Oral History of Charles R. Wright (1927-2017)
Oral History interviews with Charles R. Wright, recorded in 2016
A distinguished sociologist of mass communication, Charles (Charlie) Wright was noted for his functionalist analysis of media as codified in the 1959 book Mass Communication. Wright joined the Annenberg School faculty in 1969. Over the span of 45 years, and well after his formal retirement in 1996, Wright taught generations of Annenberg students — notably his signature graduate course, Sociology of Mass Communications. That course — and indeed Wright’s career-long project to instill a sociological sensibility into communication research — had its roots in his mid–1950s teaching as a Columbia University graduate student and instructor.
Charlie Wright was interviewed by Jefferson Pooley on June 10, July 19, and July 27 of 2016 in Haverford, Pennsylvania.
Session One (June 10, 2016)
Wright discusses his early childhood growing up in Pennsauken, New Jersey, in the Great Depression, his decision to enlist in the Navy in World War II (1944-1946), and his emerging aspiration to attend college. Wright describes his undergraduate education at Columbia University (1946-1950), including the special importance of the sociologist William Casey. Wright’s graduate experience at Columbia as a sociology doctoral student (1950-1954/1956), including his administrative assistantships for Paul F. Lazarsfeld and Robert K. Merton in the early 1950s, is recounted. Wright discusses his encounter and early collaborations with the social psychologist Herbert H. Hyman at Columbia in this same period. Wright describes the grant-funded project on the Encampment for Citizenship summer camp evaluation research in collaboration with Hyman, conducted in the early 1960s. Other topics include communication as a social process distinct from psychology, the publication history of Mass Communication: A Sociological Perspective (1959), the place of communication in sociology and in journalism schools, the history of sociology at Columbia, efforts to establish quantitative research in journalism and in sociology at UCLA in the late 1950s and 1960s, his writing style, and his graduate teaching philosophy.
Session Two (July 19, 2016)
Wright recounts his family history, as well as his father’s Depression-era and wartime employment history. He discusses his graduate training at Columbia (1950-1954/1956), including his 1951 master’s thesis (a content analysis of magazine advertisements) and his 1954 doctoral dissertation project (a study of professional socialization in graduate student research training). The session includes more recollections of Columbia sociology figures, including Paul F. Lazarsfeld, Morris Rosenberg, Robert K. Merton, and Herbert H. Hyman. Wright describes his experience teaching, as a graduate student, in Columbia’s Contemporary Civilization course, as well as a variety of undergraduate sociology courses (1952-1956). Wright’s early years in UCLA’s Sociology and Anthropology Department are covered, including his work on what became the 1959 book Mass Communication: A Sociological Perspective. That book’s relationship to sociology, psychology, and Mertonian functionalism is discussed. Wright returns to the theme of his collaborations with Hyman, including a pair of re-analyses of survey data on Americans’ participation in voluntary associations (1958 and 1971). Wright’s early 1960s work on public leadership, and on access to commercial survey research, was also covered. The impact of Wright’s 1963 visiting professorship in Santiago, Chile, sponsored by the Organization of American States, is recounted with a focus on his subsequent teaching style.
Session Three (July 27, 2016)
The interview, after filling in gaps from Wright’s Columbia period in the 1950s, focuses on his experience at UCLA in the 1960s, including his recollections of the sociologist Ralph Turner and journalism scholar Jack Lyle. Wright describes his two-year stint at the National Science Foundation (1967-1969), and his 1969 decision to move to the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication. He recounts his decades of teaching and research at Annenberg, including his recollections of George Gerbner, Larry Gross, Kathleen Hall Jamieson, Ray Birdwhistell, and Michael Delli-Carpini. Other topics addressed are his collaborations with Herbert Hyman on expert opinion in developing countries and on education in the U.S., a graduate training program at UCLA, his writing and teaching styles, and his relationship with his late wife Anne Marie Krefft Wright.