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April 27, 2005

Sociologist Receives Prestigious National Science Foundation Award

Dalton Conley Is First Sociologist to Receive
Alan T. Waterman Award, a Major, $500,000-honor

The National Science Foundation (NSF), the independent federal agency that supports fundamental research across nearly all fields of science, announced on April 27 that Dalton C. Conley, New York University (NYU), is being recognized by that agency's governing National Science Board (NSB) as one of the nation's top young sociologists. The 35-year-old Conley received the 30th annual Alan T. Waterman Award, named for NSF's first director, at a May 25 ceremony. It is the first time a sociologist has received the honor. (Read the ASA Council Statement.) Dalton Conley

The annual award recognizes an outstanding young researcher in any field of science or engineering supported by NSF. In addition to a medal, the awardee receives a grant of $500,000 over a three-year period for scientific research or advanced study in the mathematical, physical, medical, biological, engineering, social, or other sciences at the institution of the recipient's choice.

Conley [pictured above on the left] received the award from NSF director Arden Bement [on the right] at a black-tie ceremony held at the U.S. State Department's ornate Diplomatic Reception Rooms and Benjamin Franklin State Dining Room. More than 200 scientists and science policymakers attended the event. (Read Bement's award presentation statement.)

Also in attendance were Conley's parents (Ellen and Steve), Lawrence Wu, Chair of the NYU sociology department, and friends and associates of the event's other awardees: Robert W. Galvin, retired CEO of Motorola, Inc., who received the Vannevar Bush Award; Ira Flatow, National Public Radio, who received an NSB Public Service Award; and the Committee on the Status of Women in Computing Research, which also received an NSB Public Service Award.

"As a Waterman awardee, Conley will join a long line of distinguished scientists," said ASA Executive Officer Sally T. Hillsman, "but he will blaze at least one trail in this path by being the first sociologist and only the second behavioral/social scientist to have received the award."

Last year, Conley, who is the director for NYU's Center for Social Science Research, published The Pecking Order, a book the Washington Post called "lucid and provocative" in its explanation of how the forces of income, gender, health, and birth order in families result in "a tangled web" of inequalities that create a family's own pecking order. An NSF Faculty Early Career Award supported Conley's four-year study upon which the book, and other related papers, are based. ASA recognized his talent during his graduate school years by awarding him its 1997 dissertation award.

Conley has written numerous papers and articles and several other books, including Being Black, Living in the Red, The Starting Gate: Birth Weight and Life Chances, and Honky. (See, for example, background on his 2002 Contexts magazine article on the historical and economic implications of slavery for wealth transfer and accumulation over time.)

"Dalton Conley is one of the most creative and productive sociologists at work today," said Craig Calhoun, President of the Social Science Research Council. "His work is reshaping how sociologists think about inequality--and also building bridges to economics, public health, and vital policy debates."

"Sociology is among the hardest sciences of all — harder than the proverbial rocket science," Conley stated upon receiving the award and after thanking his relatives, friends, and the NSF and NSB. "Imagine a science where you can’t do controlled experiments — the . . . staple of most bench science," perhaps implicitly explaining why this is only the second Waterman Award recognition of a social scientist. Commiserating with zoologists and paleontologists, whom he said "share the difficulty of having to piece together observational data without . . . experiments," Conley explained that sociologists are forced to "impute causal processes, not just describe or classify the world" all while accommodating the multiple levels of analysis that constantly and integrally interact.

An additional thorn in sociologists' professional lives is "the complication that . . . reality changes as you study it, and by virtue of the fact that you study it," analogous to Heisenberg's uncertainty principle in quantum mechanics, said Conley. "Our basic units of analysis, like the family, and our conceptual frameworks, like race and class, are ever-shifting as we study them." To top off sociology's formidable list of investigational obstacles, Conley noted that "many of the topics we study (e.g., gender and sexuality, race and class, family life) are, by design, the most politically charged and most personally sensitive topics one could address. That doesn’t make research easy. When you’ve got all those together then you’ve got the challenges of sociology . . . ."

For more information, see the National Science Foundation press release.

Photo above is by Christy Bowe of ImageCatcher News.com and is provided by the courtesy of the National Science Foundation.

About the American Sociological Association
The American Sociological Association (www.asanet.org), founded in 1905, is a non-profit membership association dedicated to serving sociologists in their work, advancing sociology as a science and profession, and promoting the contributions to and use of sociology by society.