Voices of Experience: James S. House
an you tell us where you were born, where you grew up, and your family and siblings?
I was born in Philadelphia, the second of two sons of James House, Jr. and Virginia Sturgis House, and grew up in Springfield (Delaware County), a southwestern suburb of Philadelphia. My brother, Halsey, was four years older and the better athlete, starring in high school basketball and baseball, before going on to a career as a chemical engineer in the oil industry, and retiring early to become an award-winning middle school science teacher. I was the better student, and found tennis as a sport that I could compete in (on low-key and small high school and college teams) before it became really popular. My father was an artist who was on the faculty for the graduate Department of Fine Arts at the University of Pennsylvania. He worked in a variety of media, but was most noted in his early and mid-career for caricature, and in the later decades of his career for wood sculpture. He was born and raised in Michigan, and began his post-secondary education at the University of Michigan before moving to the Philadelphia area to study and practice art. He and my mother met there when she was a staff member of the Fine Arts Department, having begun her career as a children’s librarian and finishing it as a homemaker and mother. Ironically, I ended up going to graduate school and spending most of my career at the University of Michigan.
Have you had any life-shaping experiences? If so, can you describe one for us?
No singular event. I feel fortunate to have had loving and supportive parents, who never quite fit into the 1950s suburban world in which they lived for the sake of their children, as did so many in those years. My college and graduate school years were particularly formative, as noted below, not only academically and interpersonally, but also in terms of the broader social and political context of the later 1950s and 1960s.
In this vein, a particularly memorable experience as a child was a trip to Virginia in the mid-1950s, I think after the 1954 Supreme Court decision on school desegregation, where I was fascinated and appalled to experience first hand the full and pervasive nature of de jure segregation in all aspects of public and private facilities and life (with signs everywhere denoting where whites and “coloreds” could go and what they could do). My wife and I returned to the South in 1968 on a research visit to Florida State University in Tallahasse FL. The legal signs and trappings of the Jim Crow era were gone, but we saw the worst rural, mainly black, poverty we had ever seen just blocks off the FSU campus, and discovered that no downtown stores were open on Saturday. When we asked why, we were told that formerly whites had shopped in the morning on Saturday and blacks in the afternoon, but when such overt segregation and discrimination became illegal, the white merchants chose to close their stores all day on Saturday rather than serve blacks and whites together. Even when we moved to Durham NC in 1970, the downtown stores had just been desegregated two years earlier via direct action. Of course many things were then changing and have continued to change for the better, with many African-Americans now choosing to “move home” to the South from a North that no longer seems a better or even as good a place for them. Such experiences impressed on us, more vividly than anything that we had read or seen at a distance, the depth of racism and social injustice in American and world society, and the great difficulties of transcending it, even today.
The McCarthy era, the civil rights movement, and the Vietnam War left indelible impressions on me and most who came of age in the 1950s and 1960s, even if we were not centrally involved in them. The assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy and of Martin Luther King Jr. were especially tragic events, which probably altered the post-1968 world in ways that we have not yet recovered from. Nevertheless, the world is a better and safer place today on the whole than it was in the first three quarters of the 20th century, albeit with many old as well as newly emerging problems still to be solved.
In retrospect, I also feel fortunate to have had my postsecondary education at a small Quaker college (Haverford College in Pennsylvania) and a large public research university (University of Michigan) because in different ways they both consider values and public responsibility an integral part of academic and scientific life, while also recognizing that academics and science involve more than just the expression of one’s values.
When did you first become aware of sociology as a discipline? How?
I knew nothing of social science before I got to college, though I had long been interested in history, especially what now is termed social history. History, geography, and civics were all there was of social science in my elementary and secondary education, and I went on to major in history in college. But in my sophomore year, I discovered psychology, and then social psychology, which seemed to me to offer a more systematic and scientific way to study social life and history. Hence I went on to minor in psychology and to attend graduate school in a then interdisciplinary Ph.D. program in social psychology at the University of Michigan, one that I still feel fortunate to have been a part of, even in its twilight years. It was there that I took my first courses in sociology, and confirmed that my interests were in the more social/sociological and quantitative/survey/nonexperimental aspects of social psychology, leading me to take a position in a sociology, rather than a psychology, department when I left graduate school.
Sociological social psychology seemed then like the perfect lens for understanding and improving social life and society, and it still does.
Where did you spend the early part of your sociological career? What were your sociological interests? How have they changed?
I entered graduate school mainly interested in using social psychology to understand social, political and historical behavior, events, movements, and historical trends. Social and personal strain or stress seemed to play a major role in all of this, and in seeking a broad and integrative theory of the nature of stress/strain and how individuals and groups react and adapt to it, I discovered the physiological stress theory of Hans Selye. This theory
was being used to understand how a wide range of environmental stressors (social and psychological as well as physical, chemical, and biological) produced physiological changes in animals and humans, which, if sufficiently intense or prolonged, could lead to physical as well as mental disease/disorder and even death. I pursued both lines of interest in graduate school, but ended up working with a group at the Institute for Social Research that was studying occupational stress and health, and doing my dissertation on occupational stress and coronary heart disease risk factors.
My first academic position was very fortunately in the Sociology Department at Duke University. The Department was distinctively strong in social psychology and in medical sociology (with Kurt Back, Alan Kerckhoff, and George Maddox in different ways being very important and supportive senior mentors). It was located near the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which perhaps then had the leading program in social epidemiology (led by John Cassell) in the country, if not the world. Thus I was able to pursue my interests in general quantitative/survey/nonexperimental social psychology, and its application to both health and social/political events and movements, as well as to experience a balance of undergraduate and graduate teaching that I wanted.
In 1978, I was offered and accepted a position in the Survey Research Center of the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan, again a very fortunate opportunity that I have become increasingly grateful for over the years, with an associate professorial title in the Sociology Department. There I continued to pursue my full range of interests, but by the mid 1980s constraints of time and research funding led me to begin to focus increasingly heavily on my work on psychosocial determinants of health. Initially I focused on occupational stress and health, then social relationships and supports and health, and since the late 1980s, socioeconomic disparities in health and the way health changes with age over the life course.
Can you tell us a little bit about your private life—your hobbies and interests besides sociology?
I have continued to play tennis regularly for fun, and occasionally at low levels of competition, since high school and enjoy watching it. I also enjoy watching other sports, especially basketball (which I began watching my brother play, and later observed as a manager of the basketball team in junior and senior high school, when I was no longer good enough to play.) I also enjoy reading (mainly nonfiction), traveling, hiking, and gardening, and look forward to having more time for all of these things when I retire from formal academic life.
Are you married? Do you have kids? How did you manage high productivity with competing family demands?
I married a fellow graduate student in social psychology, Wendy Fisher House, in 1967, and we have just celebrated our 40th anniversary. Over time, I moved more and more into sociology and she transitioned into a very successful career in clinical psychology, first in community mental health and then private practice. We have a son (Jeff, born in 1970) and a daughter (Erin, born in 1974). Jeff has gone on to become a teacher, and will soon be a principal, in inner city charter schools, and Erin is a special assistant attorney general for the prosecution of domestic violence. We became grandparents about a year ago.
It is always a struggle to balance multiple roles, but I have always felt that my spouse and children were the most important people and sources of satisfaction and joy in my life, and what I have done with and for them were the most important, meaningful, enjoyable, and fulfilling things that I have done. So, I have tried to always prioritize them, while taking very seriously my scientific and academic work and duties.
Do you know something today that you wish that you had known when you started in sociology? What is it?
That there is a lot more to academic and scientific life than just doing your teaching and research, and that academics and scientists are more like other people, for better and worse, than I or they would like to believe, and certainly than I believed when I entered graduate school, even having grown up in a somewhat academic family. But it still beats any other kind of work or profession that I know of.
What were your thoughts, if any, when the social psych section was in abeyance in the mid-1970s?
Seemed to me like a great shame and mistake, largely perpetrated by one of my former
professors and soon to be colleague.
I tried to do what I could at my age
and career stage to help to revitalize
the section and sociological social
psychology, which I, like Auguste
Comte, have always seen as the core
and essence of social science.
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ASA Section on Social Psychology