*Originally published in the 2017 Summer Newsletter*
Edward J. Lawler
Interviewed by Shane R. Thye
Edward J. Lawler is the Martin P. Catherwood Professor of Industrial and Labor Relations and Professor of Sociology at Cornell University. He earned bachelor's (1966) and master’s (1968) degrees in sociology from California State University, Long Beach and Los Angeles, respectively, and a Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Wisconsin, Madison in 1972. His primary teaching and research areas are group processes, exchange, power, negotiation, sociology of emotion, and theory.
His current research analyzes the role of emotion in social exchange and negotiations, the formation of groups, the commitment of individuals to organizations, and more generally the emergence of social order. Lawler has authored or coauthored three books and over 60 articles, and edited or co-edited over 20 volumes of the annual series, Advances in Group Processes. He has won numerous awards for his work, including the 2010 James Coleman Best Book Award from the Rationality and Society Section of the ASA, the 2001 Cooley-Mead Award for career achievement from the Social Psychology Section of the ASA, and the 2002 Theory Prize from the Theory Section of the ASA.
Were their experiences or mentors earlier in your life that contributed to your interest in social psychology in general and/or your specific research areas?
This is tough to answer. For as long as I remember, I was interested in politics and how people behave. I remember my father and I talking politics and social issues a lot, starting especially during the 1956 election. I suppose that election was my awakening. Then, of course, the 60’s made conflict, power, coalitions all salient issues. Yet, my intellectual interests were not well formed. I had a Professor and advisor, Franz Adler at Cal State, LA who stimulated my fascination with theory and introduced me to the idea that a micro foundation for sociological theory is important. He also inspired and encouraged me to change my career goal from getting an MSW to getting a Ph.D. My serious interest in social psychology came later when I was in the Ph.D. program at Wisconsin (see below).
How have your specific interests changed over time?
I started graduate school with an interest in theory (classical and contemporary) and organizations. I first worked with Jerry Hague at Wisconsin, a major organizations scholar. Then fate entered. During my second year in graduate school, Jerry Hague was on sabbatical, and I took an RA position with Andy Michener who was doing experiments on coalition formation. Working with Andy is what generated my interests in social psychology and set the stage for my early work on revolutionary coalitions. I learned to do research from Andy Michener. All in all, happenstance made me a social psychologist, but I retained my interest in theory, macro and micro, classical and contemporary. At Iowa I taught the required contemporary and classical theory courses over many years which helped to sustain and develop that interest.
My interest in power developed from my work on coalitions. The greatest intellectual influence on me was probably Richard Emerson (who I never met). What I saw in his approach was a deeper way to understand the positive side of power, as implied by his nonzero sum theorizing of power. This is what makes it possible for power and power use to generate cohesion and solidarity.
What are the major changes you have seen in the field of sociological social psychology over the course of your career?
When I started my career (1971 at the University of Iowa), social psychology was severely balkanized (the three faces). There were intellectual (and some personal) tensions among the senior representatives of different traditions of sociological social psychology (experimental, symbolic interaction, and social structure and personality), and a fair amount of counterproductive competition. Some argued that social psychology was in crisis and within sociology perhaps in its death throes. This environment has changed for the better over the years. There is much more dialogue across the three major traditions and more mutual respect and recognition. Moreover, the place of social psychology in the larger discipline is stronger and the experimental and qualitative methods used by many social psychologists have more acceptance in the discipline. There are undoubtedly many reasons for these changes, but I would point to two. First, the growth of theory-driven and theoretically informed research. All three faces of sociological social psychology can agree on this while practicing it in somewhat different ways. Second, the idea that macro explanations require at least some attention to micro level processes has made social psychological processes more important to sociology as a discipline. Consider all of the attention today given to mechanisms. It is no longer acceptable to simple document interesting and important effects but also necessary to tease out mechanisms. This attention to mechanisms throughout the discipline is an entree for social psychology.
What are your favorite pastimes or hobbies? What do you enjoy most in your leisure time?
Aside from reading (fiction and nonfiction), music and hiking are important pastimes. I have been hiking locally around Ithaca and also in the Adirondack Mountains of New York. The last few years I have hiked to the summit of 10 of the 46 Adirondack high peaks with my son and two grandsons. That has been energizing and great fun. Piano and music is another major pastime. I am taking piano lessons as well as classes in music history/appreciation and music theory. This is a new passion for me and I have a hard time staying away from the piano. Theater has also become an important pastime because we now live part time in New York City.
What one or two pieces of advice would give a graduate student or young assistant professor?
Your success as a researcher depends heavily on how you respond to reviews of your work, in other words, how thoroughly and carefully you process and respond to criticisms. When you get reviews of your work, blame yourself for all the comments you get and digest them carefully. Ask yourself: “What did I do in the paper that enabled or led the reviewer to that criticism or comment? How did I allow or generate that dumb, uninformed, off-base comment?
Given our pecuniary, transactional age, I also would advise young scholars to keep in view the intangibles that make academic life enjoyable and exciting. Listen to and “follow your gut.” My career has been heavily shaped by the intangibles –the intellectual and interpersonal environments at the two institutions (Iowa and Cornell) I have had the privilege to be a part of, excellent long-term colleagues and co-authors (Shane Thye and Jeongkoo Yoon), and simply being at the right place and the right time. The intangibles at the University of Iowa, including the people who were there when I was, jumped-started my academic career.