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Nels Anderson, 1889-1986

Dr. Nels Anderson was a long-standing faculty member of the Department of Sociology at UNB (1965-1977). Nels Anderson studied at the University of Chicago under Robert Park and Ernest Burgess, whose concentric zone theory was one of the earliest models developed to explain the organization of urban areas.

He received his doctorate from New York University and was an instructor at Columbia University from 1928 to 1934, when he became a civil servant.

He worked as a public servant both in Washington, D.C., and abroad, mainly with agencies for work and welfare until 1953. He continued to publish work on hobos and the homeless under the alias of Dean Stiff. In an autobiographical sequence of articles entitled “Sociology has Many Faces,” he wrote that no matter where he was working during these thirty years of being in non-academic sociology work, he always felt he was using and applying his sociological knowledge.

During the war, he served in the Middle and Near East with merchant marine personnel. Following the war, he worked as a labour relations expert in Germany.

At the age of 65, he came back to his first love - social research, helping to revive empirical research in Germany. He was head of the UNESCO Institute for Social Science at Cologne from 1953 to 1962, and in 1965 he joined the Department of Sociology at the University of New Brunswick where he served as a professor until 1977.

His first publication, The Hobo (1923), was a work that helped pioneer the method of participant observation as a research method to reveal the features of a society and was the first field-research monograph of the famed Chicago School of Sociology, marking a significant milepost in the discipline of Sociology.

The original intent of this work was to help the hobos and homeless who were facing great social and economic problems in the Chicago area. Nels Anderson hoped that his work would help gain some insight into the life of this ‘urban jungle’ and would lead to a better understanding between hobos and the rest of the Chicago community.

Throughout his career, Dr. Anderson’s research focused on issues of contemporary relevance such as healthy cities and marginalized people. The work of Nels Anderson is subject to a revival right now, especially in Europe, where the efficacy of an ethnographic approach to the study of society and social problems is being rediscovered.

Nels Anderson remained academically active until a month before his death, leaving a remarkable intellectual and material heritage. In recognition of his significant contributions to the Department of Sociology a portrait of him, painted by artist Stephen Scott, hangs in an anteroom in Tilley Hall, Room 20.

The Sociology Undergraduate Association club is named in his honour as the Nels Anderson Society.