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Valerie Jenness Award Statement

In 1998, two especially horrific crimes shook the nation and reinvigorated debates about hate crime laws in the U.S.In the aftermath of James Byrd Jr.’s and Matthew Shepard’s slayings, Professor Valerie Jenness gave interviews to leading newspapers and radio stations across the country, providing the public with the context to make some sense of the crimes themselves, as well as the growing debate over the efficacy of hate crime legislation.Professor Jenness was uniquely suited to this role, given her scholarly work documenting the social movement behind hate crimes laws, and her growing expertise and participation in the messy world policy-making.

This difficult act balancing the roles of preeminent scholar in her field, policy advisor, and public sociologist has defined Professor Jenness’s career.In recognition of her remarkable success at these various endeavors, the American Sociological Association has named her the co-winner of the Public Understanding of Sociology Award for 2010.Valerie Jenness is Professor of Criminology, Law and Society, and Professor of Sociology at the University of California-Irvine, where she currently serves as the Interim Dean of the School of Social Ecology.She received her Ph.D. in Sociology from the University of California, Santa Barbara, in 1991, and began her academic career at Washington St. University before moving to Irvine in 1997.

Professor Jenness’s scholarly productivity is staggering.Aside from her studies on social movements and hate crimes legislation, which culminated in two award-winning books, articles in numerous journals including the American Sociological Review and the American Behavioral Scientist, and translations into Japanese, German, and Spanish, she has published another award-winning book and several articles on the prostitutes’ rights movement.A more recent project involves assembling a unique dataset comprised of over 300 interviews of currently incarcerated transgender inmates to study their experiences in the correctional system.

Professor Jenness’s research does not detract from her equally remarkable service to the profession.She is Past President of the Society for the Study of Social Problems, served as co-editor of Contemporary Sociology from 2005 to 2008, associate editor of Social Problems from 1999 to 2002, chaired numerous ASA and SSSP committees, and advised as a committee member or chair over seventy graduate students in a career that began less than two decades ago.

The Public Understanding of Sociology Award, however, is not simply for recognition of scholarly productivity and commitment to the discipline.It is awarded for exemplary contributions to public understanding of sociological research and scholarship, and it is Professor Jenness’s tireless efforts to translate sociological findings and insights to multiple publics that makes her such a deserving winner.Interviews in the New York Times and Washington Post, among countless other newspapers, and on National Public Radio and other media outlets have made her the leading and often lone social scientist engaging the public on hate crimes laws.

And her service extends well beyond the general media consumer to the very heart of policy-making: Professor Jenness has offered expert testimony before the United State Congress, and worked closely with state agencies and legislators – including state senators and the governor’s office – to craft and improve state-level corrections laws in California.Her corrections-related work has focused on the experience of transgender inmates in California prisons, sexual assault in correctional facilities, and the inconsistent implementation of hate crime statutes across jurisdictions.Her testimonies and consultancies have helped shape correctional policy debates in California, been cited in media outlets across the state and beyond, as well as entered as evidence in a prominent Superior Court case.

These endeavors along with her scholarly work make Professor Jenness a model public sociologist and a model recipient for the Public Understanding of Sociology Award.Professor Jenness is acutely sensitive to the pitfalls and compromises that often await the academic researcher wishing to bridge the worlds of scholarship with public advocacy and policy debates.Yet Professor Jenness remains determined to make sociology relevant to wider publics while staying true to her commitment to independent, rigorous, and comprehensive social science research.In her words, bridging these divides is akin to “walking a tightrope,”[1] a high-wire act she has managed brilliantly in her young career.


[1] Jenness, Valerie.2008.“Pluto, Prisons, and Plaintiffs: Notes on Systematic Back-Translation From an Embedded Researcher.”Social Problems 55: 1-22.