My Social Science Career: Interview with Steve Duck

As part of a series of occasional interviews with leading social scientists, Steve Duck, Professor of Communication Studies and Daniel and Amy Starch Research Chair, University of Iowa, spoke to socialsciencespace.

Tell me about your role in the social science community

SAGE created the discipline that I’m in. I founded and was the editor for 15 years of the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. The journal started in SAGE London, and the first volume came out in 1984. It was turned down by four major publishers but SAGE took a chance on it and now it’s one of the top journals in the social sciences. That’s one thing I’ve been eternally grateful to them for! Having trust in someone with nothing but ambition and confidence, and being willing to put their money behind it.

The field started out trying to bring together people from multidisciplinary outlets who seemed to me at the time to be publishing about the same sort of topics, but never talking to one another. I had previously organized, with a colleague called Robin Gilmore, some international conferences, but gradually I began to see that there were lots of people that they were talking about and not bringing to the conferences. There was an audience for it. Now junior faculty members are being appointed to teach relationships, from different angles and aspects. It’s something that people in interpersonal communication cannot not know about – even if they don’t teach it themselves. Persuasion and attitude change was the key to opening the door.

Tell me about some of the key people in your field

One would have to pick out Jerry Miller; he was a giant in the field of communication studies. There was no field of interpersonal communication, or of looking at the sorts of ways in which people spoke one-on-one – it was public demonstrations, presentations, and mass audiences. Jerry Miller started to say that some of the principles that apply to mass persuasion apply to interpersonal persuasion, so why don’t we look at that angle. Some key papers in the mid 70s changed people’s approach to what the discipline could include.

John Gottman is also a key figure. He has managed to look at physiological aspects of relationships and came out with a book “What Predicts Divorce”. He reckons he can predict outcomes of marriage with about 90% accuracy just by watching people have discussions on argumentative topics while hooked up to physiological measures. He’s very good, very persuasive. He’s a psychologist, not a communication person, but communication people use his work quite a lot. It raised all kinds of eugenics types of questions – should you let people get married if you know they’re going to get divorced?

What do you think have been the major developments in the field?

One of the major developments that I’ve seen in relationships is away from the psychological models towards looking at the social context in which people do these things. You don’t meet people and fall in love with them on your own at random. You get introduced by people who know them in common with you. Probably more than 2/3 of the people you know have been introduced to you or at events arranged by someone you know. Social network influences of families, peers and so on. Social context is now taken into account.

The move that is now happening that I‘ve always wanted to know more about is everyday life. The classic study would pick out spectacular and exciting things, but most of the time you’re talking about the weather and the food and stuff. People are beginning to recognize that that does something – it’s not just an irrelevant mechanism, it maintains the relationship in very important ways. Those daily interactions are much more important than people had previously recognized.

Which developments would you expect to have the most impact in the future?

Our constituency has changed significantly. Whereas scholars have been used to talking to one another and going to conferences, our constituency is now the taxpayer and big business. Business has come to want to know what we know, and they use it for group training and management weekends and all those things people hate. The taxpayers want to know what’s useful about what you do – what’s practical. I want to know how do I manage people in my environment in such a way that I don’t suffer pain and anger when they get into conflict with me; how to lead better lives in economically challenging circumstances.

Partly connected to that, children need guidance about relationships. All that stuff about bullying in schools, ultimately says that children can’t handle it on their own and need some kind of support in how to deal with bullies, unpopularity, making up with friends. The fourth R – reading, writing, arithmetic and relationships – and they aren’t taught that fourth R. Relationships matter more than people think, and they are probably something we should pay a lot more attention to than we do.

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