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American Sociological Association: Joe R. Feagin
Joe R Feagin
Joe Feagin served as the 91st President of the American Sociological Association. His Presidential Address, entitled "Social Justice and Sociology in the 21st Century," was delivered at the Association's 2000 Annual Meeting in Washington, DC, and was later published in the February 2001 issue of the American Sociological Review (ASR Vol 66 No 1, pp 1-20).
The following profile was published in the September/October 1999 issue of Footnotes:
Profile of the President Joe R. Feagin: Willing to Take a Stand by Hernán Vera, University of Florida
In electing Joe R. Feagin, President of the American Sociological Association, our membership has recognized the importance of committed scholarship in American sociology. Joe Feagin is a good example of the "value free" sociologists as Max Weber understood this term: as those who have refused to accept the official and conventional definitions of the problems they study.
Our new president focused early on in his career on some of the most intractable social problems. Prejudice, racism, violence, urban housing, welfare policy, sexism, are among the topics he has researched in the field. His thirty-six books and more than one hundred and forty articles represent a most original contribution to American sociology.
Briefly, in Ghetto Revolts: The Politics of Violence in American Cities (1973), he and his co-author Harlan Hahn were the first to suggest an aggressively stratification/political interpretation of urban revolts in a book-length analysis. They broke with the tradition that either "deviantizes" them or localizes them. This book was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. His 1978 book, with Clairece Booher Feagin, Discrimination American Style, was one of the first social science books to congeal what we know into a substantially original and comparative analysis of racial and gender discrimination. Feagin's 1983 Urban Real Estate Game was one of the first by a U.S. urbanist to do a critical political-economic analysis of how urban development works. The Capitalist City: Global Restructuring and Community Politics, edited in 1987 with Michael P. Smith, was the first major anthology to look at cities in the context of the new international division of labor and the new global economy. This edited volume helped to re-focus the field on global issues. Modern Sexism, co-authored with Nijole Benokraitis and first published in 1986 makes a major contribution to empirical documentation of and theorizing about gender discrimination.
In the 1994 book Living with Racism, Feagin and Melvin Sikes break new ground with the analysis of more than two hundred in-depth interviews with middle-class black Americans. The analysis preserves the voices of these men and women who have "arrived" in our society. Understanding the racial oppression they face in everyday life is critical to understanding life in the contemporary United States. White Racism: The Basics, published in 1995, and co-authored with this writer, is a sociological analysis of a series of recent racist events, while The Agony of Education, also with this writer and with Nikitah Imani, is an examination of what black college students and their parents had to say about the experience of attending college at historically white universities.
For those of us who work with Joe, it is hard to imagine how he manages this prodigious productivity when he also makes himself generously available to graduate and undergraduate students as well as his colleagues. He is a great academic citizen when it comes to committee service. "He is a mentor, in the full, wonderful, meaning of this term," Bernice McNair Barnett, Past Chair of the Race, Gender, and Class Section of the American Sociological Association told me recently, "when I went through a terribly cruel promotion and tenure process, Joe was there for me. I called him at all hours, E-mailed him, left messages on his answering machine,. . . He counseled me, gave me hope, and thanks to him I made it. He pulled me out of despair." Similarly, he reads and comments on an endless number of drafts of papers, research ideas, books and prospectuses from social scientists across the country. Joe was reticent to talk about the time and energy he devotes to this mentoring when I asked him about it. However, when telling me what he was most proud about in his career, the first thing he mentioned was the mentoring of students and young colleagues.
Joe was born in San Angelo, a small town in the middle of the Texas plains where his parents, Frank Feagin and Hanna Griffin Feagin, had moved when Frank was lucky enough to get a job with his new electrical engineering degree at the height of the 1930s depression. "In those days, they explored for oil with dynamite by measuring the seismic effects of the explosions, Joe once reminisced. "My father handled the equipment used in those sometimes dangerous measurements." Joe and his brother and sister were raised in Houston. There they grew up in the segregated "deep South" world of east Texas. Also segregated in those days was Baylor University from which Joe graduated with a BA in history and philosophy in 1960. At Baylor he met Clairece Booher, who became his spouse, life companion, co-author, and mother of Michelle and Trevor, their two children. At the slightest provocation Joe or Clairece will "show and tell" for you a collection of photographs of Derek Newberry, their 3 and 1/3 year-old wonder grandchild.
From Baylor, Joe moved to Harvard where Tom Pettigrew's course on Black Americans and Gordon Allport's lectures on the social psychology of prejudice made a definitive impression on him. A young assistant professor, Charles Tilly, supervised his dissertation while Robert Bellah, Harrison White, and Talcott Parsons also influenced him. Joe's first job after his 1966 Ph.D. was as Assistant Professor at the University of California at Riverside, where he taught an array of undergraduate courses. There he read Karl Marx seriously for the first time, a work that produced a longstanding impression on him. He soon moved to the University of Texas at Austin, where he became Associate and then Full Professor. There he began a close reading of sociologists like W. E. B Dubois and Oliver C. Cox, who would have a profound influence on his research and theorizing about societal racism. The rank of Graduate Research Professor, the equivalent of an endowed chair, which Joe now holds at the University of Florida, was established to recognize and showcase excellence in graduate education.
Joe identifies the time he spent at the Commission on Civil Rights as a scholar in residence in 1974-75, as a watershed life event that invigorated him in the study of racism and sexism as fundamental social forces in the United States. At the Commission, Joe worked with leading black, Latino, and white feminist scholars and activists who educated him on the importance of civil rights laws and of protest strategies.
Melvin Sikes, a former Tuskegee Air Force trainee and now retired professor at the University of Texas, told me that "Joe Feagin is one of the very few people who truly understands others because he has both courage and conviction to search, not for facts, but for profound truths. He is Aristotelian in this way. He has not been afraid to ask those impertinent empirical questions. His sociology can be characterized as one of deep insights that most of our colleagues are afraid of."
Over the last 25 years Joe has consulted with local and county governments and universities on matters of discrimination and affirmative action. Recently, the California Assembly requested his written testimony on the subject of affirmative action. Before federal courts he has appeared several times as an expert witness on matters of employment discrimination, school desegregation, and set-aside and affirmative action programs. The research he did for these discrimination and affirmative action cases has likely helped to reduce racism in some areas of the country. An important service to our profession is Joe's willingness to discuss his research work with many mass media outlets. His interviews with major newspapers and television programs have played an important role in educating the broad public on matters of racial-ethnic conflicts and on the contribution sociology can make to them.
Joe Feagin has been, and continues to be, an inspiring teacher. He has supervised thirty some doctoral dissertations, several of which have been published as books. The integrity of Joe's spirit is what students admire most. Many of his graduate student advisees have been people of color or women. Students of all backgrounds flock to him because of his extraordinary talent to inspire in them a passion for difficult or sensitive research projects and to guide them with wisdom and respect. Joe is a strong advocate of human and civil rights and on more than one occasion he has stood for the rights of students facing the wrath of insensitive college administrators. Widely knowledgeable in sociology, he conducts his classes more as a series of questions that students need to consider than as a series of statements they must memorize. He is as effective in the undergraduate classroom as he is with his graduate students. One of his students recently told me that as a student one could disagree with Joe Feagin—in fact he encourages his students to articulate disagreements with him—but one could never forget his teaching.
Joe's contribution to the teaching of sociology does not end in the classroom. His textbook on Racial and Ethnic Relations, first published in 1978, and now in its sixth edition with co-author Clairece Booher Feagin, is a classic and a best-selling textbook in its field. His Social Problems: A Critical Power-Conflict Perspective, first published 1982 and now co-authored in its fifth edition with Clairece Booher Feagin, is probably the only social problems textbook written from a neo-Marxist perspective that has survived into advanced editions.
Joe is currently working on two projects. One researches how profoundly racism shapes our institutions and the events in our individual lives, The other, with this writer as coauthor, proposes the teaching and practice of a sociology that would serve those people struggling for their own liberation.
Karen Pyke, a colleague at the University of Florida, told me: "Joe's commitment to fighting inequality and promoting diversity doesn't end when he turns off the computer after a day of writing. He spends great amounts of time giving lectures around the country, mentoring a wide array of students and junior faculty, and fighting local acts of racism and sexism. Anthony Orum, a sociologist who had an office next door to Joe's for fifteen years at the University of Texas, had a similar opinion:"Joe Feagin has a strong sense of what injustice of all sorts—racial, gender, class—does to harm people and a real passion to improve the world. Joe is a hero for me and so many others because for him moral issues are foremost and he is willing to take a stand."