In Memory of Mel Pollner
November 5, 2007
Mel was my friend and colleague, a sustaining companion and stimulating coworker, for almost 40 years. I can’t put into words what his loss means to me, and what it will mean for his family, friends and colleagues. But I want to say a few things about what made Mel Mel, what allowed this man to touch and influence all those he encountered.
Mel loved people -- meeting people, talking to people, commiserating with their troubles, praising their accomplishments. He was amazingly open -- connecting with colleagues encountered in the hall, other swimmers at the Rec center, and something all too rare at UCLA, even our undergraduate students. As a result, in his unassuming way he was an absolutely pivotal and cohesive figure in the UCLA Sociology Department.
Mel was deeply committed to sociology, and specifically to ethnomethodology. He described ethnomethodology in this way: “The study of the practices used to craft whatever participants in particular settings recognize as intelligible, meaningful and real.” This meant understanding all social matters -- gender and social class, reality and truth -- not as fixed objects or facts, but as meanings people create and sustain in interaction with one another. Mel was a key figure in ethnomethodogy. To put it euphemistically, ethnomethodologists are often an intense, fractious lot. Mel, however, embodied an inclusive vision of ethnomethodology, maintaining personal and intellectual relationships that cut across its factions and divisions, and reaching out to create common ground with other sociologists.
Mel was a fabulous and inspiring teacher. With graduate students he was demanding yet patient, laying out issues and possibilities, supporting in moments of doubt and uncertainty. He was a devoted undergraduate instructor, although his style changed drastically over the years. When I first came to UCLA in 1969 he had an almost cult-like following, teaching a charismatic ethnomethodology -- if you can conceive of such a thing -- dealing with alternate realities under the innocuous course title “study of norms”. Carlos Castenada was a guest speaker. In recent years he taught a tamer sociology of mental illness course, occasionally slipping in subversive ethnomethodological insights and moments.
We all remember Mel as funny. But his humor was distinctively his. It was not loud, sarcastic, hostile, or negative. Rather his humor mined everyday talk, spontaneously and playfully picking up hidden ironies, pinpointing unappreciated implications. And his humor was characteristically self-deprecating and self-mocking. So being with him became a subtly uplifting, positive experience; you came away renewed because he was so giving of himself. And this sense of humor infused his intellectual work; I don’t think there is a funnier, and yet more pointed introduction to a paper in the American Sociological Review, our profession’s leading journal, than the first paragraph in his article, “Left of Ethnomethodology.” Here Mel began with the metaphor of ethnomethodology “settling down in the suburbs of sociology”; then, after briefly citing several signs of professional acceptance, he added: But few in the discipline “want their children to marry an ethnomethodologist, much less to be one -- and they rarely hire one.”
Mel did not have a mean bone in his body. He was personally non-judgmental, did not form or hold grudges, and -- the current Republican administration aside -- could find the positive or promising in everyone. This openness, this connecting, characterized his personal, intellectual and professional life. But I do not want to give the impression that Mel was just warm and fuzzy. He did have a competitive edge. It was palpable in athletics; until his back went, he was a terror on the handball court. In working with students he was intellectually gentle but demanding. And perhaps most significantly, he devoted his professional life to incredibly complex, profound and potentially disorienting issues: Examining mundane reason by bracketing “objective reality,” practicing what he termed “radical reflexivity.” This work required not just vision and imagination, but also steely strength of mind.
We are here today to not only remember Mel, but also to honor the personal and intellectual principles he stood for. For Mel the life of the mind was only part of the responsibility of the scholar. A life that did not include an examination of the heart and the spirit was sterile. His mind, his heart, his spirit, were inclusive and celebratory. He never, never failed to welcome, to draw in, to appreciate. In doing that he has become part of all of our lives. Because he touched us deeply we shall miss him deeply.