Friday, November 20, 2009

Irv Piliavin

My graduate school advisor, Irv Piliavin, passed away on Thursday.

Irv shaped me as a sociologist in many ways. He had a mad-capped approach to the study of crime, poverty, and social psychology, and he was fearlessly creative in studying each topic. He's well known for conducting subway studies of altruism in which he (and his wife Jane) had a confederate fall down in need of assistance, and they recorded how many other passengers helped as a function of whether the confederate acted drunk as well. This helped us to understand the roll of deservingness in altruism.

Irv was also the first researcher to conduct a longitudinal study of homeless people. He designed a survey in which homeless people were interviewed at one point in time and then reinterviewed six months to a year later, allowing the researcher to use wave 1 measures to predict what happened to the homeless respondents by wave 2. This helped us to understand homelessness.

Irv also published various articles on control theories and rational choice analysis of crime, published in the best journals. This helped us to understand criminal behavior.

I did my Masters and Ph.D. with Irv on his homelessness research, and he was such a joy to work with and for. He has a mockingly-abrasive style with students that scared off some, but once you saw past it to the deeply caring man that he was, it was no problem. He held very high standards for his students, something that helped me greatly. I joined the sociology program as perhaps the most clueless student in Wisconsin's history, for I had never even had a sociology class or read a sociology book before enrolling in the Ph.D. program. (Don't ask what I was thinking.) Irv, over the years, moved me to being a real sociologist, for which I am so deeply grateful.

Some stories about Irv (and there are a lot of them):

When I turned in the first draft of my master's thesis, he returned it with a single comment on the front page--"This is neither accurate nor interesting." Though crushing at the time, the comment was right on, and that's been my research mantra since: Is this mostly accurate and interesting.

Another student, a year or two behind me in the program, started working with Irv, and during one research meeting, the new student admitted that he had not finished he work that Irv had given him. Irv just stared at him, then picked up the phone, and dialed the receptionist (actually pretended to dial), and said, "hello [administrator's name], cancel [this student's] funding." I was behind the student, chortling, but the student was panick stricken, until he heard me laughing.

After I finished my Ph.D., Irv and his wife Jane took Cathy and me out to dinner, and at the end of the meal, Irv announced that he would pay for me to to get a tattoo and so we went down the street and looked around a tattoo parlor. Thankfully I didn't, but he was ready.

I got to have breakfast with Irv and Jane last year at a conference, and it delighted my heart to see him again.

I, and many others, will miss him, and we're so much better off for having known him.

1 comment:

Knumb said...

so sorry to read.

glad he drafted talent so many years ago. he sounds like a mentor many want.