Conversation with Joseph Gusfield

inline image

In this occasional series we record the views and personal experience of people who have especially contributed to the evolution of ideas in the journal's field of interest. Joseph Gusfield has exerted a creative influence on the alcohol research field with a strong and repeated emphasis on how problems are socially constructed. His Symbolic Crusade is widely acclaimed as a classic of the literature.


Addiction (A): Joe, you have made major contributions to the study of addictions, especially alcohol addiction, in the course of your career. But your work always has taken on the issue from a somewhat different angle than most addiction specialists. That has been the creativity, you let us all see the issues in a different light. You have done so in a way that is truly sociological. How did you begin to develop these perspectives?

Joseph Gusfield (JG): As a sociologist I have always been interested in how things become problems. My interest has been in the contexts of problems—how they come to be matters of public concern and how they become defined. I like to say that if I am pressed to the wall, and asked, ‘How do you solve this problem’, I say, ‘Why do you ask?’.

‘I like to say that if I am pressed to the wall, and asked, “How do you solve this problem”, I say, “Why do you ask?” ’

A: Your training?

JG: I was a graduate student in sociology in the early 1950s. I had taken a course in which I had read an excerpt from a history of the Women's Crusades of 1873. A group of women in Hillsboro, Ohio, sat in front of taverns (saloons, as they were called then), protesting their existence and taking the names of customers. It interested me and somewhat later I took a course in social movements, which at that point was not a very major field in sociology, but I developed an interest in social movements. I read a book by Herbert Asbury (1950), who was the great-grandson of Bishop Asbury, the Methodist who was so significant in coming to the United States from Britain and developing Methodism in the United States. The book was called The Great Illusion. It was a semipopular account of Methodist history in the United States focused on the anti-alcohol movement. What interested me about the Temperance Movement and the later Prohibition Movement is the anomalous position of it intellectually. In that period the political scientist's interest in governmental policy was directed largely towards interest groups, especially those of an economic character. You could see what those specific interests were, but what were the interests that people had in regulating or prohibiting drinking, especially in the case of religious groups? Churches played a crucial role in these movements in both the 19th and 20th centuries. What interest did they have in trying to limit drinking in the United States? It was hard to see it as economic. That anomaly puzzled me.

A: What kind of experience and perspectives did you have before you got into academia that may have influenced your take on these things?

JG: I became interested in social science and history, particularly with a very good history teacher in my high school, under whose guidance I actually read Charles Beard's Economic Interpretation of the United States Constitution (Beard 1935) and Thorstein Veblen's The Theory of the Leisure Class (Veblen 1934).

A: For a high school that is pretty advanced.

JG: It was. But Mrs Lotz was unusual and these were not class assignments.

A: Where did you go to high school?

JG: Roosevelt High School in Chicago.

A: Public high school?

JG: Yes. I went through public high schools. I entered the University of Chicago in September 1941. The date is very important because in December of 1941 Pearl Harbor occurred. Despite the war and realizing I would be in the Army, my freshman year was a huge intellectual unfolding. The university was intellectually a very stimulating place and I had a year of their social science sequence. I was in the middle of the second sequence when I went into the army, and I was in the army for 3 years. I enlisted in something called the Enlisted Reserve, which gave me a few more months in college. But we all knew we were going to be called (almost 60 years later I can still give you my army serial number). When I got out of the army I went right back to college.

A: Where did you go with the army?

JG: I went to Europe. I was in England, France and Germany as a medic in a rear echelon unit in an infantry division. My original intention when I entered the university was to be a chemist. Somewhere along the line I decided I really wanted to be a novelist and was interested in literature. Before I went into the army, my intention had been to take a Master's degree in economics and go to law school. But when I did get out, I thought I was much too old, all of 23, to go for a Master's in economics. On my return to the University of Chicago I was asked to teach the social science sequence at their downtown college.

A: Were you still an undergraduate at this time?

JG: Yes, I was technically an undergraduate, but they were very short of people and this was essentially a course for adults at downtown Chicago. I entered law school at the University of Chicago and at the same time I was offered and became an instructor and after graduation an assistant professor in the college, teaching social science. It was a 2-year undergraduate degree at Chicago in those days. In the college, I taught a required course. The first quarter consisted of social science classics such as Freud's Civilization and Its Discontents (Freud 1961) and Karl Marx's Capital (Marx 1932). Most importantly, we read Max Weber's The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (Weber 1930). I think that was the book that influenced me most deeply. It introduced me to the role of ideas and the complexity of analyzing human action. At the same time I was taking a seminar in the law school on the sociology of law; I also read Weber's work on Sociology of Law (Weber 1954) and other classics on the sociology of law and on jurisprudence. I became very interested in all this. But I decided I really did not want to be a practising lawyer; that I really wanted to study further. At the same time law had a big influence on me; its mode of reasoning, its concreteness, interested me very much. Again, I had a very great teacher, Malcolm Sharp, who was able to pose legal questions in both philosophical and legal terms.


A: You then moved into sociology?

JG: I had to make a choice at the time between law or social science. For a while I had felt a little bit like a fish out of water. After leaving the law school I became a graduate student in sociology. It seemed to me at the time to be a practical choice but tame and dull compared to teaching in the college. But later on, when I began conducting my own research and came under the influence of some of my teachers, I came to appreciate it very much. The department tended to emphasize the contextual aspects of human behavior rather than widespread theory or generalization. It contrasted with the staff in the college, which was highly interdisciplinary and tended to be concerned much more with widespread theory and high-level analysis than down-to-earth observation of a small section of life. What I am emphasizing is the tension between a discipline and highly general education. I thought the tension itself was very good. The tension between departments and interdisciplinary elements led you to be less parochial about your own field.

A: We can all say that tension is good and it is certainly true, but what did it feel like, this tension?

JG: I liked it at the time. It was also the fact that I had a salary which most of my fellow graduate students did not, although most of us were on the army GI bill anyway. I liked the difference in ways in which people would look at things. My mentor in sociology, Everett Hughes, was always one to look at the immediate and specific context in which behavior occurred, whereas people in the college, whose work became very well known in semipopular domains, people such as Dan Bell and David Riesman and others, were always at the high level. They would look at the total society and that gave me a sense of context in which concrete events occur. What interested me about the Temperance Movement was precisely its paradox. Here was a movement that had an enormous impact on American politics, which led to a constitutional amendment and ultimately an amendment that revoked its original amendment. At the same time, it was hard for me to understand.

A: What was hard to understand about it?

JG: I came to it, like most Americans, with a quasi-Marxist perspective—an emphasis on economic motivations and meanings in history. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism had given me a much stronger sense of culture: of how we perceive meanings and things and the difference in what capitalism was for Weber and what it was for Marx. It seemed a paradox in Weber linking religious ideas and economic behavior. This did not fit. I could not find the material wellbeing involved in anti-drinking movements. Why should middle-class people make such a movement so vital?


A: So you were fascinated by this problem?

JG: I set out to study one such group, the Women's Christian Temperance Union. Why the Women's Christian Temperance Union? First of all, it had been a leading organization in the later development of the Temperance Movement and it arose out of the very crusades that had influenced me in my reading earlier. Its national headquarters was in Evanston, Illinois, which is a close suburb of Chicago. It enabled me not only to interview people there but also to utilize their library. I also utilized the journals and the reports that they had, so that I could carry out an historical study of that particular group.

A: So, this is what influenced you to pick this dissertation topic?

JG: Basically, it was that anomaly and the fact that nobody had really studied it. There had been two major books, one by a Columbia University historian on the prohibition movement, but it was largely chronological (Krout 1925). It was written in the mid-1920s and it was largely at the high level of politics. There was another one by a man named Peter Odegard at the University of Washington on Pressure Politics (Odegard 1928). This studied the groups involved in the prohibition movement from the standpoint of an understanding of pressure groups. Very little had been written about the Temperance Movement of the 19th century, but there was much more about Prohibition. That was written either from an anti-prohibitionist or pro-prohibitionist standpoint. It was a virgin field.

A: The atmosphere at that time was such they appreciated what we today call historical sociology?

JG: Oh, yes, they certainly did. There was not a great deal of it being undertaken but there was no specific resistance to it.

A: You were studying moral movements and therefore taking morality more seriously than some sociologists, especially Marxists, would have done. Taking it seriously but at the same time showing that it is connected with various kinds of forces and therefore does not represent the absolute truth about anything.

JG: Yes. A young graduate student at Berkeley, Harry G. Levine, later went on to study the movement. He has never really published as much as he should but he did publish a fascinating article on the discovery of addiction (Levine 1978). He maintained that the concept of addiction to alcohol was not common until the late 19th century. His view of the Temperance Movement was somewhat different from mine. He tended to see the addiction issue as much more important to the movement than I did. I saw the movement as far more moral and drinking as something that was sinful, and the loss of control involved. It is not that Harry disagreed with me but that he tended to emphasize in the later period, late 19th century, the concern for preventing and treating addiction. I never felt that the movement, in any period, was framed as a health movement, although in the mid-19th century there was a movement much like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).

A: More on health versus your sense that people's understanding of right or wrong was at stake.

JG: This distinction between, shall I call it, sin or sickness, has persisted and it has been central in my more recent writing, on cigarettes. Because whether you conceive of action in terms of health, or conceive it in terms of morality, my general sense has been that we tend to move from one towards the other so that drugs have had a moral significance, but also a health significance. Lately we have been moving a little more towards the emphasis on health—but only a little. Cigarette smoking begins with an emphasis on health, but certainly has moved also to a sense of morality about it.


A: So what you looked at was this moral crusade, this moral generational movement and saw it from that point of view. Your book Symbolic Crusade: Status Politics and the American Temperance Movement is still a classic in sociology, it really is (Gusfield 1963).

JG: Well, I am glad to know it, although I also think sometimes more highly of my later book on drinking and driving, but we can get to that in a while.

A: Symbolic Crusade still sheds a great deal of light on all sorts of things that we label status politics. So, tell me a little bit about the book, what you argued, what its contribution was, and what its reception was?

JG: I should preface it by saying that I was more interested in the consequences than the motivations. I wanted to know what drinking and abstinence meant to adherents and opponents. For the sociologist what these meanings meant for the distribution of power and cultural dominance is most significant. I saw the movement as issues of what is to be publicly supported as right, proper and virtuous. As I studied it I became aware of the argument being couched at various times as a model for people to act in a way—to be abstinent, not to drink. It was assimilative in not seeking to enforce behavior but to show what is publicly dominant. In many ways it was couched as a model of what it is to be a middle-class American. Later on it became coercive, as in Prohibition, as the issue of what is to be culturally dominant became more relevant. I saw it in many respects as an effort to develop and maintain the cultural dominance of the Protestant native rural culture in the light of immigration, cultural diversity and secularism, which was changing the American population. What I meant by this is not particularly the importance of how people act, but what is viewed as proper action. How events and objects have meanings for public actions is significant. It is not until 1952 that America had a presidential candidate—Adlai Stevenson—who was divorced. It would have been unthinkable before that period because the notion that the president is divorced is a way of supporting divorce as acceptable, as proper. Before 1928 a Catholic candidate would have seemed improbable. The impeachment of Clinton seemed to me in large part to be about the question of adultery. Whether the president commits adultery or does not commit adultery is not going to lead people to be less adulterous or more adulterous. If unsanctioned it signifies the acceptance of adultery as less sinful than it has been. It is the meaning of the action and not the behavior alone that is at stake. Consequently, society is always being made. It is not a constant thing. It is the myth of introductory sociology that it is static.

‘I wanted to know what drinking and abstinence meant to adherents and opponents . . . I saw the movement as issues of what is to be publicly supported as right, proper and virtuous.’

A: Not static and full of conflict?

JG: Not only is it not static, it is also full of conflict, so that there is conflict about culture. I saw the political issue of drinking as a symbolic issue, important because what was at stake in Prohibition was, to a significant degree, a question of whose culture is to be publicly dominant. We talk these days about the culture wars. There is conflict about what is to be recognized as the dominant culture. The dominant way of believing is at issue. Not that behavior is going to follow it, but that the publicly moral meaning of the behavior is affected.

A: So, you have a dominant social class, social stratum or dominant status group, whatever you want to call it.

JG: Dominant in its culture.

A: If they see people acting in ways that does not fit the moral norm that they view as a key part of their life-style, their fear is that ultimately people are going to see their life-style as only one option out of many, and they will lose their capacity to dominate the diversity of America. This is very threatening and fuels resistance to change.

JG: Well, it is threatening to them and it is important for the sociologist to see it. It is also threatening to them in a specific sense, that these are the things they teach to their children, these are matters that make them feel that what they are teaching is not the law of the land, but the dominant culture of the land, the culture of the ‘moral majority’. My general thesis in the book was that the turn to law, to coercion, was a way of trying to maintain and expand that dominance. Law and politics are major arenas in which people fight out their life-styles. I think it is continuing. America has changed since the 1920s. The large immigrant population of the early 20th and late 19th century, largely Catholic, to some extent Jewish, clashed with what had been a Protestant dominance in the United States and in some respects still is, although if we talk about the present it is much different. The conflicts are more between the religious and the secular than between faiths.

A: But you are talking about what today we call culture wars.

JG: People today are much more aware of diversity, and the television, the radio, have made us more aware of different points of view. Changes in the content of public moralities have raised the issues of diversity of culture into matters of conflict. Today I do not see a dominant culture but a struggle going on over what it is to be. Our social structure is not clearly structured.

A: Let us go back to that first book. So, you finished that book and it was based on your PhD dissertation?

JG: The part on the Woman's Christian Temperance Union was. After that I became troubled by the fact that I did not really understand, and I still do not understand, the Temperance Movement. Why has the United States been such an exception to other industrialized countries in its policies toward alcohol, smoking and drugs? It is much less permissive. Much of what I have been talking about now comes from the book. I finished the dissertation in 1954. I went on to expand it into a study of temperance and prohibition. The book was published in 1963. So, it means it was finished about 1961.

A: What did you do after that?

JG: I must mention that in 1950 I left the University of Chicago. I decided I needed to leave. I had had all of my education there and I took a position at Hobart and William Smith College in upstate New York. I finished the dissertation while there doing interviews. I interviewed not only people in Chicago, but I was now interviewing people in upstate New York, which had a long history of social movements. One of the other things that interested me in the Temperance Movement, I should mention. This comes out of my own second-generation immigrant background that I tended to see political radicalism as essentially something European. I discovered that there was a great deal of Agrarian radicalism in the United States, also connected to Temperance. It had its impact on the Temperance Movement and even later on in the Prohibitionist Movement. It was a really a native American movement and this also fascinated me. I had not really been aware of it until I came to study more of American history.


A: But then you moved back to Chicago?

JG: While I was at Hobart and William Smith College, I also taught each summer and one fall at the University of Chicago, back again as a visiting assistant professor. In 1955, I accepted an offer from the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana. It was there that I finished the book. Urbana had a great many very good people. But I decided in the late 1950s that I wanted to get out of my own culture. I wanted to see other parts of the world. I applied for a Fulbright to India, largely because I knew I could use English. I did not have to know another language. At any rate, in 1962 I went to India with my family to a city not well known in America, but important in recent Indian history and a good place to observe India.

A: You took your children at the time?

JG: I took three children.

A: That must have been difficult.

JG: My wife swore she would never go back to India again, but she came to love India and we have been back six times since then. In 1962 I got a Fulbright to the city of Patna which was the major city, the capital really, of the state of Bihar, one of the biggest and poorest in the country. It then had 70 million people. This was in 1962. We were there for 5 months and then went to Delhi for 4 months. So, we exposed ourselves to India quite a bit. I did do some writing and some research. I met a number of people and made many good friends in India, both in Delhi and in Patna. For me it was a fascinating experience, because I also discovered that many of the generalizations we had about development at the time just did not hold.

A: Many generalizations were based on the notion that any country that wanted to modernize would have to become like the United States.

JG: This was the thing! I wrote an article which had some influence, especially in India, on tradition and modernity. I argued that you could not make the separation so easily. Tradition is sometimes used for purposes of modernity and people do not necessarily give up tradition for modernity.

A: Indian culture—they do not see things quite the same way, I think. Did you ever reflect on that when you were there?

JG: Not so much, and perhaps I should have. I went there with a kind of relativistic orientation and what startled me was that it was very hard to be so relativistic about things that you did not like, that you thought were wrong. India has a very rich history. It has much beauty in a great many places. It has a very strong extended family orientation. When people speak about their brother, these would be people who would be cousins, or perhaps even have no blood relationship in America. There are young people in India who call me uncle and I have that position within their family. Also the caste system had its vices, many of them, but it was also changing. I was struck particularly by the amount of change going on in India. [Even in 1962 you walk down the main street of Patna and you would see ox carts and cows and animals roaming] and you would see people on motorized rickshaws and you would see automobiles [. . . and also an airplane overhead. Contrasts were strong in India.] In some respects India is even more diverse than the United States. Yet, the interesting thing is that it has managed to maintain truly democratic politics. So, I have a great deal of admiration for India as well as much concern about its future.

‘Even in 1962 you walk down the main street of Patna and you would see ox carts and cows and animals roaming . . . and also an airplane overhead. Contrasts were strong in India.’

A: So, you were there about a year?

JG: I was there about 9 months, actually. I went back in 1966 for 6 weeks in Bangalore, teaching at a workshop for an Indian faculty who were teaching American studies. In 1967, I spent 6 months on an exchange professorship in Japan and that, of course, was very, very different; American in some respects—technology, for example—and in other respects, less like the United States than India. It certainly did not have the feel for democratic institutions. It was esthetically very beautiful. It did not—I am not sure how I would put it—it did not have the diversity certainly that India has and that the United States has. It is a very homogeneous society and complicated in some respects. In many ways it was not quite as attractive for me as India was.

A: And these experiences were all during various kinds of leaves from the University of Illinois at Urbana?

JG: Yes.


A: In the meantime, of course, this was the 1960s. Society in the United States was boiling, to say the least, and all sorts of issues about morality, politics, were being recast in new ways. How did you relate to that?

JG: Well, I was very much involved in the civil rights movement. I was the sponsor for SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) at the University of Illinois and I also did go south for part of the Selma to Montgomery march. I marched. I was considered an historian by that time and I marched with the historians as a group. We did not start in Selma, but in about the middle of the march and marched to Montgomery, Alabama. That was, of course, a very searing thing, and very influential for me. It was a participation in a really emotional action—a really emotional movement, and I had a great deal of satisfaction from it really. Also because I came out of the war a person very much interested in politics but very inactive, feeling very strongly that I could not control events and what I did would not matter. For me, things always become far more complicated than we anticipate. The war probably had more influence on me than any other experience. But the civil rights movement brought me out of the aloofness to which I generally still retreat. I think that by and large the civil rights movement has been a very successful one. It has changed the United States in some ways that are unintentionally not so good, but in other ways that are far better. Nevertheless, I think that by and large it was a successful movement. It righted a very great wrong of segregation and oppression. I take a lot of satisfaction out of what I did.

A: So in 1966 you were asked to consider joining a faculty at University of California, San Diego (UCSD).

JG: Yes, it was a very small place then, mostly graduate studies, some undergraduates, but not too many and I thought a great deal about it and finally decided against it. I am not sure why. The University of Illinois was a going concern, a first-rate university, I had been there 14 years and I turned down UCSD. I was in Japan, actually in Tokyo in 1967, when I was again offered the position by telephone and decided to take it.

A: So you were being asked to set up a whole new department.

JG: Yes. It was the last time I was able to do that. At any rate, I wanted a department that would break with the emphasis on quantitative work. I wanted one that had much more of a concern with observation. I was also interested in historical sociology. I was interested in culture. I had, in the intervening year as matter of fact, read things that again had a great deal of influence on my thinking. One was Claude Levi-Strauss's book, The Savage Mind, three books really (Levi-Strauss 1966). One was a book by Harold Garfinkel, Studies in Ethnomethodology (Garfinkel 1967), and one was a book by my later colleague Jack Douglas on The Social Meanings of Suicide (Douglas 1967). All these, in one sense or another, were part of what was going on in the intellectual world which was now called a cultural turn; moving towards a greater importance given to how the world is perceived and given meaning, rather than correlations between factors. Culture, as the symbolic systems that make experience possible, now had significance in shaping social structure.

A: But as I remember it, in the late 1960s people were turning against the cultural turn: they were Marxist. Marxism was becoming much more important and it was only when that kind of petered out by the end of the 1970s that this cultural turn became important. So, in effect you were ahead of your time.

JG: Perhaps your chronology is more accurate. We are not referring to the Marx of political movements of Russia, but to the Marx of intellectual life and the emphasis on economic determinism. We were a little ahead of our time. Certainly we were, and I think I would have put it at the end of the 1960s, but that is a different argument. At any rate, it was happening in many areas—literary theory, philosophy, history, linguistics, even some economics and especially in anthropology.


A: How did you come to develop an interest in drunk driving?

JG: Shortly after I became chair at UCSD in 1970, I was approached by an organization which was then called the Urban Observatory to undertake a study of sentencing in drinking and driving cases. The Observatory was a program studying 10 cities and comparing them on a variety of criteria. San Diego was one of the 10 cities. We conducted the study, essentially of sentencing. What we found was a high degree of recidivism. There were many people who were rearrested for drinking-driving violations and were sentenced again within a short period of time. The sentences were generally very slight; we found that fines were light and jail sentences uncommon. The data were from a 3-year period. After this research (Gusfield 1972) I decided to go on and conduct a study of a different kind. The later study was carried out much more by documents and by observations. My assistants and I rode with the police. I examined the nature of the published research and the beliefs that existed. I became interested in the nature of the policy in relation to legislation and judicial law, and in its enforcement or what we call law on the books and law on the street, so to speak. I think there was a continuity between the first book and this study, which later emerged as a book called The Culture of Public Problems: Drinking, Driving and the Symbolic Order (Gusfield 1981). It came, in part, from two things. It came from continuity with my past interest in symbols. What do things mean? It also came from my general sense—being in the army may have had something to do with it—of not understanding, not being able to see the big picture. It came from a great deal of experience with the difficulties of creating facts. We began with certain facts that people believed about drinking and driving. Half of all auto deaths are functions of drinking and driving. We examined at that fact. How was it constructed? How was it made? We found it was very tenuous. For one thing, if you took the data from states, most of the states did not perform tests on dead drivers at that time in as many as 50% of them. There were many deaths involving drinking by the driver that were interpretable as suicides. There was a great deal of concern about the nature of the automobile, a great deal of concern about how the facts were taken and given a particular kind of meaning. There were conclusions reached that were all rather tenuous but became matters of certainty in reporting.

‘There were conclusions reached that were all rather tenuous but became matters of certainty in reporting.’

A: In the meantime you now had more faculty who would reinforce this general way of thinking; people who studied different subjects, such as the chronically ill and communes, for example, but did so along these same lines, in terms of examining how problems occur.

JG: Yes, that is quite true. The ethnomethodologists were very quick to sense doubt about fact or things that became fact and that too was an influence; I think you are quite right there. Half of my book was concerned with the documents that established the facts on which policy rested. The other part was more concerned with the nature of the law, both its leniency and its development of a symbol of what is good and moral. Moral people do not drink and drive is the message of the law. Good people do not drink and drive.

A: This goes back to the earlier studies of temperance—the thought that drinking is a moral problem?

JG: Yes, it does indeed, and I am trying to articulate this. The symbolic order of the United State in its rhetoric carried the theme that all problems are solvable. Also, if there is a problem somebody must be at fault. I always remember an editorial in a journal called Accident Analysis, in which the editorial said, ‘Let's face it, as long as we have automobiles, we will have people dying from automobile crashes.’ This is not representative of most of the views on auto deaths. For that editor, the increase in automobile deaths was a function of increase in automobile use. (That conclusion is complicated and not entirely true.) The two do not depend on going together, but the more automobiles we have, the more deaths we have had. The policy tended not only to make automobile drunkenness a major cause of automobile accidents, it also ignored many other things in the nature of the automobile. I think it was Ralph Nader who said automobiles should be made so that ‘fools and drunkards can drive them’.

A: So you became interested in the reality basis for drunk driving policies?

JG: You may argue for Plato's concept of the ‘noble lie’ and say that in order to really govern and convince others for their own good it is necessary to lie. I do not want to argue that question now, in limited time and space. But take, for example, Morris Chafetz, the man who at that time (early 1960s) was heading the precursor to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and sought to increase the government's allocation of funds. He was asked at a hearing, ‘How many alcoholics are there?’ He said, ‘Nine million?’. Then he said, ‘Eighteen million’. How did he reach 18 million? In part it was a belief that there were nine million and he felt there were another nine million in early stages, not yet apparent. Actually, nobody really knew how many alcoholics there were. The problem itself was what we call a constructed one. Many of its details and conclusions are created in part by how people will perceive them and what the symbolism is. Let me give you another example. Older people, by and large, had high accident rates, but they did not drive as much. The problem with old-age driving has always been not neglected, but far less exposed and noticed than the problem of young people driving. One asks why? Well, old people are nice people as far as the public media are concerned and you do not want to say anything negative about old people. But young people: everybody says something nasty about them. Also old people vote in larger numbers than do young ones. There is a conflict between youth culture and the culture of people who are older. That operates very much in terms of the construction of problems. So the book reporting the outcome of this research was published in 1981.

A: It attracted a great deal of attention.

JG: I never had much reaction from what I call the alcohol studies people. I was involved and have been involved as one of the editors of The Social History of Alcohol. I had a few reactions there. I even gave a number of lectures on the book. I received a great deal of reaction inside sociology. The reviews were very good. As you say, the book has been read, but I am not sure the impact on alcohol studies has always been that great. The earlier Symbolic Crusade has had much response, usually appreciative and still active.

A: Were you involved directly with people in organizations and alcohol studies before this?

JG: In the 1970s, certainly the 1980s, I was very much involved. I was on the advisory board for the Alcohol Research Group, which later became the Social Research Group, which at that point had some affiliation with University of California, Berkeley. Some of the people were on the faculty at University of California, Berkeley. It later became a freestanding organization. So, I had a great deal of contact with those people. I spoke there often, went to meetings there and they were very helpful. Harry Levine, who I have mentioned before, was involved. Robin Room, whom I think of as probably the dean of alcohol studies, was in the United States for many years and is now in Stockholm. He has an omnivorous knowledge and understanding of alcohol studies. He was a sociologist, but I think he must have read every single report ever made on alcohol and alcohol studies. I was also involved at various times in advisory groups—research on alcohol prevention, for example, which came out of the Institute for Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism in Washington. I was involved at one point in the Marijuana Commission under Nixon. For about 10 years I was involved in the local San Diego Advisory Group on Alcohol Problems.

A: And activist concerns?

JG: I did have many of what you might call activist concerns. Those concerns were largely, almost entirely, with addictions and with addicts—providing treatment facilities and assessing legislation. It sharpened my interests not in the policies, but the applied activities that went on. Despite my general criticism of the Bush Administration, I think the faith-based policy he wants to establish is a very good one, because I think these organizations have achieved a great deal. The whole alcoholism issue has been interesting to me and I did write something about it, which appears in a book called Contested Meanings: The Construction of the Alcohol Problem (Gusfield 1996a), a collection of items from recent papers of mine on alcohol. I was interested in how what we call deviance in sociology has also been a source of entitlements. Some of the alcohol agencies and alcohol groups have been very successful in obtaining public support for alcohol treatment. So, my interest in more recent years has been in the construction of the alcohol problem and I have been working on it, although not much lately. I am interested in the question of the differences between policy toward alcohol, policy towards what we call drugs and policy towards cigarettes. Why is the drug policy so punitive and alcohol and cigarette policies far less so? The alcoholism organizations have been remarkably successful in framing the problem as one of health rather than sin. However, that transformation is still far from complete. Alcoholism retains a degree of stigma, unlike cancer or diabetes.

A: So you went from the 1981 book on the construction of public problems, which was about drinking and driving, to the study of social construction of alcohol as a problem more generally.

JG: I undertook many other things, too, at the same time—a variety of things. I wrote something on the development of developing nations based on research in India and Japan (Gusfield 1967), carried out work on the rhetoric of research—the ways in which research reports can be seen from a literary standpoint (Gusfield 1996a); how efforts are made to persuade people, because that is what a scientific report is. I conducted some more historical work on drinking: a rather long piece on the control of drinking called Benevolent Repression (Gusfield 1996b).


A: When did you retire?

JG: I retired in 1991 and I became involved in cigarette research around 1990, largely through a California referendum that allocated funds devoted to encouraging people to smoke less. Part of that involved research on cigarette smoking. I continued to be involved in conferences and continued to write general materials about social illness, so that period of my retirement had been, until a couple of years ago, spent largely on writing and developing a number of those ideas. I am carrying out research on some aspects of what is going on in San Diego that has to do with church and state, over the existence of a very large cross constructed on public land, and a legal and political issue since 1989. I think that these are really very important, that they do matter. My leisure has been a continuance and increase in my painting. In answer to what kind of painting I do, I say mediocre acrylic and pastel, bad watercolor and I do not know collage. We did a goodly amount of cruising, travel and gambling (Las Vegas). Lately I have slackened my writing and painting but would like to get back to revising an article-length study of the differences between Prohibition, anti-smoking policy and the anti-drug policies in the United States. This sounds busier than it has been. I look back at what I feel has been an interesting and satisfying life, much of it a result of the fine and stimulating people I have known.

A: Where do you see religion as situated in a changing America?

JG: In Symbolic Crusade I talked about the cultural conflicts between Protestants versus Catholics and, to some extent, Jews. I think that has largely disappeared. I think the bigger conflict is between the religious and the secular and that in this sense it is a real conflict. It is a real difference and I think our media has, by and large, projected a sense of what you would call the non-traditional. But many people in the United States are either traditional or feel upset about changes in the acceptable morals in public life. When you look at movements, however, you are looking not only at ideas, you are also looking at organizations. The question for a sociologist is not only what people mean but also how they are mobilized and not mobilized. The distinctions in the Temperance and Prohibition movements were importantly between Catholics and Protestants; rural and urban people; immigrants and natives. The distinctions today are less those of faiths and more between the religious and the secular. The churches again play an important role, but so do the educational institutions. They involve the different experiential worlds in which Americans live.

A: One issue that they fight about is the relation between freedom and controls, in regard to drinking and driving.

JG: I think this is a fake issue, in that people oppose government controls when it means it will control something they do not want to see controlled. They are for government control if it will control something that they want to see controlled. So, the same people who oppose gun controls might be very much for the control of marijuana or abortion.

A: Moral movements are socially constructed. So, would you speak very briefly on what are some of the unintended consequences of these movements, perhaps about alcohol addiction?

JG: Simply, the movement of alcohol addicts, the movement of any groups that other people may conceive of as deviant, has been very important and has led to changed attitudes towards alcoholics. They used to be seen as sinful and today are more to be seen in terms of health. Notice the change from ‘habitual inebriate’ to ‘alcohol addict’. That is a very important move. Certainly one of the other things that has come out of this whole movement of alcoholics has come through Alcoholics Anonymous. Whether you believe they have been successful or unsuccessful, they have created a general process of self-support and self-organization among people with various defined problems. That has been quite important. In the case of drugs policy, one of the other unintended consequences is the huge number of people who have come to occupy our prisons.

A: Do you have any final thoughts about the advice you might give to young social scientists that are starting out?

JG: In the field of alcohol, I have still never really solved the problem of the exceptionalism of the United States as contrasted with other countries. We have a stronger anti-alcohol orientation and a more punitive anti-drug orientation. The anti-smoking one has been more successful in terms of encouraging people to change their behavior. As far as sociology itself is concerned and advice to the young scholar—there is a different kind of tension, a tension between the student and the faculty. The faculty wants to push the students to do this or that and the student has to somehow find himself or herself. The tension is often very good. I do not think that harmony is necessarily good. Tension is often quite productive. But I cannot really give advice to the young. They will not take it anyway.

‘I do not think that harmony is necessarily good. Tension is often quite productive.’