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Lawrence Bobo

social sciences
(recorded in 2005)

Lawrence D. Bobo is the W.E.B. Du Bois Professor of the Social Sciences at Harvard University. Inspired by an undergraduate class at Loyola Marymount University, Bobo set his sights on a career in Sociology, obtaining a Ph.D. from the University of Michigan in 1984. Before moving to Stanford, Dr. Bobo taught at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, The University of Callifornia at Los Angeles, and and at Stanford University where he was Director of the Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity.

Bobo has made central contributions to both the understanding of racial attitudes and relations in the United States, and to survey research methodology through his studies of the causes and consequences of racial and ethnic attitudes.

Bobo is co-author of Racial Attitudes in America: Trends and Interpretations, and the recently published Prejudice in Politics: Group Position, Public Opinion, and the Wisconsin Treaty Rights Dispute. He is co-editor for Racialized Politics: The Debate on Racism in America and Urban Inequality: Evidence from Four Cities. An elected Fellow of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, Bobo has been a Fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, a Visiting Scholar at the Russell Sage Foundation, and a Phi Beta Kappa National Honor Society Visiting Scholar. Dr. Bobo was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 2004.

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Track 1: Backstage with Systematic Properties
Bobo had his sights set on a career in law until he was inspired to change direction by an undergraduate sociology class at Loyola Marymount University. An honors project on school busing during his senior year in college introduced him to the work of Howard Schuman and Mary Jackman, both faculty at the University of Michigan. At Michigan, his work in the areas of race and social relations was shaped by the sociology department's emphasis on survey research and social psychology. (9 minutes)

Track 2: Getting at the Truth
Discussing the methods and history of social science research on issues of race, Bobo points out that social scientists in the USA have been using surveys to study racial attitudes for about 100 years. During World War II, major national studies were carried out by the government to see what impact racial attitudes might have on the war effort. The data from these studies became a historically important baseline for the examination of racial attitudes.

As societal behaviors and standards have changed over the past several decades, it has become more difficult for social scientists to capture accurate data about deeply held racial beliefs. By using language and patterns of discourse used in the real world, however, it is possible for researchers to gather accurate data and assess transformations in racial attitudes.

The examination of changes in racial attitudes is a complex business involving studying several issues at once, including racial principles, rules of social interaction, the role of government, and stereotypical beliefs held by one group about another. (11 minutes)

Track 3: Change in Racial Attitudes
Bobo's 1985 book Racial Attitudes in America (updated in 1997) found an improvement in racial attitudes of white Americans towards African Americans from a period around World War II, when segregation and discrimination were prevalent, to a more positive endorsement of integration and non-discrimination in recent years. Attitudes toward the use of government to address racial disparities show less consistent change over time and a set of heavily contested issues. Attitudes towards interracial dating and intermarriage have gotten better, but started from a much lower basis of acceptance.

A later research program, looking specifically at Los Angeles, indicated that, in that urban area, larger percentages of people favored integration and non-discrimination, but that some issues are still disputed. (10 minutes)

Track 4: A Cautious Approach
A quirk in the history of research of race relations has led to different surveys, by different groups of researchers providing very different answers to the question of whether or not racial prejudice in America is declining. Responsible researchers would say that all of this data provides useful information, including leads for new questions that can reconcile data that seem contradictory.

For researchers, it is important to be aware of one’s own values and perspectives in order to obtain clean and fair data. Students, colleagues and the review process act as a check, making sure that a researcher's work doesn't move from research to advocacy. Though research based social science has made strides in gaining acceptance in the greater scientific world, social scientists face a variety of pressures to create easier, more marketable works. (9 minutes)

Track 5: Not a Simple Problem
Bobo's recent work has gone in two directions. He participated in a four-city study of urban inequality attempting to understand the changing fortunes of racial and ethnic groups in modern cities. The survey found both encouraging and less sanguine attitudes in relation to housing and employment. Bobo's second project looks at race, crime, and public opinion. American policy has, over the past thirty years become more punitive in areas of crime, and the results of this change have fallen largely on African Americans. Bobo's study looks at the feelings that these policy changes have effected among African Americans. (11 minutes)

Track 6: Vicious Circles?
Continuing his discussion of the race, crime, and public opinion work, Bobo discusses a correlation between people who express more negative attitudes about blacks and approval of more stringent law enforcement methods. Bobo wonders if that connection can be broken, and if questions about crime can be framed in such a way as to stimulate a more open discourse.

Bobo’s recent research has two components: survey-based web data collection and focus group work. Web surveys are problematic, in that participation is self selecting and limited by access to the internet. He and his colleagues have come up with novel methods to address these problems. (8 minutes)


Last Updated: 09-06-2006

The audio files linked above are part of the National Academy of Sciences InterViews series. Opinions and statements included in these audio files are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Academy of Sciences.

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