Gary Alan Fine

Apart from the year I spent at Minnesota University, I have never known or met a senior U.S. symbolic interactionist until 2003, when Gary Alan Fine had a visiting fellowship at SCASSS. I invited him to come to Uppsala Sociology to meet fellow symbolic interactionists.

Yet there were many parallels between our interests. My first attempt at a paper on the social construction of weather seemed at the time to be a quirk only. The weather is understood to be “natural”, but I had learned at Aberdeen that nothing is purely “natural” in the world of human interactions. Many years later I read the book Authors of the Storm: meteorologist and the culture of prediction (2007). This was just 4 years after we met in Uppsala. I reviewed it for Housing, Theory and Society in 2010, one of my last publications before I had the stroke that ended my research career. The post can be read on this blog: ‎

It was during the period when I was coming to the end of jimsresearchnotes (still private) in 2011 when I was publishing a spate of interactionist posts – Lemert on Paranoia, Roth on Tuberculosis, and many others, that I was invited by Gary Fine to a Couch-Stone Symposium to be held at Evanston. I understood that many interactionists were reading  jimsresearchnotes, and guessed this may be the origin, but I had no idea that I would receive such an invite. Sadly, I had to explain why I was not able to accept:

Hi Gary,

I want to take this opportunity to let you know how much I appreciate your work in the 8 years since we met in Uppsala in spring 2003 at SCASSS. ‘Authors of the Storm’ fit well with my interest in the social construction of weather, and I reviewed it for Housing, Theory and Society (attached). But that spring I was very pre-occupied about my mother’s declining health and went to see her in hospital before she died.
My own health has declined after a stroke 18 months ago, so now I do not travel, not even locally, and am unable to go to conferences, seminars or meetings of any sort. Much to my regret, I have never been to a SI conference or a Couch-Stone Symposium.
Kind regards,
Jim Kemeny
Emeritus Professor, Uppsala University

I have since thought a lot about how it came about that I never went to conferences organised by symbolic interactionists – at least not after the National Deviancy Conferences in the late-1960s. Each year there is one in the USA, and in addition the named annual conference called the Couch-Stone Symposium.

The main reason why I never went was that I was going to ENHR (European Network for Housing Research) conferences around Europe. I was, after all, a housing and urban researcher and have always felt marginal to symbolic interaction. It was just never a big enough perspective in Sweden to get involved, apart from being on the SSSI-talk list for many years. I remember once attempting, together with Jan Trost, to create a European interactionist email group, but there was not enough interest so it never happened.

This state of affairs has since changed and symbolic interactionists are beginning to do work in Sweden, though as far as I know not in housing studies.

It was one thing to write articles and blog posts on Symbolic interactionist topics but quite daunting to register and turn up to a conference on the other side of the world. I had been invited to Hong Kong by Ray Forrest a couple of times with generous travel grants, and once by Keith Jacobs on a generously funded trip to Hobart, but that, too was after my health made it too daunting a journey.

There are other parallels. Gary Alan Fine was appointed to a tenure track post in Sociology at Minnesota University just a few years after Kerstin and I left. He subsequently wrote what amounted to a history of the Department going back to before the Bohrnstedt chairman period of 1970-1973, entitled “Great Men and Hard Times: sociology at the University of Minnesota”. See Fine and Severance The Sociological Quarterly Spring (1985).

As is often the case the late 1960s was a time of increasing interest in the micro macro distinction. At Aberdeen I had always been interested the concept of negotiated order, which fitted this temporal conjunction. I was surprised to learn that Gary had read my 1983 article on  “Professional ideologies and organisational structure: tanks and the military” European Journal of Sociology Vol.24 pp.223-40, based on Anselm Strauss’ concept of negotiated order.

There are, of course, other ways of qualitatively researching ethnography as human lived experience. Gary Alan Fine has found his own unique way, published in a series of books on different aspects of everyday life: Shared Fantasy: role-playing games as social worlds; Morel Tales: the culture of mushroomingKitchens: the culture of restaurant work, Tiny Publics: a theory of group action and culture, some of which I will explore in later posts.

There are a number of different areas of everyday life that Fine covers, and most of these involve rumour and gossip, as people struggle to get on with each other in shared interest, both in leisure and in work situations. These provide a virtually limitless number of situations to explore by participant observation.

In most cases this is true of workplaces that are part of a larger complex organisation – multi-national companies with thousands of employees, universities, or any other large impersonal workplace. For we are all part of the smaller groups that make up these more impersonal conglomerates.

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