Distinguished Sociologist Practices What He Teaches
“I attribute my success as a sociologist to curiosity,” says Professor Robert Faulkner, a recipient of the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences’ Outstanding Teacher Award and the UMass Amherst Distinguished Teaching Award. “Curiosity breeds a taste for getting out of the office and into the lives of others.” Faulkner has been doing that for years, focusing on organizations, corporate crime, culture and social networks. He has studied the Hollywood film industry, corporations and advertising agencies, fraud in oil and gas partnerships, and jazz musicians at work. The latter is of special interest, because Faulkner is also trumpeter, playing gigs with bands in the Pioneer Valley and beyond.
“My typical day is a TWPD cycle,” Faulkner explains. “Teaching, writing, practicing the trumpet and dinner. Currently I’m launched on project, funded by the National Science Foundation, of studying repertoire in action among jazz musicians. It has grown out of my association with Howard S. Becker, a renowned sociologist and terrific piano player. My love of jazz and interests in culture and collective action have finally come together.”
This project began when the two musicians were playing tunes and kept saying to each other, “Do you know….” They’d name songs and then improvise on them. “Jazz musicians do that often when making music together,” says Faulkner. “It dawned on us that this fun yet mundane practice captured a larger theme: what melodies do musicians know, work on, and play on gigs. Out of our mutual curiosity about tunes, standards and The Great American Songbook, the project was born.”
Early in his career Faulkner pioneered a sociological study of the Hollywood film industry. Through interviews with musicians, composers and associated personnel—both elite and on the industry’s periphery—he determined how they perceive their careers, how they define artistic success and how they establish, or try to establish, connections with filmmakers. By focusing on interactions between buyers and sellers of artistic talent, he showed this market’s dynamics. Several papers ensued. One, “Organizational Cognition in a Jazz Ensemble,” written with John Voyeur, won the Academy of Management’s Best Paper Award in 1986. It should also be noted that Faulkner’s book Music on Demand (1983, reissued in paperback 2002) is a classic in the field of economic sociology and the sociology of occupations.
Another major contribution was Faulkner’s study of the social organization of the great electrical price-fixing conspiracy of the 1950s. “I obtained data on the meetings among the conspirators,” he recalls, “and then showed that cartel continuity and corporate authority are strong predictors of cartel effectiveness. With Wayne Baker of the University of Michigan, I wrote on conspiracy structure and social networks that result in penalties for industry participants. That article, published in American Sociological Review, was the 1993 winner of the Max Weber Award for Distinguished Scholarship from the American Sociological Association.
Faulkner came to UMass Amherst in the early 1970s. “I had the good fortune of working alongside Peter H. Rossi [professor emeritus of sociology for whom the Association for Public Policy and Management last year created an annual award to honor his lifetime achievements]. We taught graduate methods together, and from him I earned my ‘second PhD.’ His wisdom set me on a course to combine qualitative intensive work with quantitative analysis of large data sets, something I have explored ever since.” Faulkner works with undergraduates on developing a large data set on corporations and their internal governance, external alliance partners and the resultant networks. They argue that uncertainty facing a firm will drive network partner selection patterns. Of particular and pressing concern is how firms respond to being accused of economic crime. Consulting firms find such analysis interesting.
Being both sociologist and musician is not easy, Faulkner concedes. “Both are time intensive and resource consuming. My leisure time is spent reading—though my students have encouraged me to watch all episodes of “The Shield” because many of the themes in this drama are discussed in my course. Music is delightful work, but requires patient practice and putting up with all the exigencies associated with music making as social interaction: exemplary moments of beauty, lots of tunes to know and play, wonderful musicians to work with, combined with large egos, colleague competitors, politics and the occasional disappointment.” Sounds like a major sociological study in the works.
March 29, 2006