ISA Past Presidents

Ulf Himmelstrand

President 1978-82

1924 | 2011

Nationality Swedish
Ulf Himmelstrand (1924-2011), and the Development of Sociology at the University of Ibadan and in Nigeria, By Peter Ekeh, State University of New York at Buffalo, USA
There is also a festschrift: Sociology in the world: Essays in honour of Ulf Himmelstrand on his 65th birthday (Research reports from the Department of Sociology, Uppsala University).



  • 1948 Fil. kand. [BA], University of Uppsala.
  • 1955 Fil. Lic.. [MA], sociology, University of Uppsala.
  • 1960 Fil.dr. [PhD], (Thesis title: ‘Social pressures, attitudes and democratic processes’.)

Posts held

  • 1949-52  Amanuensis, University of Uppsala.
  • 1952-55  Assistant lecturer, University of Uppsala.
  • 1955-60  Lecturer, University of Uppsala.
  • 1960-64  Assistant professor, University of Uppsala [1960-61, Rockefeller Fellow in USA]
  • 1964-67  Professor, Ibadan University, Nigeria.
  • 1968-69  Fellow, Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences.
  • 1969-89  Professor, University of Uppsala.
  • 1987-91 Visiting professor, Nairobi University, Kenya.
  • 1989-2011  Emeritus professor, University of Uppsala.

ISA participation, main roles

His first World Congress paper was given at Stresa in 1959, but he was unable to attend the meeting. (His paper had been invited by Talcott Parsons, whom he had met at the American Seminar in Salzburg in 1956, and who read it for him.) He attended the Congresses in 1966, 1970, 1974, 1978, 1982, 1986..., and before holding office had been Swedish representative on the ISA Council.
RC on Social Transformations and the Sociology of Development:
Board member 1972-8,
Vice-President 1979-82, 1986-95; President, 1983-6.
1974-78  Vice-President.
Chair of Swedish Local Arrangements Committee, 1978 World Congress, Uppsala.
1978-82 President.

Participation in other settings

Member, Swedish Sociological Association ; 1972-74, Chair,
International Social Science Council, 1981-6, Vice-President
International Society of Political Psychology, member
International Association for the Economics of Self-Management, member.

Intellectual and ISA career

Himmelstrand was born, and much of his childhood was spent, in India, where his father was a missionary for the Church of Sweden, though some of his schooling was in Sweden; this inevitably gave him a somewhat marginal status in both countries. The chance of academic decisions then placed him in other foreign settings, and ones where major social disruptions were evidently under way – in Nigeria during the Biafran War, in California at the height of the student revolution of the 1960s.[1] These experiences have surely affected his sociology. It is clear that he was always politically conscious, and this was certainly relevant to his sociology, though he says that over time his position changed from anarcho-syndicalism to social democracy.

As president, he summarised his intellectual career in this way:
‘ fifty years as a sociologist from student to professor emeritus ... covers social-psychological studies in the emotive and cognitive aspects of opinions and attitudes published in my doctoral thesis... research in political sociology and mass-communication, sociology of development (Africa in particular), and economic sociology...’ (1978: 2)

These interests cut across some conventional boundaries; he has been both an Africanist and a theorist, a positivist and to some extent a Marxist, concerned with social psychology and opinion studies as well as macro-economic factors. Several of his publications seek ways of reconciling positions often opposed – for instance Himmelstrand 1982a, where he outlines conflicting views within the RC in which he was active, and suggests a potentially shared framework of approach. He criticised aspects of both Marxism and functionalism, without rejecting everything about either; in his presidential address (1982b) he comments on the paradox that each puts forward an idealised version of its own society as contrasted with others, and seems better suited to dealing with the contemporary social realities of the society that generated the other. It is clear that at the level of theory it is still the East/West Cold War cleavage that is salient for him, despite his strong interest and experience in developing countries.

At the beginning of his presidential term he said that ‘the propagandistic and simplifying anti-Marxism which dominated much of western sociology in the post-war years may not have been completely defeated yet, but as a dominant tendency it is a thing of the past. Similarly simplistic conceptions of “bourgeois structural-functionalism” which were so common among Marxists in socialist countries some time ago have been superseded by knowledgeable even if not uncritical Marxist analyses of structural functionalism...’ (1978: 2)

Himmelstrand’s general approach had surely contributed towards such a shift, and his position helped to win the support of groups often politically divided.  It is significant that versions of his presidential address (middle sections essentially the same, introductions and conclusions different) appeared both in the ISSJ (UNESCO’s International Social Science Journal (1982b) - and in Praxis International[2] (1982c); the former is addressed more to the western sociological audience, the latter to the East. 

Himmelstrand could be seen as having inherited an unofficial Scandinavian slot on the EC from Rokkan, whose term finished in 1974. Torgny Segerstedt, who had taught him (and may have supervised his doctoral work), was a member of the ISA EC from 1953 to 1959, which is likely to have helped to draw his attention to the ISA. He suggests [personal communication, 19 Aug. 1996] that his surprising election to Vice President, without any previous involvement in ISA core activities, was affected by his contribution to the opening plenary of the Toronto World Congress, and by the increased visibility that followed from his active support there for more representation of women, and for a resolution (authored with André Gunder Frank) to send a letter to the Pinochet regime in Chile urging the release of a sociologist who had been a minister in the Allende government.

The existence of two different published versions complicates the task of characterising his presidential address, but one should be on safe ground in focusing on the parts in common. In those, Himmelstrand sketches a recent history of a wave of politicisation, and ideological interventions in sociology from western students and the Third World, which led to some of the older generation staying away from World Congresses. That wave he sees as weak scientifically, but useful, in that it uncovered biases in previous ‘scientific’ theorising and broadened the agenda. He suggests that it is not always easy, when concerned with policy applications, to distinguish the ideological from the scientific. Much depends on what to treat as internal contradictions and what as external disturbances to the social system; the internal have to be lived with and dealt with, while one can aim to remove the external. Sunshine sociologists emphasise shared values and ignore inconsistent existing social facts. Sociology needs to be both insider and outsider, as increasing interdependence creates new policy needs. He suggests that a combination of mathematics, system theory and Marxian historical materialism could help respond to the need for a more holistic approach, and this could be drawn upon by sociologists to contribute to discussion with practitioners about policy issues. Interestingly, this address therefore seems strongly related to his previous theoretical work, despite its concern with policy and practice.

References, other sources of information, related work

  • Himmelstrand, Ulf (1978), ‘Message from the President’, ISA Bulletin 18 (autumn): 2.
  • Himmelstrand, Ulf (1982a), ‘Innovative processes in social change: theory, method and social practice’, pp. 37-66 in ed. T. Bottomore, S. Nowak and M. Sokolowska, Sociology: the State of the Art.
  • Himmelstrand, Ulf (1982b), ‘Ideology, science and policy impact: thoughts on the tasks and challenges of the social sciences’, International Social Science Journal 34: 503-516.
  • Himmelstrand, Ulf (1982c), ‘The relationship between sociology and social practice’, Praxis International 1.4: 408-420
  • Himmelstrand, Ulf (1991), ‘The role of the ISA in internationalizing sociology’, Current Sociology 39.1: 85-100.
  • Himmelstrand, Ulf, Göran Ahrne and Leif Lundberg (1981), Beyond Welfare Capitalism: Issues, Actors and Forces in Societal Change.
  • Swedberg, Richard (1986), ‘The critique of the “Economy and Society” perspective during the paradigm crisis: from the United States to Sweden’, Acta Sociologica 29.2: 91-112.

Presidential address

'Ideology, science and policy impact: thoughts on the tasks and challenges of the social sciences’, International Social Science Journal 34: 503-516, 1982.
The relationship between sociology and social practice’, Praxis International 1.4: 408-420, 1982.

[1]  Back in Uppsala, when student unrest reached there and a new board was established with students and staff equally represented, he was defeated as a staff representative - but elected as a student one.

[2]  A journal whose first-issue manifesto stated that: ‘At the moment there is no international journal of Marxist humanist orientation, despite the increasing urgency for it... Such a journal can play a decisive integrative role, it can provide an indispensable level of mutual communication and dialogue, it can encourage the development of a systematic critical consciousness about the essential limitations of present day societies, and about optimal historical possibilities for human emancipation...[this journal] will seek to carry on the spirit and work of the Yugoslav journal all those countries where progressive intellectuals and independent critical Marxists share similar aspirations and commitments.’