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Sheldon Messinger

Elizabeth Josselyn Boalt Professor of Law, Emeritus

UC Berkeley

1925 – 2003



Sheldon (Shelly) L. Messinger was born in Chicago on August 26, 1925. He was afflicted with a number of serious ailments in his latter years, although he remained active almost to the end. He died of leukemia in Berkeley on March 6, 2003.


Messinger was raised in the Hyde Park area on Chicago’s south side and enrolled at the University of Chicago, but his undergraduate career was interrupted by military service in World War II; he served in the army in Italy with distinction. After the war he found himself in Los Angeles, where he worked as a liquor salesman and a car bumper protector salesman up and down the southern California coast. Eventually he enrolled at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) under the GI Bill, graduated with a B.A. in sociology in 1951, and then stayed on for graduate study. He spent academic year 1956-57 at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University. During the late 1950s and early 1960s, he was part of an interdisciplinary group that studied women hospitalized for mental illness and their families. Following this he joined the research staff of the California Department of Corrections.


He came to the University of California, Berkeley in 1961, at the invitation of Philip Selznick, and helped him found the Center for the Study of Law and Society, which over the next decade supported interdisciplinary scholarship in the law and the social sciences. He eventually completed his dissertation and received his Ph.D. in 1969. In 1970 he was appointed professor in the School of Criminology and almost immediately was named its dean. His tenure as dean was a stormy one. Several faculty members in the school were active in the antiwar movement, and Shelly had the unenviable task of brokering conflicts between them and campus officials. A short time later the School of Criminology was disestablished, and he had the likewise unenviable task of presiding over its dissolution. Not surprisingly, this generated deep divisions and intense feelings of anger. That Shelly continued to be respected—indeed, admired—by almost everyone involved in this controversy, is testimony to his many abilities and fine character. Shelly went on to help establish and become a founding member of the Jurisprudence and Social Policy Program, an interdisciplinary Ph.D. program housed in the School of Law, served effectively on and off as its chair, and supervised the dissertation work of a number of students, including two of the undersigned.


Shelly’s dissertation, “Strategies of Control,” though unpublished, was widely read, and deeply influenced two generations of scholars on both sides of the Atlantic. Drawing on his work on mental hospitals and prisons, his thesis and still earlier publications anticipated Erving Goffman’s (and Foucault’s) writings on “total institutions” by many years. Indeed, this work anticipated themes that only years later would become influential in criminology and sociology, in part because younger scholars read his thesis and in part because of his generosity with his time.


During Shelly’s graduate student years at UCLA, its Department of Sociology was recognized—as it still is—as a leading department in the field of symbolic interactionism, that branch of sociology influenced by the late nineteenth century phenomenology of Edmund Husserl and the organic sociology of Emil Durkheim. Messinger thrived in this environment and connected his experiences there with his earlier interrupted training with the Chicago School sociologists and social workers. Still, as his UCLA and later Berkeley colleague, Philip Selznick, has said of him, “He did not question the reality or importance of ‘performance’ in social interaction, but [in his own work he found that people] were keen to distinguish their ‘presented’ or ‘projected’ selves from the ‘real’ or ‘natural’ selves.” Indeed it was his reserve and ability to stand back and appreciate the multiplicity of perspectives that made Shelly such a valuable colleague, mentor, and scholar.


Shelly’s record of writing is substantial and the scope of his interests varied widely. We have already mentioned his famous unpublished dissertation. He also wrote a score of influential articles. However, Shelly was at his best with collaborators. He coauthored several books, including The State of the University (1970, with Carlos Kruytbosch); The Story of C-Unit (1968, with Elliot Studt and Thomas Wilson); Civil Justice and the Poor (1967, with Jerome E. Carlin and Jan Howard); and a number of seminal articles, including “The Criminal and the Sick” (1958, with Vilhelm Aubert); “The Inmate Social System” (1965, with Gresham Sykes); “The Micro-Politics of Trouble” (1977, with Robert Emerson); and “The Foundations of Parole in California” (1985, with Richard Berk, John Berecochea, and David Rauma).


Despite this impressive scholarly record, Shelly’s most profound intellectual contribution might best be assessed by his direct influence on his vast circle of distinguished collaborators, colleagues, friends, and students—groups that cannot really be distinguished from each other. He was a scholar’s scholar and a mentor to a host of distinguished social scientists throughout the United States and abroad. He was a master teacher and exemplary colleague. Apart from his generous nature and keenness of mind, much of Shelly’s influence was due to his extraordinary capacity to listen. He could grasp the underlying structure and logic of a complex argument long before anyone else could, often including the person who was speaking. Legions of students and colleagues sought him out for advice as to how to proceed with their research and develop their writing, and countless numbers of them heard him respond to their inarticulate efforts with something like, “In other words, what you mean is….” At that point, recipients of this wisdom were likely to reply, “Yes, yes, exactly. Now wait a minute until I write that down.” He was celebrated across at least two continents for this ability to help colleagues transform vague ideas into well-developed and sustained arguments. Indeed, those of us who knew Shelly well recognize a great deal of him in our own work and the work of many distinguished social scientists around the world. He was deeply appreciated for this generosity. As an editor and intellectual advisor he was acknowledged as a crucial reader in the prefaces of a great many of the most influential books in our field.


One measure of this esteem is that former student Thomas Blomberg named his endowed chair the “Sheldon L. Messinger Chair” at Florida State University. Another is that the Festschrift published upon his retirement went into a second edition—perhaps a first in the history of this genre!


In addition to being a distinguished scholar and mentor, Shelly was an exemplary citizen of the state and of the University of California. He held numerous administrative positions on this campus, advised state officials, and held many offices in professional associations over his long career. He served as the vice chair of the Center for the Study of Law and Society from 1961 to 1970, was the dean of the School of Criminology, was a founding member and occasional chair of Boalt Hall’s Jurisprudence and Social Policy Program. He was a founder and first president of the Association for Criminal Justice Research (California) and was the recipient of numerous awards for his outstanding contributions to criminal justice research, including the Richard McGee Award from the American Justice Institute, the Award of Merit from California’s Bureau of Justice Statistics, and the President’s Award from the Western Society of Criminology. After retirement in 1991, he was the founding chair of the policy board for the UC Berkeley Retirement Center and chair of the UC systemwide emeriti association, and one of the principal architects of the Health Care Facilitator Program, which provides advice to faculty and staff about UC’s health care options, provides advice about patients’ rights, and helps resolve coverage and access problems.


Shelly was married for 53 years to his childhood sweetheart Mildred (née Handler), who passed away in 2000. He is survived by two children, Adam of Berkeley, and Eli of Oakland, and a brother, Jay, of Chicago.



Malcolm M. Feeley

Lauren Edelman

Rosann Greenspan

Jonathan Simon