November 9, 2007
Melvin Pollner's contributions to EPOS and its students are remarkable and well known. I write as one of those at UCLA who learned from him but who did not enter that program at the PhD phase. In truth Mel's influence on the student body was much wider than might be suspected from a quick listing of his graduate supervision. One reason was that Mel's unique brand of ethnomethodology had powerful and visible connections to philosophy, to social and cultural theory and to institutional analysis. It is no accident that Habermas discussed his work at length in the Theory of Communicative Action. Mel Pollner narrowed the gap between EPOS, 'Macro Sociology' and 'Communities and Institutions' to a point where intellectual bridges could be made by students and others who were only ambivalently attracted to ethnomethodology and/or conversation analysis. The disputes might seem trivial now, but back in the 1980s the so called micro/macro divide was still rather entrenched. Mel never really cared about such silly polemics and crusades, preferring to get on with the job of figuring out just how society worked. Further, for students of a more macro/cultural bent Mel's work on mundane reason, on mental illness and labeling offered concrete templates, concepts and insights that could be readily transposed to other arenas and methodologies. His extraordinary erudition and famously open and quick mind also helped. Never a pedant and anything but doctrinaire, Mel with great intellectual generosity would always have an angle, insight or recommendation that would propel our papers and projects in unexpected and rewarding directions.
I was fortunate to work for Mel as an RA in the Fall of 1988 or 1989. I think he took pity on me as I was broke. Each week we would sit for an hour or so at one of those square metal tables outside, drinking coffee and trying to make sense of what were to me baffling works on mind, self and language. I contributed little of value, but Mel was polite enough not to let on. In these talks I always had the feeling that he was looking for something so big that nobody had yet noticed it. I also remember a peculiar feature of his approach to classroom teaching, which was to tell a personal anecdote to anchor a theoretical point, but also to leave enough unsaid to create a sense of mystery. For example, once we were discussing the ethnomethodological concept of 'accountability'. Mel suddenly started talking about how he used to have a Maserati (what!?), how the car kept going wrong at great expense, how he thought he was being taken for a ride by the garage, and how when confronted the mechanic had reached into the bin and pulled out the rusted component he had replaced. Mel: "There was nothing I could do. Now that's what I call accountability, that's witnessability for you".
For all the above, my strongest and most abiding image of Mel is wonderfully captured by John at the end of his eulogy. I remember Mel as a person who understood the virtue of civility and intuited the moods of others, combining these into a rare gift of sociability. In just an instant he really could make you feel better about life.