Can you tell us a bit about your early life: where you were born, where you grew up, family and siblings?
I was born in Fargo, North Dakota, in 1948, and grew up in a small town (pop. 400) in southeastern North Dakota. When I was 12 we moved to our farm, 15 miles away, where I lived until I left for college. My father owned a car dealership during the early years of my life, but then began farming and later learned to fly and built his own aerial spraying business. He became a prominent figure in agricultural aviation and was inducted into the North Dakota Aviation Hall of Fame two years before his death—all accomplished with only an 8th grade education. I have one brother, Larry, who is 4 years older than I am and who continued the family farming and spraying businesses until his retirement two years ago. My mother was a homemaker and farm wife who contributed substantially to both of the family businesses.
Where were you educated?
Both my brother and I attended North Dakota State University in Fargo for our undergraduate degrees. My graduate degrees are from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Have you had any lifeshaping experiences? If so, can you describe one for us?
I think all life transitions—geographic moves, new educational and work experiences, new personal relationships—are in some ways life-shaping experiences, so, like most people, I have had many. But for me, probably the most important transition was leaving rural North Dakota and experiencing a fundamentally new world: attending graduate school and learning about academia, living on the East Coast (in the South) and learning about a whole new part of the country, and becoming acquainted with a very different lifestyle than the one I grew up with.
When did you first become aware of sociology as a discipline? How? What made you pursue it as a profession?
I didn’t become aware of sociology until fairly late in my undergraduate career. I was originally planning to become a hospital pharmacist (my sister-in-law’s career) and was immersed in basic science courses, which I loved, until my junior year in college. Then, I took my first pharmacy course and hated it—it was boring, rote memorization. I took a sociology course (my first) simply to get as far away from pharmacy as I could. I quickly took other sociology courses and became more and more interested in the field. Late in my junior year I changed my major to sociology (my minor was in chemistry). My intention at that time was not to become an academic, however, but rather to somehow use sociology to save the world — after all, this was the late sixties!
Graduate school changed all of that. I entered graduate school planning to get a terminal M.A. degree, to specialize in juvenile delinquency, and to pursue a nonacademic career of some sort. By the end of my first year in graduate school, my career goals were entirely different. I had decided to obtain a Ph.D., to pursue an academic career in research and teaching, and to specialize in social psychology. I discovered I loved research (probably related to my love of science, more generally), and I never took a single course in juvenile delinquency or criminology.
My career goals were strengthened further, oddly enough, by two years that I spent working in Washington, D.C., after obtaining my M.A. my first year in graduate school (I was married at that time to a law student attending Georgetown University, and we were taking turns getting our degrees). I worked as an analyst in the Research Office at the American Council of Education, conducting longitudinal survey research on college impact on students, with a fabulous group of sociologists, psychologists, and economists — a truly wonderful experience that both matured me as a social scientist and confirmed that it really was an academic career that I wanted. I then returned to Chapel Hill and completed my Ph.D. in 1976, specializing in social psychology and, secondarily, in the sociology of education (which I taught for a few years but never pursued further).
Where did you spend the early part of your sociological career? What were your sociological interests? How have they changed?
In graduate school my mentor, James Wiggins, introduced me to social exchange theory, behavioral sociology, and the work of Richard Emerson. My dissertation was an experimental test of a theory of the development of social exchange in dyadic relations, and I have been a social exchange theorist and an experimental researcher ever since.
My first job was at Emory University, where I served on the faculty for 12 years. I obtained a small NIMH grant my first year and set up a laboratory for the study of dyadic exchange relations, using electromechanical relay circuitry (which I had learned to wire in graduate school) to run lights and counters and record button presses on “human test consoles.” The transition to a computerized laboratory gradually followed.
Changes in my sociological interests have been modest ones, all variations on my enduring interest in the experimental analysis of theories of social exchange. My early years were devoted to studying the establishment, maintenance, and change of dyadic exchange relations. I later became interested in power and inequality, like so many of my colleagues, and concerns with power and injustice dominated my research for many years. In the last 10 years I’ve shifted to studying how different forms of exchange, with different structures of reciprocity, affect the emergence of integrative bonds of trust, affect, and solidarity, but power and justice have remained part of that work.
Are you married? Do you have kids? If yes to either, how did you manage high productivity with competing family demands?
I am not married (my earlier marriage ended in divorce in 1981), but I have been with my partner, Bill Dixon (a political scientist), for over 25 years. We don’t have children, but we do have two much loved and very spoiled Siamese cats. Being part of an academic couple has helped my career in many ways, because we support and understand each other’s work.
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?
enjoy reading British mysteries, watching old movies, attending the theater, dining out, taking long walks, and spending time with my cats. My most recent hobby is a fish pond and watergarden that we added to our yard a year ago. I also love to travel, especially to Europe.
Please reflect on how you see the current state of social psychology. Where do you think it is going, and is it going in the right direction?
A few years ago I participated in an intergenerational panel on the “Future of Social Psychology” at the Pacific Sociological Association meetings. I think my comments then still hold: I greatly appreciate the theoretical and methodological diversity that characterizes our field, but I would like to see more of the “sociological” in sociological social psychology. Our field has been moving in a more psychological direction for some time now, with increased emphasis on cognitive processes and emotions, and I’d like to see us balance that work with greater emphasis on social structures, social relationships, and collectivities. I’d also like to see us actively work at linking our theories with those of other, more macro fields of sociology. I’m pleased to see a number of efforts in that direction quite recently, and I believe it is one of the things that will help our field continue to grow and remain vibrant and relevant in sociology.
What one piece of advice would you give a graduate student? Or an assistant professor?
I have one piece of advice for beginning graduate students, and a second for advanced graduate students and assistant professors. I would urge new graduate students to give themselves time to explore different areas and methods of sociology before settling on a field of specialization — the discipline is so much broader than any of us realize (or are introduced to) as undergraduate students. For advanced graduate students and assistant professors, I would advise finding a theoretical or substantive problem that is deep and broad enough, and fascinating to you, to form a research agenda that you can pursue for at least 4-5 years and that will produce a coherent, cumulative body of work by tenure time.