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In Memoriam Johan Goudsblom (1932-2020)

by Nico Wilterdink

On March 17 of this year, Johan (Joop for friends) Goudsblom died at the age of 87 in his hometown Amsterdam. From 1968 until his retirement in 1997 he was a professor of sociology at the University of Amsterdam. During that time, he has shaped generations of students and social scientists – through his lectures, his publications and not least his supervision of PhD students – and left an important mark on sociology in Amsterdam and beyond.

After his high-school years and a year at an American university, Joop Goudsblom started studying social sciences at the University of Amsterdam in 1951, and he remained affiliated to this institution during the rest of his life. After graduating in 1957, he received a grant to work on a PhD thesis, which he completed in 1960. A year later, he was appointed assistant professor of sociology. His acclaimed and much-discussed dissertation Nihilisme en cultuur (English translation Nihilism and Culture, 1980) deals with the emergence of nihilism – a philosophical stance of profound scepticism vis-à-vis all claims of truth and value – as an ‘element’ in Western culture. It is a very unorthodox thesis, particularly for a sociologist. The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (‘the inventor of nihilism’) figures as the central thinker, and in order to explain nihilism the author advances an alternative perspective next to sociology, which he calls ‘culturology’.

This already shows what would remain a constant in Goudsblom’s work: his critical distance from mainstream sociology. But the nature of this criticism changed radically over time. While in Nihilism and Culture it took the form of constructing a complementary alternative to sociology, named ‘culturology’, in later work he defines sociology as the central, comprehensive social (or sociocultural) science, criticizing other sociologists for being not consistently sociological. For Goudsblom, sociology became a pervasive, all-encompassing view on human life, which stresses that human beings are fundamentally interdependent, ‘through-and-through social’, shaping one another’s deepest thoughts and emotions. From this perspective, he wrote a critical treatise on various styles and viewpoints in sociology, Balans van de sociologie (1974; English version Sociology in the Balance, 1977).

Goudsblom derived the notion of fundamental, ever-changing human interdependencies from Norbert Elias, the sociologist whom he had admired since his student days but who became his foremost mentor from the late 1960s onwards. Elias’ direct influence on Goudsblom grew stronger in these years as the two got to know each other better, particularly when Elias became a visiting professor in Amsterdam around 1970. When Goudsblom was appointed full professor of sociology in 1968, he felt the urge and got the opportunity to distinguish himself and a group around him in an expanding disciplinary field that was marred by intense controversies with ideological overtones. The work of Norbert Elias could be presented as the basis of a new sociological paradigm that transcended the flaws and one-sidedness of current theoretical approaches, such as functionalism on the one hand and Marxism on the other. Moreover, Elias’ major work Über den Prozess der Zivilisation from 1939 (new English translation On the Process of Civilisation, 2012) paradoxically dovetailed with the Zeitgeist of the 1960s and 1970s, the decades of accelerated changes in everyday culture and interaction styles that were captured by such terms as informalization, de-tabooization and de-hierarchization. The question arose whether these changes could be understood and explained with the help of Elias’ theory of the civilizing process. A number of young researchers, students of Goudsblom, answered that question in the affirmative. Elias himself contributed to his growing international reputation by publishing important new work, including a long programmatic introduction for the second edition of Über den Prozess der Zivilisation (1969), which became a bestseller in the 1976 paperback edition. All this was conducive to school and paradigm formation, for which Goudsblom, together with his German colleagues Peter Gleichmann and Hermann Korte, launched the name ‘figurational sociology’. Amsterdam was the leading centre of this type of sociology. This was manifested and elaborated in a series of historical-sociological dissertations under Goudsblom’s supervision, and also in the new sociological journal Amsterdams Sociologisch Tijdschrift, founded in 1974, in which the figurational approach was prominent, and the theory of civilization was intensely discussed. Goudsblom was a tireless advocate of Elias’ work and the figurational approach based on it – in lectures, articles, and various organizational activities. (Since 1983, the latter are concentrated in the Norbert Elias Foundation, which Goudsblom chaired for a long time.) ‘Through Goudsblom, the world has got to know Elias as a powerful thinker and man of vision’, wrote Abram de Swaan in Alles verandert [Everything Changes], the liber amicorum offered to Goudsblom at the occasion of his formal retirement in 1997.

It would be a misunderstanding, however, to think of Goudsblom mainly active as a follower and propagandist of Elias. Not only did he present his own creative elaborations of Eliasian thought, but he also developed ideas that deviated from it or at least went much further. His continued loyalty to Elias did not prevent him from admiring authors who showed little interest in this work, such as sociologist Randall Collins and historian William McNeill. Goudsblom’s growing ambition was to go ‘beyond Elias’, just as Elias had gone beyond Marx, Weber and Durkheim. Whereas Elias had focused on developments in Europe over centuries, Goudsblom stretched the long-term perspective over millennia and humanity as a whole. And even further: the history of humankind was linked to the preceding biological and sociocultural evolution that had led to the human species. History has no zero point, no fixed beginning: that adage by Elias led Goudsblom to go further and further back in time. The sociology of long-term processes became human history and world history, studied and interpreted with the help of evolutionary theory. This broad perspective was elaborated and specified in a study of the origins and history of the control of fire, Fire and Civilization (1992). Humans, he argued in this book, were the only species that had learned to control fire and to use it for various purposes. This had given them a decisive power advantage over other animals which was extended in the course of time. ‘The expanding anthroposphere’: this formula was used by Goudsblom to characterize the extension of human power in the book Mappae Mundi. Humans and their Habitats in a Long-Term Socio-Ecological Perspective (2002), which he edited with natural scientist Bert de Vries.

In these later works, as in his thesis of 1960, Goudsblom distanced himself from mainstream sociology, crossing the conventional borders of his discipline. Like in this earlier work, he connected current issues with a faraway past. But where the thesis focused on the elevated realm of philosophical ideas, the later works deal with down-to-earth practices such as food preparation, farming, fertilizing and metallurgy, in which sociology and history are connected with the natural sciences.

Goudsblom’s conception of sociology as a very broad, almost limitless field of inquiry implied for him that sociologists could and should occupy themselves with all kinds of topics. He put this adage into practice himself. His versatility is evident not only from his own writings but also from the variety of subjects of the 29 PhD theses that he supervised, ranging from sports to jokes, from wealth inequality to art policy, from food preferences to religious regimes. It is also evident from the diversity of courses that he taught. Shortly before his retirement, he organized with others the university-wide course Big History (which is still given every year) on cosmological, biological, ecological, and social developments from the Big Bang to the present.

Apart from writing scholarly books and articles, Joop Goudsblom was also the author of short essays, aphorisms, mini-stories, and poems. This began in his student days when he was an editor of the then notorious Amsterdam student weekly Propria Cures. Part of that literary work was collected in the booklet Pasmunt (1958; second expanded edition 1976), in which a number of witty aphorisms stand out. ‘Do I doubt?’, is the shortest and perhaps most typical among them. His preference for precise and pithy formulations is visible in all his scholarly writings but became more prominent again in the literary work published after his retirement. First and foremost in Reserves (1998), an expanded version of Pasmunt with new short pieces and aphorisms, including explicitly sociological ones. To quote a very typical one: ‘Egocentrism, ethnocentrism, ideology, sociology – four forms of orientation in society, successive stages of detachment, distance.’

Goudsblom’s latest book is his most personal: the autobiographical Geleerd, which he started to write when his wife Maria was terminally ill and which he picked up again at some time after her death in 2009, to complete it in 2016 at the age of 84. It is a detailed and honest self-portrait. He describes his childhood in the village of Krommenie, his school years, friendships and infatuations, his student days, the encounter with his wife, their marriage, his early scholarly activities, the curious relations in the Sociology Department where he came to work, the births of his daughter and his son, his travels through America. He portrays himself as an intelligent and sensitive, at the same time vulnerable, inhibited, shy boy, who nevertheless manages to do quite well in several respects. It is an undramatic life told in an unspectacular way. And yet it is captivating (also for readers who did not know the author at all, as witnessed by several favourable reviews) because of the striking observations and the precise, sober style.

The book ends with Goudsblom’s appointment as full professor of sociology in 1968. A second part of the autobiography was to follow, which would start with a description of the turbulence in and around the university in these years and the conflicts in which the author was involved. Friends of Goudsblom and (other) readers of the first volume were eagerly looking forward to it. Until only a few months before his death, he remained intent on producing it, but he hardly committed anything to paper. What had been the core of his existence: writing, finding the right words, could no longer be accomplished, at least not in line with his own exacting standards.

An era has ended with the death of Joop Goudsblom. At least that is how I experience it, and I won’t be the only one.


Nico Wilterdink