Memorial: John Ryan

Originally published in Section Culture: Newsletter of the ASA Culture Section. Spring 2021. Vol. 35 Issue 5.

Photo: John Ryan (Source: College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, Virginia Tech)

John Ryan, professor of sociology at Virginia Tech, died unexpectedly of cardiac arrest at his home on February 23, 2021. After growing up in Rochester, New York, as a devoted rock and roller and baseball fan, John headed south to Morgantown, West Virginia, where he graduated from West Virginia University with a B.A. in sociology in 1971 and an M.A. in sociology in 1977.  He earned his Ph.D. in sociology in 1982 from Vanderbilt University, where he studied under and worked with Professor Richard Peterson.

John’s interest in music and culture began early. His first band, formed in 1963 when he was 14 years old, made only two public performances, but the experience was enough to set John off on an accomplished musical career. He won national songwriting contests, performed in folk duos and a successful rock band, and was a colleague of singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt, who lived in Morgantown near the end of John’s undergraduate days.

While studying the sociology of culture at Vanderbilt, John continued his musical career, performing as a guitar-playing singer-songwriter in many music halls and bars of Nashville. Slowly, however, the music career gave way to the sociology of music career, and John’s sociological creativity emerged in publications on the music industry and the arts.

John started as an assistant professor at Clemson University in 1982. Working in the production of culture perspective, his first article, on country music songwriting, showed that songwriters create the initial idea for a song, but what creates the final product is a decision chain involving publishers, artists, producers, sound engineers and mixers who collaborate based on the product image they believe will be most successful in the market. His first book, The Production of Culture in the Music Industry:  The ASCAP BMI Controversy in 1985 showed that the music market was not organized through free exchanges between producers and consumers. Rather, it was created by agencies that licensed musical products and distributed royalties to artists, deciding along the way what kinds of music they would license.

His then wife, Deborah A. Sim, a graphic designer, and museum curator, was his intellectual companion and collaborator during this time, co-authoring a paper with John in Social Forces on art as news and designing the Culture Section buttons that she and John distributed at the ASA meetings from 1992 through 1998 while John chaired the section’s Membership Committee. John moved through the ranks at Clemson, and he was appointed as chair of the sociology department in 1996.

The sociology of culture was the core of his life’s work. Culture was a foundation of the work he did in violence and violence prevention with a grant from the National Funding Collaborative on Violence Prevention for a multi-site evaluation study of neighborhood anti-violence organizations. The project and evaluation continued for 10 years, and John’s evaluation results informed the program and shaped the grassroots efforts in two disadvantaged neighborhoods.

After serving as chair of the department at Clemson for 6 years, John took his administrative skills to Virginia Tech to chair the Department of Sociology there for 18 years. In 2000, with Michael Hughes, he edited and contributed to an issue of Poetics devoted to the work of Richard Peterson on the production and consumption of culture. At Virginia Tech, his scholarship expanded to include studies on terrorism, online extremism, and community reactions to crime and tragedies. John will always be remembered for his calm demeanor, quiet listening, dry wit, razor-sharp insights, and sound words of advice.  He was a scholar and passionate sociologist, and he positively affected the lives of many. His influence will live on through the work of colleagues, friends, and students.  John is survived by his wife Jill Harrison and their daughter Emma as well as his daughter Molly Ryan and her mother, Deborah Sim.

Michael Hughes (Professor of Sociology, Virginia Tech)