TO reach Joyce A. Ladner's office at Howard University's School of Social Work, you pass through the poverty-wrenched streetscapes of northwest Washington. It's an area she and her students know well - the drugs, the crime, the violence, the teenage pregnancy, the second-generation welfare families. ``Some of these things are horrible,'' says Professor Ladner during an interview in her office. But before these circumstances can be changed, she insists, the people involved must be understood. And that, she says, is the job of sociology.
``These people are surviving. How do they do it? They have all the same elements in their system that we have in ours. It's just that they're carried out in different ways.'' Sociologists, she says, ``need to try to extract those things which seem OK and which can be built on in order to help people rebuild their lives.''
That perspective - focusing on strengths rather than weaknesses in a subculture - is not common among sociologists, she notes. ``We've always approached it from the problem's perspective.''
Ladner, who lives in Washington with her 15-year-old son, speaks from two decades' of professional experience. Author of several books and scores of articles, she has chaired a blue-ribbon panel on teenage pregnancy for the District of Columbia, guest lectured in Nigeria, and received a ``Most Inspiring Teacher'' award at Howard. Yet her insights seem always to be seasoned with compassion - a product, apparently, out of her own childhood.
``My mother used to say that being poor is no excuse for failing,'' she says, recalling the woman who, coming from a family of 11 children, raised young Joyce and her sister in Palmers Crossing, Miss., a rural hamlet outside of Hattiesburg.
Though her mother had only a third-grade education and her stepfather left school after 11th grade, they valued education. ``My mother had a saying that `if you get book learning, no one can take that from you.''' So when her five-year-old sister started school, her mother persuaded the principal to take Joyce, too.
``I had one braid on the top of my head,'' she recalls, ``and I was 3 1/2 years old.'' Even at that age, however, ``I was just fascinated by this whole thing called learning.'' She remembers her teacher, Miss Zola Jackson, finally having to tell her, ```Little girl, if you don't stop coming up and asking me, ``Miss Jackson, is this right? Is this right?'' you're going to walk holes in the soles of your shoes!'''
She also recalls having ``an insatiable curiosity about people and what makes them tick. As a kid, I'd get fascinated just by looking at my playmates play. I wanted to understand motives. It was second nature to me.''
But it was not until she enrolled in nearby Tougaloo College in the early 1960s - her first departure from all-black education, although the college was only ``nominally integrated'' - that she discovered the discipline called sociology. It was taught by a refugee professor from Nazi Germany named Ernst Borinski, who regularly invited to campus some of the leading thinkers on social issues. ``People would come,'' she says, ``because it was the only place in all of Mississippi during this era where there could be an open dialogue that both blacks and whites could attend.''
In college, where she roomed with the school's first full-time white student, the civil rights movement increasingly attracted her attention. She recalls that it had ``a profound impact on my going on to graduate school, because the more social change I saw occur first-hand, the more questions I had.''
Having earned her PhD at Washington University, she now teaches social work, which she feels keeps her on ``the cutting edge'' by keeping her in touch with students in the field.
Ladner, who is currently doing research on women in the civil rights movement, is also writing a novel. ``I'm a very strong advocate of interdisciplinary work,'' she says, adding that ``I do not feel that my discipline fully explains those things I'm interested in.''
That view, she feels, is not widely shared in her field. Many of her colleagues ``operate within tiny boundaries.'' Others are attempting to make sociology ``more scientific.'' She notes that the major journal in her discipline, the American Sociological Review, is filled with articles based on complex mathematical models that ``a lot of people in the field will admit quietly they don't really understand.'' She wants sociology to return to a position in which ``we're dealing again with real live human beings, where you can't control for all of the variables that the more quantitative people control for.''
Looking at the future of her field, Ladner notes several trends. After eight years of Reagan administration funding cuts for social programs, she says that social problems are escalating. But she notes that social work is ``on the way up again,'' with increasing enrollment at schools of social work and plenty of jobs at the other end.
Also changing is the way students will practice their profession. ``Many of the theories of behavior that I learned in graduate school were not designed for a world in which the demographics of our population have absolutely been transformed.'' Theories such as Talcott Parsons's concept of ``the normal American family,'' she says, were developed before illegal immigration, women's rights, and the current concern for empowering the powerless were big issues.
``We're reconceptualizing our traditional formulas,'' she says, noting that ``no theory of behavior today can be developed without some serious consideration of the implications of global politics and global economics.''
Although she says that social problems will grow in scope, she also says ``we are going through the worst of our drug problem now.'' She sees ``the will of the people in communities beginning to assert itself. We went through a period in the last several years where people were just beaten down by it. Now they're fighting back, reclaiming their territory.''
She also thinks that teenage pregnancy will abate, although it may take another generation before it happens. ``I believe that eventually a lot of these kids are going to reach a stage where having the baby will not be necessary to express the fact that they feel they're now women.''
While she credits President George Bush with ``lowering the decibel level'' in the public policy debate, she is still waiting for adequate federal and state programs in the areas of child care, health insurance, and housing policy.
At bottom, however, she notes that the fundamental social problem in American society has to do with ``whether you give people charity or whether you give people opportunity.''
If some of these problems are beginning to abate, what role will sociologists and social workers play? ``We're going to have to figure out how to clean up after the storm,'' she says simply. Rushworth M. Kidder's regular Monday column will appear on Thursday this week.