American Sociological Association

Cecilia Ridgeway

Meet the 2013 ASA President: Cecilia Ridgeway

The bookshelves in Cecilia Ridgeway’s office are lined with back issues from American Journal of Sociology, Social Psychology Quarterly, and her other favorites. While you’re discussing your research with her, Cecilia will suddenly name a sociologist, rise from her chair, and pluck out an American Sociological Review from 1986. “I think it’s on page 417,” she’ll murmur, handing it to you. And not only will the article be on 417, but it will also be precisely what you need to shape some crucial part of your research.

Cecilia exercises this blend of generosity and precision whether choosing a wine or giving feedback on a colleague’s paper. It is one characteristic of her special brand of brilliance—one wide-ranging in scope, ebullient in execution, and infectious in effect.

Cecilia herself will, no doubt, be a bit uncomfortable with the foregoing description. It’s rare that she’ll say (or consent to someone else’s saying about her) anything self-aggrandizing, self-interested, or otherwise self-directed. For all the impressive things Cecilia has done, our heroine would just as soon leave herself out of it. Since the nature of this article renders such circumspection impossible, we’ll tell you as much as we can about Cecilia’s work, life, and personality, to give you a sense of the woman who will lead ASA into 2013.

First, introductions. Shelley Correll is a Stanford colleague, frequent co-author, and former student of Cecilia’s. Katie Young is a seventh-year PhD student at Stanford and has taken several courses with Cecilia. Cecilia was Shelley’s dissertation advisor, and Shelley is Katie’s; so we represent a kind of intellectual descendancy. Both of us adore Cecilia and will not bother pretending neutrality. We consider ourselves lucky to know her.

Sociological Patterns in Which Cecilia Ridgeway Is Interested

Although she is not particularly interested in talking about herself, Cecilia is interested in talking about nearly everything else. Specifically, she wants to know how things work, why they work that way, and what factors determine the resultant patterns—especially if the patterns relate to gender, status, or social inequality.

Cecilia’s research falls most squarely into the sociological subfields of gender and social psychology, and she has won career achievement awards in both areas (Cooley-Mead Award, 2005; Jesse Bernard Award, 2009). Across these areas, Cecilia’s research focuses on interactional inequality, uncovering the mechanisms by which interaction produces and reproduces patterns of social inequality. She has long been fascinated with “the power of interactional events in local contexts… to construct realities for their participants and simultaneously shape the participants themselves and enact or potentially change the larger structures that frame that local context.”

It was during Cecilia’s early years as an assistant professor that she originally came across expectation states theory, a theoretical research program that suited her taste for formalized, logical arguments. Soon thereafter, in 1981, Cecilia spent a sabbatical at Stanford—a transformative experience that introduced her to the group processes crowd (in which she quickly became a central figure).

Expectation states theory, combined with Cecilia’s intense interest in inequality, infused her work with a new energy. She began explicating gender’s function as a status characteristic that coordinates social interaction and replicates existing inequalities. Her deepening interest in status mechanisms led her to develop Status Construction Theory, which explains how nominal distinctions acquire status value. It’s hard to overstate the importance of this work to inequality scholarship. Sociologists have known for a long time that characteristics like race and gender correlate with levels of status, and that these status differences tend to reproduce inequality in a self-fulfilling manner. But Cecilia’s research addresses the more fundamental question of how categorical distinctions come to acquire status value in the first place.

Cecilia’s recent book, Framed by gender: How gender inequality persists in the modern world (2011) draws on Cecilia’s 40-plus years of research and showcases one of her work’s trademarks—the fusion of meticulous scholarship and feminist commitment to social equality. This hugely important book tackles a hefty question: Why has gender inequality proven so pertinacious despite widespread social commitment to meritocratic principles? Cecilia shows how traditional gender beliefs become embedded in new organizational forms, quelling the uncertainty that accompanies these new forms by framing them with well-known and all-too-available beliefs about gender. As she describes, this does not render gender equality unattainable, but suggests that it’s not likely to happen without concerted effort. Cecilia’s outlook is simultaneously clear-eyed and hopeful.

A Longstanding Personal Interest in Inequality

Cecilia hails from a formidable line of strong-minded women. Her maternal grandmother never completed high school, but devoured Russian tomes. And Cecilia’s mother passed an irrepressible curiosity to her daughter. “[When I was a kid], she was always carrying a notebook and going off to class,” Cecilia remembers. “My mom came of age…  in the ‘Mad Men’ era…  She [said that] women were not taken seriously, and were bossed around by men.” Class and gender were frequent subjects of the family’s dinner table conversation, and Cecilia credits her parents for instilling a “sort of brooding but ineffectual unhappiness with social inequality—especially that based on categorical distinctions.” Early on, she learned “that inequality was painful, unjust, and didn’t have to be there.” 

At age 16, Cecilia graduated from high school and went to the University of Michigan, which had an interdisciplinary program in social psychology. One class, co-taught by a sociologist and a psychologist, hooked her for good on sociological social psychology. Still, her academic trajectory was not linear; she wanted to attend graduate school, but was uncertain about whether to study sociology or literature. Luckily for all of us, the former won out.

Throughout her graduate training at Cornell, Cecilia broadened her interests in social psychology (and lived in a commune, which she describes as a “classic hippie adventure”).  Working closely with anthropologist John Roberts, she developed an interest in group culture. Her dissertation used experimental methods to evaluate the idea that listening to music is a form of social interaction between the listener and society; the structure of music reflects the larger social structure, so listening exposes a person to her society’s normative structure. Here, we can detect a hint of the interests for which Cecilia would become known—the perpetuation of social patterns, the role of social interaction in linking micro and macro structures and processes, and a taste for experimental methods.

Graduate school was also a time of fervent political involvement for Cecilia. Most college campuses were a hotbed of political activity, and Cornell was no exception. In 1970, a group of students, including Cecilia, burst into the semi-secret faculty lounge beneath the Statler (Cornell’s hotel school) and banged loudly on the desks in political protest against university leadership. Amidst her own desk-banging, Cecilia looked up and was shocked to see the enraged red face of a dissertation committee member, Robin Williams. Quickly, she turned away, uncertain whether he’d seen her. As luck would have it, she had a meeting scheduled with him the following morning. Full of dread, she skulked into his office, where the following ensued:

RW: Yesterday, a bunch of students broke into the Statler and banged on the tables, driving the faculty out!

CR: Yes, I… heard about that.

RW: If I knew who any of those students are, I’d make sure they were expelled.

CR: […]

Cecilia didn’t know whether he was warning her or had failed to see her (and she was loathe to ask for clarification). Decades later, at an ASA party in Williams’s honor, she asked him. He remembered the incident, but hadn’t seen her(!), and said he’d have tried to get her expelled. “I guess at the time, he’d been blinded by rage,” Cecilia recounts, grinning mischievously.

Cecilia may no longer bang on tables (full disclosure: this is unconfirmed), but she hasn’t retired the peace button she wore to the March on Washington, and she occasionally still participates in political demonstrations: “You can’t let something like [the Iraq War] happen and not have anyone stand up and say it’s wrong.” 

She views her work as a kind of activism, too. Uncovering the processes by which people are oppressed and the mechanisms underlying oppression is empowering for the oppressed and necessary for change. In 2004, she said,“We were not going to understand gender inequality or [other inequalities] unless we understood the interpersonal processes that mediated and enacted institutional structures and larger patterns of inequality.”

Noticing Patterns of Life: Perambulations and Vacations

Around noon each day, Cecilia walks briskly down Stanford’s tree-lined Palm Drive one mile into Palo Alto and one mile back. Her arms pump back and forth, but she glides along sweatlessly in her tennis shoes. She does not listen to music, nor audiobooks, nor does she bring a pedometer that measures how many steps you take in a day. It is a ritual that borders on the sacred. But rather than pondering the sociological landscape, Cecilia examines the physical one: whether a tree grew; what kind of birds are present. “I notice all the patterns of life,” she says.

As you get to know Cecilia better, her interests in science and nature are hard to miss: the wildlife calendars on her office walls; her reference to the latest issue of Scientific American; her knowledge of local hiking trails; her cogent explanation of Higgs-Boson. Cecilia’s travels, too, evidence this interest: she’s been to Australia, Lamu Island, the Galapagos Islands, and the Amazon, for starters (during the last of these, she slept on a riverbank and thwarted knife-wielding attackers—seriously). She and her partner, sociologist Rob Parker, are headed to Argentina next.

For years, Cecilia regularly undertook Alaskan treks that involved being bush-piloted into the wilderness and dropped somewhere very, very cold. (As people whose own interest in undertaking this kind of adventure is dwarfed by fears of snow, death, and intolerable distance from microbreweries, it is difficult not to be somewhat in awe of Cecilia.)

Some Final Points: Leadership and the 2013 Meetings

Cecilia’s broad intellectual spirit and lack of pretense make her a natural leader. She was a central figure in building the social psychological strength of the sociology department at the University of Iowa, and was key to the transition of Stanford’s department when its founding members began to retire. As sociologist Ed Lawler commented, “Building and sustaining strong academic programs in departments requires perspective, good judgment, persistence and much patience. Cecilia has a heavy dose of all of the qualities.”

As a colleague and mentor, Cecilia is gentle with her guidance, scrupulous in her integrity, and one heck of a leader. She loves music, dancing, food, wine, and wry, witty observation. She has an insatiable intellectual curiosity, leading to a broad interest in sociological research on topics far afield from her own. Conversations with Cecilia are extraordinarily fun and wide ranging. Indeed, the diversity of topics that somehow manage to arise organically during these conversations leaves you with the distinct impression that what you have had is not a conversation, but a miniature education on how the world’s systems are interrelated. What’s more, Cecilia is not the least bit overbearing or pedantic; you are invited to teach her—to join in the intellectual gaiety, to help produce it.

The theme Cecilia has chosen for the 2013 ASA meetings, “Interrogating Inequality: Linking Micro and Macro,” reflects Cecilia’s longstanding concerns with social inequality and her orientation to scholarship that is rigorous, relevant, and far-reaching. Cecilia writes, “No set of questions is more fundamental to sociology than those about inequality—what is it, why is it, how does it come about, and what can we do to change it.” This theme should inspire conversations that extend across multiple levels of analysis, draw on diverse methodological traditions, and cross subfields of our discipline. Under Cecilia’s good humor and inclusive intellectual spirit, we’re sure to be in excellent hands as we descend on New York.


By Shelley J. Correll and Kathryne M. Young, Stanford University and origainlly published in Footnotes, Volume 40, Number 7.

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