Interview: John Boli on his career, methodological individualism and writing better

In this episode of our interview series, our host Lynda Iroulo talks to John Boli, Professor Emeritus of Sociology at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia.

Listen in, as Boli gives insight into his journey to being a sociologist, current challenges within the discipline, and advice to young researchers on how to be better academic writers.

Find a short transcription of the interview below or listen to the full one here:

Lynda: Hello, today we have with us John Boli, professor of Sociology at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. He earned his degrees from the University of Stanford and since then has authored several books and articles on education, globalization and political sociology. It is great talking to you today, John! I would like to begin by asking if you could tell us about your journey to becoming a professor of sociology.

John: I’m happy to be here at WZB, it’s been a very enjoyable experience, even though I’m only here for two weeks. So thank you for that!

My journey into sociology started in my sophomore year at Stanford. I had been an engineering major in my first two years, largely because my father was an engineer I think. And in these two years I just was not very interested. It was 1966 – 68, a time of great social ferment and thus an extremely rapid expansion of the social sciences. So I took a couple of sociology courses and found it very interesting. But at the time the Sociology department at Stanford was very dominated by people who did small groups research, largely social psychology. And while I found it interesting to make that shift, these topics weren’t quite related to the big issues and the things that interested me. Fortunately, while I was still an undergraduate, John Meyer had come to Stanford from Columbia and became my mentor when I went on to graduate school. Oddly enough, I never took a course from John Meyer. But we talked a lot and I eventually was able to join one of his research projects. So that was kind of the beginning and my true introduction into sociology. Another influence in graduate school was that I came across the work of French sociologist and theologian Jacques Ellul. His work also was a very big stimulus to me to grapple with really large questions.

Having said that, I actually never thought to have a career in sociology, because I never thought in terms of careers as such. I was just really interested in ideas, knowledge and pursuing intellectual interests, and figured I just didn’t want to get bored.

Lynda: You’ve been in this field for so long now, what would you say are your major influences?

John: Well, obviously the two people I mentioned so far, Jacques Ellul and John Meyer. In some way it was more Ellul’s theology that influenced me than his sociology. He was a French reformed protestant and his work helped me to understand for example the many peculiarities of American so-called “Christian religions”. I also found his concept of téchnique very interesting. It basically deals with the illusion that technology can be completely controlled and has a wide range of implications for the analysis of politics, propaganda and a great many other things.

And then there is John Meyer. He had begun to develop these ideas which later became known as neoinstitutional theory. He began to think about social processes as essentially myth and ritual, and an enactment of culture.

Lynda: Right now sociological theory is increasingly used in fields like political science and other fields. What do you think are the major challenges in sociology and interdisciplinary study today?

John: The number one problem with sociology as far as I’m concerned is its methodological individualism. The vast majority of sociologists, without realizing it, accept the notion that the individual is the fundamental and only unit of reality; that the family is a collection of individuals; that the state is a fiction; that communities are really just assemblies of individuals and so on. Which means they don’t see that the individual is itself a myth and an ideology and treat it as reality instead of a social construct. But as soon as you do that, then you start to have real room to understand why it is that people frequently act against their own interests, do not understand what they are doing and are self-contradictory. In fact this helps you to explain why irrationality increases along with rationalization.

Lynda: Okay. So your first book came out in 1985 and you’ve been writing for that long. What advice would you give to young scholars like us who sometimes struggle when it comes to writing?

John: I always say if you want to write well or if you are having trouble writing, the thing you have to do above all is to write. Well, how do you force yourself to write if you’re not feeling very good about it? There are a couple of strategies: one is to pick out a relatively easy piece of work and just do it. The other strategy, which doesn’t work for all students, is to pick the hardest part and struggle your way through it, and once you get past that barrier everything else can start to flow.

The second item for me is to get your ego out of the way. Recognize that you are just trying to be part of this big intellectual tradition of trying to get knowledge about how the social world works. And recognize that you are – most likely – never going to be the most famous theorist or even a major figure in the field, but you will be able to make some kind of contribution. So what you want to do is to get a draft – whether it is good or bad initially doesn’t matter. Once you have a draft you need to have people read it and give you feedback. This is crucial. And don’t worry what it says about you, worry what it says about your attempt to generate knowledge.

Lynda: It was a pleasure talking to you. Thank you!

John: Thank you very much.


Share this:

One Reply to “Interview: John Boli on his career, methodological individualism and writing better”

Leave a Reply

Feel free to comment on all the blog posts! We are happy to engage in a discussion with our readers and want to foster the dialogue with them. Any reasonable or constructive comment, including strong, but well-argued critique is welcome. To guarantee a fair and respectful discussion, we operate a propriety filter, which will route the comments to the Blog Team first. The comments will be published after they have been checked, so there might be a brief delay until your comment is posted for public view.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *