Geoff Sharp

First Published in jimsresearchnotes 3 Oct 2011

One of the most interesting points Jock Young makes in The Criminological Imagination (p. 208) is that the early criminology literature was part of “the deconstructionist impulse” which began in the United States in the early wave of labelling theory:

“The decade 1955 to 1965 was a time of  exceptional creativity in American sociology of deviance. The names alone: Becker, Cicourel, Cohen, Cloward, Erikson, Goffman, Gusfield, Matza, Scheff, Sykes to mention just a few, jog the mind and convey the intellectual intensity of the period. It was a time when society shifted from what seemed like a postwar sea of prosperity and harmony to one where the anger of those excluded from the ‘great society’ and the rebellion of many of those included reached a fever point.” Young (2011: 201) 

But this is not all. A few pages on, Young describes how the deconstructionist impulse centred round the sociology of deviance and its control, as well as its subversion – prisons, prisoner-guard relationships and the corruption of authority (Sykes, Matza), lawyer-defendant negotiation (Scheff), Goffman on the con and cooling out the victim as well as on surviving in the total institution, Lemert on exclusion processes and paranoia, Erikson on patrolling the bounds of deviance.

“The deconstructionist impulse commenced, as we have seen, in the United States around the work of the labelling theorists: Edwin Lemert, Howard Becker, John Kitsuse, Kai Erikson, Edwin Schur and many others. It was revolutionary in it discourse… relativistic in its analysis…it inverted orthodoxies, lambasted positivism, defended and celebrated human diversity: it was tremendously attractive to the young and to the radical at this time of change.” (Young, 2011 p. 208). 

Deviance and societal reaction to deviance was to all intents and purposes synonymous with early symbolic interactionism. What happened later was that out of this initial focus on deviance and its control research began to be done on other dimensions of interpersonal interaction. Interactionist medical sociology was one potential development and growth point. But it was only one of many developments and so has to be qualified by the fact that symbolic interactionism was still at this time very fluid and changing and so to argue that this was a “natural” development ignores the existence of a number of practical factors that intervened, notably a Medical Research Unit and a programme grant to develop the symbolic interactionist medical sociology paradigm. As I argued in the previous research note, all attempts to define the Chicago School of Sociology as positivist or interactionist are little more than claims-making exercises.

I can relate to that from my personal experience as a young sociology lecturer at Aberdeen from 1966 to 1971, the period which covers both the early deconstructionist impulse and the aftermath of what Jock Young describes as “the cusp of change”, the 5 years between 1968 and 1972 when the National Deviance Symposium was in almost continual conference.

At the time I thought criminology would become one of my research interests, covering as it did labelling theory and the early work on power and social exclusion, which matches closely the roll-call of the major symbolic interactionists that Jock Young cited in the two paragraphs above. 

This was a time when for me symbolic interactionism was to a large extent synonymous with criminology. It was why I had a strong interest in studying how property held by tradition in an extended family or clan could be alienated by manipulating and redefining rights of tenure as a purely monetary relationship. Central to achieving this redefinition was to break down the two-way loyalty between the nominal holder such as clan leader and the clan followers, in order to re-attach the loyalty of the clan leader to the King and the Royal Court in London. 

This is not as easy to accomplish as it sounds. But it underlay all the laws of access to land and its resources whether it be rights of farming, hunting, trapping, fishing, or drive hunts. It was not simply a matter of existing ownership rights being enforced. The followers had to be alienated from the traditional rights of farming grazing and hunting, an alienation process that was fiercely opposed by the poorest of the followers, quite simply because it often involved the difference between life and death by starvation. 

The early wave of labelling theory that Young mentions also strongly reminded me that it was Geoff Sharp who brought symbolic interactionism to Aberdeen sociology, as, indeed, Alan Davis told me and that encouraged me to apply for the post there. Many of Geoff’s ideas centred round the literature that Jock Young mentions as being part of the deconstructionist impulse. Geoff introduced us to most of the classic works, like Lemert on paranoiaThomas Scheff “Negotiating Reality, early Goffman especially “On Cooling The Mark Out”, Kai Erikson Wayward Puritans (1966) and many others.

The earliest of Geoff Sharp’s publications that I could find must have been written in the early 1960s, as Sharp, (1964), and Sharp et al. (1964a). That year was also the first identifiable publication from Aberdeen University (the Department of Mental Health: Sharp and Furnival 1964b). 

At the time I wondered if Geoff Sharp had been living in America, as he had a slight hint of mid-Atlantic accent. He also often talked about people being “cooled” and about “patrolling the bounds”, thoroughly imbued in the work of Erikson and early Goffman. So Geoff was almost certainly already in Aberdeen in the early 1960s, before the Sociology Department was even established. His surname is, I believe, local to the Northeast, but he spoke without any hint of Scots, and the Americanisms he used were noticeable.

The TV programme I directed together with Mike Shaw was based on Tom Scheff’s article in Social Problems 1968 “Negotiating Reality”, though we adapted it to make it a staff-student interview in which the student, protesting a low grade, is put in his place and then “cooled”. I would just note that much of Scheff’s work has been on power, so the subject for the article was interpersonal negotiation between a man accused of murdering his wife and his defence attorney, to agree what the defense should be. We changed it to an issue that was then very topical in university education, that students trying to protest a grade were “cooled” by staff, and how this was done.

Geoff wanted to work in urban sociology, following the ideas of Saul Alinsky who hoped to develop local radicalism among the poor in the US, as Alinsky describes in  Rules for Radicals (1971), published after Geoff resigned or perhaps an earlier article, or even a precursor of Rules for Radicals – Reveille for Radicals (1941). He left Aberdeen to head up the Coventry Community Development Project (CDP). What happened to the Coventry CDP is likely to be an indication of what happened to Geoff. I suspect that the strong Althusserian influence – noticeable in some of the CDPs – may have put the kibosh on his hopes, though I have no evidence to support this.

Geoff Sharp left Aberdeen to lead the Coventry Community Development Project, one of a number funded under the Wilson Government. This website provides basic information:

“Following the efforts of the Democratic administration in the United States of America to wage a ‘War on Poverty’, the UK government sought a similar, but cheaper, initiative. Self-help and resident participation were seen to be possibilities for the improvement of inner city situations.

“The result, in 1969, was the launch of the Community Development Projects programme. It was the largest action-research project ever funded by government. The avowed intention was to gather information about the impact of existing social policies and services and to encourage innovation and co-ordination. The projects had a strong and explicit research focus and an emphasis on social action ‘as a means of creating more responsive local services and of encouraging self help’ (Loney 1983: 3). The projects were initially based in 12 areas of social deprivation. These were neighbourhoods of 3,000 to 15,000 people. Each project involved a small group of professional workers and researchers. The emphasis in CDPs on research meant that they produced a range of important material both about the nature of community work and about the social, political and economic condition of particular areas.”

Like Geoff, I also went into urban sociology but via the Sociology of Law in Britain and the class and political power to define legal right and wrong in terms of land ownership and tenure, taking a symbolic interactionist perspective. But for both of us, urban studies turned out to be – to put it mildly – an uphill struggle. Despite its huge potential and much early work by symbolic interactionists like Erving Goffman, Edwin Lemert, Howard Becker and Anselm Strauss, urban sociology just never took off.

Geoff Sharp was a key figure for me and an inspiring lecturer. He was also a very private person and to this day I have no idea what happened to him. I spent much time doing internet searches but to little avail. I eventually found several “likelies” in a google scholar search for G. A. Sharp. Several of the early ones were clearly his, and the three most recent that I could tentatively attribute to his authorship after he left Aberdeen were dated 1974 (in Sociology definitely Geoff), 1981 and 1984.

References in Chronological Order (definites and probables from a google scholar search)

Sharp, G. A. (1964) “A Perspective on the Function of the Psychiatric Halfway House” Mental Hygiene 48 (Oct) 552-7

Sharp, G. A., E. A. Sheldon and R. A. Stewart (1964a) “The Integrated Regional Mental Health Service: the rehabilitative process” International Psychiatry Clinics 1 (July), 667-79

Sharp, G. A., and Furnival, C. M.(1964b) “The First 3 1/2 Years of Operation of the Ross Clinic  In-Patient Service: Characteristics and Movement of Patients” Aberdeen: University  Department of Mental Health. Mimeo

Baldwin, J. A., G. Innes, W. M. Millar, G. A. Sharp, N. Dorricott (1965) “A Psychiatric Case Register in North-Eastern Scotland” British Journal of Preventative Social Medicine 19, 38-42

Kingham, J., Baldwin, J. A., and Sharp, G. A. (1965) “The Ross Clinic Day Centre: a Study of an Evolving Social System” Aberdeen: University Department of Mental Health. Mimeo

Sharp, Geoffrey A. (1974) Review of Lindenfeld “Radical Perspectives on Social Problems: readings in critical sociology (second edition), 1972” Sociology Vol. 8 p. 181

Vamplew, C. and Sharp, G. A. (1981) “A Manual Survey Research in Local Government” Local Authorities Intelligence Association, London

Crookston, E. M. and G. A. Sharp (1984b) “An Evaluation of a Community Health Education Information Project” Cleveland County Council, Middlesbrough (United Kingdom) Research and Intelligence Unit

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