Voices of Experience: Peter Burke
*Originally Published Winter 2017*
Peter J. Burke
University of California, Riverside
Interviewed by Phoenicia Fares
Peter J. Burke received his BA in sociology from the University of Massachusetts in 1961. He entered graduate school in sociology at Yale University where he earned his masters and doctorate in 1964 and 1965, respectively. It was while at Yale, working with Theodore Mills, that he became interested in group processes, the focus of his work when he joined the faculty at Indiana University as an assistant professor. Promoted to Associate Professor in 1969 and Professor in 1975, he served as chair from 1978-1982. In 1988, he joined the faculty at Washington State University as Professor and Research Scientist. In 2002, he joined the faculty at UC Riverside, and served as Chair from 2003-2005. He retired in 2014.
Burke served as Editor of Social Psychology Quarterly from 1982-1988, as Chair of the Social Psychology Section, 2000-2001, and as Chair of the Theory Section 2008-2009. He was awarded the ASA Social Psychology Section Cooley-Mead Award for life contributions to social psychology in 2003. In 2004 he was named Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and appointed to the Sociological Research Association. In 2006 he was named Fellow of the Association for Psychological Science.
What life experiences would you say put you on a path towards sociology and social psychology? Why sociological social psychology?
I wouldn’t say it was any particular life experiences that moved me in that direction. It was more of an accidental thing. I started college in 1957 at UMass and lived at home in Amherst. My parents were divorced the year before I started college and with the divorce, I could afford college only if I lived at home and worked summers to earn tuition.
At the beginning, I found so many of the subjects I studied very interesting. I drove my freshman advisor crazy by changing my major every month or two. I started in Chemistry, but decided I did not want to be in a smelly lab for the rest of my life. I toyed with biology (special interest in slime molds), physics, economics and some others (though I never found psychology attractive). Toward the end of my freshman year, I was in an introductory sociology class. Now sociology was a subject that I had never heard of in high school. I found it better than psychology, but I did not find it that interesting until, one day, I was reading some unassigned chapters in the accompanying reader. Those, I found fascinating and so took a second course, and a third, and so on. The more classes I took, the better I liked the subject matter.
I ended up taking eight or ten sociology courses – but none of them were social psychology, as that was not in the curriculum. Indeed, I didn’t even know there was a social psychology. It wasn’t until graduate school, when I was working with Ted Mills (a student of Robert Bales at Harvard) in small group processes that I moved in the direction of social psychology, though I didn’t know it at the time, i.e., it wasn’t called social psychology. I was interested in the development of structure in small groups, so I viewed myself as a social structural person, though at a micro level.
It wasn’t until I took a job at Indiana University, in 1961, that I discovered I was a social psychologist. Sociology at Indiana divided between structural sociology (which I thought I was) and social psychology. According to their view, my research on small group processes put me in the social psychology category and I was assigned to teach social psychology. Alfred Lindesmith oversaw social psychology at the time, and we were told what books to use in class (it was only another year or two before such mandates were removed), and so I used the Lindesmith and Strauss, Social Psychology (Lindesmith and Strauss 1956) to teach an introductory course named the individual and society. Sociology could not name their course social psychology because psychology had that name for a course. But then, the text for their social psychology course was Krech and Crutchfield’s Individual in Society.
It was by reading (and teaching from) the Lindesmith and Strauss book that I learned what social psychology was, especially the symbolic interaction approach from a Meadian point of view, and, indeed, that fit my thinking like a glove; that was me – I just didn’t know it. That is where I picked up an understanding of signs and symbols, role taking, and interpersonal processes. Of course, I still was interested in small group processes and the development of leadership structures, especially development of role differentiation with task leaders and socioemotional leaders, and so my early research continued with that for several years before turning to the study of identity processes.
Even the move to study identity processes was somewhat fortuitous. In about 1974, I was approached by a graduate student, Judy Tully, who was working with John Liell, another faculty member, on a study of almost 2000 6th, 7th, and 8th grade school kids in Indianapolis. She was interested in looking at the gender identities of these kids. At the time, my colleague, Sheldon Stryker, had been developing identity theory and through discussions with him I was familiar with his work and understood that identities were composed of meanings. But, I also had been reading Osgood, et al.’s (1957) work on the measurement of meaning. I had an idea that perhaps we could measure the gender meanings of the self-concepts of these school students. So, Judy and I worked out a series of bipolar adjectives trying to capture gender meanings. We interviewed several kids to see what they thought as to what it meant to be a girl or a boy (my first experience with something like focus groups). This all worked out quite well, and we published the results in Social Forces. Of course, this was just the beginning. Now, we had a tool, and like the two-year-old who has a hammer and discovers that everything needs to be hammered, I found lots of applications for this measurement method. I also found how much easier it is to develop theory when there are solid measurements of the concepts being theorized.
What was your favorite part of being a young scholar (in graduate school or pretenure)?
I was doing something I liked. I enjoyed the research and writing. I was with a set of excellent colleagues and mentors at Indiana. There were lots of discussions in the hallways and over lunches. It was a time when people went to a coffee lounge at 10:00am, there was always a group for lunch, often off campus, and again a coffee break around 3:00pm. Of course, there was also lots of work happening, researching, writing, preparing classes. But, it was the colleagues that made it great. They, too, were interested in ideas and learning. Elton Jackson and I sat in on a math course every semester for my first five years: calculus at several levels, linear algebra, mathematical statistics, differential equation. Some of those I took two or three times to finally absorb the material. I also learned in sitting in on those courses that I am not inclined as a real mathematician. Some of those undergraduate math majors just left us in the dust. Now, I know enough to get by.
It was the colleagues that made graduate school fun also. There were 10 persons in my cohort and we all got along well with each other. There were always discussions about our work, about what we were reading, and about life in general. It was a great time of intellectual growth and discovery. Graduate school is when I started buying books. I didn’t like to go to the library, so I bought most of what I read. I bought all of Freud, all of Parsons, all of Weber and Durkheim and on and on. I was always fascinated by ideas and I discovered those in plenty by all that reading.
What advice do you have for graduate students on the market today?
If the student is on the market, it is probably too late for advice. Graduate school is the time for mentored learning of everything you can get your hands on. Not just sociology, not just social psychology, but also philosophy of science, logic, psychology, economics. Read, read, read (including novels – my favorite is science fiction, lots of it). Read all the original research, not just summaries. Read it so you understand it and can replicate it. Also take as many research methods courses as you can possible get. This stuff is hard to learn on your own after graduate school when you should be using it not learning it. Also, get involved in doing research and writing papers, either working with someone else or on your own. Begin to keep a file of ideas you want to pursue. What I always find fascinating is that whatever research question I am working on, I learn, as I dig into it, that there is far more to the question than I ever imagined. I also learned that others have already explored much of what I think is new, so I had to go deeper. But, I also learned to always, always, always work with a theoretical focus. The contribution of research is not the findings, but in what those findings mean, theoretically. I think it is important to develop a line of work, rather than moving from topic to topic. I remember when I first heard of the concept of sink costs. These are the investments that must be made before anything else can happen. On my first sabbatical I toyed with the idea of changing from small groups to demography. But, I realized that the investment I had already made in social psychology and understanding group processes would be lost. All the knowledge and skills I had developed over the years would serve little purpose, and I would have to invest time, and effort into a new enterprise before I could make any contribution. I didn’t make the change to demography. I did change focus a bit from small groups to identity theory, but as my thoughts evolved, I found the two areas were interrelated and I could use what I learned in each to bring them together.
Are there any surprising or unexpected directions your work on self and identity has taken you over the years?
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of my work with identity theory, and it continues to surprise me, is how well the theory has worked and how many areas it works in (Burke and Stets 2009). In the beginning, with the development of a method for measuring the meanings of an identity, we were only concerned with showing that people behaved in ways that were consistent with the meanings in their identities (Burke and Reitzes 1981). That part worked well. But the big development was the addition of Powers’ perceptual control model to the idea of identities as meanings (Powers 1973). This turned much understanding of human behavior on its head. People do not control their behavior; they control their perceptions. This addition led naturally to the idea of identity verification and non-verification as part of the control of perceptions (meanings reflecting the identity). It also made it possible to understand both identity stability and change as part of the same verification process (Burke and Cast 1997). What was surprising to me was how well these ideas have been supported in research; even the idea that being evaluated more positively than our identity meanings makes us feel bad (Burke and Harrod 2005).
Burke, Peter J. and Donald C. Reitzes. 1981. "The Link between Identity and Role Performance." Social Psychology Quarterly 44:83-92.
Burke, Peter J. and Alicia D. Cast. 1997. "Stability and Change in the Gender Identities of Newly Married Couples." Social Psychology Quarterly 60:277-90.
Burke, Peter J. and Michael M. Harrod. 2005. "Too Much of a Good Thing?". Social Psychology Quarterly 68:359-74.
Burke, Peter J. and Jan E. Stets. 2009. Identity Theory. New York: Oxford University Press.
Lindesmith, Alfred R. and Anselm L. Strauss. 1956. Social Psychology. New York: Holt Rinehart and Winston.
Osgood, Charles E., George J. Suci, and Percy H. Tannenbaum. 1957. The Measurement of Meaning. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
Powers, William T. 1973. Behavior: The Control of Perception. Chicago: Aldine.
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ASA Section on Social Psychology