The Department of Sociology at the University of Toronto has a diverse faculty of professors who have a wide range of experiences. While they share backgrounds in sociology and its intersecting disciplines, each faculty member has individual experiences that have shaped their academic careers. In this series, we interview faculty at the St. George campus to acknowledge and share these stories, and get to know the influences behind their journeys.
Professor Jeffrey Reitz is a Professor, member of faculty at the Munk School of Global Affairs, and former Chair of the Department of Sociology at the University of Toronto. His research examines the social, economic and political experiences of immigrant and ethnic populations. In this interview, he discusses the importance of sociology, and some influences behind his career.
What do you love about sociology?
Sociology offers perspectives and insights that are limited in the other social sciences, and allows a more complete understanding of the social world. At the same time, sociology offers methods that enable us to demonstrate the importance of these missing perspectives and insights empirically. What the social sciences can contribute, I think, is analytically strategic facts. I try to take an important public issue, and identify the key factual questions that I think would make a difference in public debate. I want to find a way to produce answers to those factual questions, and then introduce them in the discourse in a way which actually has an impact. In the social sciences this is a huge challenge, because so much of what people say is that they want to believe — quite apart from facts. And there is sometimes even a disregard for facts, both on the political left and the political right.
What is one piece of advice you would give to students who are studying sociology?
When you do your research, what’s most important is to choose the right problem. You have to remember that the research is going to take a while, so you can’t choose something that is of passing interest. Also, it is important to describe the problem in common-sense language, avoiding technical jargon. Jargon may be useful, but it can also function as a way of insulating a group of scholars from a wider engagement.
How did you narrow down your areas of research and ultimately decide your field?
I found the area of specialization that came to dominate my career – immigration and intergroup relations – fairly late, after completing my Ph.D., and even after becoming established in my first job. As a sociologist I had pursued a number of areas, but ultimately had to face the reality that to make a contribution requires a depth of commitment and scholarly experience that is rarely possible without intense focus. At the same time, I would not advise thinking in terms of ‘narrowing down your areas’ because while working on a particular topic, whether it is ethnicity, crime, inequality or other topics, it is important also to think of that topic in as broad a context as possible. This is what a sociological approach really means, and it is difficult because it requires one to be conversant with what is said on the subject in the other social sciences – economics, political science, etc., and then to add the sociological dimension, which is often missing in the other approaches. In my own case, I have studied immigration and ethnic relations across the areas of employment, education, community relations, and policy. I think that by including these areas, and seeing their interrelations, one can make the most effective contribution.