*Originally published in the Spring 2014 Section Newsletter*
University of California-Riverside
Jonathan Turner received his B.A. degree from the University of California, Santa Barbara, in 1965, his M.A. from Cornell University in 1966, and his PhD. from Cornell in 1968. His first university position was at the University of Hawaii in the academic year 1968-69, and then, he moved to the University of California, Riverside in the academic year 1969-70, where he has been a professor now for 45 years. He was promoted to Associate Professor in 1972, Professor in 1977, Distinguished Professor in 1997, and University Professor (for the U.C. system) in 2010.
What life experiences have contributed to your interest in social psychology in general and/or your specific research areas?
Both of my parents were political liberals with graduate degrees. Public and political issues were constantly discussed in the home, making it virtually impossible to be unaware of the social world, particularly injustices. Try as I might, I could not avoid engagement with these issues from a very early age, although it was not until high school that I actually became serious about anything except sports. Despite the high level of education of my parents, I grew up in a financially strapped and dysfunctional family, leading me to wonder about the rather subtle but draining emotional dynamics around me. As a result I began to think that I should become a psychiatrist and help others with the kinds of problems that I was constantly confronting.
Where did you spend the early part of your sociological career (first as a student and then as faculty)?
When I entered the University of California at Riverside as a freshman, I still thought about becoming a psychiatrist and thus majored in psychology. I soon learned that psychology was not very concerned with the issues that interested me. Indeed, the psychology department then was heavily behaviorist in orientation, with the result that I ran rats in the laboratory for psychology 1 and 2. I left Riverside after my freshman year and transferred to the University of California at Santa Barbara, where by chance I took a social psychology course in the sociology department from Tamotsu Shibutani. The small and growing department began to fill up with symbolic interactionist-oriented professors—Walter Buckley, Donald R. Cressey, David Arnold, and Thomas Scheff—and so I got a heavy dose of SI theory. I was also exposed personally to such great scholars as Erving Goffman, Ralph H. Turner, and Herbert Blumer who, while visitors to UCSB, inspired me even more. I began to make trips to Berkeley and UCLA to ask them questions; and they were kind enough to receive this naïve but bright-eyed student.
At UCSB, I was selected for an experimental program (funded by the Ford Foundation) that allowed me to read extensively in psychoanalytic theory and general systems theory. So, by the time I graduated in 1965, I had taken many directed studies courses in social psychology and psychiatry, as well as many theory courses. I was accepted at some really top schools but I decided to go east and learn more sociology proper, especially macro-level sociological analysis. I selected Cornell but continued to keep social psychology as my major, but over the next couple of years, I was increasingly drawn to alternative theories and to macro-level sociological analysis. My master’s thesis was a test of several propositions from Thomas Scheff’s formalization of labeling theory; my dissertation drew some elements from psychoanalytic theory in the analysis of achievement motivation. Thus, even as I defended my dissertation, which was decidedly social psychological, my real interest had become general theory and, more specifically, theory on macrodynamic processes.
How have your specific interests in sociology changed over time?
Yes, indeed. If you look at my vita, the first three published articles were from my dissertation, but by the time they were published in the early 1970s, I was fully engaged in macro sociology and general theory. I had, in essence, left social psychology. For several years, I published normative books and articles on social problems and ills, books with titles like American Society: Problems of Structure (note: no social psychology), Inequality: Privilege and Poverty in America, American Dilemmas: An Inquiring into Enduring Social Issues, and Social Problems in America. I wrote article on ethnic discrimination, stratification, and ecological problems. Still, even as I was doing this, I wrote a book on Social Institutions in 1972 (my first book) and, then, in 1974, I published the first edition of The Structure of Sociological Theory, followed in 1978 by The Emergence of Sociological Theory. And, in the end, it was the theory that captivated me; and I can began to preach value-neutrality and hard-social science sociology, revolving around modeling and formal theory.
Becoming ever-more the general theorist, I kept exploring new topics theoretically, which also meant that I had to learn the empirical literature in new fields. And so, since the early 1980s, I have just kept moving into new fields. I get bored with one line of research, prompting me to move into new substantive fields in order to become an ever-more general theorist. I moved into stratification, wrote two more books on institutions, began to become fascinated with reviving evolutionary analysis in sociology, saw that detailed knowledge of primates was critical to understanding humans (as simply evolved apes), became intrigued with world systems analysis, general modeling and theory construction, and so it went. Inevitably, having left the field for twenty years, I came back to social psychology in the late 1980s. If one is to develop theories about all domains of social reality, obviously it is necessary to theorize about micro-level processes. I did not, at this time, consider myself a social psychologists, and even today, I am not sure that I am. Rather, I am a general theorists who theorizes about micro interpersonal processes—which is different than the way social psychology is today.
Indeed, unlike many social psychologists, I am the opposite of a specialist, and I cannot label myself by any of the names for various theoretical research programs in social psychology , even symbolic interactionism where I had my early training. And, I often make the plea that social psychology needs to be less partitioned and specialized.
What interests and/or activities, outside of sociology, are important to you?
Since I was not always been academically inclined—indeed just the opposite in my younger years—I have always had many not-so-intellectual interests. One passion has stayed with me since I was five years old: the love of sailing, which is something that I do all of the time today. When young, I played sports in high school and during early years of college as well. As a professor, I played in student intramural leagues until my body fell part in my early 40s. In my 20s, I raced motor-cross until I came to my senses after a few spectacular crashes. Then, I spend years walking and hiking each day, again until my body declined some more. Now cycling, where I await the other shoe to fall on this seeming benign activity like all other vigorous things that I have done in the past. But there is always sailing.
I should also emphasize that raising three children—now middle aged—was something that I had to take an interest in, and indeed, has been perhaps the best influence on me in terms of not taking my academic work too seriously. My nine grandchildren—ranging in age from 25 to 9 years old—have continued to be a major source of interest outside academia, even though all of my children and all of my children’s spouses, except one, are in employed education in some fashion. And, two the three former spouses are university professors. This large family keeps life meaningful in ways not possible with the narrow pursuit of academic goals, even as the topic of education is never very far away from most discussions.
Given your success in the field, how do you balance professional and personal demands?
This is an important issue, especially for academics who can become so wrapped up in their work. I have always had way too many interests in non-academic areas of life to let this happen. Kids certainly pulled me out of my work, often against my will but to my ultimate benefit. Also, I find that I work better when I break up days and weeks with other activities because, when I come back to academic work, I focus so much better. My love of sailboats also pulls me away from work. I may take my work to the boat, but rarely do I actually work; instead, play, sail, and talk to friends on the dock over beer and, sinfully, an occasional cigar. There are times when I over-work, but my body tells me to stop, and I have learned to listen and go have some fun, if only a walk around the neighborhood and talk with neighbors. All of us have to find the right balance that works for our respective temperaments. I work steady hours, virtually every day of the week, but I do not work long hours (indeed, I am in bed by 9:30pm most nights), and I make sure that I engage in non-academic, more physical activity for some part of each day. That is enough for me to keep the right balance. For others, some other pattern may work to maintain balance, but it is balance in life, however achieved, that is important.
Oh, I should close by noting something else: over the years, with some degree of success, I worry less about work; and, yet, I find work ever-more gratifying. It is fun to sit and write for several hours each morning. It is not even work like it was at the beginning of my career before I knew where I was going. Now I know where I have gone, I can relax and enjoy academic work for the intrinsic pleasure that playing with ideas brings. Indeed, finally at the age of 71, I have become a real academic.
If you had to leave academia, what career would you choose?
Well, if I left academia at my age, it would normally be called retirement. I don’t think about this issue now, but at one time I did. In fact, in my late 30s I contemplated doing something that fascinated me when I was young, and still does: architecture. I love building, whether it is theory or houses. I still occasionally draw house plans, just for the fun of it. And, I read about architecture. What kept me from making this leap in my late 30s was the sunk costs and investments in academia. But, the interests has never gone away. Indeed, one of my activities that kept me grounded when I was young was carpentry—remodeling the many houses that my wife and I have owned. I could, I imagine, build a house from the ground up, if my body would allow it.
Do you know something today you whish you had known when you started in sociology? What is it?
It is actually more than one thing. First, I would have taken some of the pressure off myself when I was starting out, as difficult as that can be. I wasted a lot of energy worrying about whether or not I could be successful. Second, I would come to realize a decade earlier that, as wonderful as academia is, there is often intellectual bigotry and pettiness that even today still surprises me. If I could do it over again, I avoid department politics; they sap your energy and, in the end, do not help you accomplish the really important things: research and teaching.
What one piece of advice would give a graduate student? What about an assistant professor?
For starters, just what I said above. For graduate students, I would offer two pieces of additional advice that might seem to contradict each other. First, do not close your mind off to potential areas of inquiry by committing too early to a particular specialization. Second, keep your eye on the prize: a Ph.D. These days one needs publications and that can often keep you from finishing your degree work, but don’t pursue publications at the expense of finishing the Ph.D. Many would disagree, but getting the degree is still the most important goal.
For Assistant Professors, a variant on the earlier advice: be cordial and pleasant; respect all your colleagues; don’t get pulled into department battles; and instead, write and teach. And another point, try not to let your chair push on you tasks and obligations that would get in the way of your research. It is important to protect your time, and it is unfair if senior people push time-consuming tasks on those who need to develop their careers. So, in nice, pleasant, and collegial way (something that I preach now but did not always practice when I was young), say “no” to anything that is going to drag you away from the really important work necessary to get tenure. Obvious advice, I know, but often hard to follow.