Since I have retired, I have become much more interested in sociology and have “returned” to focus more on some of the basic issues and classic concerns of the discipline after having worked as an “applied” social scientist for most of my career. I came to the UNC Sociology Department from the University of Santa Clara, with the intention of studying sociology of religion with Gerhard Lenski, but soon found out that he had moved on to other interests. I then shifted my focus to criminology and was invited to work with Lee Bounds at the NC prison system. Unfortunately in the middle of that project I lost my only deck of prison survey IBM cards in the basement of the computer center during a 4 AM involuntary nap. I ultimately settled on medical sociology working with Cecil Sheps.–a decision that turned out very positive for me and one which I never regretted. My dissertation, under the direction of Dick Simpson, focused on the careers of physicians working in atypical health care settings, an interest I continued to pursue at the Sheps Center and the Institute on Aging as I continued to work here in Chapel Hill for the rest of my academic career.
I enjoyed multi-disciplinary work and was proud of being an “applied” sociologist, but always felt that the sociology department’s ethos was one that never quite recognized the value of this kind of work. Nonetheless sociology has had a powerful grip on my identity as an academic, and in that I was not alone. In fact, I belonged to an informal group of faculty with PhD’s in sociology working across campus (mostly in the health sciences schools) who identified ourselves as “sociologists in exile.” We met occasionally to exchange ideas and commiserate about how our clinical colleagues underappreciated the value of sociological perspectives and often misapplied the contributions that we as social scientists could (and actually did) make to the education and scholarship in our home departments and schools.
The fact that the UNC sociology department discouraged joint appointments always seemed to me short sighted and constituted a missed opportunity–especially on a campus with as much academic diversity as Chapel Hill. Over the last two decades, however, the focus on social determinants in health and health care by health care academics and policy makers has become more prominent. Clearly the “embedding” of sociologists in our health professions schools has fostered a better understanding of population health and more effective and comprehensive health care delivery.
Looking back now, it seems to me that our student cohort (the more than a dozen of us who entered in the Fall of 1966) had a strong sense of solidarity and were generally mutually supportive. We thought of ourselves as having a special identity, and at least some of us believed (correctly or incorrectly) that it was due in some part to the purportedly disproportionate say of Tad Blalock in selecting us for admission. At one point in my overly extended career as a graduate student, I had the rare opportunity of working for Blalock as a research/teaching assistant and part of my job was to work out answers to the statistics problems at the end of each chapter, a task which was very time consuming in those days, but also quite exhilarating, as I felt I was on the front end of what later became structural equation modeling. His forthrightness, integrity and competence remain a source of inspiration to me to this day.
For me, as for many in our cohort, the formative sociological experiences I had in Chapel Hill did not come in the classroom, but from the experience of the cafeteria workers’ strikes in 1969 and 1970, the anti-war movement, and other community struggles, which seemed at the time distractions from academic work if not disruptions in and of the sociology department. It was on the picket line, not in the classroom, that I met another sociology graduate student, who challenged me to talk less and do more and continues to do so today after all these years–my spouse, Susan Russell. When a young sociology professor, Dick Roman, had to move to take a job in Canada and he and Brenda couldn’t take their teenaged Native American foster child across the border, Sue and I agreed to become her foster parents. Our evident willingness to take on a child of a “different race” precipitated the local DSS to seek us out as an emergency placement for a one week old African-American girl whose foster mother had just died. She is now our eldest of three daughters.
It was not in the classroom, but in the cafeteria that we met Mary Smith and Elizabeth Brooks whose lives and work, persistence and clarity of purpose helped us to understand the meaning of structure, and solidarity and support and the subtleties and complexities of class, race, and gender. When the sociology students asked the workers what they needed and learned that they couldn’t arrange stable child care, the Community School for People Under Six was born which endures to this day, after its modest beginnings in borrowed space and precarious time. It was not in the classroom but in the basement of the First Baptist Church and in the abandoned campus building that became the “Liberation Cafeteria” that we learned about organizational innovation.
The lessons we learned from these experiences were enduring– they helped Sue initiate, grow, and sustain a workforce development program that has provided education and wage increases for about 130,000 early childhood educators throughout the US. These experiences helped me understand how to assist frontline long term care workers begin an ascent up a career ladder that aims to recognize and reward their intrinsic worth and social contribution. Over a decade, this program was implemented touching a thousand workers in one-quarter of NC’s nursing homes. Although I arrived in Chapel Hill too late to benefit from Harvey Smith’s medical sociology courses, I did have the opportunity to learn from Larry Little of the Winston-Salem Black Panther Party, about the importance of sickle cell screening, which was helpful to me when I later helped establish the Policy and Ethics Division of the Duke-UNC Comprehensive Sickle Cell Center in the 1990s.
From my current vantage point, I believe some of us who came to Chapel Hill in the late 1960s have become part of a proud (if not completely intentional) sociology department tradition that Howard Odum initiated and was remembered for. Graduate students who went out in the community and engaged in a way that transcended, perhaps even disrupted, formalistic academic expectations. Some returned to get their doctorates, others did not, but most made a difference and put their sociology to work. Looking back over nearly half a century, it was worth it.
submitted October 2016