In January, hundreds of the foremost thinkers in social work higher education gathered in New Orleans, Louisiana for the Society for Social Work and Research (SSWR) Annual Conference. The chair of this year’s event was SSWR Vice President James Lubben, who is Professor and Louise McMahon Ahearn Chair at the Boston College School of Social Work.
In addition to his roles with SSWR and BC, Lubben is Professor Emeritus at the University of California Los Angeles, and he currently holds elected positions on two national boards for social work education. Throughout his career, Lubben has actively promoted the development of social work and social welfare by serving as principal investigator or collaborator on over $32 million of research and training grants.
He spoke with BC Social Work about his hopes for this year’s SSWR conference (the story was originally published prior to the event), the many hats he wears in his work educating a next generation of social workers, and his own groundbreaking research into the effects of social isolation on older adults.
Thanks for taking some time to speak with us today Jim, I know you’re in the final stages of organizing the SSWR Annual Meeting. What are you most looking forward to about this year’s event?
First off, we’re excited that this year’s meeting will include more participants than ever before; the projected attendance is around 1,600. We’re expecting 100 more oral presentations and more than double the amount of poster presentations than we’ve had at any previous SSWR annual conference. Overall, we’ve had the greatest number of abstracts received (1,700) and accepted (1,000) in the event’s history.
We’ve also engaged new technology that I’m hopeful will be an asset in helping scholars and graduate students to share their work and research more easily – all posters will now be presented as “ePosters.” This means that participants will be able to plug a thumb drive into a screen, and provide up to ten slides of dynamic research for presentation and discussion. Gone are the days of lugging large, expensive-to-produce posters through airports, and we think this is a good thing. We hope that moving forward, all presentations will be catalogued on SSWR’s website, providing ample opportunity for scholars who might wish to work together to really get to know each other’s work.
The theme of this year’s event is “The Social and Behavioral Importance of Increased Longevity.” Some of the top scholars in their respective sectors are coming together in an interdisciplinary environment to discuss how the long course of life, experienced across many years and diverse cultures, can impact the opportunities that individuals have as they grow older. People are an accumulation of experiences – what happens during the early stages of life can often have a major impact on their later years.
We’ve tried to address this reality in our program. A couple of examples: our first invited symposium addresses cross-cultural perspectives on longevity, and our second symposium, entitled “Enhancing the Prospects for Increased Longevity” features three speakers who have devoted their research to three distinct stages of life: youth, middle age, and older adults.
In addition, our speakers this week are leaders in their fields. The opening plenary session, for instance, “Taking Advantage of Increased Longevity: Work and Productive Engagement” features a conversation between two of the most esteemed voices on gerontology in America, BC’s own Marcie Pitt-Catsouphes, the director of the Center on Aging and Work, and Washington University of St. Louis’ Nancy Morrow-Howell. Their talk will focus on the role of older adults, and in particular, of those from the Baby Boomer generation, as they enter the third stage of life.
I’m looking forward to a wealth of substance at this year’s event. There is so much compelling content to take advantage of, and I hope this will provide many opportunities for collaboration.
You often refer to the importance of collaboration in social work education. Talk to us more about why this matters so much, and how meetings like SSWR’s Annual Conference can drive the field forward.
To me, the whole conference is about community development. It’s about all of us in the field gaining a fuller understanding of the science that undergirds our profession. It’s about coming together to renew a commitment to more rapidly advance the science that allows us to do the work that both positively affects those living at the margins of society in the here and now, but that also prepares a next generation of students to advance the research even further.
I’m hoping that new friends will be made, and that budding relationships will develop into strong partnerships that will persist long after this conference is over. The dyads and triads that emerge from meetings like these go a long way toward not only furthering academic careers, but also, toward establishing innovative evidence-based approaches to tackling the world’s most pressing ills, head-on.
Throughout your own career, you’ve been a part of $32 million worth of social welfare research and training grants. That’s an impressive number, but you’re certainly not resting on your laurels. Tell us about some of the projects that you’re currently working on.
I like to say that I wear many hats because my hairline requires me to. But yes, in all seriousness, I’m lucky to be involved in so many unique and interesting projects.
Currently, I’m really excited about my work on the Executive Committee for the Grand Challenges in Social Work Initiative, which is sponsored by the American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare. In short, we’re taking a model used by the engineering world designed to secure a next generation of best and brightest young Americans to sign up for social work professions. Our idea is to identify some of the major social challenges of our day (right now we’ve listed 12 in a current draft), and provide ambitious goals related to these challenges toward mobilizing those currently in the profession, and also capturing the imagination of young Americans who will, in the future, help us to meet our objectives. A couple of the grand challenges we’re considering now include: how do we provide venues for productive engagement in society for those in the later stages of life, and addressing the impact of social isolation and loneliness on various communities.
Social isolation, and the corresponding importance of social integration, has long been a major research interest for you. Tell us more about the Lubben Social Network Scale, an impactful tool that has been cited in more than 3,000 academic papers, and in countries as diverse as China, Portugal, and Russia.
We first developed this scale in 1988 in order to encourage health professionals to pay more attention to the adverse effects of social isolation. Many people don’t realize the real impact it can have on individuals, and on society on the whole: Certain studies have shown that social isolation kills as many people as smoking, worldwide. There exist a variety of health consequences associated with social isolation, including cognitive impairment.
The scale is a brief instrument designed to gauge social isolation in older adults – it consists of 12 questions (we’ve also designed subsequent shorter versions) that measure perceived social support from family and friends. Basically, we classify someone as being isolated if they don’t have at least two people to call on for various situations.
Much of my current work is devoted to perfecting this measure of social isolation, and facilitating social interventions to those who are identified as being at high risk of the consequences of isolation.
Understanding the impact of aging on society is of course one of my principal areas of interest. This year, we’ve launched a series of “abbreviated TED talks” for the Chestnut Hill community called “BC Talks Aging”, an online video series presented through the collaboration of the Institute on Aging (of which Lubben is director) and the Hartford Center of Excellence in Geriatric Social Work. The first two modules address social isolation and social and productive engagement. We encourage scholars, students, social workers, and the general public to take advantage of this resource, which is just one of the many innovative programs now taking place at Boston College.
You mentioned that next fall will mark the beginning of your 12th year at BC Social Work. What has your experience here meant to you so far?
I could go on and on about the successes here at Boston College, but I’ll mention just a couple now. BC Social Work does a tremendous job of recruiting new junior faculty to teach at the school, and to conduct groundbreaking research. It’s a very exciting time here for those of us in senior leadership roles, as we have the privilege to mentor this next cohort of academic leaders.
I think what I’m most proud of is the development of the International PhD Program in Social Welfare. This program is a unique collaboration between the BC School of Social Work and several Jesuit universities based in Latin America that aims to cultivate scholars to further the development of social welfare in their home countries. We’ve ignored our southern neighbors for too long; it’s time for us to build bridges between the Americas, and this particular program marks a win-win for both Boston College and our partner universities in Latin America. It has taken a lot of investment from both sides to make this program a reality, and we’re already seeing the impact this program can have, both here at BC and at our partner universities.