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Interview with Amy Adamczyk, Professor of Sociology

Ahead of the upcoming publication of her book, Cross-National Public Opinion about Homosexuality: Examining Attitudes across the Globe, Research Operations Assistant Laura Lutgen took the opportunity to interview Professor Amy Adamczyk

Laura Lutgen (LL): I was told by another doctoral student that you worked in fashion prior to academia. Is that true? What brought you into sociology? What brought you to John Jay?

Amy Adamczyk (AA): Yes, it is true. My first degree is an ASS in Fashion Design. As a kid, I dreamed of moving to the city and becoming a designer.  My mom taught me how to sew and I eventually found myself studying at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City.  After obtaining my associate’s degree I worked for a few years in the fashion industry, but it was nothing like what I expected (i.e., Devil Wears Prada).  I therefore decided to go back to school and since I was living in NYC I selected one of the local colleges –Hunter College.  While I was there I fell in love with sociology and my professors encouraged me to consider graduate school.  From there I got a MA from the University of Chicago.  I then enrolled in the Graduate Center’s (GC) Ph.D. Program in Sociology.  However, I was interested in the sociology of religion and there were few professors doing that work at the time. After obtaining an en-route MA degree from the GC I transferred to Pennsylvania State University where I worked closely with Roger Finke, who is a sociologist of religion. After graduating with my doctorate my first job was at Wayne State University in Detroit.  When I was at the Graduate Center I had grown fond of NYC.  While I was at Wayne State I decided to see if I could get a position in NYC.  That year John Jay College was hiring a lot of assistant professors and in 2007 I came here.

LL: It seems like you’ve done a vast amount of research on religion, sexuality, and terrorism/extremism (not always intertwined, of course). Where did it all begin? How has your earlier work influenced your current work and your next chapter (no pun intended)?

AA: My first subarea of interest was the sociology of religion. I grew up in rural Wisconsin on a dairy farm (my parents were part of the back-to-the-land movement).  My parents were very religious, but politically liberal.  There was a lot of life and death on the farm and as a kid I thought a lot about the cycle of life.  This was supplemented with ideas from our conservative Protestant faith. I was always interested in how religion shapes people’s attitudes and behaviors, so it is fitting that this became one of my major areas of study.

As I have studied religion I have become increasingly interested in how it shapes people’s deviant attitudes and behaviors. Religion often limits minor deviant acts and illegal behaviors and similarly shapes people’s views on issues like homosexuality, abortion, minor substance use, and premarital sex. I typically study attitudes and behaviors that are on the edge of being illegal.  Terrorism too can be similar to these other issues. In some places behaviors that might otherwise be described as “terrorism”, may be seen as political protest or freedom fighting.  It can depend on the context. I am curious about how the larger social, economic, national, and historical context shapes the way these behaviors (e.g., political protest, same-sex sexual relations, abortion, etc.,) get viewed and the characteristics influencing the likelihood that people will engage in them.

LL: Tell us about your book, Cross-National Public Opinion about Homosexuality. What sparked your motivation for such a project, both in terms of the subject matter and methodology but also in terms of taking on such a large endeavor? Have you always seen yourself as wanting to write a book? What are you most exited about and what are some of the key take-aways?

AA: Public opinion about homosexuality varies substantially around the world. While residents in some nations have embraced gay rights as human rights, people in many other countries find homosexuality unacceptable. In the book I use survey data from almost ninety societies, case studies of various countries, content analysis of newspaper articles, and in-depth interviews to examine how individual and country characteristics influence acceptance of homosexuality.  The survey data show that cross-national differences in opinion can be explained by three primary factors -the strength of democratic institutions, the level of economic development, and the religious context of the places where people live.  The world’s poorest, least democratic and most religious countries are more likely to have laws that punish same-sex sexual behaviors and have a high proportion of residents who disapprove of homosexuality.  While the United States has high levels of economic development and a strong democracy, it has been slower to change its laws and attitudes about homosexuality than some of its European counterparts, in part, because the US is a more religious country.

While some books have been published on the factors shaping attitudes about homosexuality in the US, I do not know of any book-length study that examines the factors shaping attitudes across nations.  I published a journal article on this issue several years ago in Social Science Research (Adamczyk and Pitt 2009) and it remains one of the most cited articles in the journal and is the most cited article I have written.  That helped give me the confidence to move forward.  I also got some grants and fellowships that made doing the research feasible, especially the fieldwork in Taiwan and content analysis of 800 newspaper articles, where the help of doctoral student coders was needed.

Disciplines vary in the extent to which researchers write books versus academic articles.  The humanities publish the most books and the natural sciences mostly focus on journal articles. The social sciences are in the middle. Until now almost all of my research has been published in peer-reviewed journal articles (35) and reports (10). I wanted to write a book because I thought I could offer hundreds of pages of insight on this topic and I wanted to reach people outside of academia.  I also got a lot of encouragement from my colleagues, editor, and friends.

LL: You’ve traveled quite extensively – Europe, Asia, Africa. Tell us about these experiences. What was your most rewarding experience, both professionally and personally?

AA: I have been fortunate to have a lot of opportunities for international travel.  Over the last five years I have spent time in Europe (e.g., Italy, Germany, Poland, Switzerland, France, the Netherlands), Africa (Kenya, Uganda, South Africa, etc.), and Asia (e.g., Taiwan, China, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, etc.).  A lot of this travel is related to my research.  For example, one of the chapters in my book focuses on Taiwan.  I spent a couple of months there doing research for the book which entailed talking with journalists, religious leaders, academics, activists, and political leaders about how they thought the Taiwanese viewed homosexuality. I really learned a lot and made several friends. The research assistant (Angel Liao) that I hired to help me is now working on her doctorate in sociology at the CUNY Graduate Center.

In addition to some trips where I really got to know residents, I have had some fun adventures. About five years ago I participated in a workshop in Uganda where I also had a chance to go white water rafting on the Nile which at the time had some 5-grade rapids.  I still have dreams/nightmares about that experience.

LL: As a doctoral student, what advice as a senior professor would you give someone at my level? Any tips/tricks you’ve come across? What are some things we can do now that will benefit us throughout our academic career and, especially, in preparing and taking on the academic job market?

AA: My areas of research are really intriguing to me and I am genuinely curious about the research questions I investigate. I would urge students to find something about which they are passionate since there are aspects of this job that are really boring.  Being genuinely curious will help you get through the less exciting parts.

I think it is important to also remember that everyone gets rejected and that a big part of this job is getting grants and papers rejected.  Nevertheless, you have to keep submitting, as every now and then something hits, and over time you get better at both handling the rejection and developing successful projects. Having good collaborators also helps.

Finally, the job market for professors is tight.  If doctoral students want to study something that is a little esoteric (e.g., sociology of religion) it would be a good idea to pair that interest with a more popular area of study like criminology. In the end you want to be able to enjoy what you do and get paid for it, so it is a good to be at least somewhat practical.


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