In the Middle of the Squabble


To the Editors of The Crimson:

Crimson reporters can attest to the great reluctance that I have hitherto shown to add fuel to the dispute between Sociology and Social Studies. But Acting Sociology Department Chair Orlando Patterson's "commentary" does suggest that a few words--half in anger, half wracked with laughter--from a teacher with a foot in both camps may cast light on some of the issues involved.

Let me begin with a personal point, about which some may be curious. My colleagues in Social Studies have been courteous and thoughtful, consulting me at every moment to make sure that any action they took would not make my position more invidious. The members of the Sociology Department, party to this dispute, have not--not at all--behaved in similar spirit.

I thank my colleagues in Social Studies. As it happens, my position initially did not cause me any difficulties--who could be worried by Professor of Sociology James A. Davis's intervention?--but it does now, as accusations, insinuations and charges become ever more generalized.

But before answering some of them, one more personal comment is in order. I very much hope that Professor Patterson has only recently realized that my appointment amounts to my committing academic suicide. The arguments that he made in late 1986 and early 1987 played a large part in my accepting a position at Harvard. I was most swayed by the general insistence that it would enhance my academic career, and by the specific one that tenure was now a possibility for someone such as myself.


The record badly needs to be set straight about sociology in Britain. British academic life has been assaulted--tenure abolished completely for every new appointment hereafter, to give a single example--over the last decade, and there has been in consequence a steady brain drain.

One might expect a professor at this university--at any university--to lament the virtual destruction of a great center of learning. The sufferings of British sociology are no worse than those of other subjects--indeed, were Professor Patterson better informed he would realize that philosophy and anthropology have suffered most.

British sociology is not without merit. To name even a few scholars makes the point: Ronald Dore (at Harvard recently), John Goldthrope and Anthony Giddens (consistently sought, I have been informed, by the sociologists here), Ernest Gellner (this year's Tanner lecturer at Harvard), Michael Mann and Duncan Gallie (recent winners of America's most prestigous sociology prize), and so on.

These figures were key in my own intellectual formation--for I am a British sociologist, wondering somewhat why Harvard hired me; and I am doubly puzzled by memories of Professor Patterson admitting that his own intellectual development had been crucially aided by a celebrated seminar at the London School of Economics on the sociology of development. There is no truth to the notion, avidly propogated by Margaret Thatcher, that British sociology (and British academia more generally) has brought troubles on its own head. It seems to me shameful that a sociologist repeats such slander: Surely some solidarity is owed to one's colleagues abroad? The Thatcher/Patterson position is false, meretricious and reprehensible.

There are so many errors in the sociologists' letters to The Crimson that it is tempting to dwell on them. Instead of wearing out the patience of readers, let me share my impressions of Social Studies--as a sociologist who knows something about it. Its program is outstanding, and its reputation in this community richly deserved. Different social science departments have their specialisms, of course, but social inquiry as a whole benefits from (and in my opinion needs) attempts to think generally, to investigate areas that fall between different paradigms of inquiry.

The scholars who founded this program--amongst them Stanley Hoffmann, Barrington Moore and Michael Walzer--have achieved their stature in this way; they were and are no fools. The work they do and which is now done in Social Studies is not being done by the Sociology Department in any way at all-my British reserves of irony are woefully insufficient to handle such a fantasy.

Three particular points deserve emphasis. Undergraduates have a challenging and exciting education in this program. One would be tempted to reassure such students, but for the fact that applications are increasing! Secondly, it needs to be clearly stated that Sociology graduate students who have worked in Social Studies have rendered superb service, which is much appreciated; my own impression is that their work has benefited quite as much.

Finally, I have found it an honor to work with my colleagues in Social Studies: They are terrifyingly high-powered, and they have created a center within which intellectual life flourishes. The idea that my Social Studies colleagues could not manage without sociologists among them is laughable: The knowledge they have--to cite a single example--of great sociological thinkers such as Durkheim and Weber is exemplary.

The interventions of Professors Davis and Patterson seek to run down what they cannot understand--a horrible example of academic thuggery. I suspect that tenure has not been given to Social Studies teachers for the brute reason that it is an undergraduate concentration. My own opinion is that the best way to remedy that is to expand one of the jewels in Harvard's crown.

May I guard against one misunderstanding? There are excellent sociologists at Harvard, many of whom are, I know, as appalled by the letters in question as am I: They too are my colleagues, and I have benefited from and enjoyed their companionship. Professor Liah Greenfeld and I--the two joint appointments between Sociology and Social Studies--have, I think it is fair to say, much enjoyed teaching those courses in social theory that the department considers compulsory for its incoming graduate students. (One term in a four-year period was taught by someone else--Dr. Geoffrey Hawthorn of Cambridge University, another Brit., and adistinguished exegist at that!) There is room for Sociology and for Social Studies, and I hope that the links between the two areas can be strengthened: Differently put, there is nothing wrong with Sociology, just with some pronouncements recently made in its name.

I wobble mentally when thinking about this dispute. The idea of sociology without ideas, of a specialty without substance, has an amusing side to it. The presumption that exegesis is somehow soft in comparison to the rigorous and ruthless practice of the inhabitatants of William James is delightful. But it is wrong, even silly, to believe that exegesis is soft: have my letter-writing colleagues--excuse me if I chuckle--never come across the formidable Cowles Professor of Government Professor Judith Shklar?

But one cannot laugh everything away, even though that can help to keep despair at bay. The matters at issue are serious. It is always distressing to see people out to destroy when they could be creating. My experience convinces me that Professors Davis and Patterson are badly wrong. Social Studies is terrific, imaginative, rigorous, serious and high-powered. I hope my two colleagues in Sociology will have the good grace to apologize to the Social Studies community as a whole. John A. Hall   Associate Professor of Sociology and Social Studies