What life experiences have contributed to your interest in social psychology in general
and/or your specific research areas?
My father was a Freudian psychoanalyst in New York City. So I grew up in a home in which issues of psychology, and even to some degree social psychology, were present. And so that certainly developed my interest in psychology and psychoanalysis. But at the same time, there’s often an attempt to move away from, reject, and question the beliefs of one’s parents. So at the University of Pennsylvania, where I was an undergraduate, I was assigned in a section of Introduction to Sociology to read Goffman’s book Asylums, with a very wonderful teaching assistant, who shaped my interest in sociology. I found Asylums
extremely stimulating, persuasive, and useful, because it takes a very skeptical view of psychiatry; it provided exactly the kind of familial distance that I needed. It was a way of
incorporating ideas of psychiatry, while still questioning them. So that book certainly shaped my perspective. And at that point, Erving Goffman was coming to the University of Pennsylvania as a faculty member, and I wound up taking two of his graduate seminars, even though I was an undergraduate at the time, which further shaped me. So there’s a real sense in which I was more shaped by my undergraduate education at the University of
Pennsylvania than I was by my graduate education at Harvard. At Pennsylvania, I was
influenced by Goffman, E. Digby Baltzell, Ray Birdwhistell, Jane Piliavin, Allan Teger, Albert Pepitone, and a number of other scholars who worked in this broadly defined social psychological perspective: a perspective that crossed sociology and psychology.
Attending Harvard in Social Relations certainly further shaped who I am and what I’ve become. My mentor was Robert Freed Bales. Bales was a leading small-group researcher,
and it was through the combination of my undergraduate education and my graduate education that I became interested in the relationship of culture, structure, and interaction, and in particular looking at the ways that small groups produce cultures. That was something that I was interested in as far back as my first year in graduate school, which is now some forty years ago. So even though my research has covered a lot of different substantive communities (for example, Little League Baseball, mushroom collecting, restaurant kitchens, high school debate, meteorology, chess), my core interests have remained very similar. In 1979, I published a paper in the American Sociological Review on small group cultures that used data from my Little League Baseball research. The original draft was a paper that compared the culture of the Manson family and Little League baseball. But the first set of reviews said it had too much data, and the point could be made with a single case. So for the sociology community, I used the Little League research. But I’m also a folklorist; my Ph.D. minor was in folklore and mythology, and I had taken courses in folklore at the University of Pennsylvania. So I was publishing in folklore, and I used the data on the Manson family to talk about small group cultures and small group traditions in such a way as to be useful for folklorists.
Where did you spend the early part of your sociological career as a faculty member?
I taught as a lecturer at Boston College, where I met David Karp, who trained me in ethnography. He, not Goffman, not anyone at Harvard, was responsible for me becoming
the kind of ethnographer that I am. And also at Boston College, I got to meet and know Everett Hughes. Karp and Hughes helped to shape me.
And then for my first teaching job, I went to the University of Minnesota, and it was in Minnesota that I became more involved in the symbolic interaction tradition. Now Goffman was obviously part of that, and Everett Hughes to some extent, but the real symbolic interactionist community surrounded Gregory Stone at Minnesota, and a number of his students. It was there that I got exposed to the traditional symbolic interactionist perspective.
How have your specific interests in sociology changed over time?
In the main, my interests in sociology and social psychology have pretty much remained constant. I began in graduate school to study small group cultures, and that remains a central part of what I do. In graduate school, I started writing papers about rumor and gossip, and I’ve continued that over the course of my career. The one area that I’m known for that came a little bit later was my research on collective memory and reputations. And that came from the time that I was on the faculty at the University of Georgia, and I got to meet and work with Barry Schwartz. It was a very strong connection and still is. While Barry was studying the great heroes of American culture and American history, I decided that my
contribution could be the villains and the controversial figures. My first article that dealt with reputation was about Benedict Arnold; Barry was writing about George Washington, so I wrote about Benedict Arnold. And during that time he was doing research on Abraham Lincoln, so I studied John Brown. I was kind of Barry’s dark twin. Certainly one reason I decided to accept a position at the University of Georgia was because of Barry’s presence. I was hired in 1990 as department head, so I served a term, and after it ended, we decided to move back north to Northwestern. And from 1997 on, I’ve been on the faculty at Northwestern.
What is your current (or recent) research focus?
In theoretical terms, I remain interested in small groups, their cultures, and the way that local interaction systems operate. This will be the topic of my Cooley-Mead address in August. However, I’m always looking at different empirical domains, and looking at them through a set of theoretical questions. So I’m finishing a book on competitive chess, and in that I’m interested in the way that local communities create status systems. That book will hopefully be completed this summer. And my current empirical ethnographic research is on MFA students in the visual arts. I am interested in going back to some of the old studies on occupational socialization, and looking at the ways that local cultures inform how occupational socialization gets achieved.
What interests and/or activities, outside of sociology, are important to you?
There’s a sense in which I really love sociology, so sociology is my interest outside of sociology. But going a little further than that, I have an interest in the arts. I’m interested in culinary issues, theatre, visual arts, and literature. When I was an undergraduate I started writing theatre reviews for the University of Pennsylvania newspaper. Then, after two years I was hired by an entertainment weekly to write theatre reviews for them, and subsequently they also asked me to write restaurant reviews. I like doing reviews, and for a
period of about five years I had a restaurant blog (www.vealcheeks.blogspot.com) and for a
time contributed many restaurant reviews.
Given your success in the field, how do you balance professional and personal demands?
I think to be successful in a disciplinary sense one has to emphasize professional opportunities. I’d rather stress opportunities, rather than demands, because demands make
it seem like there’s something you don’t want to do. When one has children and one is married, there is a certain balance that comes into one’s life. So, as a professor I did a lot of
the childcare. My wife was in business, and my time was a lot more flexible than hers. But my younger son graduated from high school in 2002, and at that point, we were empty nesters, and that allows me, to some measure, emphasize the professional.
If you had to leave academia, what career would you choose?
I wouldn’t wish to leave academia. If I did, I suppose I would wish to be some kind of arts critic. I don’t think I have the talent to be a visual artist or a novelist. But I have skill as a critic, and I like it. I don’t know if I could write a long form novel that our great novelists can do, but shorter writing I can do with much greater facility.
Do you know something today that you wish you had known when you started in sociology? What is it?
That question can either be answered substantively, or it can be answered personally. Substantively, I wish that over the course of the past forty years I had more directly emphasized the importance of small group culture as a theoretical matter, even more than I did. In 2012, I published a book Tiny Publics: A Theory of Group Culture and Group Action, and part of me wishes that I had written that book twenty years before, to get small groups back to center stage of sociology. That is the case that I will be making in August at ASA. In 1954, ASR published a special issue, which was entirely devoted to small group research. That has largely disappeared, and I wish that when I started writing about small groups in 1979 and before, that I had kept on doing that much more explicitly.
What one piece of advice would give a graduate student or an assistant professor?
Every year at Northwestern, faculty members come into the proseminar for our first-year students and I have a lecture that I give, the 10 Commandments of Sociology. Most important, it’s useful early in your career to decide what you’re interested in, what that motivating question is going to be for you. And then it is also important for you to love our discipline, which gets back to this question of balance. If I had free time, I’d read, write, or think sociology. So that would be the core of the advice that I would give. If you don’t love this discipline, this line of work, then it might not be the best choice. It’s certainly not the case that an assistant professor must work 15 hours a day. But it can’t hurt, unless you get burned out. The more you love, and the more you do your work, the better off you’re going to be. Of course there are people who are more able or luckier than others. But all things being equal, if you love what you’re doing, and you work at it long and continuously and with enthusiasm, you will make a more substantial lifetime contribution.