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NYTimes.com Article: The Last Sociologist
by swsystem
19 May 2002 23:09 UTC
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This article from NYTimes.com 
has been sent to you by swsystem@aol.com.

Pretty good critique of mainstream American sociology by Orlando Patterson.

Steven Sherman


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The Last Sociologist

May 19, 2002


CAMBRIDGE, Mass. - "The Lonely Crowd," the book for which
David Riesman is best known, was published more than half a
century ago. It remains not only the best-selling book by a
professional sociologist in American history, but arguably
one that has had the widest influence on the nation at
large. The work of Mr. Riesman, who died May 10, inevitably
raises questions about the claims and limitations of
academic sociology today. 

In "The Lonely Crowd" and other works, Mr. Riesman provided
middle-class Americans with a sharply focused view of their
major cultural preoccupations. Then as now, Americans were
concerned about the threat to personal freedom posed by the
conformism and homogeneity inherent in mass-consumption
society. They longed for connection in their pursuit of
suburban affluence. They struggled with the contradictory
tendency of capitalist individualism to undermine other
forms of individualism through a ruthless "ethic of
callousness" and celebration of greed. And they tried to
reconcile their autonomy with genuine compassion. 

He also gave the nation a vocabulary for the discussion of
what his graceful prose had seduced them to gaze at. In
"The Lonely Crowd," he analyzed the anxieties of American
life, identifying the ways in which individuals and groups
responded to the fast-changing postwar culture. 

And yet David Riesman died discarded and forgotten by his
discipline. Even Harvard's department of sociology, which
he had served for over 30 years, recently discontinued a
lecture series named for him after only two years. I gave
the last David Riesman lecture in October 2000. It was, I
think, the last public event David attended, and he was
very happy about it. As he was my mentor, so was I. 

The dishonoring of David Riesman, and the tradition of
sociology for which he stood, is not a reflection of their
insignificance. It is merely a sign of the rise in
professional sociology of a style of scholarship that
mimics the methodology and language of the natural sciences
- in spite of their inappropriateness for the understanding
of most areas of the social world. 

Anxious to achieve the status of economics and the other
"soft sciences," the gatekeepers of sociology have insisted
on a style of research and thinking that focuses on the
testing of hypotheses based on data generated by
measurements presumed to be valid. This approach works
reasonably well for the study of certain subjects like
demographics in which there is stability in the variables
studied. Business schools, for example, have increasingly
turned to organizational sociologists for a more realistic
interpretation of the behavior of firms than that provided
by economists. 

Unfortunately, for most areas of social life - especially
those areas in which the general public is interested - the
methods of natural science are not only inappropriate but
distorting. (It is important to note here that the issue is
not the use of statistics. Mr. Riesman encouraged their use
where appropriate.) 

Americans tend to be highly skeptical of generalizations of
social interaction. Yet they are deeply interested in
knowing what is distinctive about their patterns of
behavior, beliefs and values. They welcome attempts to
understand what forces in society influence them to act the
way they do. Another great sociologist and a contemporary
of Mr. Riesman, Erving Goffman, gave them just that in
books like "The Sociology of Everyday Life." 

These two scholars - and others like C. Wright Mills,
William F. Whyte, Daniel Bell, Nathan Glazer and Peter
Berger - practiced a sociology different in both style and
substance from that of today. It was driven first by the
significance of the subject and second by an
epistemological emphasis on understanding the nature and
meaning of social behavior. This is an understanding that
can only emerge from the interplay of the author's own
views with those of the people being studied. 

These writers, following an earlier tradition, pursued big
issues like the cultural contradictions of capitalism, the
role of religion in economic life, the problems of
America's melting-pot ideology, the nature of civil society
and the virtues and dangers of patriotism. But they also
painted on small canvases, offering us insights into
American rituals of interaction in public and private
places. They wrote about the ways we avoid each other, the
ravages of stigma, the search for honor behind the behavior
of young men in gangs on street corners. Their ideas became
pervasive, entering the language with terms like
"inner-directed," "power elite" and "masking techniques." 

Mr. Riesman, in particular, was a pioneer in the study of
popular culture, writing brilliantly on the role of the car
and of comics. A landmark essay he wrote 50 years ago on
youth and pop music was recently reissued in a definitive
collection of essential readings on the rock 'n' roll
revolution. Even in the world of music criticism, Mr.
Riesman was considered relevant. 

Today, when mainstream sociologists write about culture
they disdain as reactionary any attempt to demonstrate how
culture explains behavior. And their need to test
hypotheses, build models and formulate laws forces them
into an emphasis on the organizational aspects of culture,
which can be reduced to data suitable for "scientific"

Thus in much of modern sociology one learns little or
nothing about literature or art or music or religion, even
in sociologies that purport to study these subjects.
Mainstream sociology eschews any exploration of human
values, meanings and beliefs because ambiguities and
judgment are rarely welcomed in the discipline now. 

Americans are as eager today for analysis of how they live
as they were when Mr. Riesman wrote "The Lonely Crowd." Now
as then, they want to be informed (in a language they can
understand) about their beliefs and cultural practices. 

Since mainstream sociology has abandoned this important
mission, the intellectual vacuum has been filled by legions
of scholars, mainly from the humanities, and commentators
in the press. Most have little insight into social,
political or cultural issues. In the academy, they have
made a frightening intellectual mess of so-called cultural
studies. In the popular culture, Americans who want
informed sociological essays and thoughtful reflections
turn to literary commentators or, less helpfully, to
writers of self-help books or hosts of television talk

Sociology is hardly alone in this pseudo-scientific
narrowing of purpose and methods on the nation's campuses.
Many political science departments, for example, have been
hijacked by "rational choice" theorists who disdain the
study of political beliefs and culture. There are
occasional hopeful signs pointing in other directions,
often in small journals or quarterlies published by
academic departments or individuals committed to
independent thought. 

It is that independence, that confidence in ideas, that is
most lacking in the academy now. About this, too, Mr.
Riesman had something to say. To participate in public
life, as anyone who does so knows, requires something he
called "the nerve of failure" and defined as "the courage
to face aloneness and the possibility of defeat in one's
personal life or one's work without being morally

David Riesman had that nerve. Would that more in the
academy did. 

Orlando Patterson is a professor of sociology at Harvard
and author of ``Rituals of Blood,'' the second volume of a
trilogy on race relations.


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