writing for decades. Let us read them not as we read for a graduate seminar – with the goal of poking holes and tearing apart – but on their own terms, from the perspective that our understanding of the world will be richer if we believe them.

Critical reading does not mean reading to tear apart. Rather, let us understand critical reading as reading with an eye towards relations of power. If something is written by or approved by the powerful – say, police unions or billionaire philanthropists – reading critically means reading under the assumption that they are likely wrong. If something is written by activists struggling to make society more just or more equal, reading critically means reading under the assumption that they are likely right. 

If the abolitionist view of the world is correct, how would our sociological project necessarily be transformed? What questions could we ask, what methods would we use to answer them, and what might we learn about the world that our current discipline does not allow?

  1. Push beyond the RCT industrial complex.

While Random Controlled Trials (RCTs) and natural experiments remain the gold standard of empirical research in the social sciences, the abolitionist project is well beyond that which can be evaluated through these instruments. As Bruce Western recently tweeted, “Police research asks what happens to crime if we had more cops, and changed nothing else. Defunding is about changing everything else: A new reality where communities of color had public investment like affluent white communities.”

As sociologists, let us reject the notion that we should only advocate for that which can be measured through RCTs or related methods. Just as RCTs show that more policing may be associated with less crime in the current context, there is ample sociological evidence – from Bell, Western, Carla Shedd, Victor Rios, and countless others – that policing and prisons have deeply negative social consequences. As Nadirah Farah Foley reminds us, “there are things more important than determining and measuring causal impact. And we shouldn’t let a commitment to empiricism cloud our morality.”

Abolition is a moral and imaginative project. As sociologists, we have the opportunity to rise to the challenge abolitionists pose to our discipline: to what extent can we reshape our intellectual project to not only evaluate that which can be measured, but to work in service of that which can be imagined?

Mo Torres is a PhD candidate in sociology at Harvard, and a doctoral fellow in Inequality & Social Policy and at the Ash Center for Democratic Governance at the Harvard Kennedy School. His research uses historical and mixed methods to explore questions of race-class inequality in urban governance and the carceral state. His dissertation considers the effect of economic decline on democratic institutions in the U.S. Rust Belt, with a focus on “emergency financial management” in Detroit, Flint, and other Michigan cities.

Author: nbedera

Nicole Bedera is a graduate student at the University of Michigan. Follow her on Twitter @NBedera.

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