As a sociologist, Neil Gross stands at the very center of the public affairs vortex, flexing his interests in politics, crime and punishment, and social policy as the storm of breaking news provides more material on a daily basis.

Neil GrossAnd the world is starting to take note of the Charles A. Dana Professor and Chair of Sociology at Colby: in the last year he has published five op-eds in the New York Times Gray Matter column and participated in multiple interviews about his scholarship on everything from collective trauma to why college professors are liberal.

While he describes himself as a generalist—“I’m interested in theory, in politics, in intellectuals, in law enforcement”—he has also become something of a go-to expert for media on “the Ferguson Effect,” the idea that increased scrutiny of police following the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., has led to an increased crime rate in major U.S. cities. The theory, which posits that backlash against law enforcement has led to a lower level of policing, has been widely criticized on the left.

Gross argued in a Times op-ed last fall that while there is possibly some validity to the theory, the debate obscures the need to address the problems of concentrated poverty (which can lead to crime in cities) and police violence and overreach. And he notes that the best work on the problem is being done by sociologists.

“For me, it’s the study of cause and effect relationships in the social world,” he says, describing his discipline.

His interest in law enforcement is sociological, but also personal. As a young man, Gross served as a police officer in Berkeley, Calif.

“I was drawn to the ideal of public service and to the idea of trying to make the community I was part of and where I grew up, safer,” he said. And while his law enforcement career was brief, it also influenced his later scholarly work. “It made me aware of some of the ways occupations have distinctive cultures,” he says. “It was a pretty big (intellectual) shift for me.”

“We want to be a place where students learn by getting involved in high level research.”—Neil Gross, Charles A. Dana Professor and Chair of Sociology

Gross is committed to sharing scholarly discovery with his students. He had “a whole team of undergraduates” helping with his latest project, exploring the Ferguson Effect through research on the Internet and in social media.

“We used a relatively novel strategy,” he said. “We estimated the amount of public concern about police violence in 43 cities by tracking Google searches for phrases like police brutality.” Gross and his coauthor, Marcus Mann, a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at Duke, then looked to see whether crime rose more in cities where people were upset about police behavior.

The result was an article published in Socius, a journal of the American Sociological Association. (The undergraduate team of sociological sleuths was acknowledged in the journal.)

“This is something we are gearing up for as a department,” Gross said. “We want to be a place where students learn by getting involved in high level research.”

He is also excited about the growth of what’s called “computational social science,” noting that a new course in data analysis and visualization will be critical to Colby’s nascent sociologists. “Big data is growing more and more important,” he said.