Don Martindale’s Book on Minnesota Sociology

Long after leaving Minnesota I began to wonder whether there was any published discussion on Minnesota symbolic interaction and what happened to it in 1971. Finally, I put a question on the email SSSI-talk list (in October 2011) to find out what happened, and the reaction surprised me. I was emailed “off-list” with the reference of a book first published in 1976 with a Second Edition in 1986, which I immediately ordered. Authored by Don Martindale (who I remembered from my time in Minnesota): The Romance of a Profession: a Case History in the Sociology of Sociology (Intercontinental Press, New Delhi, India), it is an authoritative account of the whole sorry business. I learned much that I knew nothing about at the time.

Martindale’s 1986 edition Book: an overview: First, let me state that there is nothing in the book about the shift of focus from symbolic interaction to quantitative statistical analysis. It is not about that, but about the political manoeuvrings in the department around the appointment of George Bohrnstedt as Department Chair, and the changes made after that.

The first six chapters cover the early period. Chapter 1 Genesis Minnesota Sociology to 1910 (pp.1-18) covers the period 1890 to 1910. So Martindale’s book begins when the Vilhelm Moberg books The Immigrants, Volume 4, The Last Letter Home ends in 1890 with the death of Karl Oskar Nilsson, one of the first settlers in Minnesota.

These first 6 chapters told me little about the late 1960s and early 1970s, only that Minnesota was one of the earliest American sociology departments. Chapter 7 The Power Brokers 1970-1973 (pp. 135-163).

My sense of the way this was handled was that decades later it remained a subject of great sensitivity. Don Martindale’s book roused angry reactions among the staff. Martindale was scathing in his critique of the U-turn by the Department. Chapter 3, The Power-Brokers: 1970-1973 took me back to many questions I had not asked. Martindale provided some of the answers. It is clear that there was division among the staff over what to do about the new regime in the department. Martindale’s book and the reactions to it make that clear enough.

But what the book does not go into is the revolution that took place within the department and what this did to research and teaching for those preparing for the Ph.D. The really big revolution was the switch from symbolic interaction to statistical methods in the first year of graduate studies. Bohrnstedt was himself a statistical sociologist, as was Theodore Anderson who taught the Statistical Methods course., that I attended. Much of it was on different ways of measuring correlations, including multivariate statistics. There must have been more than the two of them to be able to change the graduate programme of a Department that up till then had been one or the major symbolic interactionist schools in the USA.

There is a link to an internet page Data for Statistical Analysis by George W. Bohrnstedt sub-titled “Indoctrination by Statistical Methodology”.

“For academic philosophers of science sociology is not a paradigm of successful science. Earlier Bohrnstedt had enforced his ersatz philosophy of social science as editor of the journal Sociological Methods and Research. Now in this book, Statistics for Social Data Analysis, Bohrnstedt, Knoke and Mee attempt to indoctrinate students in this same ersatz philosophy of science.” 

It seems the controversy continues to this day.

I was offered a renewed TA post but after I learned there would be a further year of courses and exams before I could even begin the Doctoral Programme I decided to cut my losses and go home. I had gone to Minnesota to do symbolic interaction and apart from Harold Finestone’s course (that I had taken in the first year) there was no other course on offer that I wanted to do.

We left at the end of spring term 1972 for Gothenburg. Three of the interactionist staff came up to me on my last day at Minnesota – Harold Finestone, Steve Spitzer – and John Clark who became the next Chairman two years later – to say how sorry they were I was leaving, and I got a sense that what had happened to me was part of a larger struggle in the department to preserve and build on its strong interactionist traditions, but also that it might lead to something positive for others in the future. I had no idea it would result not only in a return to more interactionism in the graduate course 3 years later – too late to be of help to me – but the founding of the Society for the Study of Symbolic Interaction and the first issue of the new journal Symbolic Interaction in 1977, the year of the defence of my Gothenburg Dissertation.

Gary Fine also wrote an obituary note after Harold Finestone died in 1977, though I lost the link to it. It’s either an ASA item, a Symbolic Interaction note from SSSI Notes, or it could be in a Social Problems Working Group.

I was offered a renewed TA post but after I learned there would be a further year of courses and exams before I could even begin the Doctoral Programme I decided to cut my losses and go home. I had gone to Minnesota to do symbolic interaction and apart from Harold Finestone’s course (that I had taken in the first year) there was no other course on offer that I wanted to do.

As it turned out, we went back to Sweden where Kerstin had obtained an old flat in Gothenburg. I submitted my Ph.D. in 1976, just 4 years after leaving Minnesota, and returned to Gothenburg from Australia for the Disputation in 1977. This was in essence the dissertation I had hoped to write in Minnesota: An Interactionist Approach to Macro Sociology, based on the Highland Clearances.

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