Dec. 14, 2006 • Volume 15 Number 8

Juliet Schor

Committed to Change

Juliet Schor sees link in her academic and social missions

By Greg Frost
Staff Writer

It's an early summer day in Boston, and Sociology Department chair Prof. Juliet Schor is busy doing the work of a public sociologist.

As defined by former American Sociological Association President Michael Burawoy, the label refers to those in the profession who combine learning and scholarship with a drive to act and improve society. The term is well-suited for Schor, a nationally recognized expert on consumerism and trends in work and leisure who has been on a mission to right societal wrongs for most of her career - if not her life.

On this particular day, Schor's classroom is a sleek, windowless conference room; her pupils are a half-dozen or so executives at a health insurance company. Faced with mounting costs from America's obesity epidemic, the executives are exploring ways to foster healthier lifestyles, particularly among children. They have invited Schor, whose 2004 book Born to Buy illustrates the extent to which children have become targets of opportunity for corporate America's marketing machine, to share her views.

Schor runs through a slideshow outlining the major themes from her book: the commercialization of childhood, the fact that food - much of it junk - is the top product category being sold to kids, the way marketers try to drive a "coolness" wedge between children and their parents to sell junk food, and the corresponding surge in childhood obesity rates.

Schor's audience - several of whom are parents themselves - seems to be bordering on hopelessness. One executive asks what, if anything, can be done. Another executive - the company's marketing chief - wonders aloud how "coolness" can be tapped to promote healthy eating and exercise in kids.

It's the moment Schor has been waiting for. There needs to be a change in the food environment, she says, but simply using more advertising won't work. Instead, she suggests solutions like encouraging more family meals, partnering with children's advocacy groups, and funding so-called "edible schoolyards," in which schoolchildren grow their own organic food, prepare it and eat it together.

"It's time for companies like yours to stand up to the food companies and tell them to stop marketing to kids," she says.

It's a tough sell, and it's not immediately clear how Schor's exhortation has gone over. The meeting ends shortly thereafter with the executives telling Schor that they'll consider her suggestions and get back to her, although it might take a while.

Months later, she receives word. It turns out her lecture struck a chord - "They told me told me that my seminar was an 'aha' moment for them," Schor says - and she has been summoned back to speak to 100 of the company's top brass.

Regardless of whether a big shift in corporate policy results, Schor's presentation to the insurance executives is important because it demonstrates her particular vision about learning and scholarship. To Schor, acquiring knowledge is only part of the education equation; inextricably linked to that is the duty to act on it and bring about social change.

Influenced at a young age

Schor admits that she developed an orientation to politics and social action at a young age, growing up in the tiny coal-mining town of California, Pa. Her parents - "both very committed social activists," Schor says - were there because her father had been blacklisted in the 1950s. A surgeon by trade, he went to work for a coal miners' union and set up a health clinic for miners.

Shaped by her parents' views and by the turmoil of the late 1960s and early 1970s, Schor says she became a student activist in high school. Her first major cause was the farm workers' union, and she found herself oriented toward questions of power relationships between workers and their employers. From there, it was a natural progression to economics, the subject in which she earned bachelor's and doctoral degrees from Wesleyan University and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, respectively.

Schor taught economics at Williams College and Barnard College before joining the faculty of Harvard's economics department in 1984.

It was during her time at Harvard that Schor made a national name for herself, landing on The New York Times bestseller list with a look at a curious trend in American society. Her book, The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure, bluntly repudiated the notion that American-style capitalism was producing declines in work time thanks to continuous productivity improvements. Instead, Schor wrote, the opposite was true: The average American was working longer hours.

The Overworked American marked the first time Schor had written a book for a general audience, and to this day it is the professional achievement of which she is most proud because of the way it resonated with Americans and influenced public policy. One example Schor cites is the correspondence she had with many readers who said the book changed their lives. She also points to the Family and Medical Leave Act, the landmark legislation that lets workers take unpaid leave due to illness or care for sick family members, which was signed into law a year after The Overworked American hit bookshelves.

"That's the thing that has been most gratifying: The work had an impact in propelling the work-family agenda," she says.

Around the time The Overworked American came out, Schor started teaching women's studies in addition to economics at Harvard and found herself drawn more toward cultural and social issues. By the time she came out with The Overspent American: Upscaling, Downshifting and the New Consumer in 1998, she was fascinated with America's work-spend-debt culture.

It was also around this time that she began hiring students from Boston College's Ph.D. program to teach women's studies at Harvard, and the assessment of their performance was impressive.

"They were getting excellent recommendations. The students at Harvard were saying things like 'This is the best teaching fellow I've had,' so I started to learn more about the Sociology Department at BC," she says.

Conversations with faculty, deans and students suggested to her that in addition to academic excellence, there was a strong tradition of service and social conscience ingrained in the mission of the Sociology Department and in the University as a whole. That, coupled with the fact that husband Prasannan Parthasarathi had been hired to teach in the History Department, helped her see that BC was a perfect fit. In 2001, she left Harvard after 17 years and joined BC as a professor of sociology.

Talking the talk, walking the walk

As a self-described public sociologist, Schor talks the talk and walks the walk, melding scholarship with a kind of day-to-day social activism that plays out in front of students and outside the classroom.

On Greater Boston's congested roads, she can be found driving her older-model Toyota Prius hybrid, trying to cut down on greenhouse gas emissions. In her Newton home, she resists the pull of the consumerist culture by insisting on family meals and restricting television access for her two children (although in the last year she has eased her stance a bit, allowing her 10-year-old daughter to view an episode of the Fox hit series "American Idol" and letting her son catch the odd Red Sox game on NESN).

When she's not teaching, researching, running her department or raising her family, Schor serves on the board of directors of the Center for a New American Dream, a Maryland-based non-profit she co-founded in the 1990s that aims to help Americans consume responsibly.

Sean Sheehan, the group's outreach director, says Schor feels very strongly that her work and everything she brings to it should have an impact on people's lives.

"She is probably one of the best examples of an academic putting knowledge and research into practice and into social change," Sheehan says.

Boston College Provost and Dean of Faculties Bert Garza calls Schor's work a "wonderful example" of serious scholarship that addresses a significant societal problem. Garza, former chair of the Food and Nutrition Board for the Institute of Medicine, says that among the aspects of Schor's research that caught his eye is her focus on the link between consumerism and obesity among US children.

"Juliet's work is helping us understand relationships between how food is marketed to children and the growing global obesity epidemic. It is an instructive example of a multidisciplinary approach that is of economics and sociology," he says.

Critics, including some colleagues at BC, have questioned whether her role as a public sociologist involves stepping too far into the arena of advocacy, especially in issues related to the Catholic dimension of Boston College. But Schor says one doesn't have to dig very deep to see that social change is part of her department's DNA. The actual title of Boston College's PhD program in Sociology, she notes, isn't just "Sociology" but "Social Justice and Social Economy: Class, Race and Gender in a Global Context."

"That had a huge impact on me when I found that out," Schor says, recalling how the discovery of the program's name helped influence her decision to leave Harvard for the Heights.

"At Harvard there's an iron curtain between scholarship and service, and it's very deliberate," Schor says. "I think that's a problematic distinction - it's an impoverishing distinction to both sides of the equation."

Schor says it is important for Boston College and especially the Sociology Department to build on the tradition of engaged scholarship.

"Today's students are very concerned about issues of inequality, exploitation, poverty, the failures of the global system, the unraveling of the social fabric here at home," she says. "To the extent that we have a tradition here of both teaching and scholarship that engages those problems and uses teaching and scholarship as a means to try to solve them, I think that's a huge strength."

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