For UNC Charlotte sociologist Murray Webster, Palo Alto was the place to be in the late ‘50s and ‘60s. Before the region was home to Apple, Hewlett-Packard, Facebook and some of the world’s most influential innovators, Silicon Valley was just pure fantasy. In the 1890s, the area that engulfs much of the Santa Clara Valley was known more for its treasure trove of tomatoes, pears, apricots and prune-producing French plums, than its technological prowess.
In a matter of decades, the valley’s fortunes changed as the black blizzards of the Dust Bowl in the Midwest and the precipice of war ushered in a new era. At Stanford, the ‘Father of Silicon Valley, Frederick Terman was beginning to build the university’s electrical engineering and electronics programs from the ground up, hoping to get graduates to create local electronics businesses.
Following the end of World War II, under Terman’s tutelage as Stanford’s Dean of Engineering, the university created Stanford Industrial Park (now Stanford Research Park), which became home to such companies like Varian Associates, Eastman Kodak and General Electric and created the foundation to Silicon Valley. However, several miles east on the lush grounds of Stanford’s main campus, a new presence would bring the budding technological powerhouse towards another type of discovery.
Joseph Berger arrived on Stanford’s sandstone and red-roofed campus in the late ‘50s. After earning his masters and doctorate at Harvard, Berger sought Stanford just like Terman did decades prior. He was young, eager and ambitious just like many before him. “[Stanford] hired several new people and the new folks they hired were interested in developing theoretical understandings of different things: social psychology, status processes, organizational structures, legitimation in organizations,” says Webster.
These theoretical understandings developed under what is called ‘Stanford sociology,’ a sociological approach that emphasizes expanding and testing theoretical frameworks often with laboratory research methods. However, much like Cam Newton’s adaptable blend of running and passing in the NFL, the approach was unconventional in a relatively young field.
“One of the things that bothers me is that there are a lot of sociologists who don’t know how experiments work,” says Webster, with a noticeable sense of agitation in his usually soft-spoken voice. “The purpose of the laboratory is not to recreate what’s outside, it’s to simplify situations so you can focus on a few things at a time.”
Berger and his colleagues understood this, creating what is called a standardized experimental situation in order to enforce adaptability in experiments in response to new questions that arise from research. Even with Silicon Valley next door, Berger and his colleagues were hard at work creating the foundation of what is now regarded by US News & World Report as one of the top sociology programs in the United States.
“Graduate students were very interested in the work we were doing, so it did not require a great deal of effect to get them interested in working on the different aspects of the program,” says Berger.
Webster was one of those graduate students attracted to the hotbed of research occurring in the depths of Stanford’s first social psychology labs. Much like Stanford’s technological entrepreneurs’ decades prior, Webster persistence around the laboratory and creativity led him to develop source theory. Source theory asserts that if a person has the right to evaluate others (teachers), under what conditions are those evaluations effective.
“In a society like ours we have status aspects of gender, status aspects of race, status aspects of age and occupation,” Webster says. “People make inferences on the basis of those things even without evidence. That affects how they interact.”
These status characteristics such as age, gender and race interact with expectation states theory, which states how social interactions can affect how people perceive someone’s ability and competence. “One of the things [businesses] are very concerned about now is getting women promoted to the management ranks,” says Webster.
According to Berger if status relations continue to exist in society they can create consequences when individuals from different status groups work together in small groups. “They create inequalities in these groups in terms of who influences whom, and inequalities in how individuals evaluate each other,” says Berger. “And these inequalities can often operate to maintain the initial status relations.”
This can manifest in a myriad of ways as validated by Berger’s and Webster’s research. If someone is classified as low-status, they are associated with friendly, nurturing and helpful behavior while high-status behavior is associated with problem-solving and possessing assertiveness.
“People look at that in business and they say ‘those are different personality traits’—they aren’t different personality traits, they’re responses to the situation that people are in,” says Webster. “If a woman is in a low-prestige job and she’s got a status disadvantage based on gender— she’s going to be nurturing, she’s going to be helpful. But you put a woman into a high-status position, you look at the three secretaries of state (Madeline Albright, Condoleezza Rice, and Hilary Clinton) we had, those are very assertive, task focused individuals.
Since his Stanford days, Webster continues to research the convergence of status characteristics and expectation states and often has traveled across the country. Destinations like the University of South Carolina and stints as a visiting professor at Emory, San Jose State and his alma mater in the ‘80s and ‘90s have served as pit spots for the sociologist, until his arrival at UNC Charlotte in 1993.
Twenty-one years after his arrival at UNC Charlotte and a few days before Christmas, Webster was awarded the 2015 Cooley-Mead Award for lifetime achievement in the Social Psychology section of the American Sociological Association, the highest honor a social psychologist can receive. “It makes me feel like I should be dying soon,” Webster says jokingly.
Webster sits comfortably in his present-day office on the top floor of Fretwell overlooking dreary and overcast skies on the UNC Charlotte campus. Beyond the man with a gracious smile and cardinal red sweater are relics and collections over his career, that bear reminders of how much knowledge he has accumulated over a nearly 50-year career that began as an undergraduate at Stanford. A collage of pictures sits outside the confines of Fretwell 460E collecting the fleeting memories of his on-going career, with one particular colleague showing up quite often.
“I look at the other folks who have gotten this award and I think I don’t I’ve done anything important as they did,” says Webster with honest disbelief and gratitude.
Webster’s dissertation advisor, Joseph Berger, won the same award two decades ago, for the ASA’s Social Psychology section and collaborated on research with Webster throughout his career.“[Webster] has created important theoretical arguments, he has devised and carried out crucial experimental tests and concerned himself with developing techniques to overcome the effects of status differences—he is a creative and dedicated scholar who richly deserves the Cooley-Mead Award,” says Berger.
Yet for Webster, his accomplishment is more about UNC Charlotte than himself. “From the beginning of his time here, [Webster] has sought to establish the Sociology department of UNC Charlotte as one of the leading sociological social psychology departments in the country,” says UNC Charlotte sociology professor Joseph Whitmeyer.
UNC Charlotte sociology professor Dr. Lisa Walker says Webster has made efforts to mentor many younger scholars over the years, which as a result has led to co-authored research papers. This collaborative approach isn’t quite as unfamiliar as it sounds. Berger has played role as a mentor to many sociologists including Webster. In the same way Berger influenced Webster, the latter has created the same influence on a newer generation of sociologists.
“Dr. Webster has been important to my career in many ways,” says Whitmeyer. “When I was starting as an assistant professor, he involved me in his research projects and included me in seeking grants. This was very valuable to getting my career off the ground. Dr. Webster taught me a lot about how the discipline of Sociology as an organization of people operates.”
As a result of winning the Cooley-Mead Award, UNC Charlotte joins a list of winners from institutions such as Stanford, UCLA, Harvard and Northwestern. However, for Webster his work in the field of Sociology is long from finished. While teaching various sociology classes at UNC Charlotte, Webster is currently involved an on-going research project with Walker.
“Our work examines how behavior early in an interaction combines with status characteristics to form influence patterns,” says Dr.Walker.
Much like his career has been based on what he gained and embodied from ‘Stanford sociology,’ Webster is still looking to progress sociology into a new era with up-to-date research and technology for the most accurate information.
“I don’t feel like I’m done yet, I got a lot of other things I still want to do,” says Webster.