*Originally published in the 2015 Winter Newsletter*
State University of New York, Albany
David Wagner is Professor of Sociology at the University at Albany- SUNY. He received his graduate degree from Stanford University in 1978. He has received awards for his excellence in research, teaching, and service. His work has been featured in such venues as the American Sociological Review, the American Journal of Sociology, and Social Forces. His research interests are in theory construction and group processes. This fun little interview was conducted over the phone and it was a pleasure to hear his story!
We’re always interested to know what brought you to social psychology. So, what life experiences contributed to you wanting to become a social psychologist?
I have to go all the way back to the environment I grew up in. My father was a minister, my mother a public school teacher, mainly in small towns in Pennsylvania and Ohio. When you’re in small communities like that and your parents have those kinds of occupations, you’re in the public eye pretty much all the time. And in the denomination that my father was in, Methodism, you moved every two or three years. So I was accustomed to having to learn a new world every two or three years. As a consequence, I pretty quickly developed an interest in other people and how their lives went and, for that matter, in dealing with social and moral issues given my upbringing as the son of a minister. I wouldn’t say that at that time the experiences were gearing me specifically towards social psychology, but they were certainly developing my interest in and a sensitivity to sociological kinds of questions.
The other thing that probably more specifically led me to focus on things that were social psychological and sort of group processes-oriented were my experiences in college. I was a student in the '60s and at that time a lot of the way in which students interacted with each other and worked on social issues and other things that interested them was in small group settings. A very common kind of phenomenon at the time was something called sensitivity groups. These were sessions in which group members were geared to studying the ways in which their group worked. They also focused on what the interests and concerns and needs of each member of the group were as a means of helping those groups work more effectively. I got interested enough in studying this that I ended up writing my honor’s thesis on sensitivity groups. Part of the thesis dealt with what I would call a social movement analysis. The phenomenon had actually started back in the late 1940s in the work of Kurt Lewin who was organizing leadership training sessions primarily for business folk. It diversified into really quite a social phenomenon with a wide variety of different kinds of groups, from leadership training sessions to groups as exotic as the nude encounter sessions held at the Esalen Institute in California.
But the part of my thesis that ended up being of greater and longer term interest to me was looking at how training groups and sensitivity groups worked. Did they, in fact, successfully change people’s sensitivity towards other group members? Did they develop effective leaders? I was looking at the research and theoretical ideas that people had developed to try to account for those things. Now, at that time I wouldn’t have described this work specifically as social psychology and group processes. However, by the time I got into graduate school, I realized that was part of what I had been interested in all the time.
Tell us about your early career.
As I suspect you know, my graduate training was at Stanford and that was really the most formative experience in terms of my sociological identity. Coming out of college, I was really enamored of C. Wright Mills and very antagonist towards a lot of traditional sociology. Mills talked about the notion of an anti-sociology and I sort of thought of myself as an anti-sociologist.
In more positive terms, a book had just been published a couple of years before I had graduated: Berger and Luckman’s "Social Construction of Reality" and I was really, really into that. You should see how marked up my copy from college is of that book. When I got out to Stanford, I realized I was kind of lucky that I ended up there. Damned if they weren’t able to meet every objection and criticism I had to the way in which sociology was practiced, suggesting, in fact, there was a way to build a more robust sociology. It was really quite convincing to me and I embarked on a much more positive path than I ever would have prior to that. I found myself most interested in the Expectation States program that Berger, Cohen, and Zelditch had all been working on. I was an assistant for Joe. That worked out very fortunately because we shared a variety of interests and he sort of shepherded me early on. Toward the end of my graduate training, I got an opportunity for a job at the University of Toronto. I hadn’t finished my dissertation, but Jim Moore at York and John Kervin at Toronto wanted to build a Canadian school of social psychology. That school would focus especially on Expectation States work, but also on other group processes, to build a Stanford of the North, if you will. I interviewed for a job at Toronto while a colleague and good friend of mine in graduate school interviewed for a job at York. We both got offers and had we both gone there, I think we would have been quite successful in developing a good social psych program at Toronto and York. Unfortunately, my friend took a job at South Carolina instead and I ended up staying at U of T only two years. I finished my dissertation and moved from there to Iowa, where I did all of my early work. That’s where I published my first book on theory growth and where I worked with Becky and Tom Ford on a couple of experiments concerned with whether gender inequalities can be reduced.
Do you find that your specific interests have changed at all over time?
Not in any dramatic sort of way. In part, it’s because I’ve had sort of a dual track career with interests both in expectation states processes and in theory and theory growth. So, whenever I get tired of doing one thing or something’s not going particularly well in one of those areas, I jump track to the other area. I've moved back and forth quite a bit over my career. But in terms of the kinds of things that I got interested in in graduate school, those are still pretty much the things that I’m interested in now. In terms of advice to people, have alternatives! Don’t just have one track of things you’re in pursuit of because things don’t always go right. And if they don’t, if you have some sort of alternative direction that you can pursue, then, let me tell you, it makes life a lot simpler.
Your most current research that you’re focusing on, do you want to share some info?
The work that I’m doing right now is concerned with what I call status deviance. It’s actually based on some work I published in Group Processes in ‘88. It dealt with what happens in groups when you have somebody who you really think should be the leader in the group and that person simply does not perform that role effectively at all. He or she is just a bump on the log, if you will. How does the group respond to that? What kinds of evaluations do they have of such a group member? Do they even want that member to continue in the group? And at the other end of the scale, suppose you have someone in the group who is really expected to be just one of the followers in the group and not expected to do very much. Suppose that person attempts to take control of the group, to become the leader and take charge of things. How does the group respond to that person? Do they really want that person in the group? I developed an informal version of the theoretical argument about that back in ‘88. More recently, I have formalized the theory and right now we’re involved in pre-testing some experiments that deal with the general question. We are also focusing on the more specific question of what difference does it make if you started out with higher or lower status in the group when you begin to behave in either of these deviant ways. What effect does that have? Based on my ’88 paper, Chris Moore and Reef Youngreen did a partial study of this about a decade ago, but nobody had really done very much work on it since. I’m realizing why now. It’s definitely a challenge to figure out how to test this. It’s the sort of work that I couldn’t have done much earlier in my career because it’s much more risky. There’s still a possibility, although the pre-testing is going really well, that nothing will come from it. At this stage in my career, I can just say “oh well” and go on to something else. I have plenty of other things in the fire. But, if it bears fruit, I will feel a very real sense of accomplishment.
What interests and activities besides sociology are important to you? What do you do besides sociology?
I sing with a group called Albany Pro Musica. APM is probably the most accomplished and highly recognized amateur singing group in the Northeast. We’ve cut several CDs and have had some of our recordings played on NPR. We perform in the Troy Music Hall. That venue is considered one of the most acoustically perfect music halls in the world! And we perform there quite regularly. Anyway, I have the good fortune of having a trained tenor singing voice and that’s a fairly rare breed. I’ve been singing with Pro Musica for about 20 years. I don’t do a lot of solo work these days, but I do sing pretty regularly with APM. I’ve had singing as a part of my life for a long, long time. I’ve been in other kinds of choral groups and university choirs. When I was a kid, I sang in church choirs from second grade on. So, I’ve clearly had a lot of music in my life. I had piano lessons for 11 years and played the trumpet and the French horn in high school and I still play the piano, but my best musical instrument is still my voice. And that’s what I’ve pursued most commonly outside academic work.
I’m also really interested in words and word play--crossword puzzles and varieties of that sort of thing. I definitely do the New York Times puzzle, which I’ve gotten quite good at. It’s an acquired skill. I’ve even constructed and published a few crossword puzzles of my own, although only in really minor venues. But mainly I’m a solver, not a constructor.
That kind of leads into the idea of how to balance professional and personal demands. How have you been able to do that?
I’d have to say: begin by recognizing that there is something other than one’s academic life and attending to that to some degree. I think of it primarily in terms of family. If you have a life partner or simply someone else who is important to you, maintain a degree of consciousness in that person’s life. Their concerns are important as well. Take time to make sure you’re not sacrificing their concerns in pursuit of your own. Sometimes you need to make some sacrifices in terms of the things you pursue.