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.

Written by brayden king

September 18, 2013 at 7:14 pm

10 Responses

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  1. I think we should all be in awe of Smelser and his accomplishments. But also, remember that academia was built differently in that era. Dissertations, articles, and everything else have gotten longer.The folks who got their PhDs in the 50s and 60s have told me similar things about the expanding job market and relatively fast times to degree, publication, and quick tenure processes. Truly a different era. Perhaps one of the problems with modern academia is that it is slow, so it is hard to develop Smelser’s stature in a short time.



    September 18, 2013 at 7:47 pm

  2. Brayden, thanks for sharing the fascinating intellectual (and political) history of Neil Smelser’s contributions to economic sociology and social movements.

    I am not so sure things have come quite in full circle, however. The Parsonian model of social control (and my understanding Smelser’s) was based on socialization, norms, and values, which is not quite the same as identity and structural factors. Functionalism remains anathema to most macro scholars in organizations and economic sociology and socialization is not part of the scholarly conversation.

    Yes there has been movement and we see scholars like Steve Vaisey bring values back in. But there is an important difference between a reliance on value commitments and socialization as motivational force, from that of identification and structural control.

    Bringing back socialization and value commitments is something that I was discussing this morning over email with co-authors. Roger Friedland’s latest writings on institutional logics, with his focus on passions and the gods associated with each logic, seems to me very much to be about socialization and value commitments, rather than the more common emphasis on identity, which is more cognitive and more dispassionate.


    William Ocasio

    September 18, 2013 at 8:36 pm

  3. Fabio: Definitely agree with you that we can’t/should not compare Smelser’s trajectory to anything we see in the current market context. We now face a contracting market for tenure-line professors, not the booming market that his generation had. And the supply of PhDs is much greater. Put those two together, and the reality is that really fantastic PhD students are sometimes not getting jobs, let alone multiple tenured offers within a year of graduating. That said, I think Smelser was an outlier for any time period. Publishing four lengthy, significant books before the age of 35 is simply off-the-charts.

    Willie: No, we have definitely not come full circle with regards to Parsonian functionalism. I intended that comment to apply in a more limited way. Social movement scholarship is returning to some of the core ideas that concerned Smelser’s theory of collective action, especially his emphasis on social control (sources of it; consequences of its breakdown) and his emphasis on the psychological dynamics. The current concerns with emotion are right up Smelser’s alley. Of course these ideas have been floating around for a decade or so now.


    brayden king

    September 18, 2013 at 9:27 pm

  4. Agreed. And BTW, the two times I met him (about 15 years apart!) he was totally nice.



    September 18, 2013 at 10:18 pm

  5. In Economy and Society, 1956, by Talcott Parsons and Neil Smelser, there is a discussion of reaction to the investment market as psychologically irrational mass phenomena and as deviant, and mechanisms of social control to counteract these reactions. Smelser is right to raise this issue as a criticism of the Parsonian view especially in light of the reaction to the repeal of the Glass-Steagal Act of 1933 by 1999 and the subsequent contested implementation of the Dodd-Frank Act since 2009. But, in the early 1960’s a reaction to Parsonian sociology started to gather steam. When Economy and Society was written and the year before, 1955, when Family, Socialization and Interaction Process was written by Parsons and Bales, as Parsons points up, national character was being questioned by McCarthyism and the military-industrial complex was underway. The prime suspect by most sociological critics was capitalism particularly the isomorphism between savings-taxes-technology-investments. This institutionalized value system interfaces with the consumers, workers or citizens in terms of tension management and pattern maintenance which requires adjustment or system breakdown which was one of the problems Parson’s addressed in Socialization: the increasing divorce rate, and in Economy and Society: the hostility and anxiety to changes in class structure and role expectations, with education always lagging behind. It is not difficult to see the trend when Moynihan indicates the increasing illegitimate birth rate around the same time as the Vietnam War gets hot to which LBJ’s response in August of 1967 was a 10% across the board tax hike retroactive to January! So, the call for overturning Parsons was heard loudly and out came Homans and Gouldner. Parsons uses the term ‘collectivity’ extensively in all of his works; whether he developed it from Smelser or vice versa is not known but Smelser is considered the expert about Parsons in those early days. Just as Parsons’ work can be used to understand the society and and its requirements to comply with its contraints, Smelser’s work can used to understand the economy and its tendency towards atomization.


    Fred Welfare

    September 19, 2013 at 1:33 am

  6. Amazing resource. Thanks for pointing it out.



    September 19, 2013 at 6:59 pm

  7. With all due respect to the amazing Dr. Smelser (and to Brayden), this post should be titled, “the golden age of sociology for white men, and what we forget.” Let’s not forget that the 1950s and 1960s were hardly a golden era for women and scholars of color in the field.


    just sayin'

    September 19, 2013 at 11:40 pm

  8. Of course, I should have put “golden era” in quotes in the title, since this is how Smelser referred to that time in sociology. And by golden era I don’t think he meant that the ideas were better during that time and he certainly didn’t mean that it was open to all would-be scholars, as he acknowledges in the history. He just meant that it was a time of great market expansion and a time of plentiful resources for sociologists. Here is the quote from the oral history to which I referred (and notice that he is quick to recognize that sociology was not a golden era for women at that time).

    Interviewer: You’ve written in a couple of places in The Academic Market, and some of
    your review essays on higher education, that this was really the golden era of both this department of sociology but also of the university system.

    Smelser: Well, yes. It was the baby boom. Expansion. They enjoyed a very rosy period in the veterans’ era. Then here came another fantastic era. There was a period of long economic growth globally. California was thriving and full of resources and so on. And we were also very strongly in the competition with the Soviet Union as a result of Sputnik and the Cold War.

    Interviewer: So much federal money coming in here.

    Smelser: Federal money was beginning to flow in. Foundation money was flowing in. Corporate money had not yet started. It was just the era of plenty. Now, there was one respect in which it was not a golden era. We had not one woman in the department and we never even thought of hiring one. That was such the culture that no one ever thought that was a problem.


    brayden king

    September 20, 2013 at 1:09 am

  9. Fortunately, the golden age of Parsons is over.



    September 20, 2013 at 7:07 pm

  10. I wonder why you say fortunately!

    In Parsons last work, American society, 1979, he relates an incident at Harvard in 1969 when he observed a large group of protesters standing outside of his building. The person with the bullhorn, I deign to say leader, asks the group for a show of hands as to whether they should enter. Parsons states that a third of them raise their hand and the spokesperson says on the bullhorn, we have a majority, and the group immediately enters the building. Parsons remarks that this is the difference between collective behavior and democracy. This is a significant point. For example, currently, a certain bill will be given the President who may veto it and if he does it will require a 2/3 vote in the House and the Senate to overturn it. The exact quantity is institutionalized which places a burden of justification upon those groups who attempt to coerce by anger and fear all of the other members into overturning a certain law. There is a difference between “persuasion” and justification which is the point Parsons is making.

    Neil Smelser also contributed as the third author to Parsons and Platt’s The American University, 1973. In 1981, Smelser worte with Erik Erikson, Themes of Work and Love in Adulthood, in which he titled a chapter, Issues in the Study of Love and Work in Adulthood, and the other chapter, The Vicissitudes of Love and Work in Anglo-American Society which I think gives you a sense of this difference between collective behavior and legitimacy.

    At a recent ASA meeting I attended, the roundtable I sat at was filled at the Theory Section meeting. Several Parsons scholars were present including Victor Lidz. I did not for a moment get the sense that Parsons was unimportant, instead, I had the impression, reinforced for me, that when we speak of Sociological Theory, we are speaking about Talcott Parsons, among others.

    Just as I read Habermas every word about Parsons and his reception of Durkheim and Weber, I am always interested in any other critiques. If you know of one, please send.


    Fred Welfare

    September 22, 2013 at 1:44 am

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