William Chambliss has worked with prisoners on a farm, interviewed opium farmers in Thailand and tackled police corruption in Seattle.
For all this and his attributions to the field of sociology, the American Sociology Association awarded the sociology professor a Lifetime Achievement Award.
Chambliss’ drive to expose the problems and patterns of power in American society led him to perform research on who makes laws, how and why they are enforced, and the relationship between those who have power and those who do not.
He first became interested in sociology when he was a junior in high school, working on a farm over the summer with prisoners under a trustee program.
“I was struck that everyone I talked to still planned on being a criminal when they got out. It raised this question of how and why we were locking people up,” he said.
As a soldier in the Vietnam War, he further saw the way the powerless were treated. This experience strengthened his resolve to study and dissect society, he said.
The award, which has only been given to one other person, recognizes founders of sociology who continue to shape current scholarship in the sociology of law.
In his work spanning four decades, Chambliss has traveled to Seattle, Sweden and hillside villages in Thailand. He has investigated topics ranging from organized crime in Washington to white-collar crime in Norway and narcotics crime in Bangkok. He has also talked to prostitutes and opium farmers. These trips, investigations and conversations helped him establish important tenants of the sociology of law.
“What was surprising to me was finding out that laws are the outcome of conflicts and not customs or shared values,” Chambliss said.
Far from being a removed academic field, sociology can be seen “in the current banking crisis, in Brown v. Board of Education, in the Enron crash,” he said.
There has also been an expansion of knowledge of everyday occurrences because of his work. When Chambliss, who has a doctoral degree in sociology, first published his findings on government and law enforcement corruption, most people did not believe him, he said. His findings showed that people with the most money won elections 90 percent of the time. This relationship is more widely accepted now, he said.
Kity Calavita, Chambliss’ former student and a University of California at Irvine professor, said in an e-mail that Chambliss’ work “continues to inspire countless scholars.”
Calavita added that her former professor’s analysis of the law of vagrancy, published in 1964, remains a classic in the field of sociology.
Professor Steven Tuch, head of the sociology department, said they “are very proud of Bill’s accomplishments and of the national and international notoriety that his scholarship brings to our department.”
Chambliss himself remains modest.
“My first reaction was surprise and then humility,” he said. “When I first started working in the sociology of law, I was all alone. I’ve been there to watch it grow. It was very humbling.”