Prof. Mervyn Horgan
Prof. Mervyn Horgan

Rudeness. Have you ever had someone cut in front of you in a line-up or make a nasty comment because you were moving too slowly? Your answer is probably “yes.”

There’s plenty of rudeness in everyday life, says sociology professor Mervyn Horgan. “People sometimes see this as a sign of the breakdown of society,” he says. Not Horgan. “I’m suspicious of that. We think of rudeness as an urban thing, but when I studied rural Nova Scotia, I found that it exists there, too.”

Who do you think is most likely to be rude? Many people surveyed by a team of Australian researchers thought it would be young people and immigrants. In fact, most of the rudeness came from middle class white men. “That has to do with a sense of entitlement and power,” Horgan says. “And it shows that something small – rudeness – can reveal something more significant, like, for example, who claims ownership over public space.”

Horgan’s interest in sociology started early. As a young man growing up in Ireland, he watched his homeland experience a period of rapid change. “When I was a teenager, condoms were still controversial and not very widely available,” he recalls. “By the time I left Ireland, not only could you buy condoms, but Viagra had become a major export from Ireland to the U.S.”

He saw other changes, too: both his parents grew up on farms and were part of the first generation to move into the city. “Ireland went from a relatively traditional agricultural society to a cosmopolitan and fast-paced society in the space of a decade,” he says. Horgan worked on a research project that highlighted the clash between old and new cultures by studying the traffic accidents between farmers driving tractors and city workers driving cars on the roads leading to Dublin.

Although he was already leaning towards sociology as a field of study, that experience “sealed the deal,” he says. Horgan did his undergraduate and master’s degrees at the National University of Ireland in Cork, but wanted to continue his studies in a different country to broaden his experience. He learned that York University was involved with a large project on the culture of cities, so he came to Toronto to do his PhD. “It was a great opportunity because through that project I met scholars from across Canada and Europe,” he says.

This interest in culture led to a pre-doctoral fellowship at Yale University’s Center for Cultural Sociology, which Horgan says focuses on how culture operates in our lives and directs our actions.

As a social theorist, Horgan says, “there is nothing as practical as a good theory.” Social theory identifies the patterns and consistencies among diverse cultures and societies, helping us understand the often-invisible principles that organize our communities. These theories, he says, provide tools for thinking about issues and problems and understanding them from a variety of viewpoints.

What he’s seeking to understand right now is the experience of city life. In the past century, there has been a huge increase in urbanization, and the global majority now lives in cities. That means being surrounded by people who are strangers. “My work looks at what it means to be a stranger, and how you can live your life in the midst of thousands of people you don’t know and still thrive and be creative and feel safe,” he explains.

In part, it’s a sense of solidarity that makes it possible, Horgan says. “We talk about solidarity in the labour movement, but it’s also essential to society in general. If we can expand our sense of solidarity and feelings of responsibility towards strangers, we expand the possibilities of social justice.”

While living in the Toronto neighbourhood of Parkdale, he decided to study that community in his doctoral thesis. At the time, there were many rooming houses providing homes for those with low incomes as well as high rises occupied primarily by immigrants, but increasingly the rooming houses were being converted back into single family homes. “Some people raved about this ‘gentrification’ of the community and saw it as a chance for interactions between middle-class and lower-class people,” he says. His study, however, showed that didn’t happen much. Through interviews he learned that while the wealthier residents were very visible to everyone, the less well-off residents remained largely invisible to the wealthier residents – unless they were causing problems.

Horgan adds that municipal policy contributed to this situation by explicitly outlawing the formation of new rooming houses and encouraging conversion to single family homes.

After graduation, Horgan became a professor at Acadia University in Nova Scotia and was subsequently hired by U of G. “I was delighted to come here,” he says. “The school is intellectually vibrant, collegial and includes various perspectives. I especially like that there is a PhD program with bright and engaged students, and that I get to talk with anthropologists every day.”

Horgan and his partner have three young children, so his free time is limited, but he learned to make hard cider while living in Nova Scotia and plans to continue that here. He also took up another Canadian activity by learning to skate for the first time – mostly to keep up with his four-year-old and six-year-old.