Carl J. Couch, 1925-1994

American sociologist, founder of the New Iowa School of symbolic interactionism

It has been said that great thinkers have one or two basic insights that escape others. Carl's was simple. We always have to study people doing things together—interacting symbolically. We don't study people. We study interaction.

I don't think Carl would want to be here. I think he'd rather be someplace else. But since we're all here, he'd say, "Now God Dammit don't get maudlin. Lets get on with what we're supposed to do. You know people need to do these things."

Dee Dee asked me to speak for 10-15 minutes, or only five, "whatever you want to say about Carl, whatever you remember."

Carl lived long enough to receive the honors he deserved: the George Herbert Mead Award from the Society for the Study of Symbolic Interaction; the Presidency of the Society for the Study of Symbolic Interaction; the Presidency of the Midwest Sociological Society.

He leaves a rich legacy: a loving family, a family any person would be proud to be a member of; a lifetime of love, compassion, adventures; a Society of Symbolic Interactionism that he founded, that his family will help honor and keep alive in his memory.

He leaves generations of outstanding students who have become leaders in the field he established.

He leaves a vision, a dream--a science for humanity-for human beings.

He leaves a set of principles: tough love, honesty, truth, courage, integrity.

Your harshest critic, he was always your friend.

Principles before personalities

No gossip. No petty talk. No criticism of a friend or student, or family member or colleague. You were maybe a "dumb shit" but he loved you anyway.

He leaves a way of living life:

  • Full out, always, "a fire in your belly is what he called it." Take chances, take risks.
  • share your love with others; -- No shame, or regrets about the past.
  • Move forward.
  • County music: Anne Murray, Gordon Lightfoot, Waylon and Willie.

He was a man of contradictions:

  • He could be a harsh critic, but hated journal editors who asked him to revise.
  • He could be loud and profane and yet gentle, tender, and caring to a friend in need.
  • He had a big ego and he had no ego. He was selfless, always giving and sharing.

He was the model colleague, critic and comrade, all in one. We'd fight and yell at each other, make-up, and have dinner together.

He and Dee Dee brought Kathy and I back to nature, to the outdoors, to fishing, taught us to love the mountains, rivers and valleys of Montana, to get outside ourselves and go back to a more basic self. He loved competition and liked to win.

He saw himself as an outsider to the establishment, yet created his own establishment--his own way of dealing with the world and converting it to his vision.

He cared about people's projects, took them seriously. He engaged people's ideas, helped them make them better.

It has been said that great thinkers have one or two basic insights that escape others. Carl's was simple. We always have to study people doing things together--interacting symbolically. We don't study people. We study interaction.

And so here today we honor, together, through our interactions, Carl and his legacy. We will do this together and it is to Carl's credit, and to the efforts of Dee Dee, Becky, Sue, Steve, Mike, Topsy and all of Carl's family, that we are doing it so effortlessly, with so much love.

And so I know that Carl, to invoke Dylan Thomas's poem, didn't go gently into the good night. He never went gently anywhere. He's out there, Still ahead of us, smiling, calling us forward. Let's get on with it.


Thank you Carl.
Norman K. Denzin


Selected Publications

  • Collective Behavior: Examining Some Stereotypes (1968) "Social Problems" 15:310-322.
  • Constructing Civilizations (1984)
  • Researching Social Processes in the Laboratory (1987)
  • Studies in Symbolic Interactionsism (with others, 1987)
  • Social Processes and Relationships: A Formal Approach (1988)
  • You just might get it right one day." On being informed. Symbolic Interaction, 1995, 18(3), 225-228.
  • Information Technologies and Social Order (with others, 1996)Second edition, 2006.
  • Communication and Social Structure(with others).
  • On the indispenaability of communication for understanding social relationships and social structures (with D. Maines). Communication and social Structure.
  • Constructing Social Life. (ed. with R. Hintz)). (1975)
  • Recording Social Interaction (with S. Saxton). Chapter in C.Couch and R. Hintz, eds.) Constructing Social Life. (1975).
  • Self-Attitudes and Degree of Agreement with Immediate Others. American Journal of Sociology (1958).
  • Writing and Reading as Social Activirties (with R. Hintz). Sociological Quarterly (1973).
  • Oral Technologies: A Cornerstone of Ancient Civilizations? "Sociological Quarterly. (1989).
  • Presidential Address: Let Us Rekindle the Passion by Constructing a Robust Science of the Social. Sociological quarterly (1995).
  • Essays in Honor of Carl J. Couch. (1995).


See the Wikipedia entry for Carl J. Couch

Audio recordings of a 1982 Carl Couch lecture on Negotiation & Bargaining

(with thanks to Richard Patik, a former student of Carl Couch)


Lengthy Carl Couch Video Interviews Discovered


Two video files containing nearly three hours of an extensive 1992 interview with Dr. Carl Couch have recently been rediscovered and made available online. Thanks to Professor Dawn T. Robinson, Department of Sociology at the University of Georgia, who discovered the videos on an old CD, the files have been converted to a usable format.

Dr. Shing-Ling Sarina Chen, student and long-time collaborator with Dr. Couch (and Program Director of the Couch Center) recently viewed the videos. She remarked, "It is an outstanding video to get a comprehensive understanding of Carl Couch's views on science and sociology, as well as the evolution of his career leading up to becoming a leader of the New Iowa School."

The interview was originally recorded on VHS tape. At some unknown later date the video was digitized in a now-obsolete format. The files were recently converted to .mp4 in order to be usable on the worldwide web. Because of the limits of the original technology and the multiple conversions, the video quality is not excellent. However the audio is very clear and understandable. The segments run about 90 minutes each.

The first part of the interview consists of Carl discussing his early life and what led him to the study of sociology, the nature of his sociological training, his intellectual philosophy, and the beginnings of his methodology. He also discusses the definitions of symbolic interactionism and the distinctiveness of the theory and methods of social science.

The second portion of the interview continues with a critique of research without adequate theoretical foundations, a defense of the New Iowa School against critics, caution against common misunderstandings of his research methods, definition of generic principles in theory, and the imperative of studying social interaction.

The Couch Center is delighted to make these archives of Carl's freewheeling conversation publically available. Those with questions or comments about these videos are invited to contact Professor Chen at the University of Northern Iowa.