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Profile of the President

Rock ‘n Roll Sociologist: William T. Bielby

by Roger Friedland University of California-Santa Barbara

For two decades Bill Bielby has had a recurring dream that his high school rock band, the Newports, would be reconstituted. That dream actually invades his sleep as nightmare—the band is all assembled, but always something is amiss; either the electrical current isn’t flowing, the guitar strings transform into limp rubber bands, or something prevents Bill from actually getting there.

But at the 2002 ASA Annual Meeting in Chicago, Bill broke the nightmare cycle on stage, as he joined some Newports members to play at the Departmental Alumni Night. Playing tunes from the ‘60s, the band, Thin Vitae, had the assistance of sufficient electrical current, one of its original guitarists, a few musicians from Bill’s University of Wisconsin band, a woman from Bill’s old neighborhood who had been a backup singer for an Elvis impersonator, and some UCSB grad students and faculty.

Bill donned a black tee shirt, emblazoned with the label “Hagstrom,” a cheap guitar brand and a humorous play on the name of the Wisconsin sociologist from whom Bill had taken sociological theory. For the occasion, Bill rented top-of-the line equipment that he could have only dreamed of using in his youth in 1964. The band really rocked.

Social Origins, Destinations

Bill was schooled in origins and destinations. During the depression, his irreligious father ran a grocery in Riverdale, Chicago. Bill’s non-observant Jewish mother worked in a shoe store at the Palmer House and then with her husband in the store. With World War II, the Mafia put the heat on to carry black market meat. Rather than comply, his father shut down the store, getting a job in a drop forge making crankshafts for tanks. When Bill was born, his father was driving trucks for an armature coil factory in which he eventually became a salesman that serviced the steel mills.

High School With Ashtrays

Bill’s racially mixed high school, Thornton Township, in the working-class town of Harvey, Illinois, was three blocks from the Buda factory that eventually became part of Allis-Chalmers, the same factory where Michael Burawoy would do his celebrated ethnography.

Short and non-athletic, Bill never had a drink in high school. If it hadn’t been for rock-and-roll, he might have been a total geek. Bill was, as he puts it, “terminally shy.” Other challenges included the anti-intellectual attitude of his formative environment, and his father’s persistence that Bill pursue engineering in college. To Bill, being in the band was infinitely more important than preparing for a career. But he trooped off to engineering school at the University of Illinois, Urbana, where the presence of 14 other guys from his high school made the college experience a lot like “high school with ashtrays.”

Energy X Context = Politics

Bill found himself over his head, nearly flunking physics. From then, it was a big, relatively unimportant, coast. But the perturbations began almost immediately. In Bill’s freshman year, while on a panty raid in the girls’ dormitory, Jim Vail, a student from rural Illinois—a serious kid who believed that he was actually going to get to talk about the existence of God when he got to the university—turned to Bill and pointed out, “If we were in Latin America, none of this would be happening. All this energy would be going into politics.” Bill never forgot that moment.

Race politics impinged first, with one of the first riots, “the gin bottle riot,” taking place nearby in Dixmoor, in 1965. “Racism was second nature” in his all-white neighborhood, according to Bill. By the time the cities were on fire in 1967, he had read a number of black writers and was hanging out with friends who were among the first wave of Students for a Democratic Society. By junior year, he was active in Citizens for Racial Justice, lobbying the university to reexamine its admissions and employment policies. With the Tet Offensive, Bill became involved in the anti-war movement. With an approaching dorm discussion of the draft, his friend Jim told Bill that he had a responsibility to talk about their responsibility as intellectuals. It was the first time he realized he could be something other than an engineer.

Earning straight A’s, engineering had become easy, increasingly boring, and Bill’s mind was elsewhere. Engineering felt more like a draft deferment. So, Bill found himself attending classes (e.g., in political science and history, not sociology) that held promise for explicating the world exploding around him. Tom Krueger in U.S. social history, Fred Jaher in labor history, Phil Meranto in politics, and Michael Parenti, the politics of imperialism were particularly influential. Bill and his confreres goaded their professors to take their ideas into the streets. Bill remembers trying to shame a young assistant professor, Anthony Orum, into attending the anti-war demonstrations.

Hormones and politics moved together. Denise Del Vento lived in the adjoining dormitory tower, a straight, good-looking girl from Park Ridge, Illinois, Hillary Clinton’s hometown. The two had met as an arranged match between dorm floors in 1967. Denise was the first girl he had not met through his guitar playing. The two knew immediately that they would marry, and in 1969 they did.

Sociology, Enter Stage Left

With his math background, Bill decided to start the economics program at the University of Illinois, Urbana, where he started taking his first sociology courses. He found Bernard Karsh’s sociology of work particularly intriguing. By 1971, Bill had decided to start the sociology doctoral program. Joan Huber, a young sociologist of science, mentored the “rag-tag group of hippies” that gathered around her, correcting their deficiencies in the history or philosophy of science through readings of Merton, Popper, Kuhn, and others. She and husband Bill Form advised Bill that to succeed in sociology, Bill had to make his way to the University of Wisconsin, which he did.

Bill Sewell, the early pioneer of status attainment, was there, as was the newly arrived hot shot, Robert Hauser, Sewell’s eventual heir. Bill planned to join Eugene Havens’ Sociology of Economic Change group, but Gerald Marwell, the coordinator of the methods training program into which Bill had been admitted, advised him to defer that choice.

En route to Wisconsin, Bill was worrying that he was taking too careerist a route. Jim Vail, he thought, would keep him honest. Jim had gone underground in the Bay Area after refusing induction and made his way to Vancouver. In March 1973, Bill learned that Jim had died from asphyxiation in a down-and-out rooming house in Vancouver. The circumstances were mysterious. Around the same time, the FBI was asking Bill’s friends questions about Vail. To this day, Bill wonders whether it wasn’t accidental, or whether, just perhaps, Vail is still out there, that it wasn’t him. Jim Vail was an Eagle Scout; he knew not to light up a Coleman stove in a closed space.

Bill’s Madison cohort was intimidating. They knew sociology; Bill knew nothing. They talked; he didn’t. Wisconsin was a mecca of methodological training (e.g., econometrician Art Goldberger and social statistician Bill Walster), and Bill found himself in the force field between the technical methodologists and students more theoretically inclined and clustered around Bob Alford’s and Michael Aiken’s Social Organization program, whose seminars would provide the life-long problems to which Bill would apply his prodigious technical skills.

Bill had wanted to study structure and status attainment, but Hauser, whom Bill credits with teaching him to write and think clearly, convinced Bill to write his doctoral dissertation on measurement error and status attainment models. Bill had the requisite skills to tackle it and it had appeal as a delimited, intellectually challenging topic with a bearing on the central Bowles and Gintis debate on the effect of social class on adult success—the argument that conventional measures of family background were inadequate and that status attainment models underestimated its impact.

When the Department of Sociology, chaired by Dick Flacks, came calling in 1977, both Bill and Denise, who had done her doctorate in human development, decided to take jobs there. “It was a place where I wouldn’t just be another number cruncher. It was clear that there would be space to expand intellectually,” said Bill. It was a place where he would, at last, no longer be told to wait to assess the impact of social structure on human aspiration and achievement. They wanted him to do it.

A wry graduate student from Wisconsin, Jim Baron, joined Bill so that he might follow this same path. “We decided,” Bill recounts, “to open the black box.” To do so, they linked work and attainment in the social organization of work, as delineated in their American Sociological Review article, “Bringing the Firms Back in,” which they forged from their National Science Foundation grant proposal. Together they launched a productive research agenda. Barbara Reskin, then heading a National Academy of Sciences panel on gender segregation, realized that Bielby and Baron had access to firm- and job-level data on gender segregation and requested that their work begin with that. Bielby and Baron went on to publish in the mid 1980s “A Woman’s Place Is With Other Women: Sex Segregation Within Organizations” and “Men and Women at Work: Sex Segregation and Statistical Discrimination” in the American Journal of Sociology. Baron then secured a job at the Stanford University Graduate School of Business.

Social Justice

Bill had always wanted to find a way to change the world using social science. But how to wield the powers of efficient estimation for justice? Conjoining organizational theory and stratification, he was showing how people’s trajectories in social space were shaped by the ways in which employers reacted to their gender, race, and age. Unions and employee associations hired him as an expert in major court cases. One of the biggest was a 1998 class action case against Home Depot stores, challenging the way job assignment, promotion, and pay policies discriminated against women and channeled them out of management. Bill’s testimony was decisive. The corporation settled out of court, making substantial changes in promotion and pay policies. More recently, he has been involved in cases of large Wall Street securities firms, successfully attacking the barriers women face as retail brokers.

Moving the Movie Industry

Bill and Denise have always been movie freaks. And Denise has always been into the soaps, not only as analyst but also as a fan. In 1986, the Women’s Committee of the Writer’s Guild, the union that represents film and television writers, wanted a statistical study to see whether there was data to support their claims of bias in the entertainment industry. Linda Waite, then a sociologist at RAND, had recommended them. Generating a series of reports, the Bielbys detailed the barriers facing female, minority, and older writers, which led to another line of research on how the social organization of the industry shapes the careers of creative workers. Their most important writing from this work was a 1999 American Sociological Review article, “Organizational Mediation of Project-Based Careers: Talent Agencies and the Careers of Screenwriters.”

Together with Denise, Bill’s work on the culture industries has begun to take an interpretive turn, with their ongoing research on critics and aesthetics in popular culture. Where once Bill flourished in the tension between structure and the statistical modeling of individual action, now he operates in the space defined by the polarity of organizational structure and symbolic meaning. “Whereas some departments have been torn apart by the new culture wars, UCSB is uniquely hospitable to this area of scholarship,” he explained.

Back to the Future

Bill’s major project for the next few years is studying the emergence of homegrown rock and roll bands in the post-Elvis era and the meaning of that experience in the adult lives of their members. He also plans to compare the white bands in the area where he grew up with nearby black bands. Bill is making rock and roll into a total social fact, a cipher for everything about which he cares most. He is still dreaming—wide awake. And he’ll be playing at a convention near you. Come hear Thin Vitae’s tribute to blues and rock traditions (with a Southern twist) at ASA’s Annual Meeting at the Atlanta Hilton on August 16, 2003.