Voices of Experience: Sheldon Stryker
*Originally published in the Fall 2013 Section Newsletter*
Dr. Stryker is a Distinguished Professor of Sociology and winner of both the Cooley-Mead Award for Lifetime Contributions to Social Psychology from the Section on Social Psychology of the ASA, and the George Herbert Mead Award for Lifetime Scholarship from the Society for the Study of Symbolic Interaction. He was also awarded the W.E.B. DuBois Career of Distinguished Scholarship Award from the American Sociological Association.
What life experiences have contributed to your interest in social psychology in general and/or your specific research areas?
I became a member of a “social club" of sorts called the Young Judean Trailblazers made up of some 14 girls and boys (equal numbers of each) when I was about 16 years old. Part of a larger Young Judea organization, this "club" was serious about many things, not simply socializing, that involved the Zionism of the time, Synagogue attendance, doing "good" in the Jewish community of St. Paul, etc. I spent a good deal of time thinking about the club after leaving for military service in World War II, coming to the realization that my relationships in it changed the course of my life. Note that this idea, the formative power of the social unit with respect to the lives of the individuals who are members of those social units, underlies all of the work I have done as a sociologist.
Later, shortly after returning to the University of Minnesota after the war, I was exposed for the first time to the work of G.H. Mead. I became deeply convinced in the value of that work which emphasized the role of self in human social behavior. I also became convinced that most of what I read in the literature that used Mead did not "test" his ideas; rather, it took Mead's ideas as sacred text that provided the answers to questions they posed. The product of a department that emphasized sociology as science, I deemed that stance objectionable. When an opportunity presented itself to try to build a testable theory that used Mead's ideas as a point of departure, I began the development of Identity Theory, a project that began in about 1964 and continues today.
Where did you spend the early part of your sociological career (first as a student and then as faculty)?
I took all of my degrees, BA, MA. and Ph.D at the University of Minnesota, seeing no need to leave there after obtaining the MA because the personnel of the department of sociology changed considerably at that time, because my mentor at Minnesota encouraged me to stay, and because personal circumstances were such that move did not seem feasible. I returned to Minnesota after military service in 1946 with a number of undergraduate credits, completing the BA in spring of 1948 and the MA in the spring of 1950. Thus, it was with almost exactly two years as a Ph.D student when the then Chair of the Department put his arm around my shoulder and said (and I believe I quote) “It’s about time you got out in the world." At that point, I had just completed course work, had not taken pre-lims, and had not even thought of a dissertation topic. Not brave enough to argue with him, and offered the opportunity to join my mentor who had left Minnesota to become the Chair at Indiana, I took that opportunity. I took it even though it consisted of an appointment as a Teaching Assistant at a salary of $2500. I was promoted the following year to an Instructor rank, then a tenure appointment. I have been at Indiana University Bloomington ever since.
How have your specific interests in sociology changed over time?
I went from a general interest in the conceptual and "theoretical framework" provided by Mead to the development of an empirically testable theory to which I gave the name "Identity Theory."
What is your current (or recent) research focus?
Most recently, working with my former student who has been my research colleague over the past 30 years, Richard Serpe, as well as with Philip Brenner, I participated in the development of a paper, now accepted for publication in Social Psychology Quarterly. The paper deals with the over-time relationship of the concept of identity salience and the concept of identity prominence that comes out of the work of George McCall and J.T. Simmons. (Psychological centrality and—most simply-- importance have essentially the same meaning as does prominence.)
What interests and/or activities, outside of sociology, are important to you?
Until recently, travel that has concentrated on Europe, Latin American, and southwest Asia; and a wide range of music--jazz (from Louis Armstrong to contemporary free-form), opera, the symphonic and chamber music repertoire, and ballet.
Given your success in the field, how do you balance professional and personal demands?
Earlier when my children were young, from their infancy through the many years of attending the performance activities of our five children in whatever they might be doing until they left home for their higher education, my work time consisted of time spent in my university office, roughly coincident with the time the children were in school;. My home working hours were from roughly 10:00 p.m. to 2:00 a.m. each weekday night.
If you had to leave academia, what career would you choose?
I've often wondered what alternative career I might have chosen. I never could think of an alternative.
Do you know something today you whish you had known when you started in sociology? What is it?
What one piece of advice would give a graduate student? What about an assistant professor?
The best advice I have given--and still give--to students whenever I have the chance, stems from what I know as Schuessler's Law. (Karl Schuessler was my mentor and friend at Indiana who arrived there a few years ahead of me.) Schuessler's Law is "sociology must be fun.” Translating that maxim to advice, what I would tell students, simply put, is if you don't really like what you are doing, get out! There are easier ways of making a living. I tell young Assistant Professors the same thing. I also advise the latter to keep themselves open to opportunities to go in new directions that will arise along the way. Taking one (or more) of these may well invigorate your professional performance.
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ASA Section on Social Psychology