Remembering Rom Harré
A personal recollection from Professor Mark McDermott, University of East London.
23 October 2019
On Thursday 17 October 2019 Professor Rom Harré, philosopher of science, died at the age of 91. Rom Harré was a friend to psychology and indeed a friend to UEL Psychology.
I first encountered Rom as a postgraduate in the early 1980's when he came to give a Department talk in Cardiff. He started the talk with a large, green, rectangular chalk board behind him, a piece of white chalk in hand. He had no notes. He stood directly facing his audience and began to talk about the nature of psychological research. By the end of the hour, the board was covered in phrases and notes, all legible, all testifying to the vitality of his thought process. His audience, including me, was captivated. He did not miss a beat in terms of developing his argument and keeping his listeners with him. By the end of the talk we were all convinced he was `right’, that psychological research needed to be refocused. Rom was not a tall man, or perhaps even of average height, but for sure he was a giant of a thinker.
As often happens on such occasions, during questions after the talk, a member of the audience decided they would attempt to point up fault lines in Harré's narrative. The comments made constituted what can only be described as an academic 'heckle’. Unlike seasoned comedians, Harré chose not to deliver a humorous riposte but rather simply noted that he thought the line of enquiry was `ad hominem'. I sat wondering what 'ad hominem’ meant (latin was never a strength of mine), as did the questioner who asked Harré to say what he intended by use of the phrase. Harré replied without hesitation: '…against the speaker rather than his doctrine'. In that instant for me was apparent Harré's clarity of thought, his ability to respond without offending and generosity of mind and spirit.
The next time I encountered Rom, (and it was an encounter because he impacted those with whom he met and spoke), was at an international conference on self and identity my PhD supervisor had organised in Cardiff in the mid-1980s. I was working as part of what we self-designated as the Immediate Response Unit – that's to say we ran errands for attendees. Anybody who was anybody in the field was there – Morris Rosenberg, Ken & Mary Gergen, Rod Holland, Hazel Markus, Sheldon Stryker, Norman Denzin. I remember at one plenary session all the great and the good were assembled, and at the back of the room Rom commented in overview, as if a conductor of a celebrated orchestra. The specifics again of what he said evade my memory but the meta-memories live on. That was the power of Rom's energy and charisma. It was not only what he said but also how he delivered his 'speech acts’ that made the difference.
Of course there was a lot more to Rom Harré than just compelling oration. As a postgraduate starting out on a mixed-methods PhD in 1982 there were few handbooks available to me on 'how to' conduct qualitative research or indeed justifying the mixing of quantitative and qualitative methods together (in my case, interviews, questionnaires and repertory grids in fact). It was pre the 'Potter & Wetherall' era of discourse analysis. Though grounded theory had existed since its articulation in 1967 by sociologists Glaser & Strauss, it had not really made it into mainstream psychology during the 1970’s. Nevertheless Harré led the charge for psychology to engage in a different way of conducting research. His 1972 book with Paul Secord The Social Explanation of Behaviour was important in making the case for change, later to be followed by other books by him such as Social Being (1979), Personal Being (1983) and with Grant Gillet, The Discursive Mind (1994). I think it is fair to say that he played a major part in bringing qualitative research into psychology over the last 40 years, and in producing in effect a paradigm shift in the subject. When he started, what he was advocating was on the fringes of what was deemed acceptable at that time; after four decades of publication and oration what he argued for has become mainstream and part of the methodological pluriformity and orthodoxy of psychological research.
He visited the University of East London School of Psychology on two occasions that I can recall: first, at my invitation to give a talk in 1995 (16th November, The Discursive Turn in Psychology, of which there is a videoed recording); and then again in 2012 to take part in a psychology Question Time panel event I was organising as part of a day to celebrate 50 years of psychology at UEL. When I wrote to him asking him to be a panelist, in typical Rom Harré fashion he wrote back (almost immediately) and said he would be happy to 'panelise'.
Always an original thinker, he was able to see the world of empirical enquiry differently and to re-envision it. In his last book Psychology for the Third Millennium in 2012 (with Fathali Moghaddam) he sought once more to clarify psychology's legitimate domain of enquiry, starting with a quotation that reads 'there is nothing in the universe except meaning and molecules'. In the book he aligns this observation with a distinction between what he calls 'agent causality' and 'event causality'. He expounds how we should not conflate the two and how psychology and neuroscience might complement one another so long as the limits of their respective modes of causation are understood. As a 'fan', I was fortunate to receive a signed copy of the book as thanks for involving him in our 50-years celebration: it is inscribed 'Best wishes for the new millenium’. I wonder what he would make of how the millenium is unfolding?
My personal recollections of Professor Rom Harré doubtless are dwarfed by the collective impact he made on so many careers and lives in the international academic community and by the panoramic extent of his publications (which are not just restricted to psychology). He was a fellow of Linacre College, Oxford University for 35 years and thereafter from 1995 a Distinguished Research Professor at Georgetown University, USA until retiring in 2016. I know he will be much missed not only in those two places but by the international academic community of which he was such a vibrant part. As one American psychology post-doc working in Oxford said in the 1990's, Harré was 'the best show in town'. I cannot say I knew him well personally, but from the limited number of times I met him I was left with the impression of an intellectually creative, energetic and generous individual who was only too willing to share his gifts with others. For sure he enriched our subject and the academic journeys of those who encountered and worked with him. Thank you, Professor Harré.
Professor Mark McDermott, University of East London
Thank you for your thoughtful and, very accurate, tribute to Professor Harré. I didn't know him well but was fortunate to meet him on several occasions while pursuing a PhD in domains that traversed his. My overwhelming impression of Professor Harré was one of his generosity - of time, of patient explanations to bemused PhD students, of knowledge, and of his total engagement with you during discussion. I never, ever felt rushed, for which I was profoundly grateful. He was, indeed, "a giant of a thinker", and a thoroughly decent human being to boot.
Dr Irina Anderson
University of East London