My social science career: Interview with Russell Schutt

As part of a series of occasional interviews with leading social scientists, Russell Schutt talks to socialsciencespace about how he became interested in social science in the 1960s, and how his research interests have developed since then. Russell Schutt is Professor and Chair of Sociology, University of Massachusetts Boston and Lecturer on Sociology, Department of Psychiatry (Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center), Harvard Medical School.

Tell us about a career highlight.

I am the author of Investigating the Social World, a research methods text that was first published in 1996 and is now in its seventh edition. My goal was to help the social science community to move forward in teaching and research practice, appraised of the latest developments, with the best methods and the most effective ways of communicating those methods to students. Over the years, I’ve expanded the scope of ISW, and with co-authors, developed versions for five different disciplines as well as brief editions of most of them.

How did your interest in the social sciences develop?

My family was oriented toward science and academic learning, and growing up in the 1960s I was also exposed to that decade’s turmoil about social problems. I recognized a lack of understanding of the underlying processes and problems that generated social protest, and came to value investigating problems and understanding the multiple sources of issues that people are concerned with, that affect the course of people’s lives. In my senior year at the University of Illinois at Chicago and then as a graduate student there, my first research focus was on understanding the development of public employee unions. This was guided in part by political sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset’s research on union democracy, thanks to my thesis advisor, Mildred A. Schwartz, who had been Lipset’s student.

I learned during this period how exciting social research can be, as I observed union meetings, interviewed key participants, and designed surveys in collaboration with employees and workplace officials.  In subsequent years, I extended this research and used it to develop my first book, Organization in a Changing Environment.  While in graduate school I also designed a study of the success of minority applicants to a large craft union. This project was the foundation for my work as a postdoctoral fellow at Yale University, where I studied sociology of law and developed several articles on legal processes.

Tell us about your current research interests.

Since the mid-1980s, I have studied homelessness and the social services available to homeless persons. In 1990 I was part of a team at the Harvard Medical School that received $13.1 million from the National Institute of Mental Health and HUD for an ambitious evaluation of housing alternatives for homeless people with severe mental illness. We randomly assigned people to live either in group housing or individually and followed them for a year and a half (and I recently collected additional data about many of the participants). My new book, Homelessness, Housing, and Mental Illness, is my comprehensive analysis of the study within a framework of sociological theory. I show that group living was beneficial, although not without its problems, and that participants’ preferences for group or individual housing did not identify the type of housing that was most beneficial for them. I relate these findings to sociological theory about community processes and to current debates about housing policy for homeless persons.

Through the homelessness research, I’ve become much more attuned to the impact of social ties and social engagement.  I’m now extending this interest in collaboration with two of my Harvard Medical School colleagues, Larry Seidman, PhD, with whom I also collaborated in the homelessness research, and Matcheri Keshavan, MD.  My focus in this new work is on the impact of the social environment on cognitive and community functioning, informed by recent research on the ways in which social interaction, psychological processes and biological factors interact to explain individual functioning. At our recent Exploratory Seminar at Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute, Connecting the Social Brain to the Social World, some of the world’s leading sociologists, psychologists, and neuroscientists discussed how to build the foundation for more integrative research that enriches scholarship in psychology, psychiatry and biology with sociological insights about societal context and social processes.

My colleagues and I are also developing plans for new research to identify how best to improve the social environment of group homes and other treatment settings in order to maximize community functioning. In these ways, we are working to develop a more unified social science perspective on fundamental social processes. It is time for this type of integration to occur, as research on social cognition and in social neuroscience is identifying new ways to understand how people respond to, and shape, social context. We can already see more integrated social science perspectives emerging in works like Antonio Damasio’s Descartes’ Error, Eric Kandel’s Searching for Memory, John Cacioppo’s Loneliness, and Robert Sampson’s Shared Beginnings, Divergent Lives. Growing recognition of the value of this interdisciplinary work will stimulate major advances in the field of sociology and increase our impact on other social sciences and beyond.

I am also excited about a large program evaluation I am directing for the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. This is the fourth project I have directed or co-directed on the relation between the formal health care system and the community. In this latest project, my graduate research assistants and I are studying how the new role of patient navigator has been able to coordinate health care for low income women in under-served communities. I expect this research will result in new sociologically-based insights into our rapidly changing health care system.

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