What life experiences have contributed to your interest in social psychology in general and/or your specific research areas?
Looking back, I guess it’s possible to make everything fit. My research focuses on stratification, power and the legitimation of inequality. The study of legitimacy and inequality raises questions about distributive and procedural justice. I have also published research on family, gender, and race relations. My interest in developing and testing explanations by theory probably ties all of my work together.
My life experiences motivated my interest in research and in the issues I study. That statement not withstanding, my biography traces a long and torturous path to sociology. I was the fourth child and fourth son of Frank and Thelma (Burgin) Walker. Neither finished high school. I was born a couple of years after Pearl Harbor in the colored ward at the Kansas University Medical Center in Kansas City, Kansas. After finally meeting Howard Becker a few years ago, I told him where I was born. KUMC was the site he and his colleagues studied for Boys in White.
My family lived about 15 miles northwest of the hospital in a rural part of the county. My dad had grown up near the Italian-American community in Kansas City, Missouri’s tough North End. As a teenager during Prohibition, he lived with, and ran whiskey for, a local capo. To keep the streets from claiming his three sons, Dad moved with my mother to the “country” in the late 1930s. I was the first of five more children born after the move.
I was a shy, inquisitive child and a precocious reader. From about two years on, I read everything I could get my hands on. Reading fueled two lifelong tendencies: tolerance of—maybe a preference for— solitude, and a tendency to question everything.
I began formal education in a setting that was unusual even for racially segregated systems. Kansas law permitted, but did not require, segregation in communities with populations greater than 15,000 but there were not enough blacks in our small community to warrant a separate elementary school. Instead, black students were given a single room for eight grades and a single teacher. The white students had one room and one teacher for each grade.
Mrs. Burnell, my first teacher, was my best teacher. She was very organized in a classroom that had a row (or sometimes a half row) for each grade. That made it easy for her to deal with me. I read all the first grade books by the end of my second day of school. Unable to keep me occupied, she quickly moved me to the second row. About four weeks later, after I had “performed” for the county superintendent of schools and a few others, she got permission to move me to the third row—third grade. That slowed me down considerably. I joined the other third graders who were learning to write in cursive. But in order to write, I had to learn the alphabet. Nobody in the family had bothered teaching the alphabet to a kid who could read. At some point, I learned to print by watching my younger sister and brothers.
I got my first lesson in social activism during my early school years. My mother was a life member of the NAACP and in 1951, my second year of school, she and some other women in our little community approached a Kansas City attorney about filing a lawsuit. Their intention was to force the county to allow our black students to attend the local white high school about 3 miles away rather than travel 12 miles to attend the all-black Sumner High School which served all black students in Kansas City, Kansas. They believed that desegregating the high school would lead to desegregation of all schools in the county. Their attorney told them that a similar case had been filed recently in Topeka, the state capital. Incidentally, the county officials correctly read the writing on the wall; our schools desegregated two years before the Brown case was decided. I was living in a sociology laboratory.
I made my first career decision in high school. My chemistry teacher wore a white lab coat and I thought that was cool. I decided to become a scientist. Curiously, I never thought about college. I graduated at fifteen. Too young to get a job, and at my mother’s insistence, I entered Kansas City Kansas Junior College. I would major in chemistry. An aunt, Lillian Burgin, gave my mother $50 for my first semester’s tuition; I was standing there at the time. Aunt Lillian, my mother’s sister-in-law, was the only college graduate I knew on a personal level. A few years later I learned that she had run out of money during the Great Depression, left school and never completed her M. A. in sociology at the University of Kansas. Years later, I repaid her support of my education in the only way that could have mattered. She was the first person I told that I had accepted an appointment to Yale.
I could only work odd jobs before I was eighteen so, by design, I spent five semesters in junior college. One of my smartest decisions because I met, Joyce, my wife in that last semester. We were married about five years later.
I completed my A. A. and got my first punch-a-time-clock job. I was a janitor responsible for cleaning the kitchen at a local hospital. I had avoided applying for janitorial or busboy jobs. I knew, and knew that others knew, that those were “colored jobs.” I thought that it would be hard to move up to better work once I was stereotyped as a “janitor” or “kitchen worker.” But we were just coming out of a recession so I took the worst job I ever had. Fortunately, I was fired. I took a job as a sales clerk at a store on “The Avenue,” the main shopping district in Kansas City, Kansas. It was early 1962 and I was the first black male sales clerk on “The Avenue.”
Now that I was working 40 hours a week I began studies at National College, a small college in Kansas City, Missouri. I went one semester, smelled the college’s demise and left
school. National declared bankruptcy at the end of that academic year. The following fall I began studying at Kansas City University which eventually became the University of Missouri’s Kansas City campus. I was still majoring in biology and chemistry. I managed to flunk out without ever failing a course. I left the sales clerk job for better paying work at the post office. By then it was early 1965. I had been out of high school six years and was not a sociologist or social psychologist.
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 stumbled into sociology after flunking out of college. Like a lot of people from my generation, I had a strong interest in changing the world. James Meredith was a cousin of my best friend in high school and my mother, some aunts, an uncle and several older cousins were active in the Civil Rights Movement. In the early 1960s, I began reading a lot on revolutions, black liberation, etc. I read all of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s books but, at the time, the ideas of Malcolm X, Marx, Fanon, Regis Debray (and others) were more compatible with my world view. I served a tour of duty in Vietnam (1968-1969) and, while there, spent a lot of time reading about war, including War and Peace, Matthew Ridgway’s account of the Korean War and General Giap’s books--Dien Bien Phu and People’s War. The Art of War is still one of my favorite books.
Somehow I decided that sociology was the key to changing the world. I was discharged in late August 1969 and immediately reentered the University of Missouri-Kansas City. At UMKC I studied with Edward Tomich, Lee Hearn, Ernest Manheim and others. I suppose the first social psychology course I took was with Ed Tomich. Tomich and Hearn were symbolic interactionists as was Oscar Eggers. I completed requirements for the B. A. in three semesters.
I worked as an interviewer on one of Lee Hearn’s projects and it was Lee who first suggested that I get graduate training in sociology. I learned later that he put his reputation on the line to get me admitted to UMKC’s M.A. program. My sociology grades were stellar but there was a little matter of my flunking out almost a decade earlier. UMKC is also where I first met Dave Willer when he spoke at a graduate student-sponsored colloquium. He was on the University of Kansas faculty then. I could not foresee that he would become eventually a mentor, collaborator and fast friend.
Ernest Manheim was my most influential teacher. He is not as well known in the U. S. as his cousin Karl; Ernest dropped one “n” from his surname. But he was a real inspiration. Ernest withdrew his habilitation thesis (a step above the Ph.D. in the German system) after the faculty at Leipzig had accepted it. The Nazi’s had come to power and he assumed that they wouldn’t approve it. Like many other Jews during that period, he left Germany. He went to the University of London, working as Karl’s assistant, while earning a Ph.D. in anthropology.
Karl recommended Ernest to the faculty at Chicago. But after a year or two at Chicago, he left for the upstart Kansas City University. Chicago’s loss was a net gain for the city of Kansas City, UMKC, and generations of students. His empirical research on race, poverty and crime changed city leaders’ ideas about race and, in turn, influenced race relations in the region. I wrote him a congratulatory note on his “retirement” in 1972. I talked with him last in spring 1991 which, I think, was his last year of teaching. Last summer, I had my picture taken standing in front of Manheim Hall—the current home of UMKC’s sociology department.
Students in UMKC’s graduate program were required to take Ernest’s two theory seminars. Manheim immersed us in the classical works in sociology and introduced us to Abraham Kaplan, Carl Hempel, Paul Oppenheim, and lots of other work in the philosophy of science. I completed my M.A. thesis in 1974, got a fellowship at the eleventh hour and, that fall, headed west with my wife and young son to enroll in Stanford’s doctoral program.
Stanford was the smallest of the departments that had granted me admission and I was intrigued by its focus on what I now call theoretical methods—ideas I had begun learning in Ernest’s seminars. Department size was important because I was determined not to get lost in graduate school. Joe Berger, Bernie Cohen, Dick Scott, Buzz Zelditch and the rest of the gang kept me on the straight and narrow during my four years there. But without support of the National Fellowships Fund for Black Americans I would not have attended Stanford.
Finally, I can tell you how I became a social psychologist. Fall quarter 1977, my fourth year. Bernie Cohen called me to his office. He asked if I could teach introduction to social psychology. I told him that I could teach intro physics if given enough lead time. His response: “Good. You are a social psychologist. Apply for this job (at Iowa).” I didn’t get the job. It went to our good friend and fellow social psychologist, Dave Wagner, who preceded me by a few years at Stanford.
I began sociology with a desire to change the world and an obsession with the state of blacks in America and how it could be improved. Over time, my goals changed, but not my research interests. I adopted an aphorism from Marx and turned it on its head: “The point of sociology is not to change the world but to understand it.”
I have moved around a lot. Donnelly Community College (a Catholic community college where I taught while getting the M. A.); Yale, Stanford, Iowa, Cornell and Arizona. I managed to gain something at each stop—important sociological insights from, among others, Wendell Bell and Rosabeth Kanter at Yale; Carl Couch at Iowa; Robin Williams, Jr. at Cornell. At Arizona, my ideas about political culture in university towns and on university campuses began to crystallize.
My principal interests haven’t changed much. My M. A. thesis was on black postal workers. My concern was with race stratification within the agency. Blacks were over represented—twice their population proportion—but concentrated in the bottom six of twenty-two grades. There were no blacks in the top two grades. Yet, blacks rarely filed grievances. I didn’t know at the time but I was studying nondecisionmaking. I learned that term at Stanford after beginning work with Buzz Zelditch who was running an unfunded project with a handful of graduate students and post docs. The project eventually became the Zelditch-Walker program on legitimacy and authority.
What is your current (or recent) research focus?
At some point I am going to try my hand at writing a general theory of legitimacy. Not sure if it can be done but now I have more time to commit to the project. Expanding the scope of Status Characteristics Theory is high on my list. I continue to work with two doctoral students on issues related to SCT. I have also a keen interest in complexity/chaos theory. I am convinced that Wolfram’s New Kind of Science will fit into the Popper-Lakatosian model of science. Last, but not least, I have a longtime interest in the social and political economy of education in America. My theoretical ideas are tied to the political culture, organization and political economy of higher education. I am particularly interested in understanding the lagging academic achievements of blacks, the general erosion of academic standards and grade inflation/grade compression. I have become convinced that universities play a key role in what I have begun to call the institutionalization of mediocrity. Those who know of my interest in this last topic, also know that I have drawn my keenest insights from my love of basketball and University of Kansas basketball in particular.
What interests and/or activities, outside of sociology, are important to you?
Genealogy. Mine in particular. Family is important to me. My mother was motherless at two and an orphan before she was 10. My father was abandoned by his natural father and was adopted at age two after his mother died. Within two months of my retirement last summer I found some second-cousins on my dad’s side, located and visited my paternal grandfather’s grave at Arlington Cemetery and learned the identity of dad’s paternal grandparents. Another passion is music although I seem to have inherited only a small fraction of the talent in my family. Many relatives on both sides were/are skilled musicians. Some have made a living at it. I will dabble in music during my retirement, if I can find the time between visits to see our three grandchildren in Oregon.
Given your success in the field, how do you balance professional and personal demands?
I count my success in terms of having lasted, not particularly in terms of impact. I think for someone in my position that I have an unusual orientation to my occupation/profession. I am still a working-class kid at heart. I never thought of sociology as more than a J-O-B and as a means to my only stable life goal—survival. My wife, Joyce, hates for me to say that, but it is true. I finished high school because my mother demanded it. I knew that when I graduated I would need a job to survive. The biggest personal demand has been providing for me and my family. Having a steady job was key to doing that. Luckily, I married a professional woman and for forty-five years we have lived a comfortable life.
I have been driven to solve puzzles but was never driven to publish. I typically publish with others as a logical consequence of completing a project. My collaborators expect to publish; that is why I have published as much as I have. I probably have two file drawers of drafts that could be turned into publishable papers if I had the inclination to do so. And I will probably polish some of them in retirement. I spent lots of time preparing to teach and spending less time publishing gave me time to do other things, like helping raise two children. By the way, I don’t recommend de-emphasizing publishing as a strategy for newcomers to the field.
If you had to leave academia, what career would you choose?
If I had been smarter, I would have worked harder at sport. I come from a family of athletes. My mother played basketball and dad played semi-pro baseball. An older brother and two older cousins played in the Kansas City Monarchs organization—arguably the most successful of the old Negro Baseball League teams. I played a lot of playground basketball but never worked at it. I taught the game to my two younger brothers who played in community college. I might have been a good coach. Again, with more work, I could have done something in the music industry—probably writing or producing more than performing. Writing and photography. Although I hate writing for sociology audiences, I love to write. A lot of essays sit on my computer’s hard drive. I also love photography and my wife thinks I am good at it when I work at it. More realistically, a research career dealing with policy research, maybe doing historical research. Puzzle-solving, raising and answering questions, has been an important driver since my preschool years.
Do you know something today that you wish you had known when you started in sociology? What is it?
Two things stand out. First, I decided about three months into my first teaching job that “teaching” is a misnomer. No one teaches anyone anything. I tried to be a good instructor—an instructor can only provide guidance and opportunities to learn. Learning is an active process. The academy needs more activists.
The second thing I learned took longer. I naively assumed that truth, even the conditional truth of science, would win out in the end. I was wrong. As one who has read a reasonable amount of work in the history of science, I am embarrassed to admit that the evidence against that assumption was always before me. I wish I had been more active in pushing theoretical science—a term that expresses a redundancy. Today, I believe that we should have gone to the barricades to fight off the empiricists. Even if it destroyed the discipline. As Liz Cohen once said in a private conversation, had the discipline collapsed, we could have reinvented it.
What one piece of advice would you give a graduate student? What about an assistant professor?
Normally, I don’t give advice. I put stuff on the table and leave it to people to decide if any of it is worthwhile. I have generally thought about the profession much as I have thought about my favorite ideas and theories. Under what conditions would I be willing to give it up? I decided that I would leave the profession if I could not be true to the values that served me so well. I urge newcomers to think about the values they bring to the profession. I learned science from a host of people, many of whom were biologists and chemists. All had high academic standards and challenged me in the classroom and in research. They would not lower their standards. I am particularly grateful that none of them seemed to have “cut me some slack” because I was black. Throughout my career I have tried to do the same.
I have told generations of graduate students—and more than a few undergraduates—that adherence to high standards is a guard against my worst nightmare. In that scene, a former teacher, typically Joe Berger, engages one of my students in a discussion about his or her dissertation or paper. The paper uses SCT or some related idea very poorly. After some questioning, the student reveals that the work was done under my supervision.
To avoid that scenario, I tried to be as demanding of my students as those who taught me. My good friend Bernie Cohen told me that I was more demanding. Today, people decry the deterioration of standards in the academy. I join them in their concerns. But I sleep well. Joe has yet to inhabit my dreams and I convince myself that I did little to contribute to the current state of affairs.