September/October 2014 Issue • Volume 42 • Issue 7

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Tributes to Turner: A Master Sociological Craftsman

Ralph H. Turner was a brilliant sociologist and a profoundly decent human being. His scholarship is packed with innovative ideas and, like the discipline’s classics, his articles and books can be read again and again, each reading yielding new insights. Throughout his career he wrote pattern-setting statements in every substantive field in which he labored, including role theory, collective behavior and social movements, family, mobility, self-theory, socialization, and natural disasters.

In addition to being remarkably creative, Ralph was a master sociological craftsman. He built arguments with exceptional skill, giving careful attention to conceptual nuance, logical coherence, and empirical detail. Guided by this craft-like sensibility, he established provocative research programs in several areas, his development of role theory being perhaps the most prominent example.

During his 40-plus year tenure at UCLA, Ralph shouldered far more than his fair share of teaching, departmental, and administrative responsibilities. Like the institutional self about which he wrote so incisively, Ralph internalized norms of professionalism, civility, and decorum, and he fulfilled these obligations in exemplary fashion. Smart and savvy but always principled, Ralph navigated ideological, organizational, and interpersonal conflicts with great aplomb and extraordinary effectiveness.

Ralph was reserved, dignified, and perhaps a little shy, though he did break through that reserve on occasion, dancing the hokey-pokey with a two-year-old at her birthday party. Behind the reticence was a deeply caring person. He and Christine, his wife of fifty-plus years, regularly opened their home to students for social gatherings and dinners. Genuinely fond of the students he mentored, Ralph took considerable pride in their accomplishments. A devoted family man, his love for Christine was obvious and profound. Ralph loved his children, Lowell and Raven, and grandchildren in the same quiet-but-impassioned way, and he was so very proud of them.

Paul Colomy, University of Denver

Ralph Turner is probably best remembered for his contributions to collective behavior, including the text book in this field co-authored with Lewis Killian. He was also a proponent of symbolic interaction theory pioneered by his mentor at the University of Chicago, Herbert Blumer. While remaining true to these orientations, his late-career efforts turned to disaster research, which is when I became involved as both a graduate teaching and research assistant. Particularly memorable was the multi-year NSF-funded survey research project, titled “Community Response to the Earthquake Threat in Southern California.” This project provided data for several dissertations and was summarized in the volume, “Waiting for Disaster: Earthquake Watch in California,” which Ralph co-authored with Joanne Nigg and Denise Heller Paz.

This project launched my career as an emergency manager and later director of the Earthquake, Tsunami and Volcanic Hazards Program for the California Office of Emergency Services. It also provided a link to my own dissertation which was completed many years after being advanced to candidacy. In 2004, I asked Ralph to chair my dissertation committee and though 18 years into retirement, he readily agreed to do so. Using a survey questionnaire prepared by Ralph during the Community Response Project, I analyzed data from three significant earthquakes in California, the Whittier Narrows, Loma Prieta, and Northridge events. In completing this dissertation in 2006, I became the last of Ralph Turner’s PhD students.

I was also, perhaps, the last of his students to visit him before he died on April 5 of this year. During this visit he fondly recalled the accomplishments of his many students. Ralph’s relationship with his students was one of warmth, genuine interest, collegiality, insightful guidance, and long-term commitment. He was a gifted mentor reminiscent of Chaucer’s scholar who would “gladly learn and gladly teach.”

James D. Goltz, Branch Chief (Retired), California Office of Emergency Services

Many sociologists know Ralph Turner as a social theorist, but I first knew him as a researcher and teacher. Ralph hired me as a data analyst on his NSF-funded project, “Community Response to Earthquake Threat in Southern California,” which gave several of us UCLA graduate students superb training in theoretically informed basic and applied research.

Ralph approached both research and theorizing enthusiastically, meticulously, and thoughtfully. He decried the pressures to publish that may prevent scholars from taking time to develop their ideas. He occasionally filed manuscripts away, even for years, until an insight enabled him to make sense of what had been unclear. He reappraised his ideas with a fresh eye, incorporated new work, and sometimes dramatically recast his theories. He inspired me with his creativity, productivity, and perpetual sense of excitement about sociology.

Ralph’s brilliance as a social theorist shines through in his still-timely theories of the “real self,” roles, role change, and collective behavior. His Cooley-Mead Award address masterfully synthesized work from sociology, psychology, and anthropology to theoretically model how social structure and culture influence personality (and vice-versa) via socialization—a major contribution of social psychology to sociology. Ralph’s theories are abstract and general, yet they have a down-to-earth realism that adds to their vitality. He depicted social life as dynamic; his characterization of social process in Family Interaction is the best I’ve read. Ralph portrayed people as agents, yet he consistently and seamlessly linked the person to social structure.

Ralph also was a wonderful mentor. He thoughtfully critiqued my work, often drawing surprising parallels with ideas from a seemingly unrelated area. He unfailingly provided valuable advice on professional matters. He remained an important, supportive presence and friend. He was one of the finest people I have ever known. His death is a great loss personally and to sociology.

Jill Kiecolt, Virginia Tech

Rebellion at the ASA, 1969: Tribute to a Gentleman Scholar

I could say many glowing things about my dad, Ralph Turner, but space is short and here I add just one story to the generous obituary by Bob Emerson and Dave Snow.

At the San Francisco Hilton in 1969, as Ralph stepped forward for his ASA presidential address, the crowning moment of a storied career, an energetic group of radical sociologists streamed down the aisles and took the stage. They announced that Ho Chi Minh had died that day and instead of listening to mainstream sociology we would have a memorial for Ho! Ralph handled the crisis with surprising grace: tipped off in advance, he had booked another ballroom. Thus Ho Chi Minh in one room, Ralph Turner in another. I was there (immersed that summer in the San Francisco counterculture) and I admit I was torn, but after all he was my dad so I abandoned Ho and listened to the speech, and the long standing ovation that followed. Later in the hotel elevator, a stage-occupier who didn’t know me from Adam said to another: “this would be a lot easier if Ralph Turner weren’t such a decent guy.”

That event, and the successful way he handled it, was a pivotal moment in my dad’s career. For modern sociology it marked the rise of alternative viewpoints, an expansion of perspectives that Ralph in his open-minded way did not discourage, then or later on as an elder statesman of the field. A young radical myself in 1969, not always in agreement with my dad, I was nonetheless impressed by the political savvy with which he handled a potentially explosive moment. Intellectual contributions were prodigious, but perhaps his most enduring, inspiring legacy for students and colleagues who knew him, and for me, was his genuine persona as a “gentleman scholar.”

Lowell Turner, Cornell University


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