Mel Pollner wave line
A second service in memory of Melvin Pollner was held on Sunday, March 9, 2008 from 2-4 pm in the Sequoia Room at the UCLA Faculty Center.


REMEMBERING MEL
by
Aaron Cicourel



In the academic year 1965-66, I was a visiting professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of California, Berkeley and a fellow at the Center for the Study of Law and Society. In my fairly large graduate lecture course, I began to notice that one enrolled student would ask what I regarded as rather profound questions during and after my lectures. The student, of course, was Mel Pollner. Mel had finished his Masterís degree and was continuing to complete his doctorate. By the end of the semester, I was so impressed with his understanding of the class lectures and readings that I spoke to him about the possibility of joining me when I moved to the Santa Barbara campus in the Fall of 1966 where I had just accepted a professorship in a fairly new department.

We spoke for a while and I sensed that I had created a difficult decision for Mel. He was already at one of the best-known sociology departments in academia. His career at Berkeley had been progressing steadily. He said he needed some time to think about such a delicate matter. I learned from other faculty members that he was highly regarded by his teachers and would easily complete his doctorate.

Mel soon agreed about moving to Santa Barbara, but I have no clear answer as to why he wanted to follow an unknown professor to a relatively unknown department for his doctoral degree. I remember that we had a number of very engaging intellectual discussions throughout the semester.

Berkeley had a rather large sociology department and making appointments with professors was not done easily. Mel was never aggressive about making appointments. I was so impressed with Melís intellectual depth and quick grasp of the issues I discussed in my class that I probably spoke to him far more often than other professors. At Santa Barbara, Mel quickly became more like a younger colleague than one among other graduate students. Of course, there were not many graduate students and Santa Barbara was still a small campus. Other professors immediately recognized Mel as an advanced, outstanding doctoral student. He impressed the faculty with his deep understanding of philosophy and epistemological issues in social science theory and research. He completed his course work quickly. Mel spoke to me about a dissertation topic. We discussed a few topic options soon after his arrival at Santa Barbara and eventually opted for his pursuing ethnomethological issues within a concrete empirical setting. The idea of studying a local courtroom emerged and I was able to make contact (through friends) with a young Judge named Lodge who remains a presiding Superior Court Judge.

The courtroom provided Mel with a challenging observational setting. He became acutely involved in a detailed examination of what appeared to be routine courtroom exchanges, including the way physical space was used, and he began a systematic description of the decorum of the setting and the demeanor of all participants. The fact that the judge was not much older than Mel, and someone with a keen interest in what Mel was doing, made it possible for their having many discussions that are not always readily available in field research. Judge Lodge became quite impressed with Melís penetrating questions. He made it possible for Mel to record different activities.

Melís dissertation revealed his deep sophistication as a theorist, and also as someone who was especially adept at addressing empirical issues systematically. His observations in the municipal courtroom in Santa Barbara were notable for the way he could examine something that appeared to be self-evident and then find profound subtleties in the official and unofficial activities of the judge and court participants. What was mundane and obvious to the insider and casual observer became highly astute, theoretically sophisticated observations and inferences. Other professors, especially Don Zimmerman, were very helpful and welcomed Melís deep intellect and modest demeanor.

Melís deep insights were expressed in what was for him, his own special, understated, polite style. He was always respectful of the listener even when he believed there was some or considerable misunderstanding. He always sought to bring out the best in the listenerís remarks, even if it meant attributing ideas and conclusions that were his own and not at all apparent in the speakerís remarks.

I had spoken to Harold Garfinkel and he helped facilitate Melís appointment. He was at UCLA for two years before completing his dissertation. The depth of Melís intellectual abilities was quickly recognized by faculty members at UCLA. From conversations with students and faculty at UCLA over the subsequent years, it was clear that he was highly respected for his intellectual depth, his teaching skills, his wonderful sense of humor, and a polite demeanor that was both charming and sincere.

It is risky to assess a scholarís intellectual reputation both nationally and internationally. I believe that Melís early work was viewed as very impressive by other academics, especially those who were willing to engage the work with the time and energy required after recognizing that there was something profound therein. In my many travels in the U.S., Canada, parts of Latin America, Europe, and Japan, I found that highly respected scholars knew of Melís work early on. Melís writings did not, to my knowledge, become part of what is often called ďmainstreamĒ sociology.

As many of us soon recognized, being identified with the area called ďethnomethodologyĒ often made publishing difficult and did not help getting positions at many well-known universities. These obstacles were not experienced by Mel at UCLA because of admiration for his deep theoretical understanding of sociological theory, and his ability to explain complex ideas within ethnomethodology in a convincing manner to those unfamiliar with the area. His book on Mundane Reasoning was one of those works read but not cited often yet used by many for their own lectures. My judgment is that time is on his side; his work will be judged to be the equal of scholars who have been given considerably more public recognition.

In my many conversations with Mel, he would often mention several colleagues who were especially helpful. I shall mention only Bob Emerson. I focus on Emerson because I have not had the good fortune to know the others well. Bob Emerson and Mel arrived at UCLA at roughly the same time. He was always someone that Mel could count on for support and candid conversation. The subsequent research with his colleague Bob was especially valued by Mel and their work received more ďmainstreamĒ attention. Mel and Bob made a very compatible team and carried out important field research that appealed to a broad range of readers. They co-authored several papers that addressed key issues in ethnographic research. Bob was always a helpful ally in a large, major sociology department with many strong personalities.

Over the years, we discussed the problems of mapping ideas from ethnomethodology onto empirical settings in ways that would be clear to ďnon-believers.Ē We often spoke about writing an assessment of this area. I believe Mel left elements of his thoughts about ethnomethodology in his files.

Before his fatal illness, we had countless telephone conversations which seemed like a seamless thread, as if we were colleagues just down the hall from each other. During all of our visits, we spoke extensively about our respective families. These latter discussions always made me feel as if I were part of his family. We spoke extensively about the foibles of academic life. About the virtues and drawbacks of ethnomethodology and conversation analysis. Mel, after all, originally was an ďinsider.Ē

These conversations did not end when he learned about his illness. And, we gradually began to speak of his possible demise. These conversations were especially difficult for both of us, but I think we agreed it was necessary to talk about his illness and its impact on him and his family. His illness was often fused with discussions about our respective academic careers, and his pending mortality. Throughout these often delicate and (for me) depressing conversations, however, there were always deep intellectual exchanges and humor. Melís ability to describe his bodily feelings and thoughts were always cogent.

We talked about how his illness was becoming viewed as a form of socially ďdeviantĒ behavior. For example, how difficult it was for some to deal with his illness. They seldom appeared able to ask what it was like to have his fatal illness. Despite feeling uncomfortable and tired, our conversations seemed to become a source of strength and he would become more animated. I find it impossible to erase such moments from my memory.

In closing, I want to say that I will never forget this remarkable student, dearest friend, and profoundly deep thinker. His wit was always penetrating and subtle. He was a uniquely gentle, decent human being who was always respectful of others.