My research is centrally concerned with processes of legal and social classification and their relationship to social inequalities and social change. I have been particularly interested in how practices of measurement and categorization vary across institutional settings and overlap and interlock with gender, sexuality, race, and nationality. How do we determine which migrants are “deserving?” How do we assess the risk someone poses or faces? Who is an expert? What counts as transgender, and how does that calculus vary across legal and social contexts? These questions have not only been at the forefront of our political moment; they are some of the fundamental sociological questions that have driven my research agenda. Please visit my Publications page for links to my work.
My book, Sorting Sexualities: Expertise and the Politics of Legal Classification (under contract University of Chicago Press), analyzes how legal and scientific institutions work together to reify and regulate racialized sexual subjects. I draw on over 400 legal decisions, 41 interviews with legal and scientific actors, and hundreds of hours of multi-sited ethnographic observations to argue that attempts to measure and classify sexual “others” naturalizes social differences along the lines of sexuality while simultaneously legitimating differential forms of social control and legal regulation. Through a comparative analysis of sexual orientation-based asylum claims and risk evaluations of sex offenders—two legal arenas where adjudicators must determine subjects’ sexualities—I show how the state enrolls non-state expert actors to help craft classificatory schemas that render sexual “others” legible to the state. Drawing on different types of social science expertise results in dramatically different measurement practices and, in turn, drastically disparate definitions of the sexual subjects under scrutiny. I thus highlight how cultural frames, political constraints, and institutional goals shape legal and scientific practice and demonstrate the complex interplay of science and law in co-constituting sexuality as a regulatory category that is inextricably intertwined with race, gender, and nationality. These classification processes, in turn, serve as the basis for adjudicating who deserves citizenship.
Beyond my book, I have two developing lines of research. One is an exploration of LGBTQ encounters with and attitudes toward law enforcement. LGBTQ people have a contentious history with the police, exemplified in one instance by the Stonewall Riots that marked the symbolic beginning of the modern gay movement. Today the gay movement has created alliances with law enforcement, and police often even march in Pride parades—something that has caused considerable consternation among some segments of the LGBTQ community recently. Yet LGBTQ people continue to face harassment and abuse by police and are incarcerated at three times the rate of the general population. These disparities are compounded by race, class, and gender presentation. Sociologists have shown that “legal cynicism” characterizes groups that have had negative relations with law enforcement, such as Black and immigrant communities. These negative experiences lead many to avoid reporting crimes, seeking help from the police, or otherwise interacting with formal state institutions. These same forces are likely at work in at least certain segments of the LGBTQ community. Yet we know very little about any of these issues in relation to LGBTQ people.
My second line of research examines the role of technology in immigration enforcement and detention. Research suggests that several factors have conspired to increase rates of deportation and detention in recent years, including legislative developments, judicial rulings, and administrative policy changes. But at the same time that these developments were occurring, immigration authorities also began using new technologies--such as "invisible" fences, actuarial risk assessments, and newly-developed gang databases--to aid in locating, detaining, and deporting migrants. Yet we know very little about how these technologies may also be contributing to the dramatic increase in deportation and detention rates. Moreover, like all technologies, particular assumptions are often built in, consciously or not, that can disproportionately affect certain racial, gender, and national groups. Gang databases, for instance, are more likely to flag Black and Latino men for removal, often erroneously, as other research has begun to show. With immigration authorities now beginning to experiment with things like facial recognition at ports of entry, the potential for bias and abuse is only increasing, particularly when we consider how such technologies could be deployed alongside the use of policies like expedited removal, with very little oversight or recourse for those who feel such decisions are incorrect. My research will work through these issues to uncover the extent to which new technologies and policies are mutually constituting, as well as how technologies may shape the phenomena they are designed merely to regulate.