Academic journal article Labour/Le Travail

Nels Anderson: A Profile

Academic journal article Labour/Le Travail

Nels Anderson: A Profile

Article excerpt


DR. NELS ANDERSON (1889-1986) WAS among American sociologists a pioneer whose work is only now beginning to win the recognition it deserves, especially in Europe. His ethnographic studies of wandering workmen (The Hobo), frontier sectarians (The Desert Saints), and migrant laborers (Men on the Move) are seen as models of empirical research that provide insights into the lives of groups and classes marginalized by the wider society.

Anderson's life experience was as varied as his work. A child just as the frontier was ending, he knew first-hand life in the slum, the backwoods, and the Indian reserve, as well as work in mining, logging, and road-gang communities. Before he began his formal education in sociology at the University of Chicago, Anderson had been a newsboy, mule-skinner, mine worker, track repairman, coal forker, field hand, railroad maintenance carpenter, timberman, grade school teacher, concrete former, millwright, Army engineer and demolitions expert, itinerant peddler, and male nurse. After he received his Masters degree in 1925 from the University of Chicago he found work as a Juvenile Protection Agency investigator, a night club inspector, Municipal Lodging House employee, college teacher, and freelance writer (and ghostwriter). Having received a Doctoral degree in 1930 from New York University, Anderson entered government service as head of Labour Relations in the Work Relief Program, and when the war broke out he became an officer for the War Shipping Administration overseas. After the war his duties included service with the High Commission in Frankfurt and the State Department in Bonn. He helped reorganize free trade unions in Germany and ran a research centre for graduate students to study the needs of refugee families and of youth throughout the country, the nature of work and community organization in a coal-mining district, and the state of housing in Frankfurt. Upon retiring from government service in 1953, Anderson was appointed Director of Research for the Social Science Research Institute established by UNESCO, Cologne. At the end of his UNESCO assignment in 1962, Anderson went on a lecture tour in Sweden, Australia, and India. Two years later he at last returned to his first vocation, university teaching: he accepted an invitation by Memorial University of Newfoundland to serve as Visiting Professor and Head of the Department of Anthropology and Sociology, where he remained until, in 1966, he was invited to become Visiting Professor of Sociology at the University of New Brunswick (UNB), where he offered a heavy load of courses until his retirement in 1977. Named Emeritus Professor of Sociology by the university in 1979, he continued to maintain an active scholarly life until a few weeks before his death on 8 October 1986 in Fredericton, New Brunswick.


Not long after Nels Anderson assumed his teaching duties at UNB, he and I became friends. During his post-retirement years, as Anderson continued to work on his publications and invited lectures, I became his editor-typist. My long acquaintance with Dr. Anderson led the Department of Sociology to ask me to give a talk on his life and work at the twenty-fifth Qualitative Analysis Conference, "The Chicago School & Beyond," held at the University of New Brunswick in May 21 to 24, 2008. What follows is the public lecture I presented.

I WON'T HAVE MUCH to say about Nels Anderson's accomplishments as a sociologist. They are impressive, especially in light of the fact that for most of his long life he held no university position, and was pretty much forgotten or unknown by academics in his chosen discipline. Instead, I will talk about the man I came to know during his twenty years at UNB. We spent a lot of time together, on and off the job. In the course of our growing friendship, Anderson came to confide in me in an off-hand, storyteller's manner, in which he revealed many details of his life and his feelings long hidden from his kith and kin. …

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