An Interview with Jonathan H. Turner

Conducted by Ronald Mack

MACK: Which sociological tradition do you find yourself most in alignment with?

TURNER: In terms of substantive traditions, I am completely eclectic. I find merit in virtually all theoretical orientations-- functionalism, conflict theory, interactionism, etc. As for more epistemological issues, I am a firm believer that sociology can be a natural science; and so, I consider myself a positivist in this sense: the ultimate goal of sociology is to produce abstract laws and models about basic social processes, and then, to assess these with data.

MACK: Which sociological tradition do you find yourself disagreeing with?

TURNER: I disagree with all those who assert that sociology cannot be a science because humans and their creations are unique and thereby not amenable to scientific inquiry. Far too many sociologists have come to believe that science is not possible or not appropriate; and in my view, this trend will make sociology a trivial discipline.

MACK: Name some sociologists that you admire. Why?

TURNER: The contemporary sociologist whom I admire most is Randall Collins who blends a concern with abstract formal theory with an indepth knowledge of history as well as the recent empirical literature. There is, in my view, no more broadly knowledgeable sociologist in the world today. Others whom I respect a great deal include: Jeffrey Alexander, Anthony Giddens, Michael Mann, Ralph turner, Janet Chafetz, James Coleman, Neil Smelser, and perhaps five or six others. Each of these scholars has contributed to the development of a particular line of inquiry; and while I do not always agree with their works, I find the combination of a theoretical mind and a sense for data to be compelling.

MACK: What do you feel has been your greatest contribution to sociology?

TURNER: At a general level, I feel that I have contribute to sociology by formalizing and synthesizing existing theories. There is a tremendous conceptual legacy to be found in the history of sociological works; and one of my goal s has been to extract the key ideas from these works, clarify these ideas, state them more formally, and integrate with other related ideas. A science always builds by extending and synthesizing the theoretical ideas of others; and this is the role that I have taken in my work. More specifically, my best works are in theory, although I have written many other books outside of sociological theory. Among the best theory books are two texts, The Emergency of Sociological Theory (written with Leonard Beeghley and Charles Powers) and The Structure of Sociological Theory, and two monographs, Societal Stratification: A Theoretical Analysis and A Theory of Social Interaction.

MACK: As you know, sociology is still in its infancy as a science. What fields in sociology do you think hold the most promise?

TURNER: I do not accept the framing of the question because sociology is not a young science. It is immature, to be sure, but it is not young. If we lack accomplishments in science, we cannot blame it on our youth; the answer lies elsewhere in how we have organized and practiced sociology. Indeed, this is why I wrote The Impossible Science: An Institutional History of American Sociology (with Stephen P. Turner); I was frustrated and curious about why sociology had failed to become a mature science after over 150 years of work. The answer resides in the organization of the discipline from its beginnings; and I will let the interested reader pursue this argument in the book. Now to your question more directly.

There are a number of fields which I see as holding a great deal of promise: One is historical sociology, as long as it is willing to theorize; another is exchange theory (the works of Karen Cook, David Willer, and John Schvoretz being notable here); yet another is network analysis (the work of Ronald S. Burt being a good example); still another is the synthetic work in various traditions: Collins's interaction ritual theory which blends Weber, Durkheim, and Goffman together; Ralph Turner and Sheldon Stryker in interactionist theory; Jack Goldstone, Michael Mann, and Charles Tilly in historical sociology where different theory traditions and historical data sets are blended together.

MACK: What fields in sociology do you think hold the least promise?

TURNER: Almost all of those fields which seek to emulate the style and substance of the humanities. For example, all varieties of "post-modernism" are doomed to be passe and boring within a few years; all ideologically oriented work --critical theory, Marxist diatribes-- are already boring and will get more so; all hermeneutics and phenomenology that takes a flight into philosophy will continue to tie sociology into knots; a good deal of feminist theory because it is ideology and anger rolled into one (there are some important and notable exceptions here of morally driven feminist who do very good science); and virtually all efforts to build philosophical schemes or to unduly agonize over philosophical issues are counterproductive and boring.

There are some fields which should be important that border on becoming less promising: ethmonethosology if it continues to move into routinized and ritualized conversation analysis; symbolic interactionism if it lets the anti-science wing take over; world systems theory if it lets Marxism continue to dominate; and virtually any substantive field that becomes dominated by ritual data crunchers who run after federal grant dollars (potential candidates here include most of criminology, demography, the sociology of family and education).

MACK: In the 1990's and into the 21st century, what are some of the key problems that sociologists must confront in further establishing their discipline?

TURNER: In my Impossible Science, I indicated that sociology continues to differentiate into ever more specialized fields, whose practitioners rarely talk to each other. This trend must be reversed; we must become one discipline again, guided by a set of problems and theories. If this does not occur, then sociology will become more and more marginal.

MACK: What advice would you give to a student entering a career in sociology?

TURNER: Take hard courses, not sexy, seemingly relevant, and trendy ones. Take theory, methods, and statistics; and then take courses in basic areas--organizations, stratification, social psychology, demography, and key institutional areas (kinship, religion, education,economy, polity, etc.). This kind of training will give you a solid background with which to enter either the work place or graduate school. Without this background you will have wasted your education.

MACK: In teaching students the subjects of sociology, what are some of the major misconceptions about individuals and society that you would like to clear up?

TURNER: Probably the biggest misconception that I seek to clarify is the belief in rugged individualism. People are not completely free to do as they want; and often people ate in disadvantaged positions not out of a lack of effort but because of circumstances beyond their control. The big point to always communicate to students is that our thoughts, perceptions, behaviors, and options ate highly circumscribed by cultural and social structural forces.

MACK: Sociology books are not generally popular and a number of them become outdated just shortly after they are published. If you had to choose four or five sociology related works (books or articles) which would they be? Why?

TURNER: Books really don't get that outdated; we just think that they do, or publishers try to convince us that this is the case. If I were to recommend Gerhard Lenshi's, et. al. Human Societies, Randall Collins's Conflict Sociology, my A Theory of Social Interaction, and any of the many introductory texts (few of which are out of date).

MACK: If you where stranded on a desert island which books would you take (does not need to be a sociology book)?

TURNER: I would not take any books; I would try a new life style.

MACK: If you were to interview yourself, what question would you most like to answer? (A question that hasn't been asked prior.) Ask that question now and answer it, if you like.

TURNER: Why has the promise of sociology been lost in the last decades? How did a discipline dedicated to discovering the nature of human social organization and to making a better world come to be so split and divided, and so often trivial? I've answered this question but it is fundamental to any interview about sociology. The world's problems are most likely organizational in nature; and yet, the science of social organization seems incapable of saying much about these problems. Why is this so?

MACK: Why did you choose sociology?

TURNER: Because I was interested in people and their patterns of social organization, and because when I was young, I hoped to make a difference in people's lives. This was the hook; and then I had some very inspirational teachers--particularly Tamotsu Shibutani, Donald R. Cressey, and Walter Buckley--who encouraged me.

MACK: Generally, which topics or issues regarding sociology spark your interest the most?

TURNER: Social evolution, social stratification, interaction processes, and abstract/ formal theory.

MACK: What topics or issues have you written the most about? Why?

TURNER: I have written the most on sociological theory--its history and contemporary profiles. And then I have used this understanding of theory to develop my own theories, most of which synthesize existing theories. In addition to this theoretical work, I have long standing interests in a number of topics: societal evolution, ethnic relations, American society, stratification, and institutions. And recently, I have developed an interest in the biological foundations of human organization.