Ph.D. 1974

As Jim Gruber will note in his entry, the class of 1970 was rumored to have broken the typical mold of UNC graduate students. We were clearly a diverse lot in term of ethnicity, gender, and social class. We also stuck close together and even challenged a number of departmental procedures and rules. These actions even led to a group of older graduate students gathering us up for a meeting in attempt to get us in line and have more respect for the faculty. We always respected the faculty and listened to the advice of the older students, but still felt the department needed a bit of shaking up. Therefore, we persisted in our actions to challenge the normal order of things and incorporate our own interests in new theories of social reproduction and social psychology in working groups beyond our normal classes. Jim Gruber mentioned the Marxist theory group and there was another that pursued new developments in social psychology like ethnomethodology and sociolinguistics. I met many great friends during my four years at Chapel Hill, most especially Jim Gruber (my roommate on arrival and best friend today) along with Dwight Billings and Lars Bjorn who I still see often. The list includes many more but in particular Charles Ragin, Howard Sacks, Terry Weiner, Will Rice, George Stiles, Ray and Susan Eve, Pam Oliver and Linda Molm.

As far as my own personal journey at UNC I must begin with my experiences while an undergraduate at Indiana University where I was introduced to Symbolic Interactionist theory in the writings of G. H. Mead and other pragmatic philosophers, the Chicago school of social psychology, and the work of Erving Goffman. One mentor Allen Grimshaw was among the first sociologists to do research in sociolinguistics and introduced me to the growing scholarship in that field especially that of Goffman, John Gumperz, Aaron Cicourel and others working in the areas of discourse analysis, ethnomethodology and conversational analysis. When I arrived at UNC I knew that the department was highly quantitative and there was less interest in social psychology, but I was surprised to discover several of those working in social psychology were behaviorists in line with B. F. Skinner.

In many ways my struggle with behaviorism and my developing interests in sociolinguistics lead me to take special interest in research on language acquisition in the early 1970s. This work involving the direct observation and recording of the early speech of young children caused great problems for behaviorist views of learning and the emergence of Chomsky’s dominance in linguistics and his more nativist views of language acquisition. The research in language acquisition also led to my interest in children and a re-examination of socialization theory in sociology. I found the work on socialization influenced mainly by functionalists like Talcott Parsons stifling in its “forward looking” perspective on how children must be trained to internalize and fit into society. Stimulated by the work in language acquisition I turned to constructivist theorists like Piaget and Vygotsky who offered views of young children as active agents in their development and socialization. I decided on a dissertation project in which I would expand the work on language acquisition by directly examining adult-child and peer interaction from a broader view of the development of communicative competence. To do this I was convinced that I needed to collect video recordings of everyday interaction of young children.

Here is where one of my most important mentors at UNC, Leonard Cottrell, played a crucial role. Leonard (Slats) Cottrell was an active member of the Chicago School of sociology and actual student of G. H. Mead. I was fortunate to have him for a teacher in a social psychology course in my first year as a graduate student. The next year he retired but in his words “we continued to teach each other” as I would meet him informally in his home to discuss my interests in children and the related work in ethnomethodology, discourse and conversational analysis. Slats would often begin these meetings (which at times included fellow graduate students Jim Gruber, Dwight Billings, and Lars Bjorn) by saying “What would Mr. Mead have to say about this?” I will always treasure these meetings with Slats and his wonderful wife Anita. When I told him about my plan to collect video data of young children’s interaction he was intrigued. At this time as far as I know there was not any or very little research involving video recording in the social sciences. The available technology, large studio cameras and reel-to-reel video recorders were expensive and certainly beyond my means to purchase. Cottrell, who had served at the Russell Sage Foundation for many years before coming to North Carolina had brought with him a rather ample research grant. He kindly offered me needed funds for video equipment to carry out my dissertation which was the key launching point of my career.

I must say at first I did not know what I was doing. I persuaded two of my fellow graduate students (Lars Bjorn and George Stiles) to let me video record their children (George’s son Buddy and Lars’ son Krister who were two and a half years old and Lars’ daughter Mia who was around five years old) in interaction in their homes with the parents and a play room I set up with a few toys in a room in the department. I recorded naturally occurring routines in the home and the spontaneous peer play of the children in which I participated when they asked me to join. When I repeatedly viewed and then began to transcribe these data, I was struck by the richness, density, and complexity of what had seemed routine interaction when I was recording it. With this new technology I was convinced that contemporary social psychological theories of interaction fell far short of capturing this complexity.

I was also supported strongly by all members of my dissertation committee which included Cottrell, Glen Elder, and Dave Heise. Glen has given me unswerving support throughout my career and the honor to introduce him when he won the Cooley-Mead award from the ASA section on Social Psychology. Dave later became my colleague at Indiana University where I spent 39 years and also my co-author on an innovative methodological paper. I should note here that as far as I know I was the first to do a qualitative ethnographic dissertation at UNC and the support of Slats, Glen, and Dave was essential.

In the dissertation itself and early publications I focused on patterns of how adults talked to children. Communication involves the negotiation of meaning in specific interactive contexts. When interacting with young children, I found that adults soon learn that this negotiation process differs from what takes place, and is routinely taken for granted, in adult interaction. Young children do not always fill in the details nor carry on conversation with an explicit notion of topic or definite rules for turn-taking and sequencing. As a result, adults structure interactive events with young children by the way they talk to them. Although the adult is using language in a controlling manner in such instances, the conscious intention is not one of social control but rather is centered on the negotiation of shared meaning. Adults use language to continually expose children to the normative order, often taking the interactive event initiated and of special interest to the child and connecting it to more general notions of what is correct or possible in the adult world. Here I saw socialization as a process of negotiation, appropriation, and reproduction.

Well struck by the complexity of the adult-child interactive routines, I was overwhelmed by the peer interaction I recorded. Here were young kids who Piaget and nearly all developmental psychologists at the time were saying were egocentric and not capable of sustained social interaction with peers. I saw in my data that this was clearly not the case. The peer role and fantasy play I recorded was highly complex, innovative and creative. I was convinced children played a major role in their own socialization from a very early age. I needed to expand on these early data by carrying out a much more extensive micro-ethnographic study of children in a peer setting like a preschool which took me to the University of California, Berkeley, where I received a post-doctoral fellowship made possible by the support of Leonard Cottrell and Glen Elder before beginning my successful research and teaching career at Indiana University from 1975 until 2013. Over those years I was key in developing what has become known as the sociology of childhood and in bringing young children and their peer cultures into sociology including the founding of the ASA section on Children and Youth.

In looking back at my time at UNC I want to mention other of the faculty who I learned a great deal from and who were very supportive including Richard Simpson, Jim Wiggins, Ev Wilson (who kindly let me take his course on teaching even though I did not teach while at UNC), and most especially Dick Cramer. In odd turn of events when I arrived at Indiana University I was in a new cohort of assistant professors which included Charles Ragin who attained his Ph.D. on a very fast track from UNC the year after me and this guy Arne Kalleberg who arrived from the University of Wisconsin. We became fast friends. However, Arne gave me a hard time about UNC telling me they did not make him a good offer to come there for graduate school and rejected several of his papers at Social Forces. Of course, I did not see how I should be accountable for any of these things and defended the department. I told him I was always treated well and supported there even if I did not fit in perfectly. Of course as we all know Arne decided to leave IU after getting tenure to join the faculty at UNC where he served as chair for many years!

I am now living full time in Mesa where I moved to be close to one of my brother’s.  I still have three Ph.D. students (reading one dissertation now with one to come in July and the final one in 2017) whose committees I am working on.  I still do a bit of writing and consulting and published the 4th edition of my text The Sociology of Childhood in January 2014.  They want another edition to be delivered about this time next year.  The text does very well with quite a few class adoptions.  After this next edition I may look for a co-author to keep it going and have some younger scholars in mind.

I am no longer married but am eager to report on my daughter, Veronica, 28, who has a law degree from IU and is now in the Peace Corps in Northeast Mongolia. Near Siberia. Her term of service will be for two years until August, 2017.  She is now going through her first winter there and it is very cold. She lives in a tent (ger) without running water but has electricity and she chops wood for heating. She has adapted well and has a host family for help and there are other volunteers in the city.  It is a challenge but she likes it and is very good at chopping wood but does not like hauling water.  We hope when she completes her term she will be in better position to find a job on the east coast using her legal skills.  She will have special opportunities for government jobs and now good experience to work in an NGO.  Hopefully she will find something that fits her shortly after she returns.

corsaro@indiana.edu
Submitted December 2015