January 2014 Issue • Volume 42 • Issue 1

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Emeritus Profile

A Scholar with an International Focus

Craig Schaar, ASA Membership

Ed Tiryakian

Ed Tiryakian left an indelible mark on his sociology students. One former student recalled that his classes felt “like intellectual jam sessions” as the discussions about Durkeim’s theories flowed between the students and teacher.  Anyone who has sent an email message to Tiryakian at durkhm@soc.duke.edu knows that he is passionate about Durkheim and many other topics in sociology. 

Tiryakian was born in Bronxville, NY. a few weeks before the stock market crash of 1929. In order to ease the financial burden, his mother took the young Tiryakian to France to live with her family. He spent his entire childhood speaking and learning in the French language. The French upbringing would influence Tiryakian’s professional affiliations with international and French-based sociological societies later in life. His family returned to the United States on September 1, 1939, when World War II began in Europe.

Tiryakian selected Princeton University for his undergraduate education because it was the alma mater of President Woodrow Wilson who negotiated for peace at the Treaty of Versailles. He entered as a pre-med major but he would later decide to pursue sociology. Three undergraduate professors—Melvin Tumin, Marion Levy, and Harold Garfinkel—were influential in building his passion for sociology.

After graduating with a bachelor’s degree from Princeton in 1952, Tiryakian was accepted into the graduate sociology program at Harvard University, where Talcott Parsons served as his committee and thesis advisor. “Parsons expressed himself orally better than he did in writing,” said Tiryakian. “When you listened to him you felt like a theoretical system was unfolding in front of you.”

Parsons expressed himself
orally better than he did in writing. When you listened
to him you felt like a theoretical
system was unfolding in
front of you.

Ed Tiryakian

Researching Developing Countries

Tiryakian developed a strong interest in occupational stratification in developing world societies. Of his Fulbright scholarship to the Philippines in 1954–55, Tiryakian said, “It was one of the most worthwhile research projects I have had in a developing society.” His research noted educational instruction similarities with grade school systems in the United States. However, despite the many natural resources located in the Philippines, economic and political reforms never took hold in the island nation. In 1956, Tiryakian earned his PhD in sociology and social relations from Harvard.

When Tiryakian began his teaching career at Princeton, he focused on the economic, social development, and anti-colonization movements in Sub-Saharan African nations. During the late 1950s and early 1960s, he did field work in African nations that were experiencing nationalist movements against European colonial rule. Challenges existed with the research because some African nations were not receptive to Western scholar visits after the independence struggle.

In 1971, when Tiryakian was on sabbatical in Paris, he noticed groups of people singing about state oppression; the performers were stateless European ethnic groups such as Basques, Catalans, and Scots. This experience led Tiryakian to explore the linkages between European and African nationalism movements where native cultures were suppressed by the dominant nation-state. The same experience applied to Canada when Tiryakian noticed anti-French language laws in Montreal, Quebec, during the 1960s. It was no coincidence that the Quebec nationalist movement was gaining popular approval at the time.

In addition to national identity studies, Tiryakian researched and published material on the history of sociology, globalization, and the sociology of disasters. The 1957 Sputnik satellite launch by the Soviet Union encouraged Tiryakian to research disastrous threats to humanity such as a global nuclear war. He developed an analytical framework to look at disasters as “part of a social process”; this meant observing the conditions of society before and after a disaster occurs.

Tiryakian was a teaching assistant to Pitirim Sorokin during his doctorate years at Harvard. One day, Sorokin was unable to give a lecture due to a bout of laryngitis. With less than a day’s notice, the TA was asked to give a lecture on Herbert Spencer. After a night of book cramming and preparation, Tiryakian was able to pull off the class lecture. Sorokin was impressed enough to keep Tiryakian in mind for a job opportunity at Duke. And this is how, after teaching at Princeton from 1955–1962 and Harvard from 1962–1965, Tiryakian found a full-time teaching appointment at Duke University.

The chair of the Duke Sociology Department hired Tiryakian as an assistant professor based on his research interest in theory and comparative international studies. He was an associate professor from 1965–1967 and a full professor from 1967–2004. During these years, Tiryakian served as president of the International Association of French-Speaking Sociologists and the American Society for the Study of Religion. He was also a Distinguished Leader of the Fulbright New Century Scholars Program in 2002–03.

In 2004, Tiryakian became an emeritus professor. Since his retirement, Tiryakian continues to give presentations at professional meetings and contributes articles to various sociological journals. He has also served twice as the chair of the ASA Theory section and once as the chair of the History of Sociology Section.

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