Robert L. Burgess, Ph.D.

Ph. D., Washington University, St. Louis, 1968Robert L. Burgess

Emeritus Professor of Human Development

Contact Information


Throughout my career, I have been interested in understanding fundamental social processes. Early in my career, I conducted a series of experimental analyses of the structure of communication networks in problem-solving groups, the development of cooperation and competition in children's small groups, the determinants of generalized imitation in retarded children, and the conditions associated with the development and consequences of power differences in dyads involved in exchange relationships. During this time, I also designed, implemented, assessed, and disseminated a behavior modification program to encourage ecologically responsible behavior in our national parks.

Following these studies, I became interested in applying what I had learned from my experimental laboratory studies to the investigation of the maltreatment of children by their parents. Consequently, I was especially interested in determining whether there are patterns of communication or interaction distinctive to abusive and neglectful families. To answer this question, I conducted the first direct observational study of abusive and neglectful families in their own homes, Project Interact. Drawing upon research methods developed by primatologists, Project Interact was the very first study to examine patterns of interaction between and among all members of families. Having succeeded in identifying patterns of daily communication distinctive to abusive and neglectful families, I then developed, implemented, and assessed an intervention program for maltreating families.

Up to this point, all of my research had been multidisciplinary in the sense that I drew upon research, theory, and methods from the behavioral and social sciences (from operant conditioning and behavior modification in psychology to primatological research methods in anthropology to exchange theory in social psychology and sociology). Yet, important gaps in my understanding of child maltreatment eventually led me to examine the possible added explanatory utility of behavioral biology (behavioral ecology, behavior genetics, and evolutionary psychology).

This effort reflects my view that science is not just concerned with establishing relationships between phenomena (research), but also with explaining those relationships (theory). Thus, my most recent work has focused on developing linkages between biology and the behavioral and social sciences. Examples of these attempts include using the principles of life-history theory (a mid-level application of evolutionary theory) to develop a multi-level analysis of child maltreatment. This can be seen in Chapter 11 of my recently published book, Evolutionary Perspectives on Human Development. Another example is to be found in Chapter 1 of the same book where I examine the intersection of evolutionary biology, behavior genetics, and the traditional behavioral and social sciences for the understanding of our common human nature as well as individual differences in how that nature is manifested in different contexts. Both of these chapters can be downloaded from this website (see below).


  • Long Beach City College, 1958-1960
  • California State University, Long Beach, CA, B.A., 1962, Psychology and Sociology
  • Washington University, St. Louis, MO, M.A., 1964, Sociology-Anthropology
  • Washington University, St. Louis, MO, Ph.D., 1968, Sociology/Social Psychology

Research and Professional Experience

  • 1962-63: Research Assistant, Social Science Institute, Washington University, St. Louis
  • 1964-65: Instructor, Washington University, St. Louis
  • 1965-68: Acting Assistant Professor of Sociology, University of Washington
  • 1968-69: Assistant Professor, University of Washington
  • 1969-74: Associate Professor, University of Washington
  • 1974-75: Director, Centerfor Studies in Social Psychology, University of Washington and Professor of Sociology
  • 1975-Present: Professor of Human Development, Penn State University 1979-80: Visiting Professor of Sociology, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
  • 1980-83: Professor-in-Charge, Graduate Program, Human Development and Family Studies, Penn State University
  • 1983-1987: NIMH Member, Life-Course and Prevention Research Committee (Chair, 1986-1987)
  • 1991-94: Professor-in-Charge, Undergraduate Program, Human Development and Family Studies, Penn State University


  • 1964-1965: U.S. Steel Foundation National Fellow
  • 1964: The Bobbs-Merrill National Award in Sociology
  • 1970-1971: President, West Coast Association for Small Group Research
  • 1999: The Milton S. Eisenhower Award for Distinguished Teaching

Retirement Lecture

Bringing Biology Back In: An Intellectual Journey