November-December 2009 Issue • Volume 37 • Issue 8

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A Tribute to Amos Hawley:
Mentor, Colleague, and Friend


Amos Hawley

It is an honor to be among the many whose professional careers were shaped, mentored, and encouraged by Amos Hawley. The Chicago-Michigan School of Human Ecology was born from Social Darwinism in Chicago, where it was deemed to be a result of a set of "sub-social" processes. It was adopted as a central subfield and taken to Michigan by Roderick D. McKenzie, and made eminently social by McKenzie’s prize student Amos Hawley. Hawley insisted that human beings must adapt, often by changing both their man-made and physical habitats everywhere and do so collectively, not individually, by organizing themselves as communities. That social organization and culture are adaptive responses to environmental resources and limitations, rather than uncaused causes, stands as one of the grand insights of pre-WWII sociology. Amos was my thesis chairman and I participated in all of his available courses and seminars. In my opinion, his writings rank with those of Weber and Durkheim in explaining social organization and excel them in explaining social change. For many decades Human Ecology thrived jointly in Michigan and Chicago under Hawley and Dudley Duncan and their students (today in many other universities under second- or higher-generation human ecologists).His viewpoint has spread worldwide and codified in many diverse subfields, in which groups are studied as they react to particular stimuli of their milieu: From the methodology of measuring "contextual effects" in schools to estimating the "population carrying capacity" of nations. Amos will live forever as a founding father of environmental effects. His significance can only become more appreciated and revered. Amos and his wonderful wife Gretchen were firm lifelong friends of my family. His death is a deep personal, as well as professional, loss.

Donald J. Bogue, University of Chicago

The scholarship of Amos Hawley has secured him a permanent place among the intellectual giants of sociology—indeed of social science writ large. This would be true if his only contribution had been the publication of his classic Human Ecology: A Theory of Community Structure (1950). Of course, Amos produced many insightful and influential publications—and here we must be mindful of his work on developing societies as well as his superlative theoretical treatises. The latter took sociology back to its roots in the Durkheimian affirmation that human organizations are "more than the sum of their parts"—a notion that lies at the core of our discipline. In addition, a crucial part of Amos Hawley’s legacy (too often neglected) is that he was a superlative teacher. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, while attending graduate school at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, I had the good fortune to be able to enroll in several of his seminars. I was impressed by many aspects of his mentorship, but I will mention only a few. First, the logic and power of his ideas were striking. Then, there was his relationship with students. At times, students (including myself) would ask irrelevant, or even meaningless, questions. On such occasions, Amos would unfailingly respond by imparting valuable insights, even if he had to rephrase the question to make it meaningful for the benefit of all. Part of the preface to a collection of papers written in Amos’ honor presented at a symposium (organized by Dudley Poston and Mike Micklin and published by Plenum Press [1998]) says it all: "Amos H. Hawley, valued colleague, mentor, and friend."

W. Parker Frisbie, University of Texas-Austin

I will always picture Amos Hawley standing erect, tall and muscular, with a full head of well-groomed, thick white hair, a smile on his face and warmth in his voice. His physical appearance matched his inner characteristics—strong, dignified, principled, powerfully intelligent, caring, and gentle.

Amos was a giant of social scientists, who broadened our understanding of macro processes in population, organization, and development, and he influenced studies in other, seemingly distant areas such as school planning and mental health law. Although not known by many, he was also an astute observer of micro-relations, which is evident in the novels and short stories he wrote after retirement from the academy.

Amos expected work of the highest quality from all his students and respected them and promoted them for producing it, regardless of their religion, ethnicity, race or gender. Although reserved and not given to emotional expression, he was sensitive to social slights based on these statuses and would unobtrusively intervene to rectify the slights he observed. He was a sterling model of a professional who quietly advanced the academic careers of numerous women at a time when many hurdles were thrown in their path.

Although he did not stand as erect and tall in his last year, Amos still had a full head of well-groomed, thick white hair and greeted his ex-students with a smile on his face and warmth in his voice. I was fortunate to be one of those students.

Virginia Aldigé Hiday, North Carolina State University

In the last decade of his almost centennial-long life, Amos Hawley began writing short stories. A volume of his collected stories was self-published every few years, and Amos circulated them to old friends, who inquired about what he was up to. Allegedly fiction, his stories focused on everyday life in an anonymous university with character sketches that some colleagues thought were too close to the mark. Friends and admirers of Amos (I was both) who read his short stories were reassured that he had not lost any of his powers of observation or wry sense of humor.

Amos was a major influence on the evolution of 20th century sociological theory, and especially of the school of macro-sociology known as human ecology. Under the influence of Robert Park, and the Chicago School more generally, early 20th century sociology adopted human ecology as theory that offered a distinctive interpretation of the apparent chaotic and disorderly structure of cities. With the premature death of his mentor, Roderick McKenzie in 1940, Amos assumed the task of reformulating human ecology theory beyond analogies and social geography. Almost single handily, with a 1944 Social Forces article and his 1950 magnum opus Human Ecology, he recast human ecology as the study of community structure. Although human ecology is no longer at the center of the sociological enterprise, Hawley’s theoretical statements as well as his empirical contributions are certain to be "rediscovered" when intellectual directions shift to the search for explanations of social change.

In 1973, Hawley had accepted an 18-month position as a Ford Foundation senior demographic advisor to Malaysia and he was looking for a junior member who could assist in analyses of the 1970 Malaysian census. I was than a fledgling assistant professor, and my colleagues thought that it was foolhardy (crazy was the precise term) to consider accepting a temporary overseas assignment at this stage of my career. The opportunities to return to Malaysia and to work with Amos Hawley were, however, too appealing. The formal objectives of our project were not realized, but there were countless informal rewards, including the beginnings of a life-long friendship with Amos and Gretchen Hawley. In addition to a thick file of a 30-year correspondence with Amos, I have many memories of visits to the Hawley home in Chapel Hill and later to their retirement home. Amos was a creative and daring scholar who left a rich corpus of work for our discipline, and he was a generous and warm-hearted man whose friends were better for having known him.

Charles Hirschman, University of Washington

Looking back over the years, I find it hard to think of anyone who helped me more in the early critical years than Amos Hawley. We first met in 1949 at the last of ASA’s end-of-year meetings when he was chair of the Michigan department and I was looking for my first academic job. I learned later that his support had been crucial when the department had to choose among the candidates.

Later, after I arrived in Ann Arbor, Amos saw to it that I, without prior teaching experience, never had to teach more than one new course in any semester and even arranged for the department to add a new course in the sociology of religion to help me get started. Still later, he arranged for me to get a reduced teaching load with funds from a grant he had at the time. This led in time to the publication of my book Power and Privilege.

I would do Amos an injustice, however, if I gave the impression that his contribution to my development was only in an administrative capacity. Whenever I encountered his students in those early years, I found that they had many stimulating ideas that they had gotten from him, ideas that opened up new perspectives for me. Above all, I came to appreciate the kind of unambiguously operationalizable and testable theory Hawley’s work provided—something that was badly lacking in the then-dominant Parsonsian theory.

I can’t resist drawing attention to one aspect of his highly productive and fruitful life that many may not know about and I certainly can’t claim to have anticipated. After he retired, he began writing short stories which he self published and shared with some of his friends. To my amazement, the best of them were every bit as good as the best of O’Henry’s! Like O’Henry’s, they had a surprising and unexpected ending. Sadly, however, this second career came to an end when his eyesight failed him several years ago.

Gerhard Lenski, Hansville, WA

Amos Hawley was neither my teacher nor my colleague. But I view his death as a tremendous loss, both personally and to the profession.

Hawley played a key role in the first two decades of my professional career. I first met him in 1968 when I interviewed for a faculty position at North Carolina. I was offered a job there, but instead took one at the University of Texas (UT). A few years later, one of his UNC students, Parker Frisbie, joined the UT faculty and we began collaborating. Virtually all our work drew on Hawley’s human ecological perspective, and much of our published work benefited from his reading and critique. Whenever we met, sometimes at professional meetings, he was always interested in my research and what I was studying. Seldom do star professors at major universities take such an interest in the work of young faculty from other places.

With regard to our discipline, Hawley was truly a giant. His Human Ecology defined the field of sociological human ecology and remains its definitive exposition. In Human Ecology Hawley developed and articulated an encompassing theory of one of the key problems faced by the human species, namely, the growth and survival of social systems. The publication is a truly classic contribution to the literature of sociology and demography and commands and requires our attention to this day. The contribution of Human Ecology parallels in important ways the contributions of Emile Durkheim, Max Weber, Karl Marx, Robert Merton, and others all of whom developed theories about societal problems and issues that continue to be relevant decades after their initial publication. Sociologists and demographers recognized Hawley’s stellar contributions by electing him to the Presidency of both the American Sociological Association and the Population Association of America. He is only one of seven persons ever to be elected president of both organizations. It will be a long time before sociology and demography will have a scholar, mentor, and exceptional human being the like of Amos Hawley.

Dudley L. Poston, Jr., Texas A&M University

Amos Hawley was a gentleman. Indeed, a modest gentleman despite his brilliant scholarly accomplishments. His modesty was apparent to all who knew him. Our tributes here, while appropriate and fitting for a former ASA president, would probably have been anathema to Amos. Rather than my writing these words, he would have preferred that I spend the time doing research, talking with colleagues, keeping up with world events or simply relaxing with family.

Amos’ gentlemanly character was evident upon my arriving in Chapel Hill as an assistant professor. I had the supreme good fortune of being assigned an office next to Amos (perhaps because the then department chair was aware how much I would benefit from Amos’ mentoring). He was gracious as well as generous with his time and resources. When I encounter Amos’ former students (undergraduate and graduate), they invariably remark about his gentle but very effective style of letting them know when they were not seeing things clearly. He would say "Have you considered …" or he would give them a book or article to read that would inevitably lead them to improve their understanding and their research.

The last time I saw Amos, he was approaching the century mark. His gait had slowed, his sight had diminished, and his hearing had become less acute. But he was his usual analytical self, inquiring about my and his other visitors’ research and well-being. And yes, as we moved to go to the garden, he maneuvered so that he could hold the door open for others.

Finally, as testimony to his scholarly achievements, just before writing these words, I was reviewing a paper on climate and migration, for which I will serve as a discussant at an international population conference. The authors use Amos’ 1950 classic, Human Ecology, to frame their discussion of factors affecting migration. It is a book, a theory, a perspective that is as fresh today as it was almost 60 years ago.

Ronald R. Rindfuss, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill logo

Amos Hawley Obituary


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