Discrimination and political reform | Interview with Dr. Theda Skocpol

Discrimination and political reform | Interview with Dr. Theda Skocpol

We met with Harvard University’s political scientist, Dr. Theda Skocpol to talk social welfare policy, political reform, and so much more. Enjoy!

Top political scientist Dr. Theda Skocpol discusses political reforms, social welfare policy, Obamacare, the Tea Party, student political science research, and how to deal with discrimination. Victor S. Thomas Professor of Government and Sociology at Harvard University, Dr. Skocpol talks with Dr. Jed Macosko, academic director of AcademicInfluence.com and professor of physics at Wake Forest University.

If anyone thinks that they're not being treated fairly, I think the important thing to do is speak up, you don't have to be angry about it, but speak up and say, "Look, I don't think this is right, can we make some changes?"” – Dr. Theda Skocpol

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Interview with Political Scientist
Dr. Theda Skocpol

Interview Transcript

(Editor’s Note: The following transcript has been lightly edited to improve clarity.)

00:22Getting your start

Jed Macosko: Hi, I’m Dr. Jed Macosko at AcademicInfluence.com and university of Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem. We have another wonderful guest here today, it is Professor Theda Skocpol. Theda Skocpol is one of our illustrious influencers on our website, and she has made some time to be with us today to tell all of us how she got her start in her career.

So, Professor Skocpol, can you tell us a little bit about that?

Theda Skocpol: Okay. Well, at this point, I’m a professor of Political Science and Sociology at Harvard University, but of course, I started out a long time ago as a student in Michigan, growing up at the State of Michigan. My grandparents on both sides were farmers like lots of people in the United States, and my parents were teachers. And when I was in elementary school, in high school, in Wyandotte, Michigan, which is right down at the bottom of the thumb, down here.


I was known as a smart kid, and that wasn’t necessarily such a good thing for a girl 50 years ago. I wasn’t all that popular except when people wanted to copy my Latin homework and then I was very popular.

Jed: Oh, man.

Theda: So, I handled all that by getting very interested in books, I checked things out of the library, I read a lot of history, sometimes I even stayed home from school to read books, because I found the classes maybe not as exciting. But I knew by the time it was time for me to graduate from high school, it was a 500-person high school class, so it was a large class, I knew that I enjoyed learning and that I wanted to keep learning. So I applied to colleges, I got a scholarship to Michigan State University in East Lansing, Michigan. And yes, I did follow the football team at the height...

Jed: Good for you.

Theda: Of its glory against Notre Dame back in those days. But I also was admitted to the Honors College, and the nice thing about that was that Michigan State was 40,000 students on one campus. But the Honors College was much smaller. And you got a chance to take classes with professors. In my case, I chose the social sciences, but I also did things in French literature as well as anthropology, Sociology, political science, all kinds of classes, but most of my classes were small because I was in the honors program.

Jed: Wow.

Theda: I did well. By the time I was finishing, I had met my husband a physicist from Texas.

Jed: Yaay, physicists. [chuckle]

Theda: Yeah. And we were actually married as undergraduates at the height of the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement.

Jed: Oh wow. Did you say he was from Texas? Is that where he was from?

Theda: He was, but we met in Mississippi. We were both volunteers on a Methodist youth program.

Jed: Yaay Methodists. That’s how I grew up too.

Theda: And the Civil Rights Movement. Yeah.

Jed: Oh, good for you.

Theda: And so we met and married the summer before we graduated.

Jed: Wow.

Theda: And he was teaching high school to avoid being drafted for the war, and I was applying for all the scholarships that I could, because for both of us to go to graduate school, which is what we wanted to do, we had to at least one or both of us win scholarships so that we could afford it. We were both admitted to Harvard University and I knew that I wanted to... I used to think of it as stay in school. I really liked being in school. I didn’t take a year off the way most undergraduates do now, I just went directly to Harvard University where I was in the Sociology department.

Jed: Oh, so you started off in a Sociology PhD program.

Theda: I did. And I had already studied a lot of history as an undergraduate and Political Science, and I was in a program where you didn’t have to specialize. So for me Sociology was attractive ’cause it kept all my options open, I wasn’t necessarily rejecting any other way of understanding society and politics. But I enjoyed being in that program at Harvard University. I had teachers like Seymour Martin Lipset and Daniel Bell . And I learned about Japan from Ezra Vogel and China.

Jed: Wow.

Theda: And by the time I was a few years into my graduate program, I became interested in studying revolutions. I took a seminar with Barrington Moore, who was a famous comparative historical sociologist. He was very tough in the classroom, he would go around and ask a question and if you didn’t give the right answer, he’d go to the next student.


Jed: And kinda give you a sneer like, “Man, you should’ve known that.”

Theda: Yeah, it was highly stressful, but I learned a lot and...

Jed: Oh good.

Theda: I ended up writing a paper comparing the French, Russian and Chinese Revolutions, and that ended up developing into my PhD thesis.

05:58Thesis turned book

Jed: Wow, that must have been a fascinating thesis. Now is that the kind of thesis that you were able to turn into a book afterwards or?

Theda: I was. And it was a very risky thesis to do because it was too big a topic really for a PhD. A lot of people said, “Well, maybe you shouldn’t do all that,” but after I finished the thesis in 1975, I was glad I had because it did serve as the basis for a book. And I over the next year or so, I worked on it some more and developed it further. And it was my first book, published in 1979, and it really caught on. A lot of people considered it to be a very important book, States and Social Revolutions it’s called.

Jed: Wow. And that was in the height of the Cold War.

Theda: It laid out a different kind of argument about why revolutions happen, it said it depended on weakening the military and a split between the landed classes in the military and peasant rebellions, and so, I tracked all that for those three countries.

Jed: Wow, fascinating. Well, just the other day, I think it was just yesterday, we interviewed on this same program, Bruce Bueno de Mesquita , who had some fascinating different insights into why things happen the way they happen. So I’m sure you’re familiar with him and with Rogers Smith , we also interviewed him.

Theda: Right.

07:25Getting hired at Harvard

Jed: And a guy from Norway we interviewed as well, named Erikson, so Thomas Erikson. Each of them had a different take in political science, it seems like you’re coming really at it from Sociology. So how did that change the way your career developed, so we’re at the point where you publish your first book, do you also have your first professor position or, where are you at now?

Theda: I did, I was hired at Harvard University, which is an unusual thing for the university to hire its own PhD, but it was the height of the feminist movement and women graduate students were demanding that these departments think about hiring some of their own female PhDs or other PhDs.

Jed: Yeah.

Theda: And in my case, I guess because I had professors who knew me, they hired me along with a couple of others, we were the first women to be hired in the department, for a very long time.

Jed: Sorry to interrupt you, but we’ve been interviewing some anthropologists as well and Louise Lamphere ...

Theda: Oh, yes.

Jed: Was at Brown University. Okay, I thought you might know her because of the tough road she had to hoe to fight against Brown when they denied her tenure. So you were right in the thick of all that, that was just around the same time period.

Theda: It was. And I was very happy as an assistant professor in the Sociology Department at Harvard, but when it came time for them to judge me for tenure, my book had come out and had won a top prize in the Sociology field, but they had a tie vote and it didn’t go forward.

Jed: What?

Theda: And so I’m like Louise Lamphere in a way, I filed one of the first grievances. She filed a lawsuit, I filed an internal grievance at Harvard.

Jed: Yeah, and she did start with the internal thing.

Theda: Yeah.

Jed: I learned that in the interview.

Theda: You have to do that.

Jed: But yeah, she ended up having... Yeah, you had to start with that, and then she had to do the lawsuit, but you didn’t have to do a lawsuit, you were able to get things worked out?

Theda: It never got to a lawsuit, it took a very long time, and during the interim, I went to the University of Chicago where I was quite happy for several years, but I did eventually win my case as an internal grievance at Harvard, and I was brought back with tenure.

Jed: So a lot like Louise Lamphere, because she had to leave Brown and go to the University of New Mexico for several years before they solved the case, and she got to get her job back. And then she’s still at the University of New Mexico, ’cause she ended up liking it. But here you are, in Boston right now. What part of, what part of the Boston area do you live in, Cambridge, or further out?

Theda: Cambridge.

Jed: You live in Cambridge. Okay, wonderful.

Theda: Well, and right now I’m in Maine, so we have a summer home in Maine and I love New England.

Jed: You love all of New England, even though you’re from Michigan, does it kind of remind you of some of the shore line up at...

Theda: It does.

Jed: Lake Michigan, Lake Superior?

Theda: I’m from Michigan, certainly.

Jed: Yeah, yeah.

Theda: I also love the University of Chicago. I wanna be clear, I spent five very happy years there.

Jed: Okay.

Theda: So, it’s a wonderful university. It’s very intellectual and people debate across department lines, and in the University of Chicago, I was in the Political Science as well as Sociology department.

Jed: Oh.

Theda: So that’s when I made the move, really.

Jed: That was your shift, interesting.

Theda: In a way, it doesn’t matter because I study politics, I’m interested in how political change happens. And I started out studying revolutions, but in the last period, many years, I’ve been studying reform movements and social movements in America and in the Western world.

Jed: Okay.

Theda: I don’t study the same topic all the time, I look at political change and how it happens in different settings.


Jed: Yeah, well I can imagine that, ’cause we interviewed Don Green yesterday, and he, as you know, is at Columbia, but was long time at Yale, and he talked about how his research has changed quite a bit over the years.

Theda: Yes, yes.

Jed: And it sounds like that’s what you’re saying too. Maybe you could give us a few examples of the reforms that you’ve studied in the United States, ’cause I’m sure unlike the politics in China and in France and Russia, most of the students that listen to this interview might be familiar with some of the reforms that you studied.

Theda: Yeah, I wrote about the rise of social welfare policies in the United States. And many years ago, I set out to look at the new deal, which is when we got the Social Security System and unemployment insurance, the kinds of things that we still have ’til the present day. But I got interested in an earlier period, and I discovered that in 19th and early 20th century America, there were very generous pensions that were given to the Union soldiers who won the Civil War.

Jed: Oh.

Theda: They didn’t go to the southern soldiers, they went to the northern soldiers. But they were so generous that by the early 20th century, they were like old age pensions and disability payments. And at that point, the former Confederate States created their own systems, but they were not as generous because the Confederate States were much poorer at that time.

So that book, it became called Protecting Soldiers and Mothers. I discovered in that work, that the first big social policies in the United States were for our veteran soldiers. And then in the early 20th century, there were women’s movements that created programs for mothers and children, Mothers’ Pensions, they were called.

Jed: From the government, interesting. Wow.

Theda: And so I really discovered a whole new trajectory for American social programs, and I realized that they didn’t just start with the New Deal. More recently, I’ve studied healthcare policy. So I wrote a book about the rise and fall of the Clinton Health Plan back in the 1990s. And a book about Obamacare about how it passed.

Jed: Two separate books.

Theda: Yes, how it passed and what the obstacles have been to carrying out fully because of course, it’s still controversial in American politics.

Jed: Very, it’s gonna be coming up in this election, whether Obamacare...

Theda: It comes up in every election. [chuckle]

Jed: Unfortunately.

Theda: Yes. Yeah.

Jed: So you have the book on it. So we should read that book. [chuckle]

Theda: Yeah, yeah.

Jed: Well, you are truly one of the most influential political scientists, and it’s no surprise that you just love what you do. I’m not surprised to find out that from when you were young, you just loved learning, you loved that process. And it sounds like you love Harvard, you love the New England area, the students at Harvard. So that must be really, rewarding to get to be there again.


Theda: Yes. In fact the most interesting recent thing that happened is that my students and I are working on American politics now. And I wrote a book about the Tea Party, where I went out and actually talked face-to-face with Tea Party people. And then more recently, some of my undergraduate students, I think your listeners might find this interesting, they wrote senior theses by going back to their home states.

One of them comes from North Carolina, and she wrote about changes in the Republican Party in North Carolina, and another one went to Michigan and asked why Trump won Michigan, which was a surprise. And another one went to Florida and others went to Texas. And we put it all together in a book where I have a number of chapters that I wrote. And my students, including my undergraduate students, adapted their prize winning senior theses to the chapters in the book.

Jed: Wow. So they actually got to write a book.

Theda: I love working with students and I love it when the students get interested in doing research of their own.

Jed: Wow. Well, I have five kids, and a few of them wanna go to Harvard. So it’ll be interesting to see if they end up having you as a professor, do you plan on teaching there for several more years or?

Theda: Oh, I’m not going anywhere? Not yet.


Jed: Oh, good. Oh, good. We need people like you. So, as we kind of wrap up this interview, one theme that I’ve been really coming across as I do these interviews, is that there was a lot of sexisms, sexual discrimination, I guess you’d call it, back in the 70′s 60′s 70′s, even 80′s, you faced that. And I guess what sort of lesson do you wanna pass on to people now who feel discriminated against, including women? I don’t think women are out of the woods yet. I mean, from what I can gather with my wife, my daughters, there’s still so much there, and then of course that doesn’t even count all the other forms of discrimination.

So tell us what we should know if we are not like me, not white and male, but we fall into some of these other categories?

Theda: Well, sometimes even white males are treated badly in the workplace. So I mean, if anyone is, thinks that they’re not being treated fairly, I think the important thing to do is speak up. You don’t have to be angry about it, but speak up and say, “Look, I don’t think this is right, can we make some changes?” Try to build relationships to the people you’re asking to change, so that they don’t feel too threatened in the process.

Don't be shy to ask for change and use whatever mechanisms there are especially working with other people, 'cause it works a lot better if you're speaking up along with others.” – Dr. Theda Skocpol

Don’t be shy to ask for change and use whatever mechanisms there are especially working with other people, ’cause it works a lot better if you’re speaking up along with others.

Jed: Oh, yes.

Theda: But your own story is an interesting one, I had a pretty bitter fight with Harvard University about my tenure, but I eventually prevailed. And after some years went by, some of the people who had been very opposed came around.

Jed: So they’re your friends now or they’re...

Theda: Yeah. They would come up to me and quietly say, “I was wrong about this.”

Jed: Oh, that’s so rewarding.

Theda: I would simply smile and say, “Thank you.”

Jed: Good for you. You’re definitely the bigger person.

So you have to be determined and tough and stick up for yourself, but you also have to be ready to be constructive, when the change starts to happen.” – Dr. Theda Skocpol

Theda: I didn’t try to make a big fuss about mistakes that happened in the past. So you have to be determined and tough and stick up for yourself, but you also have to be ready to be constructive, when the change starts to happen.

Jed: And forgiving, like, I guess you must have learned in your Methodist upbringing, forgive others. [chuckle]

Theda: Yeah, that’s always served me well.

18:06Sign off

Jed: Well, good for you. Well, thank you so much. We really appreciate it Professor Skocpol, and we look forward to seeing what other amazing people take the same path that maybe you’ve taken.

Theda: Well, I bet a lot of your students at Wake Forest will do that.

Jed: Yes. And this interview will be watched by people all over the world, so hopefully, not just at my institution.

Theda: Oh good, well, I think it’s possible for anyone, I started out in a pretty, pretty humble circumstances.

Jed: Great, wonderful. Thanks so much.

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