Campus & Community

Sørensen, 59, leading authority on sociology

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Aage B.
Aage B. Sørensen developed a pathbreaking set of concepts (Gazette file photo)

Aage B. Sørensen, professor of sociology at Harvard University and one of the world’s leading authorities on social stratification and the sociology of education, died on Wednesday, April 18, in Boston, less than a month before his 60th birthday. He had been in poor health since February 2000 after falling on the ice near his home in Cambridge.

Sørensen made important contributions to our understanding of how educational, occupational, and income achievements are enhanced or constrained by their organizational and social settings. Drawing on both sociology and economics, he developed a path-breaking set of theoretical concepts, mathematical models, and methodological techniques that he then applied to a wide array of subjects. He was adept in accounting for phenomena as diverse as rates of learning in elementary school reading groups and promotion patterns in large industrial corporations. Sørensen demonstrated that such attainments reflect not only individual resources and efforts, but also the opportunities and constraints of the organizational structures in which individuals act. Some of his earliest academic work showed how chances of advancement differ depending on whether educational and occupational achievement is subject to an open market process or is closed to competitors outside a system.

Sørensen’s latest research was focused on understanding recent changes in social inequalities, including rising wage differences between white-collar and blue-collar workers. He sought to determine the extent to which these result from new work arrangements for profit-sharing. His research demonstrated clearly that changes in individual endowments need not alter inequality in the social distribution of outcomes. Policies to decrease income inequality by expanding educational opportunities, for example, fail if the prevailing structure of opportunity within a labor market remains unchanged. While developing these ideas, Sørensen authored or co-authored more than 100 journal articles, book chapters and book reviews, and co-authored or co-edited five books.

Sørensen was especially active as a teacher at both the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Harvard, serving as mentor to an unusually large number of graduate students, many of whom currently hold faculty positions at universities throughout the world. In April of this year, his accomplishments in graduate teaching were honored by an Excellence in Mentoring Award presented by the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Harvard.

Sørensen was born on May 13, 1941 in Silkeborg, Denmark, and in 1967 he was the first recipient of a master’s degree in sociology from the University of Copenhagen. He went on to Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore where he earned a Ph.D. in social relations in 1971. From 1971 to 1984, Sørensen taught at the University of Wisconsin, serving as department chair in sociology from 1979 to 1982. He was appointed to the faculty at Harvard in 1984. As chair of the sociology department from 1984 until 1992, he led a substantial renewal of its faculty and programs. From 1994 until his injury he was chair of Harvard’s Joint Doctoral Program in Organizational Behavior. Throughout his academic career Sørensen participated actively in European sociology, with extended periods of teaching, study, consulting, and research in Denmark, Norway, and Germany. He was instrumental in restructuring the Institute of Sociology at the University of Copenhagen, and served for many years on the board of the Danish National Science Foundation.

Sørensen is survived by his wife, Annemette, the director of the Henry A. Murray Research Center at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study; his son, Jesper, an associate professor in the Sloan School of Management at Massachusetts Institute of Technology; daughter-in-law, Patricia Chang, an associate research professor of sociology and assistant director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College; and three grandchildren, Nikolaj, Benjamin, and Chloe.

A memorial service for Sørensen will be held on Saturday, May 12, at 2 p.m., in University Hall.