Matthew Clair: Ethnography, Sociology as a Collective Endeavor, and Inequalities in the Legal System

Matthew Clair, Janna Huang and Tiffany Hamidjaja

Matthew Clair is a pathbreaking sociologist whose research broadly investigates how cultural meanings within our institutions reflect, reproduce, and challenge inequality and injustice. We first got to know Matt as a professor in an undergraduate sociology theory course at Stanford (for Janna) and as a scholar in law and society (for Tiffany). Through this serendipitous overlap, we were ecstatic to sit down with Matt for a conversation to hear about his pathway into Sociology, his recent award-winning book Privilege and Punishment, and class and racial inequalities in the legal system. We also reflected on the possibilities and challenges of doing ethnography, how research is a collective process, and the communities and people that inspire Matt today.

Janna Huang (JH): Thank you so much, Professor Clair, for meeting with us. We’re so excited to have a conversation with you. We’re really excited about your work. Just to get this conversation started, we were wondering if you could tell us a little bit about your background, your family and communities’ background, and how that has influenced your own trajectory?

Matthew Clair (MC): Growing up, I always wanted to be a writer. I think that was partly because I came from a family of math and natural science people. My parents, my brother, and his wife are physicians. But in college things shifted for me a bit—from simply wanting to be a writer to being very curious about social problems. I became interested not just in writing as a form of knowing and making sense of the world generally, but as a form of knowing and making sense of social problems.

In college, I was a government concentrator, and I was thinking about law school initially because I wasn’t sure I could make a living out of writing and analyzing social problems. I was accepted to law school, but I decided to defer to teach for two years in Atlanta, where I was a third-grade teacher. During my time teaching third graders and learning about social inequality in education, and the way that classroom dynamics were shaped by social structures, I realized that instead of going to law school and becoming a lawyer on the ground fighting these inequalities, I could address them from a social scientific perspective. So, I ultimately decided not to go to law school. I thought I would take a year to think about what I was going to do; I began writing stories and criticism online. At that time, I also accepted a research position at NYU with Peter Blair Henry, who was the dean of NYU’s business school.

I love sociology because it’s the one social science discipline that allows you to be a writer and do good social science. What I mean is that the art of interpreting people, their narratives, and text – such as interviews and ethnographic fieldnotes – is central to the discipline in a way that it’s not in political science or economics. Theorizing from narrative and meaning is so central to sociology.

It was at NYU when I began to fall in love with sociology. Peter is actually an economist, so I read a lot of economics, but I was also reading sociology and political science. I fell in love with sociology by just reading a lot of sociological research and taking a stats class with Pat Sharkey. During that year at NYU, I applied to graduate school in sociology. I remember my thesis advisor from when I was in college, political scientist Claudine Gay—I remember when I asked her for a letter of recommendation, she asked me, why would you want to do sociology instead of political science? I remember telling her I love sociology because it’s the one social science discipline that allows you to be a writer and do good social science. What I mean is that the art of interpreting people, their narratives, and text—such as interviews and ethnographic fieldnotes—is central to the discipline in a way that it’s not in political science or economics. Theorizing from narrative and meaning is so central to sociology. That’s part of the reason why I chose sociology.

Tiffany Hamidjaja (TH): So you talked a little bit in the appendix of your book, Privilege and Punishment, and in the beginning chapters, about how you started writing this book and what inspired it. We’d love to hear this story for our readers who may not have read your book yet. How did you start and why did you choose this topic?

MC: Yeah, so I mentioned I was interested in social inequality and understanding social problems. After teaching in Atlanta, I thought maybe I’d study racial inequality in education. But when I started grad school in 2012, that was during the same time that the Black Lives Matter movement was emerging. So in 2012, Trayvon Martin was killed by George Zimmerman. Then in 2013, the summer after my first year of graduate school, I took part in protests against the acquittal of George Zimmerman. I remember going to Dudley station—which is now Nubian Square, renamed following the Black Lives Matter movement—I remember marching in a protest with some friends. During the protests, we were just thinking to ourselves, What’s going on here? Why is it the case that a Black boy was killed by a white-appearing man and the courts did not hold him accountable? And why are the courts, at the same time, shuffling many more young Black men through the system all the time, finding them guilty of far less serious crimes.

It really pushed me in the direction of being both intellectually and politically interested in understanding forms of inequality within the legal system and the legal profession. That’s really what drew me to researching the courts. My early work in graduate school, much of which was done with my colleague Alix Winter, focused on understanding the courts from the perspective of empowered system actors, such as lawyers, judges, and even jurors. We were really interested in how these powerful system actors shaped the reality of the law on the ground, how it unfolded, and how it unfolded in an unequal way.

But then, as I continued interviewing these empowered system actors and understanding the system from their vantage point, I became very curious about the people who receive the brunt of the system’s power and harm—in particular, defendants. In the literature, their perspectives have largely been sidelined in much of our theorizing about how the court system operates. Dominant theories about sentencing and decision making, and about how the process works, center on empowered professionals. I wondered instead, how do defendants make sense of the system? How do they navigate it? And in what ways are they able to potentially resist and gum up the system, if you will? For my dissertation, I centered defendants as social actors within the courtroom. Initially, I was like, maybe I’m wrong here; maybe if no one else has really done this kind of study, maybe there’s a reason and I’m not going to find anything. But a chance encounter witnessing my cousin
handcuffed in a courtroom in Chicago clarified for me that there’s something here. Something in this world was pushing me to study the perspective of defendants. It was like a calling; it was strange. It all became not just intellectually and politically urgent; but now, it was also deeply personal. That’s what shifted me in the direction of the dissertation, which eventually resulted in my book.

JH: Wow, that’s really powerful to hear, how it all became so deeply personal. This leads really well to our next question, which is who was the intended audience for this book, is it everyday people, lawyers, legal institutions, or academics? And what do you hope the audience takes away from reading this?

MC: All of the above. I wrote the book intentionally to speak to multiple audiences. As a sociologist, I knew that I needed to engage with other academics. Indeed, the project really was motivated by intellectual questions, as well as political ones. I wanted to engage with scholars studying courts, of course. But also, I wanted to engage with sociologists studying how culture shapes race and class inequality more broadly. The book asks sociologists to rethink cultural capital theory by providing a new relational, ethnographic account in a punitive institutional context. Also, this book was written for scholars studying mass criminalization and the carceral state across subfields and disciplines. I really wanted to articulate the central role of courts in perpetuating race and class inequality through the carceral state. So academics are, of course, a huge audience—probably the primary audience. This was particularly true at the dissertation stage.

Our goal should be to have fewer defendants coming into the court system because our society has provided people on the margins with resources that enable them to live full and healthy lives.

After graduation, I collected more data and rewrote the dissertation. While doing so, I engaged with legal scholars at Penn Law where I held a fellowship. I realized the book could have insights for lawyers and legal institutions. For them, one central throughline of the book is that legal representation is not enough. Having a lawyer neither satisfies justice nor is it a guaranteed route toward it. Of course, having a lawyer is very important, but it’s no guarantee of justice and much more needs to be done from the perspective of defendants. So for me, it was really important for empowered legal actors—prosecutors, judges, and even public defenders—to understand that. I think that many public defenders do an amazing job. But even when they are working their hardest, even when they’re client-centered, they’re still failing in the eyes of many defendants. I needed to articulate that and show them the structural and cultural factors that could explain why that was the case. This doesn’t mean that we should divest from public defense; it actually means we need to build up public defender offices and we need to give them more support. We also need to shift legal understandings at the institutional level of the courts, and then also shift and redistribute resources at the societal level, to make it less likely that people come into contact with the courts in the first place. Our goal should be to have fewer defendants coming into the court system because our society has provided people on the margins with resources that enable them to live full and healthy lives.

The last audience: everyday people. The whole project was motivated by the people who I got to know as defendants who might have wanted to read a book like this. After the book was published, I received a letter from someone who was incarcerated for four years in a jail in Hays County, Texas, which is just south of Austin. We just started having a conversation, and we wrote letters back and forth, I got to talk to him on the phone. His name, by the way, is Cyrus Gray. He’s now out of jail, but he’s still awaiting trial. He’s experienced—like so many I came to understand in the book—a strained attorney–client relationship. He told me that my book was really powerful for him as it allowed him to better understand his own experience. I want people like Cyrus, and even everyday people who may have never set foot in court, to understand the system better through the book. For those like Cyrus, who’ve had routine experiences with the court system, I want them to be able to better understand their experiences and potentially understand how to work around the persistent and systemic inequalities that they face as they navigate the court process and interactions with their lawyers.

TH: Can you talk a bit more about your positionality as an ethnographer? How do you observe and not intervene when you witness inequality and injustice? Did you ever feel like your presence in the room altered the interactions that you are observing?

MC: There are many ways of doing ethnography. As you know, some ethnographers participate in the lives of their respondents, some purely observe, some move to the place they’re studying, and still others conduct virtual ethnography at a distance. For me, as I observed people interacting with their lawyers, what was most important—given the gravity of consequences that could result for people who are going through the system as defendants—was to do no harm. My respondents allowed me into their lives and trusted me as I observed their private conversations with their lawyers. Whenever I’d see something that I thought was an injustice, or I thought was unfair, it was really important for me to restrain myself and not intervene. I am not a lawyer. I can’t offer legal advice. If I had intervened, I could actually make things worse. I think one thing that’s really complex about the court process—and which is a central argument of the book—is that fighting for your legal rights and trying to assert yourself can often backfire. So I certainly did not want that to happen to any of the people who I met because of something I did. It was really hard, actually, to not intervene.

Methodologically, there were two ethnographic vantage points from which I examined attorney-client relationships. One vantage point was from that of the defendant; I got to know a person through an interview and then I followed them to court and observed their interactions with their lawyer. With these respondents, we had a relationship beyond the attorney-client relationship. Then there was the second vantage point where I was embedded in the public defender’s office. I shadowed the lawyers, and I knew the clients less well. My interactions with clients were far more constrained—I really only interacted with them in attorney-client meetings and in observing them in public court settings.

So, the first vantage point allowed me to, at times, be able to help them in their everyday lives beyond the court process. For example, one of my respondents asked me to come along with her to her eviction court hearing. She was staying in a sober house where she and the other women in the sober house were fighting eviction. So I showed up, and I just hung out. I was just there. I did not take field notes. I was just there as an ordinary person helping someone by supporting them in their eviction hearing. Another person wanted me to do an interview with him that was recorded for some documentary that he and a friend were doing to set the record straight about his arrest record. So I said, sure, I’ll do that. That’s not part of my role as a researcher; it’s just me as an ordinary person. So I had relationships with some respondents beyond my role as a researcher. That was true for the lawyers as well. I think it’s only human, right? If I saw someone struggling in their everyday life, I didn’t pry and force them like, you need to access this service or, have you signed up for this program? But if someone asked me for help in that way, outside of their legal problem, I just did what an ordinary person would do and helped them.

TH: As a researcher, and also as a person with these relationships, there’s emotional labor involved, naturally, that is also very human. I know you mentioned that as well in your appendix about emotional labor is necessary, but we are actually curious if you’d be willing to expand a little bit more on that. What were some of the challenges for you? What was it like to navigate that?

MC: Emotional labor came up for me in the interview context, when the people I got to know were telling me stories about terrible experiences in childhood or terrible experiences with the legal system. I think many ethnographers and interviewers refer to that as secondary, or vicarious, trauma. Some of the stories that came out in the book, like stories of CPS coming into the home, stories of problematic relationships with parents, stories of teachers using them when they were kids to sell drugs, and things like that. That was hard to hear. It sucked, to be frank. It was also hard to feel like I couldn’t do anything about it. But in the process of doing the interviews, you’re getting people’s whole life stories all of a sudden, and sharing your story with a stranger can be rewarding for people. For them, it was, I think, often nice. People would often tell me: this felt like a kind of therapy to be able to share those experiences and get it off their chest. So as much as it emotionally affected me, I felt positive that for many of the people I spoke to, it helped them just be able to make sense of their lives and have someone listen to them.

JH: This made me think about how awesome it is that your intervention, in a way, was a long game that you’re playing, right? Instead of this instant gratification of speaking up for the people that you’re studying, being able to bite your tongue and eventually process these emotions through writing your book is super powerful to hear.

MC: Yeah, I love that phrase: a long game. Because I think so much of academia is a long game. But thinking of that as, okay, I’m collecting these data for a reason. Always remember what your end goal is, as you’re going through the process of interviewing people, following them, writing your field notes, and analyzing the data. Analyzing the data can be another moment, right, where you’re experiencing secondary trauma, because sometimes we might forget all the terrible stuff we’ve heard until we look back at our data. Partly, that might be a coping mechanism that we have. When you go back and you analyze, and you’ve gotta write about it, it’s like, oh my gosh, I’ve got to rehash these terrible experiences that other people have gone through. This can be especially difficult if you’re studying traumatic things that you personally have gone through too. For instance, people who study sexual violence. If they have themselves survived sexual violence, that could be terrible to relive through your respondents. Remembering why you’re in it and having that long-game goal in your head can really help you through it. But at the same time, I will say, if I were to give any advice to my past self, or to students, it would be this: if at any point your research becomes overwhelming, take a leave or pivot and study something that is not as traumatizing. You’ve got to take care of yourself too.

JH: Speaking about the long game, did you ever have moments where you felt like giving up entirely during grad school or pivoting your research? I know, you’ve mentioned that you’ve pivoted your research from empowered actors to defendants. But did you ever have moments like that? How did you get through that?

MC: Yeah, I certainly did. I remember my very first interview. It was an absolute mess. I had posted a flier and someone had called me and said, I’d like to do an interview. I was scrambling on the phone. I was like, oh my gosh, what’s my first interview spot? I had no idea. I was fumbling through it. I said, okay, where should we meet? I hadn’t thought about where we should meet. Back in those days, we weren’t doing interviews over Zoom. You had to meet somewhere physical. So I said, okay, let’s meet at the Starbucks in Harvard Square. Terrible place to do an interview! Especially with someone who may feel uncomfortable sharing their story of criminal legal involvement while sitting next to some privileged Harvard undergrad chatting with her friend over a mocha blue chai latte. The person I first interviewed was also unhoused, and he was terribly uncomfortable in the setting. It was a very short interview, as you might imagine. I thought to myself, wow, I’m really bad at this.

There were many moments like that, where I lost confidence, where I wasn’t so sure that anything was new, where I didn’t know whether this research would actually be beneficial to the people who took the time to participate. But I think having more explicit conversations with mentors and advisors, and then also having more explicit conversations with some of my research subjects, helped. I remember one respondent gave me wonderful feedback on the interview, and that was really helpful and motivated me to persist. So I guess a common theme is this collective sense of not doing this alone. Having conversations, whether it’s with mentors, partners, friends, or research subjects, really helped me persist through the data collection process—and, more broadly, processes in academia that can be quite solitary in many ways. But really, it should be a collective effort. The best forms of research come about through collective engagement with other people.

One of the most amazing things about now being a faculty member is I get to work with so many different graduate students and undergrads. The work that I’m doing now, with the Court Listening Project, is very collaborative. I am intentional in working with students to give them direct experience with ethnography, analysis, and writing. I am deeply invested in having them learn about social problems through the research process. Collaborative research is a great way for students to learn firsthand about social problems. And, it is also a safe way for them to do so. When we’re in the field together, we can talk about any secondary trauma they’re experiencing. We’ve had some moments where we’ve had to have conversations as a collective about how we deal with such trauma. How do we protect ourselves? How do we protect the research subject? They’re able to ask me these questions during our weekly meetings and while in the field.  

JH: You mentioned that you wanted to be a writer, and people say that writing is such a lonely endeavor, too. Okay, so you’ve collected data, you’ve talked about it with your cohort mates, your advisor, and you’re in conversation with the community with the people you’re interviewing and witnessing in the courtroom. But when it came to writing, what was that like for you?

MC: Oh, yeah, I know. Writing is typically pretty solitary, especially getting those first words on a page. I mean, you’ve got to do that yourself. But I’ve learned that so much of the writing process after that can be collective. Back in grad school, I saw it when we would give feedback on each other’s work. You would workshop your paper, and then have conversations about it. Then you go back and write. And when you first submit your paper to a journal, you get reviewer comments and maybe hopefully a few editorial comments. Then you think, okay, how am I going to do this and then you rewrite from that feedback.

A common theme is this collective sense of not doing this alone. Having conversations, whether it’s with mentors, partners, friends, or research subjects, really helped me persist through the data collection process— and, more broadly, processes in academia that can be quite solitary in many ways. But really, it should be a collective effort. The best forms of research come about through collective engagement with other people.

When I wrote the book, I realized even more so how important feedback is. After I’d written that first draft or first 5-10 drafts, I had a book workshop, which really helped me. Now that I’ve been writing for a more public audience through The Nation and other outlets, I have found that editors at these outlets are actually really detailed, sometimes in ways that make me a bit worried about the relative inattention of the editorial and reviewer feedback we get from peer review. I also noticed this difference when I was writing a law review article. Student editors at law reviews, like editors for the most careful magazines and newspapers, read everything line by line. They’re very interested in making sure every sentence is factually accurate, as well as making sure that the whole piece is stylistically engaging. These experiences have taught me how to write differently.

TH: So we are a grad student journal centered on public sociology. Do you have any advice for grad students in terms of bridging their research with the public, given the apparatus of academic knowledge production?

MC: I think there’s much more flexibility if you know you don’t want to go into academia. Say you want to work for a magazine, go into tech, or go work for a nonprofit—you could be working toward different goals as a graduate student that go beyond, or at least operate alongside, the goal of publishing peer-reviewed academic research.

But for graduate students who want to go into academia and do public sociology as a professor, I think the best way to do that is to first focus on your peer-reviewed research. Get it right. Once it’s carefully done, it’s out there, it’s published, then disseminating it in multiple and various forms, I think, is the way to bridge your research with the public. So you’ve collected data, you’ve analyzed it, and you’ve published a strong paper that you really believe is accurate. And now you want to promote it by sharing it on social media, writing up a short policy brief, writing a quick op-ed type for The Conversation, or even by working with a community organization that could directly benefit from the knowledge you’ve generated. That could enable them to make changes directly, on the ground. So you could just email that organization or you could physically go to that organization, and start working with them, volunteering with them. Maybe you’re already volunteering with an organization while collecting your data. Maybe they want you to share reports actively as you are collecting the data. But if so, I think it’s important to make sure that you feel like your work is at a state where you would stand by the veracity of the claims that you’re making. You’ve carefully analyzed the data before really going out to the public to share it. The reason I think that’s important is because we don’t want to be sharing inaccurate or premature work that could influence policy or how everyday people choose to live their lives. We must take care to ensure the work we produce is as accurate as it can possibly be before we start to have conversations with the public.

JH: What are you working on these days after Privilege and Punishment? We were wondering if you could tell us a little bit more about the Court Listening Project that you’ve mentioned before?

MC: Yeah. So I’m working on two projects. One is the Court Listening Project, which I’ve talked a little bit about already. It is a multi-method research study and archive of courthouses in the Bay Area. Right now, we’re mostly focused on three courthouses in Santa Clara County. Two of them are criminal courts, and one is an eviction courtroom in a civil courthouse. One of the goals of this project is to understand people’s—what I’ve referred to in one of my articles as—“legal envisioning,” or their understandings and visions for changing the legal system as well as broader aspects of society that impinge on the legal system. We are interviewing defendants, family members, victims, organizers, lawyers, and even residents who live near the courthouses that we’re interested in, because the courthouse affects their lives as well. It affects their daily rounds. It affects how they feel about their neighborhood and the stigmas of their neighborhood. So we’re really broadening the perspective on what counts as the so-called “court community” or even the “courtroom workgroup.” We’re working on peer-reviewed papers from this, but as I said, one unique aspect of this project is that we’re creating an archive and sharing excerpts online. We’re also publishing reports that can help people on the ground, as well as policymakers and the public defender’s office and the like.

The second project follows prospective law school students through law school and into their legal careers. It’s a longitudinal interview study. We have done the first of two time points for many of the people in the study. So the first time point would be before they go to law school. We’ve already done that. And then the summer after their first year of law school. One interesting finding that we’ve started analyzing is this process we’re calling “moral reconciling.” What we’re finding is that the vast majority of the people we interviewed are quite critical of the legal profession prior to law school entrance. They think the legal profession is white supremacist, it’s hetero-patriarchal. It has carceral logics and perpetuates carceral state violence. But at the same time, they are interested in applying to law school and eventually becoming part of the legal profession. And so we’re trying to understand basically how people reconcile their personal morals with their criticisms of the morality of the profession or occupation that they want to enter into. And we’ve come up with an understanding of what we refer to as within-occupation moral boundary work, where basically, they are identifying certain aspects of the occupation—whether it’s a specific job, a task, a way of being in the occupation—that they see as “good,” and other aspects that see as morally “bad” and polluted. Their way of justifying entering the legal profession is that they hope to be part of the good aspects, even if they see the good aspects of the profession as non-dominant. We’ll be curious to follow people and see how their reconciling changes over time. There’s a lot of work on shifting toward corporate careers, or what is called “drifting” toward corporate careers in the literature, and we’re seeing some of that. But we’re curious to understand, even within the corporate track, how moral reconciling still occurs, and people can try to cognitively justify doing things that they themselves critique as morally bad, because they’re also doing things that they see as morally good, or they are contributing in ways like diversifying a corporate law firm. We’re at a moment right now, in society, where this is not just true of prospective law school students; I think a lot of younger, college-educated people who are beginning careers these days are reconciling with this no matter their occupation. Our theory is a broader theory than just the legal profession. It’s a theory of entering consulting, banking, and other high-status, professional managerial careers, even academia. So I think we see this as a cultural process that is broader than just entrance into law school and the legal profession.

TH: We were hoping to actually end this interview by asking the same question we asked everybody. Who or what is inspiring you these days?

MC: Okay, so I love this question. Right now I’m on research leave, which is meant to allow me to focus on my research, which I’m fortunate to be able to do. But also, it’s freed me up a little bit to be more intentional with my family, friends, traveling, and making art. I love to paint and make visual art of various forms. I’ve also decided that I want to get to know Palo Alto more because I feel like I don’t really know this area that I’ve been living in for the past three and a half years. Since September, I’ve been volunteering at the Palo Alto Food Closet, which is in downtown Palo Alto, and it’s run by a broader organization called the Downtown Streets Team. What I do as a volunteer is help to hand out food to food insecure people. So we’re handing out food, I’m helping them restock shelves, carry donations, sweep the floors. The people who work there, and our clients, are inspiring me in so many ways. So this is not research. I don’t plan to do a research study on the Palo Alto Food Closet. But I’ve learned how hard it is to turn off your sociological framework and vision. So I’m seeing all these things about sociology. It’s just inspiring me in an everyday way. The small everyday ways the people who run this food pantry are helping one another in what we’ve been talking about as this collective effort of working with and caring for other people. In a world where we have this terrible pandemic, we have racist police violence, we have all sorts of terrible things. It’s so inspiring to just be among them, laugh with them, meet people who I probably never would have met before if I weren’t doing this, and just see a whole community that, if I just spent my life in my neighborhood or on campus, I never would have known about. I’m reading this book now called Viral Justice by Ruha Benjamin. There’s a phrase that I love in an early part of the book called “low-key scheming of everyday people.” That’s exactly what I’m seeing in the food pantry, just the ways that they are scheming and sharing food resources to help people. I enjoy getting to know people and talking to them about random things that have nothing to do with my work; it’s refreshing.

The other person who’s inspiring is Cyrus Gray. I mentioned him earlier. So Cyrus is the person I was writing letters with back and forth. He was incarcerated pretrial in Hays County Jail and now he’s out. I have been watching him fight his case. I’ve been watching him work with lawyers who do not seem to care about him or his case. I’ve been watching him advocate for systemic change in his community. So he’s not just fighting his case alone, but he’s also working alongside an organization called Mano Amiga. Together, they have started to establish the first public defender’s office in that county, which would have helped people like Cyrus. So it’s been awesome to be inspired by him from afar, and I hope to get to meet him in person one day. I think just seeing Cyrus survive four years in jail awaiting trial, and also try to fight for the freedom of other people with him who he met behind bars, has been so inspiring.

Matthew Clair is Assistant Professor of Sociology and, by courtesy, Law at Stanford University. His scholarship broadly examines how cultural meanings and interactions reflect, reproduce, and challenge various dimensions of social inequality. He is the author of the award-winning book Privilege and Punishment: How Race and Class Matter in Criminal Court