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Paul Starr: A Voice for Liberalism

Faculty Snapshot

By Michael J. Abramowitz

In 1968, the editorial board of the Columbia Spectator endorsed then-Black Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver for President. The day after the endorsement rain. Paul Starr, who was to become the next editor of the university daily, wrote a ringing article denouncing the choice as ridiculous.

Starr recalls the incident now to illustrate what he characterizes as his strong streak of political moderation--a moderation that stayed with Starr even during the late '60s, when building takeovers and student strikes convulsed the Columbia campus.

"When I became editor of the Spectator. I was the compromise choice between the conservatives and the radicals." continues Starr, now an associate professor of Sociology at Harvard. "I selected what at the time was thought to be a moderate course which was very strongly against the war but also not sympathetic to the protests that were being directed against the university. The university was being used as a surrogate for the government and being attacked on a wide variety of grounds, many of which made absolutely no sense at all."

Nearly 15 years, two books, numerous articles, a wife, baby and a growing reputation as one of the brightest young scholars in the field separate Starr from his early college days. But, as a conversation with the 34-year-old scholar indicates, his sense of moderation still remains strong-especially at a time when much of the idealism of his college generation seems to have dissipated.

As an example, Starr cites the growth of neoconservatism in the naid-'70s and the subsequent "wholesale" repudiation of the liberal conception of an interventionist government.

"I never shared that loss of confidence," he stresses. "I believe that there is a plane for government and that we are in desperate need of strong and effective government policies in a variety of areas."

Given there strong belies, it is not surprising that much of Starr's research and writing has had a strong public policy ring to it-from his early work on Vietnam veterans to his extensive research on the development of American medicine and his current thinking on the boundary between public and private institutions.

A professor since 1979, Starr currently teaches an undergraduate course on "Medicine and Society" and "Information and Power," as well as a graduate seminar on sociological theory.

This line of policy intrude stems all the way to just after start's graduation from Columbia in 1970, when he went to work for consumer advocate Raioh Nader, even he was starting his graduate work at Harvard.

During his summers is the early 1970s, Start headed a small staff for Nader examining the Veterans Administration and the experience of Vietnam veterans, with the research culminating in a well-received book. "The Discarded Army: Veterans After Vietnam," The book stresses that the Veterans Administration was greatly influenced by veterans of earlier was and, as a result, was not especially sympathetic to the specific concerns and problems of Vietnam vets.

The book also identifies structural problems with the VA hospital system, a topic Start says spawned what became his dominating research interest over his graduates year--the development of American medicine.

Starr was significantly aided by a three-year stint at Harvard's prestigious Society of Fellows, which afforded him the freedom to enlarge the scope of his project.

The result of eight years of research was published last year, with the release of The Special Transformation of American Medicine, which in the words of one of many gushing reviewers is "the definitive study of how American medicine got the way it is and why it has been so impervious to beneficial change."

In this comprehensive overview, Starr touches on a range of issues, from the over-production of doctors in the late 19th century to the recent rise of for profit health-care corporations, a development with ominous overtones in Starr's view.

"Medivias has because such a vest enterprise in our society that anybody who is intruded in the American economy today and in American Cultural life today has to pay some attention to the development, of medicine," he says.

Starr goes on to stress the cross--disciplinary nature of his book, which he says integrates history, economics, and polities under the framework of sociology. This diversity dovetails with a point be returns to several times during the course of a 45-minutes discussion--the advantages he sees in the fractious nature of sociology.

While others have lamented what he acknowledges to be the "extreme disorganization of his field--with specialists divided over questions of methodology and appropriate research topics--Starr considers it a great advantage that offers unrivaled academe freedom.

Sociology Department Chairman William Alonso says that Starr has avoided the current tendency in the field to follow a strictly statistical approach or to fit research into a rigorous structural approach. "He's more of a general social scientist than fitting a narrow label or discipline," he explains.

In keeping with this breadth, Starr, while retaining an interest in medical policy questions, is moving onto other research questions. One of the two main topics on the burner are general questions conceding the growth of information technology and the implications it has, for the organization of work.

Another concern for Starr is the fate of public institutions--an interest that seems to have grown out of his abiding belief in a non-ideological liberalism. Liberals, he says, recognize the usefulness of both public and private institutions; but Starr expresses concern that currently, "the enthusiasm for the private sector is obscuring a lot of the ways in which public institution create a sense of civic life."

Here too, Starr's views reflect his underlying sense of moderation. As Starr explains: "I've always considered myself a liberal who took liberalism seriously. Never having been a radical. I was never disillusioned. I cannot recall a point at which I said, 'Oh my goodness. I was so innocent.'

"This is perhaps nothing to be proud of," he continues, "but there is scarcely anything I've written that I would want to take back. Even the stuff I wrote when I was editor of the Spectator, I am completely happy with.

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