Devah Pager, Professor of Sociology at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, is a most influential and prolific sociologist and demographer. While still in graduate school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, she chose to study a large, growing, and neglected population – the incarcerated – and to focus on their life chances after release. Devah’s doctoral research project was a well-designed employment test. She sent pairs of young men, black or white, to apply for entry-level jobs in the Milwaukee, Wisconsin area. The testers traded resumes at random – appearing with a drug felony conviction or with a clean legal record. The key finding was that young black men with a clean record were less likely to be called back by the employer than a young white man with a felony conviction. The finding went viral – quoted widely in the press and by politicians – and her subsequent journal publication and prize-winning book (Marked: Race, Crime, and Finding Work in an Era of Mass Incarceration: University of Chicago Press, 2008) have been cited almost 2,500 times.
This was only the beginning. Devah has continued to pursue research on race, crime, and employment discrimination in studies that cross-validated her initial finding, that contrasted survey responses of employers with their actions in employment tests, and that improved the methods of social experiments. While Devah’s research retains its tight focus on the dynamics of race, incarceration, and employment, it is also broad and deep, drawing on and contributing to theories and findings in economics and psychology as well as sociology and taking full advantage of significant work from decades ago and the recent past. Devah’s research is both original and cumulative in that she has altered research designs to improve upon her original work; several times, she has illuminated features of employment or imprisonment that have previously gone unnoticed or were misunderstood, e.g., in describing the different terrain of job search among blacks and whites and in analyzing prisons as neighborhoods. One of her recent accomplishments has been to play a key role as a participant in the National Academy of Sciences study, The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences (2014). Across her body of work, Devah has employed a variety of research designs and data sources, always fitting the scheme of inquiry and use of a variety of sophisticated analytic tools to the questions at hand.
Devah is a brilliant analytic thinker, a thorough scholar, an excellent writer and speaker – and utterly serious both in her scientific work and in her commitment to social justice. She is also a remarkable teacher and mentor, who is known for inspiring, challenging and supporting her students. She has received numerous honors and awards, and she has influenced the field in various advisory and service capacities. Beyond her professional qualities and accomplishments, Devah is a warm, kind, generous and truly remarkable human being and friend. She is outgoing, engaging, and gregarious, with a quick wit and a wry smile; she is a gem, a “sparkler,” and someone who always stands out in a crowd. Yet even amidst her notable success and striking qualities, it is hard to imagine a more genuine and empathetic person, who always wants the best for those around her and who strives to make her corner of the world a better place.