Drawing on her training in sociology, demography, and criminology, Patterson studies the intergenerational transfer of racial and social inequalities in America with a particular focus upon social systems, organizations, and institutions. Most of her work to date examines the U.S. judicial system’s role in creating and perpetuating inequality. Interaction with the judicial system disproportionately impacts marginalized populations by limiting their social mobility, blocking their economic opportunities, ensuring poor health outcomes, and providing very little hope that they can escape the self-sustaining system of inequality embedded in America’s social structure. The exploration of how the structure of institutions and organizations maintain social inequality is a key and enduring question in sociological research.
Her inquiries apply demographic principles to investigate a wide variety of social problems and processes associated, broadly, with institutions and organizations. Her work situates the consequences of incarceration in an array of social processes, interrogating how incarceration as a social institution reconfigures and adulterates other primary social institutions, including law, polity, education, kinship, and economy. She classifies her work into three interrelated sociological topics: (1) health and mortality, (2) population processes and social institutions, and (3) the social construction of law, race, and ethnicity.