September/October 2014 Issue • Volume 42 • Issue 7

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Ralph H. Turner: Social Psychologist
and Eclectic Symbolic Interactionist

Robert Emerson, University of California-Los Angeles, and David A. Snow, University of California-Irvine

Ralph H. Turner

Ralph H. Turner was a pivotal figure in the maturing and expansion of American sociology in the last half of the 20th century. A Californian trained at the University of Chicago immediately after World War II, he identified himself as “a social psychologist and an eclectic symbolic interactionist.” He published widely on a variety of substantive sociological topics, playing a founding role in the development of the field of collective behavior and social movements while also making original contributions to the sociological understanding of race and ethnic relations, the social psychology of self and identity, role theory and role conflict, the family and socialization, and the social dimensions of disasters. A widely known and respected leader in the profession, Ralph edited several major sociology journals, was elected to head a number of associations including the American Sociological Association, and was active both at UCLA and in the University of California Academic Senate well into his retirement years.

Born in Effingham, IL, in 1919, Ralph moved with his family to southern California at an early age. While attending Pasadena Junior College he was drawn to sociology after becoming intrigued by Robert MacIver’s text, Society. He continued to study sociology at the University of Southern California, focusing his studies on propaganda while receiving his BA and MA degrees in the early 1940s. There he met his wife, Christine Hanks, also a sociology major; they were married in 1943. Ralph briefly studied at the University of Wisconsin with Hans Gerth, before entering the U. S. Navy.

In the Navy, Ralph served as Disbursing Officer with the rank of lieutenant junior grade on the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Lexington in the Pacific. Here he experienced first-hand a deeply disturbing role conflict: as a very junior officer, he was required to approve senior officers’ requests for special payment, one of which involved his ship’s captain’s claim for $750 flight pay “that he had not earned.” Under pressure from his immediate superiors to make the payment, “the confrontation lasted for several stressful weeks, but the emotions I sustained persisted for months.” Ralph eventually came to terms with this personal dilemma in his analysis of role conflict in the military in one of his first publications, “The Navy Disbursing Officer as a Bureaucrat” (ASR 1947).

Upon leaving the Navy, Ralph continued his graduate studies in sociology at the University of Chicago, taking courses with Louis Wirth, Everett Hughes, William Ogburn, and Herbert Blumer. He earned his PhD in 1948 with a dissertation examining race relations. He came to the joint Anthropology/Sociology Department at UCLA in 1948 as a lecturer. Ralph was one of seven sociologists in the joint department, and he played a key role in the development of a separate sociology department, facilitating a relatively amicable separation and serving as the first Chair of the Sociology Department from 1963–68. Under his leadership, the department moved toward becoming one of the most prominent programs in the country.

Ralph produced an impressive corpus of sociological work that shaped theory and research in a number of areas. His publications include more than 120 articles and reviews, and eight books, including three editions of Collective Behavior with Lewis Killian (1957, 1972, 1987), The Social Context of Ambition (1964), Robert Park: On Social Control and Collective Behavior (1967), Family Interaction (1970), and Social Psychology: Sociological Perspectives (edited with M. Rosenberg, 1981). Although Ralph’s voluminous scholarly contributions covered an array of fields, his most seminal work clusters in the areas of collective behavior and social movements and sociological social psychology.

More than half of Ralph’s publications, excluding book reviews, address some aspect of, or issue in, the study of collective behavior and social movements. His signature work in this area is his text on collective behavior, co-authored with Lewis Killian. Initially published in 1959 and updated and re-edited extensively in 1972 and 1987, the text elaborates Turner and Killian’s “emergent norm” perspective and develops an integrated approach linking the dynamics of crowd behavior, behavior in disasters, and the development of public and social movements. Beyond Collective Behavior, Ralph sustained a strong and far-reaching interest in the area throughout his career, addressing the topic in detail in a series of articles and chapters on the conditions giving rise to riots; the perception of, and reaction to, protest behavior, determinants of social movement strategies; the strengths and limitations of resource mobilization; rational choice; collective identity perspectives on collective behavior, and individual and collective responses to the threat of disaster.

Although social processes arising in disasters comprised one of the empirical phenomena examined in Collective Behavior, Ralph became more involved in this topic in the 1970s with a series of studies focused on reactions to earthquake prediction. Asked to chair a National Research Council panel on public policy implications of earthquake predictions in 1973, he designed longitudinal studies to identify the different ways in which people understood and reacted to new information about the hazards and risks of earthquakes. The research additionally sought to identify the ecological and structural determinants (e.g., network and community ties) that made some people more likely than others to take action on the basis of these predictions. The theoretical and policy implications of this research was published in Waiting for Disaster: Earthquake Watch in California, with Joanne Nigg and Denise Paz (1986). Whether current sociological research on collective behavior and social movements departs from or rests on Ralph’s work, most scholarship in the area is engaged in direct or indirect dialogue with Ralph’s insightful and groundbreaking work, thus acknowledging and cementing his enduring contribution to the field.

Ralph’s scholarly contributions also extended significantly to social psychology, especially from a symbolic interactionist vantage point. Ralph sought to clarify and empirically ground analysis of the contemporary self. Following Mead’s vision of the self as both a reflection of others and independent of those others, Ralph emphasized the self as established both through processes of role-taking and role-making. Sensitive to broader social changes of the 1960s and 1970s, he argued that these changes were evident in tendencies to locate one’s “real self” not in conforming to institutionally prescribed roles and behaviors but in behaving in ways that reflect one’s own wishes and desires rather than just social standards. His contrast between the anchorage of self in institutions or impulse highlighted a profound transformation of the ways in which individuals linked themselves to social order in late modernity. His theorizing and research on roles similarly freed them from an overly structuralized discourse and cast them as processual and negotiated phenomena, as reflected in his seminal contributions on role-taking, role-making, and the relationship between role and person.

Ralph was not only a prodigious and influential scholar, but also a deeply committed and effective teacher. Accessible, modest, and soft-spoken at the same time insightfully and constructively critical, he trained and mentored four generations of graduate students at UCLA. Fair-minded, inclusive, and almost invariably polite, he drew many of the very best students in the department to studies of collective behavior, new religions, the social and interactional groundings of self, the processual and interactional character of roles, and reactions to the threats of disaster. The festschrift edited by Gerald Platt and Chad Gordon, Self, Collective Behavior and Society: Essays Honoring the Contributions of Ralph H. Turner (1994), includes warm and appreciative recollections of Ralph as sociologist, teacher, and colleague.

Ralph was widely respected in the sociological profession. He was elected President of the Pacific Sociological Association (1952-54), the American Sociological Association (1968-69), and the Society for the Study of Symbolic Interaction (1982–83). At various times he chaired ASA sections on Social Psychology, Theoretical Sociology, and Collective Behavior and Social Movements. He served as editor of Sociometry (1962–64 now the Social Psychological Quarterly) and the Annual Review of Sociology (1980–86), and as Director-at-Large of the Social Science Research Council (1965-66), Vice President of the International Sociological Association (1978–82), president of the Sociological Research Association (1989–90), and ASA Delegate to the American Council of Learned Societies (1989–94). Ralph was also the recipient of many academic honors including, most notably, election as a Fellow to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Ralph took leading roles in academic governance both at UCLA and in the University of California system. In addition to serving as chair of the Sociology Department, he chaired the campus Academic Senate and the statewide Academic Council. Active in emeriti affairs, Ralph was President of the UCLA Emeriti Association and served on the Council of the University of California Emeriti Associations for a number of years, chairing that organization in 1997-98. He was honored with the UCLA Emeritus of the Year award in 1997 and the Panunzio Distinguished Emeriti Award in 2002.

Throughout his life, Ralph was an avid and seemingly inexhaustible hiker and an accomplished wildlife photographer. Widowed in 2001, he is survived by his son, Lowell of Ithaca, NY; his daughter, Cheryl Raven of Silver City, NM; and three grandchildren, Forest, Eric, and Jennifer.


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