Smelser, the golden era of sociology, and what we forget
One of the highlights, okay THE highlight, of my trip to Berkeley this week is that I was able to sit down and have a long chat with Neil Smelser. Much of our meeting was research oriented, as I’ve been working for some time on a paper about the Berkeley administration’s reactions to the FSM, and Smelser was involved in both that and the subsequent restoration of the campus to a normal state of affairs. But I couldn’t help but wander off topic and talk some sociology with him. I felt like such a fanboy. What a deep well of knowledge and insight!
During our conversation, I learned that Neil’s oral history was released this year by Berkeley’s Bancroft Library. Anyone interested in the intellectual history of the discipline of sociology ought to read this. The oral history is quite long – nearly 800 pages of Smelser talking about his experiences and views about everything from working with Parsons to seeing a transformation in the sociology department during the 1960s student movements. Jeffrey Alexander wrote the foreword to the history, extolling Smelser’s accomplishments as both a scholar and a contributor to the academic community. From Alexander, I learned about Smelser’s stunning early career accomplishments:
During his first year of graduate school, Smelser coauthored Economy and Society (1956), a major work of theoretical innovation with Talcott Parsons, the towering figure of mid-century sociology. Recounted here for the first time in detail, Smelser’s analytical contribution to that joint project triggered a fundamental advance in functionalist theorizing, an idea about societal interchanges that continues to be influential to this day. In the Ph.D. thesis that soon followed, Social Change in
the Industrial Revolution (1959), Smelser created a new approach to class conflict and historical change, anticipating future research on family and gender in a book that immediately became a contemporary, if controversial classic. Just three years later, Smelser’s Theory of Collective Behavior (1962) appeared, a gigantically ambitious, systematic theory of social movements and cultural change that played a central role in defining the field for decades to come. One year after came his pioneering Sociology of Economic Life (1963), a subtle and precocious essay that adumbrated the future sub-discipline of economic sociology. In less than a decade, and still two years short of his 35th birthday, Smelser had already published a life’s work of radically new sociological theory.
So before the age of 35, Smelser had written major works in economic sociology, collective behavior and social movements, and industrial sociology. His first book with Parsons and his 1963 book laid the foundations for economic sociology. Smelser was appointed as the editor of the American Sociological Review in 1961, just 3 years after coming to Berkeley as an assistant professor. He was the youngest editor ever of that journal at 31. Just as remarkable, Smelser was given tenure just a year after arriving at Berkeley from graduate school. Here is his account of how that happened:
Smelser: Something I didn’t mention earlier, is that when I arrived in Berkeley with my wife and son in I believe August of 1958, we stayed temporarily in a faculty member’s house and then got a place to live. But the day I arrived I got a message through the department that Bob Merton was trying to get in touch with me. The next day I returned a phone call and he said, “We would like you to come to Columbia as a tenured associate professor.” The very day I arrived, right. And so I was, of course, totally flabbergasted. The circumstance of his knowing about me was that I had submitted my thesis to the University of Chicago Press and he had been selected by the University of Chicago Press as a reader. Very appropriate reader. He’d done work in British social history. He was a major theorist in the country. They sent him the thing. He had known about me from Parsons. He was Parsons’ student also. And he had read this. And he not only read it, he sent me a seven or eight page review that he wrote for the University of Chicago Press saying, “Publish this, absolutely,” and so on, and he went on to elaborate why and why and why and it was on the basis of a reading of the thesis that he convinced his buddy, Paul Lazarsfeld, that I’d be an addition to the Columbia department and they took a very bold move of offering this young man a tenured position.
I reported this to Bendix, who was the chair. Created a terrible problem for Berkeley. Here this guy just arrived on the front steps of the university with this kind of offer from Columbia. I put myself in their shoes. What would you do with this kind of situation? Well, the department very hastily convened andvoted unanimously to recommend me for tenure at Berkeley.
Although the department voted to give him tenure just months after arriving on campus, the dean made him wait a year due to administrative issues. Still, how many people can say they received tenure at one of the world’s best universities before they’d even completed their first year as an assistant? Smelser humbly notes that this was a golden era of growth in academia and in sociology, in particular. Jobs abounded because departments were adding classes to keep up with the demand created by the baby boomer cohort. Places like Chicago, Wisconsin, and Michigan, all of which offered Smelser tenured offers during his first year at Berkeley, were competing for a very small population of new PhD students. An obviously talented sociological theorist like Smelser could choose any job he wanted. Art Stinchcombe told me a very similar account of how he rose up the ranks so quickly.
I don’t think many scholars had as much influence over sociological theory during this transition time of the 1960s as Neil Smelser. It’s somewhat strange though, given his enormous influence during this golden era, that Smelser’s influence has been muted in the contemporary era. I count some of this up to the tendency to scholars to try and rewrite theory as if everything is new “theoretical development.’ Usually what this means is that we’re just going to relabel old theory. Smelser has been a victim, like Philip Selznick, of some of that. The other reason for his lack of current influence, I think, is timing. He wrote about economic sociology before this really became a defined subfield. When economic sociology really took off in the late 1990s and early 2000s, it was formulated more around Granovetter’s embeddedness and Zelizer’s views on culture than it was on Smelser’s early economic sociology. Similarly, his work on collective behavior was dismissed by the new generation of social movement scholars working in the 1970s who wanted to categorize his work with Le Bon’s and Blumer’s as conceptualizing movement actors as “irrational” and driven by emotion, rather than highlighting their purposeful agency. Smelser talks about this a bit in his oral history:
Collective behavior was not a very strong field analytically at that time, and neither was the study of social movements. This was an effort to formalize it, to give it more beef, to bring it into more of the mainstream sociological analysis. That’s the way it was treated and reacted to, which gratified me, because that’s the spirit in which I wrote it. Now, after 1965 and into the seventies, when there was an internal revolution in sociology itself, and particularly a virulent and prolonged attack that more or less dethroned Parsons as the leading theorist, and his type of theory, functionalism, my book got picked up in the middle of that revolution. The thing they really picked up was this issue of social control. I began being criticized from the left as being managerial-minded. How do you handle these things? That I was an apologist for the system and that this was a handbook for the police, for handling riots and that sort of thing.
So I got pushed way over to the right, as far as this dominant reaction in the field was concerned. They put me back in the Le Bon tradition of treating these people who were involved in these as irrational. I never use the word “irrational” in the book. I talked about the nature of the beliefs and compared the structure of many beliefs to magical beliefs, for sure. There was one unfortunate phrase in the book—as it turned out, unfortunate. I described collective behavior as “the action of the impatient,” meaning they saw the world as being changeable and moving and they wanted to do it right away and so on. This got picked up as a condemnation of these movements as irrational. So I got pushed over in the irrational direction, which was also not my intent at all. I treated the behavior as purposive but having a guiding kind of ideology or belief system that I analyzed in one of the chapters for all these different types of movements, but I surely did not take the viewpoint of the authorities that these were things to be crushed, or that they were irrational. But that’s the way the whole thing was treated, and much to my chagrin, really, because I didn’t really see that as consistent with my effort, which I saw as neutral and analytic. But nonetheless, these larger political movements swallow everything up. I think in retrospect, it was very understandable in the context of that ideological ferment that my book would have been treated in that way.
I got stereotyped, actually. It’s kind of emerged from that recently as the field has gone away from this particular ideological commitment. There’s bee something of a rebirth of interest as people have turned more to the study of beliefs and framing and the emotional sides of these movements. Once again, there was an article in the International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences that describes this course of events, beginning with my work and then the series of intellectual developments that began treating social movements as more rational and more purposive and more creative and to be identified with positively. Now there’s a movement back towards some of the kinds of emphases that I chose. The author of this Encyclopedia article called this movement “Smelser’s revenge,” meaning that the themes that I had picked out were now returning as major threads in study.
Smelser is exactly right that the trends in analysis have come full circle. Research on movements and collective behavior in the last decade have been much more about the emotional links between actions and identity and structural factors and there has been a recent resurgence on the mechanisms of social control as well (e.g., see the work on policing/threats). In my opinion, Smelser’s theoretical work on the topic was quite analytically clean and useful (and would have provided good tools to scholars studying the movements of the 60s had they removed their political lens when assessing it), but the later swing towards a more rational, purposeful view of social movements was really an overreaction to people like Blumer and not to Smelser, in particular.
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