Skip to main content

Click here to listen to the episode on Spotify

In the fortieth episode of the “Saturdays at Seven” conversation series, Todd Ream talks with Robert J. Wuthnow, the Gerhard R. Andlinger ʼ52 Professor of Social Sciences at Princeton University. Ream and Wuthnow start by discussing the limitations that come with comparisons between recent waves of college student activism and the activism of the 1960s and early 1970s. They transition to exploring Wuthnow’s experience as a doctoral student at the University of California at Berkely, the ways he learned to frame questions, and the ways he learned to determine whether questions merited pursuit. Ream and Wuthnow then discuss the questions Wuthnow pursued over the course of his career and arc of the books he wrote. The end of that arc, ironically, led Wuthnow to explore the changing nature of the social fabric of communities comparable to the one in which he grew up as a child in rural Kansas. Finally, Wuthnow discusses the virtues he believed proved most critical to the exercise of the academic vocation including the role gratitude played for him over the course of his career.

Todd Ream: Welcome to Saturdays at Seven, Christian Scholar’s Review’s conversation series with thought leaders about the academic vocation and the relationship that vocation shares with the Church. My name is Todd Ream. I have the privilege of serving as the publisher for Christian Scholar’s Review and as the host for Saturdays at Seven. I also have the privilege of serving on the faculty and the administration at Indiana Wesleyan University.

Our guest is Robert J. Wuthnow, the Gerhard R. Andlinger Class of 1952 Professor of Social Sciences Emeritus at Princeton University. Thank you for joining us. 

The 2023-2024 academic year witnessed a renewed wave of activism on college campuses, activism, several commentators were quick to compare to the student activism of the late 60s and 70s. As one who began his academic career trying to make sense of the social transitions that occurred during the late 60s and 70s, how do you make sense of this recent wave of student activism?

Robert Wuthnow: Well, I can understand why commentators would be interested in comparisons with the 1960s, and undoubtedly we’ll be seeing more of that student papers and so forth. I personally would be reluctant to say that that’s going to be a terribly productive comparison for several reasons. 

First of all, there have, of course, been many campus protests and protests in other venues between now and the 1960s. And for that reason, even though this one maybe stands out and the 1960s stand out, for that reason, there’ve been a number of studies by social scientists of protest movements. And there is, in fact, quite a literature on that. 

And so that literature, and it’s, it’s not an area of sociology that I specialize in, but generally speaking, that literature has talked about the importance to protest organizations of the organizing skill itself, of the people involved, the role that resources play, whether it’s human resources or just simply the availability of space and good weather prevailing, so forth, the role of the media. And, of course, the way in which policing sometimes, adds to the public interest in the, in the events. 

So those are all empirical questions, and a person who is interested could teach an entire course on that. And so it’s the kind of thing that you speculate about at your peril, unless you really know the literature. And since I don’t know the literature that, well, I for one would be reluctant to speculate. 

But the other reason for caution is that the current protests are of course very serious, taken very seriously by those involved and by administrations and so forth. And that means that we have to understand the complexity or we would need to understand the complexity before saying very much about the current protest. 

In the years that I’ve been teaching, for example, I have had students from Israel. I’ve had students who had served their years in the military in Israel. I’ve had students who were of Palestinian background, some refugees, some not. I’ve had students from surrounding countries. Offhand, I can remember Syria, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Iran. And I learned a lot from talking with those students, even though I’m not at all a Middle East specialist at all.

But I did learn that these issues that have been long-standing, of course, in Israel and in the Palestinian areas, taken very seriously, taken many lives now. And so, I think it’s important for any scholar, let’s say, who might be interested in teaching about these issues and hopefully one of one of the outcomes might be more understanding through teaching and conversation, but it, it is important to understand the deep personal engagement of so many people, and then to look at whatever resources might be available, certainly on many campuses, maybe not all, but on many campuses. There are courses that are relevant, faculty who are, who are doing relevant research. 

And as far as churches are concerned, some of the denominations Presbyterians, for example, have been very interested for good reason, for a long time in these issues and have, have worked out studies as well. So for all of those reasons, I would be cautious about comparisons, but also at the same time say this, this is a very serious engagement and we certainly hope for the best possible outcomes from it.

Todd Ream: Thank you for reasons you just noted, but also because perhaps it’s still too early to know I’ll admit that this, this next question perhaps is unfair, but in what ways, if any, do you think this wave of student activism will impact the social fabric of college and university campuses?

Robert Wuthnow: I think it really is too early to speculate about that. I do think that we might expect, just as we did after the 9/11 attacks, that there would be increasing conversations, conferences, courses, maybe fellowships and scholarships for interested students. I mean, that’s what campuses do best. That’s what they should do. And so that’s my hope that that would be one of the outcomes. 

As far as other kinds of broader possibilities, one of the issues right now is whether campuses are going to divest of investments in Israel or in the Middle East or in the manufacture of weapons or whatever. I think that’s a very interesting issue. 

You know, it goes back to South African divestments. At this point, I’ve read that Union Seminary has decided to divest. I’ve read that Trinity College Cambridge has decided to divest from weapons manufacturing in general. 

But I also know from what I’ve read that divestiture is complicated, controversial, and even for those who think it’s a workable strategy, it’s gotten very, very difficult simply to affect it because of the complexities of investments these days.

Todd Ream: Thank you. If I may want to shift now to asking you some, some biographical questions in terms of your sense of vocation as a scholar. You earned an undergraduate degree from the University of Kansas, a master’s from Northern Colorado, and then a PhD from the University of California at Berkeley. As echoed perhaps in those previous questions, your education spanned the tumultuous years of 1964 to 1975. And in what ways did that social transition that society was undergoing during those years sort of captivate your interests?

Robert Wuthnow: Well, certainly it was a culture shock to move within a few months time from Kansas or Colorado to the Bay Area in California. And so transitions and cultural change and so forth were important personally. 

But my memory also is that my interest in social change was significantly sparked by the faculty who I was studying with. I have a distinct memory in one of my very first graduate classes, graduate sociology class, of the professor going to the chalkboard at that time and drawing a sloping line. I don’t remember if it sloped upwards or downwards, but it was to represent social change. And he was very interested in social change, cultural change and changes in the economy and with the war going on in Vietnam and so forth. And so that sparked my interest. 

And of course, in sociology, all the way back to the beginning, the reason for sociology as a discipline was people back in the 19th century thinking about social change in the economy and capitalism and urbanization, secularization, the growth of cities and so forth. And so it was, it was natural for me. I hadn’t thought about when I decided to go into sociology to focus on social change, but certainly it made sense that this was a discipline where you could study that.

Todd Ream: Yeah. In what ways did you come to see the spiritual dimensions also woven into that era of change and into social change in general?

Robert Wuthnow: That happened primarily through a research grant that a couple of the faculty in the department received from the Ford Foundation to look at new religious movements. And I had not planned on doing my dissertation on anything having to do with religion. I had actually written a fairly comprehensive dissertation proposal on race relations.

But then that grant came along and I was asked to be involved in it. And so the substance of that research was to look, in a rather simplistic way through some survey research that was possible, at some of the changes in the ways that people were understanding the major social events in the world, especially inequality, social problems, and so forth.

And to try to see if people might be less likely to refer to theistic interpretations of those events, perhaps more likely or equally likely as in the past, to use individualistic event explanations, or maybe to look at social structures, or even because of the rise of experiential, even kind of mystical, religious movements, to view things through a more experiential dimension. And so, that was fascinating for me to look at as a research project.

Todd Ream: Thank you. You mentioned a teacher in whose class you were in who created a sloping line related to social change. Can I ask you, in particular, though, about teachers who had the greatest impact upon you during those years and perhaps even in the early years of your career?

Robert Wuthnow: Yes, my mentor was a sociologist named Charlie Glock, G-L-O-C-K. And he was a survey researcher. He had directed the Bureau of Social Research at Columbia before moving to Berkeley. And at Berkeley was the director of the Survey Research Center there. And at the time I was there, he was also the chair of the department. And he was interested in sociology of religion, in addition to many other topics, especially race relations and inequality. 

He was a Lutheran who did consulting work or consultancy of some kinds with the Lutheran denomination at the time. And I have to credit Charlie Glock and his wife, Mickey Glock, with taking me under their wing and providing support, inviting me, inviting my wife and I to their house, finding a desk for me to, to work at helping me to figure out what I was supposed to be working on and, was able to keep in touch with him over many years, even after he retired. So I, I really appreciate everything that he did for me.

Todd Ream: Thank you. Are there any texts in particular that had a greater or perhaps even the greatest impact upon you during those years and maybe even in the early years of your career? 

Robert Wuthnow: Peter Berger is the person who comes to mind when I think about texts that really made a difference. Peter Berger’s books were coming out about one a year at the time. The Sacred Canopy, The Social Construction of Reality, a few others. They were being read avidly by folks at the Graduate Theological Union across the street from campus where I spent quite a bit of time. 

They were readable, they were authoritative, erudite, and they also spoke sympathetically, because of Peter’s own faith commitments to an understanding of religion. And I read those avidly. I used ideas from them for many years in my teaching. And later on, Peter and I became good friends and I owed a lot to his mentorship as well.

Todd Ream: In what ways, if any, do you believe the study of sociology changed over the course of your career and perhaps the place of religion and the role that religion played within the study of sociology over the course of your career?

Robert Wuthnow: Well, as a discipline, it has been a discipline that has become more diverse, more inclusive, more focused on questions that have come to the forefront of public attention in recent years: immigration, gender, sexuality, race relations, all of those. 

As a discipline, it has also changed in terms of the technologies available for collecting and analyzing data. So at the time I was starting, survey research was relatively new and obtaining data was tremendously expensive and time consuming, and all of that has become easier. And more recently, using big data and technology and web scraping and all of those has had an impact on the discipline. 

As far as religion is concerned, and there have actually been some studies internally of how sociology of religion has changed over the years, the gist of that is that sociology of religion as a discipline has been marginal to the broader discipline. It has in many ways been self-marginalizing, in the same way that almost any sub-field is self-marginalizing because people need to interact with other specialists in their sub-field. 

But at the same time, it is a topic that many sociologists are not as interested in as some of the broader issues. It has, as a sub-discipline, responded consistently to changes in religion more so than to changes in theories or ideas. 

So for example, I mentioned a moment ago that in the 1960s or better, the 1970s, new religious movements became a topic that fascinated many sociologists of religion. And that was new because for the previous 30 years roughly, sociology of religion had meant studying churches, either studying Protestant churches or Catholic parishes. And so that began to change as new religious movements developed. 

Then, in the 1980s, the religious right started to become of greater interest and people who had never thought about evangelicals before decided that it was interesting to learn more about evangelicals. More recently than that, sociology of religion has been more interested in diversity, thinking about Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam, more than in the past. And in the last few years, the big topic has been the decline in religious affiliation and religious attendance. 

And so sociologists have kind of tracked all of those, and sometimes for better and sometimes for worse you can be a little bit too topical. Um, but generally the intent has been to try to make sense of what’s going on currently in American religion.

Todd Ream: Thank you. After you began your career at the University of Arizona, you accepted a position at Princeton University, where you spent the rest of your career. As someone who served as department chair and director of what is now the Center for the Study of Religion at Princeton, in what ways, if any, did the study of sociology at Princeton change over the course of your career?

Robert Wuthnow: Well, the Princeton sociology department had the good fortune, through a lot of good leadership and hard work, to become better and better over the years. Over the last 10 years or so it has generally been listed as one of the top two or three ranked graduate departments in the discipline. It has increased in size and I would say in quality. An incredible number of really talented faculty and excellent graduate students and undergraduate students. 

I would say that one of the other, which I regarded as positive developments, was that, although the department from the time I was there had been interested in theoretical questions and methodologies and so forth over the years, it also became more interested in social problem and social policy issues, partly because it had a joint affiliation with the school for public policy and some of the faculty were jointly appointed, looking at public policy. 

And as far as the study of religion was concerned, this is kind of a separate issue, but it seemed to me that there was a greater acceptance, a greater interest in the study of religion in the department broadly, even though there were only one or two of us at any given time who were actually working on the study of religion. But it did seem that there were more faculty who were saying, yeah, this is an important topic to be interested in.

Todd Ream: Thank you. You’re the author or editor of approximately 40 books. Would you explain the process, please, you undergo when formulating a question that you then pursue? How do you go about identifying the actual question in ways that can then be operationalized in a study?

Robert Wuthnow: I can probably answer that question better with respect to the many dissertations I’ve advised because I was talking to students and we were being very intentional and self-conscious in that respect. Whereas with my own, it was, it was maybe less intentional and less conscious. 

But generally, the issues in dissertations and in my own selection of topics or that first of all, asking whether or not you have the skill to do the project, whatever that might be, might be. If it’s going to take statistical knowledge, do you have that statistical knowledge and is your knowledge of statistics up to date, sufficient enough to do it well? Or if you’re going to be doing something involving other languages, do you have the language skills? Or if you’re an ethnographer, do you have those skills?

After you’ve kind of looked at your skills, then secondly, is it feasible? By that I mean, is there going to be available information? Can you get access to the people you want to interview? If you’re going to be doing a survey, can you raise the money that it’s going to take to pay for that? Or if you’re going to be looking at an organization, are they going to let you in the door?

And so when the answer is yes there, then the third and the biggest question is, is it worth doing? Are you interested enough in spending several years of your life doing it? Is anybody going to care that you do it? Is it just, as people used to say, a much needed gap in the literature that probably should stay a gap in the literature? Or does it need to be filled? 

And so in my case, it was one thing or another. In some cases it was, yeah, can I get a research grant to do this? In another case, it was, well, a problem came to mind from the previous project that I felt wasn’t sufficiently answered. So I wanted to do another project.

And in other cases, it was simply that events once again, came along. So, for example, after 9/11, I did a big project on religious diversity, just to see how people were responding to the fact that our society is more religiously diverse. Or as another example, when a lot of faith-based service programs became possible during the George Bush administration, I did some research to see what was going on with those.

So again, for better or for worse, kind of being influenced by conversations in the media, in public, as well as within the discipline. Those were the decision points.

Todd Ream: Yeah. Thank you. Yeah. Those details are very helpful. Of course, I would love to ask you any number of questions about individual titles you published over the years, but I think I’ll, I’ll limit it to at least to this for now. Is there a book or perhaps a couple of books which you would argue are more definitive of your commitments as a scholar than any of the others?

Robert Wuthnow: Well, I would hesitate to push too hard on that. I would say that the book called The Restructuring of American Religion that was done many, many years ago was reflective of some of my own experiences of transitions within churches, transitions within, kind of, theological and social interests that the churches that I was connected with were interested in.

I was also, though, quite interested in the opportunities I had to look at volunteering and charitable giving, philanthropy, and so forth, because a theme throughout a lot of the research I’ve done and including my own faith commitments has been an interest in social justice. And so that’s emerged in different ways.

My most recently published book, for example, is called Faith Communities and the Fight for Racial Justice. And that was a longstanding interest. As I mentioned a few moments ago, I had thought about doing a dissertation on race relations. 

But the immediate impetus for doing that book a few years ago was being involved in an anti-racism group through a church. And thinking about, well, what resources are available? What’s happening in churches, and, and wanting to know, to, to know more about it. So that, that was actually one episode, one instance in which a church commitment or a church, in particular, contributed to a scholarly project.

Todd Ream: Is there a book which surprised you in terms of the wide reading it received? One that you published and that you put your heart into, but you thought it had this audience in mind and it turned out to be perhaps even much larger than you would have initially anticipated?

Robert Wuthnow: Well, none of my books have had a very large audience. I’ve published with university presses and that’s, that’s because they know the audience. 

I do have to say I was, I was surprised at the reception that the Restructuring of American Religion received. I hadn’t expected that that would attract much interest, and it certainly attracted more interest than I imagined that it would. And as I look back on it, I’m pleased that that happened.

Todd Ream: Thank you. If your early work sought to make sense, or some of your early work, sought to make sense of social transformations that society experienced during the late 60s and 70s, some of your most recent work seems to make sense of why people who live in so called red states believe their views have been overlooked, neglected, or perhaps even in some cases, they may say disrespected.

In what ways, if any, did your training as a sociologist prepare you to listen to those voices of those people?

Robert Wuthnow: Well, it was probably the fact that I grew up in a rural area in the middle of Kansas. That had most to do with it. And that was a matter of “me search” to some extent as people call it, kind of thinking about the possibilities of understanding a path not taken, a part of the country that I left and never went back to, and also an attempt to see if there were interesting changes, better or for worse, that were happening in that part of the country.

And so I did spend quite a bit of time writing several books. It was a matter of making the decision to do something that wasn’t considered very interesting or important by many people at the time. There had been, many years earlier in the 20th century, something called rural sociology, but as rural America became less important, rural sociology pretty much disappeared. And so it was unusual for anybody to spend any time doing it. 

What I discovered though, was that partly just understanding some of the ways in which rural communities are put together and how people think helped. And then I also discovered in terms of the kind of training or methodology, that it was important, as it is with any subpopulation, to adapt to some of the local ways of thinking, the pace of life, the manner of speaking.

And so to give you an example, I hired, because it was a big project. I hired a number of people to do interviews in different parts of the country, the South, the far West, New England, Midwest, so forth. And I hired people from those areas, people who knew the local culture, and that helped. 

We also discovered that in rural communities, this wasn’t true all across the board, but in some of the rural communities, especially where farming was the primary mode of work, that the women we spoke to, well, the men too, were reluctant. I mean, here we are, outsiders from an east coast university. Why should they talk to us? 

One piece of the research was on farming. And we discovered a small change in wording, made a difference. If we said we’re interested in family farms, we got nowhere. If we said we’re interested in studying farm families, that made a difference and people were more willing to talk to us. Because family farms is a concept that the USDA uses and it immediately suggests that, oh, there’s going to be policy issues involved. So that was a small change. 

And the other change that we discovered is that the women, some of the women, especially, even if the interviewer was a woman, were reluctant to talk. They give short answers, polite, but just didn’t warm up to the topic. 

And so then the change was that the interviewer engaged in 15 minutes of chit chat to begin with. How’s your garden doing? Oh, that’s, that’s great. You know? So I really liked this thing that you just made and it’s hanging on your wall or what are you cooking these days? Well whatever it might be, chit chat so that the conversation loosened up. 

And that’s true of any population. You know, if you were studying an inner city church, you’d learn the language too. But that I think was an example of one way in which the training and the fact of having come from rural America made it a little more possible. 

Todd Ream: Thank you, that’s fascinating. I want to shift now as our time unfortunately is beginning to become short, to ask you a little bit more about the “me search” component, as you referenced there. And in particular, over the course of your career, how have you come to understand your sense of vocation?

Robert Wuthnow: I’ve come to understand it through a single word and that word is gratitude. Gratitude. I could give you examples. I’ll just say that one of the ways in which I’ve expressed gratitude to people, including in one time, when I was talking in some candid way with the president of my university, I said I’m really grateful to have indoor work. And I’m not even sure if she understood what I referred to. You know, but having grown up on a farm and having grown up in a blue collar family where everybody worked outdoors, it’s just been wonderful to be able to work indoors. 

And then of course, I was always very grateful for my colleagues and being at a good university and being able to be in a career, to be in a vocation where I felt like I could do something. I’m pretty limited in the skillsets that I have, but I felt that I could do a reasonable job of what I was doing. 

And I also found that the ways or the times that I thought most about gratitude changed. You know, sometimes it was just after meeting with a student and feeling yet again, the joy of working with bright, young, creative minds, but at other times it was going across the street. 

I worked across the street from one of the largest campus chapels in the country. It’s a wonderful gothic looking chapel. It was built in the 1920s and just going and sitting in that chapel and looking at the stained glass windows. Or at other times just walking across the beautiful campus and maybe spending a little time sitting and looking at the flower garden in the spring and just being amazed at the opportunity, being grateful for that opportunity.

Todd Ream: Yeah, thank you. I think there are a number of university presidents would appreciate any kind word but I can imagine indoor work was one that very few of them have heard before and thus probably lingered with her for some time after you, after you mentioned that. May have asked you to, to go on a speaking tour around campus, perhaps even and offer that encouragement. 

In terms of the work that you did, are there virtues in addition to gratitude that proved more instrumental in terms of how you went about pursuing answers to the questions that you asked? Are there ones that you found that were important to cultivate and develop or perhaps ones that were important to be wary, avert vices that were important to be wary of and guard against?

Robert Wuthnow: I think the main vice is to be wary of attempting to promote oneself within the discipline of choosing topics that you think are going to advance something in the discipline. That just makes no sense. 

In terms of virtues, integrity, honesty, in some instances, courage and patience just to see a difficult project through, but certainly integrity in working with students and understand that they are their own persons and need to formulate their own projects and have the independence to do that and guide them, but not try to micromanage what they’re trying to do. 

Todd Ream: When you think about the arc of your career then, in what ways, if any, do you think that the perceptions of the academic vocation by individuals who practice it have changed over the course of your career? Has it grown healthier in certain ways or perhaps frayed in certain ways over time?

Robert Wuthnow: I think the main perception is that it’s just become much more difficult. So I had the opportunity, as I mentioned before, to work in a department with a number of very talented, accomplished people, two Pulitzer Prize winners, three presidents of the American Sociological Association, several people who’d won distinguished prizes for their books and so forth. 

And especially of people of my generation, or even a little bit younger, the common conversation was we couldn’t have gotten admitted to this department. We wouldn’t have been good enough. Students now are way better and the expectations are way more demanding. 

And of course that means that it also goes way back to those decisions that high school kids are having to make about careers and they’re sixteen, seventeen years old. How are they going to figure it out? The difficulties that families have across the board in paying for a college education these days. 

And then those who do make it and might aspire to a career in higher education, spending maybe seven years in graduate school, maybe a couple of years on a postdoc, then maybe moving from one place to another for a few years before even getting a tenure track position, it has just become difficult. And so people have to be good. They have to work hard. If they make it, they’re very grateful. But it has gotten difficult.

Todd Ream: For our last question, I want to ask then about the academic vocation and its intersection with the wider public. What, if anything, do you think that scholars owe the wider public? And in the case of, say, Christian scholars, what do they owe the Church?

Robert Wuthnow: Well, certainly, it’s important to be engaged with the wider public, not overly engaged. We have to remember that we’re not journalists and we’re not policy makers, but there has been an increasing awareness of the engagement with the, with the wider public. 

Mention two things very, very quickly, at the center that I was involved with at Princeton, since I left, one of the things they’ve started is a kind of public scholarship, public voice training program to help people know how to speak, how to do blogs or whatever it might be. The other is a program that was directed by my colleague, David Miller, called Faith and Work, for many years, and the issue there is trying to make churches more available of the vocations, whether they’re vocations in higher education or something else that are important. 

Because what, what happens, of course, is that campus ministries or Christian colleges do a good job, for the most part, of helping young people think about their vocations. But then in a church, once you’re out in a congregation I think about two of my neighbors, Bill and Larry, who had long careers, in one case in the military and another in manufacturing weapons for a defense contractor, well, Bill got a lot of attention at his church because he was a greeter and he ran the new members class. Larry didn’t. 

Well, both of them have contributed enormously. Don’t churches pray for peace all of the time? These were two guys who spent their careers, oddly enough, maybe, in the military, working for peace, but Larry at least is never mentioned at church, let alone anybody else.

The difficulty, it seems to me, is that churches, many churches have gotten so focused on building community that they reward the people who are there, who want to spend their evenings and weekends doing volunteer work at the church, but what about the vocation, the rest of the week that are also in many cases contributing to God’s kingdom in the world? Surely churches need to focus on those as well.

Todd Ream: Yeah, thank you. Yeah, important to consider as we move forward. Thank you. Our guest has been Robert J. Wuthnow, the Gerhard R. Andlinger Class of 1952 Professor of Social Sciences Emeritus at Princeton University. Thank you for your sharing your insights and your wisdom with us

Robert Wuthnow: Thank you.

Todd Ream: Thank you for joining us for Saturdays at Seven, Christian Scholar’s Review’s conversation series with thought leaders about the academic vocation and the relationship that vocation shares with the Church. We invite you to join us again next week for Saturdays at Seven.

Todd C. Ream

Indiana Wesleyan University
Todd C. Ream is Honors Professor of Humanities and Executive Director of Faculty Research and Scholarship at Indiana Wesleyan University, Senior Fellow for Public Engagement for the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, Senior Fellow for Programming for the Lumen Research Institute, and Publisher for Christian Scholar’s Review.  He is the author and editor of numerous books including (with Jerry Pattengale) The Anxious Middle: Planning for the Future of the Christian College (Baylor University Press, September 15, 2023).