research

Clair, Matthew and Amanda Woog. 2022 (forthcoming). “Courts and the Abolition Movement." California Law Review.

This Essay theorizes and reimagines the place of courts in the contemporary struggle for the abolition of racialized punitive systems of legal control and exploitation. In the spring and summer of 2020, the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and many other Black people sparked continuous protests against racist police violence and other forms of oppression. Meanwhile, abolitionist organizers and scholars have long critiqued the “prison-industrial complex,” or the constellation of corporations, media entities, governmental actors, and racist and capitalist ideologies that have driven mass incarceration. But between the police and the prison cell sits the criminal court. Criminal courts are the legal pathway from an arrest to a prison sentence—with myriad systems of control in between, including ones branded as “off-ramps”—and we cannot understand the present crisis without understanding how the criminal courts not only function to legitimate police and funnel people into carceral spaces but also contribute unique forms of social control and exploitation all their own, revealing the machinations of mass criminalization and injustice operating between the police encounter and the prison cell. Our central argument is that courts—with a focus here on the criminal trial courts and the workgroup of actors within them—function as an unjust social institution; we should therefore work toward abolishing criminal courts and replacing them with other institutions that do not inherently legitimate police (as currently constituted), rely on prisons (as currently constituted), or themselves operate as tools for racial and economic oppression.


Drawing on legal scholarship and empirical social scientific research, Part I describes myriad injustices perpetrated by criminal courts, detailing their role in the present crisis of mass criminalization through legal doctrine, racialized social control, and economic exploitation. In Part II, we describe the contemporary abolition movement, briefly laying out its genesis and three guiding principles that are typically considered in relation to policing and prisons: (1) power shifting, (2) defunding and reinvesting, and (3) transformation. Part III explores how these principles could operate in relation to the courts, drawing on analysis of existing grassroots efforts as well as new possibilities. In the short term, non-reformist reforms could make criminal courts a venue to unmask, and therefore aid in dismantling, police and prisons. Such reforms could complement the broader abolition movement and reduce the churn of people through the system. Ultimately, the goal would be to abolish criminal courts as systems of coercion, violence, and exploitation, and to replace them with other social institutions, such as community-based restorative justice and peacemaking programs while at the same time investing in the robust provision of social, political, and economic resources in marginalized communities.

Clair, Matthew. 2021 (online first). “Criminalized Subjectivity: Du Boisian Sociology and Visions for Legal Change." Du Bois Review: Social Science Research on Race.

Over the period of mass criminalization, social scientists have developed rigorous theories concerning the perspectives and struggles of people and communities subject to criminal legal control. While this scholarship has long noted differences across racial groups, it has yet to fully examine how racism and criminalization interrelate in the making of criminalized people’s perspectives and their visions for transforming the legal system. This article engages with Du Boisian sociology to advance a theory of subjectivity that is attuned to the way criminalization reproduces the subjective racial order and that aims to uncover subaltern strategies and visions for transforming the structure of the law and broader society. Through a critical review of interpretive scholarship across the social sciences and an original analysis of interviews with a diverse sample of criminal defendants conducted in the early years of the Black Lives Matter movement, I illustrate how a Du Boisian approach coheres existing theories of criminalized subjectivities, clarifies the place of White supremacy and racism, and provides a theory of legal change rooted in ordinary people’s experiences and needs. I introduce the concept of legal envisioning, defined as a social process whereby criminalized people and communities imagine and build alternative futures within and beyond the current legal system. Du Boisian sociology, I conclude, provides the methodological and theoretical tools necessary to systematically assess legal envisioning’s content and to explain its contradictions, solidarities, and possibilities in overlooked yet potentially emancipatory ways.

Clair, Matthew. 2020 (online first) 2021 (published). “Being a disadvantaged defendant: Mistrust and resistance in attorney-client interactions." Social Forces.

Researchers have documented the power of legal officials to administer sanctions, from arrest to court surveillance and incarceration. How do those subject to punishment interact with officials and attempt to subvert their power? Drawing on interviews and ethnographic observations among 63 criminal defendants and 42 legal officials in the Boston-area court system, this article considers how socioeconomically and racially disadvantaged defendants interact with their defense attorneys, and with what consequences. Given racialized and classed constraints, many disadvantaged defendants mistrust their court-appointed lawyers. Their mistrust often results in withdrawal from their lawyers and active efforts to cultivate their own legal knowledge and skills. Defendants use their lay legal expertise to work around and resist the authority of their lawyers. Defense attorneys and judges respond with silencing and coercion, given the unwritten norms and rules of the court. These findings complicate existing accounts of disadvantaged defendants as passive actors and contribute to cultural sociological and relational theories of how people engage with professionals across institutional spaces. Unlike in mainstream institutions such as schools and hospitals where self-advocacy is rewarded in interactions, criminal court officials reject disadvantaged defendants’ attempts to advocate for themselves.

Clair, Matthew. 2020. Privilege and Punishment: How Race and Class Matter in Criminal Court. Princeton University Press.

How the attorney-client relationship favors the privileged in criminal court―and denies justice to the poor and to working-class people of color

The number of Americans arrested, brought to court, and incarcerated has skyrocketed in recent decades. Criminal defendants come from all races and economic walks of life, but they experience punishment in vastly different ways. Privilege and Punishment examines how racial and class inequalities are embedded in the attorney-client relationship, providing a devastating portrait of inequality and injustice within and beyond the criminal courts.

Matthew Clair conducted extensive fieldwork in the Boston court system, attending criminal hearings and interviewing defendants, lawyers, judges, police officers, and probation officers. In this eye-opening book, he uncovers how privilege and inequality play out in criminal court interactions. When disadvantaged defendants try to learn their legal rights and advocate for themselves, lawyers and judges often silence, coerce, and punish them. Privileged defendants, who are more likely to trust their defense attorneys, delegate authority to their lawyers, defer to judges, and are rewarded for their compliance. Clair shows how attempts to exercise legal rights often backfire on the poor and on working-class people of color, and how effective legal representation alone is no guarantee of justice.

Superbly written and powerfully argued, Privilege and Punishment draws needed attention to the injustices that are perpetuated by the attorney-client relationship in today’s criminal courts, and describes the reforms needed to correct them.

Clair, Matthew, and Asad L. Asad. 2019. "Criminal and Immigration Laws Shape Health Outcomes of Racial and Ethnic Minorities." Sociology Policy Briefs.

Over the last several decades, criminal and immigration laws in the United States have disproportionately burdened marginalized racial and ethnic minorities such as African Americans and Latinos. This policy brief reviews the sociological and public health research on the health effects of various criminal and immigration laws, policies, and practices. We argue that scholars and policy makers should understand the law as a fundamental cause of health disparities operating through two broad mechanisms: (1) primary effects on those who hold a stigmatized legal status; and (2) spillover effects on racial and ethnic in-group members, regardless of their own legal status. We conclude that the massive expansion of punitive legal control should be treated as a public health crisis. To address this, policy should reduce the material and stigmatic burdens of criminal and immigration statuses on those directly impacted, as well as their legally-unmarked families and communities.

Olivier, Jasmine, Matthew Clair, and Jeffrey S. Denis. 2019. “Racism”. The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology.

The study of racism in sociology entails an examination of the social construction of “racial” groups and racial inequalities. Defined as an ideology of racial group superiority that justifies or prescribes a system of racial domination or exploitation, racism is perpetuated by the beliefs and behaviors of individuals and by the institutions in which they are embedded. In the post-civil rights period, many scholars have focused on the shift from overt to subtle forms of racism and white privilege. In today’s sociopolitical climate, however, scholars have increasingly documented a return of overt racism and white supremacist movements, providing more evidence against the notion of a postracial society. A thorough analysis of racism requires an examination of both subtle forms of racism and the resurgence of overt racism and its consequences for inequality.

Clair, Matthew. 2018. “Stigma”. Core Concepts in Sociology.

Stigma is an attribute that conveys devalued stereotypes. Following Erving Goffman’s early elaboration of the concept, psychological and social psychological research has considered how stigma operates at the micro-level, restricting the well-being of stigmatized individuals. More recently, sociologists have considered the macro-level dimensions of stigma, illuminating its structural causes, population-level consequences, and collective responses. This research has identified how stigma reproduces social inequality through the maintenance of group hierarchies. Future research should bridge levels of analysis, compare the micro- and macro-level causes and consequences of stigma among different social groups, and identify the conditions that foster destigmatization.

Asad, Asad L., and Matthew Clair. 2018. “Racialized legal status as a social determinant of health”. Social Science & Medicine 199:19-28.

This article advances the concept of racialized legal status (RLS) as an overlooked dimension of social stratification with implications for racial/ethnic health disparities. We define RLS as a social position based on an ostensibly race-neutral legal classification that disproportionately impacts racial/ethnic minorities. To illustrate the implications of RLS for health and health disparities in the United States, we spotlight existing research on two cases: criminal status and immigration status. We offer a conceptual framework that outlines how RLS shapes disparities through (1) primary effects on those who hold a legal status and (2) spillover effects on racial/ethnic in-group members, regardless of these individuals’ own legal status. Primary effects of RLS operate by marking an individual for material and symbolic exclusion. Spillover effects result from the vicarious experiences of those with social proximity to marked individuals, as well as the discredited meanings that RLS constructs around racial/ethnic group members. We conclude by suggesting multiple avenues for future research that considers RLS as a mechanism of social inequality with fundamental effects on health.

Winter, Alix S., and Matthew Clair. 2018. “Jurors' Subjective Experiences of Deliberations in Criminal Cases”. Law & Social Inquiry 43 (4):1458-1490.

Research on jury deliberations has largely focused on the implications of deliberations for criminal defendants' outcomes. In contrast, this article considers jurors' outcomes by integrating subjective experience into the study of deliberations. We examine whether jurors' feelings that they had enough time to express themselves vary by jurors' gender, race, or education. Drawing on status characteristics theory and a survey of more than 3,000 real-world jurors, we find that the majority of jurors feel that they had enough time to express themselves. However, blacks and Hispanics, and especially blacks and Hispanics with less education, are less likely to feel so. Jurors' verdict preferences do not account for these findings. Our findings have implications for status characteristics theory and for legal cynicism among members of lower-status social groups.

Clair, Matthew, and Alix S. Winter. 2017. "How Judges Can Reduce Racial Disparities in the Criminal Justice System." American Judges Association.

Although most judges in our sample exhibit well-intentioned judging, the overwhelming use of noninterventionist strategies by these judges (Tables 1 and 2) likely contributes to racial disparities. Most judges in our sample found it appropriate to account for only their own possible differential treatment of criminal defendants (noninterventionist) and not that of other actors nor the disparate implications of poverty and racial inequality before contact with the criminal-justice system (interventionist). By deferring to other actors in the system, judges who employ noninterventionist strategies may unintentionally allow for the reproduction of racial disparities that emanate at earlier stages of the criminal-justice process, such as through the actions and possible biases of the police, prosecutors, and defense attorneys, as well as through the social adversities faced by many black and Latino criminal defendants. However, by employing interventionist strategies, a small number of judges more actively work to combat disparity-producing legal practices, policies, and decisions.

Clair, Matthew, Caitlin Daniel, and Michèle Lamont. 2016. “Destigmatization and health: Cultural constructions and the long-term reduction of stigma”. Social Science & Medicine 165: 223–232.

Research on the societal-level causes and consequences of stigma has rarely considered the social conditions that account for destigmatization, the process by which a group’s worth and status improve. Destigmatization has important implications for the health of stigmatized groups. Building on a robust line of stigma reduction literature in psychology, we develop a sociological framework for understanding how new cultural constructions that draw equivalences and remove blame shape public and structural stigma over time. We examine historical transformations of cultural constructions surrounding three stigmatized groups in the United States: people living with HIV/AIDS, African Americans, and people labeled as obese. By tracing this process across cases, we find that the conditions that account for destigmatization include the credibility of new constructions, the status and visibility of actors carrying these constructions, the conclusiveness of expert knowledge about stigmatized groups, the interaction between new constructions and existing cultural ideologies, and the perceived linked fate of the stigmatized and dominant groups. We also find that the reduction of structural and public forms of stigma often depend on distinct processes and constructions. To conclude, we propose a framework for the comparative study of destigmatization as an essential component of promoting a culture of health.

Clair, Matthew, and Alix S. Winter. 2016. “How Judges Think about Racial Disparities: Situational Decision-Making in the Criminal Justice System”. Criminology 54 (2):332–359.

Researchers have theorized how judges’ decision-making may result in the disproportionate presence of blacks and Latinos in the criminal justice system. Yet, we have little evidence about how judges make sense of these disparities and what, if anything, they do to address them. By drawing on 59 interviews with state judges in a Northeastern state, we describe, and trace the implications of, judges’ understandings of racial disparities at arraignment, plea hearings, jury selection, and sentencing. Most judges in our sample attribute disparities, in part, to differential treatment by themselves and/or other criminal justice officials, whereas fewer judges attribute disparities only to the disparate impact of poverty and differences in offending rates. To address disparities, judges report employing two categories of strategies: noninterventionist and interventionist. Noninterventionist strategies concern only a judge’s own differential treatment, whereas interventionist strategies concern other actors’ possible differential treatment, as well as the disparate impact of poverty and facially neutral laws. We reveal how the use of noninterventionist strategies by most judges unintentionally reproduces disparities. Through our examination of judges’ understandings of racial disparities throughout the court process, we enhance understandings of American racial inequality and theorize a situational approach to decision-making in organizational contexts.

Clair, Matthew, and Jeffrey S. Denis. 2015. “Sociology of Racism” edited by James D. Wright. The International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences 19:857-863.

The sociology of racism is the study of the relationship between racism, racial discrimination, and racial inequality. While past scholarship emphasized overtly racist attitudes and policies, contemporary sociology considers racism as individual- and group-level processes and structures that are implicated in the reproduction of racial inequality in diffuse and often subtle ways. Although some social scientists decry this conceptual broadening, most agree that a multivalent approach to the study of racism is at once socially important and analytically useful for understanding the persistence of racial inequality in a purportedly “post-racial” society.

Lamont, Michele, Stefan Beljean, and Matthew Clair. 2014. “What is Missing? Cultural Processes and Causal Pathways to Inequality”. Socio-Economic Review 12 (3):573-608.

This paper provides a framework for understanding the ways in which social processes produce social inequality. Specifically, we focus on a particular type of social process that has received limited attention in the literature and in which inter-subjective meaning-making is central: cultural processes. Much of the literature on inequality has focused on the actions of dominant actors and institutions in gaining access to material and non-material resources, or on how ecological effects cause unequal access to material resources. In contrast, we focus on processes that contribute to the production (and reproduction) of inequality through the routine and taken-for-granted actions of both dominant and subordinate actors. We highlight two types of cultural processes: identification and rationalization. We describe and illustrate four processes that we consider to be significant analytical exemplars of these two types of cultural processes: racialization and stigmatization (for identification) and standardization and evaluation (for rationalization). We argue that attention to such cultural processes is critical and complementary to current explanations of social inequality.