The Robert Merton Award 2023 goes to Christopher Muller and Daniel Schrage for their paper titled "The political economy of incarceration in the cotton south", published in the American Journal of Sociology 127(3), 2021. This is what the Award Comittee (Elizabeth Bruch, Martin Arvidsson, Amir Goldberg, and Ozan Aksoy) said:
This article brings novel empirical analysis and evidence to bear on a classic question in the political economy of punishment. Social theorists have long argued that increases in incarceration are linked to contractions in labor demand. But prior work is largely descriptive, lacking analytical clarity about the mechanisms that give rise to this association as well as causal evidence. The authors elegantly resolve these issues by combining rich historical data on mechanisms with a natural experiment on a boil weevil infestation in Georgia. In doing so, they advance a conditional theory of the political economy of punishment that can be extended to other times and places.
The topic is important. The article is written free of obscure jargon. The study combines methodological rigor with a clear and convincing causal design and a meticulous data collection. The theoretical mechanisms that link labor demand with incarceration are carefully described and rigorously assessed. Importantly, the authors also establish scope conditions establishing the conditions under which the observed relationship between incarceration and labor demand would not hold. Overall, this is an exemplary demonstration of how the tools of causal inference and the richness of historical data can be integrated with the theoretical aims of analytical sociology.