Voices of Experience: Peggy A. Thoits
What life experiences have contributed to your interest in social psychology in general and/or your specific research areas?
Most people don’t know the story be-hind how I became interested in going to graduate school. There was a job at University of Colorado, Boulder that was associated with a mental health internship program for college students. One of my professors offered me the job, but one of the requirements of the job was that you had to be a graduate student in sociology. So, I applied to graduate school in sociology to get the job. I had no clue what graduate school was all about.
Originally I became interested in the self and self-esteem because while I was a graduate student at the University of Colorado, the women’s movement was in strong force. My typical response to things happening around me is to study them. I began looking at gender differences in self-esteem, which is one of the con-sequences of women’s oppression. Also, my interest in mental health was generated by my mother having a fairly serious psychological dis-order for about 10 years of her life—she be-came ill when I was around 13, persisted until I was about 25. This was a fairly profound experience. A lot of the research in my career has been trying to explain psychological problems in people, focusing on adults. I got interested in labeling theory as one explanation for mental illness careers. The problems with labeling theory lead me to stress theory, as a complement. I became interested in role-identities as both a site and a buffer of stress. Underlying all of my work has been a symbolic-interactionist angle. I think the self, mental illness, and trying to account for the social etiology of mental illness using ideas about the self has been my primary focus. Later in my career I got interested in emotions because of the psychological conditions I had been focusing on, anxiety and depression. I turned to the sociology of emotions because I thought it might have something to say about stress and mental health processes.
Where did you spend the early part of your sociological career (first as a student and then as faculty)?
I received my master’s degree at the University of Colorado, Boulder. I then went on to Stanford University for my Ph.D. in sociology, which solidified my background in social psychology.
I have moved around quite a bit during my career. I have been very lucky—each department has been very collegial and very productive. Each department has its own culture, causing me to be exposed to different sociological ideas and orientations. I spent two years at Washington State University. Then, I spent six years at Princeton University, where I received tenure and promotion to Associate Professor. I then moved to Indiana University, Bloomington for four years and was promoted to Professor. I next spent fourteen years at Vanderbilt, and then moved on to University of North Carolina as a Distinguished Professor. In 2008 I moved back to Indiana University.
What is your current (or recent) research focus?
My current research has been going into two directions. I have been returning to social support as a topic within the social stress field. I have become very interested "similar other" support—social support from people who have been through the same experiences that you are going through. Others refer to this as peer sup-port. How does this differ from support from family and friends, who do not have the same experience you are facing? I have a new project looking at a group organized around giving similar other support. I am looking at an organization called "Mended Hearts." This is an organization that has been around for nearly 60 years. Individuals who have had cardiac procedures visit patients who are facing cardiac procedures. The volunteer visitors have been through the experience before—they serve as role models and provide reassurance to those about to go through a cardiac procedure. I am using this organization as a case study to contrast similar other support to other strategies of social support.
I am also returning to labeling theory, which has always been an interest of mine. I was very attracted to labeling theory early on in graduate school, but I became critical of it, and became more interested in things leading up to potential labeling by others. For the Cooley-Mead paper I am putting together a speculative piece that examines the conditions under which people resist labels. More specifically, I am looking at how people resist the stigma of being labeled mentally ill. Labeling theory portrays people as victims. Missing from classic labeling theory is the underlying symbolic interactionist idea that people are both an "I" and a "me." The "I" is the agentic, creative aspect of self that seems to be missing from labeling theory.
What interests and/or activities, out-side of sociology, are important to you?
A lot of my life has been built around work. Outside of work I read mysteries, watch films and walk my dogs. I travel, but usually travel is in concert with conferences.
Given your success in the field, how do you balance professional and personal demands?
This is always a difficult question, especially for female faculty. This is a question asked often by graduate students. I have had an easier time with this because I don’t have children. I am childless by choice. I have enough kids to look after—my college students! The only strategy that I know of is prioritizing—deciding which daily tasks have to be done. The important things, you do first. Part of prioritizing is learning how and when to say no. This is a tricky thing to do, especially for those early in their careers. Being able to say "no" and to know when it is important to do so is a key skill. You should never make a decision on the spot—always ask for time to think about it. You need to ask yourself if this going to get in the way of other important things to do. It is important to talk to other people first about the request, before you say yes or no. You need to save time for your personal life and make it a priority. Then, you need to prioritize the important things to do in your professional life and learn to say no in a nice way.
If you had to leave academia, what career would you choose?
If I were to do my whole career over again, I might have preferred to go into public health and epidemiology. My impulse in research is to look at social distributions of stressors, social support, mental health problems. If I were to change my discipline, it would have been public health and/or epidemiology.
In thinking about retirement (5-10 years), the most enticing thing would be the Epidemi-ological Intelligence Service (EIS), which is part of the CDC. The EIS are emergency personnel who investigate disease outbreaks. I could be a detective of disease – remember I read murder mysteries. A more straightforward thing relates to my love of doing data analysis. It would fun to continue research for myself and also to analyze data for others. I’m also really good at writing clear instructions so I think I would enjoy writing instructional manuals for people. I have really enjoyed my career in sociology so I would be sticking with the skill sets that I already possess.
Do you know something today that you wish you had known when you started in sociology? What is it?
It would have been useful to know about myself, after 32 years of teaching and presentations, that I would still get nervous. It would have been useful to know this so I wouldn’t get so mad at myself for being scared. I have a different position about getting nervous now. The reason why I get nervous is because I still care about doing well and being prepared. I think it would be a bad thing if I wasn’t nervous when I start teaching a class or start a presentation. If I didn’t get nervous then it would mean that I was taking too much for granted and it wouldn’t be the same quality of work that I want to do. I am nervous because of the high standards that I impose upon myself. I probably would have been less hard on myself if I had known that this would be something that would continue. I always thought that I would magically stop getting nervous. I have realized over time that the way to mitigate nervousness is to remember that people are not there to judge. They are there because they are interested in the material. You need to focus your attention on the material and conveying the material, which is what interests you, too. This makes the nervousness less because it turns your attention from yourself and to the main point—getting people interested in the material. Being nervous is personally a good sign—it means that I do care.
What one piece of advice would you give a graduate student? What about an assistant professor?
I am a huge advice giver. My piece of advice to graduate students is this…. Everyone is scared when they start graduate school – am I smart enough? How will I ever learn enough? How will I ever get all this reading done? The key thing is that everyone else is
scared too and most of us try to hide this, so you think you’re the only one suffering these anxieties and that makes you even more nervous. Three things are important: remember other people are anxious too – it’s not just you; hopefully you will find a fellow student who will give you support (and you’ll return the favor); and students in more advanced cohorts can be remarkably helpful and reassuring.
My piece of advice to assistant professors is that if it is financially possible, then do not use your summer time for teaching. You need the time off. This is your chance to focus on your own writing. This is absolutely crucial in the summer. You can’t move your research at the pace you want to during the year. Summer is the time for renewal and to move ahead in research. This makes all the difference between teaching all year and being refreshed. This advice applies to university careers and for liberal arts college careers, too. You can work on projects with concentration. My other piece of advice, because I can’t just give one…. Don’t wait for big blocks time to do your work, especially during the semester. They never materialize. If you keep waiting for a big block of time, things don’t get done. Or, if they do materialize, you get less done than you originally thought and you will be disappointed. The trick during the school year is to break things down into small steps, try to do one step each day or every other day. You feel momentum in your work without building big expectations that you will get lots of work done. You could write one paragraph a day (or do one data analysis run or draft one table).
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ASA Section on Social Psychology