Memorial: A Conversation on John Mohr

Originally published in Section Culture: Newsletter of the ASA Culture Section. Fall 2019. Vol. 31 Issue 2.

imagesJohn Mohr, former Chair of the Culture Section, former Chair of the Theory Section, and co-chair of the Historical Sociology Section, passed away on August 24 of this year. John had been diagnosed with ALS in 2017. To commemorate his passing we convened a conversation with some of his collaborators and former graduate students. Jennifer C. Lena, Associate Professor at Columbia University, is also a former chair of the Culture Section, and is co-author with John (and Christopher Bail, Maggie Frye, Omar Lizardo, Terence McDonnell, Ann Mische, Iddo Tavory, and Frederick Wherry) of the forthcoming book Measuring Culture with Columbia University Press. Craig M. Rawlings is Assistant Professor at Duke University, and a collaborator and student of John’s. Clayton Childress is an Assistant Professor at the Univ. of Toronto and student of John’s. 

If you have any memories or stories you’d be willing to share about John, Craig and Clayton are constructing an oral history of his influence and career, and would be deeply appreciative if you would be willing to share them here:

Jenn, Craig, and Clayton spoke on Oct 22, 2019. 

Clayton Childress: One of the things that was always remarkable to me about John was his ability to connect people, and there’s probably no greater example of that than the forthcoming Measuring Culture book. Jenn, can you tell us a little bit about that, the experience of it, and how it all came together?

Jennifer Lena: I know Measuring Culture as a joint invention of John and Amin Ghaziani. As I understand it, they saw this opportunity for a conference on measurement and applied for an ASA Advancement of the Discipline grant, as John had done for earlier, similar conferences. They must have agreed to tap early-mid career folks as a programmatic statement, and I don’t know if there were any declines or any (other) strategy behind it. I found it sometimes hard to know with John, when something was strategically well thought out, and when it was built on instinct. I think this was a function of his modesty (it took a lot of trust to get him to claim credit) but also a function of his belief in his own assessment of work, and of people.

The experience of it was like summer camp, in the sense that there were stages to it, like “events,” characterized by types of debates, and it was like camp in that it was hotly competitive at times and beers around the fire at other times. On “events,” I mean our first big substantive debate broke out around the question of whether noting the presence or absence of something was “measurement.”

Craig Rawlings: I remember you all coming to UCSB and it was definitely a fireside conversation of sorts with some real interesting dynamics.

JL:  We’d hit on one of these topics and debate it for a while, until there was enough energy around the next topic for us to shift to it (e.g., is “presence/absence” a form of quantification). John’s high emotional intelligence played an important role. He wasn’t the only person who worked as a mediator of debates, but he was a trusted person who did that.

CC: While you were sharing the story of those dynamics I was curious if the group was getting “Philosopher John” or “Measurement John,” but of course it was getting “Mediator John.” That you weren’t really sure if he was operating off of a plan or instinct also really resonated with me. Craig, as the one of us who probably knew him best, do you think he was generally strategizing or going with his gut? 

CR: I think John had a great mix of both qualities. He was willing to fail, and so he would try things, go with his gut, and then retool as necessary. He had amazing instincts. But sometimes these were a bit far ahead of the curve. And he also really distributed his thinking to others, who often helped wonderfully; but not always. I remember him allowing me, as a grad student, to do a survey for some of his diversity work, and I ended up asking all of these crazy questions to diversity professionals that were just wild Bourdieusian things.

JL: Ha! I’ve always wondered if he talked to his students much about his own career trajectory. Did he draw on his own experiences to advise you on career decisions? That is, did he trust your gut?

CC: Great question, Jenn. He didn’t directly talk to me about his career trajectory too much, but he definitely trusted my gut, or at least, definitely made sure to give me that impression. 

CR: Absolutely! He was the ultimate in allowing us to develop our own scholarship. That was his trademark. I am in every way one of John’s students, but sometimes I look at myself and wonder if others would see that.

CC: The real gift he gave me was to not be afraid of failure, and I think that came directly from how he approached his career. I remember sitting with him in his study right when I was starting my dissertation, and he said, “Just so you know, this is crazy and you likely can’t pull it off, but that’s great! And if you can’t pull it off you’ll still have a regular dissertation, so just go for it.” 

JL: That’s so wonderful. And I really respect that he maintained a boundary with regards to his feelings about his career. It’s a topic he and I discussed more than any other, but I was sure he wouldn’t “lay that” on his students.

CR: John was very open and honest about his unconventional path and how that probably wouldn’t be a possibility for me or Clayton. But he still made us fearless as if everything would of course work out for the best. Which it did!

CC: I think I maybe got echoes of John not always feeling like he was having the career he wanted, but oddly, I think in the past few years the world of sociology has really started tilting in his favor. He was an early bloomer and the rest of us were all late bloomers and needed time to catch up. 

JL: I think John had a complex theory of careers, in which there were many possible, good paths; on good days, he could accurately identify his influence. On the bad days, the vibe was pretty different.

CR: I remember a big turning point was when I was a postdoc at Stanford and I was working with these Computer Science folks doing Natural Language Processing and whatnot. I would visit John and say, “It’s finally happening! Everything you used to say about the internet and text and how you would teach this crazy stuff in SAS to undergrads, it’s now MacArthur Fellows doing it!” 

CC: How did he respond to that? Was he excited? Frustrated it had taken so long?

CR: It took him a little while to come around to it. He had a lot of things going on. But when he got into it, he just went full steam ahead. I think he saw that it really was the next wave of work that he had begun, coding dusty books from the Yale library by hand. He just dove in and made it his own. He started working with Computer Science folks at UCSB and helped develop the Network Science program and got Computer Science postdocs even. 

CC: The second to last time I saw John was at a book launch party at the Montreal ASA. He shut the bar down off in a corner hanging out with a few brilliant recent PhDs who all work in various forms of machine learning, big data, and computational cultural sociology. They were hanging on his every word.  As we were all leaving I conspiratorially whispered in his ear, “John, you have fans.” It’s such a fond memory for me because he knew it! He really knew it, and was thrilled and flattered by that, but was too humble to actually really say it or acknowledge it. 

JL: He was so far ahead of the rest of us in so many ways. Adding to Clayton’s question: I wonder if the breadth of his reading, or his social connections with people, are either/both playing a role in preparing him to be so far ahead. I’d point out the obvious which is that he was also always able to avoid the methodologist’s trap, of being fixated on methods and inattentive to the substance and context of data.

CR: Yes, John had such an amazing mind and so much of his work was talking and listening to people. He traveled all the time and knew everyone. He was really an entrepreneur. 

CC: “Avoiding the methodologist’s trap” is such a great way to describe it, Jenn. As his TA, he was essentially teaching Intro to Soc as an Intro to Philosophy class and extremely passionate doing it, and then, as Craig said, he’d walk over a teach a bunch of hung over frat boys how to topic model in SAS, and again, totally enthusiastic about that too. 

JL:  Yeah, and he was a feminist and an anti-racist in their midst.

CC: That’s a huge part of John’s career and John’s influence that doesn’t get talked about enough.

CR: Actually, one of the things he loved about the undergrads in that class was that there were so many people of color and women. Essentially, he was teaching all of these young Latinas data sciencein 2002!

CC: That’s right. A total mix. 

JL: I’m not evaluating the character of individual folx here; rather, I’m trying to point out that he worked in these really exclusive spaces, and was always working to transform them into healthier environments.

CC: Absolutely. 

CR: It was holistic for him. From the philosophy to the practice to the teaching.

CC: His ability to dedicate his time to transforming spaces while also de-centering himself from that work was really remarkable. By de-centering I mean not making it about himself or his identity as an “ally” or a transformer who needed credit for that. 

CR: John wanted to learn. That was what it was all about for him. He listened so well.

JL: Yeah this seems like a core tension in his charactera moral commitment to de-centering himself, and then a real use for the resources that come with being a “star.” He was under resourced to a fault during his career…sorry, Univ. of California.  

CR: He generally used those resources to throw parties.

JL: Parties! I wonder, what, if anything, did he teach you both about the art of persuasion? Either in the sense of how you do your work, your teaching, or how you navigate your career?

CC: The thing I’ve taken away from him most in my career is that there is never any reason whatsoever to be withholding when it comes to compliments.

JL: Perfect. 

CR: I think John taught me that integrity is absolutely key to this business. He persuaded with his being in many ways.

CC: I’ve never thought about it that way, Craig, but it’s spot on. 

CR: It’s a longer road to win others over than having big arguments and perhaps cutting others down. Stick to your vision and do it honestly and people will come around.

CC: John was completely disinterested in the rules, but deeply, deeply invested in doing good and doing right. He had a real moral compass that he didn’t play around with.

JL: Sustaining your integrity, when peers profit from nefarious behavior, is a Real Life Accomplishment.

CR: Hallelujah.

CC: So what do you think his legacy will be among culture scholars, and if not that, what do you think it should be? One thing that has really come out of this conversation for me is how I’ve even started to misremember him as “just” the culture and measurement guy, which is erasing how passionately he engaged across theory and measurement.

JL: For better or worse, I imagine scholars 50+ years from now looking to tell the history of the “quantification turn” in culture, who knight him.

CR: I think he’d be OK with that (being knighted, that is).

CC: I wonder what he’d think about having the “quantification turn” in culture attributed to him. 

CR: To me, John defied quantitative/qualitative. I see him as having taken the impulses of qualitative scholarshipverstehen, interpretation, etc.and having shown that numbers don’t have to be our enemy in this pursuit. They can help us to see the structures of culture.

CC: That’s right, Craig. I remember four or five years ago showing him a paper I was working ona bunch of straightforward regression tables about straightforward status hierarchiesand he said, “So when are you going to get back to our kind of work?”

CR: Hilarious. 

JL: Yeah, so to clarify, I was thinking about the question as a sociological oneunder what conditions are people’s work invoked in the future?and I’m not certain that any condition is as generative as the “reflections on four/five decades of AI,” and in that (I hope interdisciplinary) construction of the history of how automated learning came to be, I think some of the specific innovations in John’s quantitative work will be invoked. I worry that the same thing won’t happen to a “methodological pluralist” and it certainly won’t happen because he taught and supported such diverse students.

CC: Absolutely agreed, Jenn. 50 years down the line that celebrating of him will be partially true, but will also partially be a misremembering of him.

JL: His methodological pluralism, his commitment to equity, and his trust in his students should be the basis on which we pick heroes.