Beal Led Sociology to Adopt Tradition of Applied ResearchBy Melea Reicks Licht
Enjoying the view from his home built into a mountain on the island of Oahu, Hawaii, George Beal is a world away from Iowa State where he and Joe Bohlen began the tradition of applied research for which the sociology department is known.
Upgrading to the latest cell phone or I-pod is a small part in a large scale adoption of technology first described by former ISU researchers George Beal and the late Joe Bohlen.
Beal (’43 agricultural economics, MS ’47 agricultural economics, PhD ’53 rural sociology) and Bohlen (’47 farm management, MS ’48 sociology, PhD ’54 sociology) worked as a team in all phases of research.
They described the adoption of a new product or technology according to a bell curve that characterized groups, including “innovators” and “laggards,” based upon the speed with which they adopted.
In addition to their pioneering work on the adoptions of new ideas and innovations, they also studied organizational effectiveness, including communication, and the strategy of community action.
“We wanted to know how to mobilize and organize community resources, mainly volunteers, to achieve projects and progress in areas like education, religion, economics, health and recreation,” Beal says.
Beal and Bohlen’s ability to relate the relevance of their research to diverse organizations and situations made them highly sought consultants for corporations, government agencies, foreign countries, organizations and media for decades.
Their findings have been used to create a cancer screening model for the American Cancer Society, community development programs, civil defense plans and in the marketing of many consumer products. Beal was chosen as a member of a Ford Foundation task force to study and suggest steps to improve food production in India in 1959. Beal and Bohlen shared their results on a prime-time, national network television show about farm families in 1963.
Bohlen (left) and Beal traveled and consulted extensively in the 1960s and 1970s using this flannel board to explain the concepts of adoption and diffusion and community action.
Paul Lasley, current chair of the ISU sociology department says, “George and Joe articulated the importance of rural sociology to understanding rural communities, rural culture and the linkages between global events and local conditions. This helped instill an applied orientation in the department that continues today.”
Beal arrived at Iowa State fresh from a small Oregon farm shortly before Pearl Harbor. There he met his wife Evelyn who earned a degree in home economics education. Beal was able to finish his bachelor’s in 1943 before serving in the Army and earning a Purple Heart.
Beal returned to Iowa State in 1946. He and Bohlen are credited for recruiting and mentoring a group of students, known affectionately within the ISU sociology department as “The Shop,” who later became outstanding rural sociologists.
Beal went on to serve as the first department chair of sociology when the department of sociology and economics split in the early 1960s.
He retired in 1977 and joined the staff of the East West Center, a federally funded center on the campus of the University of Hawaii at Manoa. He carried out cooperative activities with students, government and university professionals from Asia and Pacific Rim countries.
Beal, an emeritus Charles F. Curtiss Distinguished Professor, is now fully retired. He says the most rewarding parts of his career were working with students and seeing his research in action.
“Finding a wide range of clients interested in the many facets of our work proved that applied sociology has utility,” he says.