Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1997


Star, S. L. (1997) 'Anselm Strauss: An Appreciation'
Sociological Research Online, vol. 2, no. 1, <>

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Anselm Strauss: An Appreciation

Anselm Strauss was my teacher and my friend. I think all of his students would echo that statement: Anselm was someone for whom learning, teaching, working and playing were inextricably combined. This was not incidental to his intellectual contributions. Sociology was meant to be part of life, ongoing, entwined ... not a thing set apart. Certainly not a thing set apart within a classroom, or in a discipline, or in effete theoretical formulations. Sociology meant an ongoing series of conversations. These conversations took all manner of shapes - between the theorists of the past and we the living, between European movies and Dewey's pragmatism, between the costumes of people on the streets of San Francisco and the formal sociology of Georg Simmel. I was lucky to be part of those conversations for nearly twenty years, from the time I began as his graduate student at the University of California, San Francisco, in the 1970s, to his death on September 5, 1996.

This is a personal and scholarly memoir, not an intellectual biography or a formal statement of his accomplishments. The biography is yet to be written, the formal statements have appeared in a number of venues in the last six months, including a brief obituary in the last edition of this journal. David Maines' (1991) excellent festschrift for Anselm gives a good overview of some of his students' and colleagues' appreciation and analysis of his work.

Anselm was one of the people who taught me to write in a personal voice, to blur and push the boundaries of what is acceptable as social science writing. I came to him a poet and a feminist, not yet a sociologist, newly out of college. He never forced me to abandon any part of myself, to leave my poetry or my activism or my spirituality at the door in order to be a 'real sociologist' or even a real academic. In the spirit of that holism, then, I write this appreciation out of love and grief and admiration for my teacher, and for my dear friend. I had been looking for a teacher for a number of years when I began studying with Anselm. I had searched while in college, and in the women's movement, and in several alternative communities. In Anselm I found someone who inherently respected experience, and was intrigued by its varieties; who was very quietly and determinedly political about suffering, and who eschewed the louder politics of academic administration or political parties.


Anselm imbued me with a sense of tradition - working with him I became part of a Chicago tradition that stretched back to Dewey, Park, Hughes, Simmel and many others (see Fisher and Strauss, 1978a and 1978b). In the mandatory theory class at UCSF, Anselm presented each of these thinkers in the context of their lives, trying to give us a sense of what motivated them, their passions and their foibles. Hughes' legendary shyness in the field became a way of talking through our hesitations and awkwardness during early fieldwork days. W. I. Thomas' sexual flamboyance and troubles with his administration became fables for not letting bureaucrats deter one from research. Anselm's own early career, in and out of academia and enduring the ups and downs of popularity for qualitative work, became a reason for making 'sociology out of anything'. Inspired by his description of Herbert Blumer's intensity and persuasive powers, I decided one day to travel across the bay to Berkeley, and seek out Blumer's advice on my nascent thesis. Blumer, although 84 at the time, still held weekly office hours. I told Anselm of my plans to visit him and send him some of my fieldwork results. 'Good luck', Ans chuckled. 'Did I ever tell you about Blumer?'

'When I was coming up for University Professor status, they made me go and get letters from everybody - including my thesis advisor. Well, Burgess wasn't available, he was in a nursing home, so I went to Blumer who had advised my master's thesis some thirty years before. Everyone else I asked wrote glowing letters of recommendation, but Blumer's read as if I were still a Ph.D. student: "he's done pretty well, but has a long way to go working out his ideas". He did once send me a note after the grounded theory book came out, saying I had got it mostly right but had made some errors in logic'. Anselm smiled ruefully. 'So, go - maybe you'll fare better than me'.

Blumer was everything Anselm had described - huge, with shaggy eyebrows and a plaid flannel shirt, a booming voice, barely contained in his office chair and given to surprisingly gentle smiles. A couple of weeks after my visit, I received a kind and very flattering letter from him. I nearly danced over to Anselm's house and showed it to him. Anselm let out a whoop of laughter, 'you've been knighted!' and gave me a big hug, continuing to chuckle as we drove through the city. Anselm's first instinct was always for generosity, for humor, for seeing the gentle irony in any situation.

The tradition of Chicago school sociology came to life at UCSF and in other venues in conversations with Anselm. We read John Dewey with the same sense of fresh excitement as one would read the latest- breaking news of the day. Always, and Anselm himself would say this in a number of ways, the attitude he encouraged toward theory was practical. Take what is useful and ignore the rest. 'Tradition', Anselm would say, 'is an auction house. Only bid on what you want.' At times this was confusing to us as students: wasn't consistency important? What did Park really mean? How could one reconcile his racist-sounding language with his work for race equity and as a teacher at Fisk (an historically Black college in the south, where Park taught for two years prior to his death)? How could one reconcile Mead's notion of emergent social/natural order with his scientistic- sounding appeals to logic or behaviorism?

Eventually the combination of confusion with Anselm's hard-nosed attitude toward what is useful produced a change in me. Instead of asking only about the provenance of a theory, looking exclusively at its logical structure, I learned to examine the nature of the work it was performing in an argument. People, including social theorists, are inconsistent. Traditions are especially inconsistent. Instead of trying to make them consistent or clean up the logic, examine your own uses of the concepts. Allow them to take on new contexts, to change in relation to the architecture of your own emergent theories. Draw a moral line, carefully, against those aspects you must (Clarke, 1990; Fujimura, 1991; Star, 1991).

The result of this eclecticism was not actually a lack of discipline or of structure. Rather, the result was a freedom to make sociology anywhere. It was freedom to make links between fiction, lived experience, and a range of forms of representation. In his article, 'Discovering New Theory from Previous Theory', (1970) Anselm noted that one could use another's ideas to build complex concepts without violating the grounded theory notion of empirical faithfulness. The commonsense notion of 'grounded' as simply empirical, or inductive, is too sparse. One can take a concept from someone else's work - sometimes even an erroneous concept - and use it to extend a grounded conceptual model. As well, one could use (and Anselm did use, constantly), the insights of literature, theatre, and popular culture to extend and expound sociological theory.

It is important to see this magpie-like borrowing as not just 'inspirational' or metaphorical for grounded social theory, but as constitutive. Anselm's perceptual world was densely, ubiquitously filled with processes and interactions, constantly modifying each other and unfolding in unexpected ways. The boundaries of the processes could not be known a priori - to try to do so is simply hubris. Pre-specification of boundaries is likely to lead to a tired repetition of prescription or stereotype, not to new concepts. Coining a new concept is an important value in grounded theory culture, much more than proving a known concept or measuring its distribution. Knowing when a concept is strong enough to stand up to extensive use is never an easy task. Here again, Anselm took a practical approach, as did Barney Glaser. 'Let the concept earn its way, through the data', both urged. This was accomplished through long testing against field data, against the words and concepts of others, and by attempting to break apart the concept and see if it had been used at its atomic level. The process never really completed - Anselm was constantly going back to work he had done years previously and revising and extending it.

Grounded Theory

This training and conceptual 'earning' idea was continued in the classroom. Learning grounded theory takes a long time. It is as much as a craft skill as is playing a musical instrument or learning to cook well. Anselm's grounded theory classes formally took 4 quarters (40 weeks), but often continued to meet as an informal group for months and years after the initial seminar. Each week would be someone's turn to bring in fieldnotes, memos, or draft articles or chapters. The ground rules were few, but clear and well enforced. There was no such thing as a mistake. You do not ridicule others no matter how outrageous their conceptual attempts might seem. On the other hand, the idea is not to embroider what might be true, or to elaborate theory without data. Rather, the emphasis is on exploring the nuances of the data by constantly asking, 'of what is this an example?' Sometimes students would be encouraged to 'turn it upside down' - to think about alternative paths the processes might have taken; sometimes we were encouraged to 'break it open' and look at the smallest possible units of action. Process was a very important aspect of any analysis session - what are the basic unfolding, conflicts, evolutions, detours going on here? Static, noun-oriented analyses were nudged away in favour of verbing (although Anselm was not nearly as much a gerund aficionado as Barney Glaser, with whom I also studied).

Much of the process of studying with Anselm took place in a series of conversations, which invariably opened with, 'so what are you working on?' More often than not, I hadn't the slightest clue about how to answer, or how to frame what I was working on. Anselm would begin the process of interviewing - often sensing hesitance - by picking up a piece of the conversation and turning it over, selecting a facet and drawing a lesson, a parallel, a funny or startling contrast. In this I often saw echoes of Everett Hughes' comparative approach ('how is a priest like a prostitute?' 'They both hear confessions in private, both must manage their client's emotions and reframe them in the context of these private conversations') as well as the ironic dialectics of John Dewey ('matter means conditions' or 'a difference that makes no difference is not a difference'). Later, teaching students of my own, I would strive to emulate Anselm's ability for lateral thinking. A few years ago, I conducted an after-hours, volunteer grounded theory analysis group for doctoral students, in a conscious imitation of Anselm's continuing grounded theory classes. Some of the students were studying scientists or doctors, two were studying a homeless shelter. We began to think comparatively. 'How are scientists like homeless people?' 'They must circumvent rules in order to live; they often do not have one place for their things, but must move from place to place to conduct their work; they rely on a combination of entrepreneurship and government handouts for their livings.' The purpose of this sort of comparison was never to shock, to ignore important differences in resources or status, or just to generate theory for its own sake. Rather, they were meant to illuminate properties of work and relationships one wouldn't ordinarily think about. 'Study the unstudied', a favorite saying of Anselm's, became a maxim with many levels of meaning.

Driving and Walking and Theorizing

Most of my memories of Anselm involve talking - and many of them talking while walking, while driving the streets of San Francisco, and while sitting on his back porch, surrounded by flowers and sipping tea of various flavors. (Once friends discovered he was fond of tea, they would bring back tins and bags of it from their homes all over the world. Last summer during one of these sessions he sighed and said, 'what will I ever do with all this tea?', then laughed, seeing the affection contained in the gifts.)

Anselm was a small man, with a very soft voice. On dozens of walks up and down Larkin Street, near his San Francisco house on Russian Hill, or in Golden Gate Park, he would stroll along, thinking out loud, softly spinning out one theory or another. I would bend to listen, his soft tones completely engrossing me, as I tried to understand his complex thought processes. (Recently, I have developed a taste for having walking office hours with my own students.) When the wind would come up, as it always does in San Francisco, he would have to stop walking and wait for it to become lighter (the cold wind made his heart work too hard). Sitting in silence, thinking, and listening to his breathing, I was acutely aware of Anselm's combination of energy and delicacy. Always physically fragile, it was only when we stopped walking and talking that I would be reminded of his vulnerability, of how he had to struggle to continue his work. I sometimes wonder if his physical frailty didn't help pace the incredible speed of his thoughts, keep him steady and even in a sense afford him a phenomenal productivity. He wrote a book per year from the time he was forty until his death at 79. The frailty and the urgency were united, in his theories as well as in his body. In an introduction to a symposium on his work in the journal Mind, Culture and Activity (1995), I wrote:

To refuse dichotomies is to be both fragile and strong, vulnerable and passionate. Fragile and vulnerable because one is easily assimilated or ignored by either end of an existing polarity; strong and passionate because such a refusal is healing and forms powerful, often unexpected bonds between people. Anselm Strauss' theory of action (and its inextricable intertwining with questions of method) makes many such refusals: between macro and micro, between formal and empirical, between applied and theoretical, between diversity and commonality. The result is a unique perspective within modern social science which combines the situated detail of the 'case study' with the best architecture of social theory.

San Francisco will always be for me Anselm's city - because he loved it, and because we ended up spending so much time traversing it, talking theory and ideas and data. Due to his heart condition, Anselm couldn't drive, and I (and other students and friends) gladly drove him anywhere he wanted to go, happy to have the chance to talk more with him. Anselm had a commanding way of saying, 'turn here', and 'go up here', often taking a very circuitous route from place to place. I'll never know if this was deliberate on his part or whether he had a truly terrible sense of direction - but the end result left me imprinted on the hills of The City, and with a penchant for analyzing data while driving. The only traffic ticket I ever got in my life was garnered while driving through Chinatown with Anselm, eyes half on the street, filled with grocery shoppers and incredible traffic congestion, talking about some long-forgotten detail of my fieldwork. 'Turn here', he said, and I did, against a traffic light and into the bumper of a police car. I didn't regret it at the time and still do not - the conversation was worth it, even the eight hours of traffic school!


Something about grounded theory and the Chicago tradition lends itself to sketching diagrams while analyzing data. Perhaps the original 'city as laboratory' topographic orientation of Park and Burgess found its way into Anselm's ways of working. It was certainly true that it was difficult to spend much time with Anselm without getting the urge to sketch out processes. Often one would start with a line, or a Venn diagram - here is a line of action, here is a social world. Soon the paper would be covered with (from the outside) incomprehensible scrawls, wavy lines, shadings, and areas with rich and varied texture. Anselm's love of art, and his love of sociology, both came out in the diagramming 'business' as he called it. The social world is textured, and the textured world is socially organized. As important, the diagrams freed up a way of thinking about relationships, including both the material world and such things as conversations, gestures, and the making of boundaries between groups.


In 1960, Anselm went to the University of California, San Francisco (which is primarily a medical sciences/biological sciences campus) to start a social and behavioral sciences department in the school of nursing there. Our classes as sociology graduate students were shared with nursing researchers studying for their doctorates. In the mid 1960s, Anselm Strauss and Barney Glaser conducted a series of studies of the process of dying, analyzing how dying patients and their families were with each other over the sometimes long and agonizing experience (e.g. Glaser and Strauss, 1965; 1968). These studies began to attend to an important facet of social organization - how different diseases, people, careers, and even things are moving and developing at different rates. In Time for Dying, Glaser and Strauss examined the simple fact that people die at different paces, often different from those predicted by their families or physicians. Beginning with this simple observation, they go on to build a complex picture of the consequences of the pacing and the predictions. One cannot hurry someone through the process, yet practically, resources are limited and other facets of living have claims on both staff and relatives of the dying person. How does one predict the time of a death? If one is wrong, how does one recover and amass new resources to predict again, to go on with the care of the dying?

This study carried the seeds of many others, and the trajectory model became one of Anselm's key theoretical contributions. We organize ourselves in time, guessing, modeling, depending on the timings of other people and things. Sometimes things unfurl as planned; more often, there are twists and tangles along the way. How we manage these twists is in some sense what makes us quintessentially human, what ties us to the world.

Anselm and his associates began to explore the trajectory idea in a variety of venues, especially that of chronic illness. Morbidity as well as mortality creeps on its petty pace. Much medicine of the early 1970s was oriented toward the discrete, acute illness, often choosing to brand chronic illness as malingering or as unimportant. 'Study the unstudied', and the trajectories of chronic illnesses viewed from the lens of work, family and the patient's own body were almost completely unstudied. In studies of the management of dialysis, arthritis, heart disease, multiple sclerosis and cancer, the chronic illness studies explored the intricacies of timing and selves.

One of the intellectually compelling aspects of trajectory as a concept in this domain is the mingling of formal and informal aspects of analysis, another Straussian hallmark. The temporal dimensions of trajectory are a formal, even mathematical state of affairs - people, things and arrangements moving at different rates. What falls out of the differences - expectations, adjustments, quality of life, self love and self loathing - is informal, ad hoc, continually renegotiated. This combination of the open and the closed, the abstract and the concrete, makes the trajectory concept subtle and powerful. With other key Strauss concepts, such as awareness context, body-biography chain, and status passage, the mingling of these often-separated parts heals something intellectually and morally. Chronic illness sufferers are not only victims, but scientists. Graduating high school seniors are not just limnal, but organizers of complex temporal arrangements and assessments (Glaser and Strauss, 1971). The fullest statement of these concepts can be found in Strauss' Continual Permutations of Action (1993).


In the late 1970s San Francisco was a hotbed of radical lesbian feminism. I had just moved there from Boston and started graduate work when I met Anselm. My primary inspirations to that date were feminist philosopher Mary Daly, poet Adrienne Rich, and radical biologist Ruth Hubbard. I came from a world populated with serious discussions about separatism from men, certainly one with a deep distrust of male teachers or other figures of authority. Showing up for the first time at Anselm's office in my crew cut and overalls, I was quite prepared to have my lesbian feminist politics dismissed, or my desire to study feminist issues permutated into a study of deviance.

The one thing I was not prepared for was being completely, respectfully, and consistently listened to. Anselm was the best listener I ever met. He was curious without being prying. He was extraordinarily able to point out parallels between my politics and those of other social movements, now and in the past, without reducing the uniqueness of the women's movement of our time. He was able to make links with his own experience without overwhelming or dominating my own arguments or sense of ethics. As feminism changed during the 1980s and 1990s, Anselm became an important sounding board for me in my struggles with identity politics, the growing professionalization of women's studies, and later, with my agonizing decision to stop doing explicitly feminist work and theory for several years in the early 1980s. None of that support was made overt or heroic, but his steady listening also helped me return to women's studies and to a more layered and complex feminist analysis.


No appreciation of Anselm's teaching, work and friendship would be complete without a mention of Fran Strauss. Fran and Anselm were married for more than 50 years. Again, as with many of his students-become-friends, I also became friends with Fran over the years, and we remain close. Many evenings of talking, listening, laughing, eating, music and movies were shared with Fran as well as Anselm. Indeed, as my friend Adele Clarke eloquently put it, so intermingled were their lives and friendships that we developed a sobriquet, Franselm, as affectionate shorthand for the couple. Years of: 'dinner and movies with Franselm tonight' are scattered through the pages of my calendars. And Fran's strength, humor and intelligence deserve a long appreciation in her own right. I know her best as a wise, beautiful and politically savvy woman who supported Anselm's career while maintaining one of her own as an ACLU activist. She has been an integral part of their far-flung international connections and friend-colleague relationships. They travelled together to places including France, Germany, England, Australia, and many parts of Asia. It's hard to imagine them apart - yet I trust her strength and resilience, and look forward to a new phase of friendship and family.


Anselm was in frail health with a weak heart from the time I first met him; I was never free from the fear of a midnight telephone call informing me that this heart attack had been fatal. Nevertheless I was unprepared for the devastating sense of loss the news of his death brought. I think this sense of loss and incompleteness is important to understanding him. The loss comes from his endless curiosity, his desire for new experiences, and his constant intellectual generosity and his willingness to stretch. Had he lived to see 120, his death would still have been untimely. People with such an extraordinary capacity to change and remain open are rare at any age. I think of Anselm learning email in his 70s, then laughing with him as we surfed the web in search of grounded theory references last summer. I think of him moving to a new apartment during the year before his death, and of his delight at how different the city looked, the changes in the light against the hills. I think of him sending me a Toni Morrison quote he was particularly keen on for a paper we were writing together when he died - and feeling that shock of recognition, yes, he's put his finger on the critical analytic point, using one of my favorite feminist novelists. I think of him calling me the day before his death, checking footnotes for his last book, and telling me how wonderful he had found a Bill T. Jones dance concert earlier in the summer. Most of all, I will always think of him listening, a dark softness in his eyes, magnified by his thick glasses, bending forward to hear better, to question, to keep the world ever open.


CLARKE, Adele E. (1990) 'Controversy and the Development of Reproductive Sciences', Social Problems, vol. 37, pp. 18 - 37.

FISHER, Berenice & STRAUSS, Anselm. (1978a) 'The Chicago Tradition and Social Change: Thomas, Park and their Successors', Symbolic Interaction, vol. 1, pp. 5 - 23.

FISHER, Berenice and STRAUSS, Anselm (1978b) 'Interactionism', in Tom Bottomore and Robert Nisbet (editors) A History of Sociological Analysis. New York: Basic Books.

FUJIMURA, Joan (1991) 'On Methods, Ontologies, and Representation in the Sociology of Science: Where Do We Stand?' in David Maines (editor) Social Organization and Social Process: Essays in Honor of Anselm Strauss. Hawthorne, NY: Aldine de Gruyter.

GLASER, Barney and STRAUSS, Anselm (1965) Time for Dying. Chicago: Aldine.

GLASER, Barney and STRAUSS, Anselm (1968) Awareness of Dying. Chicago: Aldine.

GLASER, Barney and STRAUSS, Anselm (1971) Status Passage: A Formal Theory. Chicago: Aldine-Atherton.

MAINES, David (editor) (1991) Social Organization and Social Process: Essays in Honor of Anselm Strauss. Hawthorne, NY: Aldine de Gruyter.

STAR, Susan Leigh (1991) 'The Sociology of the Invisible: The Primacy of Work in the Writings of Anselm Strauss' in David Maines (editor) Social Organization and Social Process: Essays in Honor of Anselm Strauss. Hawthorne, NY: Aldine de Gruyter.

STAR, Susan Leigh (1995) '"Listening for Connections": Introduction to Symposium on the Work of Anselm Strauss', Mind, Culture and Activity, vol. 2, p. 4.

STRAUSS, Anselm (1970) 'Discovering New Theory from Previous Theory' in Tomatsu Shibutani (editor) Human Nature and Collective Behavior: Papers in Honor of Herbert Blumer. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice- Hall.

STRAUSS, Anselm (1993) Continual Permutations of Action. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1997