Peggy Thoits retired from Indiana University in spring 2019, leaving a legacy of distinguished scholarly accomplishment, teaching excellence, and dedicated service.
Peggy received her PhD in 1978 from Stanford University. She began her academic career at Washington State University, moving from there to join the faculty at Princeton University, where she received tenure. She first joined the Indiana University faculty in 1986 and was promoted to Full Professor in 1989 (the first female full professor in the 100-year history of the department). She left us in 1990 for Vanderbilt University, then in 2004 headed to the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill where she held the titles of Elizabeth Taylor-Williams Distinguished Professor of Sociology and Research Professor of Social Medicine. Peggy rejoined the faculty at IU in 2008—much to our collective delight—and was granted the honorary title of Virginia L. Roberts Professor of Sociology.
During her illustrious career, Peggy has published over 75 articles and book chapters in the most prestigious outlets in our discipline, including the American Sociological Review, the American Journal of Sociology, and Social Forces (the top three journals in sociology), the Journal of Health and Social Behavior (the top journal in medical sociology), and Social Psychology Quarterly (the top journal in sociological social psychology). Two of her articles were highlighted as American Sociological Review “greatest hits,” for the high number of citations they have received. The Institute for Scientific Information designated her a “highly cited researcher” in 2003.
Peggy’s research spans social psychology, sociology of mental health, medical sociology, and sociology of emotions, with emphasis on the unequal distributions of stress experiences, social support, and physical and mental health problems in adults. She is the go-to person for review articles and chapters in these areas. Her review pieces reveal an unparalleled ability to take widely scattered concepts and information and develop a coherent picture of their meanings, significance, and promise. In addition to her impressive theoretical contributions, Peggy has published many influential and brilliantly executed empirical articles which examine stress-related processes and outcomes. She proposed the innovative hypothesis that the experience of stress depends on the extent to which events or circumstances challenge people’s identities. Peggy’s research on this hypothesis revealed methodological and theoretical complexities in studying the stress process, related both to the difficulty of accounting for context and sequence in people’s experiences of stressors and the complexity of incorporating people’s active efforts to change challenging life circumstances. She has published similarly influential articles on labeling processes, resisting the stigma of mental illness, and social support.
Given these accomplishments, it is little surprise that Peggy has received distinguished career awards from every American Sociological Association section in which she is a member: the Leonard I. Pearlin Award for Distinguished Contributions to the Sociology of Mental Health in 2005, the Sociology of Emotions Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006, the Leo G. Reeder Award for Distinguished Contributions to Medical Sociology in 2010, the Cooley-Mead Award for Lifetime Contributions to Distinguished Scholarship in Sociological Social Psychology in 2010, and the James R. Greenley Award for Distinguished Contributions to the Sociology of Mental Health from the Society for the Study of Social Problems in 2013.
While becoming one of the most influential social psychologists and medical sociologists of her generation, Peggy also became a beloved colleague, teacher, and mentor. At each institution she has served, Peggy has been drawn into service on major institutional committees. She has served on multiple American Sociological Association section councils and committees, and as editor of the Journal of Health and Social Behavior from 2005-2007. Peggy’s counsel is sought widely because colleagues know her to be wise, thoughtful, honest, direct, analytical, responsible, and—perhaps most important—kind, generous, and supportive in all that she does.
Peggy brings those same qualities to her work with students. As soon as she stepped back through the Sample Gates, she was widely sought as a graduate instructor, advisor, and committee member. Her courses on social psychology, the sociology of mental health, medical sociology, and interviewing draw uniform praise. Her mentorship is legendary, acknowledged by the Sociology Graduate Student Association’s Outstanding Mentorship Award in 2012.
When students learned that Peggy would soon retire, they shared reflections on her importance to their careers, commenting on her “generosity of spirit,” “steadfast warmth and steely competence,” gift for “creating spaces where people feel safe and supported in learning and growing,” and calling her “sharp, humble, and kind,” “a role model of who I aspire to be, not only as a teacher and a researcher, but as a person,” “a sincere and consistent source of support,” and “a treasured hero.” One student summed it up by saying “Having you as a mentor has blessed my career.”
Peggy’s retirement will give her more time to try to negotiate a détente between her current dog and cat, the most recent in a long line of challenging animals she has coaxed to health through her love and nurturance. She will move full-time to Sewanee, Tennessee, where she has had a second home for many years and where her soul and spirit thrive. There, as a Visiting Professor at the University of the South, she will teach medical sociology to undergraduate students who probably have no idea how lucky they are. She will also venture out across the country to reacquaint herself with our national parks. We will miss her gently probing questions, her boundless curiosity, and her warm spirit, and wish her well on her journeys.
Provost Professor and Chair