IN MEMORIAM: JIM KEMENY

We are sad to announce that Jim Kemeny, Professor Emeritus at IBF, has passed away at the age of 77. Between 1994 and 2005, Jim was the first Professor of Sociology at IBF and perhaps its internationally most renowned scholar. His contribution to housing studies were path breaking and his theories on housing regimes and housing politics recurrently serve as points of departure in today’s research and debate.

As professor at IBF and editor of Housing, Theory and Society, Jim was a strong advocate for theory application and theory development in housing studies, always emphasizing the importance of mutual dialogue with general social science perspectives.

Some of Jim Kemeny’s most important books are: The Myth of Home-ownership. Private Versus Public Choices in Housing Tenure (1981), Housing and Social Theory (1992), From Public Housing to the Social Market: Rental Policy Strategies in Comparative Perspective (1995), and Social Constructionism in Housing Research (2004) [with Keith Jacobs and Tony Manzi].

Nils Hertting (Head of Department) and Bo Bengtsson (Professor in Political Science)

In Memoriam: Jim Kemeny

Words of remembrance

In memory of Jim Kemeny

I first met Jim in 1999 when I was employed as a research assistant at IBF. We became good friends when I was appointed to be an editorial assistant at the journal Housing, Theory and Society (HTS) where Jim was an Editor. Although I started the PhD program in Economics, a discipline to which Jim had a healthy scepticism in his own eyes, he came to be a great support to me. We had many walks in the Boulogner park with fun, confidential and encouraging conversations.

However, he was somewhat sullen when I had written a critical essay on social constructivism in a theory of science course. When he had read the paper and came to me to give his opinion, he went up on a raised ledge that was in the room and said: “: ”I will stand up here since I want to look down at you. I realise that you are very critical to social constructivism…”.  Of course, when I read his comments, they were very helpful and accommodating. As the true scientist he was, he had the ability to give helpful views while his theoretical starting points were completely different.

Another memory of Jim is from my very first ENHR conference. I then understood what an international grandeur Jim was. Nevertheless, he largely avoided the public. I was a bit proud when he preferred a walk in the park with an unexperienced doctoral student as me, instead of mingling with other scholars.

Another side of Jim I got to know during one of our many trips to Stockholm and the publishers that issued HTS. He then taught me about stones and crystals, their significance and their healing power. A visit to the crystal shop became a recurring habit during all our visits to Stockholm.

I have many wonderful memories of Jim and I have only mentioned a few, but as you understand, the meetings gave a lasting impression. Before Jim retired, he kindly gave me a new and better title, “Editorial Associate”, as a thank you for the help he thought he got from me with the editorial work. But I am the one to say thanks. Thank you, Jim, for everything you gave.

Cecilia Enström Öst

Jim Kemeny 1942-2020 – personal reflections

Hannu Ruonavaara, Professor in Sociology and Editor of Housing, Theory & Society

As most housing researchers know, Jim Kemeny’s work has been very influential in housing studies since the 1980s. This influence is also ongoing. The 2018 special issue of Housing, Theory and Society with focus articles by David Clapham and myself, as well as comments by a dozen distinguished housing scholars, was a tribute to Jim’s work.  A forthcoming issue of Housing, Theory and Society will publish Mark Stephens’ focus article (with comments) in which he presents analytically and scrutinizes empirically Jim’s last theory of housing regime. Jim developed it in the book From Public Housing to the Social Market (1995) as well as a number of articles from late 1990s to mid-2000s. Jim presented his first theory of housing regimes in the book The Myth of Home-ownership (1981). It sparked off a long-standing line of research and debate about the relationship between dominance of home-ownership and welfare state development.  Between these two landmark books came Housing and Social Theory (1992).  That book argued for the idea that housing studies on one hand should keep an eye on the theoretical developments in relevant academic disciplines and on the other hand itself contribute to theory development.   

Jim was a versatile sociologist drawing influences from and seeking synthesis of, for example, welfare state research, political science, Weberian and Marxist urban sociologies and … symbolic interactionism, his intellectual home. However, to my knowledge, he never published anything based on the typical interactionist empirical research, ethnographic fieldwork. His work on housing regimes of which he is most well-known is mostly macro-sociological. This is not as paradoxical as might seem. After all, his doctoral dissertation from 1976, of which I have a thick, stenciled copy in my office, was about the application of interactionism to macro-sociological study. Perhaps the interactionist inspiration was best seen in Jim’s writings on the social construction of housing facts and policies, an interest he had since the 1980, culminating in the anthology he co-edited (with Tony Manzi and Keith Jacobs), Social Constructionism in Housing Research (2004).  For Jim, constructionism was just an offshoot of symbolic interactionism. 

Apart from being hugely influential in housing studies, Jim's work was personally very important to me. I was very impressed by The Myth of Home-ownership, especially how it linked society’s tenure structure to its social structure – which for Jim was largely cultural. Reading the book inspired me to change the topic of my doctoral dissertation from local traffic policy to growth of home-ownership in Finland. The proportion of home-ownership was reaching the highest percentages ever and it seemed that housing provision in Finland was getting to be very one-sided, with obvious problems for vulnerable groups. Jim’s concept, “home-owning society”, seemed to describe the kind of society that Finland had become – with some crucial differences.       

About the same time that I was reorienting my doctoral research project I also read Jim’s paper on social construction of housing facts (1984). Being very much influenced by British critical realism I sent Jim a letter containing a stern “realist” critique (!) of that paper. To my delight, the mail brought me a very friendly answer from him.  The letter was not so much a reply to my criticisms but more an invitation to take part in the coming international housing conference in Gävle in the summer of 1986.  

That conference was the first international conference that I attended. There I, of course, met Jim who seemed to be a bit embarrassed about meeting a fan. We had a brief talk and met every now and then during my time in Gävle. It was a very successful conference with quite extraordinary and inspiring plenary speeches (e.g. by Peter Marcuse and Ulf Torgersen) and many interesting papers in workshops. It also was where the European Network for Housing Research was born.  I was very impressed about the conference and it gave me a huge boost in continuing with housing studies. The paper I presented there dealt with Jim's idea of home-owning society applied to the case of Finland. It became my first English language publication.

At the invitation of people at the institute, I started to attend seminars regularly in Gävle and Uppsala. I met Jim every now and then during my visits. Once when I had a little research money left, I organized a seminar in Turku where I invited Jim. Years after that he remembered (as pleasant) the ferry trip over the Gulf of Bothnia he did then with his son. Sometimes Jim sent me drafts of papers to read and comment, and as the first editor of the renewed institute’s journal, renamed Housing, Theory and Society, he recruited me to be the journal’s book review editor. Though we did not meet often, nor did any research together, I feel that Jim was always very supportive of my research.

I never did get to know Jim personally but my impression is that he was a person who was very dedicated to his work and appreciated his privacy. He told me once that he did not like going to conferences. Apart from that big Gävle conference where he was one of the organizers I remember seeing him in an international conference only once – giving a plenary speech through a video link.

Jim was an innovator and a powerhouse of ideas who started important debates and lines of research. To me, as well as many others in housing studies, his work remains an inspiration in pursuing theory-relevant research on housing issues.

References

Jacobs, K., Kemeny, J., & Manzi, T. eds. (2004). Social constructionism in housing research. Aldershot, Hampshire: Ashgate.

Kemeny, J. (1976). An interactionist approach to macro sociology. Doctoral dissertation. Gothenburg: University of Gothenburg.

Kemeny, J. (1981). The myth of home-ownership: private versus public choices in housing tenure. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Kemeny, J. (1984) ‘The social construction of housing facts’, Scandinavian Housing and Planning 1(3: 149-164.

Kemeny, J. (1992). Housing and social theory. London: Routledge.

Kemeny, J. (1995). From public housing to the social market: rental policy strategies in comparative perspective. London: Routledge doi: 10.1080/02815738408730045.

Jacobs, K., Kemeny, J. and Manzi, T. (2017) Social constructionism in housing research, Social Constructionism in Housing Research. doi: 10.4324/9781315242965.

Ruonavaara, H. (1987) ‘The Kemeny approach and the case of Finland’, Scandinavian Housing and Planning Research 4(3): 163-177. doi: 10.1080/02815738708730131.