January 2014 Issue • Volume 42 • Issue 1

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Suzanne Kurth, University of Tennessee-Knoxville, died at the age of 69 on November 18, 2013, in Chicago after a short illness. Suzanne had faithfully attended nearly every Southern Sociological Society meeting.

Clifford Nass, Stanford University, died November 2 at the age of 55. He was innovative for his research on multitasking.


Clifford I. Nass

Clifford I. Nass, a pioneer in sociological studies of communication technologies, died suddenly on November 2, 2013. He was 55 years old. Nass was known to his colleagues and friends as a truly gifted intellectual with a generous spirit, warm heart, and an infectious laugh. His presence filled the hallways and auditoriums of the places he studied and taught, and his kindness filled the hearts of those fortunate enough to know him.

Nass received an undergraduate degree in mathematics from Princeton University. He worked briefly as a computer scientist at Intel before returning to Princeton for a doctorate in sociology. He received his PhD in 1986 and joined the faculty in the Stanford communication department where he remained until the time of his death. Nass’ ability to bridge the hard and social sciences, to merge theoretical and applied worlds of knowledge, brought richness to his thinking and gave his research broad appeal.

Nass’s early work explored the viability of social interaction between humans and techno-objects—specifically computers, robots, and avatars. Nass and colleagues revisited a number of classic social psychological experiments designed to test person-to-person responses in social exchange. In updating the experiments, his team made one critical change. Now, the experiments tested person-to-computer, robot, or avatar responses. Results showed that people—even the most technologically sophisticated people—interacted with techno-objects just as they interacted with humans. Subjects were polite to computers, robots, and avatars; they responded to praise from them, and viewed them as teammates. Subjects liked techno-objects with personalities or social characteristics similar to their own and trusted those that manifested the most caring orientations. They found masculine sounding computers, robots, and avatars extroverted, driven, and intelligent, whereas they judged feminine sounding techno-objects to be knowledgeable about love and relationships. Subjects even altered their body posture and mood according to the size and perspective of the screen images before them. Nass and colleagues concluded that techno-objects endowed with critical interactive and communicative capacities could have dramatic effects on people’s perceptions of viable social “others.” These techno-objects evoke a sense of intersubjectivity in humans, encouraging individuals to respond in fundamentally social ways. As a result, techno-objects become an active part of social interaction as opposed to mere props used by humans to enhance or steer such exchanges.

Nass’s recent work explored people’s ability to effectively multitask. Challenging claims that new technologies allow us to do two (or more) things at once, Nass and colleagues showed that people attending to multiple informational streams (i.e., texting and talking, e-mailing while watching YouTube, etc.) cannot fully concentrate on, comprehend or effectively remember information as well as those who do one thing at a time. Multitaskers are, in Nass’s terms, “suckers for irrelevancy.” They are driven by the need to draw in as much information as possible. But in so doing, they are destined to inadequately process the full range of informational meaning. Moreover, Nass argued that multitasking resulted in important deficits—both cognitive and emotional. He advised businesses to resist policies requiring employee multitasking, noting potential inefficiencies and dangers that could emerge from work products created in multitasking contexts. Nass “walked the walk” on this matter. In his local environment, Nass insisted on maintaining certain levels of face-to-face exchange. Indeed, in his many years as a residential dorm adviser, he established “face-to-face days” during which students were required to communicate without the use of technological devices. 

As is always true when a gifted individual dies at such a young age, we are left to wonder what gems and insights might have emerged from Nass’ future works. But for those of us who knew him, there is something more as well. Somewhere in our hearts, as we turn a corner at our workplace or some professional meeting, we will quietly and persistently wish to see his welcoming smile, feel that trademark bear hug, or hear the infectious laugh that made everywhere he went a happier place.

Karen A. Cerulo, Rutgers University

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Eugene A. Rosa

Eugene A. Rosa, a pioneer in environmental sociology, died on February 21, 2013, at age 71. Gene’s work is foundational to contemporary thinking in structural human ecology, the sociology of risk, and the sociology of energy. He was a pioneer in linking sociology to the ecological and earth system sciences.

Gene did his graduate work with Allan Mazur at the Maxwell School at Syracuse University. His dissertation examined “biosociology”—a term he coined to emphasize that he was studying the influence of the social on the biological—and thus presaged current work in neurosociology. Allan and Gene published what may be the first quantitative macro-comparative analysis in environmental social science, showing that lifestyle and energy consumption had decoupled. Their analysis changed our understanding of energy consumption in contemporary societies.

After spending two years as a postdoc at Stanford, Gene moved to Washington State University (WSU). He joined an amazing cluster of sociologists pioneering work on environmental sociology and on risk: Bill Catton, Riley Dunlap, Lee Freese, Bill Freudenburg, and Jim Short. Gene’s contributions to the sociology of risk include two books and more than 40 articles and book chapters. While he did extensive empirical work on risk perceptions and risk controversies, perhaps his most important contributions to the sociology of risk were theoretical. His famous article on the ontology and epistemology of risk, “Metatheoretical Foundations of Post-Normal Risk” continues to spark discussion. One of his monographs, Risk, Uncertainty, and Rational Action, won the 2000-02 Outstanding Publication Award from the ASA Section on Environment and Technology. His last book, The Risk Society Revisited (co-authored with Ortwin Renn and Aaron McCright, 2013), integrates current sociological theories of risk and offers suggestions about risk governance—Gene felt that theory must be engaged with the challenges of improving risk management and fostering sustainability. Recently, Gene led a collaboration of scholars who asserted the importance of social science in assessing the nuclear waste issue. As a result he was asked to testify before President Obama’s Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future.

With collaborators Richard York and Tom Dietz, Gene established a research program that evaluated the contribution of population, affluence, technology, institutions, culture, and other factors to shaping environmental stress. This work is a cornerstone of the new structural human ecology and a new macro-sociology of the environment. Its ongoing influence is evident in the more than 2000 citations to Gene’s work in this area. A volume Gene co-edited, Human Footprints on the Global Environment (2010), examines structural human ecology and related approaches to global environmental change. It won the Gerald R. Young Book Award from the Society for Human Ecology. Structural Human Ecology (2013) presents essays centered on Gene’s contributions to this emerging perspective. The most recent thread in this work—examining the efficiency with which societies produce human well-being relative to the stress they place on the environment—is deeply resonant with his 1970s work on energy and lifestyle. Gene considered it a new way of thinking about sustainability.

It is not surprising that so accomplished a scholar won many accolades. He was Regent’s Professor, Boeing Distinguished Professor of Environmental Sociology, and Meyer Distinguished Professor of Natural Resources and Environmental Policy at Washington State University. He was a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and a member of the Sociological Research Association. He was one of only two people to twice win the Outstanding Publication Award of the ASA Section on Environment and Technology (the other two-time winner is his student Richard York.)

In addition to his scholarship, Gene was an accomplished artist and was very proud of his appointment as an Affiliated Professor of Fine Arts at WSU. His sculptures, which he described as Ecolage, appeared regularly in the Faculty of Fine Arts Exhibition and were the subject of a solo exhibition as well (see images at cooley.libarts.wsu.edu/rosa/artistry.html).

Coming from a working-class family in the Finger Lakes/Lake Erie region of New York, he always had a sense of wonder at the social and intellectual journey he was on and was proud of his family and heritage. He established the Luigi Gastaldo and Flora Brevette Rosa Endowment, named for his parents, at the WSU Museum of Art to fund visits for children who might otherwise not experience an art museum.

Gene was an extraordinary sociologist and colleague. Whether it was new ideas for research, sage advice about professional life and ethics, or his gourmet cooking and incredible collection of wines, his generosity was unfailing. Every conversation with Gene would sparkle with new ideas and his unflagging good humor. He will be missed as both a scholar and as a friend.

Thomas Dietz, Michigan State University; Aaron McCright, Michigan State University; Richard York, University of Oregon



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