*Originally published in the 2020 Summer newsletter*
University of California, Riverside
Jan Stets is Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Riverside. Her undergraduate degree in sociology is from the University of Dayton. She earned her Master’s and PhD in sociology at Indiana University. She is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and winner of a lifetime achievement award from the ASA Section on the Sociology of Emotions. Jan also co-edited Social Psychology Quarterly with Richard Serpe from 2015—2017 and served as Chair of the ASA Section on Social Psychology in the 2012—2013 academic year.
What life experiences, if any, contributed to your interest in social psychology in general and/or your specific research areas?
Raised in a large Catholic family of 10 children in Northeastern Ohio, my parents owned a women’s clothing store that my mother managed while my father, a chemist, worked at the local steel factory. The 12 of us lived in very close quarters above the store, so life growing up encouraged me to understand the different individuals and subgroups with whom I came into contact. It raised questions such as “How do I fit in?” “What is my identity?” In high school and college, questions about the personal and interpersonal that sociology and psychology addressed seemed to naturally draw my attention. I considered clinical psychology early on, but then realized that the academy provided a larger world in which I could examine human behavior.
Where did you spend the early part of your sociological career (first as a student and then as faculty)?
My interest in social psychology was formulated late in college at the University of Dayton. It became clear that if I wanted a career, I would have to do graduate work. Indiana University (IU) was physically close and was the best fit given that, at the time (the 1980s), IU ranked near the top in the nation in social psychology. It was a powerhouse of leading social psychologists: Stryker, Burke, Heise, Bohrnstedt, Corsaro, Felmlee and others. I received excellent training and met wonderful people who still are a part of my life today. Late in graduate school, I was exposed to the new and developing research area of domestic violence. Much research is personal, and I became aware that this area might help answer the many questions I had about the aggression I witnessed growing up.
For the next half a dozen years, I unexpectedly left the field of social psychology and entered family sociology, researching interpersonal aggression in all its forms (physical, sexual, verbal, and psychological abuse in marital, cohabiting, and dating relationships). Early on, I worked on aggression with a talented faculty member in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at IU (Maureen Pirog). After graduating from IU, I spent a year as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of New Hampshire to work with the leading figure in the country on aggression (Murray Straus). My collaboration with him was enriching. In 1988, I started my career at Washington State University (WSU). I continued my work on interpersonal aggression until I felt that I answered some of my own central questions, and that I had made some important contributions to the area. That took me to tenure.
How have your specific interests in sociology changed over time?
I always have been one to enter new areas of research substantively and methodologically, particularly if I see there is much to learn in that exploration. It keeps me excited about my work. Following tenure, I returned to my graduate school interests in social psychology, particularly identity theory. I also began to supplement my graduate training in survey research with laboratory research and began to carry out identity experiments in WSU’s laboratory. Simultaneously, I became interested in the developing area of emotions, and that opened another world. When I moved to the University of California, Riverside, Jonathan Turner and I began collaborating. This was an exciting time. We published a major emotions book and edited two volumes on the sociology of emotions. Over the past dozen years, I have been working in the sociology of morality and related areas. In some ways, these more recent interests return me to questions I had during my first year in college at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio, as a philosophy major.
For the past 25 years, my multiple substantive interests have developed identity theory beyond its current boundaries. I believe that one of the most important tasks we have as scholars is to engage in theory-building so that we have the best explanations to understand our world and the people who inhabit it. I also think we need to be rigorous in our study. I have found survey and experimental research to be useful methods to approach social psychological work in a systematic manner.
What is your current (or recent) research focus? What sparked you interested in it?
I have been exploring a couple different substantive areas. I just finished writing an NSF grant with my collaborators (social exchange theorists Savage and Whitham, and identity theorist Burke) on generosity. I love working with experts who use other social psychological theories; I believe in theoretical cross-fertilization. We want to study the generosity identity within generalized exchanges using a “pay-it-forward” design to see if we can gain some insights into giving behavior within and across racial/ethnic groups. Generosity is an extension of my interest in morality. Given the extreme inequality that exists in our society, I think we need to study how individuals can be more generous. The good news is that generosity has positive physical and psychological consequences not only for recipients, but also for those who give.
I also recently finished an interdisciplinary edited volume on the religiously unaffiliated (with the President of the Institute of Advanced Catholic Studies at the University of Southern California). I am very interested in identity change. To see religious identification begin to wane suggests that something significant is occurring. What might be the cultural, structural, and individual forces that influence people to dis-identify with their religion? What insights might this tell us about the process of identity change of any kind? Some of the chapters in this volume address identity-related issues, but much more work is needed.
What do you see as the through line that connects the research you’ve done throughout your career?
Throughout my career, I have been interested in how people create meaning to make sense of their situations. For most of my career, this has involved understanding people’s identities or the self-meanings that characterize themselves. If we take the time to understand how people see themselves, it can provide tremendous insight into how they feel and behave.
As a recent co-editor of SPQ (and section chair not long before that), you know the state of the field better than most. What do you think are the biggest opportunities facing social psychologists right now? What do you think are the biggest challenges?
I think one of the biggest prospects for social psychologists is partnering with scholars outside of social psychology, and sociology, more generally. While interdisciplinary research can be challenging, it also can be beneficial for the development of science and public policy. Another opportunity for social psychologists is studying how physiological and neurological responses can provide independent evidence for the veracity of our theories. We need more implicit, unconscious measures of human thought and feeling. The challenge is in learning the technology that captures this, and then seeing how the data corroborates or contests current knowledge.
What interests and/or activities, outside of sociology, are important to you?
I enjoy seeing the world and getting into other worlds, so I like to travel and read. I keep a pretty active lifestyle with biking and Pilates, and when the California weather doesn’t cooperate, I’m on the elliptical. On the quieter side, I meditate routinely and enjoy listening to podcasts in which social thinkers, poets, artists, theologians, and courageous figures share their thoughts about life, love, laughter, and leadership.
Given your success in the field, how do you balance professional and personal demands?
I try to balance the professional and personal by staying organized, focused, and compartmentalizing the different arenas of my life as best I can. I am not always good at this. Sometimes I am just driven by what I see to be important questions that I want answered. Fortunately, I have a spouse who understands this.
Do you know something today that you wish you had known when you started in sociology? What is it?
I recently heard something that I wish I would have heard earlier in my career. If you can go to bed each night and say to yourself, “Good work, done right, and for the right reasons,” then you can rest a little easier. Today, if I can say this to myself, particularly during difficult times, then I’ll know I have done my best.
What one piece of advice would give a graduate student? What about an assistant professor?
I would tell a graduate student to be open to learning, to explore the field in every possible way, and then when one has settled in an area, to make sure that the work is theoretically driven, empirically rigorous, and contributes to science. To an assistant professor, I would say do the best work you know how to do, enjoy it, develop resilience, and try to be a good and generous contributor to the people and places in your world.