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The Disobedient Generation: Social Theorists in the Sixties
The Disobedient Generation: Social Theorists in the Sixties

University of Chicago Press, 2006
368 pp., 109.73

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Bruce Kuklick


Restive Youths in Middle Age

Why is there social theory in the United States?

This book consists of 19 autobiographical statements of sociologists, all of whom have some claims to be considered as social theorists. Most were born between 1947 and 1950, and the events of the 1960s—civil rights and Vietnam—fundamentally shaped their growing up (1968 was a pivotal year for most of them). Many of the scholars hold prestigious chairs, and not just at major universities, but at the world's leading institutions of higher learning: Harvard, Stanford, Chicago, Berkeley, Yale. They are mainly U. S. nationals. Nonetheless, the editors have included some Europeans, most with close connections to the United States, at places like Oxford, Cambridge, and the Sorbonne. These academics are also heads of their departments of inquiry, presidents of their professional associations, and editors of leading journals in the field.

The basic idea is that these members of the professoriate had their later scholarship decisively influenced by the radical events of the 1960s, and that this scholarship has been in some way unconventional, "disobedient." For the editors this situation has made the work of the authors more penetrating than it otherwise would have been, or more penetrating than that of other scholars. And so the collection is to illuminate not merely the connection between the personal and the intellectual, but also perhaps to suggest the precondition of incisive academic writing. In any event the editors invite collective appraisals of the scholars, their work, and the role of the 1960s in developing social theory.

What is social theory anyway? This is not an easy question to answer. Maybe even a harder question: is it the same as sociological theory? All of those who have contributed to this volume teach in departments of sociology, but most of the academics have connections to the other social sciences and are often associated with centers for research that have wide-ranging agendas. The scholars themselves have admirably broad interests, from economics and politics to statistics and philosophy. Social theory is a little more elevated than sociology. One way to think about it is to relate the matter in this book to those of the great men most cited as historical predecessors—Karl Marx, Émile Durkheim, Max Weber, and Talcott Parsons get regularly mentioned.

Another way of understanding social theory is to enumerate the learned interests of the contemporary followers of the four great men. The Sixties theorists are interested in the role of religion in the social order, the growth of egalitarian democracy and citizenship, racism, and issues of class and capitalism. A chief area of scholarship is to explore how economics shapes the position one has in life. These are big and crucial questions about how society functions, and why. For the 19, the explicit and somewhat conventional way to talk about these concerns is to use the favored phrase "social justice." The achievement of social justice is the end of their efforts, and the work of social theory is, roughly, the knowledge to gain it. That is, social theory combines learning with social engagement to get to the desired state.

This sounds to me something like social work, but social workers are far less exalted than social theorists, and far more part of the bourgeois establishment. For the theorist, practical social choice is far more a hypothetical desideratum than a daily consideration. Many of the thinkers in this volume have notable stories of knocking about in their youth and of finding their paths with some difficulty. Some of them have had working-class employment at some time or another in their lives, or have been organizers of the downtrodden. But only a few have such commitments in their professional careers today, and one announces that he has never held "a nine-to-five job with fixed hours and a boss telling me what to do." For the great majority of theorists in the present, the 1960s have left them with a stance toward academia but not with much of a foot in the real world of work. One writes that he has retained from that era "several nonacademic friendships, … [a] passion for Italian sports cars, … [and] devotion to the restaurants of New Orleans." The social theorists, then, are people who think about the ways to achieve progressive change, or even to give advice about how to think about such change, but don't actually do much themselves. One talks about "visionary pragmatism" and another about "real utopias." They are policymakers without a polity.

We all grasp that individuals are not to be congratulated on, or condemned for, the accident of the circumstances of their birth. The hard thing is fairly to appraise what people make of these circumstances, how individual character is connected to them. This is not easy for the social theorists to deal with. Some of them in this collection are from the lower end of the class system. They take responsibility for their disadvantage—they write as if it were their achievement that their families had no money. Most of the theorists, however, are from the very high end of the class system, and these children of well-to-do households take a different tack. They explain their future good fortune as a product of chance and not of privilege, and maybe as really a drawback.

Andrew Abbot (who has chaired his department at the University of Chicago) went to private school because it was more "challenging" than his public school. Unaware of class and ethnic differences, he became a boarder at Phillips Academy because "a flood of talented outsiders" to the old Protestant elite "swarmed" into Andover, Massachusetts. John Hall (an Englishman now at McGill University in Canada) went to an English "public" school "for family reasons," but being in the higher classes and not of them, says Hall, has been an enduring burden. Karen Cook (now a dean for the social sciences at Stanford) went there as an undergraduate because her aunt from California sent her a catalogue and an application. Along with a number of these people, Erik Wright (at Wisconsin) has a Harvard connection. Like Cook applying to Stanford, Wright applied to Harvard because someone gave him an application during his senior year at high school: "Going to Harvard in a way just happened." Some analysts would connect the upscale educations of the children to their families' place in the social hierarchy.

Once they get to college, a main problem with these people as a group is that they are so unappealing, at least as they reveal themselves in their autobiographies. A variety of reasons, which interested readers will need to sample for themselves, account for this lack of appeal. One professor (Stephen Turner at the University of South Florida) has been in a rage for over thirty years. His anger at his perceived low ranking in the prestige pecking order lights up each of his twenty-five pages, and gives readers an unwanted glimpse into his psyche. One woman (Saskia Sassen, who holds a chair at Chicago) is the most monumentally narcissistic name-dropper I have ever read. Steve Woolgar (a chair at Oxford University) is a self-indulgent embarrassment. He thanks his therapist for comments on the essay, and writes things such as, "We can conclude that the forms of disobedience that differentially inform our perspectives as social analysts definitely have profound consequences for the nature and kinds of inquiry we perform." The therapist has not helped much with the writing, but I wonder if the doctor told the patient about how he over-intellectualized the depiction of his experiences.

Responses to people differ. My irritation at the autobiographies would not be worth a fig if intellectually we could say the critical work of these figures cut to the bone. The real problem with these men and women is that they don't think clearly. One autobiography (by Laurent Thevenot, a French scholar) is literally unintelligible. His twenty-page account of his life is filled with sentences like these: "Each of the experiences [in my life] I have described casts a different light on social representation, in every sense of the word: in social science, in politics, in the common sense. Each of them can foster a contestation of representations in full accordance with the atmosphere of the time."

Jeffrey Alexander is sometime chair of the Yale Department of Sociology. He tells us about a formative moment in his life when, as a member of the Harvard Students for a Democratic Society in 1969, his organization voted down a proposal in favor of "taking over an administration building … [in order to help] to stop the war." In the early dawn of the following morning, a minority group of militants who had lost the vote stormed a central edifice at Harvard anyway: "They threw the deans from their office and threw them violently down the stairs. Fearing the revolution would pass us by, the New Left caucus sucked in their pride and joined the occupation." From a perspective of over thirty-five years, writes Alexander, "administrative missteps, police brutality, and a restive youth culture transformed this political misadventure into an act of political liberation."

What is wrong with this picture? I am sure that there were administrative missteps and police brutality, and Alexander is not a historian, and autobiographies are notoriously partial. But we have an assemblage of Harvard students who decide that there is a significant causal connection between occupying a building on their campus and ending the conflict in far-off Southeast Asia. To shorten the war, they abridge their own democratic procedures, invade a building, and throw some middle-aged professors "violently" down its stairs. This is "a restive youth culture"? Very well-off white boys have acted in a frenzied, aggressive way that borders on the psychopathic. In part we can explain their behavior by noting that knowledge of their privileged place in society probably motivated the students. They thought that being at Harvard would prevent their being punished. An explanation based on class might suggest that the police who engaged in their own brutality recognized this. Maybe the police, from a lower class, went to work to mete out punishment to the students that the police sensed the undergraduates would otherwise not get.

Yale is surely not Harvard, but what if a bunch of Yalies threw Professor Alexander "violently" down the steps of Williams Hall, where his office is located in New Haven. Would Alexander say this was a product of "restive youth culture"?

Here is another extended example. Patricia Collins (holder of a chair at the University of Cincinnati) has advanced a set of ideas she calls "standpoint epistemology." It "links experiences with consciousness, power relations with knowledge." Collins says that this "constructionalist" approach must be made complex, but in brief, she argues, "where you stand will shape what you see … and stand for." Several pages later she tells us that the central question that frames her work is: "How do we bring about social justice?" If we don't fight for it, we "capitulate to oppression," and "despite what social constructionists might say, there's no ethical mid-point." These two positions, outlined on pages 98 and 108, are contradictory.

Rather than reading these social theorists for wisdom about, and insight into, our precarious social world, I think there is more advantage in seeing how they display certain elements of our predicament. Overall, in the last thirty years, the impartiality of scholarship has been at a discount. Thinkers outside the hard sciences have stressed that our social knowledge is compromised in a range of ways. One form or another of "standpoint epistemology" is the fashion of the day. But the social theorists of the 1960s have gone one step further. The objectivity that was once attributed to one's scholarship is now ascribed to one's politics. The latter realm, which used to be thought of as filled with passion, seasonal blindness, and the partisanship of competing groups, now possesses the absolute quality of physics. The two realms of scholarship and politics have then been mixed together in the heady cocktail of social theory.

It would be nice if we had a little more objectivity in our scholarship and a little less certainty in our moral outrage, and if we kept the two a little more separate.

Bruce Kuklick is Nichols Professor of American History at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author most recently of Blind Oracles: Intellectuals and War from Kennan to Kissinger (Princeton Univ. Press).


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