A Personal Tribute to Ulf Himmelstrand

by Margaret Archer, University of Warwick, UK, and former ISA President 1986-1990

With the death of Ulf Himmelstrand on June 8th 2011 world sociology has lost one of its gentlest and most dedicated of friends. To him ‘globalization’ was neither merely a concept nor a cause, it was something he lived. Never one to inflict his biography on others, evidence of his dedicated support has to be pieced together from the narratives of those who had experienced it at first hand.

This was especially the case for his years at the University of Ibadan in the mid-1960s as Head of the Sociology Department. His love of Africa and Nigeria in particular was very clear but what he did for Nigeria was not something he himself would have characterized in the grandiose terms of ‘the decolonization of anthropology and sociology.’ Yet, that was what it was, accomplished partly through his teaching, research and curriculum revision at Ibadan, but equally powerfully through his commitment to promoting a generation of bright young Nigerian scholars throughout their careers. Peter Ekeh has provided his own tribute to the lasting fidelity of this support in the obituary he wrote (The Guardian 26.06.2011) and that must stand for the experience of many.

This love of an Africanist for Africa was resilient. When nearly a quarter of a century later he was seriously mugged and injured on one of his frequent return visits, his subsequent messages contained no words of self-pity or recrimination but simply a quiet, practical detailing of how he was re-learning to cope with the keyboard and continuing with his work.

Again, long before Roland Robertson coined the term ‘glocalization’, Ulf was living it with his global network continuously active from the tiny town of Uppsala and his Nigerian friends visiting regularly. Correspondingly, as ISA Vice-President (1974-78) he was particularly keen to bring the World Congress to Uppsala in 1978, to a venue that could only just contain it! He wanted this to be an unforgettable event, one that showcased international sociology for Sweden and Scandinavia in general. Because he was also a passionate theorist, critical of both contemporary functionalism and Marxism alike, a highlight of the Congress was to be a debate between Parsons and Poulantzas. This was scheduled for an evening to avoid clashes with the rest of the program and was to take place in a large but rather distant Aula. Sadly, after hundreds of us had walked through the rain for this event, the Chairman had the sorry duty of reading out two telegrams from these giants explaining their inability to be present. Up went the umbrellas and we began our return through the downpour. Wet through and with most of the walk still in front of me, I became irritatingly aware of a kerb-crawler driving slowly behind me. Eventually, the car drew level and Ulf rescued me from the elements and then drove on to check the well-being of his other wet sheep.

When he was ISA President (1978-82) I continued to work closely with him because of my role in Publications. Executive Committee meetings could go on into the small hours with debates hotting up as the hours for sleep diminished. Only two of the Presidents with whom I have worked could diffuse potential explosions by their gentle reasonableness: Tom Bottomore and Ulf Himmelstrand. Ulf had a special piece of apparatus to assist him. Those were the un-reconstructed days of heavy smoking and Ulf would sit behind his careful arrangement of the pipe-smoker’s essentials: a rack of eight pipes whose different merits I never understood; the indispensible equipment for poking, de-blocking and cleaning (again incomprehensible); and various tins of weed. These were stage-props for a functional ritualism that had little to do with polluting the meeting room. The rational actor might well have wondered how so much apparatus was necessary to so little visceral satisfaction. That was not the point. As tempers frayed, Ulf would intensify his absorbed excavations with a pipe cleaner and finally look up to gently produce the makings of a consensual formula. In all those years, I never heard him (need to) raise his voice and his formulae were not simply pacific, they carried us forward.

With Ulf, collegiality was also a matter of friendship. It was about home visiting as well as formal meetings. Once, he was lecturing in England and typically brought his bike with him. He proposed coming to say hello at our home outside Oxford. This he duly accomplished by biking from the Open University, some sixty miles away and, true to Swedish etiquette, he presented me with a gift. This was a pastoral poem, written in English whilst pedaling, in praise of the north Oxfordshire hedgerows. For a long time afterwards whenever a cyclist approached the door, my two young sons would rush into the study excitedly proclaiming “Oolf”, “Oolf’s back!”

As a friend, Ulf never went away. He was the first to greet me after I came off the podium having given my Presidential address in Madrid (1990) and typically this was not with florid compliments but a warm bear-hug. I would come across generous reviews he had written of my work, which he never announced or forwarded. But, unlike some, he had obviously read each book from start to finish.

Now he has left us and left me with the sorry feeling that I never told him how valuable his friendship was. If this small tribute has concentrated more upon Ulf’s personal qualities than the extent of his contributions to sociology this is because considerable and lasting as the latter were it seems to me a greater achievement to have been universally recognized as the kindest of men.

Nigeria, United Kingdom, Volume 2, Issue 1

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