Influential sociologist and professor emeritus Daniel Bell, who wrote extensively about post-industrial society, died in his home on Tuesday after a brief illness. He was 91.
A self-proclaimed “specialist in generalizations,” Bell was interested in “anything and everything,” said his son, David A. Bell ’83, a professor of French history at Princeton.
“He was interested in finding large generalizations about the way the world worked,” David Bell said. “He was engaged in trying to understand the world.”
The elder Bell, Henry Ford II professor of social sciences, emeritus at Harvard, had interests that ranged from current affairs to history and from social theory to technology, David Bell said.
Throughout his academic career, Bell published several provocative works, such as his 1960 book “The End of Ideology,” which predicted that the old ideologies of the 19th and 20th centuries—those that he grew up with—would give way to new ideologies.
His 1976 book “The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism” highlights the problems of capitalism due to its strong emphasis on consumer culture.
Both books were dubbed among the 100 most important in the second half of the 20th century by the Times Literary Supplement.
“He had very large ideas about society and where it was going,” said Nathan Glazer, professor of education and social structure, emeritus, who first met Bell 70 years ago at City College of New York. “They were prescient ideas.”
Bell entered the world of academia after a long career in journalism, Glazer said, which gave him a range of knowledge wider than that of other sociologists.
“He was remarkable for his reading and knowledge in many fields,” Glazer added. “He seemed to forget nothing.”
David Bell said he would engage in deep and substantial intellectual discussions with his father.
He said his father would joke that for someone who wrote some of the most penetrating works about the influence of technology and computers in society, Bell himself was ironically technologically illiterate; he would sometimes hand write e-mails and have another individual type and send them for him.
Mary C. Brinton, current chair of the sociology department at Harvard, remembers Bell as a preeminent analyst and critic of contemporary trends in American society and post-industrial capitalism.
“I found him very engaging, very interested in what other people had to say about major social phenomena,” she said.
Bell received two honorary degrees from Harvard over the years—a Master of Arts in 1969, and a Doctor of Laws in 1992.
Bell is survived by his wife, son, daughter, and four grandchildren.
A public memorial service will be announced in the spring.
“Daniel Bell had an encyclopedic intellect, a quick wit, and a deep moral sense,” Princeton Professor of Sociology Paul Starr, a student of Bell’s, wrote in an e-mail. “When he walked into a room with students, he brought with him an entire tradition. There will be no replacing that.”
—Staff writer Xi Yu can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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