Earl Babbie, currently the Campbell Professor Emeritus in Behavioral Sciences at Chapman University, was born in 1938 and grew up in Vermont and Connecticut. He was raised by a single mother who worked as a housekeeper. When he was 13, his mother married Herman Babbie. The young Babbie took his stepfather’s surname and desired to become an auto-body mechanic just like his stepfather. Fortunately, he listened to the encouragement from his teachers; He applied to one college he’d heard of—and was accepted—it was Harvard.
Influenced by Parsons
While struggling with his physics courses at Harvard, Babbie enrolled in a course on cultural anthropology. “The course changed my life,” he said. “I never conceived of the differences in human culture.” The course led him to change his major to Social Relations—with some courses taught by leading scholars such as Talcott Parsons. “I came out of the exams smarter than I came in,” observed Babbie regarding having Parsons has his professor. Nearing the end of his undergraduate schooling, he met with Parsons for advice on a career in sociology. Parsons recommended the University of California-Berkeley for graduate studies.
Before attending graduate school, Babbie spent three years with the U.S. Marine Corps as part of his ROTC commitment. When he entered the UC-Berkeley sociology program, he expressed an interest in the sociology of religion. Charles Glock was the assigned adviser for that sociological area of interest and would become his mentor through his entire graduate study. Glock was an intimating figure who was direct with his critiques. Babbie recalled: “while I was working on a survey for my dissertation, I wrote 26 drafts of the questionnaire and I would give the questionnaire drafts to Charlie Glock for review and he would say that I can do better. I was crushed but it was accurate—I could do better.”
Babbie’s doctoral dissertation included a national survey of medical school faculty regarding the scientific trends in patient care. He would earn his doctorate from Berkeley in 1969.
An Expert at Survey Research
Noticing the talent and efforts of his protégé, Glock made Babbie an apprentice at his sociological survey research center, where the graduate student would eventually earn the assistant director position. Glock also hired him as a course material reader and class lecturer.
Douglas Yamamura, University of Hawaii, approached Glock about starting a research center in Hawaii. Glock recommended Babbie to head the new survey research center. This was a big project for a young professional—including supervising two staff members and directing a survey project that involved interviewing rural communities on the large Hawaii island, Manoa. In addition to running the research center, he taught a survey methods course.
While teaching in Hawaii, Babbie had an interesting visit from a Chinese scholar. In 1979, during the reform period of Deng Xiaoping, sociology was being re-established as an academic pursuit in Chinese universities. Fei Xiao-tung, the most prominent sociologist in China at the time, was sent to the United States to learn more about teaching methods and building faculty exchange programs. When asked what he taught in his introductory courses, Babbie offered two introductory textbooks he authored, Society by Agreement and Survey Research Methods. Fei was so appreciative of the offer that “he eagerly grabbed the textbooks out of my hands,” said Babbie.
Babbie would leave the University of Hawaii in 1979 to spend several years writing and updating sociology textbooks, and in 1987 he returned to the U.S. mainland where he was hired as the department chair at Chapman University. In addition to teaching courses, he was tapped to handle university administrative duties—though he preferred spending more time teaching. In 2006, Babbie retired from full-time teaching at Chapman.
In 2012, a new survey research center was formed under Babbie’s name at Chapman University. The Babbie Research Center conducts national survey projects including a current study of fear in contemporary American society.
During his retirement, Babbie relocated to Arkansas where he met his current wife. He serves on the board of two national non-profit organizations: The Population Institute and The Population Media Center. The two groups address overpopulation issues around the globe. He expects to be teaching a methods course via Skype to a women’s university class in Iran.
Babbie offers this advice to current students: “It is very important to learn research methods in both quantitative and qualitative methods. I would encourage them as sociologists to look at the potential for society—what is going wrong and how can it be made right and how can sociology do that? As sociologists, we have an obligation to look out for the wellbeing of people in society.”
In 2010, a professor in Shanghai invited Babbie to give a keynote at the first conference of the Chinese Survey Research Association. The professor mentioned in his invitation that the attendees were Earl Babbie’s students. Although Babbie had never taught a course to Chinese students, this is how profoundly his textbooks shaped the learning of many sociology students both in China and in the United States. “An entire generation of us grew up with Earl Babbie as our first guide into the world of systematic social inquiry,” said Edward Day, Director of the Babbie Research Center. Not a bad legacy for a man who accidently found a career in sociology.