Richard A. Peterson, September 28, 1932-February 4, 2010.
I wanted to share a few thoughts on Pete’s passing. Pete was both my mentor and my friend, and he was excellent at both. I first met Pete as a graduate student, after giving a presentation at a professional conference. He offered his comments and handed me his business card. I had not recognized him–there were no web profiles at the time to help–and I was astonished at his generosity with his time and ideas. He was, after all, the primary source I cited in my paper. A few years later he helped recruit me to Vanderbilt’s faculty–essentially, to take the spot he had vacated as the resident “production of culture” expert–served as the outside reader on my dissertation committee, co-authored two papers, and became my dear friend. I had the great honor of spending a great deal of time with him, both before and during his convalescence. During a recent visit, just after he became ill, Pete said to me, “If I pull out of this, maybe there would be some kind of thing I could do with your class.” Pete loved students: hearing their ideas, watching them mature, influencing their work, and welcoming them into the home he shared with Claire. I was so lucky to be one of those students.
To speak to his intellectual contributions a bit: (and starting with Gabriel’s words) “Pete of course was probably the single most important figure in laying out the production of culture paradigm in the mid-1970s as a process-oriented alternative to the functionalist and Marxist approaches that predominated until then.” Using the tools of organizational and economic analysis has proven to be an extremely fruitful approach in the sociology of culture, and owes much to the work that Pete published (with co-authors) in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s. While he was best-known in Nashville for his book on Country Music (Creating Country Music), sociologists know him best for this work in the production of culture, starting with “Cycles of Symbol Production.” He had a second major set of works, initiated in the 1980s and continuing into this decade, on what he called “the omnivorousness hypothesis.” Essentially, he claimed that elites’ tastes in music were diversifying during the 1980s. This both inspired similar analyses of cultural tastes by sociologists working around the globe, and influenced a shift among arts administrators toward more diverse programming. The advent of “classical pop” concerts no doubt owes a debt to Pete and his work on omnivorousness.
It should also be said that Pete was among the few sociologists who could write well–for him, writing was a meticulous process, and writing collaboratively was often frustrating given our difference in styles. He outlined, and re-outlined, and outlined again. He insisted that all documents were Arial font, size 11. He spoke of his “muses” visiting him, and I learned over time this was a signal that his writing (from these etherial visits) was above reproach. Pete was generous providing “pull quotes” for colleagues’ books, and in just the last few months did so for both Johnston and Baumann and Dave Grazian’s new book. As far as I know, there’s a half-finished review for ASR on his computer.
Anyone who came to know Pete personally knew he could be difficult to deal with at times. As Gabriel has aptly written, “His personality was cynical in principal but generous in practice.” He was his own worst critic, and mine, at times. But he was also a soft-hearted man, easily hurt and ready at the defense of the weak. Perhaps for this reason, he adored animals and his series of (male, outdoor) cats were central in his home life. Pete and Karen Campbell had an annual contest to mark the arrival of hummingbirds to Nashville. Although Pete loved his renovated (overheated!) second floor office, he would often sit at the kitchen table, telling the squirrels to get away from the birdfeeders outside the window. One of Pete’s favorite hobbies was beading, and a few weeks ago, after he was no longer able to climb stairs, Pete asked me to retrieve some supplies from the office. I discovered boxes and trays and cabinets full of beads and thread and various pointed implements. He sent me upstairs twice more before I identified just the things he was looking for: a special type of thread and a beading board that was marked with the wrist diameters of his wife Claire, and daughter Roo.
Although Pete loved to talk for hours, I think it is time to stop, for now. It has been so extraordinarily difficult for us here the last month, watching Pete’s health fail him again and again. I am lucky that Pete and Claire allowed me to help them, and I hope Claire and the kids will share the relief I feel that his difficulties are over. I don’t think Pete believed he would have experiences after death, but if he does have any, I hope they don’t involve onions.