Dr. Denton Morrison (1932-2019) shares his life story

February 7, 2020

Dr. Denton "Spud" Morrison was Professor of Sociology at Michigan State University from 1964-1990 as well as serving at the Michigan Agricultural Experiment Station. Prior to his death on Dec. 12, 2019, Dr. Morrison had penned his own obituary to share with his colleagues and professional networks. He was 87 years old.

I was born in Brookings, South Dakota, on Jan. 2, 1932. I received my Bachelor of Science and Master of Science degrees at South Dakota State College in 1954 and 1958. I received my Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, 1962, all degrees in Rural Sociology. I was an officer in the U. S. Air Force, 1955-1956, then flew as a Radar Observer in two-seat jet fighter-interceptors with the South Dakota Air National Guard and the Wisconsin ANG while pursuing graduate study.

My first academic job was as an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, 1962-1964. The best part of this sometimes intimidating job was that it had prestige and visibility, which helped me find a great position elsewhere.

From 1964 until my retirement in 1990, I was appointed for twelve months, half-time for research in the Michigan Agricultural Experiment Station and half-time for teaching in Sociology. The AES appointment came with a Graduate Assistant and a small research budget. (The AES’s of South Dakota and Wisconsin funded my Master’s and Ph.D. research).

My first research at MSU, supported by the Michigan AES, was to study the National Farmers’ Organization (NFO, now defunct), a social movement of feisty and noisy farmers in the Midwest trying to get collective bargaining going in agriculture--unsuccessfully. This interest in social movements led to research on the environmental movement, which became a growing, powerful and visible force before and after the initial Earth Day in 1970. I was one of the founders of “Environmental Sociology,” a branch of sociology that continues to be a lively part of the discipline. (The Rural Sociology Department at Wisconsin is now the Department of Community and Environmental Sociology.) I published numerous papers on social movements, and on the societal dimensions of environment, energy, and technology. I gave many papers on these topics at national and three international conferences. Some of my papers were re-published in readers.  I was the lead editor of The Significance Test Controversy, which was re-published in 2007, more than 30 years after its initial publication in 1970. It was also published in Japanese, and in England. I published, with colleagues, bibliographies on the societal dimensions of environment and energy, and on farmers’ movements and collective behavior.

My teaching at MSU was in research methods, social movements, and environmental sociology. My enthusiasm for research was more than for teaching. I was for the most part a less than a sparkling teacher.

 In 1961, I was named “Best Sociology Graduate Student” at Wisconsin, and received a set of Bobbs-Merrill Sociology Reprints.  My dissertation at Wisconsin was “Achievement Motivation of Farm Operators: A Measurement Study.” This won the first “Best Dissertation” award of the Rural Sociological Society in 1963.

 I was given the “Award of Merit” by the Natural Resources Section of the Rural Sociological Society, and an “Award for Distinguished Contributions” by the Environment and Technology Section of the American Sociological Association. I was named a “Fellow” of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and was named a “Distinguished Rural Sociologist” in the Rural Sociological Society.

In 1979-1980 I was a Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in the Smithsonian Castle in Washington, DC.

 I participated in research with the Committee on Nuclear and Alternative Energy Sources (CONAES) of the National Research Council, National Academy of Sciences. I was also on the Panel on the Social and Economic Aspects of Radioactive Waste Disposal of the NRC.

I was on an external committee of five social scientists, one year its Chair, which for three years evaluated projects at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory which had social and economic dimensions.

In 1981 I was the Principal Investigator of a National Science Foundation grant to study the social dimensions of appropriate technology (“Small is Beautiful”). I published several papers on the appropriate technology movement, including lead-authoring a paper in the Annual Review of Energy.

I self-published poetry, poetic stories, a memoir and humor while in retirement in Florida.

I am survived by my two half- brothers, two half-sisters, and four nephews. My wife of 65 years, Bonnie Maas Morrison, also an accomplished academic, and a fine artist, died in March 2019.

Denton E. Morrison  

Sarasota, FL

May 7, 2019