Posts Tagged ‘Role Theory’

In sociological social psychology, role theory examines the effects of the various social roles that individuals take on. A recent article by Jacob Weisberg at Slate (excerpted from his recent biography) examines how Ronald Reagan transitioned from being a “liberal anticommunist” (and sociology major!) to the man who would become a conservative icon during his time working for General Electric from the mid-1950s until 1962. Reagan’s tasks for General Electric included hosting a weekly show called “General Electric Theater” and traveling the company’s plants as a “goodwill ambassador,” which included giving speeches to employees.

As Weisberg states,

For Reagan, it was a dry run for politics. He learned how to interact with a live audience, and not just perform for the camera and microphone. He learned how to test which jokes went over and refine the way he told them. He learned how to preserve his voice and manage his energy during weeks of uninterrupted travel. He learned how to come across not as a distant matinee idol, but as a man of the people.

His interactions with company officials, though, may have had an even bigger impact. He traveled from plant to plant with a GE public relations officer named Earl Dunckel, a strong conservative who challenged Reagan’s liberal views. Weisberg also reports that he was influenced by GE’s chief labor negotiator, Lemuel Boulware, through his interactions with countless midlevel executives and plant managers. He states,

Over time, Reagan’s speeches came to match the message from headquarters about the inefficient, irrational, and meddlesome federal government. After a couple of years, Reagan was professing concern about the “business climate,” a term Boulware coined, and recounting tales of “government interference and snafus.” Now that he could no longer shelter his income through the “temporary corporation” loophole, high marginal tax rates were a constant preoccupation of his.

Thus, as his roles changed, so did his attitudes, and he became the man that conservatives revere today. It is interesting that changes as a result of our roles often seem “natural” in hindsight. Reagan probably looked back on his younger self as foolish and inexperienced, ignoring the fact that different roles would have led to different attitudes.

“Like” Memoirs of a SLACer on Facebook to receive posts and links about Reagan and other conservative icons via your news feed. If you do, you’re sure to be disappointed!

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After reading the recent Female Science Professor (FSP) post “Why & Me,” which summarizes FSP’s transition from “I blog because I am angry” to “I keep blogging because it is fun,” I decided to read some of the posts that started it all.  While browsing I came across a post focused broadly on looking for academic jobs when you already have one.  In FSP’s case, the goal was to solve the “two body problem,” but she also mentions using outside offers to increase one’s salary and prestige.  It was her final point, and the article and research it linked to, however, that caught my attention:

I have been very lucky that all the places I have been academically employed have been ‘good enough’ to lead to other opportunities. There was a recent study about whether there really are dead end academic jobs (Roach Motel Colleges, Slate.com, http://www.slate.com/id/2142489/), and, if you accept the parameters of the study, I guess there are. I think it’s quite possible to be happy at a Roach Motel College, though. My husband and I disagree about this (perhaps more on that later).

The Slate article that she refers to summarizes research by an economist (Oyer 2006) examines the careers of graduate students with similar records who got “better” or “worse” jobs (in terms of rankings) because they went on the job market in particularly good (when a lot of high-ranking schools were hiring) and bad (when not many high-ranking schools were hiring) years.  Slate summarizes the research like so:

[F]ive years into their respective careers, members of the boom cohorts are more likely to hold good jobs at Top 50 institutions than similar candidates entering the job market in bust years. In general, about a quarter of elite Ph.D.s end up at first-tier institutions. Starting one’s career in a boom year raises the probability of ending up at a Top 50 department by between 40 and 60 percent.

Boom-year graduates don’t end up in better jobs arbitrarily. Along the way they publish more articles that are more influential. Despite their elite credentials when hired, more than a third of the econ Ph.D.s in Oyer’s study had not published anything 10 years after graduation. The other two-thirds had published an average of 6.2 articles. Starting at a Top 50 institution raised that total by roughly a factor of two.

What about the effect on publication in the best-regarded journals—the only way to earn real street cred in the field? Most economists never crack these outlets in their entire careers. But an initial job in a Top 50 institution has an enormous impact, raising the probability of publishing in one of the top five journals by a whopping 50 percent. So, quality of the first job really matters.

The idea that those at higher-ranking institutions that have higher publication expectations publish more shouldn’t be surprising to any sociologist who is familiar with Lieberman’s (1956) work on role theory, which found that the attitudes of factory workers were tied to their positions, such that those who became foremen had higher opinions of management and those who became union representatives had higher opinions of the union.  In fact, I’ve thought about this in relation to my own career.  Slate’s summary, however, ignores the idea that working at a higher-ranking institution with higher publication expectations may not be “better” for everybody (an idea that I have been attempting to make clear to those entering the academic job market).  Instead, Slate seems to take a Good Will Hunting approach to maximizing your potential:

The idea that Will needs to take advantage of his chance at a “better” life is interesting because Sean Maguire, played by Robin Williams, argues that he is perfectly happy working at a community college while his college roommate is a high-profile mathematician at MIT.  I suppose that the takeaway point from all of this is that if you really want a high-prestige job, go on the market in the best year possible in order to maximize your ability to attain one, because without the corresponding pressures to publish you are unlikely to achieve the high profile in the academic world that you desire.  Of course, there are examples of those who have “published their way out of” low-ranking jobs, but these individuals appear to be rare.  If you end up at a lower-ranking institution you might find that you are much less likely to attain this prestige, but you might also realize that you never really needed it.


Lieberman, Seymour.  1956.  “The Effects of Changes in Roles on the Attitudes of Role Occupants.”  Human Relations 9:385-402.

Oyer, Paul.  2006.  “Initial Labor Market Conditions and Long-Term Outcomes for Economists.”  Journal of Economic Perspectives 20:143-160.

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