Influential Stanford sociologist Morris “Buzz” Zelditch dies at 89

Morris “Buzz” Zelditch Jr., a professor emeritus of sociology, taught at Stanford for more than half a century and was chairman of the Department of Sociology twice.

A major contributor to the field of sociological social psychology and a founding father of the current Department of Sociology at Stanford, Morris “Buzz” Zelditch Jr. influenced generations of students with his courses on sociological theories.

Morris “Buzz” Zelditch (Image credit: Steve Gladfelter)

Zelditch, professor emeritus of sociology who taught at Stanford for more than half a century, died of bladder cancer Dec. 8 at his home on campus. He was 89.

Zelditch was chairman of the Department of Sociology twice, and he was part of a group of sociologists Stanford hired around the same time who transformed the department, placing greater emphasis on developing rigorous, testable theories and methodologies. Despite retiring in 1996, Zelditch continued his research and taught sociology courses every year at Stanford until he became seriously ill earlier this year.

“Buzz was an important figure in the world of sociology and social psychology,” said Joseph Berger, professor emeritus of sociology at Stanford who closely collaborated with Zelditch for decades. “But he also loved to teach, and he was a very good teacher.”

Prolific, passionate scholar

Originally from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Zelditch served in the U.S. Army between 1945 and 1947. He received his bachelor’s degree from Oberlin College in 1951 and earned his doctorate from Harvard University in 1955. Before coming to Stanford in 1961, Zelditch held academic positions at Columbia University’s Department of Sociology.

“He loved Stanford and the area’s weather,” said his daughter, Miriam Zelditch, who was in the fourth grade when the family moved to Stanford. “The day he interviewed with Stanford he just finished shoveling something like 15 inches of snow, and here he picked a grapefruit from a tree.”

Zelditch is especially known for his contributions to the theoretical research on status characteristics and expectation states. This theory, which he helped develop in collaboration with other scholars, consists of a set of theoretical principles that describes how the status value attached to major social distinctions in our society, like gender, race, ethnicity, education and occupation, affects the assertive or deferential behavior of individuals in interpersonal situations. The theory proposes mechanisms through which these effects add up and create systematic inequality in influence and prominence.

Throughout his career, Zelditch also worked on a theory of legitimacy and stability of authority, which attempts to describe how inequalities of power and authority become legitimized in society. He submitted his final paper for review earlier this year before he got sick.

“He continued his prolific work right up until the end of his life,” said Berger, with whom Zelditch co-authored a 1998 book, Status, Power and Legitimacy: Strategies and Theories. “Not only did he submit that paper, but he also outlined in detail the plans he had for the next research paper. That really shows how much he just loved what he did.”

Zelditch earned the American Sociological Association’s Cooley-Mead Award in 2000 for his lifetime contributions to sociology and social psychology. He served as president of the Pacific Sociological Association and editor of the American Sociological Review. He was twice a recipient of Stanford’s Humanities & Sciences Dean’s Award for Distinguished Teaching – in 1978 and 2007.

Generous, creative colleague

Colleagues praised Zelditch as a generous and collaborative research partner.

“He was a highly creative individual and so easy to work with,” said Berger. “I’m not exaggerating when I say that we actually never had an argument during the entire time of working together. Of course, we disagreed, and we sometimes saw things differently. But we were always able to resolve disagreements with back and forth interaction.”

Cecilia Ridgeway, a professor of sociology, said Zelditch’s reputation helped draw her to Stanford in 1991.

“What made Buzz so distinct is his intellectual seriousness and generosity,” Ridgeway said. “He was always trying to understand things, and he wanted to help you. He wanted to work together with people. There was no ego involved in doing that for him.”

Although Zelditch succeeded as an administrator, he did not like that his bureaucratic duties distracted him from what he loved the most – research and teaching, his family and colleagues said.

Ridgeway said she remembers knocking on Zelditch’s office door during her first year at Stanford seeking advice on a problem related to her research paper.

“He opened the door with this ‘What now?’ look on his face, probably thinking that my knock had to do with something administrative,” Ridgeway said. “I said, ‘I’m sorry to bother you, but I can’t figure out this intellectual problem.

“He replied, ‘An intellectual problem? Come right in,’ and he eagerly pulled out a chair for me,” Ridgeway said. “His face lit up. He was so thrilled to talk through an intellectual problem.”

Natural teacher, family man

Zelditch had a talent for teaching and explaining complicated subjects, his daughter and colleagues said.

“He took teaching students very seriously,” Ridgeway said. “If we had a talented student who struggled a bit with writing and tying a logical argument together, we would call on Buzz. He would take them on and teach them how to make clear arguments. Buzz was great at that.”

Zelditch also applied his teaching talents at home. When she was a high school student, his daughter said he explained fascism and Nazism to her and her best friend before a history exam.

“He sat down and gave us a lecture, and we took notes,” Miriam Zelditch remembers. “He was so confident and patient. He talked to us like we were his Stanford students.”

That moment was one of many, his daughter said. She and her father often shared conversations on their patio on the Stanford campus, where they could spend hours talking.

“He truly loved his work – designing studies, doing research and thinking and talking about them,” his daughter said. “He was simultaneously my colleague and my daddy.”

Zelditch is survived by his daughter, Miriam Zelditch, and her husband, Donald Swiderski, of Ann Arbor, Michigan; his son, Steven Morris Zelditch, and his wife, Ursula Porod, of Evanston, Illinois; his grandson Jonathon Swiderski and his wife, Tricia Chicka; and his grandchildren Benjamin Zelditch and Phillip Zelditch.

A memorial will be scheduled in the future.

Media Contacts

Alex Shashkevich, Stanford News Service: (650) 497-4419, ashashkevich@stanford.edu