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Catching Up With Bruce Holley Johnson, Ph.D.

Updated: Aug 30, 2023

Bruce Holley Johnson

Almost 40 years in, Bruce H. Johnson’s 1973 dissertation, The Alcoholism Movement in America: A Study in Cultural Innovation, has remained an invaluable source and a ready companion for historians and sociologists interested in the rise and diffusion of the alcoholism paradigm in 20th century America.  Johnson himself, however, seemed to disappear from view in the alcohol studies field after the dissertation’s completion.  In late June, I managed to catch up with him at his home in Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania, a small town on the Susquehanna River, north of Harrisburg, where he lives with his spouse, Emily.

At age 75, Bruce reported he’s in good health and good spirits.  His career track, he explained, simply took him away from alcohol studies — first, into criminal justice education and, next, into teaching organizational change.  Little Brown, the Boston-based publishing house, showed an initial interest in publishing his dissertation but their medical review committee ultimately turned it down.  I asked Bruce if he’d for some reason intentionally concealed himself from the alcohol studies community after 1973.  He said no.  At the time, he explained, very few people in the academic world seemed interested in his work or its subject matter.  A key theme in his dissertation, he continued, had been to dispel the idea that social movements were coherent, well-integrated social systems.  On the contrary, the “alcoholism movement,” as his dissertation research showed, was diffuse, factionalized, and strife-ridden.  Leaders in different parts of the movement, said Johnson, were, as often as not, “barely on speaking terms.”  For each one the movement was a very personal crusade.

Wheaton College, Illinois

Johnson graduated from Wheaton College (Illinois) in 1959 and subsequently enrolled in a Masters of Divinity program.  “About half way through, and although I liked the program,” he said, “I decided I didn’t want to be ordained.”  In the early 1960s, owing to the college ROTC requirement in the 1950s, he served a three-year tour of duty as an Army officer, including an assignment in Vietnam where he worked with Special Forces as a psychological operations specialist.  While in Vietnam, an anthropologist working with the Montagnard tribes convinced him that he should go for a Ph.D. when he returned to the States.  Bruce ended up under Daniel Glaser’s wing in the sociology department at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana.

“I was interested in how social change happens,” related Johnson.  “The 19th century had seen a movement to diffuse the disease conception of alcoholism, but it didn’t stick.  Before the development of the 20th century movement, many ordinary citizens would have seen the idea as ridiculous and laughable.  Yet the ‘medical model’ for interpreting problem drinking before long became conventional wisdom.  How did that happen?  That fascinated me.”

Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania

Other kinds of cultural change interested Johnson too.  “For example,” he said, “how does an innovation as useful as the fishhook subsequently become lost or forgotten in a traditional culture?  It has happened!”  Bruce related in passing that he completed his work at both Wheaton College and the University of Illinois “debt-free” – at the latter institution thanks largely to the G.I. Bill.  “Times were different then,” he said, a little ruefully.

His Ph.D. union card in hand, Johnson took a post at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City.  There, Bruce related, he encountered adult students who were working police and parole officers.  “They were good students but had difficulty writing.”  Johnson established John Jay’s first non-thesis M.A. program in criminal justice with a rigorous comprehensive examination to pass in order to complete the degree.

In the 1970’s President Richard M. Nixon’s “War on Crime” produced an avalanche of funding for criminal justice training and planning endeavors.  Five states, including Maryland (then-Vice President Spiro Agnew’s home state), were targeted with special grants to develop Ph.D. programs in the field of criminal justice.  Johnson was recruited by the University of Maryland, at College Park, to help establish one of these new programs.  He related with detectable pride that one of his students at the University of Maryland was the first to be awarded a Ph.D. in criminal justice in the nation.  Johnson spent eight years at College Park.

Next came two years at IBM, training lower level personnel to become successful managers.  “In those days”, Johnson explained, “IBM had a tradition of promoting from within and bringing up lower ranking people into managerial roles.”  His experience with IBM opened up the emerging field of “organizational development” for him.  After IBM,

Johnson was invited to join the American Banking Association’s Executive Education Program.  There he was tasked with equipping bank executives with tools to effect organizational change.  “Changing organizational cultures,” Johnson related, “was not as easy to do as they may have thought.”  He retired from ABA after 15 years with the association.  Nowadays, in retirement, he’s involved with the development of a new community park, with his Episcopal Church, and with the pleasant responsibilities of grandparenting.

Before long our conversation turned back to the alcoholism movement, this time touching on Johnson’s recollections of E.M. Jellinek.  Bruce’s dissertation research came too late to actually meet the man, he said, but he’d collected many impressions of Jellinek from his interviewees.  “He [Jellinek] had no academic credentials for his role,” Johnson commented, “but he was a genius.”   Our conversation at times made me feel little like I was waking up the Rip Van Winkle of alcohol history studies.  I’m not sure whether Bruce was entirely aware of what a mainstay his dissertation had become over the years since 1973.  Our conversation also threw into sharp relief how big and how active the alcohol and drugs history field has become since Johnson’s dissertation.  I told Bruce I’d be writing up our conversation for Points, the blog of the Alcohol and Drugs History Society.  In an email sent after our conversation, I provided the links to a couple of my Points’ posts on Jellinek.  As our conversation drew to a close, I wondered if Bruce Holley Johnson might be tempted to re-engage with the alcohol history territory in the leisure his retirement afforded, perhaps beginning by surveying the works of all the authors who’ve made good use of his dissertation.  Now there’s a happy thought!



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