School of Education
February 1, 2010
Educator Seeks to Understand Societal Changes and Their Potential Consequences
Many of the changes we are witnessing are beneficial, accompanied by opportunities and equality, while others are creating daunting new challenges. At the same time, decades of social research has shown that rapid societal change may reduce social integration and contribute to a higher frequency of mental illness and delinquent behavior, including child abuse and substance use among adolescents.
Ever since I was a child I have been driven by the belief that my life’s work should be devoted to understanding such societal changes and their potential consequences, as well as doing my best to create a more equitable and healthier community for people. And I have been lucky: For the whole of my working life, I have been given opportunities to be involved in creative intellectual work and service, two of the most important necessary elements in being an agent of social change. I have forged relationships with outstanding colleagues and mentors, and I have sought to ground my work in empirical data and evidence-based research.
Most of my research can be divided into two broad categories: (1) social research on scientific performance and policy; and (2) applied social research on youth and adolescents and their health and well-being.
My research within the field of sociology of science has been on several themes related to the changing institutional context of science. One of the themes that I have studied in this context is the changing role of science (a) as it becomes increasingly important to national economic growth and (b) in its utility in the improvement of national social welfare policies.
In relation to my work on youth and adolescents, I have been keenly interested in studying risk and protective factors in the prevention of adolescent delinquency and, more recently, health-related behavior, particularly substance use. I, along with my colleagues, have tried to disentangle the complicated picture of the interconnection among family, school, and friendship groups in order to understand what factors are important in explaining delinquent behavior and how these factors are related to each other. My studies, and those of my collaborating colleagues, have revealed that affiliations with family, peer group effects, and types of recreational activities available are the strongest predictors of the path taken by adolescents. My research has confirmed that any discussion of adolescents and substance use must therefore be careful to avoid what in the literature has been called the fallacy of autonomy, the belief that what goes on in adolescents’ lives can usefully be separated from the forces that affect it from the outside.
My university training has guided my professional path. After my bachelor’s degree in political science and my master’s in sociology, both from the University of Iceland, I obtained my Ph.D. from Penn State University in Sociology. My dissertation was entitled: Stress in Adolescents´ Lives: The Role of Negative Life Events and Social Support in Understanding Distress, Delinquency, Substance Use and School Performance.
Following my studies at Penn State, I was offered an opportunity to take the lead on establishing and eventually chairing a new School of Education at Reykjavik University. This clearly was an opportunity of a lifetime; however, time was a limited quantity. At the end of year 2004 I was handed a blank sheet and asked to build a new university department, which was supposed to be opened in the fall of 2005. My idea was not to open a traditional School of Education for teachers, but a school that linked health and education.
The resulting School of Health and Education at Reykjavik University now offers five different programs: B.S. program in sports education, B.S. in psychology with an emphasis on health, M.P.H. program in public health, M.P.H. in Executive public health, and diplomas in education for prospective teachers. We work with our colleagues at Columbia University Teachers College and the Mailman School of Public Health; Penn State University; the University of California, San Diego; Mayo Clinic; Karolinska Institute and the Nordic School of Public Health in Sweden; and King´s College in London.
In my professional life, I seek to balance my administrative, teaching, and mentoring responsibilities with service to my field.
In the future I plan to keep on devoting my time to creating and distributing knowledge and serving in other ways, specifically by using knowledge to benefit social circumstances of people. My research focus will continue to be on youth and adolescents–examining risk and protective factors for adolescent health and behavior, specifically with the goal in mind to better understand and be able to create healthy living circumstances for young people in Iceland and elsewhere. Additionally, I intend to keep leading the prevention projects in Iceland and in Europe, while inviting other cities around the world to join our efforts.