Mel Pollner Eulogies

In Memory of Mel Pollner
November 5, 2007

John Heritage

Mel Pollner was a brilliant scholar, a graceful, charming and generous colleague, and an altogether outstanding human being. As we mourn his passing, I want to spend a few moments with you on the nature of his scholarly work and his legacy.

To begin with, Mel took seriously Durkheim's idea that a society is defined by the extent to which its members share a set of ideas in common. He conceived that we all of us - live inside a kind of cultural ecosystem: a bubble like the earth's atmosphere only made up of cultural stuff: ideas, beliefs, knowledge, and assumptions, together with maxims and practices for working with them. Taken as a whole, he taught, the ideations in this bubble define what we will consider to be real or unreal, true or deluded, right or wrong. He thought this was true of organizations as large as a society, a religion, a worldwide community of scientists, or an economic market, and as small as a family or even or perhaps especially - a folie a deux. You could think of this bubble as something like the world depicted in the Jim Carey movie: the Truman show. Except that, as you may remember, Truman was eventually able to step outside his bubble, and that's something that's hard for us to do in reality, because to do so we have to step outside what we take to be reality itself. This bubble, as Mel conceived it, is a condition of our co-existence one with another.

Mel's work examined the fabric of this bubble. He considered its robustness: how it stretches to accommodate discordant circumstances and events, how it recruits us to defend its precepts, and how it sits at the heart of our sociality as a species. He also considered its fragility: how splits and fissures can arise to tear this fabric and the human communities that depend on it, and he looked closely at places like the law courts, research science and the psychiatric clinic where this fabric is under perennial strain. This was and remains deeply original and innovative work. It is philosophically and sociologically profound. And Mel could and did render these almost unthinkable ideas ideas really that made your brain ache to think about them, in language that was limpid and lapidary, and yet that was so imaginative that it was like a shower of fireworks. These ideas and the empirical work that supports them are at the core of Mel's scholarly work. They are immensely original and powerful, and they represent an enduring and indelible contribution to the discipline of sociology.

In addition to his extraordinary scholarship, Mel was a wonderful teacher: he was affirmative, nurturing, and always searching to find ways to advance the student's own agenda rather than imposing his own. For many years we co-taught a graduate course called "foundations of Epos" ("epos" was an acronym for ethnomethodological, phenomenological and observational sociology, so you can perhaps imagine we were grateful for the acronym). Teaching this class was simply the most joyous experience. Mel was so funny, so fast, and so articulate that I would be panting to keep up with him as extraordinary and original ideas ricocheted around the classroom. I believe that this class was unforgettable for very many of those who participated in it.

Mel knew people well and I guess he knew that for me sometimes the glass is half empty. When he and I would meet in the Department, at some point in the conversation he would cock his head slightly to one side and say:
"So. Tell me something good that's happened."

That was Mel. I thank God that I was privileged to know him. I am going to miss him so very much.