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In Memoriam: Joseph R. Gusfield (1923-2015)

Updated: Aug 29, 2023


Joseph R. Gusfield (6 Sept 1923 – 5 Jan 2015)

Joseph R. Gusfield, a historical sociologist and leader in transforming the study of alcohol use in the United States, passed away on January 5, 2015, at the age of 91.

His seminal works include Symbolic Crusade: Status Politics and the American Temperance Movement (1963) and The Culture of Public Problems: Drinking-Driving and the Symbolic Order (1981).

Gusfield developed his interest in the history of alcohol when studying the Women’s Christian Temperance Union as a graduate student in the late 1940s. His interest in what he saw as a “radical” and “native American” movement led him to explore how moral issues were socially constructed in the late 19th century. In a 2006 interview with the journal Addiction, Gusfield noted that he “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.”

His take on the field was extremely influential. In the early 1950s, the sociological study of moral issues was, according to Gusfield, “a virgin field.” Symbolic Crusade, based off his dissertation, placed the study of alcohol and its use squarely within the realm of sociological inquiry, making him a father of much of the work Points publishes today.

The list of Gusfield’s achievements is remarkable, both in academia and beyond. He entered the University of Chicago in September 1941, three months before the attacks on Pearl Harbor, and joined the Army in the Enlisted Reserve, serving as a medic in Europe from 1943 to 1946.

Upon returning to the United States, Gusfield pursued a series of degrees at the University of Chicago. He received his bachelor’s in 1946, a law degree in 1947, a master’s degree in sociology in 1949, and his doctorate in 1954. He traveled widely, serving as a Fulbright Lecturer at universities in Patna, Bangalore and New Delhi in India, and teaching in Tokyo, London, Italy and Paris.

Teaching at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana in the 1960s, Gusfield was involved in the civil rights movement, sponsoring the university’s chapter of SNCC and marching with other historians from Selma to Montgomery in 1965. In the 2006 interview, Gusfield said that he considered his participation in the march “a really emotional action,” from which he derived “a great deal of satisfaction.”

His involvement in government committees included a panel review position with the US National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism in the 1970s, and an advisory position with the National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse, which supported federal decriminalization in 1972.

In 1968, Gusfield was invited to establish the sociology department at the University of California, San Diego, where he became chair in 1970. There he developed his interest in the nature of drunk driving policy in relation to legislation, judicial law and enforcement. His analysis of the construction of beliefs surrounding drunk driving led him to conclude that American policy rested on the belief that “all problems are solvable” and often moral, and ignored the myriad other issues surrounding rates of auto accidents and death.

He taught at UCSD until his “active retirement” in 1991, after which he spent his time painting, traveling and continuing to publish. He served as a member of the Executive Council of the Alcohol and Drugs History Society, and in 2009, an annual lecture series at UCSD was inaugurated under Joe and his wife Irma’s names.

We will greatly miss Joe Gusfield and his stunning contributions to the field, but we take heart in knowing that many others will continue the work that he began. Points celebrates the life of a man who contributed much to the field, and whose life was a remarkable example of academics and adventure.



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