*Originally Published in the Fall 2014 Section Newsletter*
As interviewed by Murray Webster
Following service in the Army in World War II, an undergraduate degree at Brooklyn College, a doctorate at Harvard University, and a faculty appointment at Dartmouth College, Joseph Berger moved to Stanford University in 1959. There he and other young sociologists began to practice what some called “Stanford sociology.” The approach is marked by developing explicit explanatory theory and conducting empirical tests, often, although definitely not always, in a laboratory. Other sociologists have independently developed comparable approaches at other universities, and today this kind of work constitutes a significant source of contributions to social psychology.
Joseph Berger has received significant awards for his work, including research grants from federal agencies, the Social Psychology Section’s Cooley-Mead Award, and ASA’s W. E. B. DuBois Award for a career of distinguished scholarship. His remarkable career continues to the present as Joe participates in professional meetings and reviews for our journals; his most recent scholarly paper was published in 2014. This year Joe reached the age of 90, an occasion that seems like a good time to ask him to reflect on his career, our discipline, and his views of our shared future
Were there experiences early in your life or when you were growing up that influenced your becoming a sociologist?
Yes, there were. Both my parents were intensely interested in the political and economic issues of the day (these were the years of the great depression, the New Deal, of Fascism in Italy, and National Socialism in Germany). My father was a committed Marxist all his life. I grew up in that environment so it isn’t too surprising that by 14, I was reading and struggling to understand Engels, “The Origin of the Family” or that about the same age I was marching in May Day parades, and calling out “Free the Scottsboro Boys” and “Down with Jim Crow Laws.” During this period in my life I had already become extremely sensitive to the differences between socially advantaged and socially disadvantaged groups in society.
As the years went by and I read more widely and thought more intensively about the subject, I developed reservations about Marxist theory. By the time I left for the Army I had serious doubts, and I was looking for alternatives, but found none that satisfied me. However, I began to think of Sociology and in my high school yearbook when asked what I wanted to be, I said “Instructor in the Science of Sociology.” By the time I came out of the Army, I had decided Marxist theory was not a viable theory of society or social processes. As I saw it the task ahead was to develop new theories of society and social processes. Obviously this was the work of Sociologists, so I decided to go into Sociology. For me, going into Sociology was a “calling.”
I know that you have been involved in different research programs in your career. One of these has been concerned with the nature of sociological theory generally. How did this program evolve? What were your primary objectives in this program?
My objectives in this research were to analyze the structure of different types of theory building activities in sociology and to determine the nature of different forms of theory growth that occurs in our field. My interests in these questions peaked in graduate school at Harvard. I was exposed to the works, for example, of Talcott Parsons on the one hand and to that of George Homans on the other. Each claimed to be creating theory, but from my standpoint there were big differences in what they were doing. What emerged for me was the question of how can we distinguish the different types of theoretical enterprises that sociologists are engaged in?
Over the years I read extensively in the history and philosophy of science (looking for insights) while pondering this question. Eventually, I came to distinguish between theoretical work concerned with developing Orienting Strategies in sociology from those concerned with developing Unit Theories in sociology. However, I knew that this classification wasn’t complete. In working on Expectation States theory, I found that I was developing different unit theories that appeared to be interrelated. How did this kind of work fit into my classification? I had no answer and in 1968 I wrote of this type of theoretical work as developing “theories in parallel.”
In 1971, while on a fellowship, I encountered and was exposed to the work of the philosopher Imre Lakatos. Lakatos lectured and wrote extensively on the idea of scientific research programs. This idea became the basis of my own work on theoretical research programs. The rest is history. Starting in the 1970s and going on into the 1980s, I worked with David G. Wagner on determining the nature of different types of theoretical research programs and the nature of different types of theoretical growth including the elaboration, the proliferation, and the integration of theories. In the 1990s collaborating with Morris Zelditch I worked on the nature of orienting strategies. We distinguished fundamental principles from working strategies, which theorists use in developing unit theories. In summary, this research provides us with a working typology of different types of theory building activities in the terms Orienting Strategies, Theoretical Research Programs and Unit Theories. It also provides us with an analysis of the structure of each of these three types as well as an analysis of some important forms of theoretical growth that occur in sociology.
A second major research program you have been heavily involved in is the origin and growth of the Expectation States theory program. How has this program evolved? What is the present state of this theoretical work?
The Expectation States program has absorbed the greatest share of my research efforts. I will describe it informally avoiding theoretical details.
This program began with my doctoral thesis in the late 1950s, which was concerned with the emergence of interaction hierarchies in small groups whose members were initially similar in status. Sometime after this program was initiated, Morris Zelditch, Bernard P. Cohen and I constructed a theory, published in 1966, concerned with disadvantaged groups, as for example, women, blacks, and Mexican Americans. In it we ad-dressed the question of when do status relations exist between these disadvantaged groups and their complementary groups, say men, whites, Anglo Americans. We argued that for status relations to exist at least two things had to be true. First, women, blacks, and Mexican Americans had to be culturally defined as being less valued than individuals in the advantaged groups. And second, women, blacks, and Mexican Americans had to be culturally defined as having less generalized performance capacities than those in their complementary groups. Status relations between groups, when they exist, have consequences particularly when individuals from different status groups work together in committees, work groups, or task groups generally. They create inequalities in behavior in groups, inequalities in who influences whom, and inequalities in how individuals evaluate each other. And those inequalities can often operate to maintain the initial status relations.
The original 1966 theory was modified, then elaborated, and finally it was formalized in the 1977 book. Status Characteristics Theory has now been applied in the study of major social distinctions in our society including, among others, gender distinctions, racial distinc-tions, and ethnic distinctions. Over the years the program of which this Status theory is part has steadily expanded and grown. We now have additional theories that, among other things, show how ine-quality of rewards is related to status relations, how new status characteristics can be socially created, how status relations evolve through a sequence of tasks, and how status objects can be con-structed, and we even have research, but not enough in my opinion, that tells us how we can overcome the effects of status inequality in group situations. Today the Expectation States program has more than a dozen and a half branches that we documented in Advances in Group Processes this year. This is due in part to the fact the pro-gram has attracted scholars who are committed to developing a cumulative body of theoretical research that is empirically grounded. Nevertheless, there are exciting research tasks still to be tackled.
What advice would you give to someone starting their career?
That’s a hard one since individuals start their careers with very different histories and are in very different situations. Personally, I found the following ideas to be important:
You have had a long career in Sociology. What impresses you as being some of the major changes that you have witnessed during your career?
Much has changed in my area of research since I first began my career at Dartmouth College in 1954. At that time experimentation in sociology was a novelty that often had to be explained and justified to colleagues. Today experimentation is widely accepted in our field and with time it becomes ever more sophisticated; examples are in the Webster and Sell book on experiments. My area of specialization was then referred to as “small groups” but over the years “small groups” has morphed into the study of “group processes.” There is much more here than a simple change of name. Today, there is a strong commitment among group process scholars (which Zelditch has noted was not always true of early small group researchers) to develop theories that are abstract and general, theories that are rigorous, and theories that can be empirically tested and applied. The result is that today we find in this area theoretical research programs that deal with processes involving social identity, affect control, power and exchange, rewards and distributive justice, status and expectation states, among others described in Peter Burke’s 2006 book.
But there is an even more interesting difference between the “small groups” research and current group process research. Many of the theories being developed today apply to more social contexts than simply to small groups. For example, if their scope conditions are met, status theories apply to encounters, small groups, teams, committees and other organizational contexts. As another example, Lawler et al.’s theory of relational cohesion deals with the individual’s relation to a group and the individual’s relation to an organization. The reward expectations theory recently has been effectively applied to macro-phenomena by David Melamed and to micro-phenomena by Hamit Fisek and David G. Wagner.
Finally, let me stress that there also are important problems that lie ahead in the study of group processes. And while it has been an expanding area of research over the past twenty-five to thirty years, I would argue that group processes is a research area that—fortunately—is still “in progress.”
Berger, Joseph. 1968. “Elements of a Sociological Self-Image.” In Irving L. Horowitz (Ed.), Sociological Self Images: A Collective Portrait. New York: Sage.
Berger, Joseph. 1974. “Scope-Defined Formulations.” Pp 15-16 in Joseph Berger, Thomas L. Conner, and M. Hamit Fisek (Eds.), Expectation States Theory: A Theoretical Research Program. Cambridge, MA: Winthrop.
Berger, Joseph, Cohen, Bernard P., and Zelditch Jr., Morris. 1966. "Status Characteristics and Expectation States." Pp. 29-46 in Joseph Berger, Morris Zelditch Jr., and Bo Anderson (Eds.), Sociological Theories in Progress, Vol. 1. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Berger, Joseph, M. Hamit Fisek, Robert Z. Norman, and Morris Zelditch, Jr. 1977. Status Characteristics and Social Interaction. New York: Elsevier.
Berger, Joseph and Morris Zelditch Jr. 1993. “Orienting Strategies and Theory Growth.” Pp. 3-19 in Joseph Berger and Morris Zelditch, Jr. (Eds.), Theoretical Research Programs: Studies in Theory Growth. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press
Berger, Joseph, Wagner, David G. and Webster Jr., Murray 2014. “Expectation States Theory: Growth, Opportunities and Chal-lenges.” Pp. 19-55 in Shane R. Thye and Edward J. Lawler (Eds.) Advances in Group Processes, Volume 31. Bingley, UK: The Emerald Group Publishing.
Burke, Peter J. (Editor), 2006. Contemporary Social Psychological Theories. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Fisek, M. Hamit and Wagner, David G. 2003. “Reward Expectations and Allocative Behaviors: A Mathematical Model.” Pp. 133-148 in Shane R. Thye and John Skvoretz (Eds.), Advances in Group Processes, Vol. 20. New York: Elsevier/JAI Press.
Melamed, David 2012. "Deriving Equity from Expectations: A Cross-Cultural Evaluation." Social Science Research, 41: 170-181.
Thye, Shane, R., Aaron Vincent, Edward J. Lawler, and Jeonkoo Yoon. 2014. “Relational Cohesion, Social Commitments, and Person-to-Group Ties: Twenty-five Years of a Theoretical Research Program.” Pp. 99-138 in Shane R. Thye and Ed-ward J. Lawler (Eds.), Advances in Group Processes, Volume 31. Bingley, UK: The Emerald Group Publishing.
Wagner, David and Joseph Berger. 1985. "Do Sociological Theories Grow?" The American Journal of Sociology 90: 697-728.
Webster Jr, Murray and Jane Sell (Eds.), 2014. Laboratory Experiments in the Social Sciences, 2/e. San Diego, CA: Elsevier.
Zelditch, Morris. 2013. “Thirty Years of Advances in Group Processes: A Review Essay.” Pp. 1-19 in Shane R. Thye and Edward J. Lawler (Eds.), Advances in Group Processes: Thirtieth Anniversary Edition, Volume 30. Bingley, UK: The Emerald Group Publishing.