Owen Whooley

M.A., Boston College 2004
Ph.D., New York University 2010
Associate Professor, Department of Sociology, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, NM

Owen Whooly is a sociologist whose research focuses on medical professionals, specifically how physicians and other medical professionals assert claims to expertise.   Medicine is an arena of social life rife with conflicts and challenges over knowledge.  Owen’s work examines how medical professionals negotiate these challenges to assert their authority and control over work.

He has written two books, both of which are historical in nature.  Knowledge in the Time of Cholera (University of Chicago Press, 2013) follows successive cholera epidemics in the U.S. to tell the story of 19th century medical debates that culminated in the establishment of what we understand to be “mainstream” medicine.  On the Heels of Ignorance (University of Chicago Press, 2019) examines the history of U.S. psychiatry through the lens of its ignorance.  It traces how psychiatric elites have managed recurrent crises and persistent ignorance about mental distress to maintain their professional authority.  His research informs the courses he teaches, including undergraduate courses on the sociology of madness, pandemics and the sociology of health and illness.   

Owen entered Boston College’s Ph.D. program in Sociology immediately after graduating from Catholic University.  He says: “After two years, I realized that BC was not a good fit for me intellectually and transferred to NYU.  There I began to establish my research agenda as someone who combines sociological and historical analyses to explore questions related to medical authority and expertise.  I finished my Ph.D. in 2010 and then did a two-year, interdisciplinary post-doctoral program at Rutgers University on mental health.  In 2014, I moved to Albuquerque for my current position.  I have been here ever since.

“While this trek into and through academia might seem neat and tidy when laid out chronologically, my intellectual path was meandering.  Some people go into Ph.D. programs with a clear idea of what they want to study.  I was not one of those people.  I had some general interests – medicine, mental health, social movements, etc. – but they were vague and unformed. As such, during my first few years in grad school, I hopscotched all over the place, exploring many different interests and topics.”

Owen reflects on the path he took from our Department: “At Catholic University, I double majored in sociology and history. Before graduation, I went back and forth as to whether I wanted to pursue a Ph.D. in history or sociology.  I liked that sociology tackled big ideas, but I preferred historical archival research.  Ultimately, I chose sociology, because, as a somewhat ill-defined discipline, it would allow me the freedom to continue to indulge my inner historian.  Indeed, somewhat ironically, my history training at CUA had more impact on the actual work I do as a sociologist than my sociology courses.  I really learned the how-to of archival research at CUA, especially when doing my undergraduate thesis under the helpful eye of Dr. Stephen West.  It was during that process that I began to understand the craft of research, as well as my passion for the archives.  (My undergrad thesis on U.S. abolitionists would end up becoming my first publications, albeit after A LOT of painful revision).

“History is not just a discipline, a set of techniques and methods.  It’s a way of thinking about the world, with complexity and nuance, appreciative of the context.  To understand any current issue or event, we must look backward to their genesis and their evolution over time. As a historical sociologist, I bring this historical sensibility to all my research.  In short, the answer to the kinds of questions I like – why do we have this – are really explored by the historical query of how did we get here?”

Owen’s advice to current students: “Graduate school – and academia more generally – is a strange beast, mystifying for those who aren’t in it.  I was quite naïve going into grad school.  I suspected it was just like undergraduate education, just harder.  I was quickly and rudely disabused of this notion.  Graduate training is all about developing your own intellectual identity through the mastery of a discipline.  Its heart lies not in classes or coursework but in the intensive study and growth done often on one’s own. 

“When contemplating a career in academia or pursuing a Ph.D., there are many practical things to consider – the competitive job market, the likely necessity that you must be geographically mobile, the long marathon it takes to get a Ph.D., etc.  These are important.  But what I wished I’d done while at Catholic University is talk to my professors about the experience of graduate school.  My professors prepared me intellectually and were exceedingly generous in their mentorship.  I just didn’t take full advantage of their openness, mainly out of shyness.  So, if you’re interested in graduate school, I’d encourage you to talk to your professors about what it’s like, not just in terms of academics but in terms of daily life.  Don’t be shy like I was.  Professors can seem intimidating, but we’re (sort of) normal folks like everyone else, who were once in the very spot you are.”