William J. Chambliss (1933-2014)

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William J. (Bill) Chambliss died on February 22, 2014. He was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer eight years ago. True to character, Bill continued to live life to the fullest and extended beyond all odds his time with us.

Bill was a leading force in the fields of criminology and the sociology of law, forging a powerful dialectical framework for the understanding of crime and law, and reinvigorating conflict theory in the process. He authored many of the most cited books and articles in criminology; taught, mentored, and was loved by generations of undergraduate and graduate students (me among them); and, as an engaged scholar, was repeatedly called on by the media to comment on drug policies and other criminal justice issues. He was a scholar of immense stature, who continually gave to others his time, his intellect, and his incomparable spirit.

Bill never lost sight of the people behind his theories. If he wanted to understand burglars, he hung out with Harry King. If he wanted to demystify organized crime, he learned to hustle pool and play cards, frequented back alleys and boardrooms, and secured a chat with Meyer Lansky. Long before postmodernists preached the art of storytelling, Chambliss’s subjects came alive and were given voice on his pages. Gathering data from the archives of medieval England, the streets of Seattle, the villages of Nigeria, the poppy fields of Thailand, the sleek cityscapes of Scandinavia, and the ghettos in the heart of our nation’s capital, Bill routinely performed that most difficult task in sociology—engaging his “sociological imagination”—linking biography and history, the private lives of those he studied to the public issues they embodied.

Bill started his academic career as an undergraduate studying with Donald Cressey at UCLA. He later went to Indiana University for his PhD in sociology where he studied with Alfred Lindesmith and published “The Deterrent Influence of Punishment.” Bill’s first academic job was at the University of Washington where he wrote the pathbreaking “A Sociological Analysis of the Law of Vagrancy.” That piece quickly became a classic and established Bill as a founding father of both conflict criminology and the contemporary sociology of law.

At the same time, Bill was hanging out in Seattle’s pool halls, card rooms, and back alleys, determined to make sense of organized crime. He soon realized that this would require him to leave the back alleys, and go across town to corporate boardrooms and City Hall. Only Bill could have survived this fieldwork (and then, just barely, as I heard Bill’s stories about being threatened with beatings more than once). He not only survived—he published On the Take: From Petty Crooks to Presidents, a book that revolutionized our understanding not just of organized crime but of law enforcement and the state.

From Seattle, Bill went to UC Santa Barbara where he wrote seven books in as many years—including Law, Order, and Power and Crime and the Legal Process, which elaborated on his conflict theory of law and crime, and incorporated a critical race dimension long before it was fashionable. In those years too, he published Boxman: A Professional Thief’s Journey, giving us a first-hand account of the day-to-day life and methods of a professional thief. He also introduced us to “The Saints and the Roughnecks,” as they wreaked havoc on their neighborhoods and our conventional wisdoms. The “Saints and the Roughnecks” are among the 20th century’s best-known criminological characters, their names now code for unreliable stereotypes of conformity and delinquency.

At the University of Delaware in the late 1970s, Bill wrote yet another seminal piece entitled “On Lawmaking,” published in the British Journal of Law and Society. The dialectical theory of law he developed there, and later his theory of state-organized crime, put contradictions in the political economy at the center of analysis, and showed how law—and sometimes crimes by the state itself—are a response to those contradictions. The theory was paradigm-shifting and spawned dozens of dissertations, books and articles over the years.

Bill joined the Department of Sociology at George Washington University in 1986, where he co-directed the Institute on Crime, Justice, and Corrections. In DC, he researched law-enforcement practices in the racialized urban ghettoes, and the political dimensions of the war on crime, publishing his incisive Power, Politics, and Crime—a book Noam Chomsky called a “wake-up call” and Chesney-Lind praised as a “sweeping indictment” of our criminal justice policies.

Bill’s books and articles have been cited and reprinted widely, making their way not just onto our bookshelves but into student course packets and readers, year after year. Attesting to the profound influence Bill had on our thinking about crime and law, Bill received the Sutherland Award for Outstanding Contributions to Criminology from the American Society of Criminology; the Lifetime Achievement Award for Contributions in Criminal Justice from the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences; the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Criminology section of the American Sociological Association; the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Sociology of Law section of the American Sociological Association; the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Society for the Study of Social Problems section on Law & Society, and the American Society of Criminology’s Major Achievement Award. He was elected president of the American Society of Criminology in 1987-88, and president of the Society for the Study of Social Problems in 1992-93. In 2012, the Society for the Study of Social Problems recognized Bill’s profound influence by creating the William J. Chambliss Lifetime Achievement Award. Bill was an international scholar, with visiting professorships in Nigeria, Sweden, London, Oslo, Stockholm, Vienna, Cardiff, and Zambia. In 2009, he received an honorary Doctorate of Law from the University of Guelph, Canada. And, Bill’s reputation spread well beyond the academy. When still an associate professor, Bill was appointed to the President’s Commission on Violence (1968-69), and in 1993 he was consultant to the National Criminal Justice Commission.

His passion, integrity, engaged scholarship, theoretical insight, and clearly crafted prose inspired generations of students and scholars. Donald Cressey once called the young Bill Chambliss, “one of my ‘sociological children’—people who drifted into my UCLA undergraduate classes in the 1950s and got turned on to sociology.” Hundreds of us are now Bill’s “criminological children (and grandchildren),” turned on to criminology by his righteous anger, his engagement, and his theoretical vision.

Bill was not only a giant of criminology and the sociology of law. He was an outsized human being with a generous heart and a contagious love of life. We will miss Bill more than words can say.

Bill is survived by his wife Pernille, his children Jeffrey, Lauren, and James, his grandchildren, and the many friends, colleagues, and students whose lives he touched.

Kitty Calavita