Skip Navigation
Joseph Berger Award Statement

The W.E.B. DuBois Career of Distinguished Scholarship Award honors scholars whose cumulative body of work has reoriented the discipline theoretically or methodologically. Joseph Berger has accomplished both. From his earliest writings on status characteristics and expectation states through his statements on the importance of theoretical research programs to the advancement of the discipline, Berger has pioneered an approach to sociology characterized by rigorous scientific theorizing accompanied by systematic empirical research. His influence has spread beyond his intellectual home in social psychology to many other subfields of our discipline.

Berger is most strongly identified with expectation states theory, a set of interrelated theories that focus on the conditions and processes by which status characteristics affect evaluations of competence and performance expectations, the maintenance of those expectations, and the consequences of those expectations for interpersonal behaviors, such as assertion, deference, and influence. The foundational insights of the theory, first explicated by Berger and his colleagues in the mid-1960s (“Status Characteristics and Expectation States”), have been extended through his own program of research as well as those of scholars concerned with power and prestige, distributive justice and reward expectations, legitimation processes, and status construction. The resultant programs of research engage fundamental sociological questions about how social interactions maintain and legitimate larger systems of inequality.

In addition to yielding a deep understanding of how social distinctions—such as gender, race, and educational attainment—shape behaviors and expectations, Berger’s research program ushered in a new methodological approach to sociological social psychology. Expectation states theory’s general principles support precise predictions about the social influence patterns that one would expect in situations involving persons with different combinations of status characteristics. To test those predictions, Berger developed a standardized experimental situation that is now used widely in the field. Although experimental methods were considered novel at the time, Berger’s adoption and advocacy of them encouraged a broadening of the methodological tools available to sociologists interested in social inequalities.

Berger’s program of research serves as a model of collaborative sociology. Virtually all of his published works are co-authored, although his unique contributions shine through. Graduate students from his home institution of Stanford University and beyond testify to the enormous influence he has had on their developing careers, from brief spontaneous comments offered on paper presentations through career-long mentoring partnerships. That his work has meant so much to so many sociologists is testament not only to his personal generosity but also to the precision of his theoretical propositions. They have spawned a body of knowledge that is unique in its conceptual and methodological coherence.

Moreover, Berger’s influence has extended far beyond the boundaries of sociology into psychology, law and criminology, organizational behavior, and education. The broad relevance of the core tenets of expectation states theory has supported their successful application to issues ranging from gender relations on police teams to the influence of professional status hierarchies on the functionality of teams of health-care workers. They serve as the foundation for a nationally and internationally-renowned instructional program (designed by Elizabeth Cohen) that promotes equity in elementary and middle-school classrooms with diverse student bodies.

Both by example, and through his writings on cumulative theory development, Berger has also made lasting contributions to formal theory and mathematical sociology. His first book, Types of Formalization in Small Groups Research, linked mathematical reasoning to the goals of formal theory. He followed this book with several co-edited volumes including the recent New Directions in Contemporary Sociological Theory (with Morris Zelditch, Jr., 2002), that built the case for the importance of theoretical research programs to the advancement of the discipline of sociology. Rather than despair the oft-noted lack of theoretical progress in our field, Berger identifies exemplary theoretical programs and, thereby, provides a blueprint for disciplinary growth.

Joseph Berger has remained as prolific in retirement as he was in the earliest years of his career. His recent publications include a stunning defense of the potential for growth in sociological theory (“Theory Programs and Theoretical Problems,” with Willer and Zelditch in Sociological Theory 2005), and a formal theory of the social construction of diffuse status characteristics (“Diffuse Status Characteristics and the Spread of Status Value: A Formal Theory,” with M. Hamit Fisek, American Journal of Sociology 2006). All told, his work has been cited over 2100 times.

In summary, Joseph Berger’s long-standing investment in research on the causes and consequences of status hierarchies, and his continuing efforts to promote the growth of sociological theories, have paid enormous dividends to our discipline. He received the Cooley-Mead Award from the Social Psychology section of the ASA in 1991. With this award, we acknowledge the full reach of his lifetime contributions to our discipline.