Voices of Experience: John DeLamater
*Originally Published in the Spring 2015 Section Newsletter*
University of Wisconsin - Madison
John D. DeLamater is the Conway-Bascom Professor of Sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He earned a B.A (Psychology) at University of California-Santa Barbara, an M.S. (Psychology) and a Ph.D. (Social Psychology) at the University of Michigan. His areas of research and teaching include social interaction and relationships, human sexuality, and social psychology. He has published more than 50 research articles, and 30 chapters in edited volumes and encyclopedias. His current research is applies a biopsychosocial model to sexuality in later life; most recently he has studied the effects of hormones on sexual expression of men and women over 57. John is co-author of Social Psychology, 8th ed. (with Daniel Myers and Jessica Collett), and Understanding Human Sexuality, 12 th ed. (with Janet Hyde). He is the co-editor of the Handbook of Social Psychology, 2nd ed. (with Amanda Ward), and co-editor of the Handbook of the Sociology of Sexualities (with Rebecca Plante). He is a Fellow of the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality, the 2002 recipient of the Kinsey Award for Career Contributions to Sex Research, and the Distinguished Service Award from the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality. He has received awards for excellence in teaching from the Department of Sociology, and the Chancellor’s Distinguished Teaching Award from University of Wisconsin-Madison.
What life experiences have contributed to your interest in social psychology in general and/or your specific research areas?
I had psychology as an undergrad and was a psychology major. I think it was in my junior year, I had been taking courses like learning and motivation and statistics. Another class was something called “Motivation and Perception.” I just felt like that the content in those courses couldn’t speak to the things that I was interested in; in regards to the human social behavior. I was more interested in: How does the interpersonal or interactional context influence our behavior? I wasn’t seeing any of that in the psychology courses that I was taking at that time. I think I actually said that to one of my professors and he said, “Well, you should take social psychology.” I said “Oh, okay.” So, then my first semester of my senior year I took social psychology and I really found that it covered much more of the kind of questions about human behaviors that I was interested in. So, I decided to get a Ph. D in social psychology.
In those days there were three interdisciplinary programs in the United States where you got some sociology as well as some psychology – Stanford, Michigan, and Columbia. I was out in California, so I visited Stanford and said, “Well, I don’t want to go there!” I didn’t want to move to Columbia and live in New York City. So I went to Michigan sight unseen and enrolled in a joint social psychology programs there which turned out to be a really good fit for me. So, that was how I got into social psychology specifically.
I’ve always been interested in social interaction, and I think my interest once I got into the field moved in that direction. When I came here as an assistant professor, I needed to start a research program and I decided to study human sexuality and particularly interactional aspects of sexual behavior because I had this nice convenient sample of college student right outside my door. My first major research project was an interview study that looked at a variety of social influences including: attitude and the self; and the nature of relationships with partners and with friends and with parents; to see how those things all contributed to the development of intimate relationships. Since then I have done a few other things, but primarily I focused on various aspects of social psychology of sexuality.
Where did you spend the early part of your sociological career as faculty?
My first job was here in University of Wisconsin, Madison. At that time in the sociology department there were several social psychologist including three other graduates of the joint PhD program at Michigan. So, I came here and immediately felt right at home and have been here ever since. Madison is a wonderful place to live, a great place to raise children, and the department has been very congenial, so I’ve never been particularly motivated to move.
How have your specific interests in sociology changed over time?
I think I’ve gotten much more interested in, on the one hand, in the social context. In recent years I’ve been looking at literature on the social environment. So for example, I am fascinated by Adam Isiah Green’s new work on field theory – the nature of the immediate field within which our behavior occurs and how socially defined physical features, as well as the specific collection of other people who are present, have an impact on our behavior. I’ve been reading some books on the city and sexuality over the last few years and finding that really interesting in terms of how particularly city environments facilitate the development of subcultures that attract people with particular kinds of interest. On the other hand, I’m much more interested in biology and the links between biology and social behavior. That probably reflects the fact that I am getting older. So my body is calling my attention to the fact that it is there and I’m becoming more aware of it. I think that in general sociologists have overlooked the significance of the body until very recently. I’m really pleased to see new work now being done by younger people on bodies and embodiment because I think that’s a very important aspect of our behavior and our feelings about our self.
My most recent research has been on sexual behavior in later life and how it is influenced by biology, by relationship factors, and by sexual history. I have just drafted a paper looking at the influence of hormones on the sexual behavior of people over the age of fifty-seven. Looking at the impacts of estrogen and testosterone of male and female sexual behavior and that’s still in the works and hopefully will get published. My other big writing project is the Handbook of Sexualities which is going to be part of the Springer Handbook series. Rebecca Plante at Ithaca College and I edited that and solicited 25 chapters on various topics in the sociology and social psychology of sexuality. That will be coming out in August in time for the ASA meeting. The theme of the meeting this year is Sexuality in Society, so the book will coincide nicely with that.
What interests and/or activities, outside of sociology, are important to you?
My family I think has probably always been my other big interest, so I work hard at getting what I thought was a good work-family balance. I’ve appreciated being in academics because it enabled me to go to some of my kids’ events at school during the day and occasionally take them on field trips and stuff like that. So that (until they all left!) was a big focus of my time and energy. My hobby is actually is railroads and rail transportation. I’ve been a member of a couple of different railway museums that have large collections of real railroad equipment and real rail transit equipment. I spend an occasional day working on some antique streetcar or some antique collective railway car and making them run again which gives me a lot of pleasure.
Given your success in the field, how do you balance professional and personal demands?
One of the things that I’ve been doing in mentoring graduate students is telling them that the earlier you start working on the balance the better. I encourage graduate students to start working on a good balance the first year in graduate school, because I think when you get into graduate school you develop habits of work that are going to become your standard practice – unless you intentionally work at coming up with a different kind of balance. I think it’s really easy in graduate school to let the immediate demands of due dates and all these requirements you have to meet take over and get focused on those at the expense of personal relationships. I’ve seen a number of couples over the years where – in my perception – that graduate school could be the breakup of their relationship. Some of these were couples where both were graduate students (not necessarily in the same field), but others were couples in which one was in graduate school and the other one wasn’t. The latter type seems to be particularly vulnerable because the one who’s not in graduate school really wants to do couple-oriented things on the night, and weekends, and go away in the summer. If you’re totally focused on your graduate work, you don’t want to do those things. I really encourage people to be thoughtful about that early on in their careers.
Some of the most successful marriages that I ever seen involved explicitly scheduling activities with the partner. I’ve known for a number of years a very prominent physician here in Madison and I asked him once how he managed to keep his marriage together and have four kids. He said that every Friday from 6PM until 8AM Saturday morning was his “wife time.” He never, ever, ever did anything professional, including going a way to a meeting, to violate that time. It was just an absolute rule. Another couple, dual career couple, they used to have a rule that from 9:30-10:30 every night was their time and nothing could interfere with that – including their kids. I think for some people it might actually take the discipline of scheduling time with their partner, and then maintaining it, in order to be sure that you are putting some time into that. I mean I know some people vary, but it’s something people should pay attention to early on.
If you had to leave academia, what career would you choose?
In my younger days, if I had left academia, I would probably try and go into transportation because I do have a real love of railroads and particularly passenger railroads. So, I think that would have been my first choice of an alternative career. I really have enjoyed being in academics. I love teaching and I feel very fortunate because I think having a job that you love and from which you derive personal satisfaction is probably a very important aspect of good mental health. I feel fortunate to have had that and by working in academics. I would certainly look for something else that would give me that kind of feelings of accomplishment and satisfaction.
Do you know something today you whish you had known when you started in sociology? What is it?
I got into sociology forty something years ago. I wish I had appreciated the importance of networking. I had this naï ve idea that if you did good work and published it the world would come to your doors. That maybe true for a few people, but probably as a general rule it’s not true. Over the years I have increasingly come to appreciate just how important networking is. Networking with other people who are working on similar kinds of problems, to some degree, networking with your colleagues in your department, and certainly networking with your professional associations, and networking with the people in the social psychology section of the professional association has been very important – and I should have done more of it. In the context of publish or perish, going to a meeting or spending an extra day there to go to a section reception may seem expendable. But really, in the long run, that will probably do your career a lot more good than a few more hours sitting trying to get few more words on a paper or analyze a bit more data. It really is those relationships with your colleagues that are going to keep you fresh and that are going to get your work out where people can really see it and really appreciate it.
What one piece of advice would give a graduate student?
Early on start being strategic about your career. If you can do it, even your first year of grad school, start thinking clearly about what kind of position you are working towards. Do you want to be a faculty member at an R1 school or do you want to be a facility at a second-tier school? Do you want to go to a small liberal arts college? Do you want to do full time research? Do you want to do consulting? Do you want to do clinical work? Each of those careers requires a somewhat different set of activities in graduate school. So, the earlier you begin to focus on what kind of career you want, the earlier you can start being very intentional about how you use your time and use your time in a way that really benefits you. I do placement here. Students, usually in their fifth or sixth year, will start thinking about the job market and they’ll come and say, “What do I do?” I’ll say, “What kind of job do you want?” and they’ll say, “Well I want X job.” I’ll reply, “You need to do A, B, and C”, and they’ll say, “Well I didn’t do any of those. Why didn’t somebody tell me?” So, I think you can avoid that kind of being mismatched on the base of what you did to the kind of job you want if you start getting intentional about it earlier on. I encourage graduate students to think about if there is somebody in the field that is doing what you want to be doing. If there is, get in touch with that person. Get their advice on how to get into the kind of job that they’ve got. You’ll be a lot happier in the long run and you won’t risk wasting your time. There are things you can do in graduate school that may turn out to not have been useful at all – depending on where you are going. You can avoid that if you have a better sense earlier on at what your goals are.
What about an assistant professor?
Well I guess, again work-life balance. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy – and makes problems in Jack’s relationship (or Jill’s!). Also, I think really spend some time finding out what the decision criteria are if you are working towards getting tenure – What are the criteria for getting tenure for your department at your institution? Hopefully it will take care of itself or hopefully people have told you. What we have for example, is a mentoring committee for our assistant professors. Many assistant professors don’t really take advantage of them but they should. They really should at least once a year have a sit down with the mentoring committee and have a pretty open discussion about their work, how is going and where it’s going, how things are shaping up in terms of tenure decisions. We have on a campus-wide basis a special committee for women. University of Wisconsin, Madison made a commitment about twenty years ago now trying to really encourage women faculty who were feeling in many cases that the mentoring they were getting from male mentoring committees wasn’t as useful. We encourage all of our women faculty, and assistant professors especially, to take advantage of their women faculty mentoring committee. And the committee includes women from outside the department which in some ways really makes it even more valuable. Read the documents! I mean UW- Madison has a ton of documents about tenure criteria and decision-making processes. Check out the process. Make sure your department is doing it the way it is supposed to be done because, unfortunately, not every department does. So, investing some time and energy early on and learning about those things, I think, can just make you more efficient. If you know what those are then you know exactly what you should be working on.
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ASA Section on Social Psychology