John L. Sorenson
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biography      art portfolio early years getting serious university years employment byu—final years book of mormon family life conclusion reminiscing


part 4 of 8


While he was in American Fork, John Sorenson, paterfamilias, needed a job to support a wife and eight sons, but the pickings were slim. At the last minute, S. Lyman Tyler, a friend and historian who was the director of the library at BYU, came up with a job for John. For the 1958-59 academic year, John was appointed social science librarian. His charge was to stock the new library, still under construction, with expanded, quality holdings. John also arranged to teach an anthropology class in the sociology department. By the next year the sociologists had accepted him as a full-fledged faculty member teaching anthropology. Before John's second year as a teacher was over, a major was being offered in anthropology (including work in archaeology) and the name of the department had been changed to include both sociology and anthropology. Until 1963 John was the anthropologist at BYU. During a two-year cycle, with the help of a few faculty members in other fields, he taught all the essential courses. A number of students completed the anthropology major and went on to graduate school or into varied employment. Eventually a second anthropologist caine aboard: Merlin Myers, a recent graduate of Cambridge University. Anthropology had taken its place in the intellectual spectrum at BYU. When John first started teaching anthropology, the salary schedule at BYU was not strong. With Kathryn working hard to manage the household, the family of ten (all eight sons had now been born) was barely able to survive. They bought a large old home in Springville, and before long, Kathryn's remodeling efforts provided an additional room. Meanwhile, John nursed an ulcer at home, promoted the cause of anthropology at work, read papers at professional meetings, and served on a committee for the American Anthropological Association.

Applied Anthropology

John always thought anthropology was too stimulating to be limited to the esoteric reports that seemed to satisfy most ivory-tower academics in the profession. A chance to make the discipline useful came in 1959 when Lyman Tyler asked John to help him support the attorney for the Hopi tribe's land-claim lawsuit. They examined early documents to try to pinpoint when the Navajo settled on Hopi lands. Another opportunity for John to apply his anthropological skills came when Paul Hyer, Asia historian at BUT and an old friend, drew him into a project on South Vietnam. A U.S. Navy office had contracted through David Pack, a Latter-day Saint employee of the Navy, with BYU professors to construct an in-depth profile of South Vietnam. Hyer insisted that a broad anthropological view would be essential, and John, along with political science and economics faculty members as well as student assistants, worked on the study through the summer of 1961 and part-time through the following academic year. The detailed picture they developed addressed military, social, political, and economic organization in Vietnam; its ethnic and religious groups; and its key public actors. John's anthropological view proved to be key to integrating the myriad data, and he ended up codirecting and cowriting the monographic report. Pleased with the results, the Navy commissioned another study of the same kind on Venezuela, where a guerrilla movement was then operating, for the summer of 1962. Again John essentially wrote the report. The income from these projects eased the family's financial strain and permitted them to add on to their Springville home. They hoped that in 1964, the start of a sabbatical year for John, they could arrange to get away from their regular grind, but limited funds made that seem unlikely. In the spring, however, a providential telephone call came. People at the Defense Research Corporation in Santa Barbara, California, had come across the Navy studies on Vietnam and Venezuela and were impressed. They were looking for a social scientist to lead them through new contracts with the U.S. government on counterinsurgency John flew to Santa Barbara for an interview, and soon after his return he was offered a job at two and a half times his BYU salary. "I'll talk to my wife and get back to you," John said, trying to sound cool and detached. Within a few days he started consulting work with the corporation, leaving Kathryn to sell the house in Springville and move the family to California. The Sorensons settled in an old ranch-style house on three-quarters of an acre on "the Mesa." Using their rooftop telescopes, the boys could see the beautiful Santa Barbara Channel and its whales. The home had been built in the 1 920s by a Czarist diplomat who, with much of the embassy's funds and all of its wine, fled Washington at the time of the Russian Revolution. With large citrus, palm, live oak, and avocado trees and a forty-acre azalea nursery next door, the homesite was a veritable paradise for growing boys. In time, as the higher salary made a dent in the family's debts, John's ulcer disappeared. As always, John and Kathryn were active in their LDS ward. She worked with children in the Primary organization and later became Relief Society president, and John taught gospel doctrine to the adults in Sunday School, as he has done for much of the last forty-five years. The Sorensons enjoyed the climate (including the fog) and walking on the beach, growing their flowers, and many other activities associated with the amenities Santa Barbara afforded. John's mother lived with them for part of the time they were in California. They also made many dear friends. Meeting on the beach at the University of California, Santa Barbara, with brown-bag lunches, John and one of his friends, a historian, discussed starting a periodical for LDS scholarly interchange. Unknown to them, a group at Stanford was already preparing to launch Dialogue a few months down the road. John and Kathryn participated in a new Sunday evening study group that read and discussed a different book each month. Now, more than thirty years later, branches of the group still function in Santa Barbara and in Provo and Salt Lake City. The Defense Research Corporation (soon renamed General Research Corporation) primarily studied intercontinental ballistic missile strategies by using simulations and gaming. The general intellectual mode of operation was that of a think tank: proposed programs and strategies were subjected to exhaustive critical questioning in every aspect, from axioms to logic to outcomes. All this was normally done under the pressure of urgent deadlines. It was a far cry from the leisurely life of academe. The company's principals, who were scientists or engineers wanting to make a profit and go public with their stock, sought to diversify and expand their market. In the 1 960s counterinsurgency was a research growth area among their clients, who were military or quasi-military agencies. Discovering that it would need a person knowledgeable in social science, the company hired John as the first and nominal head social scientist. His first responsibility was to direct a study on urban insurgency, with political scientists, economists, military people, and operations research experts all contributing their expertise. The biggest challenge for John was to transcend the conceptual frameworks and languages of the compan~s existing "scientific" experts. He found that he would need to adapt anthropological and other social science models and terminology to the ongoing in-house discussion, and although this forced him to question some of the details of his own discipline, he appreciated more than ever the power of its overall approach. It was not simply a competition between disciplines, for the key questions always came down to nondisciplinary matters. Rather, the aim was to get at the real questions behind the obvious ones. Military analysts routinely asked questions such as how guerrillas might attack a village, but the systems critic had to probe further: Will village defenders risk death if they do not trust their leaders? Who can be bribed and with what? The process was intense, never ending, and intellectually subversive of every casual assumption. John realized that most of the academics involved in these discussions asked rather tame, artificial questions whose answers had little relation to the real world. He also came to realize that for some problems there are simply no adequate answers. For example, when this think-tank mode of critical analysis was used in a massive study of urban transportation for the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the panoply of data on vehicle speeds, subway capacities, freeway pollution, and the social costs of failing to fix the current systems made only marginal difference. The overriding fact was that only very expensive, high-tech changes would make marked improvement in traffic flows, and because of the political economy, they were impossible to implement. John also realized that relatively few clients-private as well as government-do research to find out the real answers. Rather, research is mainly cosmetic, a political ploy used to delay an uncomfortable decision or to justifr why an already-determined course will be followed. Huge studies are often shelved if they do not fit the predisposition of those in high places. As John observes, "It was interesting, but highly discouraging, to see the mind-set of the bureaucrats." John welcomed the high salary he received at the General Research Corporation, but as time went on he began to enjoy less and less the challenge of that kind of work. Under the high stress of dealing with government clients, he began to long for what he recalled (perhaps inaccurately) as the quieter pace of the university. In 1969 company management agreed to John's forming a subsidiary, the Bonneville Research Corporation, which he would operate from Provo and which would handle the social science end of the General Research Corporation's contracts. John planned to utilize BYU faculty members and other LDS experts as consultants. Moving the family back to Utah was not entirely pleasant. Kathryn wondered why they had left behind what she considered paradise, and John did not really want to be a businessman pressured to locate funds and projects mainly on his own now that the heyday of government support for such contracts was over. Yet the advantages of the move seemed to outweigh the disadvantages. After the Sorensons relocated to Provo, John had two years of relative success as the large Bonneville team developed new language programs for the Army Language School in Monterey, California. But eventually the General Research Corporation, under its own pressures, withdrew support and the Bonneville Corporation folded.
A Short Biography by Davis Bitton