In Memoriam: Joseph Sonnenfeld
Joseph Sonnenfeld, Emeritus Professor of Geography, Texas A&M University, passed away in December 2014, aged 85. He was a pioneer of environmental perception and behavior studies, perhaps most well-known for his work on spatial orientation, sense of place, and Inupiat adaptation to social and environmental change in northern Alaska.
Sonnenfeld was the son of Jewish immigrants and grew up in a Yiddish-speaking, Orthodox household in New York City. Each day, following classes in the public schools, he attended a Hebrew school.
In the summer of 1946, with the announced end of the GI Bill weeks away, the 17 year old Sonnenfeld enlisted in the United States Marines Corps, believing military service to be a way he might be able to afford attending college. The military was quite a change from social world that he grew up in.
When he was given the choice of two overseas assignments – post-war Japan or the Aleutian Islands in the Alaskan Territory – he chose the latter, traveling to Adak Island to help protect a United States Navy submarine base. Later at Dutch Harbor on Amaknak Island, one of his assignments was to accompany an archeologist excavating the site of an early 1800s Russian Orthodox mission.
While in the Aleutians, he completed the high school equivalency exam, also earning credits towards a college degree. Upon honorable discharge in 1949, Sonnenfeld pursued his childhood aspiration of becoming a veterinarian by enrolling as a pre-Veterinary Science student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He then transferred to Oregon State College in Corvallis to study Fish and Wildlife Science. It was there that Geography piqued his interest, notably a course in Regional Geography which led to a Bachelor’s degree in Natural Resources in 1952. Following that he moved to the recently-established Isaiah Bowman School of Geography at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.
Sonnenfeld returned to Alaska in the spring and summer of 1954 under contract from the Office of Naval Research. There he investigated whether Inupiat who had been working in petroleum exploration for Federal contractors would be able to return to traditional hunting and fishing subsistence activities when testing had been completed. His PhD dissertation, entitled “Changes in Subsistence Among the Barrow Eskimo,” was based on this study and completed in 1957.
Sonnenfeld’s first tenure-track faculty appointment was in 1955 at the Department of Sociology, Anthropology and Geography at the University of Delaware where he stayed for 13 years, and during which time Geography became its own department. Sonnenfeld returned to Alaska in the fall and winter of 1964-65, this time in cooperation with the Arctic Naval Research Laboratory, in Point Barrow. Then in 1968, Sonnenfeld moved to Texas A&M University, in its new College of Geosciences, and where a Department of Geography was later established.
Although he acknowledged the reality of the natural environment, he insisted that humans ‘discovered’ it through the senses, thus individuals’ decision-making was in relation to a perceived environment. This perceived environment was the one with which humans then made decisions about their own behaviors, with regards to it, hence the creation of a ‘behavioral environment’.
One of Sonnenfeld’s signal contributions was a 1972 paper on “Geography, Perception, and the Behavioral Environment,” in which he classified the human behavioral environment as consisting of geographical, operational, perceptual, and behavioral elements. During the 1980s, he became interested in physiological dimensions of spatial orientation, working across the disciplines with medical researchers and psychologists.
At A&M, Sonnenfeld taught courses in behavioral geography and economic geography. Later, he was asked to engage with students’ increasing awareness of environmental issues and help develop a new undergraduate option with a professional focus on environmental concerns.
Always supportive of human rights, Sonnenfeld recognized early after arriving at A&M that developing a positive environment for the institution’s newly co-educational student body was essential. He worked with others to develop policies and procedures to protect young women from harassment in campus life, including arguing for the establishment of the position of Dean of Women to advocate for women.
In 1991, in what he considered a peak achievement, Sonnenfeld received a National Science Foundation grant to return to the far north of Alaska to conduct in-depth interviews on environmental perception, sense of place, and spatial orientation of Inupiat in three villages he had worked in previously, including a few whom he had interviewed in the mid-1950s.
Retiring early from Texas A&M, in 1993, Sonnenfeld moved to Port Angeles, Washington, to continue working on his Alaska study. For the next two decades he worked on the book manuscript, with the working title, “Arctic Wayfinders: Inupiat Travel Behaviors and Travel Environments in Northern Alaska;” at the time of this writing, it remains unpublished.
Sonnenfeld was a member of the Association of American Geographers for over 50 years, and also a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the International Association for Cross-Cultural Psychology, the Society for Psychological Anthropology, and the Sigma Xi scientific honor society.
Sonnenfeld was married three times: to Valerie Wilmot, Carol Price, and lastly to Liana Bisiani, a marriage that endured more than thirty years, until his death. He is survived by three sons (with Valerie Wilmot), their spouses and children; and by Liana Sonnenfeld, her children by a prior marriage, and their families.
Written by David A. Sonnenfeld with contributions from Clarissa Kimber and Chang-Yi David Chang. For a longer version of this obituary see http://www.aag.org/cs/membership/tributes_memorials/sz/sonnenfeld_joseph and for a complete listing of Sonnenfeld’s works see http://tinyurl.com/pzqqvy7