Alan G. Davis: 1941-1996: an appreciation

First Published in jimsresearchnotes 26 January 2010, minor revisions 12 Aug 2014

I was first introduced to symbolic interaction in 1966 when Alan Davis invited me to apply for an assistant lectureship at Aberdeen. At the time I was at Aberystwyth University College of Wales and he came down to see me. I applied and went for an interview, and began my post as Assistant Lecturer in Sociology.

This was for me the decisive decision that formed my life interest in symbolic interaction, for which I will always be grateful to Alan.

Alan G. Davis died a little more than a year after Phil Strong and a natural place for an obituary would have been in the same journal as Phil’s obituary – The Sociology of Health and Illness, which is still today the flagship journal for social constructionist research on health and illness. Yet there was no obituary that I could find. There was a review of Davis (1982) though I was not able to access it on the internet. Access issues also meant I could not find in the same journal a review of his joint-edited book States of Health first published in 1986, though I only searched up to 1990.

I don’t mean this at all as a criticism of the journal. Rather it is a reflection of the parochial nature of repute in a world that is even today much less “global” than we like to believe. Too many outstanding sociologists have gone abroad and never returned to their homelands, not even for conferences. Something similar happened to Ian Carter who moved to a Chair of Sociology at Auckland University, and never returned to publicise his book Farm Life in Northeast Scotland 1840-1914: the poor man’s country.

It is only in the last year or so that thanks to the internet I have been able to piece together what happened to Alan Davis and sketch the main outlines of his academic career. It was from Robert van Krieken’s book on Norbert Elias that I learned Alan had been a senior member of Stuart Rees’ Department of Social Work, Social Policy and Sociology at Sydney University. Another Sydney colleague friend of Alan’s, that Stuart mentions below is Alec Pemberton, who I remember as one of the few interactionists in Australia from my years there in the late 1970s.

I am grateful to Stuart Rees, Professor of Social Work at Aberdeen University and later at Sydney University, for taking the time to provide me with much invaluable information.

Perhaps because Alan Davis left Britain permanently for Australia in 1979 his research in constructionist medical sociology is less well-known in Britain than that of Phil Strong. Alan and Phil collaborated on a qualitative empirical project on children’s clinics as well as co-authoring several publications while they were both at Aberdeen (see Michael Bloor’s very fine obituary “Philip M. Strong (1945-1995): an appreciation of an essayist” in The Sociology of Health and Illness, 1996, 18, 4, 551-564). Alan is, of course, mentioned in several places in that obituary. It is worth quoting from this as it accords with what I personally know and what others have expressed about Alan that I record in this appreciation:

“Together with Alan Davis, he became a central figure in a group of neophyte Aberdeen researchers conducting a range of interactionist studies of agencies and their patients/clients. It was these studies which established the Aberdeen Unit’s reputation as a centre of excellence for qualitative research. It would be an over-simplification to describe Davis and Strong as intellectual leaders of those studies: the late Gordon Horobin also played a central part and they were too democratic in spirit to assume the direction of colleagues’ intellectual interests. But the range of their references, the breadth and depth of their micro-sociological knowledge, their unfeigned interest in others’ fieldwork tales, their 24-hour, late-night enthusiasm, their feel-good, sub-hysterical wise cracking, and their abiding kindliness – these all wove a strong web of influence, which cannot be adequately reflected in citations and acknowledgments.”(Bloor, 1996 p. 552)

This, then, is a belated appreciation of the life and work of Alan Davis, colleague and friend, first in Sheffield (1964-6), then in Aberdeen. It is belated because I had great difficulty trying to learn anything about him after the mid-1970s. So I was not aware that he went to Sydney in 1979, the same year as I left Australia to return to Britain after 5 years in Adelaide.

It is also news to me to learn from Stuart Rees (see below) that Alan obtained a Master’s degree from the University of New South Wales in The History and Philosophy of Science, for which he was awarded First Class Honours. It would make fascinating reading as many of our mutual Departmental colleagues were very interested in the sociology of science (as was Mike Mulkay).

Alan’s publishing career began after I left Aberdeen, but in only ten years he collaborated to write or edit four books, (1977a, 1978, 1982, 1986). His penultimate book is sole-authored, a theoretically grounded study of children in health care (reviewed in Sociology of Health & Illness March 1984). His last book, co-authored with Janet George, is a much-praised overview of health in Australia that ran to 3 comprehensive and well-referenced editions (see Thea Van de Mortel’s long and glowing review of its third edition in Contemporary Nurse, March 2000, 9, 1, 59-60). in addition, Alan wrote several articles, most of which (that I was able to find) were co-authored with Phil.

I met Alan in 1964 at Sheffield University, where he had obtained his first degree in 1963. Being the only unattached singles in a Sociology Department project employing 5 separately-supervised postgraduates, Alan and I became friends, often talking sociology far into the night in the project office, sharing car-hires for day trips to see Yorkshire.

Alan’s interest in Norbert Elias stems from that time. I came to Sheffield University directly from my undergraduate degree at Leicester University and was full of praise and admiration for Norbert Elias and Tony Giddens, both at the time little-known and only at the start of their academic careers. Reading the introduction to Robert van Krieken’s book, Norbert Elias (Routledge, 1998) made me realise that after Sheffield Alan must have gone on to study Elias and had learned a lot more about him than I ever knew. “Norby en Paris” – as Robert van Krieken attributes to Alan in his acknowledgements (p. vi) – is just the sort of affectionate aside Alan often made.

From Sheffield in 1966 Alan was appointed to a Sociology assistant lectureship at Aberdeen University, while, after driving Alan and his few possessions to Aberdeen, I went to an assistant lectureship at Aberystwyth UCW. A few months later Alan wrote urging me to apply for a sociology post being advertised in Aberdeen, then took the trouble to make the long return train journey to visit me and discuss it. It was from this visit by Alan that I first I learned about Geoff Sharp who was the progenitor of Aberdeen interactionism.

In 1971, together with fourth-year sociology honours student Michael Shaw, I produced and directed a short film (A Question of Strategy (Aberdeen University Television Service) illustrating Thomas J. Scheff “Negotiating Reality: notes on power in the assessment of responsibility” Social Problems 16 1, 3-17, that we applied to a staff-student encounter in which the student wants a higher grade but the lecturer cools him out. Alan put on a fine performance playing the role of the lecturer.

It is only in the last couple of years that intensive internet searches enabled me to find a list of staff at Stuart Rees’ Social Policy Department at Sydney University in 1996 where Alan was by then Associate Professor and a senior member of the department:


Professor: Stuart John Rees, BA DipSocStud CertSoc Casework S’ton PhD Aberd. Appointed 1978

Bettina Cass, AO, BA PhD U.N.S.W., FASSA Appointed 1990

Associate Professors: 

Alan G. Davis, BA Sheff. MScSoc U.N.S.W.

Michael D. Horsburgh, MSW U.N.S.W. BA DipSocWk (Head of Department)

Senior Lecturers

Janet E.G. George, BA N.E. MPhil H.K. PhD John Hart, MA Brad. DiplSocAdmin Lond. PhD

Jude L. Irwin, BSW U.N.S.W. MA Macq. Mary Lane, BA MSW DipSocStud

Alec Pemberton, BSocSt MA Qld

Robert M. van Krieken, BA PhD U.N.S.W. Lecturers

Sue Goodwin, BA A.N. U.

Renee Koonin, MA(Social Work) Witw. Jan Larbalestier, BA PhD Macq.

Glenn Lee, BSocStud MSW U.N.S.W.

M; Lindsey Napier, MA Aberd. DipSocStud Edin. DipMH Lond. MSW

Zita I. Weber, BSocStud PhD

Marie Wilkinson, BSocStud U.N.S.W. MSW

Associate Lecturers:

Christine Crowe, BA U.N.S.W.

Annette Falahey, BA U.N.S. W.

Agi O’Hara, BA

There was also the following insert, the sort of summary that each member of staff might produce for inclusion in Departmental information. I thought it gave a good insight into Alan’s interests as well as his sense of humour. But also that despite his specialisation in constructionist health, to the end he retained wider academic interests in symbolic interactionism.

Alan Davis: Previously taught at the University of Aberdeen, and was senior fellow in the Institute of Medical Sociology in that University. Also taught at Cranfield Institute of Technology. Interests include films, music, science fiction, TV, talking, travel and avoiding giving way to the right.

Academic interests: medical sociology, professions, organisations, and symbolic interactionism. Source:

I found several of Alan’s publications from google books and google scholar. And after further searches I managed to find a brief obituary of Alan in The Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health, of which Alan had been an Editorial Board member:


“Alan Davis: 1941-1996

Alan Davis, Associate Professor of Social Work and Social Policy at the University of Sydney and editorial board member of this Journal, died at home on 26 August.

He developed his interest in health sociology at the Institute of Medical Sociology in the University of Aberdeen. He moved to the University of Sydney in 1979 to take up a lectureship and commenced an impressive academic career of teaching, research and writing. He was best known among health workers for the popular and useful text he wrote with Janet George, entitled States of health: health and illness in Australia.

Alan was a man of great and hilarious wit whose eloquence and passion enlightened many an occasion. He was committed to justice and equity in public policy and a fair deal for the socially disadvantaged. His previous editorial experience was most helpful in restructuring the Journal after it moved to Sydney; his constructive comments on health policy papers invariably received thanks from the authors for assisting them to improve their arguments.

We will miss him very much.

Charles Kerr, Editor”

I also found a link to the mention of a memorial plaque at the University of Sydney, which also shows a number of photographs of where Alan worked for the last 17 years of his life:

In 1991, partition walls at the northern end of the first floor were demolished to provide the library with further floor area. Five years later in 1996 a small bronze memorial plaque was placed in the landscaped eastern retaining wall planter beds to Associate Professor Alan G Davis 1941-1996. The plaque reads “In memory of Associate Professor Alan G Davis whose ashes lie in this garden – scholar, teacher, colleague and friend. 1st May 1941 – 26 August 1996. Department of Social Work, Social Policy and Sociology.

Stuart Rees kindly sent me the following information about Alan:

“Of course I recall Alan with pleasure and a certain sadness. In some ways he remained a closed book and his humanity, scholarship and humour still merit celebration, so your interest in finding some ‘basic information’ is very encouraging.

“Alan came to Sydney in early 1979 – from the Cranfield Management Institute (I think that’s what it was called) . It was a prestigious research outfit but I don’t think it was officially a University at that time. Alan quickly fitted in to Sydney University’s large social work/social policy department which in the seventies only had sociology as a pre-requisite for the social work degree. Together with a couple of my colleagues and Alan’s close associates Alec Pemberton and Robert van Krieken (the latter now Professor of Sociology in Trinity College Dublin). Alan was a key player in enlarging the sociology curriculum, giving it his own special cosmopolitan stamp of scholarship, searching questions and quizzical humour. ..Sociology is now a large department in its own right. …

“Although I’m referring to sociology as Alan’s discipline he was really a multi disciplinary social scientist, always wanting to cross discipline boundaries, always de-bunking the special interests who protected psychology from sociology, philosophy from anthropology etc. As a part of his own development – while as a full-time Lecturer – he studied for and obtained a Master’s Degree in the History and Philosophy of Science from the University of New South Wales. He was awarded first class Honours.”

“Alan was an incredibly popular and able supervisor of students’ undergraduate and postgraduate theses. He seldom left our building until late evening and students always knew when they could call to see him for support and advice. If I was faced with conundrums over research, analysis and a search for sources, I would also make Alan my first port of call.”

“Alan was a character. A good pianist though he seldom played. A film buff and an always witty dinner companion. He drove around in a minute, battered yellow Subaru. He died of a heart attack in August of 1996. I was overseas at the time but wrote the following poem as a tribute to Alan and as a contribution to his obituary. It was called ‘An Academic Mate’. It’s rather long but you might find it useful… and perhaps an insight into our valued friend. The book referred to ‘States of Health’ he wrote with a medical sociology colleague Janet George. ‘The Fisher Stack’ is a reference to the large Sydney University library. Any way, here’s the poem as obituary and tribute to Alan.”

In black anorak and yellow car you drove few miles and travelled far,

with theorists, films and poet’s looks, for ideas, humour, thoughts and books.

In selfish managerial age you showed so many unfashionable traits,

rejecting goals of pomp and wealth:

you wrote instead the States of Health.

Irreverent, funny in style and deed 

with taste for gossip and office intrigue

smiling with questions from God knows where, 

you fished them in meetings out of the air

and gave to students strength with wings: 

flying minus material things,

in room of plants and books baskew references, papers, patience,

you who nurtured youngsters outside, waiting suggesting

‘never be ingratiating, avoid the shallow,

sow the seed of knowledge gained by read, bread, read.’

And now you’ve gone and won’t come back

 or perhaps you’re lost in the Fisher Stack

with other dead thinkers of creative mind 

for underdogs of humankind.

Whatever the reason, there’s a hole for us 

that you went away without any fuss

ne’er wanting a tribute to be unfurled 

we never could enter your private world

of hopes or doubts, love or affection, 

yet you gave to others inspiring direction

to write, to think and question ‘the factual’,

 to show the way of the intellectual

searching, unmasking year by year, 

thank you my friend, for your generous career.

There could be no finer tribute than Stuart’s simple but moving poem, a heartfelt demonstration of how Alan could inspire affection, loyalty and respect from everyone who came to know him. A memorial plaque in a wall at Sydney University is also a fine way to immortalise the memory of Alan.

I first met Stuart Rees near the end of my time in Aberdeen. His social work background and openness, as well as his knowledge of the symbolic interactionist perspective made him a comforting colleague at a time of great doubt about Aberdeen Sociology’s future. He has a home page at Sydney University where he is Professor Emeritus at the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies. In 2005 he was awarded the Order of Australia for services to international relations.

Alan G. Davis’ Publications (I would appreciate receiving any additional references, to enable Alan’s list of publications here to be as complete as possible, as I have almost certainly missed several)

A. G. Davis and P. M. Strong (1976) “Aren’t Children Wonderful? A study of the allocation of identity in development assessment” in Margaret Stacey (ed) The Sociology of the NHS, The Sociological Review Monograph (March) 22, Keele, Staffs, University of Keele pp. 156-175

Alan G. Davis and Philip M. Strong (1976) “The Management of a Therapeutic Encounter with Young Children” in M. Wadsworth & D. Robinson (eds) Studies in Everyday Medical Life Martin Robertson, London

Alan Davis and Gordon Horobin (eds) (1977a) Medical Encounters: the experience of Illness and Treatment Croom Helm, London

Philip M. Strong and Alan G. Davis (1977b) “Working without a Net: the bachelor as a social problem” The Sociological Review 25, 1, 109-129 (February)

Philip M. Strong and Alan G. Davis (1977c) “Roles, role formats and medical encounters: a cross-cultural analysis of staff-client relationships in children’s clinics” The Sociological Review 25, 4, 775-800 (November)

Philip Strong and Alan Davis (1978) “Who’s who in pediatric Encounters: morality, expertise and the generation of identity and action in medical settings” in Davis (ed) (1978) Ch. 3 pp. 48-75

Alan Davis (ed) (1978) Relationships between Doctors and Patients Saxon House, London

Alan G. Davis (1979) “An Unequivocal Change of Policy: prevention health and medical sociology” Social Science and Medicine Part A: Medical Psychology & Medical Sociology Vol. 13 pp. 129-137

Alan G. Davis (1982) Children in Clinics: a sociological analysis of medical work with children Cambridge University Press

Alan G. Davis (1986) Book Review of V. George and P. Wilding The Impact of Social Policy 1984 in International Social Work 29, 2 183-184

Alan Davis and Janet George (1986) States of Health : health and Illness in Australia Harper & Row, Sydney (3rd edition Addison Wesley Longman, 1998)

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