*Originally published in the Winter 2019 newsletter*
Jane McLeod is Provost Professor and Chair of Sociology at Indiana University, where she has served on the faculty since 1998. She holds undergraduate and graduate degrees in statistics, public health, and sociology from the University of Michigan. Her influential research most recently received awards in 2014 for Distinguished Contributions, including the James R. Greenley Award for from the Society for the Study of Social Problems and the Leonard I. Pearlin Award from the ASA Section on the Sociology of Mental Health.
Jane has also been a leader at both Indiana University and in the discipline. At her institution, she spent the early and mid 2000s leading research and training centers, later transitioning into higher-level administration before returning to chair the Department of Sociology in 2016. In the discipline, she has long served as associate or deputy editor of several journals including the Journal of Health and Social Behavior, Social Forces, Social Psychology Quarterly, and Society & Mental Health.
What life experiences have contributed to your interest in social psychology in general and/or your specific research areas?
I grew up in a wealthy suburb of Detroit during the race riots of 1967. From an early age, I was aware that my daily life differed significantly from the lives of people who lived just a few miles away. Social relations in my high school also followed a strict social hierarchy. I occupied a position high on the academic hierarchy but low on the social hierarchy, which gave me a unique perspective on the bases of inequality. Was I able to articulate this at the time? Probably not. But I was keenly attuned to exclusionary processes.
My interest in inequality took more specific form in graduate school, when I took courses with Jim House on social structure and personality research, and with Ron Kessler on medical sociology. It made sense to me to think of inequality as embedded and enacted in organizations, small groups, and interpersonal interactions, perhaps in part because I could interpret my own life experiences through that lens.
Can you tell us about where you spent the early part of your sociological career (first as a student and then as faculty)?
My undergraduate degree is in statistics, a major I chose because it seemed practical. For reasons I cannot recall, I applied to graduate school in public health and anticipated a career in health care administration. While I found public health school unsatisfying, I was fascinated by the study of health while working as a research assistant for Ron Kessler at the University of Michigan. Ron asked if I would be interested in joining an interdisciplinary graduate training program in Psychosocial Factors in Mental Health and Illness at the Institute for Social Research. To join, I had to be accepted into a PhD program. I applied to the Department of Sociology and was accepted without knowing much about what would happen next.
I spent most of my sociology graduate career in the interdisciplinary training program. The faculty encouraged us to read and think broadly, with little concern for traditional disciplinary divisions. It was, I think, as close as one could have gotten to a joint sociology-psychology social psychology program at the time, and I feel fortunate to have been part of it. My dissertation research, on the effects of childhood parental loss on adult mental health, drew heavily from both fields.
I began my faculty career at the State University of New York in Albany but moved to the University of Minnesota after only two years (better job prospects for my husband in Minneapolis/St Paul) where I was quickly swept into the vibrant intellectual atmosphere of Jeylan Mortimer’s Life Course Center. Jeylan suggested that I extend my research on mental health inequalities to children—advice that I followed. My friend and colleague, Candace Kruttschnitt, sparked my interest in the predictors and consequences of child abuse. Inspired by Jeylan and Candace, I added life course concepts and methods to my tool kit.
How have your specific interests in sociology changed over time?
Nearly all of my research has focused on physical or mental health using the social structure and personality (SSP) paradigm. What has changed is where I position health in the process, as an outcome or a basis of stratification.
Take children’s mental health. We can treat it as the outcome of stratification processes: children who occupy advantaged social positions live in safer neighborhoods, attend better schools, live under less stressful conditions, experience more salutary parenting practices, which all lead to better mental health. I adopted this approach earlier in my career. However, we can also view children’s mental health as the starting point in a different kind of allocation process. Differential value is assigned to children with different competencies or predispositions, and rewards are allocated accordingly. In essence, children’s mental health is a resource they bring into their interactions with other people and institutions. The study of the social responses to mental health (as when children with behavior problems elicit punishment from caregivers) and of how mental health affects the choices people make (as when troubled children become involved in troubled peer groups) gives us insight into the broader question of the reciprocal relations between persons and their environments.
By considering the implications of children’s mental health for the transition to adulthood, I integrated my theoretical interest in meso-level interactions with my substantive interests in mental health and life course research. The shift also prompted more general theoretical work (with Kathryn Lively and Tim Hallett) and deepened my engagement with the social psychology of inequality (culminating in the Handbook of the Social Psychology of Inequality, which I had the pleasure of co-editing with Ed Lawler and Michael Schwalbe).
What are your current research projects?
As director of my department’s research practicum for first-year graduate students, I initiated a project on the experiences of college students on the autism spectrum. We conducted a survey of college students at 14 public postsecondary institutions in Indiana to compare academic, social, and health outcomes of students on the spectrum to students with other disabilities and to their non-disabled, neurotypical peers. The project extends my interest in the implications of stigmatized conditions for successful transitions to adulthood while also incorporating new interests I developed as an administrator.
What interests and/or activities, outside of sociology, are important to you?
I have sung in choirs almost continuously since I was 10 years old and can’t imagine not doing that. I enjoy the challenge of learning difficult music and the pleasure of working attentively and collaboratively with other singers. Choir members’ heartbeats sync when they sing together, adding a physical dimension to the shared experience. I hike regularly and am usually on one nonprofit organization board or another. I am also a foodie and member of a “fine dining” group. Life is full.
What has drawn you to the several administrative roles you’ve occupied throughout your career?
I can’t honestly say that I have been drawn to these roles although I have been drawn into them by others. I have occupied quite a few and found each challenging and rewarding in their own way. I met a much broader range of students and faculty as an administrator than I would have otherwise. I enjoy working with colleagues on academic and managerial initiatives and find the problem-solving aspects of administrative work satisfying.
Administrative work can also be stimulating intellectually. Each position (campus-level Associate Vice Provost, College-level Associate Dean, department chair) offers a unique perspective on the institution and its operations. Having served across multiple levels of the administration, I have a much deeper understanding of the challenges facing public institutions, the concerns of administrators at different levels, and the resources they command. Perhaps as important, I enjoy running meetings.
What’s something you’ve learned from these administrative positions that you think more faculty and (if applicable) graduate students should know/understand?
First, everyone, no matter how highly placed in the institution, operates within constraints. Administrators have agency but their agency is not unbounded. Postsecondary institutions operate within a complex political and legal field, not all of which is immediately visible to faculty and students. Second, administrators make better decisions when they are honest about their goals and transparent in their deliberations. Faculty and students are not fooled by fake rationales. And last, administrators make better decisions when they listen to the people who have to implement those decisions. It is very easy for people who have not been in the classroom for a while to lose sight of the day-to-day realities of scheduling classrooms, teaching classes, responding to student requests, etc.
Given your success in the field, how do you balance professional and personal demands?
Not very well! I am constantly juggling demands on my time and energy. I schedule important tasks, including those outside of work, onto my calendar to make sure that I have time to complete them but often have to reshuffle tasks as urgent matters present themselves. I only allow myself to reshuffle if I can find an open slot for the task somewhere else on my calendar. I have my email open at all times and try to answer emails promptly, but when something really requires my full attention, I shut everything else off and hunker down in my office.
What one piece of advice would give a graduate student? What about an assistant professor?
Live your life every day and don’t wait until you have time for the things that are important to you. If there is something you have to do to be happy—whether running 5 miles, singing in a choir, reading mysteries—make time to do that thing. The demands on your time will increase throughout your career so find a way to make your life what you want it to be now.