Stewart E. Tolnay is the S. Frank Miyamoto Professor of Sociology at the University of Washington. After starting out at Everett Community College, Stew earned his BA in Sociology in 1973, his MA in 1975, and his Ph.D. in 1981, all at the University of Washington. Along the way he also completed a fellowship with the East-West Population Institute and a Fredericksen Overseas Population Internship (through University of North Carolina) that took him and his new wife, Patty Glynn, to Iran in the late 1970’s. Stew’s first job after completing his PhD was in the Sociology Department at the University of Georgia where he earned tenure and promotion to Associate Professor in 1986. Two years later he took a similar position at the University at Albany where he helped to fuel the most productive period in the department’s history. During his time at Albany, Stew also assembled a very diverse group of demographers and quasi-demographers with little history of collaboration to compete successfully for an NICHD population center grant, and led the Center for Social and Demographic Analysis during its most formative decade. In 2000, Stew accepted an opportunity to return to Seattle and his alma mater. He served as the chair of the Sociology Department at Washington from 2003 to 2008 and has filled important leadership roles in the university’s Center for Studies in Demography and Ecology. Stew was elected to the Sociological Research Association in 2002 and to the Washington State Academy of Sciences in 2011.
Stew is recognized as one of the preeminent experts in historical demography and has made substantial contributions to the study of racial stratification, family change, residential segregation, and migration. He has published nearly a hundred articles and chapters during his career, almost all in the top journals in sociology and demography. In addition, he has authored or edited several award-winning books. His book, A Festival of Violence, was a ground-breaking work, making painstaking use of historical sources and innovative analytical techniques to shed new light on the social dynamics of lynching in the post-bellum South. By showing the connections between lynchings and local population and economic dynamics, Stew and his coauthor, E.M. Beck, were able to dispel the notion that lynchings were simply impassioned and unpredictable interpersonal events, revealing them as an important tool for racialized labor control, employed especially in seasons of high demand for labor and slim profit margins. Moreover, they made a compelling case for the idea that the effects of lynching extended will beyond the immediate location of the violence, shaping interracial dynamics and subsequent lynchings in surrounding counties as well. Most impressive is the fact that Stew and his colleagues were able to harness spatial analysis techniques – just emerging at the time – to make this theoretically compelling case, demonstrating not only the utility of a new set of tools but highlighting the importance of connecting new methodologies to important substantive issues and longstanding theoretical debates. In his follow-up work, The Bottom Rung, Stew made equally impressive contributions to our collective knowledge of the demographic and economic plight of black southern farm families during the time of the Great Migration. Stew’s work represents the best kind of social demography, connecting population processes to broader social, economic, and political dynamics, and both spatial and historical contingencies. His work is uniformly well-written and engaging, rendering complex arguments accessible by, and valuable to, audiences in a wide range of disciplines.
While Stew is a hugely successful researcher, he is perhaps an even better teacher and mentor at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. He is as generous with his students as he is frugal in his personal dealings (evidence of the latter: he once wore a cardigan to a biker bar and is known to eat the same from-home lunch every day). Stew receives high praise for his ability to develop rigorous but compelling courses on less-than-sexy topics, most notably research methods and demography. He provides his students with a strong grounding in the scholarly traditions of his field but continually connects these classical approaches to contemporary issues, and constantly refines his courses to take advantage of new technologies and teaching strategies, expose his students to the latest research, and develop more effective methods for fostering crucial writing and critical thinking skills.
Stew’s commitment to undergraduate education is also evidenced outside of the classroom by his involvement of undergraduates in scholarly research. His recent work, locating the records of roughly 1,000 confirmed lynch victims in the historical census enumerators’ manuscripts, was completed in collaboration with more than a dozen talented undergraduates, many of whom have gone on to the nation’s top graduate programs. Stew incorporated the undergraduate researchers as real partners in this effort, including them as co-authors and encouraging these members of the digital generation to use their online savvy to improve project systems and protocols. Further demonstrating his commitment to these types of endeavors, Stew and his wife, Patty, have established an endowment to support undergraduate research in the University of Washington’s Department of Sociology. In 2008, Stew received formal recognition for his commitment to undergraduate training, winning the university’s Honors Excellence in Teaching Award.
In 2011, Stew also earned the Department of Sociology’s Excellence in Graduate Training Award, highlighting a long and distinguished record of developing and mentoring the next generation of population scientists. During his career, Stew has mentored more than one hundred graduate students and postdocs, many of whom have gone on to distinguished careers at top teaching, research, and policy institutions. Stew sets a high bar for his students, demanding a high level of theoretical and analytic rigor, but is also appreciated for his pragmatism; he has a unique talent for helping students convert amorphous, sometimes grandiose ideas into analyses that make real contributions to the field and can be accomplished within a decade. His generosity, clear thinking, proficiency in imagining effective analytic strategies for complex theoretical arguments, and ability to coax effective prose from even the most plodding writers make him a popular and highly valued committee member.
One quality that sets Stew apart from others with similar levels of success in teaching and research is his unyielding commitment to service. Stew has served all of his institutions and the profession in countless, indispensable ways. He has served on and chaired multiple review panels for the National Institutes of Health, including the Population Research Infrastructure Program Review Panel and Special Emphasis Panel for the Demographic and Behavioral Sciences Branch of NICHD. He has also served on the editorial boards for several top journals, including the American Sociological Review, and is the current Editor of the PAA flagship journal, Demography. Perhaps more important is the fact that Stew has been a steadying influence in every department in which he has worked; he is rarely the loudest voice in the room, but is regularly the voice most heeded. Despite his tendency to supplant lesser athletes from prime positions on departmental softball teams (Phil Morgan was a star postdoc-shortstop at UNC before arriving at Georgia where competition from Stew forced him to lower-profile second base), Stew’s colleagues, current and past, offer virtually unanimous praise for his generosity, thoughtfulness, wit, and calm demeanor. He is a nice guy who has gotten ahead, the price for which is that he is an extremely popular source for advice on a wide range of professional issues. Like his efforts to train the next generations of population scientists, these service activities bring Stew little formal professional notoriety, making him one of the heretofore unsung heroes of the discipline. Please join us in singing his praises.