Two themes are crucial in describing Joseph Berger: his work and his family. While many sociologists know his work, I would like to outline a few interconnected elements of the man from the perspective of someone who has had the privilege of knowing Joe for many years.
Joseph Berger was born April 3, 1924, in Brooklyn, where his parents had met and married. Both of them emigrated from Poland to the U.S.; many in their families who remained in Europe failed to survive the Holocaust. With others of The Greatest Generation, Joe joined the U.S. Army, serving at the Headquarters of the European Theater of Operations in London and after D-Day, in France and Germany. A New Yorker, Joe had to learn to drive in the Army. After the War, the G.I. Bill made it possible for Joe to attend Brooklyn College and then graduate study at Harvard.
In high school, Joe must have been a bright student, for he read Sorokin’s Contemporary Sociological Theories (1928). Joe’s high school yearbook lists as his future aspiration to become an “Instructor to the science of Sociology.” One of Joe’s high school teachers, Dr. Philip Gordon, taught a European History course that Joe loved. The world can sometimes retain a bit of magic when one is teenager, and Joe would stare fixedly at his watch, hoping to slow down time so the class could last a little longer.
The Army experience may have helped shape Joe’s future orientation to sociology for it was there he began thinking about topics including authority, leadership, legitimacy, performance expectations, and status. His approach was different from the more common interests in phenomena and settings that still can be found in sociology. Joe was interested in formulating general concepts and principles that might be apparent in the Army and also in many other settings. A concern with generality marks his sociological contributions, and helps account for the immense range of phenomena to which his theories have been applied.
Joe brought his interest in developing general theories to his graduate study at Harvard, where he was a student of Robert Freed Bales. Bales wanted to understand all aspects of activity in small groups, to study them “in the round.” Joe wished instead to abstract certain aspects of groups, seeking to formulate principles that might describe, for instance, effects of performance evaluations in Bales groups and also in Army units.
Bales’ students learned to score interaction using the famous 12 categories, and of course the criterion was being able to score acts as Bales scored them. Bales considered the distinction of task-focused and socio-emotional to be crucial, as, later, did Talcott Parsons. Bales found Joe’s scoring of task-focused acts (categories 4-9) excellent but his scoring of socio-emotional (1-3 and 10-12) somewhat lacking. To develop skill scoring socio-emotional acts, Bales suggested that Joe score dialogue from radio soap operas. I imagine
Joe tuning in and coding The Romance of Helen Trent—which proves that because a woman is 35, or older, romance in life need not be over, that the romance of youth can be extended into middle life and even beyond.
Joe’s first academic appointment was at Dartmouth College, where he met and worked with the mathematician J. Laurie Snell. Joe brought with him a Bales Interaction Process Recorder, a machine that facilitates scoring interaction using a moving roll of paper and 12 colored light bands. Some of Joe’s new colleagues regarded the machine with trepidation. Apparently it reminded them of a lie detector, and they thought it could read minds.
In 1959, Sanford M. Dornbusch became chair of the sociology department at Stanford, and soon afterwards he was joined with Joe Berger, Bernard P. Cohen, Morris Zelditch, Jr., and others who built an exciting and supportive atmosphere. Over the years, BCZ and numerous collaborators have worked to develop, test, and extend abstract general theories of social processes and social structures.
One well-known and widely-used product of those years was a standardized experimental situation for the study of status and expectation processes. (Joe developed the first version of the design at Dartmouth, as an attempt to abstract the performance-evaluation-behavior aspects of task-focused interaction in Bales groups, but the design was successively revised and refined at Stanford into the one known today.) It employs a Host Experimenter who provides information to participants about the setting, interaction conditions, etc. The Host is usually named Dr. Gordon, honoring the high school teacher Joe so admired. Like Superman or James Bond, Dr. Gordon has been played by many individuals over the years, each a somewhat pale copy of the dynamic individual Joe knew in his youth.
In 1966 Joe married Margaret A. Smith, also known to family and friends as, Theory. The first impressions of Theory were of a beautiful woman, who had the taste and skills to design and make much of her own clothing. With time, one can feel the warmth of her kindness. Conversations reveal a perceptive and thoughtful person who graciously pretends that others actually come up with her own insights. Theory is an authority on clothing design of the late 19th century, and she lectures and presents workshops on related topics at professional meetings. She has started several businesses and worked for many years at the Hoover Institution. Theory has planted the large yard around their house with a great number of flowering plants. The two with the best perfume are a flowering lemon tree and a Carolina jasmine vine. With her other accomplishments, she is a superb cook, able to prepare everything from informal meals to memorable formal dinner parties for her and Joe’s colleagues. Casual or elaborate meals take place in an atmosphere of warmth and good spirits. Joe and Theory raised Adam and Rachel from Joe’s first marriage, and a few years later Gideon was born. Adam lives and works in San Francisco; Rachel, a television news producer, lives with her partner Joe Orlando and their two sons in Oakland; Gideon is completing a post-doctoral in chemistry at the University of Hawaii. The family is close and despite distance and demanding jobs, they get together many times each year. Joe loves his new role of grandfather. He has always believed that the world is full of delightful things to discover and investigate, and he is sharing that approach now with people who want to discover everything with him. A few years ago, a British-owned pub and restaurant in Palo Alto held a 1940s celebration. Joe wore his Army uniform, which he fits as he did in 1945, and Theory designed and created an outfit for herself from that time. When they entered the restaurant, others in the room applauded.
Joe can be absent minded, and nearly every foray outside the house is preceded by a game of “find the keys.” Many of his former students still survey a room when they leave it to be sure Joe has not left his briefcase, glasses, or his coat behind. Colleagues have to watch for cross traffic when Joe gets into a serious discussion as they walk. (And he really has turned sideways while driving on the freeway to be sure his passenger understood what he said, always a memorable experience.) Theory keeps the confusion to reasonable proportions at home, but nobody could completely organize Joe’s life. In truth, he is not so much absent minded as he is focused. Joe can remember everything on a chalkboard filled with equations and data tables; he knows the names of his friends’ relatives and details of their lives. For ten years, he chaired the department at Stanford, and the years were models of good organization. He just does not consider the location of keys or remote controls to be very important.
Anyone who has conferred with Joe knows how it feels to receive his attention. Nothing distracts him; he hears you and he carefully considers what you say. Theory has likened Joe’s conversational attention to a searchlight. Surroundings fade into background while he focuses on the immediate discussion. Joe does not know how to act superficial or to fake interest. His expression and mannerisms show that you have his full attention. While that can be extremely flattering to Joe’s sociological colleagues and students, it must have been disconcerting to his teenaged children’s friends and dates they brought over to the house.
Joe’s remarkable productivity—16 articles and 3 books published since he retired at age 70—reflects his remarkable health and vitality. He keeps his cholesterol level so low it must be close to a world record. He exercises at a nearby gym where he sometimes encounters other Stanford faculty members. I like to imagine Joe on a treadmill, explaining some sociological point to someone on an adjacent treadmill. That might be fanciful, but I do know he has sent reprints to people from the gym when he found their understanding to contain some gaps.
Joe has never bought a new car, but for many years he has enjoyed his red, turbocharged 1986 Nissan 300ZX. Many of us find it harder and harder to get into and out of that car as years pass, but for Joe, it’s easy.
Some scholars take credit for others’ ideas; Joe often does exactly the opposite. He has always been extremely generous with his time and ideas. Most of his books and papers are collaborations, but here I am referring to work that appears under others’ names, to which Joe has made significant contributions. It is impossible to know how many hours Joe has given this way, discussing others’ ideas and making them better, or how many ideas he has given to someone who he thinks can develop these ideas. He suggests research topics, offers theoretical formulations and experimental designs, and finds ways to solve problems in others’ research. To Joe this is part of the collective effort to develop abstract, rigorous and testable theories in Sociology.
If you ever feel discouraged or cynical about humanity, spend some time watching Joe interact with his family; you can see proof that human relations can be wonderful. Joe and Theory hold hands as they walk together, and sometimes he will kiss her cheek for no reason other than they are so deeply happy just to be in each other’s company. Joe expresses love for his children and grandchildren through touch and smiles. Sitting with Rachel, he often puts an arm protectively around her shoulders, though Rachel is quite capable of taking care of herself. They all love each other very much and it shows in many small, beautiful ways.
He is an extraordinary man.