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john-walton-photographJohn Walton is an author, sociologist and sometime historian who lives and works in Carmel Valley, California. Long associated with the University of California, where he graduated from elementary school (UCLA), later received a Ph.D. (UC Santa Barbara) and taught for many years (UC Davis) as Distinguished Professor and is now Emeritus.

His early career at Northwestern University dealt mainly with international development and urban politics in Latin America. Work begun with a focus on political power and underdevelopment gradually evolved into studying their corollaries, including how popular rebellions, urban social movements and food riots fostered by globalization challenged dominant power and dependent development. This work was undertaken as part of a movement to fashion a new urban political economy advocated by a group acting through in the International Sociological Association, Blackwell Publishers in a series of books and articles for the International Journal of Urban and Regional Research.

A growing interest in social history inspired by the writing of English historian E.P. Thompson led to a new focus on ‘history from below’, in this instance on the water wars mounted by the communities of California’s Eastern Sierra in response to construction of the Los Angeles aqueduct. Begun in the 1980s, work with the Owens Valley historical and environmental groups continues to this day.  The water story, as it continued to evolve in environmental battles and popular legend, spawned new questions about collective memory, what happened in history and what is said to have happened. That problem is unpacked in recent writing on California’s central coast as a setting for study of community and memory.  Books recounting these events have received the Robert E. Park Award and the Robert and Helen Lynd Career Achievement Award from the American Sociological Association, Honorable Mention (twice) for the C. Wright Mills Award of the Society for the Study of Social Problems, the J.S. Holiday Award from the California Historical Society.

The interplay of social history (events) and cultural history (stories) takes many forms opening up intriguing lines of investigation. Based on the Owens Valley water wars a film like ‘Chinatown’ at once fictionalizes what happened and creates a new version of what many people come to believe happened. The era of California missions and Monterey’s Cannery Row, glossed in church history and John Steinbeck’s fiction are taught in California schools, but also challenged by indigenous populations, both Indian and Italian. Robinson Jeffers, poet of the Big Sur coast, constructed stories that may be read profitably as both art and ethnography. These ideas are developed more fully in “The Legendary Detective” an account of how private detectives and agencies became a major industry devoted largely to labor espionage while, through the efforts of the culture industries (via mystery stories, pulp fiction, radio and film) became an endearing legend.

Although much of this research and writing began as academic projects, they have been received (and used) by organizations ranging from environmental groups in the Eastern Sierra, Native American communities, advocates for preservation and sustainable land use, film makers and historical societies.

Email John: jtwalton@ucdavis.edu