Sociology professor Robert J. Sampson was awarded the 2011 Stockholm Prize for Criminology last week for his research on criminals’ ability to reform their behaviors to become law abiding citizens.
Spanning 20 years, Sampson’s work demonstrated criminals can become lawful citizens after certain life-changing events, such as marriage and military service.
The research—completed with John H. Laub, director of the National Institute of Justice—represented a shift in the fields of sociology and criminology, as it was previously believed an individual’s tendency to become a criminal depended on childhood events.
“We found that childhood factors are predictive of adult outcomes but are in no way determinative,” Sampson said. “Our research showed that there are important turning points in which the trajectories of people’s lives can be altered or changed.”
Using old interviews of past criminals, originally performed by former Harvard Law School Professor Sheldon Glueck and his wife Eleanor T. Glueck, Sampson and Laub tracked the life courses of 500 male offenders and found their behavior often changed after such key moments.
Sampson and Laub have been working on the research since 1986 and met at graduate school at SUNY Albany.
Glen Elder, a sociology and psychology professor at University of North Carolina and a personal friend to both, said Sampson and Laub’s work transformed the discipline.
“I think of Sampson as the author of a school of thought in criminology,” Elder said. “He formed a theoretical tradition, a way of theorizing about criminology and crime.”
Elder added the nature of the work merited the commendation.
“I think the award was overdue,” Elder added. “One can’t ask for a greater award, and I think they deserve the Stockholm prize.”
But Sampson said he was not expecting the accolade.
“Winning the award caught me off guard, but it was a pleasant surprise,” Sampson said. “It’s gratifying to see that our research has had an impact on the study of crime around the world.”
The research mainly appears in two books that the pair coauthored entitled, Crime in the Making: Pathways and Turning Points Through Life and Shared Beginnings, Divergent Lives: Delinquent Boys to Age 70.
Sampson grew up in Utica, N.Y., a small town that was hard hit by industrial closures, according to an article published by the National Academy of Sciences.
The article added that Sampson first became interested in social patterns as a young child when he would flip through National Geographic magazine.