Colleague And Mentor

Faculty's book picks up where William Ryan's groundbreaking research left off

By Sean Smith
Staff Writer

Sharing a deep respect for their mentor, Prof. Ali Banuazizi (Psychology), Prof. Ramsay Liem (Psychology) and Assoc. Prof. M. Brinton Lykes (SOE) recently honored Prof. William Ryan (Psychology) by releasing a book of original essays inspired by his innovative work in social psychology.

The three faculty members collaborated on the book, Myths About the Powerless: Contesting Social Inequalities , along with another Ryan protégé, University of New Haven Professor of Psychology Michael Morris. Serving as both editors and contributors, the four crafted what they view as a less conventional but highly appropriate tribute to Ryan, whose 1971 book Blaming the Victim is regarded as a landmark in analyzing issues of social or economic inequality.

Assoc. Prof. M. Brinton Lykes (SOE), and Prof. Ali Banuazizi (Psychology) were among those who compiled Myths About the Powerless, inspired by the work of Prof. William Ryan (Psychology), center. (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)
Using Ryan's work as a springboard, the contributors - all former students or colleagues of Ryan, who also include Asst. Prof. Elizabeth Sparks (SOE) - explore contemporary controversies in areas such as homelessness, welfare, unemployment and gender and intercultural relations. In addition, Myths About the Powerless contains a transcript of a conversation between Ryan and Lykes covering a range of subjects. The book challenges underlying assumptions that sustain inequality, the faculty members say, and are fueling public debates and legislative agendas.

"We wanted this to be more than a homage to Bill Ryan," Banuazizi said. "We felt that the best service we could render was to show the way his work has inspired others, whether directly or indirectly. These essays show how his ideas might take hold in a person and be expressed in his or her research, whether psychology, social work or other fields."

"I am extremely proud to be associated with this project, whose authors are some of the leading researchers and scholars in the field," Ryan said. "I think the way they take some of the ideas I've worked with and push them forward is very imaginative. It is very gratifying to see an attempt to advance the discussion about inequality issues at a time when it is sorely needed."

Ryan gained prominence for his view that inequality is exacerbated by a tendency to "blame the victim" - ascribing emotional or psychological problems to the individual rather than focusing on the role of socioeconomic and political structures in their plight. But another, sometimes overlooked aspect of Ryan's work, the faculty members say, is his refuting the image of such victims as passive and accepting of their fate.

Liem was struck by this during his research project on unemployment and mental health, which he recounts in a chapter co-written with his wife Joan Huser Liem. By conferring the unemployed workers to a status as helpless pawns of economic forces, Liem found, his study overlooked the resilience and steadfastness many displayed, such as in holding onto their employment objectives.

"In the shift from victim-blaming - seeing unemployment as a result of some personal flaw - to institution-blaming," Liem explained, "we lost sight of these workers as engaged and purposeful people, struggling to control the disorder in their circumstances. When I recalled this in writing the chapter for Myths , it got me to thinking about how Bill regards people and the sensitivity he shows for the small details."

In his chapter, Banuazizi examines the "victim-blaming" attitude toward non-Western peoples, and how until recently it pervaded psychologically oriented studies of social change in non-Western societies. Sparks discusses the challenges facing community health centers in their efforts to eliminate long-standing health care inequities for African-Americans, especially those with lower incomes.

The conversation printed at the book's end, Lykes said, was intended to lend more perspective to Ryan's career while enabling him to expand further upon his concepts.

"We wanted to reflect with him on his understanding of his views and how he came to them," explained Lykes, who studied under Ryan as a graduate student. "But this was also an 'update,' since Bill has not had an opportunity to address the trends and issues of more recent years that relate to social inequality as much as he would have liked. Perhaps just as important, the chapter gives you a glimpse at Bill's personality, the way he engages you - even argues with you - on a number of topics."

Lykes also contributed a chapter in which she describes how studies of the impact of state-sponsored violence increasingly consider the subtler, more symbolic effects of conflict on the affected peoples.

While Ryan said he has concerns over how the media and society have trivialized the concept of "victim," he sees a gradual reawakening of public discussion on inequality, especially of income, and hopes the dialogue will continue to grow.

"There are still a sizable corps of people - including those who put together this book - very interested in addressing social inequality and its effects," Ryan said. "I've generally been pessimistic about the prospects, but I've found the discussion, and a revival of activity in the labor movement, to be reasons for hope."

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