John Lofland

Interview completed: 01/01/2014

Where did you first encountered anarchism? What was your initial reaction to it and has your appraisal changed over time?

I do not recall a “first encounter.” Instead, gradual exposure to various points of view led to placing them into categories and seeing tendencies.

It is likely not irrelevant that I happened by accident to attend a Quaker college (although I have never myself been “religious”) and I was exposed to ideas promoted at that College that are, in wider perspective, quite anarchist. (As Goffman once commented, Quakers are the original “pains in the asses.” In his ASA presidential address, Goffman speaks of the power of being a “royal pain in the ass,” or kindred wording).

In addition, I studied Gestalt psychology at that college (I even once saw a very old Wolfgang Kohler in a hallway, and I took a course from Solomon Asch himself), which led by its logic to symbolic interactionism when I began to study sociology and I then encountered Erving Goffman.

I wanted to interview you because of your short article in 1988 in the SSSI newsletter about symbolic interactionism’s connections to anarchism. You wrote that functionalism has a conservative orientation, and conflict theory has a “red” or Marxist orientation, but that SI took a third path (a “green” one). You also mentioned a few other interesting bits of sociological trivia, like Herbert Blumer’s early interest in anarchism (boasting of being acquainted with Emma Goldman’s lover Ben Reitman, for example).

My recollection is that the idea of the link of the two rubrics had quite an obvious source. I taught a Social Problems course for some years. In the texts for those courses, the world divides into three kinds of social problems theories and solutions: functionalism, conflict, interactionism.

These are, of course, disguises for the right, the left, and what? It is hardly “rocket science.”

What was the response to that article?

I do not recall there was much response to the piece about which you ask, although I do recall that Gary Fine seemed to have thought about it. I think he would be among the best sources for your inquiries. Gary is interesting because, as I recall, he told me he leaned to libertarianism, which is quite unusual among sociologists—but hints with anarchism, certainly.

Have you written anything after this one article on the subject of anarchism?

No, I have not written further on this topic directly. But much of my later work embodies it, as in my Polite Protesters. Beyond that substance, my rejection of the “theory-bashing” model of social inquiry might be seen as a rejection of both standard rightism and leftism.

I have concluded that anarchist ideas as embodied in the peace left seriously underestimate human greed and capacity for ruthless behavior. My book Polite Protesters tries gently to make this point.

Who else do you think begins to bridge the divides between anarchism and sociology?

The one thinker I still take seriously regarding anarchism and social analysis is Gene Sharp. I appreciate that he is an “outsider” to sociology. But, the propositions he has formulated prove out amazingly well in developments around the world. He has his blind places, of course, and also under-estimates the human capacity for ruthlessness, greed, and, yes, evil.

William Gamson once published an essay on Erving Goffman’s contributions to political sociology in which he reports Goffman being asked his politics and answering “Anarchist, I guess.” I do not know if this report is true or not, but Gamson’s elaboration of the possibility through Goffman’s work is spot on. I urge you to read Gamson’s piece if you want to pursue an anarchist sociology. Indeed, Gamson himself might be thought of as such a sociologist.

Other than Goffman, who we’ve already discussed, can you see analogues to other elements of anarchism anywhere else within the sociological canon?

In my view, there is a broad and profound relation between various other intellectual currents and a sociological anarchism. Indeed, in writing the above I have only now begun to see more clearly the power of that relation. Thanks for asking me about it!

I am especially struck with the importance of Solomon Asch now that I think a little more about it. My raw idea is that if you want to do a serious sociological anarchism, you have to deal directly with Asch and that line of inquiry.

The overarching idea I am trying to bring to your attention is that social order rests on consent to obey. Once people withdraw that consent, all bets are off. As I understand it, there is at least one version of anarchism that stresses this.

Let me stress what you know: I am not a specialist in any of this. Instead, I am much more of an accidental witness who was at various scenes when some of what I report on was in process. I just happened to be at Quaker Swarthmore and have some contact with those psychologists. I just happened to encounter Goffman at Berkeley, Gamson at Michigan, and Sharp later on.

These were all quite interesting scenes to me, but I was a passer-by or fellow-traveler more than someone who made a direct intellectual task of matters of central concern to these people.