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Alan Fraser Davies (1924–1987)

by James Walter

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Alan Fraser Davies (1924-1987), political scientist, was born on 25 September 1924, at St Kilda, Melbourne, son of Australian-born parents, George Vernon Davies, physician, and his wife Ruth, née Fraser. George Schoen Davies was his grandfather. Educated at a Wangaratta state school and at Geelong College, Alan proceeded to Ormond College at the University of Melbourne (BA Hons, 1945). There he was appointed a lecturer in political science in 1946. He commenced doctoral research in sociology at the London School of Economics and Political Science in 1949, assisted by an overseas scholarship from the Australian National University, but withdrew in 1950 to accept a senior lectureship at Melbourne. He was universally known as `Foo’. Perhaps the nickname originated when, after an absence, he overheard colleagues speculating about his return and announced, `Foo is here’. Graffiti of the time represented an elusive, never pre­sent figure (`Foo was here’). It may have stuck because it rendered the aloof Davies more approachable. He was appointed reader (1960) then professor (1968), and became one of Australia’s most creative political scientists. Over forty years he drew on art, film, fiction, history and psychoanalysis in his exploration of political behaviour, at a time when cautious positivism was the norm.

His first monograph, Local Government in Victoria (1951), based on an MA thesis completed with first-class honours in 1947, traversed issues of municipal finance and reform. Policies for Progress (1954), edited with Geoffrey Serle for the Victorian Fabian Society, revealed his initial interest in what he called `practical’ socialism. Australian Democracy (1958), his first book to make a broad impact, combined analysis of politics with speculation about underlying attitudes, and offered incisive aphorisms (such as: `The characteristic talent of Australians … is for bureaucracy’), for which some of his peers never forgave him. A gem of conscientious detail and inspired hunches, it remained a standard text for years. In 1961 he published a collection of short stories, A Sunday Kind of Love.

In Australian Society (1965) Davies, with his co-editor, Sol Encel, drew together a range of contributors to provide a pioneering, integrated sociological introduction to Australian society. In 1965 he was elected a member of the Social Science Research Council of Australia. Increasingly, Davies found his métier in the analysis of personal politics, and in the use of psychoanalytic theory as a means of relating the individual and personal to the social and cultural. This interest had taken shape in his undergraduate years and grew during a period at the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations in 1958. While there he began analysis with Hedwig Hoffer, who had come from Vienna with Freud in 1938. On returning to Melbourne Davies began to teach a course on interpreting dreams and to apply psychoanalytic frameworks to political research. The first fruit of this approach was Private Politics (1966): case studies of activists used to illustrate the formation of political outlooks, what they owed to the psyche and what they meant for social adaptation. This study was followed by Images of Class (1967), which traced links between self-perceptions (including class perceptions) and political socialisation.

Despite his preoccupation with individual experience, Davies never overlooked the dialectic between individual and society. After a visiting professorship at the University of Alberta (1967), he drew together Essays in Political Sociology (1972), demonstrating his catholic vision by covering topics including biography, Rousseau and modern sensibility, migrants, suburban political styles, intellectuals, and political and literary criticism. `A sounder man’, he quipped, `would surely have started less [sic] hares, but caught a couple’. Two monographs, Politics as Work (1973) and Political Passions (1975), then foreshadowed his masterwork, Skills, Outlooks and Passions (1980), which took three elements—how individuals work, think and perceive, and feel—and considered them as the integral components of politics. Lapidary, intensely detailed, multi-layered and elegant, it was a brilliant synthesis of others’ insights in juxtapositions that shed new light on them and suggested fresh directions that transcended them. It reviewed applied psychoanalysis, rescued classic paradigms, mapped new uses of theory and was an annotated bibliography of life-history and politics.

Davies’ influence extended as much through conversation as through his publications. In a small reading circle on Freud he shaped the thinking of younger scholars. He was central to the groups of academics who, from the 1950s, gathered in Carlton pubs where, according to Chris Wallace-Crabbe, Davies practised `the enchanting legerdemain of new ideas’. By the 1970s he had formed the `Melbourne Psychosocial Group’, which combined academics from many disciplines with practising psychoanalysts. Davies’ influence can also be traced in the texts and footnotes of biographies and histories written by his contemporaries, including the work of his closest successor, Graham Little, who, not only as an academic but as a journalist and broadcaster, kept Davies’ legacy in the public eye.

Within his department, Davies’ interest in psychoanalysis—coupled with his self-description `social psychologist’ rather than political scientist—was treated with scepticism by some and opposed by a few. He had no `talent for bureaucracy’, and no gift for or interest in institutional politicking. He simply disdained critics, allowing diversity to flourish. In contrast to the conversational brilliance that garnered a following of those keen to savour his latest bon mot, his lectures were delivered with a diffidence demanding a committed audience. His characteristic mode was an affable courtesy; he could, however, be quietly ruthless and coruscating when provoked (the more devastating because so witty).

Davies encouraged people to articulate their projects and to discover their own potentials and impediments, while also suggesting fresh insights, different angles, apposite readings. Driven by an unquenchable curiosity, he was a pioneer of interdisciplinary dialogue. His capacity to bring together novelists, poets, psychoanalysts, literary critics, journalists and historians, as well as political scientists, gave his department a distinctive élan—but it was a quality largely dependent on his own enthusiasm.

In 1978 Davies became a founding member of the International Society of Political Psychology, serving on its governing council (1979-80) and regularly attending its meetings. He maintained close links with British and North American colleagues, and extended these networks in 1980-81 as fifth visiting professor of Australian studies at Harvard University. Davies hoped to retire early to concentrate on writing but before he could do so he died of cardiac arrest on 18 August 1987 at North Carlton; he was cremated. He had been married twice: to Judith Humphries Wise, at St James’ Old Cathedral, West Melbourne, on 15 January 1946 (divorced 1967); and to Helen Margaret Hughes, whom he had married in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada on 3 January 1968 (divorced 1983). His son, from his first marriage, survived him.

Two books remained uncompleted: a study of dreams was one; a fragment of the other had been published as an essay, `Small Country Blues’ (Meanjin, June 1985). Here Davies returned to an enduring concern that Australia must contend with the limits imposed by a small pool of talent and a denial of scale and complexity in politics. The essay reflected his sense of being a metropolitan in a peripheral country. A posthumous collection of essays, The Human Element (1988), captured his quizzical, allusive, provocative voice, `blending’, as Little observed, `the free enjoyment of curiosity with the responsibilities of knowledge’.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Damousi, Freud in the Antipodes (2005)
  • Age Monthly Review, Oct 1987, p 21
  • J. Walter, `A. F. Davies’, Australian Book Review, Oct 1987, p 17
  • Age (Melbourne), 22 Jan 1980, p 1, 19 Aug 1987, p 2
  • C. Wallace-Crabbe, The Foo Scene (typescript, copy on ADB file).

Citation details

James Walter, 'Davies, Alan Fraser (1924–1987)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 21 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (Melbourne University Press), 2007

View the front pages for Volume 17

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