By Sarah Fister Gale
At the end of the 2018-2019 academic year, renowned sociologist and George H. Mead Distinguished Service Professor Edward Laumann will retire from the University of Chicago. Laumann, who has been faculty in the Division of the Social Sciences for 45 years, is known for groundbreaking research that gained national headlines and won the admiration of a generation of social sciences researchers to whom he introduced the study social network analysis.
Laumann is considered a founding father in the field of social network analysis, and his research has shaped the way survey research is conducted, which uses networks and graph theory to understand social networks and their impact on personal behavior and larger social entities like business corporations, non-governmental organizations and governmental organizations. “It creates the possibility of representing quantitatively and much more precisely the structure of our society,” says Laumann.
His study of networks began with his dissertation work at Harvard in the early 1960s, where he conducted an urban survey of the social stratification of Cambridge and Belmont, Massachusetts. He was inspired to do the project by a passage in the book Urban Social Structure (1962) by sociologist James Beshers that introduced him to the idea social distance, and the arrangement of personal relationships.
His approach to the study of social psychology and network analysis was further informed while studying under sociologists Talcott Parsons and George C. Homans at Harvard, and later in studying Louis Gottman’s smallest space analysis while working at the University of Michigan. “I took theoretical inspiration from Parsons and how his fascination with structure could be illuminated by network analysis,” Laumann says. That led to his 1973 book Bonds of Pluralism, which explored the form and substance of urban social networks. It was also the groundwork for ensuing projects exploring the social structures of networks of elites, organizational networks, and egocentric networks. “I spent my career studying elites,” he says.
“Ed has a tremendous political sense,” says Linda Waite, the Lucy Flower Professor in Urban Sociology and current chair of the Department of Sociology. “He has deep and broad view of sociology as a discipline, and he knows where the field is going.”
Laumann’s own career was a study in the power of social networks, where casual connections ended up playing vital roles in his work and research. He recalls his first week at UChicago when his wife dragged him to a ‘meet and greet’ cocktail party for new faculty. While there, he met the host’s husband, the director of the American Bar Foundation and a professor of law, who was looking for someone to help the ABF conduct research into the Chicago legal profession. He invited Laumann to meet with the group and offer guidance on how to begin. That turned into a 25-year research collaboration with John P. Heinz, a professor of law at Northwestern University, which became one of the defining projects in his career. Three closely interconnected books on the legal profession and the role of the legal profession in American society resulted, including Chicago Lawyers (1987), The Hollow Core: Private Interests in National Policy Making (1992, on the Washington bar and lobbyists), and Urban Lawyers: The New Social Structure of the Bar (2005, on the transformation of the urban bar in Chicago over a 20-year period).
In parallel with his work on the legal profession, but with a different set of collaborators (including Franz Urban Pappi (UMannheim, Germany), David Knoke (University of Minnesota), and Robert Salisbury (Washington University), Laumann applied the network approach to illuminate the structure and functioning of community and national political elites and the social organization of communities in diverse national and community settings. Funded principally by the National Science Foundation, four books and many related papers were published, including Bonds of Pluralism (1973, a study of Detroit’s urban social structure as it relates to ethnicity, religion, and socioeconomic status), Networks of Collective Action (1976, a study of a German community elite and its city located in the Rhineland at the site of Germany’s main nuclear research installation), The Organizational State (1987, a study of organizational decision-making operating in the national policy domains of health and energy), and the afore-mentioned Hollow Core, which studied policy making in four national policy domains, health, energy, agriculture, and labor during the first Reagan administration).
Laumann has many examples of projects he pursued as the results of connections made in his summer travels, on the squash court, and through collaborative workshops at the University. “The wonders of the University of Chicago is that you are always encountering people and discovering that you have a common interest,” he says. “That’s how this work happens.”
While he’s studied many types of networks and social structures, Laumann is best known publicly for his study of the sociology of sexuality.
His groundbreaking study on sex in America almost didn’t happen. Laumann’s research team, which included Robert Michael, John Gagnon, and Stuart Michaels, secured a N.I.H. grant to study the sexual habits of Americans as a way to support AIDs research in the early 1990s. However, several prominent Congressional members fought the funding due to the provocative nature of the research. “We have the distinction of being the only survey to have an act of Congress forbid its funding,” Laumann says.
The conflict ultimately worked in Laumann’s favor. After that grant was lost, a consortium of philanthropic foundations including the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the Carnegie Foundation, the Ford Foundation, and 4 others, funded the project. The study showed that despite common stereotypes about cheating spouses and rampant promiscuity among young people, American’s sexual habits were relatively tame. They found that 85 percent of married women and more than 75 percent of married men said they were faithful to their spouses, and that married people were having more sex than singles.
When the results were published, Laumann and his team found themselves and their findings in a media storm. “It was an enormous hit,” says Laumann, who spent hours on the phone in those first few weeks, being interviewed by journalists from Time Magazine, the Washington Post, the New York Times, Cosmopolitan, and many others. The project was even referenced in a New Yorker cartoon. “We were featured in more 300 newspapers and magazines in the immediate wake of the book’s publication, and we had a tailored message,” he says. “Americans are conservative when it comes to sex.”
Laumann co-authored two books on the survey with Michael, Gagnon, and Stuart, entitled The Social Organization of Sexuality in 1994, and Sex in America: A Definitive Survey in 1995. Michael and he did a third book Sex, Love and Health: Private Choices and Public Policies (2001, that applied more sophisticated analytic methods to a variety of sex-related topics such as circumcision, sexual dysfunction, abortion, homosexuality, sexual debut, childhood sex, sexual jealousy, and teenage pregnancy. All three outline the results of the survey, with the first defined as “The most accurate, comprehensive – and revealing – study of American sexual practices, preferences and lifestyles ever made.”
This project shaped much of the second half of Laumann’s career. He conducted research for Pfizer on a 29-country survey of sexual behavior and attitudes and sexual dysfunction based on the Global Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Behavior (GSSAB) in the late 90s. “It was their first lifestyle drug (Viagra), and they had no idea how to think about it,” he notes.
He later published results of the first comprehensive, nationally representative study (1999) of sexual practices in China and has done extensive research into the sex lives of older Americans based on the National Institute of Aging-funded National Health, Aging and Social Life Survey (NSHAP), which is a longitudinal study of health and social factors of Americans 59 years old and older. Laumann co-created NSHAP with Waite in 2005, and it secured funding for the fourth wave of research in late 2018.
Like his prior projects, NSHAP studies sexuality, but it is just one of the many issues this cross-disciplinary research covers. Through interviews, written questionnaires, blood samples, and psychological, behavioral, and physical tests, the NSHAP teams explores a wide variety of trends and behaviors among older adults related to health and well-being in the last third of life. “We created a structure where we could ask everybody anything,” Laumann says. The NSHAP data has explored issues such as the impact of weight on longevity; links between olfactory capacity and the onset of dementia and mortality; how social participation changes with age; and, of course, the sex lives of older people.
Waite, who was a student of Laumann’s at the University of Michigan before joining the UChicago faculty in 1990 and partnering with him on this project, argues that his approach to social network analysis has been foundational to the NSHAP study. “He and (grad student) Ben Cornwell built an innovative measure of social networking that is so successful it’s been adopted by many other major national surveys,” Waite says. “He is a master of survey research and doing work on sexuality.”
Along with teaching and conducting dozens of research projects, in his time at UChicago, Laumann served as the editor of the American Journal of Sociology (1978-1984, 1995-1997), chair of the Department of Sociology (1981-1984), dean of the Division of the Social Sciences (1984-1992), Provost of the University of Chicago (1992-1993), and director of the Ogburn Stouffer Center for Population and Social Organization (1983-2019), among many other accomplishments, including election to Fellow status in the American Association for the Advancement of Science and membership in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (founded at the time of the American Revolution by leaders like John Adams, Samuel Adams, and John Hancock).
While Laumann may be retiring, his legacy will be felt for decades to come. “Ed’s approach to organizational sociology shaped me as a political sociologist,” says sociology professor Lis Clemens, who was a research assistant for Laumann as a graduate student and now references his work as a professor. “He was an amazing mentor and a valued source of wisdom.”
Laumann officially stepped down as chair of the board of directors of the NORC November 1, 2018, and will fully retire in June 2019. While he will continue his work to study elder abuse, he plans to spend a lot more time on tennis and biking and playing with his new puppy.
The Department of Sociology will hold a conference on Laumannical themes on Friday, April 5, 2019. To learn more and register, visit HERE.