sociologists, conflict, and the boundaries of a discipline

This spring Washington University in St. Louis announced that they are bringing sociology back to their campus. The department of sociology at Wash. U. was infamously phased out of existence by the late 1980s after highly visible controversies and power struggles. At a time, when many sociology departments across the U.S. are losing students and faculty, sociology’s relaunch at Wash. U. is an indication of its value within a liberal arts academic curriculum. As their dean of Arts and Sciences said, reestablishing sociology will “enhance our ability to educate our students and conduct world-class research in areas that are central to the critical social issues of our time.”

Yesterday afternoon I got sucked into reading about the drama that unfolded at Wash U. in the late 1960s and 70s that led to the department’s demise and its gradual displacement as a top sociology department. You can read more about the department’s conflict-ridden history in an article that David Pittman and Deirdre Boden wrote for the American Sociologist. They note that prior to 1968 the department was the home of a number of renowned sociologists, including the legendary Alvin Gouldner. The department had a strong graduate program that would have been ranked in the top 10 had they done rankings at that time. In addition, the department had a reputation for being cutting-edge while also embracing a more democratic style of governance, which included allowing PhD students to have some input over important departmental decisions. Gouldner was (and still is) a famous sociologist who had built a department that was doing rigorous sociological research while also challenging the sociological orthodoxy of the time. If Harvard was the seat of status quo sociology, Wash. U. was the capital of radical sociology. In many respects, Wash. U. sociology in the 1960s was what sociology would become in the contemporary era – a place where studying social problems, conflict, and inequality with a mixed methodological toolkit dominated the research agenda.

But in 1968, Wash U.’s sociology department came under attack from both within and from outside the department. 1968 was a tumultuous year in academia, not just in St. Louis but throughout much of academia. Students were protesting against the war, and more relevant to the academic setting, many student activists were seeking to give more input into university decisions.  Many of the old establishment in sociology were under fire for being too conservative. Even at a place like Wash. U., where Gouldner was by all accounts a committed left-of-center sociologist, students rankled at his exactness and unwillingness to compromise. Earlier in his career Gouldner had founded a journal Trans-action – a journal aimed at translating sociological ideas in a jargon-free way to mass audiences (similar to today’s Contexts) – with Lee Rainwater and Irving Louis Horowitz, two other senior professors in the department.  As a recent article by Edward Shapiro notes, Gouldner strongly believed in the necessity of sociologists to get away from “academic purism” and to make sociological research meaningful for the times. Gouldner had ceded control of the journal to Horowitz when he was away on sabbatical in Europe but when he returned in 1966, Horowitz refused to turn the journal back over to Gouldner. Horowitz wanted to take the journal in a more radical direction than Gouldner, exploring previously unexplored topics that interested the new generation of sociologists, while Gouldner believed the journal ought to be linked to the journalistic establishment. Also having relinquished the position of department chair, Gouldner suddenly found himself lacking the influence he once had. Conflict erupted between Gouldner and Horowitz/Rainwater, which eventually led to enough disruptions within the department that Gouldner was removed from the department as a faculty member and appointed to a university chair.  At the same time, graduate students were organizing among themselves and asking for more say and influence over departmental decisions, like the ability to veto faculty hires. Laud Humphreys, one of the more senior and outspoken grad students and a protege of Rainwater (Gouldner’s rival), got caught up in the toxic situation.

In the spring of 1968, when Gouldner found cartoonish “Wanted” posters featuring his likeness posted by grad students on the department bulletin board, he immediately blamed Humphreys.  From the biography of Humphreys:

Gouldner approached Laud while extending his hand. Laud reported that he imagined that Gouldner wanted to shake hands and make up. Instead, Gouldner hit him in the face, knocking him down and then kicking him. Typed notes in Laud’s files indicated that Gouldner said: “If you ever mention my name in public again, I’ll kill you.” Henslin recalled that soon afterward he “saw Laud leaving McMillan Hall, crying. I could see footprints on his pants. I took him to the campus infirmary” (pg. 19).

As you might imagine, many faculty in the department didn’t react positively to the news that one of their most promising students had been attacked by a professor. Four senior members of the faculty petitioned the chancellor to suspend Gouldner from the university faculty.  The same report noted that Humphreys would soon receive his PhD and “shortly thereafter will join our faculty.”  This may have been seen as a political move by Gouldner’s enemies to supplant his authority once and for all. But it was also a move to install a new kind of radical sociology within the department. Laud Humphreys, after all, wasn’t just any other grad student. He was the author of a dissertation about illicit gay behavior in public spaces that would later be published as Tearoom Trade, a classic study about gay sexuality. The book helped establish the study of sexuality in sociology, not to mention being one of the first studies of gay sexuality, and helped create new standards for ethics and human subjects, given the way Humphreys obtained information about participants and potentially violated their privacy. Gouldner also likely recognized the dissertation as a new kind of radical sociology – one that belonged much more to the identity politics of the New Left and wandered from the values and ideology of the Old Left. The stage was set for the university to attack Humphreys and use him as a scapegoat (as Rainwater claimed) in the Gouldner controversy.

Even though Humphreys earned his PhD that spring, the university launched a “post hoc inquiry” into the ethical and potentially “criminal” conditions in which the dissertation research was conducted. The university’s provost contacted the National Institute of Mental Health, which had provided a large grant for Rainwater (Humphreys’s advisor), and asked that they reconsider extending the grant. Rainwater and Humphreys both came under heavy scrutiny, and despite both eventually having their research practices cleared, Humphreys’s reputation was tarnished and Rainwater was fed up with the politics of Wash. U. In the fallout of the Gouldner-Humphreys fiasco, the dean asked the department chair, Robert Hamblin, to resign, and the dean essentially put the department into receivership, freezing future hiring and budget increases. The disgruntled, most prominent members of the department began to exit the department pretty quickly. For example, Hamblin left Wash. U. to go to the University of Arizona, where he helped to build that department from obscurity into a top ten program. Rainwater went to Harvard. Horowitz went to Rutgers, taking Trans-action with him. Another respected sociologist of stratification, Joseph Kahl, went to Cornell. The list of respected sociologists who left during a brief two year time span is pretty impressive.

Pittman and Boden argue that the Humphreys-Gouldner controversy opened an opportunity for the much more conservative administration to exercise control over the department, which they perceived as too radical and Marxist. If their goal was to change the ideological composition of the department, they mostly succeeded. But they also destroyed the department’s reputation and made it infeasible to restore the department to its once prominent position in the field. Pittman and Boden argue that the department’s fate teaches us something about the tenuous position of sociology within academia. Sociology offers “an innovative and critical element to academic life and to the recurring social issues and problems that confront social actors,” but that same critical lens can often lead to fragmentation and lack of consensus among sociologists. The tendency to be ultra-critical can be turned inward in a destructive way. From this perspective, it’s no surprise that the department that was the hotbed of critical sociology and conflict theory was also the department that couldn’t resolve its own problems and that turned the conservative administration against it.

Laud Humphrey’s biography offers a slightly different point of view and suggests that the best way to understand departmental controversies like this is as a lens on the changing boundaries of the discipline. Whenever we see a public controversy such as this in sociology, there is usually a larger issue at stake. In the case of Gouldner and Humphreys the issue was the changing voice of the discipline. The New Left with their more critical stance and their embrace of identity politics and activism was viewed negatively by many of the old guard. The drama with Gouldner-Humphreys-Rainwater was partly a manifestation of this cohort difference. You could see the same generational divide bringing chaos to other established departments in the country, including Berkeley (which was reeling ever since the Free Speech Movement and subsequent radicalization of grad students) and Columbia (which disintegrated post-1968 rebellion). Sociology departments were often ground zero for New Left politics and the old guard didn’t like the direction that new generation’s politics were taking sociology. (For another account of this generational divide, check out Michael Burawoy’s history of Berkeley sociology.)

Other controversies bear the stamp of their own era’s shifts in disciplinary boundaries. For example, in the 1970s and 80s, both the politics of gender and debates about the qualitative/quantitative divide were manifest in the controversy over Theda Skocpol’s tenure decision at Harvard. Yes, the case was idiosyncratic to Harvard, but the issues at stake in her tenure case were reverberating throughout the discipline. I’m sure we could go through other memorable controversies and highlight how each one of them is embedded in a bigger conflict about what sociology is/ought to be. And perhaps this is why it’s so hard to let these controversies go. We are drawn to stories of professors punching students, not just because of the scandalous details, but because they are a window into our own discipline’s past.

Written by brayden king

May 27, 2014 at 10:12 pm

4 Responses

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  1. Minor historical footnote: the new provost at Wash U is Holden Thorp, formerly our chancellor here at UNC-CH. He & Buck Goldstein wrote a book about entrepreneurial universities & innovation, in which they praised several features of Carolina, including its consistently NCAA-championship winning women’s soccer team AND its sociology department. They wrote that any ranking of US universities that included these two factors would put UNC toward the top.
    I don’t think it is a coincidence that, shortly after he arrived at Wash U, he helped put the process in motion to restore the sociology department.


    Howard Aldrich

    May 28, 2014 at 1:52 pm

  2. The events of the late sixties may have been pivotal, but the department didn’t disappear until 20 years later. Also around 1970, the Social Relations department at Harvard started to fall apart and finally split apart in 1972 when Sociology seceded. I don’t know whether the history of that break-up has been written, but I think that the conflicts were not so much political as economic and administrative.


    Jay Livingston

    May 28, 2014 at 2:10 pm

  3. The lesson I take from the story is that political disputes blow departments up when they take the form of personalized attacks.



    May 28, 2014 at 3:03 pm

  4. Thanks for the walk down Wash U sociology department memory lane. I did note the absence of Helen Gouldner’s role in the drama, though.

    R Slone


    Ricca Slone

    May 29, 2014 at 4:00 am

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