One of the most satisfying times in a scholarly career is when a research project comes along that melds several of one's academic interests. This book represents such a convergence. Since my undergraduate years, I have focused much of my attention on various deviance, crime, and social control topics. I have written rather little along these lines, but I have taught courses in these fields to students at three academic institutions. And since my first year of graduate study, I have also been fascinated by social constructionist theories of social problems; i.e., theories about how people organize, devise shared understandings of putative social conditions that they find undesirable, and attempt to change them. The third of my primary interests is social movement analysis, and it is in this area that most of my research has been done. For a person with this array of concerns, what could be more appropriate than a book about a social movement that seeks to do away with one of the most controversial practices in twentieth-century criminal justice?
This project, like most of the research I have undertaken, was born in the classroom. I first began thinking seriously about the death penalty in 1987 while I was designing a course on the sociology of violence. Both in academic and popular discourse, talk about "violence" is too often restricted to deviant applications of physical force. This obscures the fact that lethal and nonlethal aggression are woven into public affairs and that institutionalized forms of violence are worthy of critical examination in their own right. To compensate for the usual myopia that characterizes this subject, I added units on warfare, police violence, and capital punishment to the more standard topics of street crime, spouse abuse, and the like. As I explored the voluminous literature on the death penalty over the next couple of years, I noticed that aside from Michael Meltsner's book on the NAACP Legal Defense Fund's litigation in the 1960s and early 1970s ( 1973), works that focused on "antigallows" reformers of earlier eras and a smattering of articles in mostly historical journals, anti-death penalty activism had been ignored. As surely as nature hates a vacuum, a researcher is loath to walk away from a topic that has been so underexplored.