Voices of Experience: Karen Cook
an you tell us a bit about your early life: where you were born, where you grew up, family and siblings?
I was born in Raton, New Mexico just after World War II, along with a twin brother who is ten minutes older than I am, to this day. I also have a younger sister and brother. All of us attended Stanford University for our undergraduate degrees. I grew up in Austin, Texas, having moved there in the third grade from Oklahoma City, where my younger brother and sister were born.
Where were you educated?
I was educated at Stanford University where I did my B.A., M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in sociology. I ended up at Stanford, in part because I had an aunt who lived in San Jose, California (the only one of my parents’ eight siblings who lived outside of Texas at that time). She mentioned to my dad that the “twins should apply” to a nearby university. There were no catalogues for colleges and universities outside of Texas in my public high school.
Have you had any life-shaping experiences? If so, can you describe one for us?
I have had many life-shaping experiences. It is hard to select one. Something that made a strong positive mark on me as a young child was the interest in and commitment to education exhibited by my grandfather, a farmer in Hondo, Texas. Whenever I was around him he asked what I had been learning and he always listened intently to the answer. I used to read books just to talk with him about them in the summers at the farm, where, in exchange, he taught me how to milk cows, find eggs in the hayloft, ride a horse in the pasture, shoot rattlesnakes and rabbits, and shuck corn.
“Traveling with a youth group by bus in the ninth grade from Austin to Miami in 1960 meant seeing the deep South for what it was in person for the first time --- separate doors, separate lines, separate bathrooms, separated seats, separate water fountains, deeply separated lives…some in the group more equal than others everywhere we went. Stopping at the church where Martin Luther King Jr. preached was the highlight of the trip for this group of young Texans steeped in the teachings of Martin Luther. I mark this trip as the most important step in my educational journey. The second most important was leaving the state of Texas for college. Close my eyes today and I see many of the images of that trip in vivid detail – nothing faded” (Sica and Turner, 2006).
When did you first become aware of sociology as a discipline? How? What made you pursue it as a profession?
I first became aware of sociology in an introductory course taught by Sandy Dornbusch at Stanford. He was a great lecturer and he made the field intriguing through his engaging presentations. One mimicked a sermon to convey strategies of influence in large gatherings. I wanted more and thus declared a major soon after taking only two courses in the field. I had already begun to love the social sciences through exposure before this to anthropology (a course taught by George and Louise Spindler) and to developmental psychology (a course taught by Eleanor Maccoby).
It was the late sixties. All of my female friends no matter what their initial career aspirations had been (law, medicine, business) were beginning to move toward teaching careers in their senior year. I decided if I were going into teaching then I would want to teach at the college level and thus I applied to graduate schools after winning an NIMH training fellowship, which I was encouraged to apply for by my undergraduate advisor. Another important input was the decision in my junior year to do a senior honors thesis. My primary advisor was Bernard Cohen and I ran an experiment in which I studied the Asch conformity effect in relation to the gender of the experimenter and of the confederates. I loved conducting my own research and this was pivotal in my choice to pursue graduate education.
Where did you spend the early part of your sociological career? What were your sociological interests? How have they changed?
My first job was at the University of Washington, where I received a job offer by phone from Otto Larsen during my last year of graduate work. I chose to take this offer for a number of reasons, the primary one being that there were a large number of social psychologists in the department that I thought I could learn from. They included: Richard Emerson, Robert Leik, Robert Burgess, David Schmitt, Phillip Blumstein, Frank Miyamoto (an early friend and collaborator of Sandy Dornbusch), Lynn Ofshe, and later Edgar Borgatta. Other influential members of that department in my early career were Tad Blalock, Herb Costner, Edward Gross, Wesley Wager, Michael Hechter, Gunther Roth, Pepper Schwartz, Sam Preston, Pete Guest, Clarence Schrag and Rodney Stark. It was a stimulating, supportive and challenging department environment. I was lucky to have the opportunity to begin my career in such a nurturing place. I went to Washington with an interest in social psychology and that interest only grew over time, though I also benefited from excellent colleagues in the fields of organizations, theory and methodology who were also influential in my development as a scholar.
“Just as on the national scene, politics and science primarily remained separate endeavors for me during the [following] decade. Coming of age professionally in the sixties as a sociologist marked my studies in subtle, but clear ways. I began with a focus on distributive justice and fairness and later moved to the topic of social power as a result of a long and fruitful collaboration with Richard Emerson (power-dependence theory) for a decade at the University of Washington where I began my career and served on the faculty for twenty-three years before moving back into the world of private universities. Little of my work has not focused fundamentally on issues of power or justice over thirty years. I was often questioned early in my career about my orientation to feminism. This was
not a difficult question to answer. For me issues of power and justice were at the very heart of all of the social movements of the sixties. I needed to understand not only the micro-level social interactions that embodied power inequalities, but also the broader social, economic and political dimensions of these processes in order to comprehend the social changes that enveloped me” (Sica and Turner, 2006).
Can you tell us a little bit about your private life—for example, do you play bridge, sail, do country line dancing, or have other hobbies and interests besides sociology?
I am not sure what you mean by private life (and that may answer your question). I do love walking in the woods and hills, skiing anywhere, reading as often as I can (mainly social science), and cooking with my two grown sons who seem to be much better at it than I ever was. I also like to travel and have enjoyed many trips to Europe, Japan, and more recently, South Africa and China. I always feel like a sociologist parading as an anthropologist when I travel since I think my experiences in foreign places with social scientists of all kinds have been the most important source of my continued education as a sociologist over the years. I hope to be able to do more of it in the future. (I limited my travel to very short trips when my children were young, unless I could take them along, which I often did and now they love it as well.)
With children and a family, how did you manage high productivity with competing family
I married after my undergraduate years and had two children along the way, one just before I got tenure and one just after. Both boys became a great source of fun and distraction for me from the harried life of an academic. I enjoyed taking them to the zoo and often thought such field trips prepared me for faculty meetings. I managed the competing demands by getting more organized, learning how to write and work effectively in very small stretches of time, working very late into the night when all was quiet, and with lots of help from my parents and family, especially when I traveled to meetings and conferences.
Do you know something today that you wish that you had known when you started in sociology? What is it?
I think I know now that sociology is a very broad, varied and endlessly fascinating field. I don’t think I knew enough about its breadth when I started.
What were your thoughts, if any, when the social psych section was in abeyance in the mid-1970s? How do you see the current state of sociology in general and social psychology in particular? Where do you think the latter is going and is it going in the right direction?
I was in my assistant professor years at that time and was a bit distressed that the subfield I had chosen seemed to be unorganized at that time, but it did not affect my commitment to the field or my interest in the things that social psychologists typically study.
I am not a pessimist by nature and thus I see a bright future for sociology and the social sciences generally. Many of the major issues facing the world today require the insights of social scientists in all fields, anthropology, communication, economics, sociology, political science and psychology. What I find most stimulating currently (and for the past decade) is working with those in related disciplines, whether on trust, social networks, social influence, or other topics of significance. I am also an optimist about social psychology primarily because individuals and groups of individuals are the bedrock of social life. We will always need to understand how people make decisions, what motivates them, what makes relationships work in all contexts, how to organize to accomplish important tasks in society, and how our lives change over time with what consequences. The need for what we do will not go away no matter how the profession organizes itself into sections or associations. I also think we will need to connect more often with those in biology in the future as we reconsider the roots of human behavior and explore the brain with new technologies.
What one piece of advice would you give a graduate student? Or an assistant professor?
I would tell graduate students to find their own voice, not to follow too closely the footsteps of those who have gone before them, but to strike out in new directions. I would tell an assistant professor the same thing.
What does having been elected to the National Academies of Sciences mean to you?
KSC: Actually, when I was called at 5:00 am by the secretary of the National Academy of Sciences (who happens to be a chemist at Stanford) and given the news, I was relieved since at that time in the morning I was sure that someone I knew and loved had died or was injured. My first words to him were “I am shocked”. It was quite a surprise and not remotely anticipated. In my view what it means in general is that sociology is being recognized for its contributions to science in ways not common in the past and that is a good thing. The social sciences are extremely important to the survival of our species on this planet and to the future in so many ways. I thus share this recognition with all of us and especially with those I have been fortunate enough to learn from, most notably Richard Emerson in my early career. And, I was able to share this news with Otto Larsen, the one who gave me my first job offer, only one week before he died. I am grateful for this as well. He replied: “This gives me great joy at a time when I am struggling to live.”
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ASA Section on Social Psychology