Category Archives: Scholarly Communication

Digital Sociology

Digital sociology as a field is gaining traction in Australia, Canada and the UK, and is lagging somewhat behind in the U.S.

Digital Sociology logo

Still there are some strides toward establishing this field here in the U.S. In February of this year, I and Karen Gregory and Tressie McMillan Cottom, organized a Digital Sociology Mini-Conference under the auspices of the Eastern Sociological Society. The convening brought together an international group of scholars around the topic of digital sociology for two days of panels and round table presentations. All together, the conference generated over sixty (60) submissions from eleven (11) countries.

As readers here know well, digital technologies now underpin academic work at all levels — from theorization and conceptual work, to research methods and data collection, to the professionalization of disciplines. Yet, as Deborah Lupton notes in her recent book, Digital Sociology (Routledge, 2014), the discipline of sociology more broadly has only just begun to take account of the broader implications that the digital has raised about the “practice of sociology and social research itself.”

Clough and colleagues (2014) suggest that the “datalogical turn” underway in the social sciences poses not only serious challenges to sociological methodologies, but also requires more robust theorizing of what we mean by the social itself. Social media platforms such as Twitter and blogging are not simply megaphones for broadcasting research done offline, but are becoming the very mechanisms we use to create sociological knowledge, formulate ideas, write first drafts, and engage in peer review.  But the burgeoning field of digital sociology is still “before the beginning” in theorizing and articulating the digital turn for the social sciences, as Jonathan Wynn has pointed out.

Why digital sociology? Why now?

To call for digital sociology is to engage in an act of (or an attempt at) disciplinary transformation. My colleague at CUNY, Cathy Davidson, contends that disciplines are “so last century”. She foresees a future of higher education where disciplinary boundaries matter less and less. In the 21st century university we are all interdisciplinary. She’s probably right, so what is the point of trying to transform sociology at this particular moment?

The fact is that many of the social implications of the Internet were articulated decades ago by leading sociologists without calling themselves “digital sociologists”.  Scholars such as Castells, 1996; Back, 2002; DiMaggio, et al., 2001; Hampton 2002; Ignacio, 2000; Sassen, 2002; Wacjman, 1991; Wellman, 2001, have all made important contributions to our understanding of how the digital and the material are imbricated, to paraphrase Sassen. Yet, overall sociology as a discipline has been relatively unconcerned with explicitly defining a disciplinary relationship to the digital. Instead, sociology has often ceded this terrain to other disciplines.

While this expansive view of sociology as a kind of universal donor discipline has worked to the advantage of job candidates with dissertations focused on digital technologies, it has disadvantaged the discipline and our understanding of the social world today. If sociology is to be relevant in the 21st century, we must offer a compelling theoretical understanding of digital media technologies. If we expect to attract graduate students and the next generation of scholars, we have to offer some guidance on what sociological research methods might be in a digital era.

Other disciplines are doing the work that digital sociologists could, and perhaps should, be doing; more than this, they are reaping rewards that we are not. Disciplines such as communications, cultural and media studies, library and information science, and journalism have eagerly stepped in to the void left by sociology to claim many of our top job candidates. When sociology loses top job candidates to other fields, it is likely that they will publish less often in sociology journals, attend fewer of our conferences and contribute less to knowledge that circulates within sociology.

The digital humanities claims most of the research money and sets much of the agenda for how we think about digital media technologies in relation to teaching and digital tools for scholarship. The traditional humanities disciplines – literature, philosophy, religion, languages, and musicology – are now often joined with history, linguistics, and semiotics as part of the digital humanities. Social sciences such as anthropology and sociology are sometimes included under the umbrella of DH, as I heard one preeminent scholar exclaim at a recent talk, “I have a colonizer’s view of what is included in the digital humanities – if you’re doing digital work, it’s digital humanities!” In many ways, the early and ardent embrace – even expansionism — of the digital by the humanities was a response to threats (perceived or actual) to cuts in humanities programs and funding. To looks at the funding infrastructure of the Office of Digital Humanities division of the National Endowment for the Humanities, this was a shrewd, strategic move on the part of forward thinking humanities scholars of twenty years ago.

The result, however, is that digital humanities as a field ends up with preserving and archiving a predominantly white, male canon of literature,  as Tara McPherson observes. Of course, not all digital humanities projects focus on white men. The NEH Office of Digital Humanities has funded a project called “W.E.B. DuBois in Cyberspace” to digitize and make available all of DuBois’ papers. This important work of preservation and access is at the heart of digital humanities, and it is part of what makes digital sociology possible. Such tools create an opportunity for “rethinking sociological craft”, but it would be repeating the mistakes of DH to focus too heavily on tools in digital sociology. Instead, the promise of digital sociology is to first consider the “disciplinary value of sociology and the theoretical frameworks of digital second, we arrive at a much more satisfying future for the intersection of digital and social,” as Cottom has pointed out.

So, to return to the questions I posed earlier: why digital sociology and why now? Perhaps I’m resisting the interdisciplinary future of the university, but I tend to agree with Jacobs (2014) that there is a place for disciplines. That said, the discipline of sociology is woefully under-prepared to face the digital present of the contemporary social world. I think that we – those of us doing digital work within sociology – are already doing digital sociology that should be transforming the discipline as a whole, but most of us don’t call our work digital sociology.

I want to suggest that there is a power in naming what we do ‘digital sociology’ that we might well consider.

As for why now, the moment we’re in is one in which there are sociologists around the globe who are doing related, relevant work and by simply tagging our work with digital sociology – we can find each other, as some of us did in February in New York this year.



~ A version of this post appeared in the CITASA (Communication Internet Technology section of the American Sociological Association) Newsletter, Spring 2015.


Higher Ed Is Changing, but Digital Media Training is Still Missing for Most

Higher education is changing because of digital media technologies. How we do our work as scholars, how we create knowledge, is changing because of digital media. And, increasingly, academics want to know their work has an impact in the world beyond the Ivory Tower. Yet, digital media training for academics is still missing at most institutions.

Kevin Anselmo, writing in a recent post at the LSE Impact Blog, observes that academia is increasingly moving in a digital direction, yet the reality is that most PhDs are not trained to speak to mainstream audiences.  The result is that traditionally-trained PhDs largely miss out on the opportunities created by the move to digital. Anselmo encourages academics to take advantage of whatever training their institution offers.

This kind of training is precisely what we’ve offered through our MediaCamp Workshops, which are skill-building sessions for intellectuals who want to combine research and digital media technologies for the public good.

Smart Phone in Hand

(Image credit: Almudena Toral, CUNY J-School)

Our workshops are run as a collaboration between two parts of the larger CUNY system – the academic, PhD-granting Graduate Center, the Mina Rees Library and the Graduate School of Journalism. The main goal of the workshops is to help traditionally trained academics develop the skills necessary to connect their scholarly work to a wider public and to social justice issues. The specific training includes both legacy media (e.g., writing op-eds and appearing on camera) and digital media (e.g., blogging, Twitter, using smartphones), as well as hybrid academic-journalism skills (e.g., data visualization). Due to a grant from the Ford Foundation (and later support from the Mina Rees Library of The Graduate Center), we were able to offer the workshops free of charge to anyone who wanted to enroll.

Lots people besides academics find the workshops useful. This kind of digital media training appeals to people working in non-profits and NGOs as well. We have also seen a fair number of higher education administrators in the workshops, too. It is often these workers – staff and administrators – who are given the responsibility for developing digital media for academic programs and departments, yet rarely if ever are they provided any training to go with these job assignments.

MediaCamp Workshops have been extremely successful on any number of measures. In one year alone, we offered over 40 workshops that reached more than 500 academics, activists, and non-profit leaders. And, there is an even higher demand for these, as we had over 1,000 on waiting lists for these workshops. Based on this success, we were invited to extend this work by offering these workshops at the 109th American Sociological Association meetings in San Francisco (August, 2014).


(Heidi Knoblauch, l., and Shawnta Smith-Cruz, r. at the ASA

Scholars, activists, and people from the non-profit sphere who participated in the workshops clearly indicated that the MediaCamp filled a distinct need: they helped people who are creating knowledge learn to share that knowledge with a wider audience. After every workshop, people shared enthusiastic, supportive reviews. Typical of the written feedback we received was this participant’s response:

“Fantastic workshop!!! I’ve been struggling with ways to engage with a broader public in my work and I feel much better prepared now. Thank you!”

We collected data on all the workshops and you can read the full report here MCampReportPDF.  Our experience with MediaCamp Workshops,  and the data from our report, support Anselmo’s assertion that there is a huge unmeet need for this kind of training within higher education.

What Anselmo’s exhortation to “take advantage of training” at your institution misses is that most institutions don’t offer such training. In part, this is because finding the support for digital media training is challenging. While the politics of austerity within higher education may be coming to an end, it is still a very real struggle to secure funding for this kind of training.

In the current social and political climate, it will take real vision – on the part of an academic leader, or a grant-maker, or both – to seize the opportunity that digital media technologies offer for academics and the institutions in which we work.

The ground beneath us is shifting. How we do our work as academics is already different because of digital media technologies. Card catalogs, anyone?  No, of course, not. We expect our libraries, our search strategies, and our results to be available digitally.

Because of these transformations, 21st-century scholars are much more enmeshed in the world around them than previous generations who may have envisioned an academic life sequestered from the turmoil of the everyday world.  Scholars today see themselves as part of the world around them and want their work to have some kind of impact on that world. For now at least, digital media training in how to use these tools and navigate this landscape are still missing at most institutions.

Open Access: What Is It and Why All the Fuss?

(Déjà vu? This is a very slight reworking of a post from the Graduate Center Library blog.)

Image is CC BY-NC-ND from JISC.

Image is CC BY-NC-ND from JISC.

You might have noticed that CUNY librarians talk a lot about open access — sometimes in conversations about dissertation embargoes, sometimes on the topic of authors’ rights, sometimes in the context of Academic Works, CUNY’s soon-to-arrive institutional repository (already up and running at the Graduate Center). But maybe you’ve never really gotten a full explanation of what open access is. Or maybe you know what it is but aren’t convinced it’s a pressing issue. Or maybe you understand how it affects you as a reader but aren’t sure how you should factor it into your actions as an author.

I recently wrote a piece about open access for the “Jargon” column of the sociology magazine Contexts, and it might address some of your questions.

What is open access?

“Even if the term ‘open access’ is not in your working vocabulary, you almost certainly understand the phenomenon of open access, or free online availability, as well as its opposite, placement behind a paywall. Of course, an enormous number of news articles, blog posts, and cat videos are freely available online, but ‘open access’ is not usually used to describe those kinds of online offerings. Rather, the conversation about open access centers on research and academic works—journal articles, scholarly books, textbooks, and dissertations—which are usually available only for a fee.”

But what should I care, and what’s wrong with journal subscriptions, anyway?

“Most social action for open access has focused on scholarly journals, largely because many journal subscriptions are wildly expensive, out of proportion with the costs of publishing. In 2012 the Economist reported, ‘Publishing obscure academic journals is that rare thing in the media industry: a [license] to print money.’ Indeed, seemingly arbitrarily high subscription prices that increase year after year have left readers, libraries, and universities feeling gouged. Furthermore, many authors wish to dissociate themselves from commercial publishers that make huge profits from nonprofit institutions, preferring to participate in a publishing system that better connects readers with research and is more consistent with their values. For these reasons and more, journals are a natural starting point for an upheaval in the academic publishing industry.”

So what’s in it for me?

“[J]ournal publishers do not pay their authors, so authors do not lose any income by making their works freely available. In fact, they stand to benefit from open access: When articles are easy to find and free to read, they attract more readers, generate more discussion, and get cited more in later articles.

Of course, authors aren’t the only beneficiaries of open access. When journal articles are freely available, students can better master their fields; scholars can better perform their research; and teachers, doctors, policy-makers, and journalists can better perform their jobs. As a result, everyone benefits, even those who do not themselves read the articles.”

How do I achieve open access?

“There are two ways for an author to make a scholarly article open access. The first, widely known as ‘gold’ open access, is to publish it in a journal that is itself open access—that is, the publisher immediately and permanently makes the journal’s articles freely available online. There are many open access journals—the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ) lists almost 10,000—published by many kinds of entities, including universities, commercial publishers, scholarly societies, and professional organizations.

. . .

Another path to open access is called ‘green’ open access, achieved when an author uploads a work to an open access repository hosted by the author’s institution or a disciplinary repository such as the Social Science Research Network (SSRN). Although many authors do not realize it, most journals allow authors to self-archive some version of their article, either the original submission, the edited text, or the journal’s final formatted version. Furthermore, many agencies and institutions have policies that require the researchers they fund or employ to make their articles open access within some fixed amount of time; these policies help make many thousands of articles open access every year. Some publishers reject such policies and lobby against legislation to ensure that taxpayers have access to the research they fund, but their arguments are transparently self-serving and unlikely to prevail in the end.

Right now, green open access is spotty—common and even de rigueur in some fields, but far from universal and not yet leading to reductions in subscription burdens. However, as more researchers and institutions actively support open access, self-archiving will spread. One hope is that green open access will become so prevalent that subscription-based journals will be pressured to lower their subscription prices or change their business model.”

Want to know more?

Read the full column in Contexts or glance at this overview of the very basics of open access. Or contact me or your librarian to learn more!

Open Access Basics Explained

Sometimes when I speak to my academic colleagues about “open access” publishing, they often think I’m suggesting we eliminate peer-review. That’s a common misconception, but it’s not true. And, it speaks to the many myths and misconceptions about open access.

If you’re still confused about open access, this short (8:21) animated video is a good explanation of the basics of open access for faculty-types.

Open Access and Ethnography

Wendy Hsu

Wendy Hsu, Scholar of Sound

I started a blog when I began my dissertation research in 2007. YellowBuzz was meant to share my field notes from observing and participating in the indie rock music scenes first with my research associates and by extension the broader public online. These public field notes were written in the style of performance and album reviews accessible for a general audience outside of academic ethnomusicology. I took the voice of a field correspondent and committed to a fast no-more-than-a-couple-of-week turnaround. Through highlighting these unusual performances and connecting them to theories of identity formation and community building, my blog lived in a liminal space in which it served both as a part of the process and a product of my research. My participation as a blogger in these music scenes gave Internet-visibility to the Asian American musicians that I came to know in my fieldwork. At a high point, my blog became a hub for readers interested in all things related to Asian and Asian American indie music scenes, and was subsequently cited in two Wikipedia articles. My blog and related presence on Twitter (@wendyfhsu) generated a social and discursive space that takes seriously these minority musicians’ below-the-radar cultural production within the public domain. The observations I made as a blogger led me to explore a series of inquiries related to musicians’ digital sociality and theorize the formation of digital media diasporas in the context of post-9/11 racial and geopolitics.

Blogging and academic writing are two modes of knowledge production. They are framed differently – short vs. long, informal vs. formal, impermanent vs. permanent – and for these reasons, they yield different rhetorical consequences. Their audiences might overlap, but for the most part don’t. In my own work, I find and leverage the productive tension between these two modes of communication, where one ends drives the beginning of the other. The continuum between blogging and research writing generates a set of reflexive dynamics that can deconstruct the notion of the “field” (Kisliuk 1997). Sharing bits of field findings live as the research is undergoing can question the subject-object binary in ethnographic research. Tricia Wang suggests that live fieldnoting makes visible meaning-making, a process that’s critical to ethnographic work, but is often not made transparent until the publication of a monograph or a peer-reviewed journal article (2012). The multi-year arc of a print-based scholarly publication project for academic ethnographies present a dissonance with the principle of participatory engagement. Conducive to fast and creative reuse of content, digital and online media can contribute to changing modes of scholarly communication. Elements such as media synchronicity; networked, iterative structure; and efficiency make digital media a great vehicle to open access to scholarly materials. These digital affordances can drive the transformation toward an ethos of openness. For those of us engaged in ethnographic work, this means a wider and more open ethnographic feedback circle – from fieldwork to publication and impact in and around the field.

In the space below, I offer two stories about how I conceptualize openness in my own scholarly communication practices, with a bit of commentary on the politics and economics around scholarly transparency from the perspective of a young non-tenure-track scholar. I also hope that these stories serve to illustrate the possibility of a generative relationship between blogging and journal article publication.

Seven years later after I started Yellowbuzz, I’m still blogging about my research. I have experienced a few arcs from the time of field research to peer-reviewed journal article publications through my research project lifecycles. A blog post I wrote in 2007 marks the beginning of my field engagement with the band Hsu-nami. I presented a paper about the religious imagery in the band’s music at SEM in 2008 and developed this paper into a full chapter in my dissertation which was completed in 2011. An article-length version of this chapter became published in a peer-reviewed journal in 2013, seven years after my initial research interaction with the band. My second peer-reviewed journal article publication followed a similar arc.

Both of these publication arcs concluded with a less than ideal closeness. My research associates, among them professional journalists, tried and failed to access the article about their music. What does this say about the informational and epistemological politics? Both journals that I published in are non-open-access with fairly strict copyright terms. As a young scholar, I don’t have the luxury of time to negotiate to retain my rights as an author. In the case of Asian Journal of Communication, a journal under the Taylor and Francis Group, I was given the “option” of paying $2950 to make my article open access. This option appeared to be a non-option for me, a postdoc fellow in a double-contingency trap: her contingent job situation as a non-renewable researcher in a higher education institution; the contingency of her job prospect on her publishing successes. To me, an “open access” option that requires an exorbitant amount of money in order to administer what is proclaimed to be an open, unrestrictive process itself is a contradiction. Like other neoliberal models, this framework equates the labor and production of academic knowledge with its consumption, and outsources the financial responsibility to deliver products to the content producer. Taylor and Francis’s ostensibly open access option capitalizes on openness, a value that is increasingly important to the scholarly community. In more than one way, it defies the tenants of the actual open access movement. So I tweeted my stance resoundingly:


A more open and efficient research publication arc I experienced was with my project on digital ethnography. Throughout this project lifecycle, I experimented on various digital platforms to play with the content and form of my research expressions. In these experimentations, I iterated my research in an open form as a post on a blog associated with my graduate fellowship program at University of Virginia; then as I developed my work within a postdoctoral context, I began publishing it on my personal site. Two years ago, an editor-at-large of DH Nowand by extension Journal of Digital Humanities spotted my work on blog and contacted me to explore an interest in developing the blog post (on my personal site) into a full-length journal article. Around the same time, the editor of theEthnography Matters blog invited me to serialize my research on digital ethnography. I thought I would take this set of opportunities to develop my blog post series, staging it as an open forum to invite feedback on my work. This helped me polish the writing for the eventual manuscript submission for theJournal of Digital Humanities. More than just an open access journal, DH transforms the peer-review process by leveraging the open web protocols to source and distribute scholarly content. The editorial and review process begins with an identification of a likely submission based on blog feedback, comments and social media metrics. Then the journal provides “three additional layers of evaluation, review, and editing to the pieces.”

Writing within a network of peers and colleagues makes the process of ideation deeper, more productive than writing in isolation. The evaluation and review process with JDH, for the reasons above, felt so human to me. Each touchpoint was encouraging and yielded constructive insights to further the development and refinement of the paper. When the paper was published in this past spring, I felt confident about the timeliness and relevance of my work. Through its lifecycle, this research project published content in various lengths, types, and formats. This multiplicity of form and content reached a wide network of readers, ranging from academic to applied ethnographers, digital humanities scholars, and geographers.

The technological affordances of these publication platforms allowed me to engage with complex layers of content and voices across disciplinary and social perspectives. Kim Fortun and Mike Fortun compares the scholarly community to a village, a “community of practice [that] cannot prosper if all it encounters is judged with established concepts of what is proper and valuable; the village should not be taken out of history. Instead, we must deliberate and figure out how to respond to changes in the landscape, new problems, new technologies, and new connectivities” (2012).

Publishing, to me, in its simplistic sense, is to make something public. If our public precludes those who have been our research associates, or individuals without institutional affiliations or access to scholarly journals, then we should rethink how we communicate our scholarship. Lastly, I return to the question of research impact, an inquiry central to the ethnographic perspective and a critical step of the ethnographic feedback loop. The issue of transparency can set the course of impact of our research. Having an open and transparent channel of communication is the beginning of a meaningful dialogue we ethnomusicologists can foster with the public. Informational openness, however, is a complex discourse that requires further contextualization and its discussion would not complete without a full consideration of access, ethics, and responsibility (Christen 2012). We’re living in a moment where the value of scarcity associated with industrial mode of production (Suoranta and Vadén 2008:131) is being challenged by the dispersed openness afforded by digital media. The scholarly publishing industry itself is a cultural field with policies and infrastructures driven by commercial values (Miller 2012) that mostly defy public interests. We should maintain our critical viewpoints as we engage with our own scholarly communication practices.

* * *

Works Cited

Christen, Kim. 2012. “Does Information Really Want to be Free? Indigenous Knowledge Systems and the Question of Openness.” International Journal of Commuincation 6:2870-2893.

Fortun, Kim and Mike Fortun. 2012. “Separate But Entangled: Peer Reviewed But Not Conservative,” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 2 (1): 385-411.

Kisliuk, Michelle. 1997. “Un(doing) Fieldwork: Sharing Songs, Sharing Lives.”Shadows in the Field: New Perspectives for Fieldwork in Ethnomusicology, edited by Gregory F. Barz and Timothy J. Colley. New York: Oxford University Press.

Miller, Daniel. 2012. “Open Access, Scholarship, and Digital Anthropology.” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 2(1):385-411.

Suoranta, Juha and Tere Vadén. 2008. Wikiworld: Political Economy of Digital Literacy, and the Promise of Participatory Media. Paulo Freire Research Center, Finland ( and Open Source Research Group, (, Hypermedialab, University of Tampere, Finland.

Wang, Tricia. 2012. “Writing Live Fieldnotes: Towards a More Open Ethnography,” Ethnography Matters, [retrieved from] (accessed on September 27, 2014).

~ This post was written by guest blogger Wendy Hsu and was originally published at The Ethnomusicology Review (October 21, 2014).

Wendy Hsu is an ethnographer, musician, and community arts organizer who engages with multimodal research and performance practices informed by music from continental to diasporic Asia. She has published on Taqwacore, Asian American indie rock, Yoko Ono, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Bollywood, and digital ethnography. Her postdoctoral work engages with Nakashi (那卡西) street music-culture in postcolonial Taiwan and practices of music and mobility of Taipei’s urban underclass. Hsu received her PhD in the Critical and Comparative Studies in Music program at the University of Virginia. As an ACLS Public Fellow, Hsu currently works with the City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs. She recently completed Mellon Digital Scholarship Postdoctoral Fellowship in the Center of Digital Learning + Research at Occidental College where she researched and taught ethnographic methodology, digital pedagogy, digital sound studies, and community-based participatory research. An active performer, Hsu is a founding member of ethnographic ghost pop band Bitter Party, vintage Asian rock band Dzian!, improvised music trio Pinko Communoids, and Yoko-Ono-inspired noise duo Grapefruit Experiment. She also co-founded engaged innovations collective Movable Parts and experimental music group HzCollective.

If you’ve read the news lately, you might think the ‘war on drugs’ is coming to an end. Just last week, Governor of New Jersey Chris Christie showed his support for a bill that would allow people who have overdosed and their friends to call 911 without fear of punishment. Two weeks ago, Deputy Director of the National Drug Control Policy, Michael Botticelli, said “we have to think of [the ‘war on drugs’] as a public health issue and a public health response in partnership with law enforcement.” And, three weeks ago, the Associated Press reported that 32 million Americans will have access to drug treatment programs when the Affordable Care Act goes into full effect.

These are great triumphs and signal the beginning of a shift towards thinking about drug policy in a public health framework. So, does this mean that the war on drugs is over? Can we sit back and relax? Hardly.

On Friday, as a social media reporter on behalf of JustPublics@365, I went to a conference on drug policy in Buffalo, New York.  Knowing about the history of the Rockefeller Drug Laws and the racist underpinnings of New York City’s “stop and frisk” policy makes me somewhat “educated” about drug policy, but as a white female getting her Ph.D. at Yale University, I thought I had never been effected by the war on drugs.

It turns out I have, and so have you.

The ‘war on drugs’ is a war on people. It has targeted people of color – specifically young black and hispanic men – but it has a lasting effect on all of us regardless of age, sex, or race. It has created a culture of mass incarceration and elevated racial tensions in my communities. It has cost tax payers billions of dollars and allowed big businesses to profit from the mass incarceration of millions of Americans. It has created a system that every American should want to change or, at the very least, be aware of.

On the first day of the conference, which was hosted by the Drug Policy Alliance and the Baldy Center for Law and Social Policy, there was a screening of The House I Live In. This documentary film exposes the failures of the ‘war on drugs’ and has been getting a lot of buzz. A central argument in the movie is that drug laws were introduced to control ethnic minorities and a theme that is consistently repeated by the interviewees is that the ‘war on drugs’ has ravaged their lives and destroyed their communities.

I had seen the movie before but, unless your heart is made of stone, the stories make you want to do everything in your power to change drug policy in this country.

So, what could I do? My career choice had taken me in a different direction from public health and I was by no means a good community organizer. What action could I take?

I sat in on panel about harm reduction and drug policy the next day with the voices from The House I Live In still whirling around in my mind. Julie Netherland from Drug Policy Alliance opened up the discussion with a question: how can we push harm reduction beyond individual interventions. Since I had always equated “harm reduction” with “needle exchange” I perked up. What did she mean?

She meant that working on drug policy is, in and of itself, harm reduction and that by focusing on policy rather than individual behavior change we can accomplish a lot. Changing drug policy from a criminal justice model to a public health model is harm reduction because it minimizes the harm the ‘war on drugs’ does to communities. Changing policy changes the stigma that most drug users feel – that is harm reduction.

This panel made me realize that I could do my own form of harm reduction: I could write and I could vote.

At the last panel of the conference, gabriel sayegh from the Drug Policy Alliance encouraged people to work on a local level rather than a national level to move drug policy towards a public health model. Marsha Weissman, Executive Director of the Center for Community Alternatives, reminded the audience that, “there are still people in New York State prisons doing life sentences on drug related crimes.” And, she declared, “our work is not done.”

On the flight back from Buffalo, I drafted Nydia Velázquez, my Congresswomen. It said:

“My name is Heidi Knoblauch and I am writing today because I believe the ‘war on drugs’ is doing more harm than good. I believe New York State should not use the criminal justice system to control drug use. I am in favor of policies that provide drug treatment rather than incarceration for drug users. I urge you to support legislation that takes a public health approach to drug policy.”

Sending this letter is a form of harm reduction and I encourage all of you to take this small step towards better drug policy in New York State. If you do not have time to write a letter, please use mine. You can find your representatives here.

Round Table Public Health: Resisting or Expanding Criminalizaton?

How should we respond to drug users – with jail or treatment?  Is a public health approach to drug use a way to resist criminalization? Or, does public health just replicate control in new forms? These are some of the issues raised when people talk about public health and criminalization, and this has been an important week for talking about these issues.

Just yesterday, the Drug Policy Alliance and the New York Academy of Medicine released their Blueprint for a Public Health and Safety Approach to Drug Policy (pdf).  A multi-year effort, the Blueprint makes a strong case for what they call a “four pillar approach” to drug policy.  The pillars are:  prevention, treatment, harm reduction, and public safety.  The first three of these – prevention, treatment and harm reduction (such as syringe exchange) – are rooted in public health responses to drugs rather than the “lock them up and throw away the key” approach of the last 30 years.

Blueprint DPA NYAM graphics

On Monday, the day before the Blueprint release,  I took part in a round table conversation with a mixture of academics, activists, and journalists about these same issues. In a small group we tackled the following question: is public health resisting or expanding criminalization?

As each of us went around the table to introduce ourselves, I realized that there was a mixture of historians, lawyers, LGBTQ activists, public health professors, and journalists that made for an engaging, lively discussion.

The conversation opened with a declarative statement: the public health model is concerned with communities and populations, not individual behavior. “The criminal justice model is an individual behavior model,” said Ernie Drucker, author of Plague of Prisons, “and that’s why we should not use the criminal justice model to address issues of drug use and addiction.” Others agreed, but pointed out that public health has been a coercive tool and that it was important to be skeptical of behavior control methods being practiced under the guise of public health.

This part of the discussion produced more questions than answers. We wondered, how would public health drug policies be any different than criminal justice drug policies? What were the public health options for addressing drug use and addiction? Would public health officials be better suited for the problems of addiction than criminal justice officials? PHTweet_03

(You can see more of the Twitter updates from this session here.)

Rebecca Tiger (@rtigernyc), author of Judging Addicts: Drug Courts and Coercion in the Justice System, was especially wary of turning the problem of drug use and addition over to public health without some critical examination of the history of public health practices.


(You can see more of the Twitter updates from this session here.)

Recognizing that public health has increasingly focused on individual behavior change, the group questioned when public health began to focus on behavior modification. I suggested that the visual anti-tuberculosis campaigns in early twentieth century, which aggressively targeted individuals with posters that told them to stop behaviors such as spitting and coughing, could have been the beginning of the use of mass media for individual behavior change.

Rebecca Tiger questioned how the media contributes to the public discourse about drugs in the United States. In response, Sandeep Junnarkar talked about how he encourages his students to move away from mass media and focus their own blogs or even radio blogs. Rebecca said she thought the mass media has been perpetuating the “criminalization conversation” and one of the biggest obstacle in switching the conversation towards decriminalization and public health. By encouraging his students to think more broadly about where they publish their work, Sandeep said he hopes there will be a new generation of journalists that can help sway the conversation.


(You can see more of the Twitter updates from this session here.)

The conversation cycled back to a discussion of the American public health framework when someone brought up the legacy of Progressive Era reform movements on present day public health. There were those who adamantly declared that public health was necessarily population and community based and those who were wary of public health practices. Clearly, we had not come to a consensus about the role of public health in decriminalization efforts.

The conversation, appropriately, raised more questions than it answered. Ernie Drucker said that part of the solution to the many questions and problems raised in the discussion was to have more cross boundary/cross disciplinary conversations like this one.

I completely agree.

You can see the archived livestream of our discussion here.  And, soon, we’ll have a more polished, edited video.

If you’re in the Buffalo, NY area and want to continue this conversation, you’ll want to attend this conference, May 2-3, at the Baldy Center for Law & Policy.  FREE and open to the public.