Almost 40 years in, Bruce H. Johnson’s 1973 dissertation, The Alcoholism Movement in America: A Study in Cultural Innovation, has remained an invaluable source and a ready companion for historians and sociologists interested in the rise and diffusion of the alcoholism paradigm in 20th century America. Johnson himself, however, seemed to disappear from view in the alcohol studies field after the dissertation’s completion. In late June, I managed to catch up with him at his home in Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania, a small town on the Susquehanna River, north of Harrisburg, where he lives with his spouse, Emily.
At age 75, Bruce reported he’s in good health and good spirits. His career track, he explained, simply took him away from alcohol studies — first, into criminal justice education and, next, into teaching organizational change. Little Brown, the Boston-based publishing house, showed an initial interest in publishing his dissertation but their medical review committee ultimately turned it down. I asked Bruce if he’d for some reason intentionally concealed himself from the alcohol studies community after 1973. He said no. At the time, he explained, very few people in the academic world seemed interested in his work or its subject matter. A key theme in his dissertation, he continued, had been to dispel the idea that social movements were coherent, well-integrated social systems. On the contrary, the “alcoholism movement,” as his dissertation research showed, was diffuse, factionalized, and strife-ridden. Leaders in different parts of the movement, said Johnson, were, as often as not, “barely on speaking terms.” For each one the movement was a very personal crusade.