A Sociological Autobiography: 66 – Terry Boswell, 1955-2006

By | December 14, 2016

A quartet of Emory University acedamics and friends were the pulse of what I have previously celebrated as Emory University’s summer programme on ‘comparative health care’. I was their London coordinator for 35 years, climbing my way from postgraduate to professorial facilitator. Dick Levinson kicked it all off and remains a close friend, as does his partner Linda. He was backed up by a very special trio: Mike McQuaide, Terry Boswell and Karen Hegvedt (and their families). Mike and Karen, like Dick, are precious friends. Terry, howver, is dead.

Annette and I were close to Terry and his family and we would both wish his story to be retold. Born in California in 1955, Terry was honed in Kentucky and Arizona and exited these states in possession of a slow growling drawl. He was a larger-than-life character. He was possibly more sensitive to others in theory than in practice. He winged a number of classes and assignments when bringing Emory/Oxford students to London. But his pleasure at being in London was immense, and he generously – perhaps a little too generously in the eyes of the ‘Emory programmes abroad’ gang on the home campus – treated students and the Scamblers alike to the theatre (mostly musicals) and to meals. I remember particularly long conversations about the politics of running Emory’s department of sociology during end-of-programme trips up the Thames. I think he genuinely under-estimated the impact of his personal decision-making on his colleagues. An example was ‘his’ decision, I suspect without due consultation, to invite Annette and I to Emory to teach for a semester in 1998. It was a wonderful experience, extending to our car journey across to LA and back; but we picked up on colleagues’ vibes, though all were affable and considerate.

It was during one programme, while Terry and I were sitting in our kitchen at South Street, that he quietly told me he had been diagnosed with ALS. In the UK we know ALS, or amyototrophic lateral sclerosis, as motor neurone disease. At the time, I acknowledge with a lingering sense of guilt, I did not grasp the severity of his news. He had not at that stage confided in many of his American colleagues. In retrospect I can appreciare his caution.

Let me convey a telling episode before spelling out some of Terry’s achievements in sociology. It nestles in a later visit, when his symptoms were apparent. I had invited Mike Oliver to talk to the students about disability. Mike said at one point that the accident that had introduced him to a wheelchair was ‘the best thing that ever happened to me’. He meant, I guess, that: (a) it had opened up new opportunities, not least in academia; (b) it had led not only to a new identity for self and others, but to pioneering work, prestige and influence; and (c) that he was enjoying a worthwhile engagement with disability activism. Terry and I were sitting together. He leant across to me with half a smile and said: ‘I don’t think so.’

Terry’s area of specialism within sociology was, in general, world systems theory, and, in particular, stratification, labour markets and revolutions. Wallerstein was his intellectual mentor (Terry was later to try to persuade Emory to recruit him, but the window of opportunity passed by). Terry collaborated with the likes of Chris Chase-Dunn as well as his Ph.D students (some of whom I met as TAs on summer prorgammes) and published widely on paternalism, migration, union strength, minority strike-breaking and institutionalised racial inclusion/exclusion in worker and union fortunes. A number of his papers found their way into highly regarded, high impact journals: seven were accepted by either the American Sociological Review or the American Journal of Sociology, which was no mean feat. His books were no less celebrated within the field of political economy. His most comprhensive statement is probably contained in his The Spiral of Capitalism and Socialism, which is buried somewhere in my study in Mickleham.

He and I had a number of vigorous discussions, in London, Atlanta, at his place and mine. He found my Habermasian (‘utopian’) approach suspect, while I queried his reliance of positivistic means to ‘explain’ those social phenomena that intrigued him. I take away one one particular substantive claim from his work, namely that failed revolutions often pave the way for future advances. It is a claim with resonance for in the current era of financial capitalism and neoliberalism. What would Terry have made of Trump? My American friends are experiencing the implosion of all they belive in as a kind of Brexit plus.

Further by-products of Terry’s enthusiasm for life were his purchases of art for the department (though characteristically he didn’t consult anyone); the (weird) metal sculptures that adorned his garden; his love of baseball (we accompanied him); and his affection for Mexican food and (then light, anaemic) American beer.

I witnessed Terry’s brave, obstinate decline. Motor neurone disease slowly and tortuously takes your body away from your mind, and Terry’s mind remained sharp and shrewd. He worked on with the help of Chris Chase-Dunn, Emory friends like Dick and Alex Hicks and a postgradute student who eventually acted as his sole point and mode of communication with the outside world. Towards what proved the end it was a challenge for Annette and I to communicate with him. Towards the end his head of department, a decent man, made what I took to be an error of judgement. He raised with the Emory hierarchy the issue of Terry’s capabilities. Maybe he was pushed. I would not question his motives, just his judgement. He reasoned that Terry could no longer fulfill the requirements of his role, most notably as a teacher. Rightly or wrongly I stuck my oar in from across the Atlantic. Leave it, I argued: Terry’s lifespan is tortured and shrunken, so stand back and let things take their course. In the event, Terry died not long after.

Life was hard for Terry’s lovely, totally supportive wife Roberta and for his offspring Kate and Nick, whom Annette and I had got to know well. Roberta in particular had no choice but to live through and cope with the nightmare of Terry’s decline whilst holding the family together; it was a challenge compounded by the sheer – if understable – force of Terry’s (tunnel) vision and commitment to a personally worthwhile survival.

Terry passed away en route to or from the Emory campus, active to the end. I miss Terry.

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