My research takes an inductive approach that integrates computational and qualitative methods to explore the institutional dynamics of contested fields. I focus on analyzing gray markets and industries to understand how unsettled legal structure leads to particular types of social control. Additionally, I also maintain a parallel research program devoted to using automated text analysis to understand the various dimensions of political violence.
Commercial Cannabis in The United States
I am particularly interested in understanding the social transformation of the cannabis market in the United States. As an industry that is federally criminalized, but sanctioned as a commercial enterprise through state laws. My dissertation project analyzed this transformation through the lens of institutional and social control theories. In the first phase of the project, I collected 56 in-depth interviews with cannabis professionals and regulators across California, Arizona, and Texas in order to understand how each of the three types of cannabis programs in the United States (e.g. Recreational, Medical, and Non-Psychoactive) are organizing the commercial cannabis market. These interviews offer insights into the contemporary challenges facing cannabis professionals, and how these challenges are shaping the future of commercial cannabis in the United States. Largely, this data reveals the types of business practices that independent and corporate cannabis companies use to navigate contradictory regulations which situate them in a persistent state of semi-legality. In the second phase of the project, I surveyed cannabis professionals across the United States to understand whether these insights were patterned experiences that revealed broader market contexts, or if they were unique responses to localized criminogenic and legal processes. This survey was funded by the National Science Foundation (Award: 1903986), and the Social and Behavioral Sciences Research Institute at the University of Arizona.
Three papers have been developed from this project. The first paper, entitled “Surveillance, Social Control, and Managing Semi-Legality in U.S. Commercial Cannabis,” theorizes the regulated cannabis trade as a gray market because it operates as a state-legal enterprise while remaining federally criminalized. With this framework in mind, this article draws on the interviews from my dissertation to explore how cannabis professionals manage their semi-legal status. The findings in this paper uncover three distinct state rationales (or “governmentalities”) for implementing social control in the cannabis industry. Through preventative surveillance, the state implements oversight practices designed to stop deviance from occuring within the cannabis industry. In contrast, adaptive surveillance informs oversight practices designed to tacitly permit some forms of deviance so long as they establish market boundaries. Finally, integrative surveillance becomes a means for the state to transform previously deviant actors into licensed cannabis industry actors. While on the surface these rationales may seem like a purely top-down form of social structure, they also operate as a heuristic device that cannabis professionals leverage in efforts to identify how they should stay compliant when the laws they are operating under contain ambiguious or unclear mandates. Consequently, the cannabis industry incorporates practices that support, modify, and at times, extend core state surveillance initiatives as a way to signal good faith attempts at compliance and avoid incurring consequences for business strategies that are not completely sanctioned. This paper was published in Social Problems and is available upon request.
The second paper, entitled “Sumptuary Administration: How Contested Market Actors Shape the Trajectory of Policy When Regulated Under Fragmented Governance,” argues that despite federal precedent, commercial cannabis continues to expand because the cannabis industry takes a leading role in addressing regulatory gaps in state laws that structure the market. In this article, I demonstrate how three unique logics, (or “frameworks of accountability”) are tied to the types of cannabis programs that exist in the United States. These logics prompt state authorities to focus on certain areas of the market more than others when crafting commercial cannabis polices. As a consequence of this process, I show how forms of compliance and key rules are left underspecified in the states that are the subject of this project. This article demonstrates how the cannabis industry develops quasi-legal strategies to sustain market operations until the state steps in to revise their policies. The findings of this paper reveal that state governments actually follow the lead of cannabis businesses when making these revisions, thus centering the cannabis industry as a key player in the regulatory process. This paper is forthcoming in Law & Policy and is available upon request.
The third paper, “Cannabis Businesses Are Being Good Contributors to the Community”: The Regulated Cannabis Industry and Cannabis Normalization in the United States,” analyzes the efforts that cannabis businesses undertake to reshape public sentiment about regulated cannabis more broadly. Drawing on both the interview and survey data collected for this project, I outline three strategies that have emerged across the market to reduce formal and symbolic sanctions against cannabis products in the United States. I find that cannabis businesses use legal, but stigmatized business models to maintain public access to cannabis products (e.g., “boundary-testing”), adapt templates of stigma reduction to evolving market conditions that threaten to make them obsolete (e.g., “moral bridging”), and actively work to change taken-for-granted forms of public discourse around cannabis that perpetuate stigma (e.g., “narrative shifting”). I argue that collectively, these strategies are components of a process of norm adjustment, which contributes to cannabis normalization by countering multiple forms of stigma from the supply-side of the market. This paper is forthcoming in Crime & Delinquency and is available upon request.
Automated Text Analysis and Political Violence
I maintain a parallel research program that utilizes automated text analysis to explore the causes and consequences of various dimensions of political violence.
With colleagues Andrew P. Davis and Yongjun Zhang, I leveraged Latent Dirichlet Allocation (LDA) topic modeling to demonstrate that despite sharing similar religious motivations, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) deploy different recruitment frameworks that focus on dissimilar goals. This finding challenges a common research practice of uncritically grouping terrorist organizations into the same niche based on abstract categories such as religion or region. We argue that focusing on more fine grained characteristics such as goals, allows for a richer understanding of the motivations and outcomes of terrorist activity. Additionally, this article demonstrates the efficacy of topic modeling for comparative analysis in low-N studies. This research was published in Poetics.
With colleagues Jessica Pfaffendorf and Andrew P. Davis, I leveraged Structural Topic Models (STM) to explore the underlying themes of a novel dataset of mass shooter manifestos. Contrary to popular media narratives that frame mass shootings as a consequence of individual circumstances, this article finds a set of distinctly social logics that motivate these acts. These logics largely center on a preoccupation with responding to feelings of exclusion, threats to racial status, and challenges to masculininity. This finding supports and extends social psychological explanations of mass shooter violence. It also offers new evidence for the utility of topic modeling as a confirmatory approach that is useful for augmenting qualitative studies. This research was published in Sociological Inquiry.
Frameworks of Value Among Cryptocurrency Adopters
A previous line of research I pursued explored the boundaries between symbolic and non-symbolic value systems among adopters of cryptocurrencies. I began this project in 2015-2016 by collecting semi-structured interviews with early adopters of the popular cryptocurrency Bitcoin in order to understand how traditional economic value and symbolic values are tethered in an alternative money system that is not sanctioned by any government. I demonstrated how unique value schemas or “extra-institutional logics” emerged out of this community that supported Bitcoin during a market downturn despite being predicated on dissimilar visions about the future of the system. This research is published in Social Currents. Additionally, this project has revealed that embedding into alternative money systems follows a patterned and reflexive process. This research is forthcoming in Sociological Focus.