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A lifetime of study in extremism with James Aho

November 8, 2013
ISU Marketing and Communications

After a 40-year career at Idaho State University, nine published books, and hundreds of hours spent researching extremism, retired professor of sociology, James Aho continues to write, research, and mentor sociology students.

“I have always been interested in violence in society,” said Aho. “The Vietnam war was taking place while I was in school, which had a profound influence on my generation. I would ask myself, how could good people do such heinous things to others?”

Some of his collection of research, books, interviews, audio recordings, video recordings, periodicals, brochures, and more are now included in an ISU Eli M. Oboler Library special collection. The Eli M. Oboler Library hosts a variety of special collections, located on its lower level that draw researchers and curiosity seekers from all around the world. For more information its special collections, contact the Eli M. Oboler Library at (208) 282-2958.

Aho began his research in the mid-1980s with a focus on the most notorious group in Idaho, the Aryan Nation Church (ANC), located near Coeur d’Alene and Hayden Lake. Annual conferences were held there with people from all around the world to fight what they called the “race war.” The group, originally formed in California, was forced to relocate to Idaho due to pressure from authorities. Aho was able to interview members of the ANC face to face, conduct phone interviews, and correspond with prison inmates who were part of the organization.

“These individuals were genuinely good, congenial folks,” said Aho. “They were very independent, married, church-going people with deep beliefs. It was only when they gathered in groups and reaffirmed each other’s prejudices that things became dangerous.”

“We are unique in our society in that we have rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly,” said Aho. “However, our moral responsibilities extend further than our constitutional rights. We have an obligation to restrain what comes out of our mouths. Words are distinguishable, but not separable from actions.”

In his research, Aho tried to place himself in his subjects’ shoes. He expressed how it is important to see yourself in the other person in order to find mutual ground and truths that can only be obtained by using this research methodology. However, after nearly a decade of research, he felt that he was losing objectivity and only adding to the problem.

“I spent years trying to understand the people who are attracted to violence, but I began to feel like my fascination with violence made me partly responsible for it,” Aho said. “I think I lost my sociological objectivity, and thought it was time to end my efforts of trying to understanding it, and move on to other scholarly activities.”

Aho taught nearly 240 classes at the University. His primary areas of teaching were religion, violence, social phenomenology, and the body. Since his retirement in 2010, he continues to be in the office daily, writing and researching.

“If we are to truly understand violence, we must first understand ourselves,” said Aho. “For this, an education in the humanities is essential. We must work to grasp ourselves as members of groups, in order to see how evil emerges. So far, we lack real, penetrating wisdom on these subjects. There is a fine art to teaching, which requires provoking self-examination, but not scandalizing students in the process.”

Aho grew up near Olympia, Wash., along Puget Sound, and attended the University of Washington in Seattle for undergraduate studies. He later attended Washington State University to earn his master’s and doctorate degrees in sociology. It was during his time that he met his wife, Margaret, who was also studying sociology and later became a recognized poet. The two have three sons, all of whom earned undergraduate degrees from Idaho State University, and are currently professors of plant ecology, jazz performance, and modern philosophy, respectively, in Idaho, Missouri and Florida.

Aho came to Idaho State University during the 1969-70 school year, while still working on his doctorate, and became a full professor in 1982. Apart from extremism, his research interests have ranged from comparative religions and warfare to the sociology of the body and the sociology of accounting.

Aho’s work and expertise on hate groups in Idaho received vast media attention in the 1990s and early 2000s, when the public became more aware of terrorist activities associated with the ANC. He was featured in a number of prominent broadcast interviews, including the PBS McNeil/Lehrer news program, BBC, Associated Press Radio, National Public Radio, Monitor Public Radio, ZDK (Germany), NHK (Japan), Dutch Public Radio and TV, CNN, and on countless other local radio and TV stations. His interviews were published in a wide variety of newspapers, including the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, and USA Today.

In addition to teaching and research, Aho served on many committees while at ISU, and gave lectures at various colleges and universities. He received several awards, most recently Idaho State University Distinguished Teacher in 2009. Other ISU awards include ISU Distinguished Researcher in 1993 and Master Teacher in 2006. External awards he has received include the Gustavus Myers Award for the Best Study of Human Rights in North America in 1994, and the Pacific Sociological Association book award in 1996. He was nominated for the Edward Hayden Humanities Book Award, the American Political Psychology Book Award, and the Victor Turner Humanities Book Award in anthropology. He has also taken time to enjoy Idaho’s outdoor sports, including skiing, jogging, and backpacking with his wife and sons.


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