The Chosen Few

Jerome Karabel's The Chosen is the big meta-academic book of the season -- a scholarly epic reconstructing "the hidden history of admission and exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton," as the subtitle puts it. Karabel, who is a professor of sociology at the University of California at Berkeley, has fished documents out of the archive with the muckraking zeal worthy of an investigative journalist. And his book, published this month by Houghton Mifflin, is written in far brisker narrative prose than you might expect from somebody working in either sociology or education. That's not meant as a dis to those worthy fields. But in either, the emphasis on calibrating one's method does tend to make storytelling an afterthought.

For Karabel really does have a story to tell. The Chosen shows how the gentlemanly anti-Semitism of the early 20th century precipitated a deep shift in how the country's three most prestigious universities went about the self-appointed task of selecting and grooming an elite.

It is (every aspect of it, really) a touchy subject. The very title of the book is a kind of sucker-punch. It is an old anti-Jewish slur, of course. It's an allusion to Jehovah's selection of the Jews as the Chosen People, of course. It's also a term sometimes used, with a sarcastic tone, as an ethnic slur. But Karabel turns it back against the WASP establishment itself -- in ways too subtle, and certainly too well-researched, to be considered merely polemical. (I'm going to highlight some of the more rancor-inspiring implications below, but that is due to my lack of Professor Karabel's good manners.)

The element of exposé pretty much guarantees the book a readership among people fascinated or wounded by the American status system. Which is potentially, of course, a very large readership indeed. But "The Chosen" is also interesting as an example of sociology being done in almost classical vein. It is a study of what, almost a century ago, Vilfredo Pareto called "the circulation of elites" -- the process through which "the governing elite is always in a state of slow and continuous transformation ... never being today what it was yesterday."

In broad outline, the story goes something like this. Once upon a time, there were three old and distinguished universities on the east coast of the United States. The Big Three were each somewhat distinctive in character, but also prone to keeping an eye on one another's doings.

Harvard was the school with the most distinguished scholars on its faculty -- and it was also the scene of President Charles Eliot's daring experiment in letting undergraduates pick most of their courses as "electives." There were plenty of the "stupid young sons of the rich" on campus (as one member of the Board of Overseers put it in 1904), but the student body was also relatively diverse. At the other extreme, Princeton was the country club that F. Scott Fitzgerald later described in This Side of Paradise. (When asked how many students there were on campus, a Princeton administrator famously replied, "About 10 percent.")

Finally, there was Yale, which had crafted its institutional identity as an alternative to the regional provincialism of Harvard, or Princeton's warm bath of snobbery. It was "the one place where money makes no difference ... where you stand for what you are," in the words of the then-beloved college novel Dink Stover, about a clean-cut and charismatic Yalie.

But by World War One, something was menacing these idyllic institutions: Namely, immigration in general and "the Hebrew invasion" in particular. A meeting of New England deans in the spring of 1918 took this on directly. A large and growing percentage of incoming students were the bright and driven children of Eastern European Jewish immigrants. This was particularly true at Harvard, where almost a fifth of the freshman class that year was Jewish. A few years later, the figure would reach 13 percent at Yale -- and even at Princeton, the number of Jewish students had doubled its prewar level.

At the same time, the national discussion over immigration was being shaped by three prominent advocates of "scientific" racism who worried about the decline of America's Nordic stock. They were Madison Grant (Yale 1887), Henry Fairfield Osborne (Princeton 1877), and Lothrop Stoddard (Harvard 1905).

There was, in short, an air of crisis at the Big Three. Even the less robustly bigoted administrators worried about (as one Harvard official put it) "the disinclination, whether justified or not, on the part of non-Jewish students to be thrown into contact with so large a proportion of Jewish undergraduates."

Such, then, was the catalyst for the emergence, at each university, of an intricate and slightly preposterous set of formulae governing the admissions process. Academic performance (the strong point of the Jewish applicants) would be a factor -- but one strictly subordinated to a systematic effort to weigh "character."

That was an elusive quality, of course. But administrators knew when they saw it. Karabel describes the "typology" that Harvard used to make an initial characterization of applicants. The code system included the Boondocker ("unsophisticated rural background"), the Taconic ("culturally depressed background," "low income"), and the Krunch ("main strength is athletic," "prospective varsity athlete"). One student at Yale was selected over an applicant with a stronger record and higher exam scores because, as an administrator put it, "we just thought he was more of a guy."

Now, there is a case to be made for a certain degree of flexibility in admissions criteria. If anything, given our reflex-like tendency to see diversity as such as an intrinsic good, it seems counterintuitive to suggest otherwise. There might be some benefit to the devil's-advocate exercise of trying to imagine the case for strictly academic standards.

But Karabel's meticulous and exhaustive record of how the admissions process changed is not presented as an argument for that sort of meritocracy. First of all, it never prevailed to begin with.

A certain gentlemanly disdain for mere study was always part of the Big Three ethos. Nor had there ever been any risk that the dim sons of wealthy alumni would go without the benefits of a prestigious education.

What the convoluted new admissions algorithms did, rather, was permit the institutions to exercise a greater -- but also a more deftly concealed -- authority over the composition of the student body.

"The cornerstones of the new system were discretion and opacity," writes Karabel; "discretion so that gatekeepers would be free to do what they wished and opacity so that how they used their discretion would not be subject to public scrutiny.... Once this capacity to adapt was established, a new admissions regime was in place that was governed by what might be called the 'iron law of admissions': a university will retain a particular admissions policy only so long as it produces outcomes that correspond to perceived institutional interests."

That arrangement allowed for adaptation to social change -- not just by restricting applicants of one minority status in the 1920s, but by incorporating underrepresented students of other backgrounds later. But Karabel's analysis suggests that this had less to do with administratorsbeing "forward-looking and driven by high ideals" than it might appear.

"The Big Three," he writes, "were more often deeply conservative and surprisingly insecure about their status in the higher education pecking order.... Change, when it did come, almost always derived from one of two sources: the continuation of existing policies was believed to pose a threat either to vital institutional interests (above all, maintaining their competitive positions) or to the preservation of the social order of which they were an integral -- and privileged -- part."

Late in the book, Karabel quotes a blistering comment by the American Marxist economist Paul Sweezy (Exeter '27, Harvard '31, Harvard Ph.D. '37) who denounced C. Wright Mills for failing to grasp "the role of the preparatory schools and colleges as recruiters for the ruling class, sucking upwards the ablest elements of the lower classes." Universities such as the Big Three thus performed a double service to the order by "infusing new brains into the ruling class and weakening the potential leadership of the working class."

Undoubtedly so, once upon a time -- but today, perhaps, not so much. The neglect of their duties by the Big Three bourgeoisie is pretty clear from the statistics.

"By 2000," writes Karabel, "the cost of a year at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton had reached the staggering sum of more than $35,000 -- an amount that well under 10 percent of American families could afford....Yet at all three institutions, a majority of students were able to pay their expenses without financial assistance -- compelling testimony that, more than thirty years after the introduction of need-blind admissions, the Big Three continued to draw most of their students from the most affluent members of society." The number of students at the Big Three coming from families in the bottom half of the national income distribution averages out to about 10 percent.

All of which is (as the revolutionary orators used to say) no accident. It is in keeping with Karabel's analysis that the Big Three make only as many adjustments to their admissions criteria as they must to keep the status quo ante on track. Last year, in a speech at the American Council on Education, Harvard's president, Larry Summers, called for preferences for the economically disadvantaged. But in the absence of any strong political or social movement from below -- an active, noisy menace to business as usual -- it's hard to imagine an institutionalized preference for admitting students from working families into the Big Three. (This would have to include vigorous and fairly expensive campaigns of recruitment and retention.)

As Walter Benn Michaels writes in the latest issue of N+1 magazine, any discussion of class and elite education now is an exercise in the limits of the neoliberal imagination. (His essay was excerpted last weekend in the Ideas section of The Boston Globe.

"Where the old liberalism was interested in mitigating the inequalities produced by the free market," writes Michaels, " neoliberalism -- with its complete faith in the beneficence of the free market -- is interested instead in justifying them. And our schools have a crucial role to play in this. They have become our primary mechanism for convincing ourselves that poor people deserve their poverty, or, to put the point the other way around, they have become our primary mechanism for convincing rich people that we deserve our wealth."

How does this work? Well, it's no secret that going to the Big Three pays off. If, in theory, the door is open to anyone smart and energetic, then everything is fair, right? That's equality of opportunity. And if students at the Big Three then turn out to be drawn mainly from families earning more than $100,000 per year....

Well, life is unfair. But the system isn't.

"But the justification will only work," writes Michaels, if "there really are significant class differences at Harvard. If there really aren't -- if it's your wealth (or your family's wealth) that makes it possible for you to go to an elite school in the first place -- then, of course, the real source
of your success is not the fact that you went to an elite school but the fact that your parents were rich enough to give you the kind of preparation that got you admitted to the elite school. The function of the (very few) poor people at Harvard is to reassure the (very many) rich people at Harvard that you can't just buy your way into Harvard."

Scott McLemee
Author's email:

From the Workshop

Someone should reprint C. Wright Mills’s essay "On Intellectual Craftsmanship" as a pamphlet suitable for affordable distribution among people entering a life of scholarship.

That bright idea comes in the wake of an informal colloquy last week about how to survive writing a dissertation. I have no competence to give advice on that score, but do reread Mills every so often, and am always perplexed to find that "On Intellectual Craftsmanship" is not better known. It appears as an appendix to The Sociological Imagination (1959), his eighth book, currently available in a reprint from Oxford University Press.

After the better part of five decades, the book is still quite engaging. Particularly memorable (and also somewhat notorious) is the chapter in which Mills takes long passages from the theoretical work of Talcott Parsons and "translates" them into short paragraphs of slightly platitudinous English. But the satirical moments are almost incidental, for the book is, in some ways, a love letter and a profession of faith. The sociological imagination is "the capacity to range from the most impersonal and remote transformations to the most intimate features of the human self -- and to see the relations between the two." It is, for Mills, an aspect of the humanities, rightly understood.

Mills himself was an iconoclastic figure, and in many ways larger than life. Some of that comes through in a profile that appeared in an alumni magazine for Columbia University, where he taught. "It's a writer's responsibility to orient modern publics to the catastrophic world in which they live," he's quoted as saying. "But he cannot do this if he remains a mere specialist. To do it all, he’s got to do it big!"

In December 1960 -- roughly a year after The Sociological Imagination appeared -- Mills suffered a heart attack while preparing to go on national television to debate American policy toward Cuba. At that point, Mills saw in Castro a figure much like himself: a radical who had little use for the ideological orthodoxies of the Cold War, someone practical-minded but also instinctively defiant. (And Mills loved his Harley-Davidson, so perhaps he and Che discussed motorcycles when they met.)

Once Cuba joined the Soviet bloc, Mills's role as defender of the revolution and critic of American policy became even more lonely and difficult. In March 1962, he suffered another heart attack, this one fatal. He was 45 years old.

A good account of his short but extremely intense life is available in C. Wright Mills: An American Utopian (1983), by Irving Louis Horowitz, who also edited Power, Politics, and People: The Collected Essays of C. Wright Mills (1963). And if you have some demanding task to finish, then by all means be sure to avoid C. Wright Mills: Letters and Autobiographical Writings, a collection prepared by his daughters and published five years ago by the University of California Press. It is a highly charismatic book. Whenever it ends up on my desk, nothing much gets done.

As for The Sociological Imagination, it is not (as you might suspect) a handbook on how to be an academic activist. Nor is it even slightly Marxist -- a label that other people sometimes apply to Mills, though he never accepted it. Once, when an American radical asked him what he believed in, Mills answered: "German motors." In just that spirit, he places a strong emphasis on honoring what he calls "the qualities of the good workman." His language now reads like a sly dig at the upper-middle-class bias in some quarters of academe. If Mills were alive now and wandered into a discussion of academic "professionalization," he would probably make a pest of himself.

While clearly intended for an audience of young sociologists-in-training, almost everything Mills says in "On Intellectual Craftsmanship" applies to work in other disciplines. That's my reason for suggesting it be reprinted for wider circulation. Unfortunately, his language follows the common assumption of the day that scholars will usually be male. But rather than go sic every few sentences, I’ll just quote him and let you make the necessary mental revisions for inclusiveness.

What Mills calls "intellectual craftsmanship" involves more than the ability to produce work that can pass peer review. "Scholarship is a choice of how to live," he writes, "as well as a choice of career." It is (if I may be excused for borrowing another old Greek word) an ethos. That is, a structure of habits that sustains and embodies a quality of mind, a tendency of character.

"Whether he knows it or not," Mills goes on to say, "the intellectual workman forms his own self as he works towards the perfection of his craft." The notion of having a "career" is subordinate to -- even a side-effect of -- this process of inner shaping. "To realize his own potentialities, and any opportunities that come his way," the scholar "constructs a character which has its core the qualities of the good workman."

For Mills, there is a kind of bench where all of this crafting takes place. He calls it "the file." I’m not sure this is the happiest of expressions. It's simple enough, but Mills uses it in his own sense.

For one thing, it includes reading notes and other such documents generated in the course of your research. But the file is also something like a journal. It's where you hammer out the coherence between the different projects that absorb you, and brainstorm new lines of inquiry. "In such a file," Mills writes, "there is joined personal experience and professional activities, studies under way and studies planned." It is where you hash out the complications in any given work-in-progress, and take notes on stray possibilities that might be worth exploring down the line.

One benefit of this is that it can help subdue, or at least reduce, anxiety over writing. (Mills suggests adding something to the file at least once a week.) And it "encourages you to capture 'fringe-thoughts': various ideas which may be by-products of everyday life, snatches of conversation overheard in the street, or, for that matter, dreams. Once noted, these may lead to more systematic thinking, as well as intellectual relevance to more directed experience."

The file is not an excuse for navel-gazing. It is a tool for concentrating your attention to get the most out of your research time. Given how prolific Mills himself actually was, it's clear that he knew what he was talking about.

"One of the things meant by being 'soaked in the literature,'" Mills points out, "is being able to locate the opponents and the friends of every available viewpoint. By the way, it is not well to be too 'soaked in the literature': you may drown in it.... Perhaps the point is to know when you ought to read, and when you ought not to." The ability to recognize that cut-off point is presumably what separates the master craftsman from the apprentice.

"You will have to acquire the habit of taking a large volume of notes from any worthwhile book you read," writes Mills, "although, I have to say, you may get better work out of yourself when you read really bad books."

Apart from taking notes and drafting memoranda-to-yourself, Mills suggests that your files ought to include charts and diagrams. As a sociologist, he was used to presenting some of his findings in that format. But Mills's point is that the intellectual craftsman shouldn't wait until writing for publication to experiment with visual display. Tables, charts, and diagrams "are not only ways to display work already done," he writes; "they are very often genuine tools of production."

His advice is directed at social scientists, but ought to be considered by anyone grappling with complex ideas and large masses of information. Drawing maps or diagrams will, he writes, "enable you to discover the range and full relationships of the very terms with which you are thinking and of the facts with which you are dealing."

The value of such exercises is for the most part heuristic. Which is a refined way of saying that you can afford to be messy and experimental with your sketches. "Most of them flop," writes Mills, "in which case you have still learned something. When they work, they help you think more clearly and write more explicitly."

Mills stresses that any serious practice of intellectual craftsmanship will include learning to communicate your work to other people. There are barriers to such communication, of course. And not all of them are a matter of the complexity of one's ideas. After all, there is an "elaborate vocabulary and involved manner of speaking and writing" through which one signals membership in the guild of scholars.

"It is less difficult to learn this manner than not," he writes in a passage that will probably make some people angry. "It has become a convention -- those who do not use it are subject to moral disapproval. It may be that it is the result of an academic closing of the ranks on the part of the mediocre...."

How, then, to avoid the laziness of self-congratulatory (and often ersatz) "difficulty"? Mills passes along an answer given by his colleague Lionel Trilling, "who has given me permission to pass it on."

A brief interruption here to note the incongruous image that last phrase conjures up. Picture the tweedy, genteel, and proto-neoconservative Trilling in casual conversation with the leather-jacketed Mills -- a lumberjack-like figure, whose highest term of praise for someone was to say, "He's a real Wobbly."

Anyway, to continue...Here is Trilling’s advice, as rendered by Mills – whose every page shows that he took them to heart:

"You are to assume you have been asked to give a lecture on some subject you know well, before an audience of teachers and students from all departments of a leading university, as well as an assortment of interested people from a nearby city. Assume that such an audience is before you and that they have a right to know; assume that you want to let them know. Now write."

Scott McLemee
Author's email:

Scott McLemee writes Intellectual Affairs on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Suggestions and ideas for future columns are welcome.

Professional Correctness

One of the most durable metaphors used in making sense of the world treats social life as a kind of theatrical performance. Each of us is playing a part -- more or less comfortably, more or less convincingly -- while burdened, often enough, by the need to improvise "in character."

This idea is more than a Shakespearean conceit. It's implicit in the sociological notion of "role," for example. And it also helps make sense of what happens when people learn to play that type known as "the professional" -- a much-sought social role, usually accompanied by substantial benefits in
income, and even more in prestige.

How people rehearse that character is the topic of Carrie Young Costello's Professional Identity Crisis: Race, Class, Gender, and Success at Professional Schools (Vanderbilt University Press). Costello, an
assistant professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, takes on the thorny topic of why women and people of non-Caucasian ethnicities who enter professional schools with solid academic records often tend to underperform. She did extensive field research among first-year students enrolled in the law and social-work schools at the University of California at Berkeley.

Costello finds that there is an undeclared yet unmistakable WASP accent to the professional roles that students are training to acquire. Along with technical expertise, they have to assimilate the necessary demeanor and attitude. For students of some backgrounds, that presents no real difficulties -- so they can, as Costello puts it, "focus on the intellectual tasks of professional school with little distraction." But for those with "a mismatch between the personal identities they possess upon entering their professional programs and the professional roles those schools proffer," there can be a jarring  dissonance. "Seeking to find a way to manage or resolve their identity dissonance distracts students from focusing on their studies," writes Costello.

Race and gender aren't the only factors making for identity dissonance in professional schools; so is strong religious commitment. "Particularly at risk in my sample were evangelical Christian women who used a 'what-would-Jesus-do' standard to guide all of their behavior and decisions," notes Costello, "but students from other religious backgrounds whose religious dictates took precedence over other commitments could also be at risk."

Costello's book is an interesting study in the ethnography of higher education -- and her analysis of the implicit cultural signals sent by how law and social-work professors dress will raise some eyebrows, especially around UC-Berkeley. I contacted her by email with a few questions about her research.

Q: How did you come to this project? That is, what combination of previous interests and personal motivations led you to want to study professional identity and its discontents?

A: The question of why patterns of social stratification emerge during professional schooling is one that has interested me ever since my own experience at law school. I went to law school at Harvard, and every fellow student I encountered was a longstanding overachiever with sterling qualifications.  Nevertheless, by the end of the first ("1L") year, it was easy to look at the class standings and see that  males received a disproportionate share of good grades when compared to females, and that white students did disproportionately better than did students of color.

This pattern of grade stratification was a topic of perpetual debate among my peers. Students of a liberal bent cried that there was a professorial conspiracy in favor of white men, while socially conservative students claimed that affirmative action promoted people beyond their real intellectual capacities. Each side could poke holes in the other's argument. White men outperformed others in classes taught by notoriously liberal professors. Students of color who had omitted information about their race and ethnicity on their applications and could not have benefited from affirmative action nevertheless  underperformed. The debate was interminable.

When I returned to school as a sociology doctoral student, I reconsidered the question of social  stratification in professional programs from a new perspective. I learned from sociology of the professions that professional students have two tasks: one, that of "mastering" the intellectual substance matter of their professions, and the second, that of internalizing an appropriate professional identity. The "folk" debate I encountered at law school had only considered the first, intellectual task. I wanted to study the second, identity-based task to see if this could more satisfactorily explain why patterns of social stratification re-emerge during the course of professional schooling.

Q: You set things up by doing parallel studies of law and social work. In what sense is it accurate or meaningful to subsume them under the same term?

A: The way that students are socialized in law school and in a social work program are indeed different in many ways. I'll give a couple of examples:

Class privilege and income expectations: Students in M.S.W. programs are socialized to expect a  workplace and lifestyle of modest means, while students at law schools are socialized to have high expectations of wealth. At the professional schools I observed, the built environments of the two schools sent very disparate socializing messages regarding wealth expectations. The eating facilities provide an example: at the school of law, a lovely continental cafe provided gourmet foods and coffee beverages, while at the school of social welfare, a basement room held three vending machines protected by steel grilles.

Empathy: Not surprisingly, given that social work is deemed a "caring profession," students in M.S.W. programs are trained to cultivate empathy. For example, I observed that professors warned students to be careful of the potentially hurtful nature of humor, and modeled an earnest solemnity to their classes. At law school, on the other hand, professors deployed sadistic humor with relish. Not merely failing to  cultivate empathy, law professors trained students to demonstrate a callous disregard for others'  feelings, beaming at students who made cruel jokes of their own while answering questions -- particularly if the most sensitive members of the class were wincing.

Having acknowledged that two professions socialize their students differently, what is I believe more  striking is the similarity in outcome. That is, at both schools of law and schools of social work, men do better than women, white students do better than students of color, those with class privilege do better than those without it, etc. One might expect that since social work was created to be a "feminine profession" that men would underperform in M.S.W. programs, but this does not prove to be the case. Rather than hitting a glass ceiling, men ride a glass elevator to the top of the class.

Q: What do you make of the professional-school success rates for Asian and Asian American students who presumably do not, for the most part, grow up absorbing the complex of attitude and demeanor one associates with WASP/bourgeois dominance?

A: Actually, one of the ways in which you can see the power of the effect of professional identity is by looking at the success of Asian and Asian American students. In American high schools, students from many (but not all) Asian backgrounds outperform other students of color, and perform at least as well as white students. In college, Asian American students also do well, although their grades drop somewhat from their high school levels.

But in professional schools, the picture is quite different. While Asian graduate students in the sciences often excel, Asians underperform in many professional school settings, including both law and social work. While these students are able to do very well in prior schooling, the academic skills they have developed are insufficient to secure them success, because they are not able to internalize an appropriate professional identity with the ease of their WASP peers. Their professors often saw them as too reticent, as not taking sufficient initiative, as insufficiently creative, etc.

Q: There is the professionalization undergone by people going into law, medicine, and certain other fields (i.e. professions, that have clients), on the one hand. And then there is academic professionalization. Have you given any thought to the similarities and differences between them?

A: Being a professor is indeed considered a profession, and academics face professional socialization. This is what, for example, makes so many first-year graduate students feel uncomfortable in their seminar classes. They may feel that their contributions to discussion are inadequate, and be unsure of why this is so. They may try to improve their performance by spending hours reading and preparing, and still find their comments falling flat. The problem is not one of intellect, but one of habitus, although few  understand this. The approved habitus varies between academic departments -- just compare a roomful  of English dissertators with a roomful of economics doctoral students. But the basic process of needing to acquire both a knowledge base and a professional identity is consistent across disciplines. This contributes to the disproportionate success of white men in academia.

Q: You indicate that it would be a step forward if the problem of professional identity  dissonance were addressed head-on, perhaps through a course that would explicitly address professional socialization. At the same time, you seem to think that the effects would be very limited -- that, in the absence of some very substantial social change, the deck is hopelessly stacked. Or is there some element of optimism in your work that I've missed?

A: I believe that if the issue of professional socialization were made overt, it would definitely help. At a minimum, it would do two things: force professional schools to acknowledge the problem, and help professional students to realize that they are suffering from identity dissonance. However, you are correct in that I don't see a swift solution to the problem.

I give the example in my book of an exercise I do with the students in my gender class. I ask for a male and a female volunteer to come up onto the stage.  I then ask them to walk across the stage with the manner of a member of the "opposite sex." Campy performances ensue to general laughter. Then I tell the volunteers to imagine that their children have been kidnapped by terrorists, and that the only way to get them back will be to successfully pass as a member of the other gender as they walk across the  stage. This time, the students try with very serious expressions on their faces -- and no more success.

The problem with wanting to change one's habitus is that it is an unconscious phenomenon, not subject to conscious control. It is no simple thing to change one's tastes, gestures or worldview. Furthermore, doing so alienates one's community of origin and fundamentally changes who a person is. So no, I don't expect a quick fix. But at least schools would have to decide whether they are willing to say that to  become a professional, students must, for example, give up their ethnic or regional accents. And professional students could decide if that sort of change is a price they are willing to pay for mainstream
professional success.

Scott McLemee
Author's email:

Oh, Canada

The United States is part of the Americas. Hence not all Americans are citizens of the United States -- and it is a sign of imperial hubris to treat those terms as synonyms.

Or so runs a bit of routine language-policing, as practiced by many well-intentioned people. By many well-intentioned Americans, one should say – meaning "citizens of the United States." I know because I used to be one of them. Then, a few years ago, while on vacation in Canada, my wife and I had an odd conversation with the woman who ran the place we were staying. When she used the expression “you Americans,” our half-baked cosmopolitan reflexes kicked in.

“You’re an American, too,” we insisted. “Canada is part of America!”

Our landlady thought this was crazy. Being Canadian, she was too polite to say so. But no amount of argument could persuade her that a person born and raised in Toronto could be an American. The very idea was absurd. And from paying attention to the news media, we soon learned that she was not being idiosyncratic. On that side of the border, the word “American” applied only to someone from the south. (And not too far south, either. While Mexico is undeniably on the North American continent, the expression norteamericano is not one that Mexicans use to describe themselves.)

So which is the worst case of verbal imperialism? Is it the unthinking use of “American” to mean someone from the United States? Or is it forcing the word upon people who emphatically do not consider themselves Americans? Endlessly absorbing as this miniature paradox of political correctness may be, I’ve found my interest shifting in the course of subsequent trips to Canada. Where is the real line of distinction between the countries -- apart from the border, obviously?

One joke has it that a Canadian can be defined as an American with health insurance and no guns. By that standard, my wife and I are already Canadians, and from time to time we discuss moving there at some point in the next couple of decades. Especially if there is ever a president named “Jeb.”

But even while daydreaming of relocation, you know there is a stronger sense of Canadian national identity than that -- resting on differences in history and culture that are large, but unclear, at least from this side of the divide.

Actually, even that may be a misleading way to put it. In fact, almost nobody here in the States thinks about the difference. Our default outlook is best summed up by “Blame Canada,” a rousing number in the "South Park" movie, which contains the line “It’s not even a real country anyway.”

This is satirical, of course -- a send-up of how fast arrogant indifference can turn to belligerence. But the sardonic and foul-mouthed "South Park" lyricists have perhaps tapped into something that Canadian cultural critics themselves have, by turns, celebrated and deplored: the idea that the national identity is hard to grasp because Canada isn’t a “standard” nation-state. Political power is fairly decentralized, with the provinces retaining a lot of authority, if not autonomy. The legal category of Canadian citizenship only came into existence 60 years ago; before that, one had simply been a British subject living in Canada. The ethnic and linguistic composition has always been heterogeneous. And while its expanse makes it the second largest country in the world, most of the land is very thinly populated.

That’s not quite the same thing as saying “it isn’t a real country anyway,” by any means. But it makes for a relatively ad hoc and open-ended situation in defining the national consciousness. In 1970, Allan Smith, now an associate professor of history at the University of British Columbia, published an influential paper called “Metaphor and Nationality in North America.” (It is reprinted in an interesting collection of Smith's papers.) He contrasted the American idea of the national “melting pot” and the preferred Canadian trope of the “mosaic” of different cultures.

“American nationalists have seen their nation as a vessel containing a single, virtually unblemished way of life,” wrote Smith, “and their language has, accordingly, been confident and assured. They have known who they were and what they believed, and their vocabulary has reflected the pride and security that this knowledge has brought. Canadian nationalism, in contrast, has been less exuberant and more diffident because it recognizes how fragile and uncertain is the structure it tries to celebrate, and how delicate must be the touch of they who would work all of its parts into a cohesive whole.”

While in Montreal last week, I picked up a new book called The Unfinished Canadian: The People We Are (McLelland & Stewart) by Andrew Cohen, an associate professor of journalism and international affairs at Carleton University, in Ottawa. As one reviewer there said, it “has already become a Canadian best-seller, which means that more than 5,000 copies have been sold.” (Now there's a national trait: the Canadian knack for self-deprecation is quite well-developed.)

One complaint lodged against Cohen’s book is that it merely recycles discussions of national identity that are familiar to any well-informed Canadian. For the clueless American reader, that actually qualifies as a recommendation. Most of us did not know, for example, that one of the major nonfiction books up north during the past few years was called Fire and Ice: The United States, Canada, and the Myth of Converging Values (2003).

The author, Michael Adams, is a well-known public-opinion analyst, and the findings from his polls of Canadians and Americans in 1992, 1996, and 2000 suggested the emergence of a growing gap between the countries. And the fact that his book appeared two months after Canada declined to join the Coalition of the Willing certainly made this a timely claim.

Asked whether they agreed with the statement “The father of the family must be master in his own home,” Adams reported that 49 percent of Americans over the age of fifteen did, while the figure from Canada was just 18 percent. A quarter of Americans believed that “non-whites should not be allowed to immigrate to this country,” while only half as many Canadians agreed. Minivans outsold SUVs by two to one in Canada; the ratio was reversed in the U.S.

“Canada is becoming the home of a unique postmodern, postmaterial multiculturalism,” wrote Adams, “generating hardy strains of new hybrids that will enrich this country and many others in the world.”

Fire and Ice won rave reviews and prizes; and in 2005, the Literary Review of Canada named it one of the top 100 Canadian books of all time. In The Unfinished Canadian, Cohen agrees that Fire and Ice “cast a light on a corner of our national character,” but not in quite the way its enthusiasts believed. It revealed, he says, “our ambivalent and tortured relationship with the Americans, our struggle to understand them, our moral superiority in dealing with them.”

Cohen cites what he calls a “devastating critique” of the book’s statistical methodology by Joel Smith, a professor of sociology at Duke University, in The American Review of Canadian Studies. “At best, this is an op-ed piece spun into a book,” wrote Smith. “Despite its pseudo-scientific trappings, the basic message is only Adams’ personal views on where the two countries are heading.” As for respective sales in the minivan vs. SUV as proof of a deep-seated Green awareness, Cohen cited David Frum’s argument that the minivans probably sold better in Canada because they were cheaper and Canadians had less money. (Frum, who one tends to think of as part of the inside-the-Beltway conservative punditocracy, is himself Canadian.)

Cohen’s argument seems to be that his fellow Canadians are too prone to emphasizing that they are profoundly different from the Americans -- while at the same time neglecting their own history, and otherwise remaining very loose about defining what counts as a Canadian citizen. He complains that students can leave school in most provinces without studying more than a very little of the nation’s history. By contrast, the license plates in Quebec bear the words Je me souviens (“I remember”): a nationalistic slogan of disputed origins, though the Acadian Expulsion in 1755 is doubtless at the top of the list of things not to forget.

“Unlike the United States,” writes Cohen, “which encourages and underwrites presidential libraries as repositories of artifacts and papers, Canada has no such practice.” He quotes a member of Parliament who said, “Visiting Washington, D.C., you would find a plaque anywhere George Washington sneezed, but we’re more modest.” Important prime ministers remain largely unstudied, while the winter 2006 catalog of the University of British Columbia Press lists titles such as Nutrition Policy in Canada, 1870-1939 and The Culture of Flushing: A Social and Legal History of Sewage.

As if monographic torpor did not threaten the nation enough, there is also the policy on dual citizenship. Cohen thinks it has gone from generous to latitudinarian. Late last year, when Stephen Dion became the leader of the Liberal Party -- hence potentially the country’s prime minister -- it came out that he also held French citizenship. “For a day or so,” writes Cohen, “his dual citizenship unleashed a frenzy of teeth-gnashing and forelock tugging in Parliament. Then it went away.”

It’s the culture war, then, under the maple leaf flag. What worries Cohen are “the elements of our character: the failure of memory, the weakness of citizenship, the tolerance of ethnic nationalism, the willingness to compromise one too many times.”

Some of Cohen’s complaints -- about multiculturalist excess, and disrespect for the national founding fathers, for example -- sound to an American ear like rallying cries of the right. But then he calls for taxes on the wealthy to be raised, and for them otherwise to be shamed into generosity. (“We criticize many things in Canada,” he writes, “but we rarely give our reluctant rich a hard time. We should.”) He’s also happy that Canada remains independent enough to be able to tell the U.S. that a war it is contemplating is a terrible idea.

For an American, reading about the national identity crisis there is a little like visiting Canada: A lot sounds familiar, though the accent occasionally falls on an unexpected syllable. But I'm struck in particular by a difference from the cultural polemics down here -- the lack of our usual, almost apocalyptic stridency, which probably echoes the Puritan sermons from generations past.

"Once again," writes Cohen about the future of his country, "Canada will have to find a way to muddle through, whatever its endless existential questions. Every generation has had to face down the forces of disintegration and every one has." This sounds like a tone bred by facing one terrible winter after another for two or three centuries. It is neither wildly optimistic nor bitterly pessimistic; it just chops wood and waits. I can't help wishing we could pick that tone up and make it American.

Scott McLemee
Author's email:

Wide-Stance Sociology

Rarely does a political scandal inspire anyone to discuss sociological research done 40 years earlier. But whatever else Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho) may have contributed to public life, he certainly deserves credit for renewing interest in Tearoom Trade: Impersonal Sex in Public Places, by Laud Humphreys, first published in 1970.

Humphreys, who was for many years a professor of sociology at Pitzer College, in Claremont, California, died in 1988. But his analysis of the protocols of anonymous encounters in men’s rooms -- "tearooms," in gay slang -- has been cited quite a bit in recent weeks. In particular, reporters have been interested in his findings about the demographics of the cruising scene at the public restrooms he studied. (This research took place at a public park in St. Louis, Missouri during the mid-1960s.) Most patrons visiting the facilities for sexual activity tended to be married, middle-class suburbanites; they often professed strongly conservative social and political views.

So you can see where the book might prove topical. But the rediscovery of Humphrey’s work is not just a product of the power of Google combined with the force of the news cycle. It is an echo of the discussions that his work once stirred up in the classroom.

Tearoom Trade was, in its day, among the more prominent monographs in the social sciences – an interesting and unusual example of ethnographic practice that was featured in many textbooks, at least for a while. I recall reading a chapter from Humphreys in an introductory social-science anthology in the early 1980s and thinking that every single subculture in the world would eventually have a sociologist standing in the corner, taking notes.

The book was also widely discussed because of the ethical questions raised by Humphreys’s methodology. It would be an overstatement to call Tearoom Trade the main catalyst for the creation of institutional review boards, but debates over the book certainly played their part.

At issue was not the sexual activity itself but how the sociologist (then a graduate student) investigated it. Posing as a voyeur, and never revealing that he was there for research, Humphreys was accepted as “watchqueen” by the social circle hanging out at the restroom. He was entrusted with giving a signal if the police came around. He took notes on the activity taking place – including the license plates numbers of men who came around for fellatio. Through a contact in the police department, he was able to get their home addresses.

After a year, and having disguised himself to some degree, he visited them under the pretense of doing a survey for an insurance company to gather more data about their circumstances and opinions. Humphreys states that he was never recognized during these interviews. He kept all the documents generated during this research in a lockbox and destroyed them after his dissertation was accepted by Washington University in St. Louis.

He received his Ph.D. that June 1968 – exactly one year before the patrons of the Stonewall, a gay bar in Greenwich Village, got tired of being harassed by the police and decided to fight back. So when the dissertation appeared as a book in 1970 (issued by a social-science press called Aldine, now an imprint of Transaction Publishers, which keeps it in print) the timing was excellent. The main public-policy implication of Humphreys’s work was that police could just as well ignore the restroom shenanigans: the activity that Humphrey reported was consensual and low-risk for spreading sexually-transmitted disease, and it did not involve “luring” minors. The book won that year’s C. Wright Mills Award for the outstanding book on a critical social issue.

But concerns about how the data had been collected were expressed by Humphreys’s colleagues almost as soon as he received his degree, and the debate continued into the 1970s. (When the book was reprinted in 1975, it included a postscript covering some of the discussion.)

The whole design of the project was about as far from “informed consent” as you could get. The subjects of his research had been deceived about why Humphreys was observing and interviewing them. And there was also some question of whether Humphreys had put his subjects at risk: The distinction between the sociologist’s field notes and the blackmailer’s dossier was not exactly drawn with a bright line, in this case. The fact that a policeman was involved with the work bothered some critics on the left, while those on the right were unhappy that a scholar was, in effect, aiding and abetting criminal sexual activity.

A reviewer for the journal Issues in Criminology said that Humphreys’s work resembled “medical experimentation carried out in Nazi Germany.” Writing in the Washington Post, the columnist Nicholas von Hoffman compared it to J. Edgar Hoover’s phone-tapping – a more subdued analogy, and one that seems, all things considered, unintentionally apropos.

While the rancor of the debate eventually cooled down, Tearoom Trade is still occasionally cited in textbooks as an example of research methodology that violates professional ethics. The sociologist had his supporters, too, who pointed to the difficulties of ethnographic fieldwork and the possible social benefits of gathering observations on stigmatized behavior otherwise hidden from view. Humphreys himself, while defending his project, did later concede that he should have identified himself as a researcher.

In 2004, a compact study of his career appeared under the title Laud Humphreys: Prophet of Homosexuality and Sociology, published by the University of Wisconsin Press. The title page bore the names of three authors – John F. Galliher, Wayne H. Brekhus, and David P. Keys. (The first two belong to the sociology department at Humphreys’s alma mater in Missouri, while the third teaches sociology and criminal justice at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh.) And there might well have been room for more, since the book also contains the writing of various FBI agents: an appendix contains a facsimile reproduction of Humphreys's file, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.

It is an interesting book, but a sad one. Apart from reading the textbook extract from Tearoom Trade long ago and having a vague awareness of the ethical controversy, my only sense of Humphreys’s life involved what sounded like a legend. His research had so angered a prominent sociologist – it was said – that the man beat Humphreys up. That story turns out to be half true. But it’s not even the most unhappy thing about what turned out to be a short and difficult life.

Laud Humphreys was born in Oklahoma in 1930. His father was a state legislator whose claims to fame were that “he sponsored legislation making the show tune Oklahoma the official state song” and helping to establish “a law school in the attic of the State Capitol so that blacks would not have to be admitted to the University.” By contrast, Laud, who was ordained in the Episcopal church in 1955, went on to become an activist in the Civil Rights movement. The earliest document in his FBI dossier is a complaint he filed in 1965 about the refusal of a restaurant in Tennessee to serve his colleague, an African-American minister.

He married in 1960 and entered the Ph.D. program in sociology at Washington University five years later. He made rapid progress as a student (starting fieldwork for his dissertation in 1966 and writing it within two years) but seems to have developed an antagonistic relationship with Alvin Gouldner, a prominent social theorist then in his department.

Humphreys may have been the author of a sarcastic poster that portrayed Gouldner as an example of the species “ Inter Alios Platonicus, or Silver-Tongued High-Priestly Bird.” (Everyone in the department would have caught the reference to Gouldner's recent book Enter Plato: Classical Greece and the Origins of Social Theory.) Reproduced as an appendix to the biography, the poster is satirical if not exactly witty: “Given to nesting in high places, this raptorial bird may soar to great heights before diving to feed on carrion.... He chews on thoughts only when personalities are not available. While devouring his prey, his song is said to be quite eloquent.”

The target of this caricature was not amused. Gouldner tracked Humphreys down in the graduate student offices, punched him in the face, then kicked him when he fell down. The matter came to national attention in a New York Times article headlined “Sociology Professor Accused of Beating Student.”

The incident had nothing to do with the research Humphreys was doing for Tearoom Trade, but it certainly did not hurt in cultivating a certain notoriety. A few years later, as an associate professor of criminal justice at SUNY-Albany, Humphreys was arrested during a protest at a draft center, during which (according to interminable reports in the FBI file) he smashed a framed picture of President Nixon. And following the excitement over his first book, he wrote a timely and sympathetic account of the gay rights movement, Out of the Closets: The Sociology of Homosexual Liberation, which Prentice-Hall published in 1972.

But this pioneering role had its costs. Some gay activists told Humphreys that they found Tearoom Trade embarrassing. He was under suspicion of being a straight researcher “slumming” in the underworld. During a heated exchange at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association in 1974, he was denounced as an example of those mainstream scholars “urging others to make great sacrifices,” as one participant in the discussion put it, while “their own lives are untainted by the behavior that they so courageously defend (in others).”

To this, Humphreys responded: “I want to be perfectly honest with you and I want you to know that I am gay. I have done my research and written [ Tearoom Trade] as a gay person, closeted, trying to come out of that closet, dealing with my own personal pain.”

Well, that sort of thing didn’t happen every day – not at the ASA, in any case – and the effect must have been dramatic. There were tears, and a standing ovation; and then, a bit later, a divorce, and a new start on life.

This might sound like a moment of liberation and transcendence, such being the form of narrative we expect in a culture of remission. But that is not really the kind of story that the biographers have to tell.

By 1975, Humphreys was a full professor in the sociology department at Pitzer College and a professor of criminal justice at the Claremont Graduate School. But his productivity as a scholar decreased rapidly. Within a few years, he was being reprimanded for substandard performance in the classroom, failure to keep office hours, and neglect of committee work. He suffered from insomnia and struggled with alcoholism. Humphreys also smoked compulsively, which led to the cancer that killed him at the age of 59.

His biographers give a detailed account of the manuscript Humphreys worked on during his final years but never finished. It was to be a book revisiting one of the themes in Tearoom Trade – the idea he called “the breastplate of righteousness.” That phrase was borrowed from an epistle by St. Paul, while the argument owed a lot to the Frankfurt School’s analysis in The Authoritarian Personality.

Men he had observed having anonymous sex in a public place often turned out to be ardent champions of law and order. Unable to control themselves in that part of their lives, they put on the defensive "breastplate," redoubling their efforts elsewhere: “Motivated largely by his own awareness of the discreditable nature of his secret behavior,” wrote Humphreys in his dissertation, “the covert deviant develops a presentation of self that is respectable to a fault. His whole lifestyle becomes an incarnation of what is proper and orthodox.”

Revising this argument in his later years, Humphreys wrote about how hypocrisy, self-loathing, and aggression fueled one another. The work-in-progress, which he wanted to call “Immoral Crusaders,” sounds like a real mess. His biographers call the manuscript “rambling” and of “far from publishable quality, at least by any scholarly journal or university press.” The report Humphreys received from an editor for a major trade publisher was equally dismissive.

So a lost masterpiece it is not. But it sounds like an attempt to understand the force that drove and tortured him – not desire, but self-hatred.

“There is no doubt,” wrote his biographers in 2004, “that had Laud Humphreys not shortened his life by smoking cigarettes, Americans would be hearing from him today.” As it turns out, we still are, and not just because of his description of a particular behavior. He wrote about the frontier between concealment and humiliation. This is a space occupied by demons -- not all of which, as Laud Humphreys learned, could be exorcised by the rules of sociological method.

Scott McLemee
Author's email:

Scott McLemee writes Intellectual Affairs each week. Suggestions and ideas for future columns are welcome.

Mess o' Mobilizations

A few months back, Intellectual Affairs reported on the work of a couple of social scientists who were studying the contemporary antiwar movement. They have been showing up at the national demonstrations over the past several years and – with the help of assistants instructed in a method of random sampling – conducting surveys of the participants. The data so harvested was then coded and fed into a computer, and the responses cross-correlated in order to find any patterns hidden in the data.

The methodology was all very orthodox and unremarkable, unlike some things we’ve discussed around here lately. But one of the researchers, Michael T. Heaney, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Florida, explained that the project involved a departure from some of norms of his field. Political scientists have tended to be interested in studying established institutions, rather than the more informal or fluid networks that sustain protest movements.

His collaborator, Fabio Rojas, is an assistant professor of sociology at Indiana University – so their effort to understand the polling results had the benefit of cross-disciplinary collaboration, and could draw on models from recent work on social movements and network analysis. Nowadays you can often spot a paper by a sociologist at five paces, just because of the spiderweb-like graphics. Those are the maps of social networks, with the strength of connection between the nodes indicated by more or less heavy lines.

Heaney and Rojas have kept on gathering their surveys and crunching their numbers, and they recently presented a new paper on their work at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association in Chicago. The title, “Coalition Dissolution and Network Dynamics in the American Antiwar Movement,” seems straightforward enough – and the abstract explains that their focus was on the rather difficult relationship between United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ) and Act Now to Stop War and End Racism (ANSWER), the two main coalitions organizing national protests.

So far, so good. The topic is rather familiar to me – deriving, as it ultimately does, from certain important disagreements between the Judean People’s Front and the People’s Front of Judea. (See Monty Python, 1979.) But my effort to follow the paper soon ran up against a single curious and unfamiliar term: “mesomobilization.”

You could decrypt this etymologically, if course, as “intermediate mobilization” or something of the sort. But doing so did not cause a concept to spring instantly to mind. And since they were addressing colleagues (all of whom probably had strong and definite ideas about mesomobilization) it wasn’t as if the authors had to define their terms. So I broke down and asked Heaney for a gloss.

“Mesomobilization,” he wrote back, “is the process through which social movement leaders mobilize other organizations to do the direct work of bringing individual participants to a protest. In that sense mesomobilization is one level 'above' micromobilization (i.e., bringing out the actual bodies).”

In other words, an organization (a labor union or whatever) does the micromobilizing when it gets its members and supporters to become involved in some activity (a demonstration, political campaign, etc.) A coalition enables different organizations to collaborate when they share a common agenda. This is “mesomobilizing” – that is, mediating and connecting the different activist cohorts.

That distinction corresponds to very different sorts of functions. “Micromobilizing groups play a critical role in contacting people and shaping they way they understand issues and the efficacy of political action,” as Heaney explained. But mesomobilizers – that is, coalitions – provide “an overall conceptual framework for events that links the demands and grievances of myriad groups together.” (The mesomobilizers also buy advertising and get the parade permits and so forth.) “Effective mesomobilization is necessary to make large-scale events possible,” says Heaney, “especially in highly decentralized fields, like peace and antiwar movements.”

The paper delivered at APSA looks at how relations between the two biggest antiwar mesomobilizers have affected participation in the national demonstrations. The differences between ANSWER and UFPJ are in part ideological. The rhetorical style of ANSWER normally runs to denunciations of American imperialism and its running dogs. (I exaggerate, but just barely.) UFPJ is by contrast the “moderate flank” of the antiwar movement, and not prone to tackling all injustice on the planet in the course of one protest. As Heaney and Rojas put it, UFPJ argues that “in order to build the broadest coalition possible, it should focus on the one issue about which the largest number of organizations can agree: ending the war in Iraq.”

The groups have a long, complicated history of mutual antagonism that in some ways actually predates even the present organizations. Comparable fault-lines emerged between similar coalitions organizing in 1990 and '91 against the first Gulf War. But UFPJ and ANSWER did manage to mesomobilize together at various points between 2003 and 2005. This honeymoon has been over for a couple of years now, for reasons nobody can quite agree upon – even as public disapproval of president’s handling of the war rose from 53 percent in September 2005 (when the UFPJ-ANWER alliance ended) to 58 percnet in March 2007.

What this meant for Heaney and Rojas was that they had data from the different phases of the coalitions’ relationship. They had gathered surveys from people attending demonstrations that UFPJ and ANSWER organized together, and from people attending demonstrations the groups had scheduled in competition with each other. (They also interviewed leading members of each coalition and gathered material from their listservs.)

The researchers framed a few hypotheses about contrasts that would probably be reflected in their data set. “We expected that participants in the UFPJ demonstrations would have a stronger connection with mainstream political institutions and a weaker connection to the antiwar movement,” they write. “We expected, given ANSWER’s preference for outsider political tactics, that its participants would be more likely to have engaged in civil disobedience in the past, while UFPJ would be more likely to have engaged in civil disobedience in the past.”

They also anticipated finding significant demographic differences between each coalition’s constituency. “Given the relative prominence of women as leaders in UFPJ,” they say, “we expected that it would be more likely to attract women than would ANSWER. Given that ANSWER explicitly frames its identity as attempting to ‘end racism,’ we expected that individuals with non-white racial and ethnic backgrounds would be disproportionately drawn to ANSWER. Further, given the relatively radical orientation of ANSWER, we hypothesized that it would more greatly appeal to young people and the working class. In contrast, we expected UFPJ to appeal to individuals with higher incomes and college educations.”

These predictions were not, for the most part, all that counterintuitive. And so it is interesting to learn that very few of them squared with the data.

People who showed up at demonstrations under the influence of UFPJ’s mesomobilizing framework were “significantly more likely to say they considered themselves to be members of the Democratic Party (54.1 percent) than ANSWER attendees (46.9 percent).” There might be a few Republicans mobilized by either coalition, but most non-Democrats in either case would probably identify as independents or supporters of third parties.And they tended to come for different reasons: “Participants at the ANSWER rally were significantly more likely to cite a policy-specific reason for their attendance (such as stopping the Israeli-Palestinian conflict), while participants at the UFPJ rally were more likely to cite a personal reason for their attendance (such as the death of a friend or a family member).”

But in terms of important distinctions, that was really about it. There was no difference in degree of political involvement, or experience with civil disobedience, or previous attendance at antiwar protests. Nor was there a demographic split: “Despite the stereotypes that many people have of the two coalitions,” write Rojas and Heaney, “they are equally likely to attract the participation of women and men, whites and non-whites, the young the old, those with and without college degrees, and people from various economic strata.”

The paper also considers how the parting of the ways between ANSWER and UFPJ influenced their mesomobilizing capacities -- that is, what effect it had on the networks of organizations making up each coalition.

The various spider-webs of organizational interaction did change a bit. ANSWER began to work more closely with another coalition pledged to denouncing American imperialism and its running dogs. United for Peace and Justice came under stronger influence by MoveOn – a group “much more closely allied with the Democratic Party than either UFPJ or ANSWER” and taking “a more conservative approach to ending the war.” (Or not ending it, I suppose, though that is a topic for another day.)

The researchers conclude that the conflict between the groups has not really been the zero-sum game one might have expected – if only because public disapproval of the president has won a hearing for each of them.

“To some extent,” write Heaney and Rojas, “ANSWER and UFPJ are vying for the attention, energies, and resources of the same supporters. But to a larger extent, both groups are more urgently attempting to reach out to a mass public that has remained largely quiescent throughout the entire U.S.-Iraq conflict....If public opinion were trending in favor of the president, or even remaining stable, the conflict might have been more detrimental to the movement as its base of support shrank.”

Such are the points in the paper catching one layman’s eye, at least. You can read it for yourself here. Heaney and Rojas are discussing their work this week at Orgtheory – a group blog devoted to what Alexis de Tocqueville calls, in its epigraph, “the science of association.”

Scott McLemee
Author's email:

Scott McLemee writes Intellectual Affairs each week. Suggestions and ideas for future columns are welcome.

The Bulldozer and the Big Tent

“Pessimism of the intellect,” runs a familiar saying from the Italian revolutionary theorist Antonio Gramsci, “optimism of the will.” In other words, plan as if the worst-case scenario were inevitable, but act with all the vigor and confidence necessary to win in the (very) long term. It is an inspiring quotation -- or seemed to be, the first several thousand times I heard it.

Gramsci himself suffered years of imprisonment under Mussolini; his laconic advice had a certain moral authority. When it caught on among American leftists during the Reagan years, things were not nearly that bad. But we kept reciting it, and eventually the repetition wore Gramsci's incisive formulation down into a trite formula. It came to embody not courage so much as a mood of profound ineffectiveness.

While interviewing Todd Gitlin recently for an Inside Higher Ed podcast, I was tempted to ask if he had deliberately avoided using Gramsci’s line in his new book, The Bulldozer and the Big Tent: Blind Republicans, Lame Democrats, and the Recovery of American Ideals, just published by John Wiley and Sons.

Gitlin was once president of Students for a Democratic Society, the largest of the New Left organizations in the 1960s. Now he’s a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University. In recent years, he has greatly annoyed some people by suggesting that the American left has not only painted itself into a corner, but even revels in its own marginality and distance from power.

“Doesn’t defeat taste sweet in a good cause?” he asks in the introduction to The Intellectuals and the Flag, a collection of essays that Columbia University Press published in 2006. “The honest truth is that negativity has its rewards and they are far from negligible.... It grants nobility. It stokes the psychic fires. Defeated outrage cannot really be defeated. It burns with a sublime and cleansing flame. It confirms one’s righteousness. It collapses the indeterminate future into a burning present.”

Against this, Gitlin has counseled a less strident and more pragmatic-minded approach to progressive politics -- one that places economic concerns ahead of questions of culture and identity. Richard Rorty made the same call in his book Achieving Our Country (Harvard, 1998), which advised radicals to “put a moratorium on theory” and “try to mobilize what remains of our pride in being Americans” by learning to ask itself “how the country of Lincoln and Whitman might be achieved.”

Naturally this did not go over very well in some quarters. It was dubbed “left conservatism,” and denounced in solemn convocations. The debate unfolded while Bill Clinton was still in office (if just barely, for a while there) and soon exhausted itself without, it seems, any participant changing anyone else’s mind.

Perhaps Gitlin, Rorty et al. were right that a combination of Nietzsche and Nader was a recipe for political irrelevance. But they often seemed to be treating the “cultural left” as scapegoats for failures that mainstream American liberalism had achieved by its own devices. (Identity politics did not put Dukakis in a tank. No queer theorist bombed a pharmaceutical factory in the Sudan.)

At the same time, the academic radicals who complained about “left conservatism” were clearly quite content talking only to themselves. When Judith Butler announced that "the critique of cultural iconicity is the means by which cultural iconicity is achieved," it was not the sort of slogan anyone would want to put on a banner. Maybe the old fogeys who preferred “an injury to one is an injury to all” did have a point.

Today we are several disastrous years downstream from that heated exchange. A lot has changed, but not everything. The radical instinct to form a circular firing squad remains unchanged; it is in the genome, probably. Still, the reflex has been interrupted from time to time by distractions from the White House and Iraq. The president’s impending appointment with the dustbin of history -- taking Rove’s “permanent Republican majority” with him, it seems -- permits and even requires some effort to imagine a change of course in the near future.

None of the leading Democratic candidates really counts as a person of the left (no matter what crazy uncle Larry says on his “Down with Marxist Hillary and Obama Commie” blog). One of Gitlin’s points in his new book is that even the forces calling for a relatively modest sort of liberal reformism are only one part of the “big tent” of Democratic activism.

And even were the Democrats in control of the executive and legislative branches, the fact is that the Republican Party will still be able to rely on its organizational “bulldozer” -- capable of staying relentlessly on message, even (and especially) when reality gets in the way. It is “a focused coalition with two, and only two, major components,” writes Gitlin, “the low-tax, love-business, hate-government enthusiasts and the God-save-us moral crusaders.”

In contrast, the Democrats subsume “roughly eight” constituencies, by Gitlin’s reckoning: “labor, African Americans, Hispanics, feminists, gays, environmentalists, members of the helping professions (teachers, social workers, nurses), and the militantly liberal, especially antiwar denizens of avant-garde cultural zones such as university towns, the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and so on.”

This is not the place to rehearse Gitlin’s whole analysis. He gave an overview of the book at TPM Cafe recently, and our podcast discussion covers some of the major points.

But it seems worth noting that Gitlin's earlier complaints about “identity” and the jargonizing folkways of the academic left, while not entirely absent from The Bulldozer and the Big Tent, are much less prominent here than in some of his other writings. He appears to recognize that said cohorts do indeed have a place under the big tent -- over in the section for “the militantly liberal” and “antiwar denizens of avant-garde cultural zones.”

The more I think about this, the less sure I am what to make of it. And it’s not just being called a denizen. (You get used to that.)

Treating labor as one constituency and defining it as distinct from blacks, Latinos, feminists, and gays might make sense insofar as each has its own lobbying apparatus inside the Beltway. But in real life (and in the polling booth, for that matter) the terms of identity are by no means clearcut. Gitlin refers to Jesse Jackson’s role as “the voice of post-sixties interest-group liberalism.” Which is maybe fair enough, as far as it goes -- but it doesn’t account for Jackson’s surprisingly strong primary showings among white labor unionists in 1988.

Gitlin writes that now, as the Bush period comes to an end, we may be able at last to “get on with an adult discussion of how Americans may afford health care and decent housing, win decent employment and fair wages, dampen inequalities, stifle murderous enemies, and sustain a livable earth for generations present and future.”

Well said. Speed the day. And when it comes, a large helping of realpolitik will be essential. (Inspirational passages from Antonio Gramsci, maybe not so much.) To repair the damage done to this country over the past six years might take decades -- and that’s putting things with all the optimism anyone can reasonably muster.

But any progressive force that is up to the task will need to do more than tolerate its own multiplicity. It will have to be able to build on its actual strengths -- not all of which are credited by the “left conservative” tendency to treat economic egalitarianism as the primary criterion for social progress.

Ten years ago, state recognition of civil unions (let alone marriage) between same-sex couples was not really part of the public debate. Today, however, it is. The Republican party has to spend a considerable part of its energy defending the principle that the right to get drunk in Vegas and have a wedding must be restricted to a specific configuration of participants. This makes them look kind of silly to a lot of people, including some Republicans.

When a significant portion of the public accepts the idea that gays and lesbians have at very least a right to civil unions, this raises the possibility that the "bulldozer" might just fire its engine into overdrive and go flying off a cliff.

Now, to be frank, I am enough of a “left conservative” to wish that we were discussing nationalizing the oil companies instead. But realpolitik means working with what you’ve got.

Any tendency to regard “mere” cultural politics as a distraction from assembling the forces to launch another is not a matter of being tough-minded and practical. It means ignoring the battles you are already winning -- and taking for granted the forces that have led the fight. There are various things to call such a strategy, but “pragmatic” would not be one of them.

Scott McLemee
Author's email:


Members of the U.S. Army Reserves are often called “citizen-soldiers” – an expression that definitely carries more honorific overtones than another label that has sometimes been applied to them, “weekend warriors.” The latter phrase is not just insulting but now hopelessly out of date. The men and women portrayed by Michael Musheno and Susan M. Ross in their new book Deployed: How Reservists Bear the Burden of Iraq, published by the University of Michigan Press, can hardly be called amateur soldiers. They were not only sent to Baghdad but assigned to guard an overcrowded and under-equipped prison camp. (Not the one at Abu Ghraib, though it sounds like they get that question a lot.) And like other reservists, they find themselves serving repeated tours of duty – drafted in everything but name.

The authors interviewed 46 members of a unit they call the 893rd Army Reserve Military Police Company (a fictitious name) between May and September 2004. Although Deployed includes some tables of demographic data on interview subjects, the book is far more focused on qualitative than quantitative information – an analysis of how, as Musheno and Ross put it, “they adapted to long deployments while coping with family relations, military duties, and civilian careers.”

The result is an account of the various ways the citizen-soldiers of the Army Reserves dealt with the potential fault-line embodied in that hyphen. In a way, it is a matter of emphasis. For those who see themselves as citizen-soldiers, the authors argue, “identity is primarily anchored in the relationships and structures within civilian life, including but not limited to family, community, civilian work worlds, and education.” Others understand themselves primarily as citizen-soldiers, taking their bearings from the “heavy demands on reservists’ time, energy, activities, and emotions” made by the military. “Civilian relationships, jobs, and goals are placed on the back burner,” write Musheno and Ross. Their sense of family life is “bifurcated into categories of ‘blood family’ (traditional family members left behind) and the newly developed ‘army-green family’ (brothers and sisters in arms).”

I interviewed the authors by e-mail. They wrote their responses together, like the book itself. The transcript follows. Michael Musheno is chair of the department of criminal justice studies at San Francisco State University; and Susan M. Ross is associate professor of sociology and chair of the department of criminal justice at Lycoming College.

Q:Perhaps the most surprising thing about your project is that you had the cooperation of military officials in doing your research. It's also striking how eager the reservists you interviewed seemed to be to talk about their lives and experiences. Did you worry that they might be speaking to you "under orders"? Were you ever aware of any effort by authorities to find out what was being said during the interviews?

A: Perhaps the people most surprised by the willingness of many of the reservists to participate in the project ended up being the two of us. We had been warned multiple times by veterans long since retired from the military that we would have a hard time getting servicemen and women to open up to us, though as you note, this was not the case. In total, we spoke with two-thirds of the men and women of the 893rd who were still attending drill weekends and served in Iraq.

For those who did participate, we took the added precaution, beyond a standard letter of informed consent, to ensure that if they had any feelings of having been “ordered” to participate, that we would simply sit there with them in silence for a half hour or so to give the illusion that an actual interview had taken place. None of the reservists took us up on this offer, and we remain confident that they were well aware that working with us, unlike the mandatory military drug testing that was taking place over the same time period, was in fact voluntary.

In terms of authorities, the company and platoon commanders were quite respectful and enthusiastic supporters of the project and did so out of a genuine and frequently expressed concern for the well-being of the men and women serving in their company. We never had reason to doubt their integrity. Although there was a battalion-level sergeant major who stopped by to check on our progress one afternoon, a brief overview of some very general and early findings left him satisfied and allowed for us to carry on uninterrupted thereafter.

Q:Social-scientific research into the U.S. military goes back at least to the work of Robert Merton and colleagues on "The American Soldier" almost 60 years ago. Did you have a sense of all that work being in the background? Or did it seem to you that the reserves constituted a largely unexplored topic?

A: There are several rich pockets of military research in history and the social sciences, but much of the research on soldiering over the last thirty or so years has been dominated by psychology and is skewed toward the topic of soldiers as damaged individuals returning from war. With this framework as a backdrop, we were completely taken aback when we encountered reservists who talked of being on deployment as “like being on vacation” from the struggles of their civilian home lives. Nothing in the military literature had really prepared us for meeting a young enlisted man, Dennis Harris, who wistfully remarked, “And sometimes I was wishin’ I was still back in Iraq, ‘cause none of my problems were really back there. I didn’t have my problems with my ex back there, and I didn’t have to worry about it ‘cause I was doin’ other stuff. But when I got home, I had to worry about it then, and it’s just like it was as if it was hard to let go.”

Rather than hearing some canon within military scholarship being echoed by Dennis, and colleagues who expressed similar sentiments, what we heard was a variation on the theme of work becoming family and family becoming work articulated so wonderfully by sociologist Arlie Hochschild in her book The Time Bind. So while we were well-grounded in a variety of military literatures, we also drew on our backgrounds in family sociology for Susan and public policy for Michael.

Q:You found from your interviews that reservists tended to fall into three broad categories. The "adaptive" reservists experience a comfortable fit between their family backgrounds and their service; they often grew up in military families. The "struggling" reservists find that military service gives them some degree of escape from difficult civilian lives, including sometimes complicated situations at home. A third group, the "resistant" reservists, are the least accepting of the demands that the military places on them; they just want to get out and go on with their lives.

Do you find any evidence that these distinctions correspond to personal alliances or social groupings within the reserves themselves? Do the reservists themselves have some version of this categorization as part of the lore or "folk sociology" of life in the reserves?

A: Although the reservists would definitely make comparisons between their own experiences and that of other reservists, they never employed language or jargon in use as explicit as the phrases we employ to identify these clusters of reservists. Their daily interactions with one another, particularly while they were on the ground in Iraq revolved around who they worked with in the prison as well as their squads and platoons, as we describe.

Gender was certainly important in defining relationships when soldiers were in their makeshift barracks in the prison, with women grouped together and watching each others backs. The phrases “adaptive,” “struggling,” and “resistant” are our way of articulating groupings of reservists that became apparent to us as we poured over the transcripts of these conversations. There are definitely times in which similar experiences draw a group of soldiers together. There was one group of struggling reservists who would routinely gather around a campfire at night and talk through the difficulties their wives or fiancées were having back home and try to develop strategies for dealing with these problems.

Also, reservists often distinguished their experiences and perspectives from others and would encourage us to talk to a buddy of theirs who had a completely different experience. Sometimes these were adaptive reservists who pointed us in the direction of a friend out of concern for their situations at home, who in turn we describe as struggling reservists. Not all comparisons, however, were stated with such tenderness.

For example, when asked about how his own engagement had weathered the deployments when so many others had not, one an adaptive soldier, Seth Walker, talked about how he felt that there were a lot of “silly” engagements that people had entered into in the face of the deployments that he felt were not well-thought through. While Seth is not using the formal language we develop for the book, he is comparing his own social support networks and the strength of his own relationship with his fiancée to those of struggling reservists.

Also, Brad Whitman, a resistant reservist, points out his political divergence from many of the other soldiers, mostly those who we came to see as adaptive soldiers, when he says “it was a more personal struggle for me while I was there, not for so many other people because most of the majority of your military personnel are your Pat Buchanan or G. Gordon Liddy fanatics. But for me and a few others, it was a more personal level of you got this feeling like we’re here for definitely the wrong reasons.” While Brad revealed the characteristics of what we came to call the resistant reservists, he worked side by side with those we came to call adaptive and struggling reservists and when some resistant reservists stopped coming to drill after returning from Iraq, soldiers who are in the adaptive cluster respected this choice or offered up excuses for their colleagues who were technically AWOL.

Q:You point out that reservists have at times been given uncomplimentary treatment by military professionals, as in being dubbed REMFs. (The first two letters stand for "Rear Echelon.") What did you learn about how that sort of tension influenced the experience of dealing with the tensions involved in the role of "citizen-soldier"?

A: The members of the 893rd were keenly aware of their status as “weekend warriors” and were frequently reminded of this by the members of the active duty component who questioned their ability to handle assigned soldiering duties first during their stateside deployment and again in Iraq. The reservists take offense to this skepticism, particularly in light of having proven their worth to the U.S. military over the course of their deployments, and they take pride in having served in a war zone that offered no comfort in distinguishing between front and rear lines of battle.

When the 893rd deployed, its ranks held trained civilian police officers, correctional officers, computer technicians, carpenters, and students of criminal justice, and the members of the company firmly believe that their ability to draw upon both their military training and their civilian skills ultimately made them more effective soldiers.

The hope of returning home from Iraq to a hero’s welcome and wiping clean the reserve stigma was abruptly snuffed out with the April 2004 release of the photos from Abu Ghraib prison. The 893rd did not serve at that now infamous prison, but soon came to understand that they, and all members of the Reserve, would have to bear the burden of this newly formed black eye.

Q:Your project is, for the most part, descriptive. But what conclusions have you drawn for the future? Have you given any thought to what kinds of policy implications might follow?

A: While there is thick description within the book, particularly in privileging the voices of the soldiers, our work is interpretive in nature. What we present is our interpretation of what we heard as we listed to 46 citizen soldiers who have given extraordinary service to the nation under the Bush administration’s “war on terror.” Although at first glance, the number of Americans servicing in the all-volunteer military seems impressive with a membership of 2.4 million men and women, when compared to a total U.S. population of over 300 million, it is clear that the cost of the political decision to enter Iraq has been endured disproportionately by a very small number of Americans, many of whom live their civilian lives on the edge of an increasingly shaky economy.

Beginning with George Washington, many leaders in the U.S. have called for universal national service of the American public as part of our duties as citizens. But, when push comes to shove, the raising of an army to fight a ground war has always fallen disproportionately on the less privileged of American citizens. We don’t see this changing particularly when patriotic fervor wanes and a war becomes prolonged and less popular. American military leaders reasoned after the Vietnam War that making the Reserve integral to a ground war would sober the political leadership of this country in taking the decision to go to war. Doing this did not stop the most recent march to war by our political leadership and so, we are back to a point where the public is skeptical of our political leadership, distrustful of the media’s accounting of the lead up to war, and more aware of the costs of protracted war.

That will probably put a break on going into another war in the near term, but it leaves our nation vulnerable to political and media propaganda when our first hand memories fade and still without a solution to our longstanding struggle over how to raise an army that can fight successfully when necessary and serve as a brake on the political leadership when not. We agree with those who advocate for a program of national service that provides citizens with options, including becoming citizen soldiers. We are not so naïve to think that the story we tell about the sacrifices of the few will turn the tide but it may fall upon the ears of future leaders who will require more sacrifices of the many and make clear the boundaries of sacrifices required of the few.

Scott McLemee
Author's email:

Becoming Richard Rorty

In the late 1940s, as Richard Rorty was finishing his undergraduate studies and considering a future as a professional philosopher, his parents began to worry about him. This is not surprising. Parents worry; and the parents of philosophers, perhaps especially. But just why Rorty's parents worried – well now, that part is surprising.

They were prominent left-wing journalists. His father, James, also had some minor reputation as a poet; and his mother, Winifred, had done important work on the sociology of race relations, besides trying her hand at fiction. In a letter, James Rorty speculated that going straight into graduate work might be something Richard would later regret. His son would do well to take some time “to discover yourself, possibly through a renewed attempt to release your own creative need: through writing, possibly through poetry....”

In short, becoming an academic philosopher sounded too practical.

Not to go overboard and claim that this is the defining moment of the philosopher’s life (Rosebud!). But surely it is the kind of experience that must somehow mark one’s deepest sense of priorities. How does that inner sense of self then shape a thinker’s work?

Neil Gross’s book Richard Rorty: The Making of an American Philosopher, to be published next month by University of Chicago Press, is not exactly a biography of its subject, who died last year. Rather, it is a study of how institutional forces shape an intellectual’s sense of personal identity, and vice versa. (Gross is currently in transit from Harvard University to the University of British Columbia, where as of this summer he will be an associate professor of sociology.)

Influenced by recent work in sociological theory – but with one eye constantly on the archive of personal correspondence, unpublished writings, and departmental memoranda – Gross reconstructs how Rorty’s interests and intellectual commitments developed within the disciplinary matrix of academic philosophy. He takes the story up through the transformative and sui generis work of Rorty’s middle years, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979) and Consequences of Pragmatism (1982).

This includes a look at Rorty’s complicated and unhappy relationship with his colleagues at Princeton University in the 1970s. “I find it a bit terrifying,” he wrote in a letter at the time, “that we keep turning out Ph.D.'s who quite seriously conceive of philosophy as a discipline in which one does not read anything written before 1970, except for the purposes of passing odd examinations.” Nor did it help that Rorty felt other professors were taking his ex-wife’s side in their divorce. (What’s the difference between departmental gossip and cultural history? In this case, about 30 years.)

Gross has written the most readable of monographs; and the chapter titled “The Theory of Intellectual Self-Concept” should be of interest even to scholars who aren’t especially concerned with Rorty’s long interdisciplinary shadow. I interviewed Gross recently by e-mail, just before he headed off to Canada. The transcript of our discussion follows.

Q:You identify your work on Richard Rorty not as a biography, or even as a work of intellectual history, but rather as an empirical case study in "the new sociology of ideas." What is that? What tools does a sociologist bring to the job that an intellectual historian wouldn't?

A: Sociology is a diverse field, but if I had to offer a generalization, I'd say that most sociologists these days aim to identify the often hidden social mechanisms, or cascading causal processes, that help to explain interesting, important, or counterintuitive outcomes or events in the social world. How and why do some movements for social change succeed in realizing their goals when others fail to get off the ground? Why isn't there more social mobility? What exactly is the connection between neighborhood poverty and crime? Few sociologists think anymore that universal, law-like answers to such questions can be found, but they do think it possible to isolate the role played by more or less general mechanisms.

Sociologists of ideas are interested in identifying the hidden social processes that can help explain the content of intellectuals' ideas and account for patterns in the dissemination of those ideas. My book attempts to make a theoretical contribution to this subfield. I challenge the approaches taken by two of the leading figures in the area -- Pierre Bourdieu and Randall Collins -- and propose a new approach. I think that the best sociological theory, however, has strong empirical grounding, so I decided to develop my theoretical contribution and illustrate its value by deeply immersing myself in an empirical case: the development of the main lines of Richard Rorty's philosophy.

This entailed doing the same kind of work an intellectual historian would do: digging through archives, reading through Rorty's correspondence and unpublished manuscripts (to which he granted to access,) and of course trying to get a grasp on the diversity of Rorty's intellectual output for the period in question. This work is reflected in the first half of my book, which reads like an intellectual biography.

But the book isn't intended as a biography, and in the second half I try to show that thinking about Rorty's life and career in terms of the hidden social mechanisms at play offers unique explanatory leverage. I love intellectual history, but many intellectual historians are allergic to any effort at generalization. One of my aims in this book is to show them that they needn't be. The old sociology of knowledge may have been terribly reductive -- ideas are an expression of class interests or reflective of dominant cultural tendencies, etc etc -- but the sociology of ideas today offers much more fine-grained theoretical tools.

I only cover Rorty's life up until 1982 because by then most of the main lines of his philosophy had already been developed. After that point, he becomes for the sociologist of ideas a different kind of empirical case: an intellectual superstar and bête noire of American philosophy. It would be fascinating to write about the social processes involved with this, but that was too much for one book.

Q:This might seem like a chicken-or-egg question....Did an interest in Rorty lead you toward this sociological approach, or vice versa?

A: When I was a graduate student in the 1990s I read quite a bit of Rorty's work, and found it both interesting and frustrating. But my interest in the sociology of ideas developed independently. For me, Rorty is just a case, and I remain completely agnostic in the book about the value of his philosophy.

Q:But isn't there something already a little bit pragmatism-minded about analyzing a philosopher's work in sociological terms?

A: It's certainly the case that there are affinities between pragmatism and the sociology of knowledge. But I'm not trying to advance any kind of philosophical theory of knowledge, pragmatist or otherwise. I believe, like every other sociologist of ideas, that intellectuals are social actors and that their thought is systematically shaped by their social experiences. Whether that has any philosophical implications is best left to philosophers to figure out.

I do think that the classical pragmatist philosophers Charles Peirce, William James, John Dewey, and George Herbert Mead had it right in their account of human social action, as Hans Joas has persuasively argued. Some of their insights do make their way into my analysis.

Q: A common account of Rorty's career has him starting out as an analytic philosopher who then undertakes a kind of "turn to pragmatism" in the 1970s, thereby reviving interest in a whole current of American philosophy that had become a preserve of specialists. Your telling is different. What is the biggest misconception embedded in that more familiar thumbnail version?

A: Rorty didn't start out as an analytic philosopher. His masters thesis at Chicago was on Whitehead's metaphysics, and while his dissertation at Yale on potentiality was appreciative in part of analytic contributions, one of its major aims was to show how much value there might be in dialogue between analytic and non-analytic approaches. As Bruce Kuklick has shown, dialogue between various philosophical traditions, and pluralism, were watchwords of the Yale department, and Rorty was quite taken with these metaphilosophical ideals.

Rorty only became seriously committed to the analytic enterprise after graduate school while teaching at Wellesley, his first job. This conversion was directly related to his interest in moving up in the academic hierarchy to an assistant professorship in a top ranked graduate program. At nearly all such programs at the time, analytic philosophy had come to rule the roost. This was very much the case at Princeton, which hired him away from Wellesley, and his commitment to analytic philosophy solidified even more during the years when he sought tenure there.

But the conventional account is flawed in another way as well. It turns out that Rorty read a lot of pragmatism at Yale -- Peirce in particular -- and one of the things that characterized his earliest analytic contributions was a consistent interest in pointing out convergences and overlaps between pragmatism and certain recent developments in analytic thought. So when he finally started calling himself a pragmatist later in his career, it was in many respects a return to a tradition with which he had been familiar from the start, however much he might have come to interpret it differently than specialists in American philosophy would.

Q:You argue for the value of understanding what you call "the intellectual self-concept." Would you explain that idea? What does it permit us to grasp about Rorty that we might not, otherwise?

A: As I've already suggested, my goal in this book was not simply to write a biography of Rorty, but also to make a theoretical contribution to the sociology of ideas. Surprising as it might sound to some, the leading figures in this area today -- to my mind Pierre Bourdieu and Randall Collins -- have tended to depict intellectuals as strategic actors who develop their ideas and make career plans and choices with an eye toward accumulating intellectual status and prestige. That kind of depiction naturally raises the ire of those who see intellectual pursuits as more lofty endeavors -- it was not for nothing that Bourdieu described his study, Homo Academicus, as a "book for burning."

I argue that intellectuals do in fact behave strategically much of the time, but that another important factor influencing their lines of activity is the specific "intellectual self-concept" to which they come to cleave. By this I mean the highly specific narratives of intellectual selfhood that knowledge producers may carry around with them -- narratives that characterize them as intellectuals of such and such a type.

In Rorty's case, one of the intellectual self-concepts that came to be terribly important to him was that of a "leftist American patriot." I argue that intellectual self-concepts, thus understood, are important in at least two respects: they may influence the kinds of strategic choices thinkers make (for example, shaping the nature of professional ambition), and they may also directly influence lines of intellectual activity. The growing salience to Rorty of his self-understood identity as a leftist American patriot, for example, was one of the factors that led him back toward pragmatism in the late 1970s and beyond -- or so I claim.

I develop in the book an account of how the intellectual self-concepts of thinkers form and change over the life course. Rorty took on the leftist American patriot self-concept pretty directly from his parents, and it became reactivated in the 1970s in response to political and cultural developments and also their deaths. My argument is that the sociology of ideas would do well to incorporate the notion of intellectual self-concept into its theoretical toolkit.

But I must say that my ambitions extend beyond this. Bourdieu and Collins are not just sociologists of ideas, but general sociological theorists who happened to have applied their models to intellectual life. Implicit in my respectful criticisms of them is a call to supplement and revise their general models as well, and to fold notions of identity and subjectivity back into sociological theory -- conceptualized in the specific way I lay out, which eclectically draws on Anglo-American social psychology, theories of narrative identity, the ego psychology of Erikson, and other sources.

Q: The philosopher's father, James Rorty, is reasonably well-known to cultural historians as one of the left-wing anti-Communist public intellectuals of the mid-20th century. Your account of his life is interesting, but I found a lot of it rather familiar. By contrast, the chapter on Richard Rorty's mother was a revelation. Winifred Rorty was a clearly a remarkable person, and the question of her influence on her son seems very rich. What was it like to rediscover someone whose career might otherwise be completely forgotten?

A: It's well known that Rorty's mother, Winifred, was the daughter of social gospel theologian Walter Rauschenbusch. What's less well known is that she was a research assistant to the sociologist Robert Park at the University of Chicago. Winifred never entered academe -- she didn't formally enroll as a graduate student at Chicago, and in any event the opportunities for women on the academic labor market at the time were severely limited. Instead, after she left Chicago she worked, like her husband James, as a free lance writer and journalist. Her specialties were race riots and fashion. Very late in her life she wrote a biography of Park.

I ended up devoting one chapter each to Winifred and James because their influence on their son was profound, but also because theirs were fascinating stories that hadn't really been told before. Certainly there is no shortage of scholarship on the New York intellectuals -- a group of which they were loosely a part -- but both led remarkable and distinctive intellectual and writerly lives.

In the case of Rorty's mother I didn't set out to write about someone whose career might otherwise be forgotten, but I can say that it was a great pleasure to immerse myself in her papers and writings. Too often intellectual historians and sociologists of ideas alike focus their attention on the most prominent and "successful" thinkers, but feminist historians, among others, have helpfully reminded us that the stories of those whose careers have been stymied or blocked by discrimination or other factors can be every bit as rich and worth recovering.

Q: Suppose someone were persuaded to pursue research into Rorty's life and work after 1982, working from within the approach you call the "new sociology of ideas." What questions and problems concerning that period would you most want to see studied? What manner of archival resources or other documentary material would be most important for understanding the later phase of Rorty's career?

A: There are lots of questions about this period in Rorty's life that are worth pursuing, but I think one of the most important would be to figure out why Rorty struck a chord with so many people, was vehemently hated by others, and what role exactly his scholarship played in the more general revival of interest in classical American pragmatism that has taken place over the past twenty years or so. My book focuses primarily on the development of ideas, whereas this would be a question of diffusion and reception. I don't think it's possible to give an answer to the question without doing a lot of careful empirical research.

One would want to know about the state of the various intellectual fields in which Rorty's work was received; about the self-concepts and strategic concerns of those who responded to him positively or negatively; about the role of intellectual brokers who helped to champion Rorty and translate his ideas into particular disciplinary idioms; about the availability of resources for pragmatist scholarship; about the role played by scholarly organizations, such as the Society for the Advancement of American Philosophy, in doing the kind of organizational work necessary to lay the groundwork for an intellectual revival; and so on. Here again one might use Rorty as a window into a more general social phenomenon: the emergence of what Scott Frickel and I have called "scientific/intellectual movements," in this case a movement aimed at reviving an intellectual tradition that had long been seen as moribund.

Q: Rorty gave you access to his papers. The notes to your book cite e-mail exchanges you had with him. Any personal impressions that stick with you, beyond what you've had to say in the monographic format?

A: Although Dick and I never formed a friendship, he wrote to me not long after his diagnosis to tell me about it, and to suggest that if I had any unanswered factual questions about his life, I might want to consider asking them of him sooner rather than later.

Some might see this as reflecting a concern to manage his reputation, but he read drafts of the book and -- without commenting on the plausibility of my thesis -- never asked me to change a thing. I think what it shows instead is that he was an incredibly generous, kind, and decent man, even in his final hours; he didn't want to leave a young scholar in the lurch.

Whatever one thinks of Rorty's philosophy, those are qualities all intellectuals could stand to emulate, and live by even in the midst of intense disagreement.

Scott McLemee
Author's email:

The Hope of Audacity

I am sick of reading about Malcolm Gladwell’s hair.

Sure, The New Yorker writer has funny hair. It has been big. Very big. It is audacious hair, hair that dares you not to notice it; hair that has been mentioned in far too many reviews. Malcolm Gladwell’s hair is its own thing.

Which is only appropriate, since in his writing, Gladwell has always gone his own way. But he’s been doing it long enough, and so well, and has made so much money, that some folks feel it’s time to trim him down to size. That hair is now seen as uppity.

Gladwell is a mere journalist. He’s not shy, and like many children of academics, he is not intimidated by eggheads. He does none of his own primary research, and instead scours academic journals to find interesting ideas -- he collects experiments and experimenters. He is a translator and a synthesizer, and comes up with catchy, sprightly titled theories to explain what he has seen. Some have called him a parasite. He has called himself a parasite.

It seems to me there’s always been a bit of snarkiness attached to discussions of Gladwell’s work. This is often the case for books that have become commercially successful, which is something that seems particularly to stick in the collective academic craw. There is a weird hostility in the reviews of Gladwell’s books that is directed not at the big-haired guy himself who, like a puppy, nips at the heels of academics and then relishes the opportunity to render their work into fluid, transparent prose, but toward those many people who have made Gladwell famous: his readers. No one matches the caustic condescension of Richard Posner, who said, in a review of Gladwell’s Blink, that “it’s a book for people who don’t read books.”

The reviews of Outliers, Gladwell’s latest book, show that even a New Yorker writer can go too far. People are now attacking Malcolm Gladwell as a kind of brand. The critiques boil down to a few things, one of which is that he doesn’t take into account evidence that refutes his theories. In other words, he’s not doing careful scholarship. But we all know that even careful scholarship is a game of picking and choosing -- it just includes more footnotes acknowledging this. And Gladwell never pretends to be doing scholarship.

Gladwell is also accused of being too entertaining. He takes creaky academic work and breathes Frankensteinian life into it. He weaves anecdotes together, creating a tapestry that builds to an argument that seems convincing. This, some reviewers have claimed, is like perpetuating fraud on the (non-academic) reading public: because Gladwell makes it so much fun to follow him on his intellectual journey, he’s going to convince people of things that aren’t provably, academically true. He will lull the hoi polloi into thinking they’re reading something serious.

Which is, of course, the most common complaint about Gladwell: He’s not serious enough. He’s having too much fun playing with his ideas. And, really, you can’t be Serious when you’re raking in so much coin. Anyone who gets paid four million bucks for a book that mines academic work -- and not necessarily the stuff that is agreed to be Important -- is going to become a target. His speaking fees are beyond the budgets of most colleges. In this way, his career is now similar to that of David Sedaris, who can command an impressive audience and still be dissed by the literary folks. Everyone who’s anyone knows that you can’t sell a lot of books and be a serious writer. Just ask Jonathan Franzen. Or Toni Morrison.

I don’t see Gladwell as a social scientist-manqué, or a philosopher wannabe. Instead, I read him more like an essayist. I think of his books as well-written, research-packed, extended essays. Let me show you the evils of imperialism by telling you a story about the time in Burma when I was forced to shoot an elephant. Let’s look at this (bad) academic prose and think about the relationship between politics and the English language. But instead of using his own experiences, he builds on work done by others. He uses a wry, quirky approach and blithely ignores the received wisdom and pieties of academe. He doesn’t seek out the researcher who’s highly regarded within her field; he looks for people who are doing things he finds interesting.

Gladwell reminds me of the kind of student I knew in college, the nerd who takes weird and arcane courses and then rushes from the lecture hall excited about some idea the professor has mentioned in passing and goes straight to the library to pursue it himself. He stays up all night talking about it, and convincing you that even though you were in the same class, and heard the same reference, you have somehow missed something. Maybe not something big, but at least something really, really cool.

Perhaps I have more trust in readers than to believe that they can be so easily bought off by a good story. And I wish that academics, instead of pillorying Gladwell for being good at translating complicated ideas, would study the way he does it and apply some portion of his method to their own work: He makes mini trade books of monographs. Surely this is a lesson worth learning. He uses the narrative art of the magazine writer to animate ideas. He profiles theories the way Gay Talese or Joan Didion did celebrities.

The audacity Gladwell shows in his writing, connecting seemingly disparate things and working hard, yet with apparent effortlessness, to make the ideas engaging, gives me hope for the future of books. It makes me feel better to see folks buying Gladwell rather than the swimmer Michael Phelps’s memoir or vampire novels -- not that there’s anything wrong with that. Yet this same audacity is what gets Gladwell into hot water with academics. He’s not supposed to do this.

Unless you are an aged physicist, you don’t really get to write books that “purport to explain the world.” You can, of course, try to explicate tiny portions of it. Science writers like James Gleick and Jonathan Weiner can go a lot further than most scientists in terms of making arcane principles understandable to the Joe the Plumbers of the reading world and no one gets bent of out shape. Perhaps it’s because of the assumption that scientists, with a few notable (often British) exceptions, are not supposed to be able to write books that normal people can read. Social scientists and historians are, however, expected to be able to know what is interesting and important about their work and present it to the public. Brand name thinkers like Susan Sontag and Martha Nussbaum can take on big ideas. But these people are experts; journalists shouldn’t try this at home.

What I love about Gladwell is that his writing is like his hair. You can see it as arrogant or scary (he writes about being stopped more frequently by cops when he had a big afro), or you can see it as playful and audacious. This is why, of course, so many reviews mention it; he has the right hair for his work.

One final, dour complaint about Gladwell has to do with his relentless cheeriness. He thinks that people are basically good, though he understands that sometimes circumstances aren’t. I can’t abide high-brow literary novelists who trash fiction that “cops out” with a happy ending. Maybe I’m hopelessly low-brow: I still love Jane Austen and Shakespeare’s comedies. The academic response to most things is generally: it’s more complicated than that. And sure, much of the time it is. But if something’s artfully crafted, I’m willing to cut the author some slack. I don’t ever expect to be thoroughly persuaded of anything; I’m characterologically skeptical and like to do the thinking on my own. Gladwell’s books invite me into a conversation. I think that’s part of the job of a good book.

For me, reading Malcolm Gladwell’s books is like watching Frank Capra movies. Just because they make you feel good and keep you entertained doesn’t mean that they’re not doing valuable work or tackling hard and real issues and ideas. Sure, someone else could have handled it differently. George Bailey might have finally committed suicide; the bank in Bedford Falls could have asked for a government bailout. But right now, maybe it’s not such a bad thing to read books that are a little more hopeful. And yes, audacious.

Rachel Toor
Author's email:

Rachel Toor teaches in the MFA program at Eastern Washington University. She writes a monthly column for The Chronicle of Higher Education, and her most recent book is Personal Record: A Love Affair With Running. Her Web site is


Subscribe to RSS - Sociology
Back to Top