Glen H. Elder Jr.
My journey from a Cleveland, Ohio childhood to an interdisciplinary career in sociology was shaped by the family influence of a college-educated mother with a lifelong interest in biography and by a father‘s unwavering desire to return to life on the land before his sons left home. He had grown up on a farm in this region and retained this attachment across his life. We thought he might just try to fulfill it at any time.
After more than a dozen years in the Cleveland suburbs, from Lakewood to Berea and Olmsted Falls, I learned in May ’49 that we were moving to a farm in the lake country of NW Pennsylvania. I recall the novelty of this new experience and not the anticipated distress over lost friendships and small town life in the suburbs. We could walk to school and back home in Olmsted Falls, whereas life on our farm meant taking a mini-bus 24 miles to school and back. Attending school events represented a significant trip between different worlds, and not just a short drive. I slowly began to understand how changing locations change lives.
As high school graduation approached, I applied to Penn State and entered in 1952 with an initial emphasis on the field of agriculture, reflecting my urban to rural transition. However, I soon acquired interests in other fields such as social psychology, and a fascination in studying lives. Social psychology places people in social contexts, but it did not follow them over any future part of their life, much to my regret. In my senior year, I sought more time to determine my next steps, whether in graduate study or not.
With this goal in mind, I joined the Dean of Men’s staff at Kent State University (1957) since it would enable me to make such decisions and extend my study of the social psychology of lives in sociology. By the end of the academic year, I completed an MA thesis based on the life history interviews of first year students and their adaptations to higher education. Retrospective life history interviews of this kind represent a forerunner of prospective longitudinal studies that would literally take off after the 50s in American sociology
This educational path appears far removed from the graduate student cohort in sociology I entered at Carolina in 1958, but not if we consider professional ties. The Dean of Men at Kent State had earned his doctorate in sociology at the University of Washington under Charles Bowerman, who became the chair of Carolina Sociology in 1957. Shortly, with the Dean of Men’s letter recommending me to Bowerman, I became his graduate research assistant on a grant to investigate key reference figures (parents, peers) in the lives of adolescents.
At the end of August ‘58, I headed for Chapel Hill in a ‘49 Hudson with Karen, my Penn State bride, and a plan to major in sociology and minor in psychology. Bowerman’s project in family socialization featured three reference group orientations toward parents and peers: associational, affectional, and value. The survey drew upon open-ended interviews with students in local junior and senior high schools. The age range of the survey provided a view of variation by age at a point in time, and thus could not address the adolescents’ developing lives. Nevertheless, the research experience whetted my appetite for data from studies that actually followed people through their lives.
An opportunity for such research occurred in 1961 when John Clausen, the new director of the UC-Berkeley Institute of Human Development, offered me a half-time research position on the Oakland longitudinal study at the Institute, along with a half-time appointment in the newly formed Berkeley Department of Sociology. I promptly accepted the offer. In the enthusiasm of the moment in front of South Bldg., I greeted psychologist John Thibaut (a distinguished member of my dissertation committee) with what I thought was really ‘great news’! I called out “I will be going to Berkeley!“ With no hesitation at all, John replied, “Good luck. You will need it”. He definitely knew more than I did about the future at UC-Berkeley! The Free Speech movement took off shortly after my arrival and it became front and center for a lot of us ‘junior folks’ in the Berkeley Institute and Sociology Department.
The Institute was one of a handful of pioneer centers of longitudinal studies in the country that followed children into the later years of life. Launched in the 1920s and 30s, the Study’s members were in their 30s and 40s at the time of my arrival in 1962. The research appointment proved to be exceedingly rewarding, both instructively in working with longitudinal data and in advancing my thinking about how lives change in changing times. I soon began to theorize about this dynamic and focused such thinking on developing appropriate measures of relevant concepts. All of this work centered on the study members’ changing world as adolescents in the Great Depression. My first book entitled ‘Children of the Great Depression’ emerged as a contribution to the developing area of the life course and human development.
I enjoyed teaching courses on social movements and urbanization at Berkeley, but the chair of Sociology, Kingsley Davis, made life increasingly more difficult by calling on me, a neophyte instructor, to teach courses out of my level of experience and skill. For example, he selected me to co-teach a huge lecture course on social psychology (with 14 TAs) when Erving Goffman left the university for another university professorship. Fortunately, an attractive alternative emerged, at this time — an invitation to return to Carolina as an associate professor. I was appointed for fall, 1967 while maintaining strong ties with the Institute. I returned to the Institute for a sabbatical year in 1972-73 in order to prepare data for a birth cohort comparison, 1920-21 and 1928-9. Collaboration with Institute personnel continued well into the 1990s.
In 1977, I accepted a visiting appointment at a new research center on human development at Boys Town, Omaha, Nebraska. My goal was to enhance the development of the center with the assistance of a research group that included Richard Rockwell from the Odum Institute at Carolina. I planned to return to Carolina, but could not do so in time after helping to place members of my research team. As a result, I welcomed a generous offer from Urie Bronfenbrenner’s Cornell program of human development, an affiliation that extended over five rewarding years at Ithaca and into most of the 90s.
I returned to Chapel Hill in sociology as the Howard W. Odum Distinguished Professor in 1984 and encouraged by Dick Udry, moved my research into the Carolina Population Center that he directed. This transition proved to be most important in facilitating nearly two decades of life course research, teaching and training predocs and postdocs. My university service also peaked at this time, including membership on the Dean’s committee of the College of Arts and Sciences during the late 90s. I think of this decade as a generative era for the establishment of major institutes and organizations serving faculty interests -– the Institute for the Arts and Humanities, a Center for International Studies, and a Center for Developmental Science.
When I returned to Chapel Hill, I had in mind exploring with like-minded faculty in Psychology the possibility of launching something resembling the Committee on Human Development at the University of Chicago. The first person I talked to about this was Robert Cairns in developmental science. He turned out to be the right person to talk to since he was keenly interested in moving in this direction. This meeting set in motion three initiatives. The first entailed securing federal support for a training grant in developmental science and this was successful. The next one focused on developing a consortium of human development that would meet weekly for seminars at the Frank Porter Graham Center. These seminars in developmental science were successful, generating a high level of support on campus and more broadly within the field despite the lack of major support from grants. The third step involved federal funds for a Center of Development Science that was established in 1993.
I moved off the teaching payroll of the UNC Department of Sociology in 2006 but I have continued research and writing as the Odum Research Professor at the Carolina Population Center, now in my 85th year. Sixty-one years ago I entered the doctoral program of Sociology at UNC-Chapel Hill and fifty of these years have been spent on this beautiful campus. In the University’s Bicentennial Celebration, Charles Kuralt spoke eloquently about this special place as a ‘university of the people’. It is that and it is also a distinctive university of interdisciplinary studies. Many extraordinary achievements have flourished in this culture. I count the Carolina Population Center (CPC) and Genomics program as two of them, along with Life Course Studies and the Center for Developmental Science.
Over the years at UNC-Chapel Hill, my research and training activities have linked population studies and developmental science on campus. Some of my postdoctoral students have spent their first year with support at CPC and the second year supported by Developmental Science. The two programs were only half a block apart. Working with both doctoral and postdoctoral students across disciplines and seeing them flourish will always be one of the high points of my career. I have been most fortunate to be at the right stage and place to take advantage of the remarkable growth of longitudinal studies in the 1960s by devising a way to think about and study human lives from birth to old age. All of my career awards reflect these experiences.
No member of my young family enjoyed life in Chapel Hill more than Karen who came down with me when I entered graduate studies in sociology at Carolina. She loved having students over for buffet dinners and mixers. However, all of this ended with illness and then a diagnosis of advanced pancreatic cancer. We lost her in 2001. In 2003, I met Sandy Turbeville, a graduate of Carolina, on a plane in 2003 as I returned to Chapel Hill from a lecture engagement at Rice University in Houston. A female friend from my Cornell days encouraged me to take every opportunity to be with people after Karen’s death, and fortunately, I was doing just that very happily when I met Sandy. We were married in the Carolina Inn a year later.
submitted March 2019