James W. Begun
B.A. 1972, Ph.D. 1977
I enjoyed several years of UNC Sociology, entering the doctoral program after an undergraduate degree in Sociology from UNC. I was drawn to Sociology in my undergraduate years largely due to an interest in social and political reform, as were many of us in the 1970s. I did an honors thesis with Gary Jensen, whose area was criminology. My undergraduate advisor, Professor Dick Cramer, convincingly promoted the virtues of Sociology as a doctoral choice and academic career for me.
After my undergraduate degree, I was fortunate to connect with researchers conducting what came to be known as “health services research.” These included medical sociologist Gordon DeFriese and Glenn Wilson, a medical school faculty member in Community Medicine, who hired me as a research assistant. I explored the field of medical sociology and narrowed my doctoral program options to UNC and the University of Chicago, where I was offered an assistantship with Odin Anderson, a top medical sociologist. One visit to south side Chicago was enough to convince me that the Southern Part of Heaven, and UNC Sociology, was where I wanted to study.
Hamilton Hall was a vibrant setting for the doctoral program; the place was bristling with energy, ideas, and smart people (students, staff, and faculty). One initial memory has stayed with me: Professor Everett Wilson was editor of Social Forces at the time. Outside his office was a bulletin board, on which he posted a letter from an invited reviewer, a well-known scholar. The individual had turned down the Social Forces review request, stating (I’m paraphrasing): “I’ve contributed enough to the field; I’m not doing reviews anymore.” I puzzled briefly as to why Professor Wilson “called out” that individual, until concluding that Professor Wilson thought the act of turning down a review invitation was inconceivably unprofessional. My reaction was, “Wow, these people are really serious about this Sociology stuff.” And they were.
My interest in medical sociology was encouraged by Robert Wilson, a pioneer in the field, Gordon DeFriese, and Patricia Rieker, an innovative and challenging thinker. Henry Landsberger, Gerhard Lenski, Everett Wilson, and Richard Simpson made sure that we put theory ahead of hypotheses; a course on the Philosophy of Science from Patrick Horan put it all in perspective, and both quantitative (Krishnan Namboodiri, David Heise) and qualitative tools were respected. Glaser and Strauss’s work on grounded theory was just taking off at the time, and I gained a deep appreciation for the interdependence of theory and methods. (The later work of Charles Ragin [UNC 1975], on qualitative comparative analysis, has been the most illuminating I’ve studied since.)
The curriculum allowed ample elective time, and I chose to work with Duncan MacRae, Jr., who had appointments in both Sociology and Political Science. Professor MacRae was a pioneer in public policy analysis, with an ambitious vision to unite the social sciences in the study of applied problems. I particularly remember Lindblom‘s Usable Knowledge as a work that influenced me. The doctoral program also included a course on teaching from Everett Wilson, and I had the opportunity to teach Social Problems to undergraduates, which scared me to death, but launched me on a rewarding teaching career.
After finishing my coursework, I was fortunate to have my dissertation funded by the U.S. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality and to have office space in the new Health Services Research Center, then headed by Gordon DeFriese. I also was able to work with Public Health faculty, primarily Professor Arnold Kaluzny, another wonderful role model. This solidified my interest in health services research, where I would spend my academic career, first in the UNC School of Medicine in the Department of Social and Administrative Medicine, with the generous support of Glenn Wilson.
I subsequently moved to Cornell University, Virginia Commonwealth University, and now the University of Minnesota, all in departments of health administration. I’m grateful that my current (and likely, final) position is in a School of Public Health, where sociologists and the sociological imagination are broadly appreciated. Understanding the causal mechanics that produce population health always returns me to basic sociological questions about the division of labor, social class, conflict, and inequality and power. I continue to marvel at the ability of sociological reasoning to explain the world around me, and I am grateful that my years at UNC gave me the knowledge base, role models, mentors, and confidence to do so.
Submitted June 2015