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Playing Nice with Others

Let me begin by saying how extremely grateful I am to SPSP and to those on committee who selected me for this award.  Pushing the boundaries of a discipline that one calls home is not always comfortable.  Taking steps in directions not yet being pursued by others, leaving behind---if only temporarily—the security that being prototypically engaged can bring, and needing to find some points of support in the new territory one is exploring:  all of these can make one question, at least occasionally, whether the chosen ventures are likely to be satisfying and rewarding, whether in the short run, the medium, or the long run of a career.

Being supremely confident or severely dense surely help to ease the journey, though I don’t consider myself either of those.    But one is also helped, or perhaps helplessly driven, by a belief that the questions you are asking are important and the ways that you are going about getting answers have some chance of being productive.  To be able, after 50 years in the business, to feel comfortable with the choices one has made and to have those choices recognized—indeed, celebrated—by one’s colleagues, is really special.

I have many people to recognize and thank for encouraging me to think in not-always-traditional ways and for partnering with me in some of my ventures. Two of these people, both no longer with us, date back to my days as an undergraduate at Northwestern University. 

Donald Campbell was the only social psychologist in the small Department of Psychology in the 1960s, and it was his introductory social psychology course that first set me on the path to be a social psychologist.  Don was someone who always thought “outside the box”-- who basically did not acknowledge that there was a box.  As my undergraduate advisor, he engaged me in the search for material for Unobtrusive Measures, a small classic of creative, divergent thinking about methodology in social psychology (and in its authorship an example of interdisciplinary collaboration).

Raymond Mack was a sociologist, an inspirational teacher, and a committed scholar of race relations.   In what was probably my first independent research project, I engaged in observational data collection—a study of racial aggregation and dispersion, as indexed by seating patterns at O’Hare Airport.  My minor specialization in sociology was established! 

Two people who influenced my career in later years were Janet Spence and Sheldon Stryker.   Initially, Janet’s influence on me was indirect—someone who staked out territory for women and demonstrated that it was possible to be a woman and a psychologist (a critical exemplar as I never experienced that combination in my own undergraduate or graduate psychology departments).  Janet was not easily classified by subdiscipline, encompassing personality, experimental and developmental psychology, plus looking to larger social systems in her thinking about gender and achievement. The collaboration and friendship that began in the years after I received my Ph.D. were a constant support and model for me.

As a sociological social psychologist, Shel Stryker was a prototype for straddling the line between sociology and psychology.  Shel was firmly rooted in symbolic interactional theories and always sought to make links between sociological and psychological forms of social psychology. I read his work before I met the man; both influenced and inspired me.

I gained much from people I never met as well.  An encounter with a book edited by Joachim Israel and Henri Tajfel (The Context of Social Psychology:  A Critical Assessment, 1972) introduced me to the work of European social psychologists, who were articulating the uncertainties I had about the generality and groundedness of some social psychological work in the 1960s.   In the years to come, Tajfel would become part of my basic vocabulary, and the work of European social psychologists—often more broadly conceived and less worried about making distinctions between basic and applied work—would be a touchstone throughout my career.

Many other people have been important to me over the years and so many of them have been influential in expanding my vision.  As is true for all of us, I think, our students are a continuing source of stimulation.  Collaborative work with them, as well as with other colleagues with whom one connects over the course of a career, keep the brain cells clicking and the fun of research continuing.   I am also grateful to the institutions that have supported my work over the years, particularly the National Science Foundation and the Russell Sage Foundation.

Why did I take the path I did?  Fundamentally, I have always been interested in phenomena—and more specifically, phenomena that are evident in the lived experience of people around me, and that seem to make a difference in contemporary lives. In dealing with these big and complex phenomena, such as gender discrimination or immigrant identity and acculturation, you inevitably find a need to expand your conceptual frameworks.  I have always believed strongly in a social social psychology—one that encompasses not only one-to-one interactions between people but that also looks to the larger social units and to the societies in which those relationships emerge and develop.

Although I have never been driven by the need to create a new theory, to henceforth be known as the Deaux theory of X, I was never averse to drawing from the wealth of solid theory that social psychology has developed over the years.  From Heider’s early theories of attribution processes to Claude Steele’s model of stereotype threat, with numerous stops in between, I have used theories as a way to gain insight and to frame an issue with which I was concerned. 

I began this journey soon after graduate school by diving into gender issues; now much of my work centers on immigration.  Both of these are high-profile topics; both areas have innumerable paths through the relevant territory; and neither area is in any danger of becoming incidental to our lives in this society.  As I ventured into these territories, I often encountered others already living in those spaces—if not indigenous people, then other explorers from other countries that arrived earlier.  These people had a different language, used different tools to do their work, and sometimes regarded my interests and my approach as peripheral, irrelevant, or even ineffective. Yet at other times—more frequently, in fact—these other people were fascinated by what a social psychological explorer could bring to the table, and eventually found value and new meaning in our psychological offerings.

Let me give a few examples, drawn from work over the years, that represent the kinds of collaborations I have had and what I have gained from them.

  • An early collaboration centered on gender issues in the steel industry (Deaux & Ullman, Women of Steel, 1983):  specifically, what were the effects of adding women to the work force in basic steel industries?  My collaborator was a professor in the business school, specializing in labor issues.  To the analysis I brought theories of attribution and studies of gender stereotypes.  Not only did I learn a lot about labor policy, but I also was alerted to issues of communication channels, organizational hierarchies, and the influence of company practices on individual attitudes and behavior.
  • In 1986-1987 I was part of a working group at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences that brought together sociologists (Shel Stryker, Roberta Simmons, and George Bohrnstedt) and psychologists (Tory Higgins, Robbie Case, and Dan Olweus) to discuss the interplay of self, affect, and society.  Although no tangible product emerged from our discussions over the course of the year, the influence of the broader sociological frameworks definitely became part of my thinking and writing about social identities.
  • I have continued to consort with sociologists in subsequent years.  In 2012, Jan Stets, a sociologist at UC Riverside and current co-editor of Social Psychology Quarterly, brought together a group that again included Shel Stryker, as well as Peter Burke, Alicia Cast, Jill Kiecolt, Richard Serpe, Verta Taylor and Nancy Whittier.  Our goal was to develop a module to assess social identity in the General Social Survey (GSS).  Challenges were considerable within the group: which identities to assess, what measures to include, and –not incidental—which theoretical frameworks would be relied upon.  Symbolic interaction theories, for example, have different assumptions than does social identity theory, with clear implications for assessment.  Severe limits on the size of the module made many of the decisions very  difficult.  But choices were made, the module was accepted by the GSS board for a 2014 inclusion, and the rich data set of the GSS including, for example, political and social attitudes, can now be linked to psychological concepts such as identity strength.
  • Whereas NSF was an important funder of my earlier work on gender, the Russell Sage Foundation has been invaluable in supporting my work on immigration, as well as providing a place to create new possibilities for interdisciplinary work.  The latter is exemplified by a working group on immigration and intergroup relations, created through my collaborative work with immigration scholar Nancy Foner and RSF program officer Aixa Cintron.  Some of the social psychologists who have been involved in and funded by this program include Jack Dovidio, Vicki Esses, Yuen Huo, Cheryl Kaiser, Eric Knowles, Jen Richeson, and Linda Tropp. The resulting projects have represented a rich blend of social psychology’s intergroup theories and the immigration scholars’ expertise in diverse ethnic groups and changing immigration patterns.

In all of this work, I think I have been able to develop some maps to chart previously underexplored territory, and in many cases, I have identified some interesting problems and processes.  All of the cited examples involved crossing disciplinary boundaries, a process of both “give and get”.  Social and personality psychologists have much to offer to understanding phenomena such as gender discrimination and the effects of ethnic diversity and immigration flow.  At the same time, we can gain new insights and fuller understanding of these phenomena by expanding our explanatory repertoire.  Much work remains to be done in all of these areas, and I hope that future generations will incorporate some of these strategies into their work.

This work needs to be done in times that for social scientists, and indeed for scientists of all varieties, may be particularly difficult.   The current administration in Washington seems unlikely to put science at the top of its agenda.  Indeed, some statements suggest a willful denial of scientific evidence and a preference for strongly-held beliefs that are not easily altered by data.  But as President Obama reminded us in his farewell speech, “science and reason matter”—and as his mother used to tell him, “reality has a way of catching up with you.”

So we need to continue to keep science and reason—and relevance—at the forefront of our agenda – to establish the reality that will catch up with and push back on the counterforces.  Issues such as gender equity and ethnic diversity are not going away.  They are part of the fabric of this country and we need to face them, identify problematic areas and questions still calling for answers and, through our research and theory, develop the programs and solutions and policies that are needed.

We also need to join with others who share our moral and scientific values—to play nice and well and effectively with those who can bring new insights and added expertise. Together, we can strive for greater understanding, social progress, and an ever-more productive science.

-Kay Deaux