Melvin Pollner, 67; sociologist at UCLA who studied shared beliefs

Times Staff Writer

Sociologist Melvin Pollner, who explored the assumptions communities share about what is true and false, in part by observing activities in courts of law, psychiatric units and other places where at least two sides of a story are put forth, has died. He was 67.

A longtime faculty member at UCLA, Pollner died Nov. 2 of lung cancer at UCLA Medical Center, according to the university.

“Mel Pollner trained a generation of sociologists to think anew about how we build our sense of reality and community,” colleague John Heritage said in an interview this week.

Pollner’s core idea and the practical evidence he used to support it are “immensely original and they represent an enduring contribution to sociology,” Heritage wrote in a eulogy posted on a memorial website,

Pollner’s main theory, Heritage explained, is that “all of us live inside a kind of bubble, like the Earth’s atmosphere, only made up of beliefs, knowledge and assumptions” that help define what is real and unreal, good and bad. The “bubble” theory applies to the world community as well as to individual societies, religions and other groups.


Pollner pointed out that shared assumptions are challenged all the time. “The bubble ruptures,” Heritage said.

To find out what happens next when that bubble bursts, Pollner spent weeks at a time in psychiatric clinics and in court, where versions of reality can differ. For example, Heritage said, “in psychiatric units we see families in denial about mental illness. In courts of law we hear incompatible versions of the same event.”

Reaching a resolution involves negotiation. Otherwise, “a split in versions of reality will lead to a split in ideologies,” Heritage said, mentioning religious sects as one example.

Pollner wrote about his theory in his book, “Mundane Reason: Reality in Everyday and Sociological Discourse,” published in 1987. He later applied it to various “bubbles,” including those of the financial market.

“Pollner had one core idea, and he worked it,” Heritage said. “It was a brilliant idea that had a huge impact. Other social theorists have followed up on it.”

Born Oct. 13, 1940, in New York City, Pollner attended the Bronx High School of Science and earned a bachelor’s degree from the City College of New York. He went on to earn a master’s degree from UC Berkeley and a doctorate from UC Santa Barbara. He joined the UCLA faculty in 1968.

He is survived by his wife of 45 years, Judy; a son, Adrian Pollner of Los Angeles; a daughter, Leslie Pollner Levey of Washington, D.C.; a sister, Harriet Morelli of the Bronx; and a niece and two nephews.

Contributions in his name can be made to the Lungevity Foundation, 2421 N. Ashland Ave., Chicago, Ill., 60614, or online at /goto/melvinpollner