Travels with Edgar

Submitted by Ari Asercion on

article by Ulrika O'Brien

On the Road Again, Again

Edgar Kiser lives a life shaped by disruption.  Unexpected change comes to us all, and for Edgar it started early, and came often.  At the height of the Cold War, when Edgar and his younger sister were children, their father worked as a naval radar operator. He was gone for long stretches, flying patrols supposedly to Iceland but probably far beyond, into Soviet air, on missions he couldn’t talk about.  Naval fiat repeatedly uprooted the family, shuffling them from one base to the next, up and down the Eastern Seaboard.  Before he was thirteen, Edgar had lived in Tennessee, Georgia, Rhode Island, Newfoundland, Georgia again, Massachusetts, and a couple of different towns in North Carolina.  In those early years, Edgar came to rely on closeness with his sister, and his mother, as the fixed stars in an otherwise spinning universe. 

His parents noticed early that Edgar was bright, so they started him in first grade when he was five.  From then on it was not just a new house and a new town with each move, but also a new school and school system.  He hated it.  “I always had the wrong accent.” And he was small for his grade.  He missed the cut for the varsity basketball team because of size, thus blighting an otherwise obviously brilliant career in pro basketball. The new schools often bored him, repeating lessons he’d already mastered elsewhere.  The boredom was not good for his grades or his attendance, but it did move him to read a great many books while slouched in the back of the classroom.  He remains an avid reader to this day.

Military brats tend to be a breed apart and between.  They’re not really in the military, not really out of it, and not part of the civilian world, either.  They grow up in multiracial enclaves, seeing interracial marriages and friends of any race, or many, as the norm. Stereotypically, they grow into worldly adults: broadminded, tolerant, cosmopolitan, resilient, and perhaps a bit rebellious.  Who’d ‘a thought?

Practical Moves in the Academy

Once the family permanently settled in North Carolina, heightened frictions drove Edgar out of the house while he was still in high school.  He supported himself through his senior year, and into college, washing dishes on the swing shift at Tony’s Pizza.  With less than stellar grades, Edgar started college at UNC-Greensboro.  He demonstrated his iconoclasm by majoring in philosophy and with classes that actually challenged him, Edgar blossomed academically.  His GPA soared and he transferred to UNC-Chapel Hill in his junior year and in a moment of pragmatism, he switched majors to sociology. Better job prospects aside, Edgar immediately realized that he could do any damned thing he wanted to, and still plausibly call it sociology.  Once in the major, Edgar became an honors student, snagged his BA, and moved on to graduate work at the University of Arizona, where all was smooth sailing ever after.

Except, no. Arizona brought its own changes and disruptions.  The sociology department was in the midst of an exciting but chaotic era, recruiting top senior and up-and-coming sociologists, but with a fair bit of churn. Edgar bounced through two different advisors before finally connecting with the newly arrived Michael Hechter.  Edgar also took a detour: his love of poetry flared up so hot that he decided to copy one of his mentors and try his hand at writing for publication.  He pulled himself out of the PhD program so he could work as a full-time poet.  A year later, after less-than-overwhelming interest from the literary presses, Edgar took another pragmatic turn and returned to the University of Arizona and completed his PhD.

The Path of the Drunken Master

Edgar published a lot of papers during his career. The topics look a bit all over the place at first.  But there’s a kung-fu fighting style popularized by Jackie Chan in the Drunken Master films: individual moves seem uncoordinated, loose, and random, but somehow the hits always land where they need to. Edgar’s work dips into utopian literature, Marxist theory, war, state making, tax systems, rational choice theory, and the role of theory in creating sociological understanding but the results regularly landed in journals, including flagship publications of the field.

When Edgar arrived at the University of Washington, in 1988, the department already had a reputation for skating the cutting edge of theory.   Here he quickly stepped into the vanguard of the movement to center rational choice theory, and theory more broadly, in the practice of sociology.  He joined a small group of UW and European sociologists espousing theory for uncovering the causal mechanisms of macrosocial phenomena. Along with Michael Hechter he extended rational choice theory as a specifically sociological tool. They argued that causal mechanisms must be understood in order to make sense of macrosocial events. Their fight for the analytic approach did not ultimately win the field, but while the fight raged it was an exciting and productive time.

How to Be Popular

Edgar Kiser attended every single graduation celebration the department held while he was here.  And every single time he was introduced on the stage, his students burst into spontaneous applause.  Every. Single. Time. His undergraduate students loved him.  His graduate advisees, too.  What’s the secret? How do you do that?

Some of the advice is obvious: be charming, be witty, be engaged, and have lots of interesting things to say, especially if you have a warm, resonant speaking voice that people love to just sit and listen to.  But the real key lies deeper. 

Edgar Kiser is a kind, supportive, and relentlessly loyal colleague and friend without giving up a crumb of his incisive critical perception.  One former graduate student tells her favorite Edgar moment this way: the first time she practiced her intended job talk here in the department she was not dynamic.  After she finished, he said, “You’re doing such interesting work; what a pity you just spent forty-five minutes making it boring.” Everyone laughed, including the student.  Then Edgar said, “Let’s see if we can fix it.” And he did.

He's also a generous collaborator with graduate students, publishing regularly in major journals with the students he worked with.  He accounts for this in a typically humble way: “Argument is the only skill I have.  I leave research to the graduate students.”

But perhaps the biggest secret is Edgar’s enthusiasm.  It’s infectious.  He brings a sense of wonder to every project, loves to bring the things he loves together, and whenever possible turns the result into a party.  Which is why it’s particularly appropriate to celebrate him.  Party on, friends.

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