Sociology in the Storms

Smart Title: 
Social scientists who study disaster have seen their field expand dramatically in recent years, and new earthquakes and hurricanes offer new material for research.

Sociology Job Market Improves

Smart Title: 
Number of searches was up dramatically in 2010, but still lags figures from 2008. And grad students' interests create "mismatch" issues with available positions.

Real Knowledge

During the heyday of American economic and geographical expansion, in the late 19th century, the men who sold real estate occupied a distinct vocational niche. They were slightly less respectable than, say, riverboat gamblers -- but undoubtedly more so than pirates on the open seas. It was a good job for someone who didn’t mind leaving town quickly.

But about 100 years ago, something important began to happen, as Jeffrey M. Hornstein recounts in A Nation of Realtors: A Cultural History of the Twentieth Century American Middle Class, published this spring by Duke University Press.  Some of those engaged in the trade started to understand themselves as professionals.

They created local realty boards and introduced licensing as means by which reputable practitioners could distinguish themselves from grifters. And in time, they were well enough organized to lobby the federal government on housing policy –- favoring developments that encouraged the building of single-family units, rather than public housing. Their efforts, as Hornstein writes, "would effectively create a broad new white middle class haven in the suburbs, while leaving behind the upper class and the poor in cities increasingly polarized by race and wealth."

I picked up A Nation of Realtors expecting a mixture of social history and Glengarry Glen Ross. It's actually something different: a contribution to understanding how certain aspects of middle-class identity took shape -- both among the men (and later, increasingly, women) who identified themselves as Realtors and among their customers. Particularly interesting is the chapter "Applied Realology," which recounts the early efforts of a handful of academics to create a field of study that would then (in turn) bolster the profession’s claims to legitimacy and rigor.

Hornstein recently answered a series of questions about his book -- a brief shift of his attention back to scholarly concerns, since he is now organizing director of Service Employees International Union, Local 36, in Philadelphia.

Q:Before getting to your book, let me ask about your move from historical research to union organizing. What's the story behind that?

A: I was applying to graduate school in my senior year of college and my advisor told me that while he was sure I could handle grad school, he saw me as more of "a politician than a political scientist." I had always been involved in organizing people and was a campus leader. But I also enjoyed academic work, and went on to get two graduate degrees, one in political science from Penn, another in history from the University of Maryland.

While I was doing the history Ph.D. at Maryland, a group of teaching assistants got together and realized that we were an exploited group that could benefit from a union. Helping to form an organizing committee, affiliating with a national union, getting to know hard-boiled organizers (many of whom were also intellectuals), and attempting to persuade my peers that they needed to take control of their own working conditions through collective action captured my imagination and interest much more than research, writing, or teaching.  

After a long intellectual and personal journey, I finally defended my dissertation. The academic job market looked bleak, particularly as a graduate of a non-elite institution. And when I was honest with myself, I realized that my experience forming a graduate employee union engaged me far more than the intellectual work.

Armed with this insight, I put the diss in a box, and two weeks later, I was at the AFL-CIO’s Organizing Institute getting my first taste of what it would be like to organize workers as a vocation. In the dark barroom in the basement of the George Meany Center for Labor Studies, a recruiter from an SEIU local in Ohio approached me and asked me if I’d like to spend the next few years of my life living in Red Roof Inns, trying to help low-wage workers improve their lives. Two weeks later, I landed in Columbus, Ohio and I was soon hooked.  

And I would add this: The supply of talented and committed organizers is far outstripped by the demand. The labor movement’s current crisis is, frankly, a huge opportunity for energetic and idealistic people to make a real difference. Hard work and commitment is really rewarded in the labor movement, and one can move quickly into positions of responsibility. It’s very demanding and often frustrating work, but it’s about as fulfilling a vocation as I could imagine.

Q:You discuss the emergence of realtors as the rise of a new kind of social identity, "the business professional." But I'm left wondering about early local real-estate boards. They sound kind of like lodges or fraternal groups, as much as anything else. In what sense are they comparable to today's professional organizations, as opposed to, say, the Elks or the Jaycees?

A: Indeed, early boards were very much like fraternal organizations. They were all male and clubby, there was often a "board home" that offered a retreat space, and so on. Early real estate board newsletters are rife with the sorts of jokes about women and minorities that were standard fare in the 1910s and 1920s -- jokes that, I argue, help to police the boundaries of masculinity.  

In the early chapters of the book, I provide brief sketches of the workings of the Chicago and Philadelphia real estate boards, as well as a sort of anthropological view of early real estate conventions. My favorite was the 1915 Los Angeles convention, during which the main social event was a drag party. In my view, the conventions, the board meetings, the social events, the publications, all formed a homosocial space in which a particular sort of masculinity was performed, where the conventions of middle-class masculinity were established and reinforced.  

In the early 1920's, the emphasis began to shift from fraternalism to a more technocratic, professional modality.  Herbert Nelson took the helm at the National Association of Real Estate Boards in 1923, and he started to make NAREB look much more like a modern professional organization. In some respects he created the mold. He made long-term strategic plans, asserted the necessity for a permanent Realtor presence in Washington, D.C., pushed for standards for licensing, worked with Herbert Hoover’s Commerce Department to promulgate a standard zoning act, and linked up with Professor Richard T. Ely [of the University of Wisconsin at Madison] to help "scientize" the field.  

Nelson served as executive director of NAREB for over 30 years. During his tenure, the organization grew, differentiated, specialized, and became a powerful national political actor. In sum, it became a true modern professional association in most ways. Yet like most other professional organizations prior to the ascendancy of feminism and the major incursion of women into the professions, masculine clubbiness remained an important element in the organizational culture well into the 1970s.    

In sum, the story I tell about the complex interdependencies of class, gender, and work identities is largely about the Realtors’ attempts to transform an Elks-like organization into a modern, "professional" business association.

Q:On the one hand, they see what they are doing as a kind of applied social science -- also creating, as you put it, "a professional metanarrative." On the other hand, you note that Ely's Institute for Research in Land Economics was a casualty of the end of the real estate bubble. Doesn't that justify some cynicism about realtors' quest for academic legitimacy?

A: I don’t see the Realtors or the social scientists like Ely in cynical terms at all. In fact, both parties are quite earnest about what they’re doing, in my view. Ely was nothing if not a true believer in the socially transformative power of his research and of social scientific research in general. He managed to persuade a faction of influential Realtors, primarily large-scale developers ("community-builders") such as J.C. Nichols, that research was the key to professionalism, prosperity, and high-quality real estate development.  
Ely’s Institute was not a casualty of the implosion of the 1926 Florida real estate bubble as such. But the real estate collapse and the ensuing Depression made it much harder for the Realtors to make claims to authority based on disinterested science.

It’s not that the grounding of the whole field of Land Economics was problematic – at least no more so than any other field of social or human science, particularly one that produces knowledge that can be used for commercial purposes.  

The academic field was in its infancy in the 1910s and 1920s, and there were intra-disciplinary squabbles between the older, more historical economists like Ely and the younger generation, which was much more model- and mathematics-driven. At the same time, there were sharp divisions among Realtors between those who believed that professionalism required science (and licensing, and zoning, and so on) and those who rejected this idea.  

So, yes, the Elyian attempt at organizing the real estate industry on a purely ‘scientific’ basis, operating primarily in the interest of the social good, was largely a failure. However, the 1920s mark a watershed in that the National Association became a major producer and consumer of social scientific knowledge. Business schools began to offer real estate as a course of study. Textbooks, replete with charts and graphs and economic equations, proliferated. Prominent academics threw their lot in with the Realtors.

In the end, the industry established its own think tank, the Urban Land Institute, the motto of which is “Under All, The Land” -- taken straight from Ely’s work. But the profession itself remained divided over the value of ‘science’ – the community-builders generally supported efforts to scientize the field, while those on the more speculative end of the profession were generally opposed.  

But again, I don’t think that the grounding of the field of land economics is any more questionable than any other subfield of economics, such as finance or accounting.

Q:Your book left me with a sort of chicken-and-egg question. You connect the growth of the profession with certain cultural norms -- the tendency to define oneself as middle-class, the expectation of private home ownership, etc. Didn't those aspirations have really deep roots in American culture, which the Realtors simply appealed to as part of their own legitimization? Or were they more the result of lobbying, advertising, and other activities of the real-estate profession?

A: Absolutely, these tendencies have roots deep in American culture. The term "middle class" was not really used until the late 19th century -- "middling sorts" was the more prevalent term before then. The "classless society" has long been a trope in American culture, the idea that with hard work, perseverance, and a little luck, anyone can "make it" in America, that the boundaries between social positions are fluid, etc.  

But it’s not until the early-to-mid 20th century that homeownership and middle-class identity come to be conflated.  The "American Dream" is redefined from being about political freedom to being about homeownership. At around the same time, debt is redefined as "credit" and "equity."

So, yes, I ‘d agree to some extent that the Realtors tapped into longstanding cultural norms as part of their efforts at self-legitimization. Like most successful political actors, they harnessed cultural commonsense for their own ends – namely, to make homeownership integral to middle-class identity. Their political work enabled them, in the midst of the Depression, to get the National Housing Act passed as they wrote it -- with provisions that greatly privileged just the sort of single-family, suburban homes leading members of NAREB were intent on building.  

The Realtors used the cultural material at hand to make their interests seem to be the interests of the whole society. But, as we know from many fine studies of suburban development, many people and many competing visions of the American landscape were marginalized in the process.

Scott McLemee
Author's email:

Scott McLemee writes Intellectual Affairs on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

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
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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
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