American Sociological Association

Judith Blau Award Statement

Judith Blau - Award Statement

Judith Blau is the recipient of the 2012 Distinguished Career Award. Her degrees are from the University of Chicago (BA and MA) and her PhD from Northwestern. She drew from the respective strengths of both departments to tackle complex and varied questions over her career. For example, her dissertation and first publication dealt with the international networks of theoretical high energy physicists, and her first book was on architectural aesthetic. She also sought to learn and apply varied methodologies, including, for example, fuzzy set analysis, pooled time series analysis and spatial diffusion processes.

Her long and happy marriage to Peter Blau also accompanied intellectual challenges; their frequent discussions, for example, about the analysis of cross-cutting social circles (a book published by him and Joseph Schwartz) has had continuing influence on her work. As he often said, they were intermarried on all dimensions except for their shared love of sociology. They also shared children: Reva Blau and Pamela Blau.

In around 1999, Blau’s work took a decisive turn. She wanted to learn what core values sociologists share, She concluded that they share a commitment to equality, fairness, and nondiscrimination, but these core values were rarely explicitly stated. What if they were articulated? She also wanted to learn what a “decent society” (as an ideal type) is like, and drew from the writings of W.E.B. Du Bois and Martin Luther King, Jr.

In 2000, Blau started the Social and Economic Justice undergraduate minor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. It was an instant success, with nearly 60 faculty throughout the college signing up their courses. Blau taught the core course in the minor, but it soon
 morphed into a course on human rights. Once again, Blau had to master a new literature, indeed a vast one, and attempt to relate it to American sociology. She began by starting a U.S. chapter of Sociologists without Borders (really a network with two web pages: and, an interactive site,  It highlights the importance of global connections among sociologists, human rights, and is bluntly opposed to neocolonialism, hegemony, and war.  She was president from 2002 until 2011.With Spanish co-author, Alberto Moncada, she wrote a series of books: Human Rights: Beyond the Liberal Vision (2005);  Justice in the United States: Human Rights and the U.S. Constitution (2006); Freedoms and Solidarities: We Humans (2007),and  Human Rights: A Primer (2009), (and in that same time-frame co-edited a volume on the World Social Forum and public sociology). Her empirical work on “decent societies” and “decent communities” proceeds at a slower pace, but she coauthored a piece with two students, Jennifer Santos and Chelsea Sessoms, and is currently working with UNC graduate student Aseem Hasnain on a second.

While the intellectual and humanistic framework of human rights is exceedingly compelling, it is a universalizing and universal framework. But it says little in particular about the ethics of interpersonal relations, how to promote solidarity, how to collectively combat injustices, and how norms of reciprocity emerge. These are the challenges that people in their everyday lives face, and that communities and cities must In 2009 Blau created a 501.C.3, the Human Rights Center of Chapel Hill & Carrboro (HRC). Once again she has worked closely with a graduate student – Rafael Gallegos Lerma. It is located right across the street from where day laborers stand waiting for employers, and in a housing complex, Abbey Court, where about 300 units are occupied mostly by Latinos, but also by African Americans and Burmese. One objective is to de-marginalize the families and individuals who live in Abbey Court; another is to defend their legal and employment rights; another is to ensure that they have access to basic human rights, such as food, education, and freedom to embrace and celebrate their own culture. The HRC has over 30 programs. These programs are ones that college students tackle for service-learning projects.

There are clear connections between human rights theory, the HRC and college students’ service-learning projects. But social connections work both ways, as Abbey Court residents benefit from what the students bring to their community, and the students benefit from what they learn from the residents. Judith finds that being director of the HRC allows for immense intellectual, and social fulfillment, sometimes the gratification of putting everything down to be an activist in the struggle to defend the human rights of residents.