July/August 2011 Issue • Volume 39 • Issue 6

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Obituaries

Deaths

Obituaries


Egon Bittner
1921-2011

Egon Bittner died on May 7, 2011, in Lafayette, CA, at the age 90. He had retired from teaching at Brandeis University in 1991.

Egon Bittner was born in 1921 in Silesia, a part of central Europe that was then in Czechoslovakia, but which at different moments in Egon’s youth had been Polish and German. Egon was from a Jewish community decimated by the Holocaust, and he was a rare survivor. It is hard to know whether his extraordinary generosity, compassion, modesty, and ability to recognize and live with difference and diversity came from this upbringing or this horrible experience, but these were among the qualities that family, friends, and colleagues cherished. These were also the qualities that made him an extraordinary social scientist. Egon loved books, ideas, reflecting on the complexity of human behavior, and was inhabited by the skepticism of received wisdoms that truly probing minds must possess.

That Egon became a sociologist was no accident, therefore. He had a vocation to comprehend and analyze the mysteries of lives in societies. He devoured and internalized the corpus of sociological theory. Conversations with him were adventures in intellectual history. It was his reading of this corpus that led him towards phenomenology and eventually ethnomethodology and to the University of California-Los Angeles where he did his PhD with Donald Cressey.

Egon joined the Brandeis Sociology faculty in the late 1960s, a moment of extraordinary political and intellectual turbulence. His questioning, calming, reflective, and tolerant presence was central to the department’s navigation through these complicated times. As Harry Coplan Professor of the Social Sciences, he taught numerous undergraduates, mentored doctoral students, and, more generally, led the department on a quest for new approaches. As chair of what was occasionally a fractious group of colleagues he nourished cooperation through magnanimity, understanding, respect for difference, and a wonderfully whimsical sense of humor. As a distinguished member of the broader Brandeis community he was known as a bastion of sophisticated rationality with a deep belief in the Brandeis mission and its vital importance to the society beyond it.

Egon was active in the sociology profession and served, among other positions, as president of the Society for the Study of Social Problems (SSSP). His presidential address to the SSSP in 1984, which reflected on the implications of computers for human futures, was a classic of the genre. Among sociologists he was best known for studies of the relationships between police and society. These studies, which elegantly bracketed conventional stereotypes of the police, including those of the social sciences, proceeded from, but were not limited by ethnomethodogical premises and led Egon and many of his students to cruise about in squad cars and hang out in police stations to gather data. Among his many publications on police-society relationships are The Functions of the Police in Modern Society (1970), Aspects of Police Work (1990), The Capacity to Use Force as the Core of the Police Role (1985), Florence Nightingale in Pursuit of Willie Sutton: A Theory of the Police (1974), and The Police on Skid Row (1967). (For more information see Wikipedia entry.) Egon knew that the use of force was the unavoidable basis of most police work and that professional discretion and sensitivity were essential for this to be acceptable. His research sought the behavioral bases of the uses and abuses of this application of force. The results were profoundly humanist as well as empirically useful. His new ways of understanding how police roles might be better conceived were recognized by scholars and police professionals themselves. His contributions to police scholarship earned him the Police Executive Research Forum Leadership Award, for example. Egon also served as commissioner in the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies (CALEA) from 1979 to 1988. In recognition of the importance of his work, CALEA established the Egon Bittner Award, annually presented to leading police executive officers in recognition of distinguished service in law enforcement. Egon’s sociological writings on police work remain a benchmark for today’s scholars researching the police.

Egon retired from Brandeis in 1991 and then moved, with his beloved wife Jean, to the Bay Area to be closer to his children Debora Seys and Tom Bittner and enjoy life in a corner of the world that he loved. Egon was a profound scholar from whom many learned by reading his work, in his classes, and conversing. Oftentimes, after engaging him on the simplest of issues, one emerged, after reflection, with new ways of apprehending and understanding very large parts of the world. He was also modest, an attribute which probably kept him from becoming one of paramount stars of contemporary sociology, a status reserved for more aggressive individuals. It was this modesty that made him all the more approachable and attractive, however. He was a renowned and beloved PhD advisor and a terrific colleague. He will be deeply missed. Our sympathy goes first to Jean and his family, but we are all bereft at his loss.

George Ross, Brandeis University and the University of Montreal

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William R. Freudenburg
1951-2010

On December 28, 2010, William R. Freudenburg lost his battle with cancer, and our discipline prematurely lost a superb scholar. Only 59, Bill remained active until the very end, insisting on finishing the fall term of his highly popular introductory course in Environmental Studies at University of California-Santa Barbara (UCSB) where he held the Dehlsen Endowed Chair. Bill was an exceptionally creative and productive scholar who made major contributions to the areas of environmental sociology, communities, and sociology of risk.

Born in Madison, NE, on November 2, 1951, Bill received his BA from the University of Nebraska in 1974 and then moved to Yale for graduate study in sociology where he received his PhD in 1979 under Kai Erikson’s mentorship. Perhaps because of his small-town background, Bill’s dissertation focused on “energy boomtowns” in Colorado, small communities undergoing rapid growth as a result of the Carter-era emphases on oil-shale development in response to the energy shortages of the 1970s. This work led Bill to become active in the fledgling field of environmental sociology, and he quickly became a leading figure and played a major role in strengthening and legitimating sociological research on environmental issues.

Bill began his career at Washington State University in fall of 1978, with a joint appointment in the Departments of Sociology and Rural Sociology and then moved to the Department of Rural Sociology at the University of Wisconsin in 1986, where he remained until 2002 before moving to UCSB’s Environmental Studies Program that fall. Along the way, his intellectual interests and research agenda expanded, encompassing social impact assessment, nuclear energy, environmental and technological risk assessment, natural resource-dependent communities, and natural and technological disasters. Underlying these evolving foci was a fundamental interest in the relationships between societies and their physical environments (particularly how to theorize and empirically examine these complex relationships) as well as the inequitable manner in which the benefits and harms of natural resource development are typically distributed.

Bill was a prolific scholar, publishing nearly 100 journal articles and dozens of book chapters, along with eight books—five co-edited and three co-authored (with a fourth in press). The latter include Oil in Troubled Waters:  Perceptions, Politics, and the Battle over Offshore Oil  (with Robert Gramling), Catastrophe in the Making:  The Engineering of Katrina and the Disasters of Tomorrow (with Robert Gramling, Shirley Laska, and Kai Erikson) and Blowout in the Gulf:  The BP Oil Spill Disaster and the Future of Energy in America (with Robert Gramling). Despite Bill’s illness, the latter was written expeditiously and appeared just months after the April 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion in the Gulf of Mexico.

Of course, it was the quality as well as quantity of his work that made Bill such an eminent scholar. In addition to the positive reception to his books, evidence abounds regarding the quality of his scholarly contributions. He published a dozen articles in our discipline’s three leading journals—ASR, AJS, and Social Forces—and received a bevy of awards for his work, including “outstanding article” awards from ASA’s Section on Political Sociology, the Pacific Sociological Association, and the Rural Sociological Society (RSS) (each for a different publication). Bill also received the “Award of Merit” from the RSS’s Natural Resources Research Group and the “Distinguished Contribution” Award from ASA’s Section on Environment and Technology, as well as RSS’s Excellence in Research/Theory Award. He was also elected a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

Bill was a leader not only intellectually, but organizationally. This was especially the case for the RSS, where he served as Secretary and Chair of the Natural Resources Research Group and then as Council Member, Vice-President, and ultimately President. He also served as Secretary and Chair of the AAAS’s Section on Social, Economic and Political Sciences (Section K) as well as a Council Member (1980-83) and Chair (1989-1991) of the ASA’s Section on Environment and Technology. At the time of his death, he was President-Elect of the newly established Association for Environmental Studies and Sciences (AESS), an organization that he helped found. AESS has established the Freudenburg Lifetime Achievement Award in Bill’s honor.

In addition, Bill compiled an exemplary record of service on prestigious advisory panels and boards, serving on several National Academy of Sciences/National Research Council panels and committees as well as advisory committees for the U.S. Department of Energy and Department of Interior. He was an outstanding spokesperson for environmental social science in these roles.

Throughout his career Bill made a point of involving graduate students in his research, and he proved to be an exceptionally capable mentor. He co-authored numerous articles and chapters with students, encouraged them to publish on their own, and helped launch several successful careers in the process. When he moved to UCSB Bill faced a new challenge, teaching a large introductory course in Environmental Studies. He responded brilliantly, turning it into one of the most popular courses on campus (enrolling 400+ students) and regularly received standing ovations at the end of his lectures.

The respect, admiration, and affection for Bill felt by his students, both current and past, and colleagues was on display at “Freudenfest,” a symposium held last November at UCSB to honor Bill and his many contributions. It was a joyous occasion, and one that touched Bill profoundly. For information on the event, see <www.forevermissed.com/billfreudenburg#about>. Information on the Freudenburg Academic Development Fund set up by UCSB in Bill’s honor and to which donations can be made is also available at this website. Papers based on presentations at Freudenfest will be published as a symposium later this year in the Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences, the official publication of AESS.

Bill is survived by his wife, Sarah Stewart, and son Max, his mother Betty Davis Freudenburg, brother Jim, and sister Patti.

Riley Dunlap (Oklahoma State University), Debra Davidson (University of Alberta), Kai Erikson (Yale University), Dana Fisher (University of Maryland), and Robert Gramling (University of Louisiana at Lafayette)

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Sylvia K. Polgar
1928-2011

Sylvia K. Polgar of Wilmington, NC, died April 9 at Lower Cape Fear Hospice Center. She was born in New York City in 1928 to Arthur Knopp and Selma Berger Knopp. She earned a bachelor’s degree at Columbia University in 1959 and was a research associate with Bank Street College. In 1961 she married Steven Polgar (1931-1978), an anthropologist specializing in population studies and a holocaust survivor. In New York she assisted the Council on Social Work Education, trained with the U.S. Public Health Service, and lectured at New York University in 1964. She and Steve had two sons (Misi and Chris), and when Steve got work at the University of North Carolina (UNC) in 1967, the family moved to Chapel Hill.

Sylvia earned her PhD in sociology at UNC-Chapel Hill in 1974. She lectured at UNC-Chapel Hill before starting what would become almost 20 years of service at UNC-Wilmington in 1976. Sylvia taught courses in sociology, social work, and anthropology at UNC-W before retiring in 1995. For six years, she commuted weekly between Chapel Hill and Wilmington, in order to both teach and be with her family on the weekends. In 1978 she survived the loss of her husband and became a single parent for 30 years thereafter. Since 1982, Sylvia has served the Wilmington community in many leadership roles, with a special focus on relations between ethnic groups and public health, serving as a role model for women by developing a successful independent career.

Sylvia was a teacher and friend to many in her community. She was a leader and a caretaker, a strong parent and grandparent, a volunteer and a good neighbor. She was independent and caring, generous with her time and attention, loving and witty, engaging and helpful to many. Sylvia spoke Spanish and loved to travel. She enjoyed family and friends, nature and arts (including pottery), walking and cooking. She is survived by sons, Michael Polgar of Kingston, PA, and Chris Polgar of Carrboro, NC, and granddaughters Sophie, Isabelle, and Rebecca Polgar. Donations in her memory may be directed to the United Jewish Communities women’s philanthropy (www.ujc.org/).

Michael Polgar, Pennsylvania State University-Hazleton

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