Q&A with 2022 MacArthur Fellow Jennifer Carlson ’04
A recipient of the “genius grant,” Carlson reflects on her research on guns in American society, her experience at the College and how life ahead looks.
On Oct. 12, Jennifer Carlson ’04 was named a 2022 MacArthur Fellow for her research on American attitudes about guns. The MacArthur Fellowship is given annually “to talented individuals who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits,” according to Dartmouth News. After graduating summa cum laude from Dartmouth with a double major in mathematics and sociology, Carlson earned her master’s and Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley. She then went on to a distinguished teaching career at the University of Toronto and then at the University of Arizona. The Dartmouth sat down with Carlson to discuss her research, her time at the College and what she’ll do with the award money.
For people unaware of your research, what exactly is it that you study?
JC: I study guns in American society from a sociological perspective. I use interviews, participant observation and ethnography. I collect data to get at the meanings and practices that people attach to guns. Those can be positives, such as people who choose to own and carry guns; they can be negatives, with respect to gun violence survivors. But really, my research is geared at understanding the complicated and complex social life of guns in the United States.
Being named a 2022 MacArthur Fellow, you win a no-strings-attached award of $800,000. Do you have any current plans on what you will do with that money?
JC: It is a very overwhelming amount, and I have a lot of thinking to do. I definitely don’t have plans for all of it, but I am going to be establishing a fund to support graduate students in sociology at the University of Arizona — particularly graduate students who are experiencing emergency situations, where they’re having to deal with financial precarity. So that's the plan — to pay it forward a little bit with that.
There’s so many paths someone with a Dartmouth degree can take. How did you become interested in sociology, and how, specifically, did you choose to focus on guns?
JC: I thought I was going to be a math major coming into Dartmouth, and I was a math major. But I realized that I was also really passionate about a whole host of different kinds of political issues. And at some point, I realized there’s two approaches: There’s the science approach where we just need better technology to solve our problems,and then there’s the social science approach, which is not just finding the technical way to solve problems. We also have to understand how people relate to their social worlds and understand the world in order to actually make those technological problems feasible and effective. Sociology opened my mind to solving key problems in a much more complex way. I think the politics of guns — and the issue of guns — is an illustration of this: It’s so much more than the technology of the gun.
What was your Dartmouth experience like? Do you trace any of today’s success to your time here in the Upper Valley?
JC: At Dartmouth, whether it was in the math department or the sociology department, I feel like I really was encouraged not just to apply myself academically, but also to just reach as high as possible. Whether it was taking graduate level classes in math — which was super exciting — or doing independent research in the sociology department, being able to fly was something that Dartmouth just totally allowed to happen.
You wrote a senior thesis with current sociology professor Kathryn Lively. What was your paper about?
JC: That paper was on the death penalty. I went to Huntsville, Texas, which is known as the execution capital of the country. That’s where all the executions that happen in Texas happen — it’s a so-called “prison town.” I interviewed people who lived there and asked them how they made sense of the fact that these executions were all happening in a building in the center of their town.
In many ways, being able to explore not just the death penalty itself, but how people made sense of it, how they normalized it and how they developed the politics around it — that strategy is actually exactly what I do with guns. And so with my senior thesis at Dartmouth, I really was able to test out that sociological, very qualitative approach to understanding a key issue in society. I was trying to not just make sense of the death penalty itself, but how people make sense of it to try and broaden our debates.
You’re currently an associate professor of sociology and government and public policy at the University of Arizona, Tucson. How has that impacted your work?
JC: As a professor at the University of Arizona, I conduct research and I teach. In many ways, I have been facilitated by my university in terms of research-related endeavors. But I also want to really highlight the impacts that being at this university has had on my teaching. I have been lucky enough to design a course basically from scratch called “Guns in America” — that class looks at how guns matter in American society.
One thing that's interesting about University of Arizona students is that they’re kind of across the board in terms of politics. Even though there’s this stereotype that the college classroom is politically liberal, my students span this political debate. Some of them own guns, some of them are gun violence survivors. Being able to get everybody in a room and have a conversation about guns and practice what it means to talk about something that is politically controversial. We’re told there can be no consensus over it, because that’s the way the debate is structured — but that sort of space and the political imagination that grows out of ithas been hugely invigorating in terms of feeding back into my research and how I think about and contribute to this debate.
Are there any future plans or books you’re excited about?
JC: My book, “Merchants of the Right: Gun Sellers and the Crisis of American Democracy,” is coming out in May 2023. It looks at gun sellers during the 2020 surge in gun purchasing and maps out how they navigated and made sense of the chaos and multi-layered crises unfolding around them — the pandemic, racial unrest, anti-Black police violence and democratic instability.
That’s on the horizon. I’m also working on a National Science Foundation-funded project on gun violence survivors right now, so I’m interviewing people who have been impacted by gun violence in their lives. Those two things are keeping me pretty busy for right now.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.