Julius Alfred Roth
Professor of Sociology, Emeritus
Julius Alfred Roth died on December 8, 2002 of complications from Alzheimer's. He is survived by his spouse, Betty Vlack, and by a son and daughter from a former marriage. Another son predeceased him.
Roth was born in Haledon, New Jersey, the younger of two boys born to German immigrants. Both parents had little opportunity for formal education and both, as teenagers, had worked in the silk industry – as his father continued to do for most of the rest of his employment life. By the time Roth entered school, he had become, in his own words (from an unpublished autobiographical essay), "a shy studious boy without many interests outside of [my] studies." In fifth grade, "I spent much of my spare time reading books I borrowed from the school library or from sets of books acquired by friends. I was also well-behaved and thus no trouble to my elders." When he entered high school, "my knack for class discussion and the presentation of unconventional ideas was well formed." That "knack for unconventional ideas" would be an abiding characteristic in his adult years as well.
Determined to escape his New Jersey town and the world of his parents, Roth applied to and was accepted by Chicago, Columbia, Harvard and Cornell but lacking funds, he had to turn them all down; in fact, only with a tuition waiver from the state covering the $100 annual fee, was he able to enroll in Paterson State Teachers College's two-year general education program. Inducted into the Army in 1944, he was shipped to Europe where, he admitted, "I was not a good solider. I was too concerned with saving my skin. I volunteered for nothing which seemed at all risky." He was greatly relieved when frost-bitten feet landed him in a military hospital and out of harm's way.
Roth's late adolescence and early adulthood were marked by repeated bouts with tuberculosis and by four years of hospitalization spread out over four periods, the penultimate one involving eleven months in a VA Hospital following his discharge from the Army. It was out of the last of these hospitalizations, coming as it did just after he had received his doctorate in 1954 from the University of Chicago (made affordable by grants from the GI Bill and VA disability benefits), that his classic sociological study was born (Timetables: Structuring the Passage of Time in Tuberculosis Treatment and Other Careers, 1963).
Shortly after arriving at the University of Chicago in 1946 (which had admitted him to graduate work despite his having had only two years of college), Roth had transferred from the sociology department to the human development program (where he earned his doctorate) and later explained the move by noting that the latter program was "friendly" and involved people who "were cooperative with one another," while sociological discussions were "nasty," the department staff was "hostile" and "the faculty difficult to see." His negative views of the sociology department notwithstanding, Everett Hughes, one of the department's "luminaries," became his most important mentor and the social science topics and methods championed by Hughes became Roth's own: occupations and institutions (especially, for Roth, health-related) and a "method of study which relied heavily on first-hand information derived from direct observation and participation."
Between completing his doctoral training in 1954, and 1964, when he accepted his first academic position as an associate professor at Boston University, Roth supported himself with grants housed in various university-linked and independent research centers in Chicago, Kansas City and New York. He came to UC Davis as a professor of sociology in 1966 and remained here until his retirement in 1994.
In addition to Timetables, his publication record contains many entries which continue to be widely read and cited—testimony to the significance of Roth's contributions to three distinct social science arenas. First, he offered iconoclastic and insightful critiques and commentaries on methodology and research ethics (e.g., "Hired Hand Research," 1966; "Comments on Secret Observation," 1970; and "Turning Adversity to Account," 1974). Second, his analyses of medical professionals' strategies and tactics vis-à-vis their clients (e.g., "Staff and Client Control Strategies in Urban Hospital Emergency Services," 1972; "The Telephone Answering Service as a Communications Barrier," 1973; and "Consistency of Rule Application to Inmates in Long-term Treatment Institutions," 1985) gave his readers an understanding not only of the occupational world of medicine but of other professional groups like attorneys and academics as well. Finally, and perhaps most pivotally, he was among a handful of scholars pioneering a social psychology of health and illness that took seriously the sufferings and perspectives of the sick (e.g., Timetables and "Care of the Sick: Professionalism vs. Love." 1974).
Roth's "knack for unconventional ideas" was a life-long trait and was a source of appreciation, irritation, amusement, and exasperation among his students, colleagues and friends. After his death, fellow sociologist and friend, Arlene Kaplan Daniels wrote, "[H]e was always a maverick and always, I imagine, a trial to his colleagues for his take on administrative issues and departmental policies was always off the wall." At the same time, she also "admired his oddball wit and the savagery of his attacks on some of the pretensions attached to professionalism and the ideology of professions. I was also impressed by his clear writing style and the sense of humor that appeared so clearly in his sociological observations." In a similar vein, Bennett Berger, who was chair of sociology when Roth was hired at Davis recalled that "[d]uring his appointment process at UCD I remember phoning Erving Goffman for an informal assessment. Erving said this: 'There's nobody better at what he does. But, oy, what a kvetch!'" And Berger concluded, "RIP Julius."
Unorthodox thinker, organizational maverick, eccentric, creative and insightful sociologist, and kvetch – Julius Roth was all of these. He was a complex man, complexly received, and surely one of life's "originals."
Lyn H. Lofland