In Motion: Alair MacLean and the things veterans carry
A native of New England and an avid fan of the Red Sox, Alair MacLean is interested in the ways conflict can shape a society. After more than a decade of work in the non-profit world and a sabbatical in Paris, MacLean, an associate professor of sociology at WSU Vancouver, examines the life trajectories of U.S. combat veterans and explores how wars affect people’s lives.
In sociology, do you study the individual or society in general?
Both, actually. Sociology looks at how different groups of people interact with each other and how the rules of society influence outcomes for individual people. It intersects with many other social sciences, including economics, psychology, anthropology, and political science.
Why is it important to study people who serve in the military?
It’s an experience that shapes peoples’ lives in rather dramatic ways, both positive and negative. A good portion of my research looks at the impact of combat exposure and the outcomes these veterans have later in life, particularly in terms of health and economics. I was working on my dissertation about veteran outcomes when 9/11 happened, and military service became a much more salient topic.
Today, about 10 percent of American men go into military service, and approximately one-third to one-half of them are exposed to combat. Up through the mid-1970s, more than half of all U.S. men served in some military capacity. It was common to be a part of the armed forces or to have a family member who served.
I’m interested in knowing if there are systematic inequities related to when people enter the military, and, if so, how does that continue to shape their lives? What common experiences do soldiers and sailors and airmen have while they are in the military? And how are they affected by the larger geopolitical context?
What’s one of the more surprising things you’ve learned in your research?
There is a common negative image of the traumatized veteran who can’t function in society, so we set out to test whether veterans really are stigmatized or discriminated against for their service. We actually found the reverse was the norm: people tend to discriminate in favor of veterans. Society may have stereotypes about the veterans, but individuals are still are more likely to want veterans who have fought in wars as their friends, neighbors, or coworkers, compared to non-veterans.
How can research like yours contribute to improving outcomes for veterans?
In order to properly understand conditions, you need to know how to capture the right data and how to analyze the information once you have it. Over the past six years I’ve been a member of three National Academy of Sciences committees working with policymakers and military leaders to identify best practices and methodologies for collecting scientifically valid data about service members and veterans that doesn’t disrupt operations and that can be assessed to improve things such as military environments, readiness missions, and meeting readjustment needs.
You teach at both the Vancouver and the Pullman campus. How does that work?
I regularly teach undergraduate courses on the Vancouver campus—usually the intro class in the fall and the statistics class in the spring, as well as more specific courses on globalization and inequality throughout the year.
Every two or three years, I teach a graduate-level social stratification class in Pullman. I teach face-to-face classes every other week and the rest online and via video. To me, it’s worth the travel time to be in the same room with students and share the teaching/learning experience. Last fall, I incorporated the Common Reading book Just Mercy with our studies of incarceration by race, and it was a great fit. We also went together to see the MASC exhibit about Herbert Niccolls, a 12-year-old teen incarcerated for murder in 1931.
What’s the biggest reward about teaching statistics?
A lot of “a-ha!” moments! For teachers, it’s kind of exciting when students have been working on a concept and suddenly say, “Now I understand what the T-test means!”
Since this is an election year, we spent a lot of time talking about the polls and confidence intervals, and realizing that when a poll says 40 percent of people in New York say they are going to vote for a particular candidate, that’s based on a sample of maybe 500 people. They aren’t actually going around asking everybody.
The other concept I work hard on is helping students understand statistical tables in academic publications. They may not understand everything that’s in the table, but they are better able to understand what the table is doing and that makes them better critical thinkers.
How ’bout those Red Sox?
Sports were very much a part of the social landscape when I was growing up Cambridge, Massachesetts. We had school field trips to Fenway Park in Boston, and on game days everyone’s radio would be on so you could hear the announcers’ voices floating through the neighborhood.
I enjoy the narrative of baseball and the slower pace. Just like when I was young, I often have the game on in the background whenever the Red Sox are playing. And I like the statistics of baseball, too, especially the new ones like the WHIP, WAR, and BABIP. The Sox are currently leading the American League East and according to ESPN’s fivethirtyeight.com website are the second-most likely team to win the World Series this year. If they’re in it, I’ll be rooting for them!