Ph.D ’77

I was at UNC Sociology 1971-1976. My official degree date is 1977 because I didn’t get the last few revisions done in time for December. I came to UNC from Stanford, where I’d been an honor’s major and an honorary graduate student: At Stanford, I took three graduate courses, worked as an RA, and got invited to grad parties. My undergrad mentoring and early success perhaps contributed to some arrogance that both hindered my integration with the UNC department and provided substitute sources of professional mentoring that aided my career. At UNC I was the first female graduate Morehead fellow and was part of the first entering class in sociology that was admitted without sex discrimination.

My post-UNC career ended up doing pretty well. My first job was at the University of Louisville (1976-1980), where I lucked into attending the important 1977 Vanderbilt conference on Resource Mobilization in social movements. There I met the people who thought my theoretical work on collective action was interesting and who provided a lot of early support and mentoring. These included John D. McCarthy, Mayer Zald, and Tony Oberschall. Tony had moved to UNC by the late 1970s but was not there when I was. I also benefitted from auditing a course on mathematical models taught by Anatol Rapoport, who happened to be a visiting professor at Louisville while I was there.

These experiences allowed me to revise the theory chapter of my dissertation into my “breakthrough” article published in the American Journal of Sociology in 1980, the article that got me my job at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, where I’ve been since 1980. My most prominent work on collective action was published in collaboration with Gerald Marwell in the 1980s. In the 1990s my work centered on news coverage of protests and demonstrations. Since 2000, while I’ve continued some work on social movements, my main activities have centered on work on racial disparities in criminal justice. Although I still have a lot of as-yet unpublished quantitative analysis of patterns of racial disparities in the US, my main efforts in this regard have been in “public sociology,” drawing attention to the issue through over 100 PowerPoint lectures on Wisconsin patterns, and participating in a wide variety of groups and quasi-governmental committees and task forces. I’ve recently opened an academic blog called Race, Politics, Justice http://www.ssc.wisc.edu/soc/racepoliticsjustice/ which features lots of graphs of patterns of incarceration and arrest in the US and Wisconsin, as well as essays on protests and criminal justice. I have also blogged since 2007 about personal and professional issues as “olderwoman” on the Scatterplot blog, where my essay “Choices, Consequences and Constraints” about the restrictions on my career when my children were young was my all-time top post with nearly 8000 hits; I collected my Scatterplot essays and add to them other personal essays on https://sociologicalconfessions.wordpress.com/ .

My UNC graduate student career was mixed. I never bonded well with either most of the faculty (a few exceptions: Dick Rockwell, Dick Cramer, Slats Cottrell, and Pat Rieker) or most of my fellow students. I felt that most people did not like me. I had little in common intellectually even with the few people I had personal relationships with. In retrospect, I’m sure this was due in part to my not having a good conception of what I should be trying to do in graduate school, perhaps because of it not being the best fit for me intellectually or socially. My theoretical interests built directly on Tad Blalock’s work on intergroup conflict, and especially his idea that a group’s standing was a function both of its resources and its level of group organization, and I even talked to Blalock when I interviewed, but he had already decided to leave UNC for Washington. I’m afraid I was like many young college students, and paid more attention to the size of the financial offer from the Morehead Fellowship than to matters of fit. (I talk to potential grad students about this now when I advise them.)

Another part of the problem was structural: As a Morehead Fellow, I had no work obligation and no office. I had a two-bedroom apartment, so I mostly worked at home. This reduced the opportunities for propinquity in forming relationships with fellow students and faculty. I have subsequently read that this is a common problem for fellows, as integration into social networks is an important part of graduate training.

I had a clear idea of the problem I wanted to study, but I had trouble persuading any UNC faculty that it was interesting. My master’s thesis was a revision of my senior honors thesis, a cross-cultural study of the factors predicting women’s social power and status. Gerhard Lenski and Richard Rockwell were supportive of the thesis, but they were confused when I said my dissertation would not be about women or cross-cultural work, but instead would be focused on the theoretical question of how group organization affected a group’s ability to act together to promote its power or benefits. The most interesting finding of the master’s thesis pointed to this issue. At that time there was no standard vocabulary for what I wanted to study, and nobody understood the question.

Fortunately, my undergraduate senior honors advisor Mike Hannan encouraged me to read Mancur Olson’s The Logic of Collective Action, which became the theoretical basis for my dissertation on the problem of collective action. Without enthusiasm, Jim Wiggins and the Social Psychology program provided me with enough money to run the most minimal experiment possible given the theory: two conditions, 10 four-person groups in each condition, testing whether the availability of an incentive would increase collective action. I collected my data over a two week period. Wiggins also provided a crucial insight that became important in my theorizing: “incentives can be negative.” Otherwise, completing my PhD involved overcoming faculty indifference and, in some cases, hostility. At the end, female graduate students and assistant professors intervened to allow me to complete my PhD and move on. Although I never told the story until after I had tenure, I now talk with young academics about these experiences and stress the importance of social networks, connections outside your department, and being willing to get help from others when needed.

My best learning experiences in North Carolina were centered on my role as a feminist activist, first in the National Organization for Women and then in the Charlotte Perkins Gilman chapter of the New American Movement, a socialist feminist group. There were academics in other departments in these groups, and I learned a lot about political action, which fed into my theorizing. It was also important for me to give up the role of “good student,” and go through a period in which I did not know what I wanted to do. I learned to work from the center, following my own ideas, instead of focusing on doing what other people told me to do.

I did not do well initially on the job market, but lucked into a job at the University of Louisville that came open in May. With a job in hand, people helped me exit, although as I left I honestly was not sure whether my theorizing was actually good or I was just being given a “terminal PhD.” I suspect both were true. It was at Louisville that I lucked into the connections that made my career.

I am still married to John Lemke, whom I married between my junior and senior years of college. A few of you may remember that John served as the Sociology social committee chair a couple of years because he loved picnics and was willing to organize them. Most of you probably don’t remember that he and I managed to smash my finger with a beer keg while setting up for a picnic; the finger needed 16 stitches and still shows the scar.  John retired a few years ago from a career as a computer programmer. Elizabeth (Zee), born 1983, is a radical activist, a nursing student, and the mother of toddler Oscar, our only grandchild. Robert, born 1987, is a mathematician and an assistant professor at Tufts. I have just finished my second term as department chair and am off teaching this year and trying to get a lot of research done. I am beginning to think about retirement, but don’t feel ready to do it yet.