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Sociology is Sufficient

By Orlando Patterson

PROFESSOR Jim Davis' letter to The Crimson on the Social Studies program was meant to be taken seriously, and I write both to support his views, and to respond to the rather predictable outcry from my respected colleagues, [Dillon Professor of the Civilization of France] Stanley Hoffmann, [Sack Associate Professor of Political Economy] Peter Hall and, most recently, [Coolidge Professor of History and Professor of Economics] David Landes.

We in Sociology did not choose to make this a public debate on the educational legitimacy of Social Studies. An internal memo I wrote to the graduate students of my department urging them to teach in our program, and offering incentives for those who did so, was leaked by someone connected with Social Studies, and blown up by a writer at The Crimson eager for a by-line.

It is perfectly proper for a Harvard department to offer incentives to its graduate students to teach its own courses, especially when they are being unfairly lured away with higher rates of pay by another department, and I find it puzzling that Professor Landes should characterize such incentives as indications of insecurity. Now that the issue is out in the open, however, it is disingenuous for anyone to claim that the differences between Sociology and Social Studies amount to a tempest in a teacup.

The persons managing the Social Studies program are all honorable men and women, with what I am sure are the best of educational intentions for its concentrators. Nonetheless, I consider the program not only institutionally redundant, but, in most respects, a pedagogically conservative and misguided educational venture.

I know whereof I speak, for the simple reason that, as a product of British-style sociological education, I was miseducated in exactly the same way that I see Harvard students--whom I cherish and respect more than any other group of young people--now being miseducated in the Social Studies program. Only more so, since I had to read more texts than they now do, and my tutorials were one-on-one with my exegetical indoctrinators. I, too, had to take the same smattering of anthropology, economics, political science, and history courses, as well as an introductory statistics course which I yawned my way through in the same clever-clever conviction that learning to think statistically was a positivist vulgarity.

The truth of the matter is that what we call Social Studies at Harvard is merely a thinly Americanized version of what is called Sociology in Britain--"Channel 2" Sociology, one might say, since it confuses excellence with things British in the same manner that the television programmers of Channel 2's Sunday night fare routinely do, though, admittedly, with less unction.

IF THERE were some rationale for a Social Studies program in the 1960's when Sociology was a part of the Social Relations department, that rationale vanished with the creation of the Sociology Department in 1970. It is preposterous for anyore to argue that Harvard's Sociology Department was not qualified to teach social thought at any time during the sixties and seventies, since we had on our faculty several of the world's foremost social theorists--Talcott Parsons, George Homans and Seymour Martin Lipset, to list only three--and, in our junior faculty, any number of social theorists of different persuasions.

Indeed, the Social Studies program has always relied heavily, and still does, on the junior faculty and graduate students of the Sociology Department to perform the core of its teaching. In the late seventies and early eighties, the Sociology Department strongly reinforced the quantitative side of its program, in this way correcting one of its deficiencies.

In doing so, however, we did not undercut our position as one of the world's leading centers of social theory and comparative-historical sociology. We became, instead, a stronger, more balanced department, holding our position as one of the world's best with departments, such as Wisconsin's, which have more than eight times the number of tenured. full-time positions.

Professors Hoffmann and Landes are off the mark in their spirited defense of the importance of studying former social theorists. We fully share their view that social thought is very important, as the list of our required courses in both our undergraduate and graduate programs clearly indicate.

Where we differ--and I suspect. fundamentally--is in our approach to social thought, the way it should be taught and the relative weight it should be given in any concentration which claims to be educating undergraduates in Social Studies, however liberally defined. gleefully reported in his letter that a member of the Sociology Department told him he would not, today, vote to appoint Talcott Parsons to his department.

I was that person, and I replied, "no" for the same reason that no member of the Economics Department would vote, today, for a Walras or a Keynes: their monumental contributions are what we now take for granted. Landes missed the point. Had he asked me if I would have voted for Parsons in 1931 when he was appointed from the Economics Department, were I in a position to do so, my answer would have been an emphatic "yes."

That Landes saw no need to distinguish between today and 1931 when posing his jejune question, was not only an odd omission for an historian, but highly revealing of what is so hopelessly wrong with his, and Social Studies', approach to social thought.

WHILE it is important that we not forget to understand Marx, Durkheim, Weber and Smith, their respective life-worlds, and the ways in which their ideas have influenced past and present thinkers, it is intellectually questionable, and pedagogically unsound, to neglect the views of the best contemporary inheritors of this tradition, which is what is taught in any good sociology department such as our own.

Modern sociology, like modern economics, has filtered out the best of its intellectual heritage and, with the aid of modern methods of investigation, made a living thing of the tradition of western social thought in its studies of present--and past--social structures, processes and problems.

To be sure, there is great worth in studying social, or any other, ideas solely for their truth value. This is the only possible justification for Social Studies as a separate concentration. But to justify Social Studies in this way is to expose, further, its redundancy, since there already exists an excellent department at Harvard which is well qualified to do this: it is called Philosophy. In fact, the Social Studies program does not try to be a philosophy, or even a social philosophy, department. Rather, it is a competing sociology department, engaged in the practice of a discredited Anglophile sociology.

Committing resources to this misguided educational mission is bad enough; but the Social Studies program is wasteful in another way that is equally serious. It is a graveyard of academic careers. In the 30 years of its existence, not a single member of its jointly hired junior faculty has received tenure at Harvard. With its excessive teaching demands, even the most organized and brilliant of young scholars have found it nearly imossible to produce at a level that would have given them a passing shot at a tenure slot.

After five, or eight, years of hard, yeoman service to Harvard, these once promising young scholars are tossed out of our community to fend for themselves, their careers treated like so many soiled tissues upon which America's future leaders have cut their intellectual teeth.

Harvard is already experiencing serious problems attracting the best young talent to its faculty because of our tenure policy. The Dean has announced new policy initiatives to change this, which the Sociology Department strongly supports. It is hard to see how any young scholar can take these pronouncements seriously, however, when a program such as Social Studies is allowed to flourish.

Several of us in Sociology have serious reservations, indeed qualms of conscience, recruiting young faculty to this program. There does come a point when one feels guilty of something intellectually sinful, in inviting, and persuading, a talented young scholar to academic suicide.

WE ARE now at a time when we can least afford this waste and misdirection of our best undergraduate and academic talent. The nation is going through a painful structural transition, both externally, in its position in the world, and int ernally, in the changes in its industrial base, its modes of organization, its basic social institutions and its dominant values. This is reflected not only in the poverty of our political culture, but in the seemingly intractable social problems that beset the nation--the problems of chronic poverty, crime, racism, inequality, gender discrimination, an aging population, inadequate public health, and environmental deterioration.

Modern sociological investigations are at the forefront of our efforts to understand what is going on, and to suggest policy options in our attempts to do something about it. It is therefore nothing less than tragic that some of the nation's brightest students are being misled, at its foremost institution of learning, into thinking that they are engaged in studies with a view to understanding their social world, when all they are learning is an outmoded "Channel 2" sociology that has brought that version of the discipline to ruin and disgrace in its British homeland.

Our students deserve better. The nation certainly deserves more.

Orlando Patterson, Professor of Sociology, is Acting Chair of the Sociology Department.

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