Voices of Experience: Barry Markovsky
What life experiences have contributed to your interest in social psychology in general and/or your specific research areas?
I can definitely trace my academic interests to early experiences in my life. I was born in 1956 and raised with an older brother in a lower middle-class family outside Boston. I started becoming aware of the world around me during a time of social upheaval and transformation: the cold war and the nuclear arms race, the dawn of the space age, the rise of rock & roll music, the civil rights movement, the sexual revolution, the women’s liberation movement, and so on. Change was the norm.
At the same time, I was a shy and introspective kid, and felt quite the little oddball in my own family. I probably had more than the usual adolescent dose of feeling like an alien looking in from the outside, or sometimes feeling like an actor in a play. Ironically, starting in my junior in high school I began trying out for plays and musicals to help me address the shyness and also a fear of public speaking. I was actually very successful at that and even continued it into college—one of the best choices I ever made, despite resistance from my parents who thought it was pretty weird.
As for research interests, I’ve had quite few. Apart from the desire to do work that’s interesting, creative, useful and sound, I’m not aware of any more specific agenda that unifies those interests. Agendas and perspectives are constraining and potentially misleading. I honestly never adopted any particular sociological perspective or “ism,” a True Believer in nothing except that the scientific method is our best hope for developing reliable and valid knowledge of the social universe. Given that, I think that some compelling theories are formal and some are informal; sometimes appropriate methods are quantitative and sometimes they are qualitative; interesting phenomena happen both at micro levels and at macro levels. My choices as to what projects to pursue are influenced by several things: personal experiences and concerns, mentors’ interests, available resources, conversations and collaborations with students and colleagues, reading books from other fields, and so on.
Where did you spend the early part of your sociological career (first as a student and then as faculty)? How have your specific interests in sociology changed over time?
I began college as a psychology major, but took just as many sociology classes from the outset. Social psychology was the natural bridge, and there was a good strong group of social psychologists in the psych department at University of Massachusetts, Amherst where I attended college. Seymour Berger, George Levinger and Jim Averill were all mentors. In sociology I received a nice introduction to symbolic interactionism from Jack Hewitt, deviance and criminology from Tony Harris, and research methods and statistics from Jim Wright and Pete Rossi. I loved college and I think that I probably distinguished myself not (at all) as a brilliant or sophisticated student, but as interested, engaged and hard-working.
I ended up enrolling in the honors program and conducted thesis projects in both psychology and sociology. Although UMass is a mega-university, by the time I was a junior I had exclusive access to my advisor’s well-equipped psychophysiological laboratory, and in sociology I was helping to TA a methods course and shared an office with graduate students. Nobody else in my family went to college. I still remember the phone conversation when I told my parents I was doing well in school, learning a lot, and thinking about applying to graduate schools. They didn’t get it. They just assumed I’d graduate and find a job somewhere. I had no academic role models in my life, and I didn’t really know where I might be heading. I did know that I wanted to keep learning, and I heard that the better grad schools will help pay your way if you’re good. My advisors seemed almost as skeptical of my grad school aspirations as my parents, but they wrote their reference letters and I finished my theses in time to graduate a semester early, work and save some money.
I only applied to three graduate programs in sociology and one in psychology. I also applied for an NSF Graduate Fellowship, which I knew was a long-shot. I was living in Eugene, Oregon while awaiting those decisions, working awful jobs like stocking shelves in a record store and waiting tables. Spring finally came and I learned that all four programs accepted me. Even better, NSF offered me the fellowship, making me all the more desirable to those four grad programs. That was an incredible time for me. I had real doubts about getting into graduate school, and real fears that I would be stuck working unfulfilling jobs. Then all of a sudden grad programs were recruiting ME! After nine months of drudge work, I was ready to give grad school all I had. With apologies to my mentors, I chose to go to Stanford not because of who was there, but because it was the smallest of the four programs, a very high proportion of its students completed their Ph.D.’s, and I knew they had a good reputation in social psychology. Palo Alto also seemed like it would be a nice place to live for a while.
I had so many great influences at Stanford. My earliest included Pat Barchas who was blazing trails in socio-physiology, and Barbara Rosenblum who was making a name for herself in symbolic interactionist and ethnographic circles. I also learned statistics from Mike Hannan, organizations from Dick Scott, theory from Buzz Zelditch, and theory construction from Bernie Cohen. Later on I developed a project with Joe Berger. Despite all these wonderful influences, I can’t say that I ever developed a strong tie with any faculty member. I regret this, and don’t recommend it to students. I was hardworking and autonomous, but simply not very assertive or confident. Still, along the way, I gained deeper respect and appreciation for a variety of subject areas and methodological approaches.
I moved relatively quickly through the grad program, but largely under the radar. I wasn’t flashy and did not have much interaction with faculty, mainly due to the old lack of confidence. That had a real downside. For instance, when I interviewed for a faculty position at University of Washington I was just 25, a third-year student still in the early stages of my dissertation, completely uncoached in the Art of the Interview. It was a useful
experience, but very humbling to say the least. A year later I was finished with the dissertation and a little better prepared to interview. The job market then was horrific and I only had two interviews. One of them was at the University of Iowa.
My professional socialization continued at Iowa, thanks especially to my colleagues Jae Kim, Ed Lawler and Chuck Mueller, each in their own way showing me what it meant to be a working sociologist. My main interests coming out of grad school included justice perceptions, status processes and theory construction. I think I was quickly labeled an experimentalist, but I’m actually a multi-methodologist. “Experimentalist” is a rather misunderstood and deviant identity in sociology, and so that’s the one that tends to stick. On the other hand, I think that some of my best empirical publications are based on experiments, so I wear the label with some pride.
I was also labeled early on as having a kind of fetish with formal theory. That’s based on a misunderstanding and I don't accept that characterization at all. I’ve believed since grad school that our job is to invent new theories and/or to strengthen existing ones, this accomplished through an endless process of testing and revising. Since well-tested formal
theories don’t spring fully-formed out of the minds of sociologists, and since many of our field’s most interesting theoretical ideas are not formalized, demeaning or outright rejecting non-formal theories is counter-productive. On the other hand, I believe in being very tough on our theories. We should always treat them as provisional, always regard them with a measure of skepticism, always try to make them better insofar as clarifying their terms and arguments for the benefit of others and subjecting them to the strongest possible attempts to disprove them. On the theoretical side, formalization is the best tool we have for accomplishing these things. But you have to evaluate a theory in the context of its level of development and that of its alternatives. If there are no formalized alternatives or predecessors to a theory, then merely defining a single key term may be a valuable incremental improvement.
What is your current (or recent) research focus?
These days my time and my mind are mainly occupied with three projects. I’m working with Chris Barnum (former student from Iowa and now on the faculty at St. Ambrose College) on an NSF-funded project that bridges social identity and status characteristics theories. Jennifer McLeer is serving as graduate assistant, and also working on her own status-related NSF-funded dissertation project. I’m also working with another of our grad students, Nick Berigan, on a second NSF grant project, that one dealing with perceptions of justice in public goods settings.
I'm especially excited about a third project, a long-term collaborative endeavor that combines several of my interests. Eventually I want to help establish a dynamic, on-line toolkit and library for building and sharing “modular” sociological theories. My hope is to make this “Wikitheoria” rewarding and enjoyable to use so people will contribute to the library, improve on existing modules and, most importantly, be able to locate and assemble components in ways that help to solve real-world problems. I know how pie-in-the-sky that sounds at this point, but obviously there’s a lot more to it and a lot of work to be done. I’m currently developing the system with a colleague in Computer Science and some of his students, starting with a couple of dozen modules contributed mostly by grad students in my department.
What interests and/or activities, outside of sociology, are important to you?
Aside from my family which is more important to me than anything, I put a pretty good amount of energy into music. For the last seven years or so I’ve been playing guitar, bass guitar, and singing in a band called Second Honeymoon. (We have some recordings on-line at second-honeymoon.com). We’ve actually been getting hired regularly to play around the Columbia and Charleston areas here in South Carolina. This has been important to me as a different kind of creative outlet. After 25 years of only playing in front of my immediate family, the band motivated me to learn a new instrument (bass guitar), get comfortable performing in front of all kinds of people, broaden my musical horizons, write some original tunes, and move in some different networks. It definitely rounds me out as a person.
Given your success in the field, how do you balance professional and personal demands?
I probably worked 80-90 hours/week as an assistant professor, and fortunately my spouse was very understanding. I never took my career for granted and felt like I had to work twice as hard to keep up with all those people who were twice as smart. Soon after I was tenured we adopted my daughter. A couple years later my wife had a life-threatening illness. My priorities shifted during that period, but not at all reluctantly. I was figuring out what was truly important, and I was glad to be working fewer hours and spending more time with my family. Sure, I felt that I could be accomplishing more in my work, but I also felt that way when I was working most of my waking hours! So shifting the balance toward my personal life only made me happier. Although that choice made me somewhat less productive, I don’t regret it at all.
If you had to leave academia, what career would you choose?
When I wasn’t sure I could get into grad school, or write a dissertation, or get a job, or get tenure, I always considered music and computer programming as my fall-back interests. I count myself as incredibly fortunate that I didn’t have to pursue those career paths. Music is a very tough business, and I’m not sure I ever would have succeeded as a programmer. If I had to find a new career today, I’d consider being a chef or having a small restaurant. I really enjoy being creative with cooking, as well as the immediate gratification of seeing others appreciate what I make.
Do you know something today that you wish you had known when you started in sociology? What is it?
Sure, lots of things, but how about one bad and one good? I wish that I had known how resistant our field is as a whole to raising its standards of scientific scholarship. None of us—but especially not our grad students and younger scholars—should have to fight an uphill battle against referees, editors and even colleagues just because we are explicit in our theorizing, critical of illogical or vague theorizing, or using rigorous methodologies that are widely accepted across legitimate sciences. If I had known how truly pervasive these attitudes are in sociology, I’d have been better prepared for lots and lots of rejections, and probably would have been more aggressive earlier in my career insofar as battling misconceptions head-on. Biologists such as Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Dawkins have written quite a lot about their battles with young-earth creationists in the field of biology. They say that they’d prefer to devote none of their time to fighting their pseudoscience because it takes time away from their real work. The situation in sociology is much worse in that a far greater proportion of our field’s members are indifferent or hostile to what it really means to do science. At least Gould and Dawkins could be reasonably assured that their journal submissions and grant proposals would not be reviewed by creationists. Sociological social psychologists still have to take in stride the fact that often half or more of the reviewers assigned to our submissions will call for rejection of our work on purely non-scientific grounds, however sound that work may be.
On the positive side, I wish I had known sooner how satisfying certain teaching and administrative work can be. This is partly due to the reward system in our field, but also to personal choices that were not so well-informed. Now I enjoy teaching and mentoring as much as doing research and my administrative experiences—particularly as a program director at NSF for two years and as a department chair for seven years—showed me that there are many ways to make useful non-research contributions, such as by facilitating the work of others.
What one piece of advice would you give a graduate student? What about an assistant professor?
To graduate students, I'd say that grad school is a chance to vastly increase your knowledge in a relatively short span of time, more so than at any other stage of your lives. Take advantage of it! Don’t approach it as “school.” Regard it as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
To assistant professors my advice is to keep your head down and stay focused on your work, but avoid burn-out by taking care of yourself and the people you care most about. On the work front, this means making yourself aware of the documented expectations for tenure and doing your best to exceed them. Take on manageable projects and do work you can be proud of. Balance teaching, research and service, but favor your research when push comes to shove. Your department’s politics pre-date you and you can’t change them, so don’t be tempted to engage in them. Above all, keep in mind how lucky you are to earn a living doing this!
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ASA Section on Social Psychology