September-October 2011 Issue • Volume 39 • Issue 7

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J. Milton Yinger (1916-2011)

A Towering Sociological Figure from a
Small College

Stephen J. Cutler, University of Vermont

j. milton yinger

J. Milton Yinger

Sociology lost one of its most active and influential figures with the death of J. Milton Yinger, the 68th President of the American Sociological Association, on July 28, 2011, at the age of 95 in Oberlin, Ohio. Always ahead of the curve, Milt espoused interdisciplinarity long before it became fashionable, he championed social justice well before efforts to eradicate inequality came to be branded in this particular way, and he was the consummate mentor of students and colleagues far in advance of mentorship being a topic of explicit interest.

Born in Michigan in 1916, both of Milt’s parents were Methodist ministers. He grew up with five brothers and two sisters and, under the direction of his father, he and his siblings sang in scores of concerts throughout the Midwest as the Yinger Singers.

Milt entered DePauw University in 1933, where he studied sociology and economics. A member of DePauw’s track team, he once raced against Jesse Owens, a contact Milt fondly described as lasting all of 6.2 seconds. He received a master’s degree in sociology from Louisiana State University in 1939, where he studied with T. Lynne Smith and Rudoph Heberle, and earned a doctorate in sociology from the University of Wisconsin in 1943. A student of Hans Gerth, Howard Becker, and John Commons, among others, he was a member of a cohort of graduate students that included C. Wright Mills. Milt began his professorial career at Ohio Wesleyan University in 1941, and then moved to Oberlin College in 1947 where he remained until retiring in 1987.

A Career of Scholarly and Educational Contributions

Milt’s scholarly contributions would be considered outstanding by any standard. That he was as productive and influential a scholar as he was, while spending his entire academic career at liberal arts colleges, is all the more remarkable. 

Coming from a family of ministers—and named for the poet John Milton—it is not surprising that a major theme of Milt’s scholarly work was the sociological study of religion. His doctoral dissertation examined the historical and contemporary involvement of religion and churches in economic and political struggles. Subsequently published as Religion in the Study of Power (1946), it was followed by Religion, Society, and the Individual (1957); Sociology Looks at Religion (1963), and The Scientific Study of Religion (1970). In 1978, on the occasion of a symposium dedicated to Milt’s work, the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion described him as a towering figure and a seminal contributor.

Although Milt’s interest in race and minorities predated his arrival at Oberlin, it’s fitting that his textbook, Racial and Cultural Minorities (5th ed, 1985), co-authored with Oberlin colleague George E. Simp­son, was written at the first American college to admit students without regard to race. The book won the 1959 Anisfield-Wolf award for the best scholarly work on race rela­tions. (Milt noted with quiet pride that he and George shared this award with another author, Martin Luther King Jr.) One sociologist has spoken of how “frustrating” Racial and Cultural Minorities was because it contained so many good ideas that it was difficult to come up with anything new to say!  Milt’s interest in race and ethnicity ultimately led to another widely cited book, Ethnicity: Source of Strength? Source of Conflict? (1994).

In 1960, Milt published an American Sociological Review article in which he introduced the concept of a “contraculture.” Later, he slightly altered the label he used to describe a subcultural group for whom resisting specific aspects of the dominant culture was a motivating force, and the term “countercultures” entered the sociological lexicon. Milt’s work on this topic cul­mi­nated in his ASA presidential address, “Countercultures and Social Change” and in Countercultures: The Promise and Peril of a World Turned Upside Down (1982),which one reviewer described as a book “of immense range, erudition, and sophistication.”

Sociologists are coming to recognize that advances in knowledge often take place at the intersection of disciplines rather than solely within them. But Milt was well ahead of his time in arguing for interdisciplinarity. Toward a Field Theory of Behavior: Personality and Social Structure, published in 1965, makes the case for multi-level analyses bringing together the perspectives of sociology, anthropology, and psychology. This co-mingling of theoretical, conceptual, and analytical approaches from a variety of disciplines was a hallmark of Milt’s scholarship. Generations of Oberlin students will recall the embodiment of this emphasis in “Society, Culture, and Personality,” a course popularly known as “SCAP” and co-taught by Milt with his psychology colleague, Ralph Turner.

Not content just to examine society, Milt also was a quiet advocate for social change. A conscientious objector in WWII, his concern with social justice and societal well-being were consistent engines driving his teaching and scholarship. As recently as 1996, in a lecture presented to the Friends of the Oberlin Library, he identified what he considered to be the world’s three leading problems: “1) how to increase justice among societies, ethnic groups, races, classes, ages, sexes; 2) how to attain peace, the elimination of the use of organized and official violence as the way to attempt to settle disputes; and 3) how to protect the environment from over-crowding, the depletion of irreplaceable resources, and pollution.” But in Milt’s view, merely identifying these problems was insufficient. He said, “Values without knowledge are blind; knowledge without values is empty; both without policies are futile.”

Milt, along with George Simpson, Dick Myers, and later Kiyoshi Ikeda and Al McQueen, formed the core of the Department of Sociology-Anthropology at Oberlin College that was unmatched in the numbers and prominence of the social scientists it spawned. A gifted teacher and lecturer, Milt’s four decades at Oberlin correspond to the times when the college was unsurpassed in the number of students who went on to receive sociology PhDs.

Awards

In recognition of his distinguished contributions, Milt was elected to serve as President of the North Central Sociological Association (NCSA) in 1950-51, Secretary of ASA in 1971-74, and President of ASA in 1976-77. This last honor is all the more notable given that Milt is the only ASA President to have spent his entire teaching career at undergraduate liberal arts colleges. He received honorary degrees from DePauw and Syracuse Universities and he was a Guggenheim Fellow, a Fellow of the National Endowment for the Humanities, and a Fellow of Clare Hall at Cambridge University. In 2007, NCSA established the J. Milton Yinger Distinguished Career Award and, fittingly, Milt was the first recipient.

Colleague and Friend

These professional achievements, albeit important, provide only a partial glimpse of the man. I suspect if he were asked how he would like to be remembered, his scholarship would surely be high on the list. But he’d also want to be remembered for the kindness he and his wife, Winnie offered friends and acquaintances, and for his generous support of colleagues. My family and I benefitted from this kindness and support throughout the 15 years I taught at Oberlin.

Those who knew him will recall his wit and love of puns. On the occasion of George Simpson’s retirement, Milt told a variant of the tale of the African king who kept his throne in the attic, only to have it crash down on him during a violent storm. The moral: People who live in grass houses shouldn’t stow thrones. Or patiently listening and then appreciatively and uproariously responding to my 12-year-old daughter’s very long joke ending in “Oh, no, I left my harp in Sam Clam’s disco.” And, of course, Milt would want to be remembered as a darn good tennis player! 

Milt’s wife of 61 years and best friend, Winnie McHenry Yinger, died in 2002. He is survived by daughters Susan Johnson of Oberlin, and Nancy Yinger of Oakton, VA; son, John Yinger of Fayetteville, NY; and five grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. Milt also is survived by a legacy of major sociological contributions and by generations of students who learned how to view and understand society through a sociological lens thanks to Milt’s teaching and writing.

If you would like to make a memorial donation, a small scholarship fund is being established to support Oberlin sociology students’ term projects. Please send a Memorial Contribution to Oberlin College, 50 W Lorain St, Oberlin, OH  44074, with “In memory of J. Milton Yinger” in the memo line.

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