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Sociological Lives, Social Change, and Institution Building: 
A perspective on Sociology and Social Science 
At the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

Glen H. Elder, Jr.

September, 1995


Each new cohort of graduate students this University, the Department of Sociology, and Faculty at a moment in time. You see the faculty as they are now, and the department in its present state.

I would like to add a temporal dimension to your experience by taking you back in time to the beginnings of Sociology at UNC. The story features “sociological lives, the rapid pace of social change, and institution building.”

This, of course, is my view of sociological local history. Another person might well tell a different story.

There are three parts to this story:

First — the important intellectual eras of departmental growth in stature;

Second – sociological lives that extend across the eras; and

Third – a brief comparative view of the eras.

    I detect three periods of Carolina sociology that stand out on a number of perspectives: I name them in terms of their original chairperson – Odum, Bowerman, and Kasarda. Each of these chairpersons is known as a “builder.” From the very beginning, the department has been a leading force in the discipline – among the top 5 in 1935, 7th in 1970, 5th and 6th in 1982 and 1993.

THE HOWARD ODUM ERA – After leaving Emory in Atlanta, Howard Odum established this Department of Sociology in 1920 and he died in 1954, after retiring at the age of 70. This is the Odum era, an incredibly exciting, risk-filled, and challenging time in the building of this department, of sociology in the South, and of sociology in this country. The department was in the forefront of establishing sociological analysis as an empirical science, countering the growth of European theoretical study at the University of Wisconsin, etc.

In 1920, only the University of Chicago and Columbia University were home to other key departments – Michigan to a lesser extent. Odum earned one of his two PhDs at Columbia under Franklin Giddings, a strong empiricist; the other under G. Stanley Hall, a psychologist at Clark University (who had a close relationship with Sigmund Freud).

Odum founded the Department of Sociology, the School of Public Welfare, the Institute for Research in Social Science (1924), and the journal Social Forces (1922). In 1950 he missed by a hair in setting up a new School of Public Administration.

Central themes of the Odum Faculty:

  1. Studying the problems and processes of a changing society – heavy emphasis upon problems in the state and region. Often very descriptive work.
  2. Reliance on diverse methods – field observations, record data, surveys, etc. A multi-measurement approach
  3. Training of students – very important, but do it in the field. Training by doing.
  4. Social action, advocacy – as in Social Forces journal.
  5. Preoccupation with freedom to inquire, teach.

After 13 years of operations, the department of nine members was judged “distinguished” – the only department so classified on the campus. A “top five” department in the country. Key figures include:

Rupert Vance, a renaissance scholar who, much later, actually followed Odum into national prominence and the role of President of the American Sociological Association. Vance arrived as a graduate student in 1926, had his dissertation published (Human Factors in Cotton Culture), completed a major work on population distribution and social structure in “Human Geography of the South” in early 30’s, and became a sociological pioneer by relating two streams of thinking that were typically divorced – population and culture-social structure. Today, Peter Blau and a good many members of the department are doing this line of sociological work.

Guy Johnson, a social and cultural anthropologist in practice. You have read a chapter out of the Johnson and Johnson book so you know something about Johnson.

Katharine Jocher and Harriet Herring – two pathbreaking women who played important roles in developing the Institute for Research in Social Science.

 – Coming from the University of Washington in Seattle, Charles Bowerman became chairman of the department in 1957 and he resigned at the end of the 1960s (still living and Oregon). This period of 12 years in Alumni Building placed the department in a broader realm of national and international prominence. The Bowerman era broke exclusive ties to the South and enhanced national stature; fostered the development of sociological specialties (industrial and family sociology, as well as integration of theory and research).

Bowerman pulled this off with some remarkable hires – Hubert Blalock, Gerhard Lenski, Everett Wilson, Amos Hawley. Two of the four became presidents of ASA. All were pathbreakers in the true sense of the word.

Gerhard Lenski
, recruited from the University of Michigan, had longstanding interest in the study of social stratification. At Chapel Hill, he produced a broader theoretical framework in which to think about social stratification and inequality – a theory of evolutionary change – sociocultural and biological.

Everett Wilson was a sociological pioneer in the teaching of sociology, and co-authored the first book on the topic with Charles Goldsmid in the early 1970s, called Passing on Sociology. The graduate course on teaching got its start at this time.

Amos Hawley, also recruited from Michigan, was well-known for his theory of human ecology and population processes. This theme was part of the department’s intellectual history and it is expressed today in the work of Judith Blau and Howard Aldrich.

Hubert Blalock, the earliest proponent of causal modeling in sociology and a strong advocate of improved measurement. Tad Blalock was also a “social glue” in the department – fostered ties among faculty and students, often around a ping pong table or lunch crowd.

This era moved the department culture and faculty out of a regional focus, both in research problems and faculty recruitment, toward a national and international scope.

At the end of the Bowerman era, the department was drawing outstanding students from across the nation and globe. Between 1968 and 1974, the following luminaries were enrolled – -John Kasarda (UNC Business), Michael Hannan (Stanford), John Freeman (Univ. of California-Berkeley), Karl Alexander (Johns Hopkins), William Corsaro (Indiana), Clark Roof (University of California-Santa Barbara), Pamela Oliver (Wisconsin), Sandra Hofferth (Michigan), Linda Molm (Arizona). Note the absence of women – tells how much the field had changed over the past 25 years.

THE KASARDA ERA – By the mid 1970’s, the department’s advance had stalled. And there was something of a malaise in the social sciences and nation generally. The times were economically stressful – the end of prosperity as we had known it since World War II.

Tad Blalock left UNC after a fight over civil rights with the administration. The faculty moved into its new building in Hamilton (1972), leaving behind many memories of Alumni Building and the department’s beginnings. The department had lost some momentum by the second half of the decade, but its national stature remained high and unchanged.

Kasarda’s leadership in the chair role brought the faculty through a very difficult time. A distinguished PhD of this department (circa 1971), Jack had been on the University of Chicago faculty, and returned to UNC in late 1970s after time at Florida Atlantic University. Jack became chair in 1980.

By the early 1980s, Tad Blalock had left, and Lenski and Hawley were contemplating retirement. Kasarda, with national ratings on his mind, proceeded to hire leading figures for the next sociological era – Judith and Peter Blau, Howard Aldrich, Rachel Rosenfeld, Francois Nielsen, Arne Kalleberg, Craig Calhoun, Barbara Entwisle and Ken Bollen, Anthony Oberschall, and yours truly. Not a bad recruiting season.

The themes of this sociological era have much in common with the central themes of the Odum era:

  1. A preoccupation with social and cultural change in all of its facets – for example, change in the economy and higher culture, the effects of social change on primary groups and relationships, on people.
  2. The relation between population and social structure, culture. Both across levels and within levels, macro and micro.
  3. Increasing attention to historical inquiry – historical social science.
  4. Multi-method, diverse sources of data.

Arne Kalleberg became chair when Kasarda retired in the late 1980s in order to accept the directorship of the Kenan Institute of Free Enterprise on the UNC campus. One of the most distinctive features of this era is the extent to which the faculty have once again become key actors on the UNC Campus – Carolina Sociology is at the heart of faculty life and research, unlike other universities where it is peripheral – i.e., the Ivy League universities.

For example:

Ronald Rindfuss, directs the Carolina Population Center – considered the leading center for population study in the country and world.

Craig Calhoun, directs the Institute for Research in Social Science – Reed also plays a key role in the Center for the Study of the South.

John Kasarda, directs the Kenan Institute of Free Enterprise.

Glen H. Elder, Jr. co-directs the Center for Developmental Science and Carolina Consortium on Human Development.


Two sociological lives connect eras in the department. Richard Simpson is the only member of our current faculty whose sociological history extends across all three eras – Odum, Bowerman, and Kasarda. I came along as a graduate student at the beginning of the Bowerman era.

Dick Simpson was a graduate student in the Odum era, along with his wife Ida (now a sociology professor at Duke). He completed his degree in the mid-1950’s, moved from UNC to Penn State, then to Northwestern, and finally back to UNC in the fall of 1958. He has remained at UNC since then.

He has chaired the department and served as president of the Southern Sociological Society.

I arrived as a grad student in the fall of 1958 with a role as research assistant to the new chair, Charles Bowerman. We were housed in Alumni, the gray stone building near the Planetarium.

Prominent figures of the Odum era were still central in the department – Guy Johnson, Rupert Vance, Katharine Jocher, Harriett Herring, and George Simpson, among others.

Some snapshots of the times:

Rupert Vance, the renaissance scholar – handicapped by polio – his course on social stratification was extremely popular. Students from history, sociology, and political science took the course and packed the room.

Also popular – Simpson’s course on European Social Theory – Dick also packed them in. A very appealing course.

Methods on the run – the Norfolk survey “When the Schools Close.” During my first term, the methods class was mobilized to field a survey of Norfolk, just after the city fathers were deciding to close the schools rather than desegregate them. The schools were never closed.

Needless to say, the people of Norfolk were not overjoyed to see us on their doorsteps. That was my first insight into how partial interviewers can be when angry interviewees are standing there “just waiting for an affirmation of their sentiments.”

Luncheons on the top floor of Alumni, with speaker – sponsored by IRSS, but attended by most sociologists in the department.

Alumni – a social science “beehive” – the Institute for Research in Social Science, city and regional planning, recreation, anthropology, sociology, social work, and psychology had space in the building. So you can imagine how small we were – Richard Simpson, Ernest Campbell, Charles Bowerman, Daniel Price, George Simpson, and Rupert Vance were the key people I remember. We had to be cross-disciplinary, to move out of sociology – and we did.


The legacies of Howard Odum, Charles Bowerman, and John Kasarda in their respective leadership roles center on institution building. And each of their sociological careers coincide with similar phases in building a discipline of sociological study, both here and abroad.

In wrapping up my presentation, I would like to leave you with some thoughts about central themes and legacy.

  1. The Early Years – The Chapel Hill and Chicago Schools of Sociology

As a product of the early Chicago school, through graduate training under Chicago PhDs, I am much impressed by the resemblances between the extraordinary burst of social science energy and ideas at Chapel Hill in the 1920s and 30s, and the happening at Chicago during this same time frame.

The Chicago department was founded at the end of the 19thcentury by W.I. Thomas, but it only began to get moving a decade or so later. Thomas and Odum both came from very poor circumstances. Thomas was born in 1863 in the western mountains of Virginia and completed a PhD at Chicago – he describes his life in terms of “having lived in three centuries.”

Odum was born in 1884 on a small Georgia dairy farm – both of his grandfathers had served in the Civil War and returned embittered and broken men. Thomas studied the classics in undergraduate work and so did Odum – appropriately, Odum specialized in classical Greek tragedy.

In discovering social science, both Thomas and Odum thought that the methods of this discipline could provide guidance in shaping public policy.

The Odum school focused on problems of the Southern region, a rural society, while the Chicago school focused on problems of the city –crime, poverty, marital instability, social life, black communities. Both programs were geared toward empirical study and the necessity to get into the field in order to understand the problems. Odum organized all efforts through the Institute for Research in Social Science, while Thomas, Burgess, park, and others encouraged students to develop their observational skills.

W.I. Thomas managed to transcend the limitations of his empirical studies through the realm of sociological theory; Odum never succeeded in this realm – virtually all of his work is descriptive. By contrast, one of Odom’s star students, Rupert Vance, did succeed in developing a broader sociological understanding.

In addition, Odom’s legacy includes a physical presence at the University of North Carolina – he played an important role in building the university. W.I. Thomas, ever more cosmopolitan and polished in the social graces of this world, never invested much of his time and energy in building institutions.

  1. The Bowerman Era: Continuity or Change

Nowadays we think of the “baby boom” era as an anomaly, different from what went before and from what that which followed. In like fashion, I would argue that the Bowerman era had less in common with the Odum era than the Kasarda term.

Bowerman brought the department into a national and international framework, and this niche has been elaborated ever since. However, I find many large differences that mark off this historical time from the adjacent eras.

Consider the following:

  1. The research tradition that was so prominent in the Odum era tended to fade across the 1960s, in part because the IRSS had faded and other institutes had not yet arrived, such as the Carolina Population Center, the Center for International Studies, etc.
  2. The population and social structure theme was underdeveloped.
  3. Field observations and quantitative data – no training in qualitative data collection during the 1960s.
  4. The recruitment of women to the faculty and to graduate studies. This was less evident during the Bowerman era than in the other two eras.
  5. Sociological Study in the 21st Century

Sociological analysis plays an very important role in within the social and behavioral sciences – in problem choice, theory, and method.

In my view, the demand for sociological expertise is increasing:

  1. In history – sociological methods and theory.
  2. In psychology – for providing and understanding of sociocultural environments and contexts
  3. In the field of business – modern studies of organizations work. Sociology is the source of key theories of organizations.
  4. In health studies – despite the great challenge in Washington politics, the evidence to date underscores the essential contribution of sociological research to knowledge of health outcomes. For example: Durkheim made a very strong case on the effects of low and high social integration. The reason why integration has such effects is becoming clear through research on the immune system and T cells.
  5. In engineering – many areas of engineering are recruiting sociologists

As a small discipline of approximately 13,000 association members, it is important that we cultivate such applications and connections. Our health depends on the success we have in making our work valuable on the campus and in society. The present faculty is heavily involved in this good work.