Allan was born in Washington, D.C. and lived there until the age of six when he moved with his family to Oslo, Norway, where they lived for two years while his father served in the U.S. Embassy there. Upon returning to the United States, the family settled in Massachusetts.
He began writing while in high school, graduating with prizes in poetry and short fiction. He went on to earn a Bachelors degree in Sociology and English at Dartmouth College and a Ph.D. in Sociology at the University of Michigan. His dissertation focused on women’s roles in Mexico City, where he lived for eight months.
After receiving his PhD in sociology, he joined the sociology department at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut. While there, he began a lifelong commitment to understanding the fundamental nature of social life and systems of privilege and oppression. The issue that first drew him to this work was men’s violence against women. In the late 1970s he volunteered at the Rape Crisis Service in Hartford and developed an undergraduate course on the sociology of gender to explore the structure and culture of patriarchal systems and male privilege. He consulted with the National Center for the Prevention of Rape, served on the board of the Connecticut Coalition against Domestic Violence, and testified before the CT state Judiciary Committee on laws to protect the rights of sexual assault victims. During these years his first book, Social Statistics without Tears, was published by McGraw-Hill.
After leaving Wesleyan, Allan soon began work on his second book, Human Arrangements: An Introduction to Sociology. During this time he also rediscovered his love of fiction, writing short stories and working for a brief time in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, with the American novelist, poet, and editor, Leonard Wallace Robinson.
He then joined the faculty at Hartford College for Women where he taught sociology and women’s studies. During this time, he wrote his most important nonfiction works, including The Gender Knot: Unraveling Our Patriarchal Legacy; The Forest and the Trees: Sociology as Life, Practice, and Promise; The Blackwell Dictionary of Sociology; and Privilege, Power, and Difference.
In 1995, Allan began his career as a public speaker and trainer around issues of race and gender. Initially he worked for diversity consulting firms as part of a team of trainers in corporate settings, including IBM, GE, and BankBoston. Following the publication of The Gender Knot, his focus shifted to solo presentations and workshops in colleges, universities, and non-educational settings.
During this period he also returned to writing fiction. His first novel, The First Thing and the Last, was published in 2010 after meeting with considerable resistance from mainstream publishers because of its realistic portrayal of domestic violence. It was recognized as a notable debut work of fiction by Publishers Weekly. His second novel, Nothing Left to Lose, the story of an American family in crisis during the Vietnam War, was published in 2011. His latest book, Not from Here, is a memoir that explores the meaning of being white in North America.