Gary Alan Fine, a pro­fessor of soci­ology at North­western Uni­versity, will speak to campus Monday, April 16 at 7:30 p.m. in Dow A & B. Gary Alan Fine | Courtesy


One of America’s leading soci­ol­o­gists and an expert in sym­bolic inter­ac­tionist theory, Gary Alan Fine, a pro­fessor of soci­ology at North­western Uni­versity, will speak to campus Monday, April 16 at 7:30 p.m. in Dow A & B.  

Fine will explore how exam­ining dust, lit­erally and fig­u­ra­tively as the unex­amined parts of life, illu­mi­nates the bread-and-butter soci­o­logical topics of race, class, gender, age, and national identity.

“This is going to be delib­er­ately pitched to a wider audience,” Peter Blum, pro­fessor of phi­losophy and culture and the director of the Soci­ology and Social Thought program at Hillsdale College, said. He said the talk’s focus on small groups rather than big insti­tu­tions might appeal to people who dislike sociology’s col­lec­tivist the­ories.

Fine has written ethno­gra­phies, or immersive studies where he spent time in small group cul­tures as a par­tic­i­pating observer. He has studied Little League teams, restaurant workers, mush­rooms col­lectors, high school debate clubs, and people who play Role Playing Games.

Blum said Fine argues in his book, “Tiny Publics” — assigned reading for the soci­ology class Inter­action and Social Def­i­n­ition — that small groups are key to under­standing society because they are tiny enclaves in which people par­tic­ipate in public life.  

“We’re not just puppets. We’re gen­uinely actors doing things pur­pose­fully and taking each other into account when we do that,” Blum said. “He’s not going to throw sta­tistics at you. He’s worried about meaning.”

Sophomore Ethan Visser, who plans on majoring in psy­chology, is reading “Tiny Publics.” Visser said the book addresses abstract con­cepts, but that the research into Little League baseball teams and mushroom col­lectors makes some of the ideas tan­gible.

Visser, who plans on attending Monday’s lecture, said Fine is good at explaining his ideas, so it won’t be hard for people unfa­miliar with the subject matter.

“It’ll be cool to meet him,” Visser said. “It’ll just be good to hear him ver­balize every­thing, it’ll be dif­ferent than reading a book. It’ll be good to get the material in a dif­ferent format.”

Visser said his class, and par­tic­u­larly the book, have given him new eyes to see the ways in which reality is socially con­structed. Despite this, he said some people tease him about soci­ology being sub­jective. While it can have that element, he admitted, Visser sees soci­ology as one way to see the world through a social lens.

“Don’t dis­regard soci­ology,” Visser said. “It’s really inter­esting to learn these things and then look at the world in a dif­ferent way. It makes you, maybe not cynical, but it makes you under­standing of how things work and gives you a dif­ferent attitude toward every­thing. It’s not some­thing you get a lot, espe­cially at Hillsdale. I think there’s sub­stance to it.”

Pro­fessor of Psy­chology Collin Barnes said the fact that he was never exposed to Fine’s work illus­trates the divide between social science and social psy­chology. Although Fine is new to him, he said his respect for Blum’s work and thinking — and Barnes’ own dis­en­chantment with his field — makes him inter­ested in what Fine has to say.

“Why ought this pre­sen­tation be attractive to stu­dents? I think in response to that question, I would say, ‘do you care to be intel­lec­tually honest?’” Barnes said. “So I would encourage stu­dents to do it because they don’t get much of it, and it would be eye-opening at the very least, and then they could make a deter­mi­nation about it.”  

Barnes said he’s receptive to Fine’s approach, but that a par­allel to his work is largely lacking in soci­ology; even though Fine’s method is pre­cisely what social psy­chology ought to be doing.

“A move away from the quan­ti­tative approach and exper­i­men­tation in social psy­chology, and toward treating indi­viduals as indi­viduals that can com­mu­nicate stories and nar­rative about their expe­rience, per­sonally and within some sort of com­munal envi­ronment, I think that that’s the heart of the matter,” Barnes said. “Some­thing can be learned from under­standing Little League teams and mushroom farmers.”