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The calling

January 8, 2010

When I worked for a construction company in the 1970s I spent many a lunch hour talking with the veterans about their experiences working all kinds of jobs. They had clear opinions about which jobs to avoid and which ones to seek.  Avoid, they recommended, road crewing during the summer months in Florida.  Keep away from “call backs,” where the boss sends you out to correct problems cause by other employees. Seek, instead, jobs that are done in the shop or ones that required the use of heavy equipment. Such jobs were always described with the catch phrase “good work, if you can get it.”

When I migrated from the world of construction and took a position as a college professor and social psychologist, I found myself on the right side of the “good work if you can get it” divide.  Granted, professoring is still work.  There are politics of the office, bosses who make demands, paychecks to cash, and duties that must be fulfilled.  Nor is it a glamorous occupation, as Hollywood’s depictions of Indiana Jones-like professorial types would suggest.  But depending on one’s goals and perspectives, it is a personally fulfilling pursuit.  It is an elite profession that requires special training and skill, and for much of the time if feels more like a “calling” than “work,” for it involves (a) learning and practicing the skills valued by the profession; (b) seeking immersion in a community whose members are similarly dedicated to these goals; (c) sacrificing time, effort, and pleasures so that the demands of the discipline are met, and (d) striving for goals that go beyond personal desires and needs and instead benefit other people and society as a whole.

This sense of satisfaction with the “good work” stems, almost entirely, from my reverence for social psychology. As an undergraduate displayed a dilettante’s interest in many topics before I strayed—by accident—into a course in social psychology.  As the professor (Dr. Russell D. Clark, III) moved through the material I was thrilled that my own ruminations were shared by a vibrant, expressive community of scholars. Their view contrasted so sharply with convention wisdom, for many people seem to return time and again to explanations of human behavior that stress personality and predilections as causes of behavior. My 6th grade teacher, for example, was certain that each one of her pupil’s destiny was already determined at the age of 12, with our aptitudes and temperaments had already set us on our life’s course.  My mother and grandmother, both astrologists, similarly believed that one’s outcomes depended little on the actions of others, but rather on the predetermined course set by the planets. Yet, here was a field that confirmed that other interpersonal and not intrapsychic events shape people’s outcomes. I became a professor because that is what social psychologists become.  I am a social psychologist, first, and a professor, second.

But this detached fascination is complemented by a belief that social psychology offers important insights into many of the problems of living in the modern world: collective violence, cults, destructive obedience, intergroup conflict, mental illness, overcrowding, pollution, and prejudice are all examples.  In my studies of prosocial behavior (actions that benefit others rather than the self), my students and I find that morality is as much a quality of social groups as a characteristic of isolated individuals.  Studies of our social identify model explain how individualistic qualities–traits, beliefs, skills, and so on–are melded in the self-concept with qualities that spring from membership in groups, including families, cliques, work groups, neighborhoods, tribes, cities, countries, and regions.  And my studies of the functions of groups–the rewards that people gain by joining with others in a group–explain why sociality is so common, particularly in times of challenge and stress.  This general approach to understanding how individualistic needs are coordinated with, and in many ways, met by, membership in groups, forms the theoretical basis for my analyses of how group psychotherapy can be improved.

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