A Sociological Autobiography: 70 – Visiting Stanford

By | January 25, 2018

I have attended my share of international conferences, though I suspect far fewer than my successors. This is partly my fault. For a while – in the easrly and mid- 1970s – I refused to travel abroad unless I had something to say. The consultant neurologist who oversaw my study at the time, if not my Ph.D, had no such reservations and was, I think, left beffuddled. My behaviour now seems a little prescious. Whatever the ins and outs, I have since done my share of sharing data and perspectives whilst on the move.

In this fragment I recall a visit to Stanford University in California. I can do long flights (on a flight to Melbourne I watched all three films in the Larsson trilogy). It was in response to an invitation from Stella Quah, a Singapore-based Professor of Sociology, who had secured both a sabbatical from the National University of Singapore, and funding and cooperation from the – wait for it – Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Specific Research Centre in the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University. The purpse of the meeting she so competently set up and presided over was to collate state-of-the-art research and problem-solving in relation to contemporary epidemics ((HIV/AIDS, SARS and avian influenza in particular). The invitees included epidemiologists and public health specialists as well as sociologists like Stella and I. I was there because I was researching and publishing on sex workers at the time, and with a health-orientation to my work. A volume comprising seven chapters was to emerge in 2007 (see reference below), and my chapter was entitled: ‘Global and local strategies against HIV/AIDS in South and Southeast Asia: The Cases of India and Thailand’. I will not here try to represent my argument, though re-reading it I am not unimpressed, not least with the empirical detail I included on the Indian and Thai government initiatives and sex industries. Suffice to say that: (a) I predictably tried to use theory to illuminate data, and (b) I no less predictably warned against ‘individualising’ interventions and (conveniently) neglecting the social in general and social structures in parrticular. Ignore the social/social structures, especially those pertaining to gender relations, and nothing much is likely to change.

But this blog is not about my talk. It is rather on what happened around it. Stanford is about 40 miles outside San Fransisco, and my intention had been to visit the city and to take a boat out to Alcatraz (there wasn’t a lot I didn’t and don’t know about Capone et al). In the event I remained on campus. This was in part because I like and feel at home on university campuses, the more so if the sun shines on them. I explored the bookshop, chatted to students, drank coffee from bottomless mugs.

On and off I noticed a few suited, shifty-looking, arms-bearing characters wandering around. Then the sky gradually and almost imperceptibly filled with helecopters. I made enquiries and was told George W. Bush, the Republican US President, was on his way. Spotting an accumulation of students with banners, the gathering of which now made sense, I temporarily (but in the event permanently) abandoned any plans to get the train to San Fransisco and joined them. I texted Annette, who understandably anticipated my imminent arrest, detention and protracted stay on the west coast of America. We were ignored of course, but I have come slowly to the view that any and all protests matter. My old American friend, sociologist and world systems theorist, Terry Boswell (about whom I have blogged elsewhere), drew on historical research to maintain that ‘any and all’ protests and rebellions matter because they help till and prepare the ground for future and more effective activism. My own presence was neither here nor there, but I felt a real sense of solidarity with a generation to come.

This episodic political engagement – I at least did my share of shouting – was not the only matter to report. When I was posted the proofs of my chapter I found myself reprimanded for writing in English rather than American. It was a tough fight, extending well beyond vocabulary to plumb the depths of grammar: colons and semi-colons were contested. Hardly a sentence escaped reprimand. Local idiom? I felt America’s (imperial) presumption, its (powerful, cultural) sense of entitlement to win every copyediting hand; just like the British a century ago. At least I forced a compromise of sorts.

Stanford is a wonderfully resourced and landscaped campus. Maybe I’ll get back to the ‘real’ San Fransisco some day.


Scambler,G (2007) Global and local strategies against HIV/AIDS in South and Southeast Asia: the cases of India and Thailand. In Ed Quah,S: Crisis Preparedness: Asia and the Global Governance of Epidemics. Baltimore; The Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Specific Research Centre.




Leave a Reply