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Harrison C. White Award Statement

The W.E.B. DuBois Career of Distinguished Scholarship Award honors scholars who have shown outstanding commitment to the profession of sociology and whose cumulative work has contributed in important ways to the advancement of the discipline.  Harrison Colyar White is perhaps the most influential sociologist of the last half-century.  Daring, original, and provocative, White has made transformative contributions to the study of organizations, stratification, culture, and economic sociology. His contributions, however, transcend specific sub-fields, embodying a powerful new vision of the fundamental nature and dynamics of social structures.

Trained originally in physics, Harrison White reimagined the nature of social organization, seeing—and finding innovative ways to measure—the otherwise invisible structure behind the buzzing complexity of social life.  His agenda-setting work on “vacancy chains” envisioned organizations, and also labor markets, as structures constituted by the movement of vacancies: sequences of positions linked together by the movement of occupants between them, as those hired to fill positions vacated by others create new vacancies in their turn.  In Canvases and Careers (with Cynthia White), he produced an unsurpassed analysis of the transformation of an art world, as the Academic system of French painting gave way to Impressionism. The Whites showed how aesthetic change could arise from a shift in the institutional structures that produced artists, organized their careers, and evaluated their art.

Harrison White is best known for the body of work that revitalized and transformed network analysis.  Along with several collaborators, he created an innovative theoretical approach (and related methods) that could capture not only ties among individuals, but patterns of equivalent relationships.  Grouping together those who had the same pattern of relationships to others, these methods revolutionized the sociological view of social structures, cultural structures, organizations, scientific communities, and many other arenas of social life.

White also stimulated the growth of economic sociology with his innovative work on markets.  He argued that markets were not really made up of independent actors linked only by information about supply and demand, as conveyed through prices.  White instead envisioned markets as cultural constructions created by comparison processes through which firms, attempting to reduce uncertainty in their local environments, orient themselves to the behavior of other firms, setting prices and defining markets as they watch their immediate competitors.
Identity and Control, White’s magisterial work of social theory, envisions the dynamic and contingent interconnections of identities, stories, and structures that make up social life.  Here he pursues the large theoretical question of how dynamic processes can produce and reproduce institutions and structures.  Here White shifts the emphasis from network structures understood as fixed entities, to the ephemeral processes that continually create and recreate structural connections.

A world-renowned figure, White is also know for the astonishing number of major sociologists who have been his students or whose work has been fundamentally influenced by his vision.  White developed new mathematical techniques for sociology, and he revitalized theoretical traditions dealing with structure and agency. 

Harrison White’s work speaks to a number of disciplines outside sociology as well as to a wide array of fields within sociology. Many of his innovations have spawned whole literatures that continue to generate creative new work in the field.  Even though much of his work is mathematically complex and theoretically daunting, his powerful vision of new ways to imagine and to describe social structures reverberates across the discipline.  It is this magnificent record of creative endeavor and its wide influence that the Career of Distinguished Scholarship Award seeks to recognize.  A fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, a member of the National Academy of Sciences, Harrison Colyar White has earned the W. E. B. DuBois Career Award in recognition for a lifetime of distinguished scholarship, extraordinary mentorship, and service to sociology.