Whatever Happened to Aberdeen Symbolic Interactionism?

Raymond Illsley had a programme grant from the Medical Research Council (MRC). There was never any doubt that he would get it. Aberdeen already had a large and thriving group of teachers and students interested in symbolic interactionism. It is true that the medical sociology group had a largely empirical and statistical focus, but some of the most radical developments were taking place in this area: doctor-patient relationships, and even much theory, notably negotiated order theory: Anselm Strauss no less. At that point in time one could say that we were all interested in this work. This is how the Medical Research Council defines a programme grant. But we were also interested in other ways to develop symbolic interactionism by branching out into other areas than purely medical. So in one sense the programme grant came at the absolutely wrong time. It effectively “froze” a thriving perspective within the narrow bounds of “medical”. And because the keenest of the symbolic interactionists were not in the medical sociology Unit, this would have disastrous consequences for the perspective.

I well remember the last staff meeting I attended in the Old Brewery. Geoff Sharp had already left, and the meeting was very acrimonious. By then I knew I would be going to Minnesota. What really surprised me about that meeting was the active part played by Mike Mulkay dismissing medical sociology as “medical residues”. The first to leave was Jim Kincaid, going to Coventry where Geoff Sharp was also known to have gone, then to Leeds where he got a lecturing post. Kerstin and I left that summer. I was the third to leave, after Geoff Sharp and Jim Kincaid. Before going I saw how the medical sociology Unit moved to Foresterhill where the medical sociologists were based and where the Aberdeen Royal Infirmary was located:

“Foresterhill is an area in the city of AberdeenScotland. It is the site of the city’s main hospitals (Aberdeen Royal Infirmary, the Royal Aberdeen Children’s Hospital and the Aberdeen Maternity Hospital), as well as the medical school and medical science departments of the University of Aberdeen. It is the largest hospital complex in Europe.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Foresterhill)

Sadly, the Medical Research Unit only stayed at Foresterhill until 1984, when it moved to Glasgow.

I am not convinced that the Medical Research Unit made any major contributions to symbolic interactionism, though I have not investigated this in any detail. I would have to study the work of all the medical sociologists who passed through it as well as the issues of Sociology of Health and Illness, founded in 1979. In addition, the EU law giving all member state citizens the right to be forgotten from the record seems to have been used extensively, as I have found that for a number of people I seem to have lost large amount of data concerning their posts and other information.

So I can’t make that kind of exhaustive commitment in this one post. But hiving medical sociology off from the Department of Sociology, at the same time as the first of the symbolic interactionist staff left – Jim and Audrey Kincaid, and Geoff Sharp – the department lost much of its broader base.

Of course, at the time we didn’t see it like that. The medical sociology staff was a large group. Gordon Horobin was a central figure, and genuinely interested in asking the broader questions. Clearly, there was much soul-searching over the place of theory in medical sociology, as his review in Sociology of Health & Illness 04/1985; 7(1):94-107 showed. But when medical sociology moved to Foresterhill there was a feeling of let-down. Staff began to resign in an ever-growing stream, getting posts elsewhere. Mike Mulkay was an early resignation, moving to York together with Tony Wootton. That was a good place to go, with Laurie Taylor as Head of Department.

One of the advantages of medical sociology was that women could rise to prominence, and some did. Sally Macintyre was one, you can see her main publications on her page: she wasn’t a symbolic interactionist. Another was Mildred Blaxter, who moved to  East Anglia in 1982, and was not a symbolic interactionist. Another is John B. Mckinlay, a New Zealander, also not a symbolic interactionist. One of his papers is attached. He went to America and became a big name there in positivist medical sociology. See http://www.asanet.org/about/awards/careerpractice/mckinlay.cfm. But sad to say he was not a symbolic interactionist either.

Alan Davis and Phil Strong were the two symbolic interactionists I knew best. Phil moved to London University and Alan moved to Australia in 1979. Maggie Voisey moved to Simon Fraser University where she met the man she would later marry.

Finally I must add here that Bryan S. Turner, who co-authored an article with  Mike Mulkay in Sociology (1971) referenced in the preceding post, submitted three books to Cambridge University in fulfilment of the conditions for a D.Lit there, of which at least two made original contributions to the sociology of health. I am not sure if the books below all comprise the trilogy submitted, but it seems likely. In any event Turner’s work comprises far more originality in this one area than anything produced from the Illsley programme grant. Indeed, the sociology of the body or body studies led to the publication of other books in that area by Turner.

2004 The New Medical Sociology. New York: Norton

2008 Body and Society. Explorations in Social Theory. London: Sage (third revised edition)

2009 Can we live forever? A sociological and moral inquiry. London: Anthem Press.

There were major developments in symbolic interactionism, most notably by Harvey Farberman, who specialised in medical sociology, but with his strong links to symbolic interactionism developed the concept of criminogenic markets. He presented this paper at Minnesota University in 1974 where he did his Ph.D some years earlier.

There is a sweet irony, in that could I but have read the future – that the upheavals under the Bohrnstedt Chairmanship would result in the founding of symbolic interactionism as a perspective with its own journal – I might have stayed, and perhaps become a symbolic interactionist myself. That would have been fantastic. Out of  defeat some good may often come. But it was not to be, I did my Ph.D. on An Interactionist Approach to Macro Sociology in Gothenburg in 3 years flat. And in the process learned a lot about the Swedish system, much like Germany, and became interested in the comparative study of ordoliberalism.

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