Everybody has those “I wonder” moments but it’s safe to say that nobody has done more with them than Dr. Reginald Bibby.
The University of Lethbridge Board of Governors Research Chair and professor in the Department of Sociology has made a name for himself by asking Canadians the questions everyone seems to have on their minds. It has made the Bibby name synonymous with popular culture and solidified him as one of the country’s most respected and accessible sociologists.
“In a nutshell, my career has come from having the luxury in sociology, and through surveys, to be able to take a lot of things I have been interested in all my life, whether it’s faith or sports, and explore it on company time,” says Bibby, only half-joking.
He presented to a packed Lethbridge City Hall on Thursday night as the latest PUBlic Professor Series speaker, discussing Beyond the Gods & Back: The Return of Religion in Canada. It’s a topic that is close to Bibby, having grown up in a household where faith was a staunch family value. It even led him down a path towards the Protestant ministry but after earning his BA from the University of Alberta, and a BD (Bachelor of Divinity) from Southern Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, Bibby turned to academia.
“What happened along the way is pretty simple; the Baptists introduced me to higher education,” he says. “Particularly down in Louisville, a number of my friends were going on to grad school, which was something I’d never given a thought to previously. I was intimidated by the thought of university when I started, but it became a matter of using sociology to really provide a new way of looking at something that had been familiar to me my entire life. I valued faith and was interested in it but had no idea, until I was exposed to sociology, that there was another way of looking at it.”
He completed his master’s studies at the University of Calgary and followed with a doctorate at Washington State University. All the while, he began to carve out a reputation as somewhat of a know-it-all, not necessarily because he was smarter than everybody else, but because he had the data.
“I came back to Canada and I was at York University in 1974 and nobody had really ever done a comprehensive national survey of religion in Canada,” he says. “Looking back it was a big long shot in terms of cost and everything else but I pulled it off.”
To make it happen, Bibby needed to find funding support from a variety of sources, so he expanded the scope of the survey. He asked about drug use, opinions on marijuana, capital punishment, interpersonal relationships, racial intermarriage and so on.
“I assumed it would be a one-shot deal and that would be it but then I got the idea five years later to repeat the survey? So we did it again in 1975 and 1980 and it just evolved into doing surveys every five years.”
The result has created a series of snapshots of the Canadian psyche over the last 40 years that are now being carried out in partnership with Angus Reid. It has spawned 14 books, numerous monographs and some 100 journal and magazine articles. More than 160,000 copies of his books have been sold. He’s also one of the most quoted sociologists in the country.
“From the time I found the research to be of interest and importance to people outside of the academic community, a major goal of mine has been to make it readily accessible,” says Bibby.
It also allows him to do what he calls, “the fun stuff”, which is to dabble academically in the world of sports.
A lifelong Canadian Football League fan (he grew up in Edmonton but somehow found himself supporting the underdog Saskatchewan Roughriders), Bibby regrets not pushing harder for sports content in the early iterations of his polls.
“In the early surveys we were really reluctant to get into some things, such as sports, in part because academics would never have respected it,” he says, his latest polling showing that CFL interest in Canada is on the rise. “The consensus was you could ask about major social issues in Canada but if you asked people how closely they followed the CFL, it would be deemed as fluff. I finally got over that but really didn’t incorporate sports until about 1990. That’s one of my real regrets. I’d give anything to have had something in there in 1975 about how closely we follow the CFL or NHL.”
Ask Bibby to put a value on his work and he says it really depends on what you define as value.
“If I were looking at one thing that you can call a contribution to society, it’s that we really have some of the best descriptive data on what has been happening in Canadian life going back to the 1970s,” he says. “You want to talk about serious issues, say what’s happened with women in the workforce since the late 1960s? We have gender data from the last 40 years; we can tell you how women were feeling at any particular point in time. Descriptively there is just so much stuff there in terms of what Canadians value, their major sources of enjoyment, the concerns they’ve had. In terms of getting a read on Canadian life, it’s a gold mine.”
So, the next time you have that “I wonder” moment, give Bibby a call – he’ll likely have an answer. And if he doesn’t, chances are he will carry out a new poll to find out.