Blue-Ribbon Papers: Behind the Professional Mask: The Autobiographies of Leading Symbolic Interactionists: Volume 38

Cover of Blue-Ribbon Papers: Behind the Professional Mask: The Autobiographies of Leading Symbolic Interactionists

Table of contents

(16 chapters)

Sociologists are notorious for writing antiseptic and self-serving autobiographies that hide more than they reveal about their authors. As the editor of a volume providing the autobiographies of 10 well-known and still living interactionists, I discuss the reasons for their writing of bland, formulaic autobiographies that allow them to hide behind their professional masks and the difficulties that were encountered in trying to find contributors who would break the academic mold by offering revelations about themselves. Personal revelations are filched by me from my contributors' autobiographies for purposes of illustration. The chief reason given for sociologists writing autobiographies free of personal revelations is their abiding by the convention that “decorum trumps truth” in academic discourse and the fear that its violation would be injurious to their careers. I conclude that the convention “decorum trumps truth” should be changed to “truth trumps decorum” because the former represents a serious impediment to any discipline that has as its goal the advancement of truth.

David Altheide reflects on his long career, noting the role of family, friends, colleagues, organizational culture, and luck.

I completed a degree in classics at Cambridge and entered the British Civil Service. After a moderately successful, if unremarkable career, I took an early retirement and now live in London, spending my now free time at the opera and the theatre …. No, that's not right. Start again. Having decided to become a social anthropologist, I had my first experience of fieldwork on the island of Crete. I went on to specialise in the anthropology of modern Greece, and also wrote several popular books about people and places in Greece. I now live in one of the picturesque hill-towns of the Peloponnese …. No, not that either. Try once more. My father, who was a gifted amateur photographer, gave me a classic Rolleiflex camera for my 21st birthday, and I became a professional photographer, specialising in documentary photographic essays on social conditions in rural Europe. No, not that either …. I combined my first degree in social anthropology with a postgraduate training in linguistics. I went on to research and publish on discourse and social interaction, bringing together interactionist sociology, anthropology and semiotics. Well, not quite …. As you will see, all of these – and other – lives might have been mine. The actual life seems no more coherent than those shreds of unrealised possibilities.

My story is one of becoming a sociologist by accident. Throughout this story, I emphasize the turning points I took and those thrust upon me during my sociological journey. The turning points in my path to becoming a sociologist began during my childhood, although I could not have foreseen them. Both of my parents had experienced downward social mobility yet had managed to receive university degrees despite enduring hardships and living through the Great Depression. Gender roles circumscribed opportunities for girls who grew up in the 1950s. Thus, I entered a women's profession, occupational therapy. After a few years, my interest in teaching occupational therapy students led me back to graduate school to seek a master's degree in sociology at San Francisco State College. I gained a new worldview, although I soon learned that quantification and esoteric theorizing, not social issues, commanded the attention of most mid-1960s sociologists. I also learned that women sociologists had scant opportunities despite their qualifications but decided to seek a doctoral degree in sociology anyway. Eventually the University of California, San Francisco, accepted me in their first cohort of doctoral students and subsequently I worked closely with Anselm Strauss, my dissertation chair, and Barney Glaser, from whom I learned grounded theory. After finishing my dissertation, a temporary appointment at Sonoma State College turned into a tenure-track appointment. Although many years at Sonoma have been tumultuous, I have also had the privilege of developing a writing program to assist the faculty in their research and writing.

My early life was punctuated by turning points and transformations that gradually led to a surprising and late-blooming academic career – my first “real” sociology position began when I was 44. Here I trace six different trajectories of scholarly work which have compelled me: feminist women's health and technoscience studies; social worlds/arenas and the disciplinary emergence of reproductive sciences; the sociology of work and scientific practices; biomedicalization studies; grounded theory and situational analysis as qualitative research methods; and symbolic interaction-ists and -isms. I have circled back across them multiple times. Instead of seeing a beautifully folded origami of a life, it feels more like a crumpled wad of newspapers from various times. Upon opening and holding them up to the light in different ways, stories may be slowly discerned. I try to capture here some of the sweetness and fragility of these moments toward the end of an initially stuttering but later wondrously gratifying career.

I have been asked by Professor Lonnie Athens to shed light upon those parts of my academic career that may be of interest to sociologists working within the tradition of symbolic interactionism. With this in mind, the present essay offers an account of how I became a scholar whose main focus has for many years been the philosophy and social psychology of George Herbert Mead (1863–1931).

This story tells a version of my life as an ethnographer and symbolic interactionist. From an early age, I was intrigued by how people interacted and created meaningful worlds for themselves and by my own motives, actions, thoughts, and feelings. Later, as a student of sociology, my eyes were opened to the macro forces that constrained, liberated, and influenced actions, identities, and performances. Eventually, I located myself on the margins of sociology, as I experienced the constraints of mainstream sociology and how this perspective limited what and how I could study and write. I was drawn to a wider interdisciplinary community of scholars who examined experience more concretely and emotionally, and I began to work comfortably in the spaces between social science and literature, self and other, research and story. I now view myself more as a writer communicating heartfelt stories for the purpose of opening up and evoking conversations and emotional responses from readers than a reporter giving an account of what she has seen, heard, and analyzed from a distance, a researcher who works with others rather than one who collects data on them. In my current collaborative witnessing project with Holocaust survivors, I have come full circle, connecting macrohistory and structure with personal storytelling and integrating my sociological eye with a communicative heart.

Assigning or claiming identities can be a dangerous business. Labels carry conflicting meanings and, even more importantly, what is a laudatory term to some will be grounds for condemnation by others. My immediate response to the invitation to write this piece about becoming a symbolic interactionist, aside from the pleasure of being asked, was that I was not sure that I could claim, or even that I would want to claim, this label. I have a visceral dislike of theoretical-cum-methodological camps, not least because over the years I have been accused of belonging to a variety of these, from positivism to post-modernism. Reflecting a little more on the invitation, however, I realized that I could not reasonably deny that in the past, particularly in the 1970s, I regarded myself and was seen by others as an interactionist. Moreover, while my ideas about sociological work are now somewhat different from what they were then, and the direction of travel might be viewed as ‘un-interactionist’, in fact much of my work is still focused on issues coming out of the interactionist tradition: notably, Blumer's views about methodology, Becker's arguments about ‘Whose side are we on?’, and the notion of analytic induction.

Reflecting on the contingencies and felicitous moments of life and career, a senior scholar celebrates the intellectual community and friends that inspired and sustained his efforts.

My intellectual journey as a sociologist and a symbolic interactionist began when I was a 13-year-old eighth-grader in Catholic School on the working-class, southwest side of Chicago. My eighth-grade nun pulled me aside after school one day and gently told me that, now that I should think about what to be when I grow up. She suggested I study to be “either a sociologist or a priest.” After some serious thought, I eliminated the option of becoming a priest – yet, the word sociologist was intriguing. I had no idea what it really meant, but it had a certain ring to it in 1960, when society was becoming a viable and visible orientation in terms of major events we were learning a little bit about from the good nuns and television – like civil rights, the cold war, and the space race. I took her advice and set out on a 50-year journey to become a sociologist. The map of the journey has been elusive, though, in that what it means to be a sociologist – especially an interactionist sociologist – has changed over the years as events in my life and the social world have evolved. This journey has had three segments: sociology as something to do; sociology as something to know; and sociology as something to be. The journey has been profound as well as fun because, as I continue to discover what it means to be an interactionist sociologist, I discover who I am.

Cover of Blue-Ribbon Papers: Behind the Professional Mask: The Autobiographies of Leading Symbolic Interactionists
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Book series
Studies in Symbolic Interaction
Series copyright holder
Emerald Publishing Limited
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