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Faculty Feature: Dr. Jeffrey C Leiter

We pride ourselves on the research coming out of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology. Our faculty members have contributed to the breadth and depth of the discourse in their research areas. Ranging from political economy to craniofacial growth, those research areas are as diverse as the complex human endeavor our faculty members strive to analyze and understand. Ultimately, their fine research aids us in understanding human behavior and relationships, the foundations of culture and society, which each of our faculty explores from a distinct perspective.

Today, we meet Professor Jeffrey C. Leiter, who joined the Department of Sociology and Anthropology in the 1978-1979 academic year specializing in Formal Organizations, Work, and Education. Professor Leiter will retire after the 2014 Spring semester after 35 years of work at North Carolina State University. He served as the Director of Graduate Programs from 1998 – 2000 and has been the Associate Head and Director of Undergraduate Programs since 2011. It was an honor and pleasure to speak with him about his journey.


Personal History


Current Research

Further Questions


Personal History
Could you begin by giving us a little information on your family history?

I grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio. I lived there until I went to college. I still have some relatives in Cincinnati, although my sister and almost all of my cousins have moved away and the generation of our parents is all dead now. I still feel strong ties to Cincinnati.

My parents were both Jewish émigrés. They met in Cincinnati, although their mothers knew each other in Europe. They both grew up in Germany and left because of the Nazis. My mom went to Palestine when she was sixteen as part of a group of young people taken out of Germany to escape the Nazis. She lived in a kibbutz for three years and came from Palestine to the United States when she was 19. Both she and my dad were strong “Labor Zionists.” My dad arrived in New York on his 25th birthday. He was an intellectual person and would have been an interesting academic if his education hadn’t been cut short by the Nazis. He only had a high school education and in Cincinnati had a wholesale business in partnership with two of his brothers-in-law. So, I come from a middle class background.

I went to a really good public high school, what we would now call a magnet school. You had to pass a test to get into it. Everyone studied Latin. It still is one of the best high schools in the country.

And from there you went to Williams College in Massachusetts?

I did, yes. I felt well prepared for college by my high school, but college was different in that so many of my classes were quite small. They basically consisted of a discussion of the assigned text. That has been how I’ve done most of my teaching, not just graduate courses, which are generally like that here, but also the undergraduate courses. As my students will tell you, I’m not much of a lecturer. I like the discussions much better.

Did you initially major in sociology or was that a later transition?

My major was history. They didn’t have sociology at all, although they do now. There’s actually a well-known sociologist on their very small faculty: Robert Jackall, who wrote Moral Mazes, which many of our graduate students here read. Robert Friedrichs was the first sociologist at Williams, arriving shortly after I graduated. He’s probably pretty much forgotten now but wrote a book called The Sociology of Sociology, which looked at our discipline’s social structure and culture.

How did you discover sociology?

Despite majoring in history, some of the most compelling courses I took were in political science. We read books (almost no articles) about organizations and about large-scale social transformations. These were great books, the most memorable of them being The Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy by Barrington Moore, Jr. People still read that and should. It’s part of a whole genre of sociology that we now call comparative and historical, not the quantitative branch, but very learned, large-scale studies that look at a set of societal cases. There have been a bunch of them since Moore that have really left a profound imprint on sociology. I read these books in political science courses. When I was a senior, I asked one of the political science professors, If I want to study that kind of thing, what should I do? And he said, You should become a sociologist. And so I did.

For two years after college I taught middle school to avoid being drafted for the Vietnam War. My lottery number was low enough that I was at risk. The spring I graduated from college, the draft law was changed so that you could no longer be deferred from being drafted for having a teaching position, but I convinced my draft board that I had applied for the deferment before the change in the rules. They gave me the deferment and I taught for two years. Then, as the war was winding down and the number of people being drafted was much lower, I went to graduate school.

Where did you pursue graduate studies?

At the University of Michigan. The information that I was able to assemble in order to make decisions on where to apply was mostly wrong. I looked at rankings. I looked at what people were publishing in what was called The American Sociologist. I thought that was the premier journal. It actually ceased publication a few years later, having been more about the discipline than actually presenting sociological research. I didn’t know about our premier journals. So, I applied to excellent programs but not on the basis of who was doing the kind of work that I wanted to do. It wasn’t a random decision, but it wasn’t on target.

Michigan gave me what was called a traineeship as financial support. It was like a fellowship except you were apprenticed to a faculty member. Traineeships have largely been eliminated as now you have mostly assistantship work in return for financial support. It was a very privileged kind of support.

The Michigan training was theoretically shallow. I think I had one course in sociological theory where our doctoral students now take at least three. You had to read in a sort of scattered way. However, the empirical training was excellent, especially the survey methods. I was very influenced by an institution in Ann Arbor called the Detroit Area Study where first year graduate students read in an area designated by a faculty member, then designed a survey instrument with that professor, and then did household interviews in Detroit for two weeks after the end of classes after their first year. The DAS as we called it had been going on for many decades before and continued until about 2004. We also did the legwork to create a random cluster sample of households. I found out when we went into the field that I was good at interviewing. All of those survey interviews done by the students were put together and then doubled by professional interviewers from the Institute for Social Research (ISR) over the summer. Then, when we came back for the fall, this survey data set was ready for us to analyze and for faculty to use, as well. Many excellent sociology articles and books came out of the Detroit Area Study, but its importance diminished as national longitudinal survey data became readily available. The result of the practicum, though, was that you came out of this training believing that you could do survey work on anything. It was a real positivist naiveté. So, I was turned out as a survey researcher, but my dissertation was a mix of survey and qualitative research. I hooked up with a couple of really good, rare, qualitative researchers at Michigan. They tended not to last because it really was a quantitative kind of place.

What was the focus of your dissertation research?

It was a study of middle school and junior high school teachers’ autonomy. I had gotten really interested already in college in the question of the alignment or conflict between individual organization members’ goals or preferences and the goals of the organization where they worked or were volunteers. An individual versus organization kind of thing. Now I see this in much more conflictual terms than I did then. Specifically, I studied teacher autonomy, thinking I was doing the sociology of education and organizations, but really this research is quite germane to what I ended up doing a lot of here [at NC State], which is more the sociology of work where autonomy is a very central question. I actually published again on autonomy with one of our graduate students just a few years ago.

What did you find?

Kind of an interesting thing. Lots of what I looked at was people’s perceptions of their autonomy, rather than some objective assessment of their autonomy, if there is such a thing. In many situations teachers’ perceptions of their autonomy were not governed by the constraints they were subject to, like the rules or the closeness of their supervision by the principal. In schools where conflict was the more dominant experience for teachers and principals, they took a class conflict or organizational constraint approach. But in other schools where teachers were subject to all sorts of bureaucratic and normative constraints, the teachers felt very autonomous. In fact, they felt supported by these kinds of constraints. In other schools, where the administration was distracted or preoccupied by the sort of high-pressure chaotic environment such as you found in a lot of highly urbanized school districts, administrators were unable to provide enough of the support teachers needed. The teachers were left completely to their own devices. Objectively, we might say they were autonomous. Interestingly, they felt anything but. If anything, in the absence of constraint, they felt they lacked autonomy. So, there was a social construction of autonomy, as we would call it now. Sometimes, autonomy meant the absence of constraint, but other times it meant efficacy.

Leader Forum Avatar
Dr. Leiter, 1998 from the publication Leader Forum.

I finished my dissertation in 1977, and there was a year between then and my arrival at NC State. In my last year in Ann Arbor, I applied to lots of schools, maybe 70. It’s interesting to note that this was before word processing. We typed each cover letter. Word processing came in just after that, late enough to allow me to suffer. The first year of applying didn’t turn up anything for me. So, my dissertation chair, who had left Michigan the previous year to go to the University of Illinois – Chicago–at that time it was called Chicago Circle–to become the head of the sociology department, got me a one-year job. Then I applied again and got three interviews, all in the South, and this is the job that was offered to me. I’ve been here since.

Has the Department changed in any substantial way since you arrived?

Yes, there have been very significant changes. I think it’s fair to say that the substantial group of faculty who arrived around the same time I came here are partly responsible for the changes. There are just a few of those people still on the faculty. The Department changed from being a regionally-oriented department to being a nationally- and internationally-oriented department. It changed from being focused largely on rural sociology to being focused on the wide range of sociological issues. The quality of the graduate training improved greatly. It was not that long before I came here that there were separate rural sociology and general sociology operations that merged in the 1960s, I believe, with the rural folks effectively running the show. It was uncomfortable with rural sociology in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences (CALS) and general sociology in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences (CHASS). The people in CALS had many privileges: twelve-month and, therefore, higher salaries; research assistants who sort of came with the job; smaller teaching loads. Some of them had their own secretaries. In my early time here and before that, students who were supported as research assistants on one of the Agricultural Research Service projects were required to do their dissertations on the subject of the project rather than being allowed to select their own topic. Thankfully, that changed even before the rural side lost its power. A dissertation should be an expression of the student’s own direction and interests.

Early on, the graduate students’ preliminary exams were tailored to them. This exists today in other departments that don’t have our department’s history, and in some places it’s considered a good thing. The student’s committee would write a series of exams that were just for that student. If you had a committee that was trying to help you through, they could engineer that. After reforming this department to be more bureaucratic, standardized, and curriculum-driven, students now take preliminary exams that are written not for them but as a reflection of that part of the curriculum. It changed from being a quite particularistic place to being more universalistic, more standardized and curriculum-driven.

Another change is that now we place students all over. One of the very interesting and commendable aspects of this graduate program is that the students get jobs of all sorts. They get jobs at institutions at the same status as this one or even better because they are very well-trained and their dissertations are really interesting. Whereas, before, these land-grant institutions in the region or their lesser lights just exchanged people. When I first came here, I heard stories that when the long-time department head, who was an amazing character, had a job opening he’d call one of his buddies, the head of the department at some other southeastern land-grant college and say, Do you have a boy for me this year? That has certainly changed. A lot of the credit for refocusing this department on the national labor market belongs to the person who was the Associate Head when I came here, Elizabeth Suval, later Elizabeth Crawford. She is a marvelous person who had an incredible influence on this place.

Dr. Leiter with Penny Lewter, administrative staff, early 2000s.
Dr. Leiter with Penny Lewter, administrative staff, early 2000s.

What are the main courses that you’ve taught?

I’ve taught a lot of different courses. Way back, I taught a course on the sociology of education, which Martha Crowley now teaches. I was part of the creation of a course on technology, society, and culture. Tim Wallace, Steve Lilley and I thought that up, and I taught it for a number of years, first with Tim and then on my own, but I really didn’t feel like at home with that subject matter. We created it because we thought it would be good for the department. I taught a course for entering graduate students while I was the graduate director in the late 90s and a little bit after that. Instead of what is now called the Proseminar, we decided to gear up and do something bigger. I think we called it Contemporary Sociology, and it was really fun. The Proseminar had always had faculty members visit to introduce themselves and talk about their work, but we asked students to read an article by the faculty member and then write abstracts so that they could learn to grasp the guts of an article and have something substantive about which to interact with the visiting faculty members. And there was considerably more to the course. That was a fun course from the past.

I’ve taught one course in the graduate program that Martha Crowley now teaches. When she came, I handed it off to her to give her opportunities consistent with her excellent training instead of monopolizing the course for myself. It’s a course on the sociology of work. Ever since the mid-1970s, the study of work has been very much influenced by the Marxist tradition, the reinterpretation of Marx for our time, and it’s still like that. Then I taught a course at the graduate level on the sociology of organizations. In a way, that’s what I was most trained to do and it’s still my way of looking at the world. That was an important course for many of our students, but the area that we’re a part of, Work and the Global Economy (WaGE), decided a few years ago that it would move away from the organizational and more towards an inequality approach, so we phased that course out.

On the undergraduate level, since my beginning here, I’ve taught a course that we now call Jobs and Work. It’s mostly taught nowadays by our doctoral students in the WaGE area. I developed a course a few years ago that seems to be going away because we can’t attract students to it, called Managers, Work and Organizations. It was really directed at the many students who are studying management at NC State to give them a sociological view of their own work and the organizational world that they’re going to find themselves immersed in. The undergraduate course I’m teaching right now is the sociology of organizations. It’s a course I love very much. Students don’t know at first what to make of it, but many of them develop something of an organizational perspective; when that happens, I’m happy.

Have you noticed a difference between teaching undergraduates and graduates?

There’s a big difference. Graduate students are in graduate school primarily for intellectual and professional reasons, and you often feel that lots of undergraduates are not at the University primarily for intellectual or even occupational reasons. It’s more like, well that’s what you do at this age or for social reasons. Graduate students tend to work harder. Our graduate students do great work and it’s very satisfying to teach them. Undergraduates can be satisfying but the goal is not the same. We’re not trying to make them into sociologists. We are trying to inform their view of the world by a sociological approach but it’s really quite different. The graduate program is not liberal arts training. The undergraduate program is. There’s only a portion of the undergraduates who are really dedicated to learning, so there’s frustration at the undergraduate level. It seems like you can’t rely as effectively anymore on saying, Read this chapter or this article and we’ll discuss it next time. You can’t rely on that as the primary unit of learning but I’m kind of stuck with that. I do group work, but, fundamentally, I want them to deal with the text.

Could you describe your teaching style or philosophy?

I don’t believe in textbooks. I used a textbook one time in a course I didn’t mention earlier. I taught research methods and used a textbook there. Mostly, I have them read appropriate research monographs now. It has to be appropriate to their level of understanding and appropriate to the goals of opening their eyes to a different way of looking at things, a sociological way. Qualitative research is generally much more accessible to undergraduates than quantitative research. Sometimes good materials are not written by sociologists. I’ve used things written by journalists, some of them who are quite sociologically informed. All the Livelong Day by Barbara Garson is a marvelous book about work. In the organizations course, I have a whole collection, really a third of course, of pieces from newspapers and magazines that allow us to look at something everyday from a sociological and organizational point of view. I use a lot of stuff like that. I want them to read. I want them to discuss. I want them to write.

I don’t give any multiple choice tests or so-called “objective tests.” I have once in the research methods course. That midterm had one multiple choice question. All the answers were right. They had to pick one and then write an essay defending their answer. Even at the lowest level, at the 200 level, I have them write. I want them to get out of the University and really deal with the empirical reality that we’re studying. In the study of work, I have them interview people in some work that they are interested in and write something synthetic from the interviews; later in the semester I ask them to use our concepts to observe and analyze a workplace that they might want to work in.

What have you found to be the most important attributes of a good instructor?

There are probably a lot of ways to be a good instructor. My teaching is now mostly undergraduate, so I’m thinking about them. An attribute of a good instructor is wanting to support student efforts. Frequently, I tell my students that if you’re getting bad grades but not doing the preparation, not coming to class, not doing the reading, we’re not going to worry about you. We know why you’re doing badly. However, if you are trying hard and still having difficulty, I would like to work with you so that you can succeed. I think that’s something that instructors need to do: focus a good deal of their efforts on students who are trying hard but having difficulty. I try to make my door very open. Students don’t walk through it often enough, but that could have something to do with the social distance that comes with age. There are many years, about forty years, between their age and mine. But when they are writing difficult papers and trying to make sense of their observations in some particular organization, that can be hard, despite full instructions and support. I love it when they come and try to puzzle that out with me, and we take a long time to work on it. That usually leads to a really good paper. I don’t worry too much about the ones who aren’t making the effort to help themselves, those who are just going through the motions or who don’t give any indication that this is a serious intellectual or even occupational endeavor for them. Also, there are many students who are working full-time and they almost don’t have time to prepare for class. The University expects people to put in two hours of preparation for each hour in class and for some of our students there just isn’t the time to do that, and they struggle to come to class prepared. I don’t believe in sink or swim. I prefer to work hard with students who are having difficulty if they will do their part.

What does success look like in your classroom?

For me, there’s a lot of pleasure in students doing better than they started out. They may not get the top grades, for many reasons, but a struggling student who really learns something and catches the spark of the material and does satisfactory work is great. For me, there’s as much pleasure in that as in the student who easily does excellent work.

What do you want students to take away from your courses?

In most of what I teach, and really in sociology generally, there’s a set of abstract concepts and approaches, or theories, that are applicable in many settings. It’s disappointing if they’re only learning something factual. In fact, there’s very little that’s factual in what I teach. It would probably be very hard for me to write multiple choice questions. It’s more about a theoretical and conceptual tool and what we can do with it to shed light on the social world. It’s amazingly difficult for some students to go between the abstract and the concrete. That’s a big challenge for us because that’s so much of what we’re doing in sociology, trying to get them to go back and forth between the abstract and the concrete, in both directions. They can really have a lot of trouble applying the abstract to the concrete and to generate more general, abstract ideas from very concrete cases.

Why do you think that is?

The professors tend to go from the abstract to the concrete in their teaching but most of our students go the other way around, if at all. We’re teaching them the opposite of the way they think or learn. The people who become professors in a way self-select for that sort of deductive preference, which almost dooms their teaching to being the opposite of what their students need. I was very aware of it in class on Wednesday. I knew that they needed to move from one or more concrete cases to the generalization but I almost could not teach the class in a way other than the deductive way, giving them the general principle and then applying it in a more and more concrete way. They couldn’t do it. So, it’s partly our self-selective failing.

Do you think there’s a way to remedy that?

I think that we should meet them on their learning turf. I don’t know if I can. It seems that I have difficulty, but I think people learning to teach should learn to teach more inductively. In sociology, a lot of our best sociological research is inductive, so it’s not like sociology is ill-suited to our students, and it’s not just that professors were socialized to work deductively in graduate school. It’s also that the people who can’t work with abstractions don’t make it in sociology graduate programs. There’s a selection process involved.

In all the time that you’ve been teaching, have your students imparted any significant lessons to you?

I’ve gotten into empirical worlds that I never would have before. It’s like your world gets bigger through your students. I’m thinking mostly of the graduate students and their projects. I had a Bangladeshi graduate student about twenty years ago. There was no one in our department who knew anything about Bangladesh. Fortunately, we had someone in the history department who was an Indian subcontinent specialist and served on this student’s committee and was the closest we came to a subject-matter expert. Otherwise, it was just going along for the ride and trying to guide and ask good questions. In the process, I learned an enormous amount about Bangladesh and its history, and especially this student’s insistent interpretation of Bangladeshi history. He was trying to offer an alternative to the standard Marxist accounts of what happened in Bangladesh through British colonialism and exploitation. He was offering an entirely different, much more Weberian approach about patron-client relations and what they meant and how pervasive they were throughout Bangladeshi history, including now. It was really, really intriguing.

What do you think the value of teaching is for researchers?

There’s a lot of value in teaching for researchers. Most of the research we do is relatively narrow. It takes us very deeply into something very narrow. Teaching is almost inevitably broadening and that’s a lot of the fun of it. If you concoct for yourself a teaching life where you only teach the narrow stuff that you know so much about, you cheat yourself out of the chance to be broader. Tim Wallace introduced me to one of my favorite books when we designed the course on technology, society, and culture, about which I knew nothing and know only a little now. He introduced me to a book about Bali, about the relationship between traditional rice agriculture and Balinese religion, very much a cultural anthropology approach, and it was phenomenal. Twenty years later, I think about that book very frequently and still recommend it to folks. It’s called Priests and Programmers by Stephen Lansing. That sort of broadening is one of the great values of teaching.

Another value is the chance for much quicker gratification. Research is a long-term proposition, even more so in anthropology than sociology. The time investment before your research bears fruit in publications is typically longer in anthropology than sociology, but even in sociology we’re talking about multi-year projects. You almost never start a project and publish in the same year. With teaching, however, you get to have your gratification every class if you’re lucky. Over time, I’ve found ways to find something gratifying in every class. It keeps you going.

After a while, you can even master almost any situation that comes up in a classroom. I still remember my first couple of classes. I was not much older than the students and knew very little more than they did and was unsure of myself. They questioned my authority about grading and about ideas. It never happens anymore. It’s not only the social distance of age but also the experience. You’re pretty sure about when to make a joke. Generally, after a while, you even learn to manage situations of controversy regarding issues of race, gender, or sexual orientation, situations which can all be very troublesome, albeit very important.

In what areas have your major research projects focused?

One could stick with some area of research and build on it over much of a career. You make a reputation for yourself in some area. I think that’s a good idea for career building purposes. I’ve not done that. I’ve tended to do a project on one thing and then jump to something quite different. If you look at my publications, you’ll find clumps, three or five articles on one thing and then something else entirely different afterwards. Some of that happened because people presented opportunities to me and, rather than me directing my own life. I responded to the opportunities.

Quite a significant part of my research life, mostly in the 1990s, was about the consequences of child abuse, neglect and maltreatment for the risk of delinquency and school performance. That didn’t happen because I had any interest in child maltreatment and really not that much in school performance. (What I was interested in about schools was not so much the students but the teachers.) But one of my colleges, Matt Zingraff, who left here several years ago, wanted to do this project on the effects of maltreatment on the risk of delinquency, which is still an important issue for delinquency researchers and people who study maltreatment. He had this idea that it was tied up with what goes on in schools, and he was right. Since I had done school research, he asked me to become part of this project and I said yes. It took me off in this other direction entirely.

It makes for this broad, incoherent research life. I’ve done research on a lot of different issues. When I finally got promoted to be a full professor, one of the outside reviewers who had known my work about work and organizations, read all this stuff about education and wrote that he had had no idea of that other side of my research. It’s kind of a blotchy research record, but a lot of it’s very interesting. One advantage is that I appreciate a lot of different areas of research.

Could you walk us through your research record? What was your focus when you first arrived at the University?

I wanted to publish from my dissertation. I got three good articles out of my dissertation, although I don’t think any of them really had an impact on the sociology of education. You can tell that from the low citation counts. Those articles pretty much disappeared into a black hole, but they were good.

Pretty quickly after I got here, I decided that I wanted to sink local roots. I undertook one collaborative project and one on my own, nearly at the same time, with very little funding in each case. The one I did on my own was a study of the effects of ability or achievement grouping on elementary school students’ tests scores. Very interestingly, one of the counties adjacent to Wake County, a rural county for the most part, had six elementary schools, some of which were so small that there’d be only one class for the third grade. Necessarily, that class was quite heterogeneous, quite mixed, ability-wise or achievement-wise. But one of those schools was big enough that it had four classes for the third grade and they could make more homogenous groupings. If I recall correctly, the requirements of the federal court supervising their approach to desegregation was that they had to do their grouping by test scores. They couldn’t use any other kind of discretionary mechanism that would have allowed them purposefully to segregate black kids from white kids. In the small school with only one class, you had heterogeneity by test scores and by race and the school with four third grade classes was by design more homogenous on test scores and turned out to be somewhat more homogeneous on race. It was a kind of laboratory for studying the effects of heterogeneity or homogeneity, that is, grouping, on test scores. That I did on my own and got a couple of very nice publications in the Sociology of Education, which is a good specialty journal.

In the other research project I undertook early on, which was my first venture into doing something in a research group, we studied textile workers in Roanoke Rapids, in the northeastern part of North Carolina. This was right at the time that a Hollywood movie about unionization in the textile industry came out, called Norma Ray with Sally Fields. That was styled after a real event that happened in Roanoke Rapids, though the real Norma Rae was named Crystal Lee Sutton. We did a study of textile worker attitudes and their determinants. That also didn’t get cited wildly but I felt like that was a really significant piece of research, and I was very, very proud of it. I enjoyed the collaboration. There were five of us, including Michael Schulman who, until recently, was in this department, Rhonda Zingraff, at the time from Meredith College, Carrie Knowles, my wife, who trained as a sociologist but became an artist and writer instead, and Joel Rosch, who at the time was a political science professor. We had a blast. We involved some undergraduate students and did the kind of thing that I was trained to do at Michigan. You knock on somebody’s door and you don’t accept, or at least not easily, that they won’t talk to you. We got very few refusals. It was a matter of technique and interactional confidence. I have a lot of memories from doing that research 35 years ago.

A former J.P. Stevens mill in Roanoke Rapids, one of the first to be organized by a union in North Carolina in 1974.
A former J.P. Stevens mill in Roanoke Rapids, one of the first to be organized by a union in North Carolina in 1974.

You also had a research project that involved chocolate. How did that come about?

One vacation we went on the tour in Hershey, Pennsylvania. It was more of a Disney-kind of tour where you sit in a little cart than a factory tour. I came out of that thinking, There’s a sociology project here that’s about the chocolate industry, chocolate technology, and chocolate work, what we call the chocolate commodity chain. The textile project had taught me how interesting it was to study an industry defined by its product, which I still believe is a really productive way to do this kind of organizational work in economic sociology. Focus on an industry, maybe compare two industries.

I wanted to do something besides textiles, something that people wanted to hear about, and it’s very easy to talk to people about chocolate. I really got into it. I didn’t go as far with it as I would have liked, but one of our graduate students, one of the very best graduate students I remember here, Sandra Harding, and I published quite a nice historical-comparative piece in 2004 about the growing of cacao. At least in the three places we looked at, the growing of cacao, the raw material for chocolate, was rising fast and then suddenly fell off. We tried to understand in a comparative way why that happened.

Farmers drying cacao.
Farmers drying cacao.

Most of the explanations had always been agronomic, about disease and the soil being exhausted, but our explanations were more sociological and had to do with world trade patterns and especially with class relations between the people who owned the land and the people who actually did the work. It’s a very good article that at last has caught the eye of the most important of the agronomy people. There’s a lot of perverse satisfaction when the folks who have the high ground in a scholarly tradition finally taking note of the rebels. I also published something about Hershey and Mars as companies and the differences in their cultures and histories, their governance. I did board of director analysis, more of a classic corporate analysis than a commodity chain analysis like the piece with Sandra Harding.

What theoretical frameworks do you commonly work out of?

I hold with the “use what’s going to be useful” approach. I look at the world sometimes in quite a Marxist kind of way, but other times in a very functionalist way. The organizational approach to the world is about how things work, what works well, how it can work better, but that’s not contemporary sociology which is more about power, inequality, domination and exploitation. The functionalist thing I still find quite useful because I look at the world in organizational terms, and that’s been the mode of my work more recently on nonprofit organizations.

That work came about largely due to Sandra Harding, the former graduate student I mentioned earlier. She was here as a student in our department, with no sociology background, in the early 90s. She came here from Australia because her husband was getting a PhD in Forest Genetics, and this is one of the most outstanding departments in Forest Genetics in the world. So, she came along with her two little daughters and landed in our department. I had come back from eight months living in France on leave, where I was writing about child maltreatment in North Carolina. She was just starting when I met her, and she ended up with me as the chair of her committee doing a comparative study of guild formations historically and contemporaneously. It was a marvelous dissertation looking at the Haberdashers’ Company of Renaissance London, the English Building Guilds of the early twentieth century, the contemporary Mondragon Cooperative Corporation in Spain, and the American Medical Association over the last 160 years. It was wildly comparative and really smart. She went back to Australia after finishing here in record time, in three and a half years, and decided to get into educational administration instead of the scholarly track. She rose meteorically through university administration and is now what we would call the Chancellor (they call it the Vice-Chancellor) at James Cook University in northeastern Australia. While she was still in her home institution in Brisbane, Australia, my wife and I moved there for a year. We had a marvelous time. We almost didn’t come back, it was so great. The vehicle for that leave was to do serious sociology of organizations for nonprofits. Sandra engineered this. At her university, there’s a very well-regarded and really accomplished center for the study of nonprofits and philanthropy. I was situated there and I worked mostly with them on helping their students be more theoretically astute and more sophisticated and appropriate in their research designs, which sociologists are often really good at. I did my own organizational sociology of nonprofits on the issue of structural similarity, which at the time was an important issue in the sociology of organizations called isomorphism, or the tendency for organizations, especially in one field or industry, to come to resemble one another and all the reasons that was happening. I applied this notion to nonprofits. There were data from a large-scale survey of organizations in Australia collected by Sandra and two people who were on the faculty here at the time, Cathy Zimmer and Don Tomaskovic-Devey, a great survey, and they let me use it to study nonprofits. I published a bunch from that.

Because of that research, I was subsequently involved here in the birth and growth of an institute for nonprofits at NC State. I was involved in its governance and policy-making decisions, and later on the institute fostered some research that I did and am now finishing up with one of our graduate students, Nick Solebello. He and I, along with the former director of the institute, Mary Tschirhart, collected interview data in person or on the phone about the efforts of nonprofits to increase their diversity One good paper is going to come out of it about the tension in many nonprofits, especially those that are membership associations, existing primarily for the benefit of their members, between wanting to include more people and more diverse people, which makes them have a bigger conception of the world, more ideas, more money, more power from being bigger and more inclusive, but at the same time the members want to exclude a lot of folks so as to monopolize the membership benefits. This tension between inclusion and exclusion is the focus of this paper.

Have any of your findings ever surprised you?

I think there are surprising things all along. Even back to the dissertation research about how the school context is very important to how teachers interpret constraint or the lack of it. Sometimes that’s autonomy enhancing, sometimes it’s autonomy undercutting. The people I worked with on the faculty at Michigan already sensitized me to the value of findings you didn’t expect and not too quickly solving the puzzle these unexpected findings present. I’ve told many people here over the years that when there is a surprise or puzzle, something that you can’t figure out in your data or your cases, you’ve been given a gift. This is a chance to get outside of the understandings you’ve brought to the project on the basis of people’s previous work to do something that advances things in maybe not so incremental a way. So much of our works moves things along very incrementally, but there’s a chance to leap a little bit when you get a good puzzle.

Further Questions
Since the pace of knowledge moves so incrementally in this discipline, how valuable is sociological research for society?

Sociology has a hard time offering what it has to offer because some of its main conceptual tools are quite foreign to the society. For example, the idea of social construction. It’s not a desk is a desk, a table is a table, and gender is sex. Instead, it’s the social construction of things like gender or race or inequality or autonomy or school achievement. That’s one of the most important things that we have to offer, but it’s very hard to get that into the public discourse where there’s a more positivist frame of reference. My brand of sociology, which is so unremittingly organizational, is just not how people look at the world. It isn’t how policy makers look at the world. People look at the world much more in terms of individuals and dyads. They’re not thinking in organizational terms. So, it’s tough but I think we need to try because we have a lot to offer.

We tend to have a lot of nuance in our thinking and our presentations – on the one hand, on the other hand, on the third hand- where policy makers generally want to know what the main point is. I was once told when we were doing the maltreatment research that if you write something for policy makers, it has to be so short that they can read it while they sit on the toilet. You’ve got about thirty seconds. And sociologists almost can’t do it like that. Our arguments tend to be full of nuance, full of sophistication, full of self-doubt, and that’s all good, but it doesn’t help us get a good hearing in the public policy sector, to say nothing of that we are so often critical of how things are. It’s been a long time since sociology was engaged in societal self-congratulation. You have to go back to the early 50s and 60s to read that kind of sociology. We are a critical discipline, which elites don’t want to hear about.

Given that the tools of sociological thinking are not easily taken up by the public, how do you see the discipline fairing when the resources for support are often given to those disciplines that do have a tangible, immediate impact on the public?

If we were starting from zero, sociology might fair really badly. We see that the number of sociology majors here is going down. Criminology is going up, anthropology is going up a little, but sociology is not. It’s partly because the University’s undergraduate population is shrinking but it’s also because, in the students’ sense and many administrators’ sense, it’s just not useful. It doesn’t lead to work. It doesn’t lead to an occupation. In addition, it’s hard to think like a sociologist. However, there are several things that keep sociology a little healthier. One is inertia as an organizational kind of idea. We’re not starting from ground zero. It’s unlikely that University administrators would think about shutting down sociology here. After all, the very first PhD at NC State was given in sociology. There’s a long history here. There’s also investment, a few powerful faculty members who are well-inserted here and there. There are a lot of forces for inertia, cognitive, political, and organizational. But I don’t think it’s only inertia. It’s not a surprise that two out of the recent deans of our college were sociologists now in our department. A lot of sociologists are very interested in administration. I don’t think the discipline will face its demise.

We have good things to say. When society meets us halfway in us being useful to it, then maybe sociology will expand again. In the 60s, sociology expanded a lot. The society was looking for solutions to social problems. The late 1960s, early 1970s, people were very tuned in to social conflict and exploitation. The year 1968 was a cataclysmically interesting year. The US started to lose the war in Vietnam, the student and broader working-class rebellion in France, the use of police force against student protestors at the Chicago Democratic Convention, the Soviet repression in Czechoslovakia. Sociology was brewing because the world was full of sociology; our way of thinking was more manifest to the public.

Are there any subject areas that you think more sociologists should look into?

I think it would be really good for us to get interested in politics as a sociological subject here. Political sociology. We have almost never had a course like that. I think it would be really positive to do political sociology, to do social movements here. Sociologists look at the social movement aspects of politics, at all of the movements trying to get a seat at the table, trying to break into the mainstream polity. Then you have the subject that I started out with Barrington Moore, large-scale social transformations, revolutions, what fifty years ago was called “modernization.” That’s missing here. I do regret that the organizational sociology course has been phased out of the graduate program. I think that’s a loss, but a department cannot do everything. It can do more at the undergraduate level where a course here and a course there would be okay, but at the graduate level it has to pick its specialties.

Is there a subject in the field that you wish you knew more about?

This is going to sound boastful but I feel like I know a little about a number of things. It’s just been the result of being so scattered. I may get back to this large-scale social transformations thing in my retirement. I don’t know too much about that but what I’ve read, I have adored. It’s a different kind of reading, though. These tend to be big books where the historical sociologist knows so much more than you as a reader.

Is there any significant or exciting scholarship that has caught your attention recently?

I’ll use that as a chance to talk about the sociology that I hope to do when I retire. It’s very applied. If they’ll have me, I would like to work with middle-sized nonprofits to help them incorporate some research into their program for problem-solving purposes. They will tend to think of this as helping them get more donations or with the evaluation of their programs to satisfy their funders, but there’s a lot of problems that organizations like nonprofits have that have nothing to do with their programs or their funding stream. These are problems for which looking at things in terms of the simple but systematic collection of information and the simple but careful analysis of the information would be very helpful. Big nonprofits, like hospitals or universities, likely have a research arm so that, even though I might be helpful to them, they aren’t going to be interested. They have it under control. The little ones are so struggling to survive that they don’t even have the resources or time to think in research terms. But the middle-sized nonprofits could be quite cool and I might even be able to get hired in a small way to do that, or I’d do it because I’d like to be helpful for those organizations whose missions I strongly believe in.

I’m involved in a minor way with the labor movement in North Carolina. That’s something I believe in. It’s a struggling thing. The unionization rate at North Carolina is at or next to the bottom of the unionization rates in the whole country. But there are a number of organizing campaigns in the state, and it would be quite interesting to look at these campaigns first in a geographic information systems way, a mapping way. For example, how clustered are they geographically? To what extent do they cohere in certain labor markets? And, secondly, in a social networks way. How are they connected or disconnected by individuals or groups that are a part of one and part of another? Or where would there be strategic opportunities to connect campaigns if only we could develop some sort of interpersonal or organization bridge between them? I’ve never done GIS, I’ve never done networks, but I can see that these would be useful approaches and it’ll be a chance to learn something new.

You’ve participated in the graduate careers of a good number of students, both as chair and as a committee member. What is some of the best advice that you could offer graduate students who want a long, successful career in academia?

It’s important to think about the question of coherence. It makes a difference to be focused and deep in something and become really recognized as an expert in it, versus this incoherent, scattered, broad, and interesting approach that I’ve taken. Except for truly brilliant people for whom everything they touch becomes a recognized contribution, I don’t think the broad, scattered thing makes that big of a career. When I first came here I thought I’d have a career where I’d move around to different universities, but I don’t think the kind of career that I’ve made is conducive to that. It’s a long-term strategic question that people should think about.

Dr. Leiter at the 2011 Graduation Ceremony.
Dr. Leiter at the 2011 Graduation Ceremony.

Another thing is the question of whether you want to swim in a big pond or a little one. These days, if you pick the pond of economic sociology or the pond of inequality research or gender, those are really big ponds. The people who write in those fields get published in mainstream, general sociology journals which tend to be read more. So, that’s good, but there’s a lot of competition and it’s harder to get noticed when you swim in a big pond. Or you can swim in a little pond where it’s easier to get noticed, but it’s harder to get published in the mainstream, general places. It would be quite difficult to get something on the sociology of chocolate published in a general sociology journal. It helps to be noticed in a small pond, but you’re not noticed by as broad a part of the discipline. That’s important to think about, too, while at the same time following your interests.

What has been your favorite part of your job?

Dr. Leiter receiving a commemorative plaque upon his retirement in 2014.
Dr. Leiter receiving a commemorative plaque upon his retirement in 2014.

There certainly have been research projects that I’ve gotten into very deeply, from the textile research to the chocolate research. We didn’t even talk about a few other research projects that I had a great pleasure being involved in. One was methodological research about organizational survey non-response. That research has been influential and was very satisfying in that it was high-profile, with great collaborators (Don Tomaskovic-Devey and Shealy Thompson), and impactful. Three other favorite research projects have been focused on local issues and problems: one was on the Latino upsurge in North Carolina (with Katie Hyde, Leslie Hossfeld, and Don Tomaskovic-Devey again); a second was on the value of public sector collective bargaining, which is prohibited in this state (with David Zonderman in the history department); a third was on inter-organizational networks in the current welfare system (with Barbara Risman, Tiffany Taylor, Alison Buck, and Lizzy Seale). So, there’s been research that I have loved very, very much.

There have been teaching moments, especially earlier, that were great. And, in the early years of my career, there were a bunch of us who were changing this place very profoundly, but locally to be more curriculum-driven and more democratically administered. That was really very exciting.

More recently, I’ve enjoyed the administrative work. It has been fun to be on the inside of things and to have the resources and time to try to change things in ways that would solve problems and make the department better. Our department has really grown up, and that has been a pleasure to witness and work for.

If you hadn’t followed this career path, what do you think you’d be doing?

I was pretty sure that I didn’t want to be a businessman like my father. I remember him telling me one time, Okay, now you have to say if you want to get into this business and eventually inherit it. But you have to tell me soon. I thought, Well, no. It was a very tense life for him, and I didn’t think it made him fundamentally happy. But there is something about business, like politics, that is so central to our society. There is great attraction in that in a way that being an academic is not. As an academic, you’re always on the edge looking in. Sociology even more is always on the edge of academia looking in. The perspective of sociology is from the margin and that’s in part why it’s so critical. This career has been fun, but….

Do you have any free-time activities that you enjoy?

I like gardening. A few years ago, we downsized from a big house with a big garden to living in what is technically a condominium. It’s not a high rise. It’s a redeveloped textile mill, which is a happy irony since I studied that industry. We do a little gardening there. I’m involved with the governance on the homeowner’s association board. That takes a lot of time and it’s very intriguing. I’ve become a very local person. I also read a lot, mostly magazines and good nonfiction. And, I used to play the violin regularly, a lot less so now, but in retirement I hope to get back to that or maybe learn to play a new instrument.

We’d like to thank Dr. Leiter for his time, his good humor and his service to the department over the years. You can find more information about him here: Faculty Listing – Dr. Jeffrey C Leiter

You can also read what he considers central publications from his main research projects as listed below:

  • Leiter, Jeffrey. 2005. “Structural Isomorphism in Australian Nonprofit Organizations.” Voluntas: International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations 16(1): 1-31.
  • Leiter, Jeffrey and Sandra Harding. 2004. “Trinidad, Brazil, and Ghana: Three Melting Moments in the History of Cocoa.” Journal of Rural Studies 20: 113-130.
  • Leiter, Jeffrey and Matthew C. Johnsen. 1997. “Child Maltreatment and School Performance Declines: An Event-History Analysis.” American Educational Research Journal 34(3): 563-589.
  • Tomskovic-Devey, Donald, Jeffrey Leiter, and Shealy Thompson. 1994. “Organizational Survey Nonresponse.” Administrative Science Quarterly 39:3 (September): 439-57.
  • Leiter, Jeffrey. 1986. “Reactions to Subordination: Attitudes of Southern Textile Workers.” Social Forces 64:4 (June): 948 74.
  • Leiter, Jeffrey. 1983. “Classroom Composition and Achievement Gains.” Sociology of Education 56:3 (July): 126 32.
  • Leiter, Jeffrey. 1981. “Perceived Teacher Autonomy and the Meaning of Organizational Control.” The Sociological Quarterly 20:2 (Spring): 225 239.

Until next time,

The Department of Sociology and Anthropology