Rural sociologist Frank Young dies at 92

Frank W. Young, M.A. ’54, Ph.D. ’57, professor emeritus of rural sociology who explored issues of social differentiation and structure in rural communities, died April 26 at his home in Ithaca. He was 92.

Young trained as an anthropologist at a time when applied international work was first emerging after World War II. At Cornell he pushed forward new sociological concepts and comparative research designs to better understand rural communities all over the globe. He performed fieldwork and published extensively about social structure and dynamics in Mexico, Tunisia, Canada, Puerto Rico and upstate New York.

Frank Young

As a young scholar Young was eager for sociology to take a larger role in international development efforts, he said in a 2015 interview with Professor Emeritus Gene Erickson. Young likened sociology of that era to scouting where sociologists, often able to speak native languages, would go into communities to understand people’s thoughts on the acceptance of new technologies, such as new seeds for agriculture.

Young saw a larger role sociology could play in understanding the full picture of community health and well-being. Young was an early adopter of statistics and quantitative methods in sociology in his research. He was also a leading advocate for rural sociology’s role in international development programs at a time when sociology focused mostly on the United States.

“I wanted to find a truly sociological paradigm, theory and methodology,” Young said in his conversation with Erickson.

Young’s interests in the social sciences began early. He took inspiration from a club dedicated to the subject at his high school in Seattle, and went on to study anthropology at Deep Springs College and the University of Washington.

After graduating in 1950, he served in the U.S. Army where he was stationed in Monterey, California. On weekends he would visit local Pentecostal churches to observe religious rituals, including adherents speaking in tongues. That scholarly observation would become the basis for his master’s thesis at Cornell.

The strong applied anthropology happening at Cornell at the time first drew him to the university. For his Ph.D. work, which he completed in 1957, he focused on the impact of urbanization on fishing villages in Nova Scotia.

He returned to Cornell in 1962 when the Agriculture College (now the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences) received a Ford Foundation grant to engage in development work in Latin America. Hired as an associate professor in 1962, he and fellow faculty member Robert Polson were the first to focus on international settings at a time when most Cornell rural sociology studies were U.S.-based.

With his extensive background in anthropology Young was able to forge connections between Cornell rural sociologists and anthropologists. Both disciplines were applied, he said, and made for natural collaborations. Young’s innovative research drew on new methods of data collection that focused on health trends. His scholarly work moved into studies of population health where he was among the earliest scholars to demonstrate the association between social integration and health.

The collaborative intellectual space at Cornell, he said, was “fertile ground for really radically new ideas.”

In his career Young twice served as acting department chair for rural sociology, from 1971-72 and again in 1985. He received the Distinguished Rural Sociologist award from the Rural Sociological Society in 1995, the same year he retired. He is survived by his wife, Lorrie Young; two sons, Christopher and Douglas Young; and two grandsons, Alex and Andrew.

Matt Hayes is director for communications for Global Development in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

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Gillian Smith