Deacon Profile: Steve Gunkel

Steve Gunkel is a professor of sociology who specializes in criminology and white-collar crime. He has worked full time at the university since 2011 and has been a visiting professor at the university since 2004. Gunkel received his B.A. in sociology from Washington State University in 1984 and his Masters from the same institution in 1986. In 1992, Gunkel was awarded his Ph.D. from Indiana University.

Julie Huggins/Old Gold & Black

Recently, Gunkel acted as a panelist at a symposium, Under the Gun. Next semester, through the new faculty fellow’s association, Gunkel and his wife, Ana-Maria Wahl, will be working alongside resident advisors to counsel freshmen in one of the south campus dorms.

How did you become interested in studying sociology?

I did the junior college route so I earned an associates degree at community college [before going to a four-year university]. I had only been at Washington State for two years to earn the B.A. and then stuck around for another two years. I wanted to teach from a really young age. Even as young as a middle-schooler, I was going back to my old elementary school and tutoring math. I thought I was going to be a high school math teacher, of all things.

I discovered sociology in the second quarter of junior college. I had never had it in high school, but I had a great mentor. She was amazing.

Her name was Anne Sungren, and she was kind of rare, too. Sometimes, a downside to a junior college is the faculty are not as engaged [as those in major institutions]. I came to find out Ann Sundgren was active on the national level with the American Sociological Association and taught sociology as a specialist.

I took her for introductory sociology, then deviant behavior and social psychology, and then I fell in love with the field. Right away, I focused on criminology. It seems weird to say I ‘specialized’ in criminology, because it’s a huge field. Criminology really can kind of give you the bigger picture of why we find ourselves where we are at with crime.

I just recently took part in a gun violence symposium. There is kind of that desperate attempt that all of us have to make sense of what is really going on [in crime], and I think sociology gives you that ability to put the broader social forces into that context and see how are those forces influencing our individual lives.

What first interested you in white-collar crime?

The Iranian hostage crisis was going on and there were several Iranian exchange students that were at Tacoma community college. It was very tense.

I wonder if there was a confluence of things that were happening at the time, but it would have been shortly after Watergate which was the real awakening of the American consciousness about crime and that it could be at the very highest level of power.

I was interested in crime from a very young age.

I also love math and that’s what I thought I was going to do. I’m still on the quantitative side of things. I’m teaching research methods this semester, and next year I think I’ll go back into the rotation of social statistics.

So I guess I haven’t abandoned my love of numbers, but I think criminology was a much more attractive fit. I loved that you could actually do research, share it with your students and maybe in the process, have some kind of meaningful impact on crime in its many manifestations.

What brought you to the university and what made you decide to do research here specifically in this area?

I’ve actually been at Wake off and on for years. When Dr. Wahl came here, I worked on sabbatical in a school in North Carolina for a year, and while I was there, Dr. Smith, my undergraduate sociology professor, was then my boss. I think he was the chair at the time. I had some part-time working opportunities here at Wake.

What are some ways in which criminology can be applied to real-world situations? Why do you teach it?

I think the public kind of gets it wrong. The crime rate has been moving downward since the 90s.

I think we often hear it reported in the media that it has been increasing, and what I find ironic is when the crime rate was starting into its most downward trend, the media actually picked up coverage on crime.

The coverage is out of step with the sort of statistical realties.

I think in terms of exposing some of those myths, I always tell students who take that class it’s probably one of the most important classes that they’ll take.

White collar crime will always be more financially expensive and it will always be more physically harmful than all common crime put together in any reporting period. I think a lot of the sub-prime mortgage market meltdown was based on fraudulent practices.

When I use that price tag, a lot of times students will have just that reaction, “Well, could you show me some numbers on that or where do you get your statistics?” But that’s only for the cases of white collar crime that we know of.

The hallmark of white collar offending verses street crime is that it would have that one-on-one component of the perpetrator the victim whereas white collar crime, most people just don’t even know that they were cheated on their mortgage.

What is something your students might not know about you?

A lot of students know I did Division I athletics back in the day with track and field.

I was the fastest kid in my school in fifth grade and sixth grade. I was beating the older kids but then I just stopped running. Then sophomore year of high school, I went out for the cross country team because I wanted to stay in a certain weight division for wrestling.

That’s all I went out for, and we [the cross country team] were awesome. We ended up third in the state by my senior year, and by that point I think I was running third. Believe it or not, running actually paid for part of my education.

My sophomore year of junior college I was on a running scholarship for Washington State.


  • Robin

    Great article, Steve. I didn’t know you were a jock.

  • Hogan

    Great times running with Gunkel at Washington State University!

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