Minnesota 1971-1972

Finding an American University to study for the Ph.D: I looked through the world yearbook of universities, the latest issue was already a couple of years old in 1969. I drew up a shortlist of likely departments, most on the West Coast, based simply on the names I recognised of academics who were known to me as symbolic interactionists.

Minnesota University had several members of staff whose names I recognised and whose work I had read. Of these Arnold Rose whose book of readings Human Behavior and Social Processes: an interactionist approach (1962) had become a major source of the latest symbolic interactionist research has many of the 34 chapters written by symbolic interactionists who formed my interests then and still do today. The Rose reader had chapters by Gregory Stone, Herbert Blumer, Erving Goffman, Howard Becker and Arnold Rose himself. Other symbolic interactionists at Minnesota were Gregory Stone, Steve Spitzer and Harold Finestone, whose article Cats, Kicks and Color I had also read. Minnesota was truly a dream place to go to do a Ph.D. – or so I thought.

I wrote to all of the West Coast Departments where I could identify symbolic interactionists but had only one positive response. It was from Minnesota, from its Head of Department George Bohrnstedt, with the offer of a one year Teaching Associate position. We had no hesitation in me accepting the position. Kerstin and I obtained US visas and we moved to Minneapolis, arriving in 1971.

Minnesota Sociology – from Symbolic Interaction to Statistical Methods: Arriving at Idlewild Airport (since renamed John F. Kennedy Airport), we were sombrely dressed fairly formally (I wore a tie and jacket) but at the passport check where a young guy with long hair stamped our passports with a flourish, while he said “seize the time” (the Back Panther slogan), yet barely looked up. Travelling by Greyhound Bus from New York (where we stayed a couple of nights to get over jet lag), we arrived at Minneapolis.

Once we arrived, at the Department I was offered the opportunity to hire a Driveaway Car to go to Riverside, California in order to collect a loaded U-Haul truck to drive the belongings of a newly appointed Lecturer to Minneapolis. This was Paul Reynolds, who was Assistant Professor of Sociology from 1971-2 at Minnesota then Associate Professor to 1980, then professor to 1990. His CV is on the internet, see http//: Paul Reynolds CV.pdf., so his time overlapped with Gary Fine when he was also at Minnesota. Reynolds has a visiting position at Aston University in Business Studies until 2015. More interesting he has always been a positivist into large-scale surveys, so Business Studies proved to be a very suitable career path for him.

This was an ideal way to see America only at the cost of petrol. We travelled west by Driveaway Car, a Mustang with automatic gears, and spent a week doing the journey. We headed south to Des Moines, then turned west, spending the night in a motel on the prairies. The scent of the prairie grass was quite heady. Then Yellowstone National Park, Salt Lake City, Las Vegas, Grand Canyon, and Los Angeles. That gave us 2 weeks to visit California, first to San Francisco, then down to L.A., where we visited my cousin, George Weisz and his wife Ruth in Palos Verdes. Finally we went to Riverside to pick up the U-Haul truck ready packed (Paul Reynolds had already left for Minneapolis), and to feed the rather vicious guard dog. We returned via Route 66 across the southern plains to Minneapolis.

At the Minnesota Sociology Department, there had just been a major reorganisation of the Doctoral Programme that I was intending to do. I was only then that I learned to my dismay that George Bohrnstedt had become Head of Department as part of a systematic replacement of the symbolic interactionist perspective with mathematical methods of analysis. There is a rather full description of the history of the Department here: https://www.soc.umn.edu/about/history.html. There is also a history of the Department written by Gary Alan Fine and Janet Severance: Fine and Severance (1985) “Great Men and Hard Times: sociology at the University of Minnesota” The Sociological Quarterly 26 ((1): 117-134. The very title of this article suggests something of a crisis!

Gary Fine was Assistant Professor at Minnesota Sociology from 1976 to 1980, then Associate Professor from 1980 to 1985.

Gary Fine got his Ph.D. at Harvard. See Fine’s CV here: http://www.sociology.northwestern.edu/people/faculty/documents/FineGaryCV2014.pdfThe only course on symbolic interaction on offer that year was one by Harold Finestone. This was the only course at Minnesota that I thoroughly enjoyed.

I guess what I did was quite unique, entering the graduate programme from a tenured lectureship and having several peer-reviewed publications, including a 2-year Masters degree from Sheffield University by traditional positivist interview methods using quantitative survey techniques. We used knitting needles to sort our Hollerith cards into “Yes, No, Don’t Know” categories. Positivist interview technique had a series of problems that I encountered that made me question the entire procedure, though this is not the place to go into them.

Towards the end of our time at Minnesota we witnessed massive anti-Vietnam protests in Minneapolis put down by tear gas. Most of our time there we lived on 4th Street. Bob Dylan studied at Minnesota University.

Kerstin and I 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 to say how sorry they were I was leaving, and so 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. Sure enough, John Clark became Head of Department after Bohrnstedt and during his chairmanship 1973-1976 did much to return Minneapolis to more interactionism in the graduate course 3 years later – too late to be of help to me. He also initiated the founding of the Society for the Study of Symbolic Interaction. This works closely with the much older Society for the Study of Social Problems, of which I have been a member for some years now.

Harold Finestone said I was “thoroughly imbued with the symbolic interactionist perspective”. His symbolic interactionist course was the best part of an otherwise unrewarding academic year.

Gary Fine also wrote an obituary note after Harold Finestone died in 1977. Gary Alan Fine, “Harold Finestone (1920-1989)” (obituary notice), ASA Footnotes. 17, October 1989: 15.

It was my misfortune to have plumped for a Minnesota Department that was going through an upheaval of change. I received a one-year Teaching Associate position. I decided not to continue after the year even though I could have done a second year involving taking a sorting exam to continue. The main quantitive professorial staff were George Bohrnstedt (who was also Head of Department) and Theodore Anderson.

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