Four Questions for Matthew Clair

Manning Zhang (Brandeis University) interviews Matthew Clair (Stanford University) on not only his new prize-winning book Privilege and Punishment: How Race and Class Matter in Criminal Court, but also his opinions about cultural sociology. Beyond the classical four questions, Manning also added questions about Professor Clair’s academic path.

Manning Zhang: Could you tell us about your personal history? How did you become interested in sociology, especially cultural sociology?

Matthew Clair: As an undergraduate at Harvard, I was actually a government concentrator. And so, my first encounter with sociology was later in undergrad, maybe as a junior or senior, in Larry Bobo’s classes. Professor Bobo taught several classes in African and African American studies and sociology, and I just found them so fantastic and illuminating. Typically, they were seminars with small groups of people. We would read one book a week. The work we read—including Mary Pattillo’s and Karyn Lacy’s books—provided a sociological framework for understanding my life experiences as a black person in the United States. Growing up in the South, I had my own personal experiences with race and inequality. But being able to see experiences like mine systematically gathered and theorized was really powerful. Early on in undergrad, I read a lot of work by James Baldwin, who was a prolific writer and thinker. But sociology added empirical rigor to a lot of his insights. I began to fall in love with systematic investigation of social life through interviews and ethnographic observation. 

The other thing I’ll say is, after college when I was thinking about going to graduate school, I was working for an economist in New York, and—perhaps unintentionally—that experience made me even more intrigued by the sociological imagination, if you will.  That year, I encountered the work of Michèle Lamont. I read The Dignity of Working Men. Then I started to understand the importance of cultural sociology, how the drawing of moral boundaries between groups mattered and maintained the dignity of those within the boundary but reproduced racial inequality through exclusion of those outside the boundary. After reading Michèle’s work, I applied to sociology graduate programs. I matriculated at Harvard again, but as a sociology PhD student. As a graduate student, my committee included Larry and Michèle. But Michèle was actually my main mentor and the Co-Chair of my dissertation along with Devah Pager. Their work and thinking has had a profound influence on my own.

Manning Zhang: Could you elaborate a bit more on Professor Lamont’s influence on your work?

Matthew Clair: Yeah. She has been very influential. Not only with respect to my thinking and theoretical engagement with boundaries and cultural processes, but also with encouraging me to—whatever I’m studying—ask myself what my empirical findings are a case of and how they can broadly contribute to cultural sociology. She has expanded my ability to see how theoretical ideas can be generatively applied across subfields within sociology. So yeah, Michèle has been very influential as a wonderful mentor, advisor, and co-author.

Manning Zhang: Do you find the transition among different social science majors difficult for you? Like, from political science to economics and then to sociology.

Matthew Clair: I learned that different disciplines within the social sciences have very different presuppositions about how the world works, even when it comes to similar topics, such as racial inequality. They use different methodological approaches and also take for granted differences in how we might assume the average human behaves. I don’t think the transition was too difficult. I was quite open to learning as much as I could about these disciplines, and the economist I worked for—Peter Blair Henry—was such a generous mentor, even though he probably could tell early on that economics was not for me. But I did find that I had a preference, which was what I found in sociology, the way that sociology understands and thinks about human behavior as constrained by broader social forces, whether they be cultural or structural—even culture itself is a structuring force of course. 

Manning Zhang: How does culture, or cultural sociology, influence your thinking and in terms of research topics and settings?

Matthew Clair: My work engages more so with cultural sociology than what I think of as the sociology of culture. I am more interested in people’s meanings and micro-level interactions—how they reflect, reproduce or challenge equality, as opposed to being interested in cultural products. I find the study of cultural objects interesting, but the way that culture works in my thinking is sort of thinking about how meaning and interaction impact the ways institutions generate and maintain inequality. The theoretical traditions I engage with most would be following from Bourdieu, such as Annette Lareau’s, Jessica Calarco’s, Prudence Carter’s, and Tony Jack’s work.  

In my book Privilege and Punishment, I’m interested in examining the attorney-client relationship and how this relationship reproduces inequality within and beyond courts. One thing that’s important to me in this book is acknowledging and theorizing cultural fluidity within groups and within individuals across time and interactional situations. I’m not just drawing on the work on cultural capital theory, but also, I draw on relational sociology or relational theory, such as the work of Mustafa Emirbayer, Donald Tomaskovic-Devey, and others. Their work helps me to explain something that I found surprising in my specific setting—the cultural styles of interaction among defendants in court were quite malleable from case to case, depending on the particular relationship the defendant created with their lawyer. Defendants’ styles of engagement weren’t always consistent across their lives, which revealed to me how cultural styles of interaction are based on immediate access to various resources, such as social ties and money, not necessarily based on long term dispositions that are rooted in childhood socialization, which Bourdieu and others might have us assume. On average, middle-class people interact differently with their lawyers than working class people, but this is not because they were socialized in their childhood to interact with lawyers in one way or another, but more precisely because they have different likelihoods of accessing social and economic resources that enable them to build positive relationships with lawyers and that also result in different kinds of treatment by lawyers and judges. Some long-term things still mattered, though, such as whether they grew up in neighborhoods where there was intense police surveillance and racism, which contributed to deep-seated distrust of the legal system for some. 

Manning Zhang: Could you tell us a bit more about your interest in cultural sociology over sociology of culture?

Matthew Clair: Yeah, you know, interestingly, I actually started out in graduate school studying sociology of culture. In the first year, I studied people who were editors at literary magazines, engaging with Bourdieu’s work on the literary field, and thinking about how the editors adapted to the infusion of digital technologies and how it shaped the logic of the field. I was engaging with a wide range of critical theory on the culture industries and interdisciplinary approaches to neoliberalism. It was interesting to me for a time, and I love to read literary magazines still today.

But then, the summer after my first year of graduate school, in 2013, George Zimmerman was not convicted of murdering Trayvon Martin. And I went to protests and rallies and became very interested in understanding the culture of the legal system. So that was how I moved away from an interest in the production of cultural products to an interest in understanding meanings and interactions within the legal system. I take a perspective from cultural sociology to better understand inequality under the law.

So, my interest shifted because I saw an immensely harmful social problem that I couldn’t look away from, and I wanted to know more to figure out how to contribute, from a sociological perspective, to fixing the problem. I think for many scholars that’s the case. You may have some interest from childhood, or from college, but then, when you go to graduate school, maybe you work with a professor who’s interested in something and has resources to fund you, or you see a major social calamity and then that really shifts what you want to devote the rest of your career to trying to figure out.

Manning Zhang: How do you envision the future of cultural sociology? What excites you most?

Matthew Clair: I think the future of cultural sociology is bright. There are two main things that really excite me. One is how culture and social change interact. Cultural sociology is often interested in offering one explanation for the reproduction of inequality. But I see growing interest in understanding how culture can help to change unequal systems, not just reproduce them. I think a lot of people are working in the intersection of culture and social movements within sociology. Personally, I’m increasingly interested in understanding how everyday people on the ground resist inequality collectively. Cultural forms, such as narratives and frames, could help to explain social changes. 

The Black Lives Matter movement very powerfully draws on narratives, and it frames cases of police violence in a way that can motivate collective action. If we look at the case of George Floyd from last spring, we can see that his murder provided a narrative that galvanized, at least for a period of time, a multicultural movement against racial injustice and police brutality. But the framing matters a lot. Many activists framed George Floyd’s murder as evidence that policing fundamentally needed to be abolished. Other actors framed it differently. Prosecutors framed this as a story of one bad apple police officer, whose actions were an aberration rather than something integral to policing. 

My most recent work is drawing on the lineage of Du Bois in relation to sociology. Many sociologists don’t really think of Du Bois as a cultural sociologist. But I think his work on the phenomenology of race and racialized subjectivity has a lot to offer cultural sociology and cultural sociological theory. I’ve been inspired by the important work of Karida Brown and Jose Itzigsohn. In a new paper titled “Criminalized Subjectivity: Du Boisian Sociology and Visions for Legal Change” in Du Bois Review, I draw on Du Bois’s oeuvre to theorize what I refer to as the concept of legal envisioning. Legal envisioning is a social or cultural process whereby criminalized people and communities imagine and then work toward building alternatives, both within the law and then also outside of the law. Scholars can seek to explain legal envisioning, and we can also study how it explains other social phenomena. I’m really interested in understanding the emancipatory potential of everyday people’s collective culture in bringing about legal change.

The other thing that excites me is actually within the sociology of culture. I am excited about the growing work focusing on digital technology and cultural production, like Forrest Stuart’s new book Ballad of the Bullet, which is a wonderful example of studying digital technology in relation to cultural production, the meaning that people invest in the act of production, and how its racialized and classed. Here we are looking at social media production and the aspirations of young, marginalized people of color trying to make a life in late capitalism by commodifying performances of violence and ghetto stereotypes. It’s a winner-take-all system, which makes the prospects of economic survival through social media dim. Tech companies profit from online videos rather than the actual people who are producing online content. Ashley Mears also has some very recent work looking at content creators and how they manage to go viral online and how they separate their popularity, like making absurd videos that get thousands of likes, from their interest in maintaining their status as artists within a restricted field of production. It’s an interesting topic at the intersection of economic and cultural sociology.

Manning Zhang: Do you have anything to share with young scholars and graduate students?

Matthew Clair: That’s a hard one. I guess the main thing that I’d want to say to graduate students is to remain open. Oftentimes, graduate students feel pressure to stick with whatever proposal or idea they came to graduate school thinking they’d work on. And maybe they’ve gotten a grant or    started working with a professor. That’s great. But don’t let that constrain your intellectual creativity. If you happen to be inspired, like I was, by something else, then follow that passion and see if it’s something you see yourself committing your intellectual energy to for a long time. Once you get into the thick of it, you realize how complex your topic is and that you could spend the rest of your life trying to figure it out. Make sure it’s something that you really care about.