Michael Hughes, the most recent inductee to the Southern Sociological Society Roll of Honor, has made a career out of using existing datasets to examine research questions he finds interesting. 

After 40 years at Virginia Tech, Hughes, a professor of sociology, is planning to retire next year — but he’s not planning to stop doing research. His endless curiosity about the world has driven his work.

“For me, the most interesting thing is to get a new dataset and see what I can find in it,” said Hughes.

His most recent dataset comes from a collaboration with Edward Gitre, a Virginia Tech assistant professor of history whose American Soldier in World War II project is making available more than 130 datasets, several of which Hughes is using to look at the link between the experience of trauma and combatants’ well-being.

“Soldiers answered survey questions about the physical symptoms of trauma experienced while they were under fire,” Hughes said. “Did you have a violent pounding of your heart? Did you have sweaty palms? Did you feel faint? With this dataset we’ll be able to examine the relationship between the experience of combat trauma and mental health outcomes.”

Hughes’ recent appointment to the Roll of Honor is the Southern Sociological Society’s highest distinction, recognizing members’ intellectual contributions throughout their careers. Only 23 sociologists have been so honored since the award was instituted in 1977.

“Michael’s dedication to understanding factors involving the well-being of humanity and his collaborative research within the department, university, and other institutions make him a role model for generations to come,” said David Brunsma, a Virginia Tech professor of sociology and executive officer of the Southern Sociological Society. “He upholds the tradition of the society.”

Hughes joined the Virginia Tech faculty as an assistant professor in 1979, after completing his doctorate in sociology at Vanderbilt University. He received his master’s and bachelor’s in sociology from the University of Alabama. 

When he arrived at Virginia Tech, Hughes brought with him a research project started in graduate school on the effects of household crowding and solitary living on mental health. These studies, somewhat controversial at the time, turned out to provide insights into the costs and benefits of social integration. 

This would not be the last time he would confront controversial topics. Over the years, his research expanded to an examination of race and well-being, including the racial paradox that African Americans’ mental health is as good as or better than that of white people, even though the former more often experience stress and social conditions that undermine mental health and well-being.

In the early 1990s, Hughes also collaborated with colleagues at the University of Michigan on a large-scale project to estimate how many Americans in the general population have mental disorders . For the two years he worked on this national study, he and colleagues published five papers, one of which was the first to use a national probability sample to estimate how many people had mental disorders. 

“We found that about half of Americans have had some kind of mental disorder in their lifetimes,” he said. Among other issues, the paper addressed the question of whether women are more likely to have mental disorders than men, which other studies had argued. 

“We found no difference in rates of mental disorders overall, just differences in the kinds of disorders that men and women experience,” said Hughes. “Women are more likely to experience anxiety and affective disorders, while men are more likely to have drug or alcohol disorders and anti-social personality disorders.”

Hughes has also conducted research on post-traumatic stress symptoms that result following mass shootings. In collaboration with Russell Jones, a professor of psychology in the College of Science, and other researchers, he examined the mental health effects on Virginia Tech students following the April 16 tragedy.

Hughes, the coauthor of three books, is also a former editor of the Journal of Health and Social Behavior, and he has served on the editorial boards of the American Sociological Review and Social Forces. Throughout his career, his research papers have been cited more than 40,000 times in academic journals. 

In 1996, the Department of Sociology honored Hughes with the E. Gordon Ericksen Outstanding Graduate Faculty Award, and in 2006, he received the Award for Excellence in Research and Creative Scholarship from the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences. 

During a 2005 address to his peers when he became president of the Southern Sociological Society, he discussed the need to focus on how meaning affects one’s sense of well-being. He believes those thoughts are particularly relevant to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“There isn’t much research on how to promote a positive sense of meaning in life,” said Hughes. “I argue that a focus on happiness and satisfaction might be overplayed. We really need to look at meaning.” 

Often, Hughes added, people can have challenging but negative experiences that, once dealt with, promote important life meanings. 

“As we’re going through this coronavirus challenge, many people are having negative experiences,” he said. “Yet for many, this will be one of the most meaningful periods in their lives, as they struggle through all the problems. And then ultimately, we will triumph, we will get out of this. But while we do, we are struggling, and when we struggle, we generate experiences and memories. We overcome various obstacles, and so the challenging time becomes very meaningful to us in our lives.”

And Hughes, upon receiving the distinction of being the society’s newest Roll of Honor member, says he finds meaning in being among a list of scholars for whom he has profound respect. Being in that company, he says, means that he still has much to do. 

Written by Leslie King