*Originally appeared in the 2018 Summer newsletter*
Cecilia Ridgeway received her BA in sociology from the University of Michigan in 1967. She entered graduate school in sociology at Cornell University where she earned her masters and doctorate in 1969 and 1972, respectively. She is the Lucie Stern Professor in the Social Sciences in Stanford Universty's Sociology Department, where she has been a professor since 1991 and served a term as department chair from 1993-1996. Prior to her appointmnet at Stanford, she held professorships at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (1978-1985) and the University of Iowa (1985-1991).
Cecilia's record of service is extensive, and includes serving on the editorial boards of numerous journals, including Social Psychology Quarterly, Social Justice Research, and Sociological Theory, serving as Chair of the Social Psychology Section (1991-1992), and President of the American Sociological Association (2012-2013). She is a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (2009), Sociological Research Association (1995), and the Society for Experimental Social Psychology (1990).
Cecilia has also received numerous awards for her work. She was awarded the 2005 ASA Social Psychology Section Cooley-Mead Award for her contributions to social psychology. For her contributions to gender and feminist research, in 2008 she was awarded the Distinguished Feminist Lecturer Award by Sociologists for Women in Society, and in 2009 she was awarded the Jessie Bernard Award by the American Sociological Association. In 2012 she was awarded the 2012 Outstanding Recent Contribution Award from the Social Psychology Section for her 2011 book, Framed by Gender.
How did your life experiences contribute to your interest in social psychology?
My whole family was sensitive to inequality even though we were middle-class suburban types with education. My mother was an early feminist and the Civil Rights Movement was going on when I was in high school. My high school had some Spanish speaking areas, some super bourgeois areas all smashed together. At that point, it was my main encounter with the American class system, so I think all that pointed me toward sociology, although I didn't know it.
When I went to college at age 16, I immediately enrolled in a big intro physics class at the University of Michigan. I took it with engineering majors: 250 men and two women. I couldn’t handle it. I couldn’t understand why. I just knew I couldn't bear to be there. So I started thinking about other majors and that led me to sociology indirectly.
I took this honors intro class that was social psychology jointly taught by a sociologist and a psychologist. We would enact all the famous experiments—Asch, autokinetic, and prisoner's dilemma—before reading about them. It hooked me and made me a sociology major. It was social psychology that brought me into the social sciences.
Can you tell us about your current book project?
Status is a form of inequality, but it's always been the weak stepsister of power and wealth. Traditionally it's acknowledged, but not thought to be as important. And yet it is absolutely everywhere. So why? What is it? I've come to the conclusion that it's best to think of status as a cultural schema of human invention to manage situations that are fundamental to the human condition, which is to be cooperatively interdependent to achieve things we want or need. That's us as a species.
But it takes a village. That interdependence creates nested competitive interests because as soon as you say “we're going to do it together” then, on whose terms are we doing it? My way? Your way? Who gets what? Who does what? All that arises. Status is a cultural schema that people put together to manage that. I develop that argument and then I try to look at why it matters for broader patterns of inequality.
What have been your interests and hobbies outside of academia?
I'm a scholar first and I am a political activist very much second. Nevertheless, social justice politics, especially race and gender, are important to me. I've also always tried to be active on campus in terms of how universities are run and how students are treated. I helped establish the Clayman Institute for Gender Research and things of that sort as a political activist.
Outside of all that, I’m an outdoors person. I like to hike. I also like travel. I did a lot of backpacking in the Arctic, Alaska, and the Amazon. I'm also really interested in literature and the arts.
Is there something you wish you’d known when your career started?
When I started out, I did a lot of the things I do now, but I kind of did it crawling on my hands and knees blindly. I only later developed a greater appreciation of what I was doing right. I had to learn how to shut off that neurotic voice: ‘I have to do it’ – ‘I can't do it’ – ‘I can't, I can’t’ – ‘it won’t work’ – ‘make yourself do it,’ back and forth, back and forth. I learned how to push past that and find a quiet place and do it. So just focus on work and shut out the voices, shut out battles, shut out all that. It's hard to do and I felt that especially in the beginning.
What kind of advice would you give a graduate student or an assistant professor who's just starting out?
The system rewards persistence. Keep doing it. Keep trying. Keep at it. Keep thinking. Don’t give up. Don’t get daunted. Don't you allow yourself to be washed away by the complexity of feedback and don't think ‘I can't do it.’ Almost anything can be learned. You don't need to look at some new statistical technique and think ‘I'll never figure it out.’ Yes, you will. Just spend some time on it. Keep at it. That’s key for both graduate students and assistant professors.
For assistant professors, there’s the desperate struggle to get stuff out, get stuff published. That gives you license to do all kinds of projects you might not normally have thought about. But in the process of doing that, you also need to try to find your own voice. You need to find a set of topics that you can speak to that you really have something to say on because in the long run, getting tenure and then making a name for yourself in the discipline comes from finding that voice, and not just having a string of publications that no one would think to associate with one another.
How did your experiences as editor of SPQ and President of the ASA shape how you think about the institution of sociology?
I believe in our institutions and I believe we’re responsible for them. You can't assume they're going to operate and you just get to float. I have no love for higher-level administration jobs. But if you think there are better or worse ways to do it, you need to step up a little bit.
I edited SPQ because it’s a journal I wanted to support and I wanted to see good work there, but I experienced something I never anticipated. As the editor, you see the earnestness and the seriousness with which a large community of people pursues social scientific knowledge. It's heartening. It's like building something together and as editor, you are at the center of it. It gave me a sense of the hard, serious cooperative work that so many people try to do even though a lot of things crash and burn.
As far as being ASA President, you get nominated—so what the heck. Although worth doing, that was definitely less heartening. The field is fragmented, first, by subfields. People are off in their corners with dim awareness of one another. Second, it’s highly stratified. There are very privileged actors and very unprivileged actors and that activates all sorts of mutual resentments.
People are less interested in the core of the association and want to belong to different sub-societies. I belong to a lot of those and like them, but I believe in maintaining a core. People have also argued, ‘fine, who says we need the disciplines we do? Maybe we could change things.’ As sociologists who study organizations and institutions, we know that's not so easy to do. I'm not clinging to the old structure. I think there is value in a centralized organization. We’re not the most respected social science. We think we should be. But we're not. Because of that, we need our central organization to protect our status in universities. So I hope we will tend these central institutions, rather than abandon them for political reasons.