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April 16, 2005

Guest Posting -- Donald Pittenger on Sociology I

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Back in 1972, when Friedrich and I turned up at university, sociology was a happening thing. It seemed to be economics, urbanism, politics, history, and psychology -- and more! -- all rolled up in one. What could be more fun, or more important, than figuring out what kind of lives we were leading, what their dynamics were, and how they got that way? Organization men ... Tickytacky homes ... Mad housewives ... Leisure classes ... Sociology seemed like the Anthropology of Us.

At the same time, though, sociology was well on it way to becoming a joke. I remember the school's humor revue, for instance, mocking sociology majors as work-avoiding pot-heads, and mocking sociology itself as a politicized bag of make-believe nonsense.

Yet sociology had started with a bang, and had produced some classics. It had even -- with such books as Max Weber's "The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism" and Erving Goffman's "The Presentation of Self in Everyday Reality" -- played a major (and not altogether pernicious) role in popular culture. How did sociology-things get to this impasse? What's ... the sociology of sociology?

2Blowhards friend Donald Pittenger to the rescue. Donald was a serious sociology student in the field's heyday, and in this two-part memoir recalls what his experience was like.

Here's part one of Donald's new reflections about sociology.

by Donald Pittenger

In the Introduction to Sociology class I took in 1959 at the University of Washington, the instructor took pains to show us that "common sense" truisms were not valid: sociologists had demonstrated so.

Okay, I don't think he ever claimed that all common sense was false, but I'm pretty sure he never gave us an explicit example of where sociology had confirmed cases where it was true. (And I apologize that I cannot give any examples of disproving common sense: the class was more than 45 years ago.)

The instructor was Otto Larsen, one of the authors (along with George Lundberg and Clarence Schrag) of a widely-used (at that time) introductory sociology textbook. And he was trying to justify sociology to us.

As I write this, the idea "Just how many academic disciplines require justification?" seeps into my mind, followed quickly by "Why didn't I think of that 46 years ago?" Nowadays there are lots of disciplines requiring justification: just about anything ending with the word "Studies" will do. But back then?...

Hmm. Neither Physics nor Math. Nor History nor English nor foreign languages. And in the "social sciences," not Economics or Psychology, Anthropology or maybe even Political Science; what they deal with is fairly clear to nearly everyone with college experience.

Sociology is different. I think it was Auguste Comte who, early in the 19th Century, foresaw something called "sociology" as being the queen of sciences, the science of everything related to human behavior. So sociology was amorphous (and ambitious) from the git-go.

The general idea when I studied it was that it was the scientifically-based study of groups. Operationally, this resulted in sub-disciplines such as Social psychology, which investigates how group-related factors or pressures influence individual behavior. Psychologists might well consider this poaching on their territory.

Actually, sociologists study what a lot of other disciplines study. Management classes in business schools deal with human organization. Geographers often study what sociologists called "human ecology." Demography, my own Ph.D. specialty, is treated as a sub-field of sociology (at least administratively) in the United States, but in Europe demographers are often found in economics or statistics departments of universities.

Undergraduate sociology, as taught at Washington around 1960, was fun. Courses seemed not too demanding and professors stretched out their material by providing lots of interesting examples. If there was a political angle, it was not obvious. Why?

One possible reason is that this was not long after the 1952-55 apogee of Senator Joe McCarthy and many leftist professors were still keeping their heads down. Another possible reason is that conservatism was an intellectual backwater in those days and the nation was in the midst of an ideological "era of good feelings" in the form of soft-core liberalism. That is, ideology was largely invisible aside from the matter of Communism itself, and few were willing to admit to espousing Communism or even remarking favorably about Karl Marx. Actually, unlike today, Marx was almost never mentioned in sociology classes.

Things might have differed at other universities, but I have no personal undergraduate experience elsewhere to offer. And I should add that Washington might have been a special case thanks to the hard-core "positivism" of one-time department chairman George A. Lundberg who I noted above.

George A. Lundberg

This leads to a brief digression on the history of sociology in America. It has been many years since I had any sort of professional identification as a sociologist and I've given little attention to academic sociology since I dropped my membership in the American Sociological Association back around 1980. So what follows is sketchy, and I welcome corrections or additions to what I'm about to say.

As best I recall, the first sociology department established at a major American university was at the University of Chicago and this was around the year 1895. Before, there were professors in other universities who dealt with sociology and who became members of sociology departments after Chicago established the precedent. The department at Chicago had a more practical or applied bent than a theoretical one due in part to the presence of strong social activism in the city exemplified by Jane Addams and her Hull House project. This social activism was grounded in practicality, and the "Chicago School" of sociology had taken on a quantitative, research-oriented cast by the early 1920s. Chicago was cranking out a lot of sociology Ph.D.s compared to other universities, and Chicago grads influenced many other departments and American sociology in general into the 1950s.

At any rate, a number of important sociologists including Lundberg and William F. Ogburn considered themselves "positivists" or "empiricists" and tried to cast sociology as a science rather than a social advocacy movement. Both strains still exist in sociology; the science side tended to prevail when I was a student, today I suspect advocacy is the stronger.

Let me clarify "scientific" sociology a little. The idea is to combine theory, refutable hypotheses, statistical techniques and experimental research (if feasible) or surveys and questionnaires (the latter often to college sophomores) to yield verifiable data on matters social; hypotheses were to be rejected and theories upheld or demolished. I took quite a few classes in statistics, research methodology and social theory both at the University of Washington and Dear Old Penn.

Sometimes the "science" approach went to extremes. Consider the case of Stuart C. Dodd (1900-75), who promoted the cause of Mathematical Sociology while at American University in Beirut and later at the University of Washington. His 1942 book "Dimensions of Society" proposed the use of mathematics-like equations to describe/explain social measurements. (For a recent view of Doddian sociology, surf here and take a peek.) For what it's worth, I find it strange, but maybe I lack imagination. Incidentally, the Richard J. Spady mentioned in the piece is a founder of a successful Seattle hamburger restaurant chain and a member of my college fraternity, but from the Oregon State chapter -- I've met him a few times, but never talked sociology with him. Dodd himself spoke to us at a graduate sociology seminar in 1965; he was getting close to retirement and had perhaps 3 or 4 grad-student disciples at the time, while the rest of the department basically ignored him.

(By the way, Isaac Asimov in his 1951 book "Foundation" had a character called Hari Selden who had created something called "psychohistory" that allowed Selden to make multi-millennial predictions regarding societies. It has been ages since I read "Foundation," but my impression is that psychohistory was some sort of mathematical methodology. If this is so, then Asimov was in a fictive sense following the same path as Dodd, though at a vastly more ambitious scale and a decade later.)

The 1960s were pivotal to sociology along with most other academic disciplines. The post-World War 2 baby boom was feeding freshmen into the U.S. higher education system at prodigious rates and graduate universities worked overtime to crank out enough Ph.D.s and even ABDs ("all-but-degree" -- completed exams, dissertation in progress) to populate needed undergraduate teaching positions. I remember in 1965-66 that new Washington Ph.D. graduates' salary offerings were increasing at the rate of $500 or so a year (perhaps $3,000 in today's money), and that even ABDs were landing positions in good departments because Washington was one of the stronger sociology departments in those days.

The other 60s events were, of course, the Vietnam War and the counterculture movement that merged with anti-war protests. I will deal with my experiences during this era shortly. By 1970 Karl Marx had re-entered the sociology classroom and the end of the decade saw sociologists stampeding to be first in line to support the latest and greatest victim groups and leftist causes. Since then, sociology has largely become, as I see it, left-wing politics disguised as an academic discipline (though "scientific" sociology is still practiced). I'll touch on the latest antics towards the end of this article.

Back to my experiences. Although I was a commercial art major, I took quite a few sociology classes as an undergraduate. Thanks to the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961 (the year I graduated), I enlisted in the army and found myself stationed at Fort Meade, Maryland in the late spring of 1963. With a little more than a year to go in my enlistment, I pondered what I would do once I was discharged. I knew my artistic skills were not up to tackling a commercial art career so I was considering going into advertising, perhaps as a copywriter or maybe as an art director.

Then I got orders to go to Korea. Since I no longer would be perched in the Bos-Wash corridor and handy to ad agencies during my last army months, the idea of going to grad school bubbled up. En route to the Oakland Army Terminal, I stopped off in Seattle to visit my parents and also swung by the UW Department of Sociology to find out if my informal undergraduate minor would be good enough to get me into graduate school. It was, so I was set to enter in the fall of 1964 after getting a six-weeks-early education discharge.

Whereas I found undergraduate sociology to be fun and easy, graduate-level sociology proved to be difficult and unpleasant. Part of the problem was my three-year hiatus from the classroom. Also, academic standards were tightened at Washington during my absence, making competition fiercer than I was used to. But perhaps the worst factor was that graduate-level sociology at Washington was permeated by Theory.

Talcott Parsons

In those days the greatest theorist of all was Talcott Parsons of Harvard who espoused "functional" or "structural-functional" theory. It's faintly possible that I might have just barely enough of a "conceptual framework" (a favorite buzz-phrase from grad school days) to understand some of this today. But throughout my years in grad school, I was seldom able to take the theory-labels of sociology and ground them to tangible cases or experiences.

Some of this is due to my inability to follow virtually any tightly-written mathematical or philosophical text for more than half a dozen pages without feeling the need for a break or even a nap. I recall having a go at some of Parsons' writings with a yellow marker pen at the ready. When finished reading, nearly everything was highlighted in yellow because Parsons had the habit of starting many paragraphs and sentences with phrases something like "It is vital to understand that...", "A key element is...", "A central concept is...". In other words, almost EVERYTHING was important -- and virtually EQUALLY IMPORTANT: wheat and chaff were one.

I remember a theory-intoxicated grad student waxing on theory to the point where he claimed that he could build an entire theoretical construct that needn't touch down for empirical testing until the very end of the reasoning process. I suppose this was one of those "in principle" arguments that assumed all the pesky details had been verified before theory construction had begun, so that all that was required was some deductive reasoning. He didn't seem to realize that reality would likely treat his notion harshly.

About the time I, with my solid B grade average (I literally got almost entirely Bs as a Masters student at Washington), was prepping for the Masters exams, an American Sociological Association professional interest journal published sample MA and Ph.D. exam questions from perhaps 20 sociology departments. I was astonished to discover that some departments had questions that most of us Washington MA students had no clue as to how to answer. Since I was struggling at figuring what sociology was really all about, this led me to wonder if there was any agreed-upon body of knowledge for sociologists. No wonder I couldn't wrap my mind around sociology: there seemed to be nothing much to wrap it around.

I must add that this amorphousness (is that a word?) had its virtues; I figured that I could pursue almost any line of study and call it "the Sociology of [whatever]" and still be a legit sociologist. Actually, my specialty in grad school and my later professional career is demography, so the "sociology of" business might have kicked in only if I had become a college teacher.

I entered grad school about the same time as the Free Speech Movement took shape down in Berkeley. That was in the fall of 1964; by winter of 1965 it had spread up the coast to Washington. I recall that one of the early issues championed by the Students for a Democratic Society was the poor quality of hamburgers at the student union cafeteria. They went on to other causes later.

Another aside: 1964-65 also produced the concept of college students as being "exploited by the system" -- "student as ni**er" was one sweet phrase of the day. Students were powerless wretches under the sway of evil powers. This might have been what started me on my return journey to conservatism. I had just spent nearly a year in Korea where there was a nightly curfew imposed by the government and enforced by police patrols. And I had endured almost three years in the army where I was essentially on-call at any time. To me, being a college student in America was just about the most free thing imaginable. To tell students they were virtual slaves was ridiculous. But sometimes I wonder what I would have thought or how I would have acted if I had been born six or eight years later and had been a lower-division undergraduate in 1965. It's quite possible that I would have joined the SDS either to spite the "establishment" or maybe just for the hell of it. Chilling thought.

The sociology department and students did not radicalize during the time I was working on my Masters (1964-66). My cohort of MA students was comprised of about a dozen people, maybe two of whom were active Christians taking sociology for its social work-related aspects. I speculate that nearly all of us voted for Johnson and not Goldwater in the 1964 election -- but then LBJ got more than 61 percent of the overall votes cast. Sociology seemed pretty mainstream in those days despite a few folks like C. Wright Mills who built careers by yapping at the "establishment."

Given the B average I had earned on the way to my MA degree, I figured it would be risky to stay on at Washington for the Ph.D. So I sent out applications to other universities, my B counterbalanced by a nice score in the GRE (Graduate Record Examination, the sociology part luckily laden with demography and human ecology questions that I could answer).

I was accepted by several schools, but the choice came down to the two that offered me scholarships in the form of teaching assistant jobs: Brown and Dear Old Penn. Either would have been okay because I wanted to go Ivy League (vicariously, in grad-guise), and because they were on the east coast, which I still fancied. I picked Dear Old Penn because Brown's demography program was new and not many grads had gone on to prestigious universities. Furthermore, I was slightly familiar with Dear Old Penn because I had sometimes driven up there from Fort Meade in 1962-63 for weekends of partying at the Theta Xi house.


Hearing about different eras can help set our own in perspective.

Thanks once again to Donald Pittenger. Please return for the conclusion of Donald's memoir about studying sociology.

Donald's previous Guest Postings can be read here, here, here, and here.

And please feel free to leave comments and questions. I'm curious myself to know if it was something in the nature of sociology that led to its corruption, or whether sociology was simply such an indefinite thing that it couldn't withstand the forces of the '60s and '70s.



posted by Michael at April 16, 2005


I'm curious myself to know if it was something in the nature of sociology that led to its corruption [...]

One of the major problems Sociology has, is that it always seems to pretend to be more than it ever can be.

Following Comte, you could define Sociology as the study of social processes, or as the study of which problems people face when they form societies, and how they try to solve them. But, there are a lot of academic disciplines grazing the same grounds.

Do you want to study the development of social processes? There's History doing that as well.

Do you want to distinguish between the individual or societies? Not necessarily, but beware that Psychology has claimed to study individual behaviour already.

Western society or developing societies? There's anthropology already doing the latter.

And which aspects of society or its social processes? There are already specialisms as Law, Politics, Economics, or Demographics/Social Geography, with their own scholars, with their own pretences.

It already takes something special to survive between all these territoria, let alone grow and bloom.

Posted by: ijsbrand on April 16, 2005 3:42 PM

The French historian Veyne describes sociology as "comparative history". He actually believes that all the social sciences except perhaps econ (Pol Sci, Soc, and Anthro) could be absorbed by History, and I tend to agree. They could all (even econ) just be called methods of history, since everything they discuss is part of history.

The formation of social sciences around 1900 was overoptimistic. Whether or not good things were done, they didn't become "scientific" they way they hoped. But they didn't exactly fail where other's succeeded; scientific explanation of human behavior is hard to come by. (I expect ev psych to end up the same way -- they'll make contributions, but the overall structure and larger predictive claims will be discredited.)

I'm out of touch with the field, not that I was ever IN touch, but I'm far less negative about sociology than I expect the consensus here to be. It's a way of talking about the ways people behave in group or collective situations which can't be explained simply by individual psychology in a social vacuum. Americans have a weakness for psychological or even physiological individualist explanations of everything, and a lot of the resistance to sociology comes from that.

An example of such differences is the behavior and psychology of people who have rights in societies where rights are honored, and the behavior and psychology of people who have no rights and who are subject at any moment to sudden arbitrary interference in their lives. Definitely there are psychological differences, but these aren't caused by the individual's psyche; servile, passive people, e.g., learn their servility and passivity from their arbitrary, unpredictable, oppressive environment.

Economics is generally regarded as the most successful social science, but it leaves out a lot and isn't really as successful as was being claimed 30 years ago (with regard to prediction especially).

Posted by: John Emerson on April 16, 2005 4:03 PM

Back in my freshman year, 1975-6, I took something called "Sociology of Child and Adolescent Behavior"...lots of Piaget and then tons of statistical stuff about kids acting out. Maybe they felt they had to offer that kind of thing after the 1968 student events?

Posted by: winifer skattebol on April 16, 2005 4:46 PM

There's a lot of debate post-Summers about how the extreme prevalence of leftist thought affects students in the classroom. I think there's an extremely strong case though that fields like Sociology are de facto indoctrinatory. I mean, Sociology basically takes political stances on all sorts of social ills -- that poverty is a human rights violation, that blacks' social status is the result of discrimination... You effectively can't participate unless you accept these as axiomatic.

Posted by: . on April 16, 2005 6:41 PM

Robert Nisbet: Conservative Sociologist

by Gary North

"Conservative sociologist" is as close to an oxymoron as you can get in academia, comparable to "civil government."

There have been four prominent post-1950 conservative American sociologists with books to their credit, as far as I can figure out: Nisbet, Ernest van den Haag, Peter Berger, and Will Herberg. The original conservative sociologist was anything but prominent: Albert Hobbs. He wrote The Vision and the Constant Star, The Claims of Sociology, Social Problems and Scientism, and Man Is Moral Choice. I mention him because almost no one remembers him today. He wrote mainly in the 1950's. His name is not found even in monographs on the history of American conservatism. He was laboring unappreciated in the vineyard years before the others appeared.

[the rest North's essay is found here: ]

Posted by: Dave Lull on April 16, 2005 9:54 PM

Mr. Pittenger:

During you days in sociology, did you ever read any Weber or Durkheim? Just curious.

While the definition of sociology may be rather diffuse, I have to admit rather guiltily that it comes close to a lot of my intellectual interests. The idea of sociology seems rather seductive somehow, whatever the morning-after reality.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on April 16, 2005 10:09 PM

Minor point: the link to Stuart Dodd's work yields a "404."
As for the amorphousness of sociology, it certainly can't hold a candle in that respect to the currently popular college major of "Communications."

Posted by: Peter on April 16, 2005 10:47 PM

I enjoyed reading Michael B.'s and Donald Pittenger's thoughts on sociology because I've had similar thoughts and stuggles as a sociolgy major (Queens College, City College, 1973) and grad student (CUNY Graduate Center 73-74, but then dropped out).

I too saw sociology as the the "anthropology of us"; tried to figure out what the field was "really" about (in both theoretical and practical terms -- what "schools of thought" were dominant in the discipline); and also had difficulty understanding people like Talcott Parsons. (And so thus never felt that I has mastered an understanding of sociology.)

When I was a student there was really only one person with whom I felt I could talk about the "sociology of sociology." (And that one person was basically as ignorant as I was.) So Donald's posting is especially welcome.

From my less in-depth knowledge of the field, I also sensed there was very little of an agreed upon body of knowledge. So it would be interesting to see how various students / professors of sociology, posting here on "2 Blowhards," would retrospectively create a cognitive map / timeline of the field of sociology in the U.S.

Here's my addition to the cognitive map / timeline (in formation):

In 1968(?), I took an "Into to Sociology" course at Queens College. I felt (and still feel) I had really learned something useful in the course -- a "outsider's" perspective that would be helpful in life, as well. Favorite books: I believe, but am not sure, that the textbook was written by a gentleman named Chinoy. But the books that really brought me into sociology were Peter (?) Berger's "Invitation to Sociology" and (to a somewhat lesser extent) Irving Goffman's "Presentation of Self in Everyday Life."

While at Queens College I also took an urban sociology course that turned out to be somewhat unique and "weird." It was taught by a charming, but somewhat daffy (in my opinion), professor (Jim Beshers?) who was from MIT, and his course had very little to do with anything else (good or bad) that I've ever read about cities.

I mistakenly switched from the CUNY college that was the rising star of the system, to one that was the quickly fading star (CCNY, "the proletarian Harvard") because the whole Queens College environment seemed very suburban and superficial and the CCNY environment SEEMED so urban and intellectual.

This was a big mistake. The year I switched was the year that open admissions began and there were so many new students on campus that they, apparently, had to hire graduate students to teach subjects they knew nothing about. (I had read more urban sociology than my instructor.)

The department was interesting because it consisted mainly of "old line" sociologists who seemed to be from Columbia or Chicago. But there were also some intellectural radicals (not necessarily leftists) who were into something called "ethnomethodology." Since enthnomethdology was, in some ways, an outgrowth of Goffman's work, I found it very interesting and appealing. Later on, I believe, ethnomethodology was probably overtaken (maybe co-opted) by Marxists and structuralists. But at the time I was involved, that wasn't the case.

When I went to grad school at the Graduate Center, the professors again seemed to be mostly old-line type socilogists -- to my disappointment (because at the time I was really more into enthnomethodolgy). This was another mistake on my part. Looking back, I see I really "should" have made a greater effort to benefit from the "mainstream" sociolgy that was being taught at the department -- although I still think the ethnomethodology that I studied was something that was useful to me in my own life. (Although it would be hard for me to explain how, thirty years later.) But, by way of explanation, one example of the kind of work that I would liked to have turned out had I continued on in sociology: an article that Deborah Tannen wrote about how people from different subcultures speak differently in different regions of the country. Tannen didn't focus on accent or vocabulary, but on how different subcultures in the country might have different standards of what constitutes polite speach (when one might, or might, not interrupt someone else, etc.), for instance.

I mention all this because I would be interested in reading what someone like Donald (with a more in-depth knowledge of the field) has to say about this time (early 1970s) and his encounters, if any, with this school of thought. (Only one of the big names in this school of thought come to mind at the moment: Garfinkel [?] at UCLA)

- - - -

P.S. -- In my childhood "Compton's Encyclopedia" there was a fantastic illustration of the "stages of urban blight" that was probably done by urban sociologists connected with the Chicago School. I wonder if anyone knows if this was a "standard" illustration and where it might be found today?

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on April 16, 2005 10:55 PM

Some interesting stuff about Karl Mannheim (1893-1947):
by Lloyd Spencer

Karl Mannheim was born in Budapest, studied at the universities of Budapest, Berlin, Paris and Freiburg. During the brief period of the Hungarian Soviet in 1919 he was offered a position by his friend and teacher Georg Lukács. After the collapse of the government Mannheim moved to Germany where he held academic posts at Heidelberg and Frankfurt. As a recently naturalized citizen and a Jew, he was suspended from his position by one of the first National Socialist enactments in 1933. Invited to Britain by Harold Laski, he spent the next ten years as a lecturer at the London School of Economics. In the middle of the war he was appointed to the new professorship in the sociology of education at the University of London. He died in 1947 at the age of 53.

* * * * * * *

Karl Mannheim was the last and is the least appreciated of the founding fathers of classical sociology. As one of the founders of the sociology of knowledge, Mannheim developed a sophisticated analysis of the role of intellectuals and of the role and history of ideology. Although he wrote widely on sociological and political topics he returned again and again to the problems of knowledge and of ideology. His analyses are always informed by a sense of the mission of intellectuals, a mission which he saw as being that of shaping a more responsible, and more scientific, mode of politics.

Like his teacher and close associate, Georg Lukács, Mannheim was strongly influenced by the philosophical ideas of Georg Simmel. This influence is most clear in his1918 essay 'Soul and Culture'. A self-conscious commitment to liberalism informed Mannheim's sociological work form his early days in Hungary. In 1925 he submitted a Habilitationsschrift [or post-doctoral dissertation] at the University of Heidelberg on history of Conservatism. In abbreviated form this was published as 'Conservative Thought'. Although this text is often read as an empirical study of a particular pattern of political belief, the full text reveals that Mannheim had already conceived the grander ambition of a properly scientific investigation into the nature of political knowledge as well as of mere belief.

Mannheim's most influential work, Ideology and Utopia (1929, translated 1936) extends the particular concerns of his study of conservatism into a ambitious program for the study of the 'structures of knowledge' and an investigation of the relation between such structures and the social worlds with which they remained involved. Mannheim proposed a sociological perspective that saw all mental structures (with the exception of the natural sciences) as context-dependent. Like the Marx of the German Ideology he wished to better understand the 'existentiality' of thought, its rootedness in social and material relations. Unlike Marx he declared that such a perspective had to cover not only the falsity which characterised ideology but also all forms of social knowledge.

For Mannheim the Seinsverbundenheit (existential boundedness) of human knowledge is rooted in the social existence of competing human groups. But the nature of that connection of human knowledge to social existence is highly variable, and its exact character is to be left open to empirical research. When investigating worldviews and ideologies one needs to take into account not only classes but also status groups, generations, military, cultural, political and economic elites, professions and many other groupings.

Mannheim's ambitious attempt to promote a comprehensive sociological anaylsis of the structures of knowledge was treated with suspicion by Marxists and neo-Marxists of the Frankfurt School (Critical Theory). They saw the rising popularity of the sociology of knowledge as a neutralization and a betrayal of Marxist inspiration. During his few years in Frankfurt prior to 1933 the rivalry between the two intellectual groupings - Mannheim's seminar (with Norbert Elias as his assistant) and that of Horkheimer and the Institute for Social Research - was intense.

The determination to see all social knowledge in relation to material and social existence exposed Mannheim to the charge of relativism, a charge which he tirelessly rebutted. According to Mannheim, problem of relativism only arises when one takes an ahistorical viewpoint, comparing other forms of knowledge with an idealised view of the kind of knowledge produced by the (detached) natural sciences. For Mannheim the fact that the unfolding of the historical process is cognitively accessible only from various perspectives is simply and aspect of its 'truth'. Far from admitting the charge of relativism, Mannheim claimed that on the contrary his brand of 'relationism' prepared the ground for a new comprehensive perspective capable of transcending heretofore fragmented and partial social and political perspectives. He conceived of sociology as a science of synthesis . Throughout his life sociology represented the 'inescapable ground of self-validation' in the modern world. It aimed at a 'complete theory of the totality of the social process'. It was 'in some sense the master science of political practice' and involved a 'total mobilisation of our intellectual and spiritual resources'. Such a commitment entailed a critique of the 'value-free' conception of sociology of knowledge.

From first to last Mannheim proposed that intellectuals had a special responsibility, a particular mission. He indicated two main courses of political action which could be taken by intellectuals: (1) 'a largely voluntary affiliation with one or other of the various antagonistic classes; (2) 'scrutiny of their own social moorings and the quest for the fulfilment of their mission as the predestined advocate of the intellectual interests of the whole.' The tension between involvement and detachment are a constant theme in Mannheim's treatment of intellectuals. Although Mannheim recognized that the emergence of sociology emerged at least in part as the working class came to assert its own sense of itself, he still saw a crucial role for a 'socially unattached' (free-floating intelligentsia) intelligentsia. He stressed the opportunities for open-mindedness, for empathy and ecumenical mediation between competing social groups. Mannheim also stressed the levelling effects of educational experience: he did not confront the possibility that cultural participation itself, while 'loosening up' the established class structure and distancing intellectuals from their economic class moorings, may coagulate into new forms of cultural property which engender new class-like interests and novel forms of social closure and inequality.

On his arrival in Britain, Mannheim soon became enamoured of Anglo-Saxon pragmatism. This enthusiasm had been fore-shadowed by more pragmatic and practical orientation already evident in his writings prior to his emigration. After the war, Mannheim became an apostle of the spirit of post-war social reconstruction. To Mannheim it seemed as if the new mood of reconstruction offered a new role for democratic social planning and hence a more central role for sociology. He also explained that education must play a central role in shaping a society free of its old, deforming conflicts. These themes had been spelt out in Man and Society in an Age of Reconstruction (1935, trans. 1940), and were amplified in Diagnosis of Our Time (1943) and and in the essays posthumously published as Freedom, Power and Democratic Planning (1959). In his last years Mannheim attempted to make his own work more accessible to an English-speaking audience and to make a personal adjustment to the more empirical and pragmatic temper of English and American intellectual life. But he felt constrained by the lack of self-awareness about ideology in English thinking and by the widespread inability to think in terms of comprehensive designs. For the publishers Routledge and Keegan Paul Mannheim founded the 'International Library of Sociology and Social Reconstruction' which aimed to foster an international community of intellectuals.

Mannheim was taken up by the 'Moot' circle of (mainly) Christian socialist intellectuals formed under the initiative of Joseph H. Oldham. The circle included Michael Polyani and John Middleton Murray and T. S. Eliot, who was particularly influenced by Mannheim's political ideas. Mannheim envisaged a new type of party system 'in which the right to criticize is as strongly developed as the duty to be responsible for the whole', with which would go a new form of education and a new sociologically informed morality. To many a pragmatic Englishman this sounded like rather too authoritarian a form of democracy and gave rise to the image of the late Mannheim as a 'utopian of the right'

. . . . . . . . . . . .

Mannheim established no school. His preferred literary form was the essay and, collectively, his works contain many inconsistencies and, in places, a certain vagueness. Mannheim, himself was clear about these characteristics but appealed to his readers to see in them a sign of the provisional and experimental nature of his thinking. Of all the classical sociologists, Mannheim is the one whose biography and mode of questioning connects him most directly to the problems of our own time. Although he formulated his politics in relation to a historical situation from which we feel increasingly distant, the questions he posed in the diagnosis of conflict, on the role of the intelligentsia, on education and on democratic planning remain as pertinent as ever.

And here’s a cool site for those who like to click:

The best sociology book for modern times may be Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel. I only knew one sociology major, and she is now a Mormon with 6 kids.

Posted by: winifer skattebol on April 16, 2005 11:10 PM

Does Theodore Roszak count as a sociologist? Remember "The Greening of America"?

Posted by: susannah tidewater on April 16, 2005 11:17 PM

Peter -- Beats me about the link to the Dodd-related item. Like you, I clicked on it and hit the wall. I just now tried entering in my web browser, and it worked! Seems odd that the same address didn't/did work, but try what I did and maybe it'll work for you too.

The rest of you -- I'm surprised there are so many comments so soon: thanks. I'll post replies tomorrow.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on April 16, 2005 11:40 PM

The Dodd link looks like this:

It'll work if is removed.

Posted by: Dave Lull on April 17, 2005 12:22 AM

Sociology, as well as anthropology, polisci, economics, etc., studies society -- why be obnoxious about similarities of interests among social science disciplines?

More specifically, sociology is a study of more or less stable patterns of social interaction.

Most of the comments are suprisingly inane, but the inanest one is:

I mean, Sociology basically takes political stances on all sorts of social ills -- that poverty is a human rights violation, that blacks' social status is the result of discrimination...
First, sociology does not issue value statements, such as "poverty is a human rights violation". Sociology rather looks at why poverty persists, even when societies develop.

Second, the sociological argument for "declining significance of race" (as a factor of inequality) has been around for, what, 30 or so years? One might see the gist of the argument here

Posted by: Tantsev on April 17, 2005 12:54 AM

Dodd link fixed -- my fault, of course.

Tantsev -- The info is appreciated. But please watch the tone. We do our best to be cordial, respectful and friendly in these parts.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 17, 2005 3:08 AM

Like Friedrich, I'm interested in hearing more about reactions to Weber. Having recently read his Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, I'd enjoy other's opinions. To me, the book seemed to be building up to some profound conclusion but kind of went slack. Maybe I was reading it like a novel of sorts rather than a survey which had exhausted its contemporaneous material and philosophical reach. Somehow, I wanted a large shout-out from Weber about the absurdity of the "calling," how its bizarre focus on holiness-as-accumulation gave rise to something like the Satanic fume of a sublimated theo-fascist corporatism.

Posted by: Tim B. on April 17, 2005 10:27 AM

Tantsev --
Usually I don't respond to trolls, but I'll give you a chance to redeem yourself.

I'm no expert in Sociology, but I have pretty recent experiences with it, moreso than either Donald or the Blowhards or Benjamin. I was, a few weeks ago, recently engaged in an argument with a current student of Sociology, who expressed those very sentiments to me, and told me that I was ignorant for not agreeing with her proscriptions for solving the world's ills.

The fact of the matter is despite what you may have personally experienced with Sociology, or believe to be an ideal form of Sociology, that the problems I describe are certainly part and parcel of the modern real-world field of Sociology. Now, I am admittedly extrapolating larger trends from my own experiences, which isn't something that I generally give a lot of credence to myself. But I think my perceptions are correct because they are widely maintained. Everyone who has thus far shared their experiences with us mentions that Sociology got taken over by Marxists, what does that mean if not politicized?

I mean, even in your attempts to rephrase "Sociology" one can see potential political manifestations: "Sociology rather looks at why poverty persists, even when societies develop." Meaning what? "Poverty" exists in the United States, but "the poor" in the United States are typically quite rich in a wider historical and world view. Is poverty really persisting if the number of people who exist in true poverty (not a relative definition of poverty) is decreasing?

Posted by: . on April 17, 2005 6:30 PM

When I attended college in the late 1970's, at a smaller liberal arts college in the northeast, the most interesting thing about the sociology department was not that it was heavily politicized - and this was a time when political passions still ran fairly strong - but that it was mainly a female bastion. Few males majored in sociology, and as far as I knew not too many even took courses in the department, except for some curious freshmen or credit-short seniors taking the introductory "101" class. Again, this was at a smaller college, with a small sociology department, so I don't know whether the female-centricness was/is common among all such departments.

Posted by: Peter on April 18, 2005 12:06 AM

sociology isn't an "indefinite thing." it's quite definite and it's never gone away, only now it's just known as marketing & advertising (applied sociology?) :D


Posted by: videlicet on April 18, 2005 11:43 AM

My vote is for the tennis-shoe sociological wisdom of Professor Irwin Corey:

"If we don't change direction soon, we'll end up where we're going."

How simple is that?

Posted by: Cowtown Pattie on April 18, 2005 11:49 AM

Sorry about being a day late on promised replies, but starting sometime between 5 & 6 (Pacific) yesterday evening I couldn't access the Blowhard site. Now I can, so here goes....

Ijsbrand -- Agreed: I touched on this point but didn't offer as much detail. For years I've thought (though never tried to confirm) that the other disciplines usually do a better job of dealing with specialized topics than sociology. I'm thinking in collective terms -- a talented individual will usually come through no matter what academic hat is worn.

John Emerson -- Hmm. Subsuming lots of fields under history sounds suspiciously like Comte's sociological imperialism. But it's true that in recent decades some historians have been using statistical data and social science methods; some of you might have come across the term "cliometrics," which refers to this.

To me, a major flaw in the idea that sociology and other fields ought be be sub-fields of history is that, to the extent sociology is scientific, it should be a PREDICTIVE discipline. This is the hard science analogy where, given measures of current conditions of characteristics plus rules or laws, future states can be accurately predicted -- i.e., steam presure in a boiler. Granted, social sciences don't seem to be good at predicting (which is why I like to parenthesize "sciences"), but this is the thrust (or maybe pathetically hopeless goal) of "scientific" sociologists (other sociology, like history, is descriptive). On the other hand, history has never seriously claimed to be predicive -- insightful, but not predictive.

I agree that it is legitimate to consider extra-psychological factors in human behavior as well as to study organizations per se. Sociology has done this all along with varying degrees of success, but so have business schools. My basic gripes with sociology are practical: (1) it's amorphous, unfocused, etc., (2) its scientific ambitions were nearly impossible to realize, and (3) it has become politicized to a dangerous degree.

Winnifer -- Sociology has always struck me as being painfully eager to be trendy. I leave it to others to draw psychological inferences.

"." -- I suspect that a lot of this goes on, but I haven't been a student in a sociology classroom since 1969 and can't personally verify it. When my kids were in college I got word of a least soft-core indoctrination from several disciplines, confirming what I'd been reading about the state of higher ed.

David Lull -- I sadly confess that I never read Nisbet. While in grad school I knew of him, but his work wasn't what I had to deal with in any of my courses or in MA or PhD exam subjects; even in grad school the tendency is to put your effort where it's likely to have the biggest payoff. As soon as I passed the PhD exams I stopped reading sociology for good, so never bothered to look at Nisbet's work.

But due to that quote from North, I'm now reminded of Albert Hobbs. In Part 2 of this sociology series where I deal with Dear Old Penn, I refer to Hobbs but didn't name him because I'd forgotten it and long ago threw out my old course bulletins that contained faculty names. So, here's indirect thanks for the reminder!!

Friedrich -- I read Weber's "Protestant Ethic" and one of Durkheim's books (the one on sociological method, I think). As best I remember, these were held up as pioneering attempts at sociological methodology. The theoretical implications regarding capitalism, anomie, suicide, etc. were not ignored, but Washington was a pretty empirical soc department in those days, as I mention in the essay.

From your Blowhards postings I know you enjoy linking lower-level behavior (such as what artists paint) to mega-themes (such as religion). This seems very sociological, and such idea-flinging can be fun. Some sociologists (often young ones, trying to do an instant reputation construction) do lots and lots of theorizing, often using the "switcheroo" gambit of trying to gainsay established wisdom. The trick, if one isn't doing a "hey, did you ever consider" essay, is to not over-simplify even though any intellectual model is necessarily a simplification. But too little detail makes a theory or explanation superficial. On the other hand, too much detail can get one into the everything-is-important mode I mentioned with reference to Talcott Parsons, and it doesn't take much of this baggage to bring the caravan to a halt. I'm about to shoot from the hip, but maybe a good starting point for theorizing would to be posit one grand-theory hypothesis and then buttress it with a few supporting claims from lower levels, but not so many that the waters muddy. But I'm probably too lazy to follow my own advice here.

I've found in recent years that even though I too like to play with grand ideas and even use them as a peg for an essay, I'm less and less inclined to take them seriously. By this I mean that I'm suspicious of such reasoning even though I'm doing it myself. I've come to think that if there are any SOLID concepts of human behavior they must be grounded in something like what is called human nature. Yes, culture and its pressures surely exist. But when you strip them away there is the fact that all humans have the task of surviving while facing inevitable death. Thus, for those who do not utterly believe in reincarnation or afterlife, the notion that they have only one shot at life is likely to be a reference point from which most other behaviors derive, some tenuously, others more immediately. I further grant that this doen't often come up when going about everyday life: it's more likely to kick in when important decisions need to be made. I don't claim that an entire philosophy or social science can be based on this sort of thing, but I think it might be the most solid starting point available. Still, I might well be wrong; we have a lot yet to learn about DNA and how brains actually operate.

Benjamin -- Thank you for your chronicle. Your exposure to classroom sociology picks up at about the point where mine leaves off. That definitely includes ethnomethodology; it was becoming a buzzword, but it didn't fit into my exam agenda, so I never looked into it. Not long before I completed my coursework, Goffman joined the Dear Old Penn faculty (in anthro, not soc -- though there might eventually have been a joint arrangement) and I went to one public lecture he gave. I dimly recall Breshers from demography conventions and I might have read a couple of his papers. I know that I never "internalized" whatever his intellectual schtick was, but I didn't realize that he had a odd classroom persona: interesting. And let me reiterate that I'm no expert on sociology, despite my Ph.D. in it. I never "got" it, never felt comfortable with it, got mediocre grades, and dropped it as soon as it became clear that I'd never have to teach it.

Winifer (again) -- Interesting summary of Mannheim. I read one of his works while at Dear Old Penn (that part of my training is covered in part 2 of this essay), and this summary might have helped me at the time -- or maybe not, as you will read in 2. Actually, rather than a man of our times, as Spencer put it, it strikes me that Mannheim (like most of us) was a creature of his own era, not quite a Marxist, but viewing the world through the prism of "class" and realationships to education and ideas, if not to the means of production. Plus, from Spencer's snippet, Mannheim indeed seems to be a relativist. Also keep in mind that "conservatism" in the Continental sense is not the same animal as current American conservatism, which is more akin to what Continentals thought of as "liberalism".

Susannah -- Sorry, Roszak was after my time. Can anyone else help here?

Tim B. -- Your sentence "Somehow, I wanted a large shout-out from Weber about the absurdity of the 'calling,' how its bizarre focus on holiness-as-accumulation gave rise to something like the Satanic fume of a sublimated theo-fascist corporatism" confuses me. Can I assume the "Satanic fume of a sublimated theo-fascist corporatism" is your concept? Weber died before Mussolini took power, and he was dealing with capitalism, not corporatism as best I remember 40 years after reading "Protestant Ethic". And I doubt he used the word "satanic" at all, but I might be wrong here too.

Peter -- Even in the 50s sociology was a popular undergraduate major for females. As I mentioned in the essay, it was a "fun" field -- lots of interesting examples and stories, plus it wasn't very intellectually demanding, especially in 100 and 200 level courses. Back then, the average age at marriage was a lot lower than now. I recall one gal (a senior) complaining that of the 32 pledges in her Chi Omega cohort, only she and two others were not pinned, engaged or married. Getting the "MRS degree" was important business then, and sociology was a better major than most to take while pursuing that goal. For many (not all, of course) coeds in those days, college was simply a kind of finishing school, and this fact didn't seem to bother them. The idea was to have fun and snare a husband. I make no value judgments regarding this -- I'm reporting the facts, like them or not. As for the serious female sociology students, my gut feel is that many were majoring in sociology because they were using it as a stepping-stone to getting a MA in social work, a popular profession for women in those days. In sociology grad school there also was fairly large female representation, I'll guess between a quarter and a half of the students where I was in the 60s. Nowadays more women than men attend college, and I wouldn't be surprised if that wasn't the case now in grad-school sociology at large.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on April 18, 2005 7:53 PM

I took a required sociology 101 class in 1971 as a freshman at a well known state university. I thought it the most boring and useless class of my entire college career. One day the professor started a rant about racism which ended with his saying that he wanted to strap a white redneck into a chair and display photos of a black man having sex with a white woman in front of him. Each time the redneck flinched, he declared, he would zap him with an electric current. This professor would have loved living in Stalinist Russia.

Posted by: Xenophon on April 18, 2005 8:09 PM

Donald, when Veyne said that, he was basically saying that there was no science of sociology in the ambitious sense of the word, but that sociology had developed some tools that historians could use. I agree with that. Same for anthropology, political science and large areas of psychology.

Even some economists have conceded that economics is not a predictive science, but a historical science.

Posted by: John Emerson on April 18, 2005 8:41 PM

Michael -- Oops, I forgot to deal with your question regarding "if it was something in the nature of sociology that led to its corruption, or whether sociology was simply such an indefinite thing that it couldn't withstand the forces of the '60s and '70s."

The short answer is "further research is needed", but I'll take a stab at it anyway. As Ijsbrand points out in the first comment and I mentioned in the essay, sociology has no solid core competence. This meant that it was a discipline without DISCIPLINE, and ripe for distraction. (Another field that got politicized early was English -- does anyone have an insider view or nice theory about this?)

Then again, Marx theorized about social conditions just as recent sociologists have done. Even though Marx was hidden under the rug in McCarthy days, I imagine that many sociologists regarded him as an important social thinker (true) even if they were reluctant to breath his name in a classroom. As the 60s rolled on, Marx's name was increasingly mentioned. One thing I never looked into but maybe should have is the question of soc faculty who were college and grad students in the 20s and 30s when Communism was regarded in leftists circles as the wave of the future. From my own experience, faculty of that generation tended to be less politicized than sociologists of just before my generation and later. Maybe the McCarthy thing, but that's hard to pin down.

Then there is the informal linkage of sociology and social work. Social workers, almost by definition (until they become bureaucrats) have sympathy for what they consider the down-trodden. Given this sensibility, such sociologists were soft-leftists to start with.

Yet another consideration is that sociologists who are not in academia tend to drop off the professional radar, unlike economist who can flit from college to government to business with no serious loss of status. Well, it was the case for sociologist up through the 70s; maybe the tight academic job market has lessened the insularity. Academia can be pretty unworldly (Kindergarten to emeritus without leaving a classroom), and hence a breeding ground for not-so-practical ideas.

To sum it up, the lack of core was a factor, but I'm inclined to think it was the sort of people sociology atracted that was most to blame.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on April 18, 2005 9:02 PM

I think "." is right and Tantsev is wrong. Sociology is indisputably politically loaded. Check out this">">this quote from Henslin's sociology, one of the premier textbooks:

Why Are People Poor? Two explanations for poverty compete for our attention. The first, which sociologists prefer, focuses on social structure. Sociologists stress that features of society deny some people access to education or learning job skills. They emphasize racial, ethnic, age, and gender discrimination, as well as changes in the job market—the closing of plants, drying up of unskilled jobs, and an increase in marginal jobs that pay poverty wages.

A competing explanation focuses on the characteristics of individuals that are assumed to contribute to poverty. Individualistic explanations that sociologists reject outright as worthless stereotypes are laziness and lack of intelligence. Individualistic explanations that sociologists reluctantly acknowledge include dropping out of school, bearing children in the teen years, and averaging more children than women in the other social classes. Most sociologists are reluctant to speak of such factors in this context, for they appear to blame the victim, something that sociologists bend over backward not to do.

In other words, sociologists are about blaming society for the problems that screwed up people make. Thus, all of these books read like leftist agitprop. Constant themes:

1. Criminals are victims rather than victimizers.

2. The poor are supposed to be poor because the rich are rich - not because the poor could be dumb, lazy, etc. Corollary: the middle class did not earn their money. Wealth cannot be created, it can only be stolen. Etc.

3. Black pathology is the fault of whites and, increasingly, Asians (see for ex. jeremiads against Korean shopkeepers attacked during the "LA Rebellion" or 'racist' Indian cabbies in NYC that don't want to get mugged by the usual suspects).

4. Communism wasn't worth resisting, hence US intervention all around the globe was illegitimate. For ex., if sociologists discuss the Vietnam war, they will make it out to be a "colonial" if the North Vietnamese weren't owned by the Soviets & Chinese!

5. American capitalism = bad, socialism = good, Cuba = good, USSR = mistake-that-shall-not-be-spoken of

These are the type of guys who use "Stalinism" rather than Communism to weasel around the fact that their ideology has resulted in piles of dead bodies whenever it's been adopted.

Posted by: asdf on April 20, 2005 10:40 PM

I think that alot of these "politicized" fields did come out of sociology given its amorphous boundaries,

but today those fields are as Mr Pittenger said found in spinoff programs: American Studies, or Cultural Studies, and so on...

from what i hear sociology today (at least at my university which is a top 15 program) is about demographics and statistics. It might be going through a process of discarding "the junk" and focusing on things that can been proven.

I believe the field is called quantitative sociology and it is adding much to how economics is transforming itself (from the New Institutional Economics, to behavioral and experimental economics.)

dont know if anyone will read this maybe I will post this to the part 2

Posted by: azad on April 21, 2005 5:43 PM

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