An Intellectual Biography

A Former Student wrote this:

Wayne Martin Mellinger (born April 26, 1958) is a U.S. sociologist and sociology instructor at Antioch University Santa Barbara known for his studies which have reconceptualized power, domination and oppression in everyday social interactions and everyday cultural artifacts. He has helped to create the sub discipline of Critical Interactionism, and has advanced qualitative research methodology. In recent years, Mellinger has been active in applied or clinical sociology, working as a social worker for the homeless. This interest has lead him to become active as a social justice educator, writer and activist.




Mellinger was born in Springfield, Massachusetts, where his parents were active as antique dealers. His paternal grandfather, Rev. Asa Wright Mellinger (1897-1976), was born in a Mennonite / Anabaptist family in rural Ohio in which Pennsylvania Dutch was spoken at home, and was trained at Harvard Divinity School (M. Div) and served as a pastor at the First Congregational Church of Chicopee, Mass. for most of his life. His maternal grandmother, Mary Mitton Hubbard was a history and english teacher at West Springfield Senior High School.

Mellinger received a B.B.A. from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in 1981 after spending his fifth undergraduate year at the University of Paris-Sorbonne. He created his own major within the Isenberg School of Mangement in "Performing Arts Administration" and served as Company Manager for University Dancers, House Manager for the Fine Arts Center, Assistant Manager for Harvard Summer School of Dance. His studies in Paris (1980-1981) lead to him being awarded a Certificate in French Language and Civilization, with emphases in theater and art history.

Returning to the U.S. in 1981 he moved to San Francisco where he began writing poetry and critical essays. Mellinger received his M.A. (1983) and Ph.D. (1990) in Sociology from the University of California at Santa Barbara. There he worked closely with Professors Don H. Zimmerman, Harvey Molotch, Tamotsu Shibutani, Dick Flacks and Richard Appelbaum. Greatly inspired by Erving Goffman's explorations of the “interaction order”, his work initially focused on building an observational science of everyday social encounters, using ethnomethodology and conversation analysis. Mellinger contributed to studies of institutional talk with studies of 911 calls, psychiatric intake interviews, classroom discourse and paramedic / nurse interactions.

Three other scholars Mellinger met while in graduate greatly shaped his scholarly pursuits: Professor Deirdre Boden, who was then a fellow graduate student who went to to publish The Business of Talk (year), Lord Anthony Giddens who spent one quarter teaching at UC-Santa Barbara in 1986 and Professor Dorothy E. Smith, the eminent social theorist and founder of "Institutional Ethnography", who co-organized several seession on Textual Analysis with Mellinger at the Annual Conventions of the American Sociological Association.   All three of these scholar are now considered giants in the realm of understanding the details of the accomplishment of  everyday social life through social activity!

Upon completion of his dissertation, Mellinger was offered a two-year appointment as a Visiting Assistant Professor at the Univesity of California at Santa Cruz (1990-1992), where he taught conversation analysis, mass media, and cultural studies. In 1994, he was a Visiting Scholar at the University of California at Berkeley, teaching classes in social psychology and the sociology of education. In 1995 he returned to Santa Barbara, where he assumed positions at Ventura College (1995-2005) and with the Educational Leadership and Change Doctoral Program of the Fielding Graduate University (1995-1999). In 2006 he returned to school to enhance his clinical social work skills. In 2007 he assumed his current position in the BA Program in Liberal Studies at Antioch University Santa Barbara.


Institutional Talk

Mellinger's early work in conversation analysis focused on talk in institutional settings. His Master's thesis explored the sequential organization of 911 calls and the use of verification sequences in the situated construction of the organizational records (“dispatch packages”) produced during these calls. Another project from this time, begun in a class with Professor Thomas Scheff, explored the interactional accomplishment of professional dominance in psychiatric intake interviews. This later project marked Mellinger's entree into what he later dubbed “Critical Interactionism”--a microsociological approach to everyday encounters focusing on power and domination. His doctoral work was based on close observation of paramedic / nurse interactions. His dissertation, “Negotiated Orders: Paramedic Cals for Emergency Field Orders” examined how occupational practices are accomplished through the medium of talk-in-inteaction. Subsequent analysis of his dissertation data demonstrated how conversation analysis could benefit the work on the "negotiated order" of organization settings done by symbolic interactionists.

The “Base Images” in the “Grammar of Race” in American Popular Culture.

While still at UCSB Mellinger launched a major research project entitled "Pictures of American Apartheid: Visual Representations of African Americans in Popular Media Culture" , which lead to five publications. Drawing upon his parent's vast collection of antique postcards, Mellinger accumulated a corpus of about 2000 postcards from 1893-1945 with photographs, drawings, cartoons and other images of African Americans. Generally, these images were made by whites and for whites.

Drawing upon Stuart Hall's appropriation of Antonio Gramsci's theory of hegemony, Mellinger sought to uncover the "base-images" which compose the "grammar of race" in dominant white supremacist relations of ruling and representation. He treated racisms as "historically-specific ideological discourses which symbolically inscribe difference, marginality and exclusion into and onto the Other's body, thus defending racial advantage".

In "Postcards from the Edge of the Color Line" (1992 Symbolic Interaction) Mellinger examined racist images of African Americans found on American postcards from 1893 to World War I. This paper explored the image of African-as-beast. This degrading representation of blacks as simianized subhumans was prevalent in popular culture from this era. Using the visual metaphor of other-as-beast, European American postcard illustrators attributed to African American all the traits that were the opposite of their cherished values (cf. "contrast conceptions" Shibutani). African Americans were not just turned into racial 'Others' in these images, they became inferior Calibans, with grossly exaggerated prognathous facial features, enlarged lips, bug-eyes, exposed teeth, elongated limbs, and wild and wooly hair. African Americans were also portrayed as inferior through the actions they were shown performing (e.g. stealing "watah millions"), and through this type of caption, which often reduces African American English to Anglo mockings of verbal shuffling. Other images analyzed here include: the Zip Coon, the Brute, and the pickaninny.

In "Representing Blackness in the White Imagination" (1992, Visual Sociology), Mellinger examined images of "happy, plantation darkeys"--those pre-emancipation images of contented slaves, in which the Southern plantation is portrayed as a idyllic rural haven. In this "romantic conception of the Negro", African Americans had found happiness and fulfillment as slaves and were cheerful and merry. In the white imagination blacks were seen as clownish minstrels and grown-up children, who needed to be governed like children so that they wouldn't become a burden to society. Associated with this perceived childishness are the characteristics of laziness, indolence, and mental inferiority. Mellinger examined the images of the 'Mammy' or 'Old Auntie', 'Uncle Tom' or other 'Old Uncles' and the Sambo. The range of traits assigned to these three characters, including physical characteristics, intellectual differences and character or temperamental differenes were described.

These two sets of images, savage brute and happy slave, combine to provide a "double-edged defense of slavery" (Marlon Riggs, 1986 "Ethnic Notions"). The "savage brutes" are proof of Black's failure to adapt to freedom, and the "happy slaves" proof of their proper place. In "Towards a Critical Analysis of Tourism Representations", (1994, Annals of Tourism Research), Mellinger examined photographic postcards of African Americans from the South during the period 1893 to 1917, a period that marked the "triumph of white supremacy". These photographs overwhelmingly portray stereotypical images of poor, rural, and Southern workers engaged in traditional agricultural activities. The lived reality of some African Americans is captured in some of these pictures, yet generally these photographic images are nostalgic for a simpler past. Widely read in tourism tudies, this article opened the topic of “tourism representations” (tourism brochures, postcards, travel stories, video productions ) for critical analysis.

Two sets of images were explored: (1) images of African Americans as agricultural workers, either in the plantation fields or posed in front of their humble homes; and (2) staged pictures of "stock" plantation characters, including Mammies, Uncle Toms, and Pickannies. In both sets of photograhic representations, the romantic image of the Old South--a monolithic region with broad plantations draped in Spanish moss and magnolias, and populated with gracious and aristocratic masters and happy, loyal slaves--is offered to tourists as visual souvenirs of their voyage. In these photographs, the South is portrayed as an idyllic rural haven far away from the harsh forces of modernity. What to contemporary eyes looks like a poverty-stricken shanty town of subsistence farmers was, for the eyes of an earlier era, a picturesque image of a quaint and simple rural life.

In "White Fantasies, Black Bodies" (1995, Visual Anthropology), Mellinger's concern was to explore the psychosexual logic that supports and constitutes the grammar of racist discourse in early twentieth-century American popular media culture. Images of "grotesque" Black bodies represent the "Otherness" which was excluded in the process of white, middle-class identity formation in this historical period. Through examination of the visual aspects of these ethnic caricatures, Mellinger's research displayed how a re-articualted racist ideology was sustained through specific strategies of iconographic representation.

Racialized gender relations were depicted as symbolic inversions of bourgeios sexuality, with African American women masculinized and African American men symbolically castrated. The pervasive "bathroom humor" and sexual jokes of the images portray the Black body as contaminating, dirty and repulsive. These poscards made use of protuberant and repugnant bodies to transform white fantasies of racial denigration into supposedly benign humor, turn racial panic into perverse pleasure.

Reader's Interpretations: Decoding Ideological Texts

Turning to the back of these picture postcards Mellinger sought to examine how the consumers of these images interpreted them, as revealed in their flip-side messages. While he had hoped to find "resistant readings" , none were found), and he learned to look beyond the "reader-text relation" for acts of resistance.

Mellinger examined resistance to these turn-of-the-century racist images by John Henry Adams, a prominent African American artist in who put forward an distinguished image of the "New Negro" (1997, International Review of African American Art). Specifically, Mellinger analyzed the iconographic strategies through which John Hency Adams accomplished these acts. In an unpublished conference presentation Mellinger looked at resistance to contemporary racism in the pioneering artwork of Sue Coe, a white, British-born graphic artist known for booklets, such as How to Commit Suicide in South Africa, and other anti-racist imagery.

Through those studies Mellinger has sought an understanding of historically-specific racisms, acknowledging the different forms these discourses take at different historical conjunctures, and has proposed a non-reductionist, non-determinist, non-essentialist and historically-specific account of racist ideologies as grounded in their material conditions. Mellinger argues that contemporary representations of "race" in popular media culture are best thought of as continual re-articulations and dis-articulations of these "base-images" of cultural Others.

Ideology in News Discourse

Mellinger has pioneered an interpretive approach to ideology-as-text in news discourse, in a series of articles. This "critical interactionist" approach marries microsociological / interpretive research methods for examining cultural discourses with critical theoretical concerns for ideological hegemony. In this research program he asks: How do the ideas and the assumptions of those in positions of power become a part of the common sense and everyday practice of ordinary people? To answer that question, he turns to ethnomethodology--a sociological approach to commonsense reasoning and everyday practice.

Because ideologies are meaning-laden events, Mellinger argues, we need approaches that are highly attuned the details of discourse and to the hermeneutics of texts -- that is, how ordinary people make sense of these discursive events. The critical interactionist approach Mellinger outlines in this series of studies is based on the idea that one can best understand ideology as one understands language--as an unfolding social process, that is structured into a discursive grammar. Any singular discursive event provides and constitutes an interpretive context into which later events are understood. These discursive events "frame" what is going on.

Mellinger was greatly inspired by Dorothy E. Smith's use of ethnomethodology and phenomenology to create a form of textual analysis able to dissect ideological messages, and their situated production and reception. The Sacksian concern for "order at all levels" in talk-in-interaction allowed Mellinger to discover the nuanced ways in which ideology is subtly inserted into newspaper headlines, tourist picture postcards, and other cultural discourses. An ethnomethodological wonder at single slices of social life helped Mellinger learned to study single instances of cultural discourse and representation.

Even before Rock Hudson died Mellinger began collecting obituaries of those who died of complication of HIV and AIDS, and this became his first completed research project on ideology. He collected several hundred obituaries from the Los Angeles Times for people who had died. Written in the late 1980s and published in 1995 (in Perspectives on Social Problems 7: 53-84), his paper was entitled: "The Anatomy of an Obituary: 'Rock Hudson Dies at 59 After Fighting AIDS'". In that paper Mellinger examined the unfolding discursive nature of the stories, including the use of narrative structure, lexical choices, metaphors and rhetoric. This project takes the close analysis of discursive particulars found in conversation analysis and applies it to news discourse. At each point in the text, he asked "why that now?".

Media Images of the "Gang Problem"

This conception of ideology was then applied to media representations of the "gang problem" in Los Angeles. In 1994 Mellinger began to collect stories concerning "gang murders" in the Los Angeles Times. He wanted to examine how we tell these stories, what images and headlines are used, and other aspects of this form of news discourse. In "Reading the News in the Age of Postmodern Mass Media: Gang Murders in the Los Angeles Times" (1997, Cultural Studies), Mellinger created a pastiche revolving around news stories of "gang murders" in Los Angeles. His approach simulated the "channel-surfing" practices of many media consumers who inhabit postmodern metropolises like Los Angeles. Mellinger was drawn to this project because he noticed that many of LA's televised evening news broadcasts concerning "gang murders" were spectacular productions occupying up to 10 percent of the air time with gruesome stories which end with a colorful graph displaying the number of gang murders so far this year. In contrast, the stories about the same events in the Los Angeles Times were either absent or reduced to puny stories banished to the back sections, and robbed of any meaningful detail.

Mellinger argued that postmodern media consumers are channel-surfers--decentered and distracted spectators who "endlessly search for a place where she or he belong". Reading the Los Angeles Times, readers become "textual flaneurs whose eyes stroll through this spectacular pagescape rapidly scanning for juicy stories, shocking images and useful information". "As we surf through these pagescapes, public spectacles of private troubles flash before our eyes.... These ecstatic media spectacles zoom past real lives, real dramas and real news and go on recreating themselves without revision to the facts, dreams and imperatives of life among ordinary people". Mellinger states:

"The actual content of these stories matters less than the repeated representation of the world's crises as amusing spectacles."

Mellinger argued that there was a suppression of articles about violent crime in the Los Angeles Times. Very few of the 800-900 murders that occurred each year in L.A. (this was 1995) made it in the paper. "While news stories concerning violent crime used to be a part of a "moral panic" employed by agents of social control to whip up fear and build consensus concerning the need for police intervention, today in postmodern Los Angeles newspaper stories concerning violent crime are systematically suppressed." "Our media-saturated minds have become numb to the wars that are occurring in our inner cities. These wars are just another form of entertainment that will momentarily bore us. Soon we channel-surf to a new narrative and hope that his one will be a little more pleasing. Welcome to media consumption in the postmodern age!"

"In demonizing gang members, media representations fail to understand the real problem and its political economic origins. To understand this epidemic of youth violence we must acknowledge and condemn the political economy and lived reality of poor youth in the inner city..... In "Newz from the 'Hood: The Stephanie Kuhen Murder in the Los Angeles Times" (1997, Human Systems), Mellinger focused specifically on the front-page murder story of 3-year old Stephanie Kuhen, and the 40 other articles that appeared on her death in the Los Angeles Times. He tried to understand this "innocent victim story" and why it was news-worthy. This project presents an autoethnography / phenomenology of his reading of these "gang murder stories" and the interpretive practices he employed to make sense of them. In that paper he states:

"Pre-existing narratives and maps of meaning are taken from our cultural myths and assigned to a new reality so that the new reality conforms to that cultural myth. Media workers draw upon these cultural myths, discourses and images... to tell us stories we already know so that we don't forget that we know them. This is how ideologies work."

Mellinger argues that the "documentary method of interpretation" plays a central role in ideological domination. Harold Garfinkel recovered the concept from the work of Karl Mannheim and repeatedly demonstrated its use in Studies in Ethnomethodology (1967). We make sense of things (such as ideological stories in the news) by treating their actual appearance as the "document of", "as pointing to", as "standing on behalf of", a presupposed underlying pattern (Garfinkel 1967: 78). Dorothy Smith also draws upon Garfinkel's use of the documentary method of interpretation in building her critical approach to ideological texts.

The Stephanie Kuhen murder, for example, serves to constitute the underlying pattern we understand as the "gang problem" but is itself interpreted on the basis of what is already known about the "gang problem" and "gang murders".

A current unpublished research project is entitled “The Meth Epidemic: The Social Construction of a Drug Scare” and analyzes media stories about the “meth epidemic”, focusing on rhetorical strategies through which this “drug scare” is constructed in the news.

Addiction, Arrest, Recovery

Mellinger suffered a psychiatric breakdown in 1999 after the break-up with his Rodney Beaulieu, his life partner of 19 years.  Twice in that year he was hospitalized for severe depression and had become suicidal. He began self-medicating with various stimulants which initially allowed him to return to work. Later he was diagnosed with bi-polar disorder.
Mellinger was arrested for sales of methamphetamine on April 23, 2005 and left his position at Ventura College and entered the Santa Barbara Rescue Mission where he recovered from addiction. Later he came out as "dually diagnosed" and became a certified drug and alcohol counselor. His exposure to the suffering on those on the streets, especially those with mental health challenges deeply affected him, and he has worked since that time as a social justice advocate for those who suffer on the streets. He has done extensive work as a social worker for those experiencing mental health challenges while unhoused.

Mellinger is now active as a social justice educator / writer / activist for the homeless, for those with mental health challenges, and for all who are treated without dignity or respect or are denied equal access to basic social services.  He has worked with numerous local non-profits active in social justice pursuits, including Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE), Families Act, the Committee for Social Justice and Showers of Blessings.  In 2020 he joined the prestigious think tank Social Ventura Partners--Santa Barbara.  He also has served on numerous governmental commissions including the South Coast Homeless Advisory Committee,  Santa Barbara County Continuum of Care and the Santa Barbara County Behavioral Wellness Commission. He is one of the founders of the Freedom Warming Centers, the founder of both the Santa Barbara Homeless Foot Washings and Longest Night: A National Memorial Day for People Who Have Died on the Streets.  In April 2012 Mellinger did community organizing among the unhoused, helping to create the group "SEAT At the Table".

Social Justice Journalism

Mellinger now writes journalism on issues of social justice such as hate speech, the occupy movement, homelessness, changing our holiday shopping practices, the urban poor and other issues for local Santa Barbara papers including Noozhawk,  the Santa Barbara Independent, and the blog "Homeless in Santa Barbara".  Some of his articles are found here:

Mellinger edits two blogs: "Our Neighbors on the Streets" and "Doing Modernity: Using Critical Interactionism to Study Everyday Life"


A listing of Mellinger's publication is found here:
(1992) "Postcards from the Edge of the Colorline: Images of African Americans in Popular Culture, 1893-1917." Symbolic interaction

(1992) "Talk-as-Work: The Case of Paramedic Calls for Emergency Field Orders" in Current Research in Occupations and Professions Vol. 7 )

(1992) "Accomplishing Fact in Police "Dispatch Packages": An Analysis of the Situated Construction of an Organizational Record." Perspectives on Social Problems Vol. 4 )
(1992) "Representing Blackness in the White Imagination: Images of "Happy Darkies" in Popular Culture, 1893-1917. Visual sociology

(1994) "Toward a Critical Analysis of Tourism Representations" Annals of Tourism Research

(1994) "Negotiated Orders: The Negotiation of Directives in Paramedic-Nurse Interactions." Symbolic interaction

(1995) "The Anatomy of an Obituary: 'Rock Hudson Dies at 59 After Fighting AIDS'" Perspectives on Social Problems Vol. 7

(1995) "Talk, Power and Professionals: Partial Repeats as 'Challenges' in the Psychiatric Interview" in Therapeutic and Everday Discourse as Behavior Change: Toward a Microanalysis in Psychotherapy Process Research
(1997) "John Henry Adams and the Image of the New Negro" The International review of African American art

(1997) "Newz from the Hood: The Stephanie Kuhen Murder in the Los Angeles Times" Human Systems

(1997) "White Fantasies, Black Bodies: Racial Power, Disgust and Desire in Popular Media Culture, 1893-1917 Visual anthropology

(1997) "Reading the News in the Age of Postmodern Mass Media: Gang Murders in the Los Angeles Times" Cultural Studies: A Research Annual )

(1998) "Textual Guerrillas in the Corporate Mists: Visual Represenations of Workplace Resistance. Or, Managers Beware. An Angry Army of Semioticians is Subverting Your Organization (Conference Paper presented at the Pacific Sociological Association)

John Scheibe., April 26, 2006 Ventura County Star. "Addiction Teaches Lesson".

Bethany Hopkins. February 27, 2007. "Meth Lessons". Santa Barbara News-Press

Mellinger's blogs