Feature

When social psychologist James Jackson, PhD, took the reins as director of the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research (ISR) last July, the transition was a smooth one. That's because Jackson, 62, has spent his entire career as a researcher at ISR, one of the largest social science research and survey institutions in the world.

Psychologist Rensis Likert, PhD, founded the institute with a group of colleagues in 1948. Now, it employs more than 600 economists, sociologists, political scientists, psychologists and others, who conduct dozens of long-term social science research projects and surveys. Government officials, policy-makers and outside researchers all rely on the data the institute produces. For example, the Federal Reserve Board considers the institute's monthly Survey of Consumers whenever it sets interest rates, and politicians rely on its National Election Study to track voters' attitudes and behavior.

Leading such a diverse group of researchers requires the ability to think about issues from a variety of social science perspectives, and Jackson says that his training as a social psychologist was an ideal preparation for that. "I think our training requires us to think about things in different contexts and to think about how context operates," he says. "It produces a nuanced way of looking at the world that allows us to be interdisciplinary."

New methods for large-scale research

Jackson joined ISR straight out of graduate school in 1971. By the late 1970s, he had made his name as one of the first researchers to conduct a large-scale study of mental health among black Americans. His National Survey of Black Americans surveyed more than 2,000 people and examined issues like identity, self-esteem, and employment.

"We found out that blacks are not all alike," Jackson said in an October 2005 ISR panel discussion about research on underrepresented groups. "I know that you laugh hearing that in 2005, but in 1980 that was a major contribution to the literature."

Jackson also developed a new research method for the study. He found that it was easy to find blacks in areas like the Northeast and the South, but he wanted to survey a nationally representative sample that included blacks who lived in mostly white areas like the Midwest. Instead of trying to go door-to-door to find black families--which would have been expensive and time-consuming--he simply asked a few white families in each area where the black families lived. He found they knew exactly where to find their black neighbors, and he named the method the Wide Area Sampling Procedure.

Jackson continued his innovative research--and his interest in black Americans' mental health--throughout his career. He eventually headed the institute's Program for Research on Black Americans, as well as its Research Center for Group Dynamics.

His more recent research has focused on the intersection of race and ethnic identity, such as among African Americans and Afro-Carribeans. Recently, for example, he completed a 6,000-person survey of mental and physical health among White Americans, African Americans and Afro-Caribbeans.

"[Jackson] is legendary in terms of his ability to conceptualize and manage these huge national types of studies, and use them as opportunities for mentoring a generation of black research psychologists," says Bertha Holliday, PhD, director of APA's Office of Ethnic Minority Affairs.

Surveys, old and new

As director of ISR, Jackson now oversees dozens of such long-term studies. He plans to continue the work of social psychologist David Featherman, PhD, the previous director of ISR, as well as the other directors going back to 1948. There's the monthly Survey of Consumers, which measures consumers' attitudes about their own finances and the economy in general. There are the National Election Studies, which collect information about public opinion on everything from presidential candidates to hot-button issues like abortion. And there's the Monitoring the Future Study, which surveys the opinions and behavior--on issues like drinking and illicit drugs--of tens of thousands of American youth every year

In addition to continuing these and other long-standing surveys--which the institute calls its "legacy studies"--Jackson hopes to add another project to ISR's research roster.

He's working on developing and funding a monthly survey of Americans' evolving values. The survey will include subjects like religion and spirituality, politics, immigration, gender roles and education.

"As a social scientist, one of the things that I find really grating is when a person or political party claims to speak for all American values, and to be the possessor of what is American," Jackson says. "I want to understand something about what Americans' values really are: their meaning, their distribution and how we can assess them in empirical research."

Eventually, Jackson says, he hopes to conduct a monthly survey of Americans' values and issue a yearly report.

The new study fits squarely into the institute's tradition of addressing public policy issues through nonpartisan social science research, according to ISR Director of Communications Diane Swanbrow. "This puts us in the midst of debates that are of central importance to the country," she says. "And it ties together a lot of the goals that [Jackson] has for the institute, as well as his own research interests."