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Dr Steve Luke and Sociology at Canterbury – by Rosemary Du Plessis

From Steve Luke’s Memorial Service, 13 November 2008

Memories of Steve by Rosemary Du Plessis, Thesis supervisor, School of Sociology and Anthropology, University of Canterbury –

There were many different facets to Steve Luke’s unique life. I knew him best in just one dimension, his time as a graduate student in sociology at the University of Canterbury. In this environment, among other very able, intellectually and politically astute people Steve stood out. He had an astonishingly capacity to engage with highly complex theoretical texts – leaping skillfully from one idea to the next, offering a critical comment, supplying off the cuff a quick background footnote before forging on with a wry smile to offer a conclusion. And he loved doing it! It was sheer pleasure for him to talk about ideas, roll them on his tongue, play around with their possibilities, devise models, reflect on social mechanisms and tease out abstract connections. For him this intellectual work was pure pleasure – a wonderful opportunity to exercise that exceptional intellect, to fire it up and get it moving.

And yet, despite the impressive way in which he used that comprehensive brain, he was incredibly modest. He was a listener and learner as much a talker – an acute observer who would wait to drop his insights into the conversation. I see him in classroom discussion, supervision sessions and chats after seminars, turning his head in that distinctive way, smiling, rubbing his chin and coming out with some perfectly phrased reflection.

I first knew Steve as a brilliant and quirky honours student who combined a fundamental seriousness with a wry wit. I got to know him better as co-supervisor of what was initially a master’s project on the social history of community-based needle exchanges in Aotearoa New Zealand. At the start of this project I knew little about injecting drug use or about needle exchanges. I’m sure Steve had a perfectly worked out rationale for why I should be part of the supervisory team, but I’ve forgotten it now. What drew me in to the project was the opportunity to work with someone I knew was an outstanding scholar on a piece of research for which he was ideally suited.

The best sociology is often done by those who have a deep and long term understanding of the social worlds they research and combine an attention to depth and detail with an interest in analyzing, theorising, explaining how and why things happened as they did. Steve’s networks in the IDU community in the 1980s led to his involvement in one of the first community-based needle exchanges in Aotearoa New Zealand, the peer-run exchange of the Christchurch Intravenous Drug Users Resource Group. In his thesis he defined those who did this work as ‘peer professionals’ – people who develop professional skills in the provision of services for communities in which they are peers and act as links between these communities and other networks, state agencies, local bodies and professional organisations. His thesis – Needle Exchange Networks: The emergence of ‘peer professionals’ – was an intelligently analysed social history of the emergence in New Zealand of this vitally important way of getting clean needles and syringes to injecting drug users. While it was informed by his ‘insider’ experience at different times in the 1980s and 1990s, the thesis went well beyond his personal experience and included detailed interviews with the architects of these needle exchanges who were located in the Department of Health and a variety of community organisations. Crucial to this analysis was the place of pharmacists and doctors in this network of health practitioners, service providers and funders. Identifying the documents, teasing out the implications of what he was reading, comparing them, linking them to the interview material he generated, applying Actor Network Analysis and theorising about professionalism absorbed Steve for months and years. The outcome was a Master’s thesis that morphed into a PhD, was extended and rewritten in its doctoral mode. In the middle of this year the doctorate was not only passed, but recommended for inclusion in the Dean’s list by his external examiners – a mark of its exceptional quality.

It was a great privilege for Geoff Fougere and me to supervise Steve’s doctoral thesis. It was also at times deeply frustrating due the sheer quantity of the material he generated. His investigative work, his review of relevant literature, his theoretical analyses and his methodological reflections were enough to fill several masters and doctoral theses. I remember on several occasions trying to impress on him the need to hone down this burgeoning project. I argued that the doctorate was not his life’s work, but one step on a longer journey. He did not have say everything he wanted to say in this one document! The news on Monday about Steve’s death forced me look differently at his drive to construct a comprehensive life work – despite the conventions of the doctoral thesis. He had lived for many years with the reality of the fragility of his body. He was determined to leave a detailed social history of community-based needle exchanges in Aotearoa New Zealand. While the thesis had to please the external examiners, and Geoff and I were set up to ensure he did that, his primary goal was to write a social history for the IDU community and the peer professionals who do or have worked in needle exchanges. He wrote about peer professionals, but his thesis was also for them. Its completion was another manifestation of his peer professionalism.

Steve began work the thesis as part of a postgraduate peer group, especially a group of sociologists that included Katy Thom, Jamie Craig, Trina Taupo and Hazel Ashton. And he was for them a supportive peer, quick to talk about their work, read what they wrote and sometimes do detailed editorial work on their drafts. His preference for working at night and into the early hours of the morning meant that he wasn’t always around in the Grad room when others were there, but he was always there when his colleagues were presenting or when they needed his input. In his thesis he acknowledges ‘the inspirational vitality and humour’ of the other students in his honours year, a number of whom worked with him as thesis students. An earlier set of sociology students in the mid 1990s – Nicky Green, Peter Eden, Suzanne Phibbs and Maria Perez-y-Perez and Bronwen Lichtenstein – got to know Steve through his links with the Prostitutes’ Collective and were responsible for him making his way into sociology as a discipline and finding an intellectual home there.

Less than a week after Steve’s death it is hard to believe that I won’t see him again, holding his head on one side as he listens to what is said, or that I won’t again receive one of his long reflective emails in response to a chance inquiry from me. I won’t hear his analysis of this election or the latest in the struggles of activists in the New Brighton community. But I do think it is important that his academic work receives a larger audience and Geoff Fougere and I are committed to ensuring that a couple of the planned papers from the thesis are sent to relevant journals. I’m also hopeful some of his wonderful archival material can be safely stored for use by future researchers. It seems so wrong that Steve should die when he was on the brink of a healthier, more energetic life and with much to communicate to a range of different audiences. On the other hand, I do know that in the last few years he has been doing exactly what pleases him most, researching, writing, protesting and living a highly networked life while analyzing the networked interactions of people and things like needles and syringes.

My condolences to Steve’s family and his closest friends – we mourn Steve as a colleague, you have known him deeper and longer and the loss is much heavier. I know how important your personal support; editing and referencing skills, political inspiration and financial support were to him finishing the PhD. I also know that there was much more to his life than this and you were part of it. He was a gentle, kind, smart, witty, thoughtful, political and supremely intellectual man and he will be sorely missed.

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