Voices of Experience: Kathy Charmaz
*Originally published in the Winter 2020 newsletter*
Sonoma State University
Kathy Charmaz is Professor Emerita and Director of the Faculty Writing Program at Sonoma State University, where she has served on the faculty of the Sociology Department since 1973. She received her PhD from the University of California, San Francisco, where she studied under Anselm Strauss. She is well-known for her role in developing and teaching grounded theory approaches to qualitative research, as well as her work on social psychology, illness, and aging.
Her work, which includes more than a dozen books, has garnered much recognition, including the George Herbert Mead Award from the Society for the Study of Symbolic Interaction, the Leo G. Reeder award for distinguished contributions from the Medical Sociology Section of ASA, and the Lifetime Achievement award from the International Congress of Qualitative Inquiry. Her book Constructing Grounded Theory (now in its second edition), received a Critics’ Choice Award from the American Educational Studies Association.
Kathy has served in a variety of leadership roles, including as President of the Pacific Sociological Association and Chair of the Medical Sociology Section of ASA. She has disseminated her work and techniques widely, teaching classes and workshops on qualitative methods and publishing across the United States and abroad.
What life experiences have contributed to your interest in social psychology and qualitative methods in general and/or your specific research areas?
I grew up in a family among chronically ill adults and was a sickly kid myself. Constant medical crises and the subsequent spiral of problems became a part of everyday life. By the early 1960s, I had become an occupational therapist who worked in physical rehabilitation. Witnessing firsthand how illness and disability affected people’s self-concepts fascinated me. I was also concerned with how well-meaning therapists’ lacked understanding of many of their patients’ lives. These therapists seemed oblivious to the implications of poverty and prejudice. So, I decided to pursue a Master’s in sociology and then go back and teach occupational therapy students. But sociology hooked me.
Can you tell us about where you spent the early part of your sociological career (first as a student and then as faculty)?
As I was finishing my master’s degree, I decided to switch areas from seeking a doctorate in political sociology to social psychology and wished to study with renown qualitative social psychologists on the West Coast. At that time, Erving Goffman was leaving University of California, Berkeley, so I was fortunate to be the last student chosen amongst stiff competition for the first doctoral cohort at the University of California, San Francisco. I had loved Anselm Strauss’s essay on identity, Mirrors and Masks: The Search for Identity and was impressed by his empirical studies such as Images of the American City. Fred Davis’s work on physical disabilities also captivated me. The doctoral program at UCSF was a perfect match for me with my interests in social psychology and medical sociology and the program’s six quarters of training in qualitative research. I also took advanced tutorials in classical theory. When I began my doctoral studies in 1968, jobs in sociology were plentiful for white males. When I completed my degree in 1973, only a handful of jobs in California were available and I needed to stay there. By that time, however, universities were implementing new affirmative action policies of which I was a beneficiary. I received a temporary position at Sonoma State College because I could teach classical theory, not grounded theory. Despite years of tenuous employment, I managed to stay at Sonoma State.
How have you approached disseminating your ideas and communicating across disciplinary boundaries?
Although I had no strategy for disseminating my ideas, on reflection, I have several suggestions. In addition to your regular conference schedule, occasionally present at multidisciplinary conferences that fit your substantive expertise. If the conference organizers plan a special journal issue or edited volume, revise and submit your paper. Publishing in an international journal will also give your work a wider audience. Turn methodological innovations and insights from conducting your research into methods papers. An imaginative or provocative methods paper attracts readers and can serve as a vehicle for introducing your substantive contributions. When possible, make use of social and professional media to disseminate your work.
What one piece of advice would you give a graduate student? What about an assistant professor?
Follow your passions! Even if more lucrative research opportunities come your way. Your passionate interests will keep inspiring you and carry you through the rough spots. Following your passions as a graduate student eases the trials of being an assistant professor. You’ll have something original to say and will have gained the confidence to say it. Don’t let time management prescriptions from privileged professors and writing handbooks discourage you. As writing expert Helen Sword discovered, many productive scholars do not write every day. Do what you can. Study how you spend your time and evaluate it with candor. Make changes to allow more writing time but forgo the guilt when your situation precludes living by other people’s schedules. And, most of all, enjoy your work.
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ASA Section on Social Psychology