A Sociological Autobiography: 69 – The Norwegian Connection

By | September 8, 2017

I was fortunate in 2005 to be asked to give a plenary lecture at the annual BSA Medical Sociology Conference. This represents a kind of coming of age for medical sociologists in the UK. My title was ‘Social Structure and Health: A Narrative of Neglect?’ The central thesis, which I had by then addressed often, was that medical sociology had over time sidelined issues of structure. Since this fragment of biography is about an unforeseen consequence of my talk, not the talk itself, a one-sentence hint at what I said will suffice (an abbreviated version of the talk was published in Medical Sociology News Vol 31 No 3, Winter 2005). I opened with a precis of critical realist sociology, outlined my jigsaw model, then sought to illustrate the salience of both for structurally-oriented causal-explanatory accounts of health inequalities and stigma attribution. Oh, and one other observation: Sasha’s newborn son, Elliot, was so bored that within two minutes he had to be carried out bawling.

The following day I was approached by a Norwegian attendee – with a touch of the Viking about him – who asked if I might be willing to give a talk to a neophyte Norwegian Medical Sociology Workshop in Trondheim in April of 2006. This was my introduction to Aksel Tjora. I said yes. It was to prove the first of, so far, 11 annual festivals of work and fun to which I, and from 2008 Annette, have been invited.

Early impressions were accurate. Aksel himself was, and is, a relaxed host as well as a smart, imaginative and productive sociologist. He has flair and more than his share of energy. And he’s a fixer: he makes things happen. We have since collaborated on a number of projects with him taking the lead more often than not. I will doubtless return to these in fragments ot come (though they feature in other blogs). He is also an expert in dining out at excellent restaurants!

The small cluster of Norwegian medical sociologists converging on Trondheim – the workshop has never expanded beyond 30 or so, much to its benefit – were friendly and welcoming and more than able to converse, give their papers and discuss in English. Much of their work was applied, with a strong focus on health service research in general and telemedicine and eHealth in particular. In a subsequent meeting in Tromso I was shown round a control room from which physicians were able to dictate celebrated, precise and life-saving surgery to save the life of a young man who had been attacked by a polar bear. It may be wishful thinking, as well as an omnipresent neoliberal desire to cut costs, that prompts much investment in innovative ICTs, but in a country that stetches into the lonely, abandoned spaces of the Arctic Circle they can facilitate vital modes of healthcare delivery.

Trondheim is a delightful town. I soon discovered its numerous cafes, with Aksel a fellow enthusiast and guide. It was in one of these that we conceived the idea of an edited collection on Café Society, which eventually saw the light of day in 2013 (a companion volume on Bar Society is on our list for the future). In these early years it was the Norwegian habit to buy alcohol to drink at home prior to going out to bars and clubs as midnight approached. It was a habit born of the steep price of alcohol (during my first visit I offered to buy a round for local sociologists and was rapidly warned off such extravagant gestures). Aksel and I used to drink and chat until around 3am, which was then the common closing time. We were invariably joined by Ph.D students and postdocs. The authorities have since tightened up, plus I – and even Aksel – have aged a bit. The streets then and now appear and are safe.

I cannot now remember what I chose to talk about in 2006, but it has been a pleasant trial to vary topics and emphases annually. I’m sure I have covered most angles on critical theory and realism, stigma and health inequalities! Writing in the autumn of 2017 Annette and I still love meeting not only in Trondheim, but also Tromso. Plus a couple of years back Aksel arranged for the workshop to be held on a beautiful boat trip skirting the fjords and penetrating deep into the Arctic Circle. There is something very special about the deep, white, crystal of the North.

As well as Norwegian sociologists like Dag Album (I have been an adviser on his research project on ‘disease prestige’, allowing Annette and I to visit Oslo), Marianne Hedlund and Bodil Landsted, I have got to know Alex Broom and Karen Willis from Australia and spent time with UK colleagues like Carl May, Cathy Pope, Sue Zeibland, Christian Heath, Davina Allen and, this year, Sasha Scambler (I knew nothing about it until she confided in me). I have often reminded Aksel that he shouldn’t feel obliged to re-invite me, but so far to no avail; and long may it continue. I have grown to love Norway, its landscapes, its people and sociologists from Masters, Ph.D students and postdocs to full professors ! Dag is a valued collaborator and I agreed to be an advisory editor on Marianne and Bodil’s new journal Society, Health and Vulnerability (and remain aware that I still owe them a submission).

I cannot finish this autobiographical piece without mentioning another of Aksel’s more recent achievements. Always keen to evangelize about the discipline and to follow up with tangible projects and collaborations, he raised the funding and deployed impressive personal DIY skills to open a Sociology Clinic in the middle of Trondheim (well away from the NTNU campus, which is out of town). This Clinic provides a space for municipal and commercial exploratory and planning meetings – several community studies have been based there – as well as a fantastic postgrad teaching resource. One of Aksel’s postgrads wrote a blog on the Clinic for the website of our journal, Social Theory and Health.

Just as my old Emory friends and their families, dating back to the 1980s and beyond, remain close and valued colleagues and friends, so, from the noughties, do Aksel and his family. I am writing this a week before Aksel, Dag and Marianne are due to represent Norwegian medical sociology and comprise a plenary panel at the annual BSA Medical Sociology Conference. I wish I’d been able to make it. Next year, 2019, I’m going whatever the obstacles: it will be the 50th anniversary of the Conference, and my daughter Sasha’s last one as convener.

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