Voices of Experience: William Corsaro
*Originally published in the 2021 Winter newsletter*
William A. Corsaro received his BA degree from Indiana University in 1970 and his Ph.D. from the University of North Carolina in sociology in 1974. He was Robert H. Shaffer Class of 1967 Endowed Chair and is now Professor Emeritus in the Department of Sociology at Indiana University, Bloomington where he won the President’s Award for Distinguished Teaching in 1988. He was chair of the department from 1990-1994 and interim chair in 2009. Corsaro was a Fulbright Senior Research Fellow in Bologna, Italy, in 1983-1984 and a Fulbright Senior Specialist Fellow in Trondheim, Norway, in 2003. He received an honorary doctorate from Uppsala University, Sweden in 2016. He was the first recipient of the Distinguished Career Award for the Section on Children and Youth of the American Sociological Association in 2013 and recipient of the Cooley-Mead Award from the Social Psychology Section of the American Sociological Association in 2019.
What life experiences have contributed to your interest in social psychology in general and/or your specific research areas?
I grew up in a working-class family of eight children in Indianapolis. We were widely spread out in age and I was in the middle. My early childhood was pretty good, but I began working in my father’s business when I was just six years old. He had a retail produce business in a large city market in the city center. Due to the competition of supermarkets the business eventually failed, and our family was in economic distress. I was caught in the middle of this struggle and had to take on extra jobs while continuing to work for my father. He eventually started over in low-level illegal gambling. Meanwhile, I was doing well in high school and was encouraged to go to university, but no one in my immediate family nor most relatives had gone to college. Given my father’s illegal work I could not apply for financial aid and worked over 40 hours a week in high school to save money for college.
I chose Purdue and tried to become an engineer because a cousin had done so. I quickly realized engineering was not for me. I took an aptitude test which indicated social sciences to be a good fit. So, in the second semester I enrolled in introductory courses in sociology and psychology. Before this I had no idea what sociology or social psychology even were. But these courses provided me an academic lens to make sense of my past and guide my future. Especially important was my discovery of G. H. Mead and symbolic interactionism as well as the Chicago School.
Can you tell us about where you spent the early part of your sociological career (first as a student and then as faculty)?
After Purdue I spent one year at the Indianapolis campus of IU where I established my major in sociology. When I arrived in Bloomington my junior year, I became a fixture on the seventh floor of Ballantine Hall. Inspired by Alfred Lindesmith, Sheldon Stryker, Allen Grimshaw, Peter Burke and others, I literally fell in love with social psychology. Sheldon and Allen were mentors, colleagues, and dear friends from my first days at Bloomington to my return to IUB as an assistant professor in 1975 until they passed near the end of my 39 years in the department. Sheldon created a special undergraduate teaching assistantship for me in his introductory social psychology course my senior year right as I was running out of money for tuition and living expenses. Allen was an unwavering champion in his support, and his interest in sociolinguistics led me to children and childhood as my main area of research as a social psychologist.
When I arrived for graduate school at North Carolina, I knew that the department was highly quantitative with much less interest in social psychology than Indiana. However, I was surprised to discover several of the social psychologists there were Skinnerian behaviorists. My struggle with behaviorism and my developing interests in sociolinguistics led me to take special interest in language acquisition and children’s communicative competence. With the mentorship and economic support of Leonard Cottrell (an actual student of G.H. Mead) I developed a radical dissertation study at the time (the first qualitative one at UNC and the first involving videorecording in sociological social psychology) in which I videorecorded the naturally occurring interactions of three children in their families and in a playroom, I set up in the department. In the dissertation chaired by my long-term mentor Glen Elder and with mentor and later colleague at Indiana Dave Heise along with Cottrell I focused mainly on the data collected in the home settings and on how adults talked to children expanding another mentor Aaron Cicourel’s early work on socialization.
While struck by the complexity of the adult-child interaction, I was overwhelmed by the peer interaction I recorded. Here were young kids who Piaget and most all developmental psychologists claimed were egocentric and not capable of sustained interaction with peers. This claim was clearly not the case in my data. The fantasy and role play I recorded was complex, innovative and creative. These findings led me to postdoctoral work in a preschool in Berkeley, California in 1974 where I documented that children not only had agency, complex social interactive skills, and played a major role in their socialization, but also created and shared their own peer cultures. These findings were presented in numerous articles and my book Friendship and Peer Culture in the Early Years and later my text The Sociology of Childhood which established the field of the sociology of childhood and in which I offered an alternative to traditional views of socialization with my concept of interpretive reproduction.
How has your thinking about your subject matter evolved over time?
Over the next 39 years through a series of longitudinal studies that built on one another across different social class, ethnic and racial groups in the US as well as work in Norway and especially Italy, I provided generalizability for my empirical findings and theoretical views. I also discovered new aspects of peer cultures (for example important differences in the peer cultures of Italian and African American children compared to American white middle-class children in terms of interactive communicative styles and the nature of friendship relations). In Modena, Italy 1996 in a seven-year longitudinal study I undertook groundbreaking work on highly important transitions in the lives of young children that being from preschool to elementary school, to middle school and beyond. I developed the concept of priming events and its implications for life transitions over the life course for children, youth and adults. Finally, I conducted research on comparative early education (most especially in Italy, the US, and Scandinavia) and its policy implications for not only innovative pedagogies but also the general well being of young children and their involvement in their families and communities. In all this work with rather than on children, children and childhood were the central focus of my research methods and interpretation of findings and not just their social, emotional and educational development or their futures as adults. In short, I argued relentlessly that the future of childhood is the present.
What are your current research projects?
Since my retirement from Indiana University in 2013 I ended my active research projects. However, I completed the 4th and 5th editions of my text The Sociology of Childhood and steadily work on a 6th edition that I expect will be published in 2022 or so depending on the effect of the pandemic. I was a visiting professor in the Department of Education at Uppsala University from 2017 to 2019 and participated in many research projects with faculty and graduate students. I continue to mentor to younger faculty and many graduate students throughout the world.
What interests and/or activities, outside of sociology, are important to you?
I love baseball first following the Brooklyn Dodgers until they moved to LA and then suffered with the Chicago Cubs and was overjoyed when they finally won the world series in 2016. I also enjoy horse racing and handicapping with modest success. Growing up in Indiana and then living in North Carolina I have been an avid college basketball fan.
From my time at IU, I developed an interest in Opera and my daughter, Veronica, as a member of the IU children’s choir performed in several productions in Bloomington. I expanded this interest and the arts more generally during time in Italy especially classical painting, sculpture and architecture. From her preteen years Veronica enjoy a keen interest in film making, direction and cinematography. Finally, I enjoy reading nonfiction but with recent deaths of my two favorite authors Patricia Highsmith and Gabriel García Márquez I have struggled to find adequate replacements.
Given your success in the field, how do you balance professional and personal demands?
In truth I have to say not very well. However, I love spending time with young children and being able to do research with them the professional was highly satisfying personally. Also, having done research in Italy and Scandinavia for many years I learned much about these cultures which is related to some of the interests described above. However, during travel work giving lectures and consulting was always involved. When I finished my time as a visiting professor in Sweden in late 2019, I vowed more leisure travel but then came the pandemic.
Do you know something today that you wish you had known when you started in sociology? What is it?
Be open to cross cultural research and learning new languages and about new cultures. Not only will it improve your research and theoretical views but also make you a better person.
What one piece of advice would give a graduate student? What about an assistant professor?
First, push to do the kind of research you want to do even if it is out of the mainstream and embrace and appreciate your mentors. Ply it forward by being a good mentor yourself. Second, avoid getting caught up in departmental conflicts and always give your fellow graduate students and colleagues the benefit of the doubt. Third, invest time in your teaching and focus on, appreciate, and emotionally support your good students especially those who need more attention. For those who act entitled and who are just pains, invest as little emotional time as possible.
The COVID-19 pandemic is disrupting much of children’s everyday routines. As best as you can tell, how do you think their peer cultures and the processes by which they create meaning are changing in light of restrictions on face-to-face interaction?
I am cautious because we need to do the research to really know. We need studies like those of other upheavals of children’s lives like Fothergill and Peek’s brilliant Children of Katrina. However, it will be challenging to gain access for longitudinal ethnography and intensive interviews of children, youth and families in and even after a pandemic as these authors were able to do for the hurricane.
I would offer as many developmental and social psychologists have that young children are resilient. For young children in interactions with siblings, parents and other adults (who are reactive and let themselves be drawn into children’s spontaneous role and fantasy play), and even imaginary friends, peer cultures, meaning making and agency can remain intact and even expand to some degree. For older children and youth technology and the media can play a central role in the process. While not a big proponent of studying one’s own children audiovisual recordings, reflective narratives, and diaries can capture these processes to some degree. However, in the end for children, youth and all of us at different places in the life cycle, the pandemic years have and will steal away more of our lives we will never fully recover. For young children, these lost years are especially precious, and we must do everything in our power to help children recover some part of them.
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ASA Section on Social Psychology