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Disciplines Clash in Memo War

Sociology and Social Studies

By Rebecca L. Walkowitz

More than 4000 miles removed from this spring's nationally publicized inter-departmental controversy, Sociology Chair Aage B. Sorensen has remained absent--and so far neutral--in the dispute between his program and the Social Studies concentration.

But when Sorensen returns from Sweden this September to reclaim the departmental reigns from Acting Chair Orlando Patterson, he will have to take on the emotional and professional scars of the last year.

"It is a very unfortunate incident," Sorensen says, speaking recently from his office across the Atlantic.

The dispute between the two programs was Patterson to graduate students in December asking them to teach in the department rather than in other programs. The letter, once leaked to The Crimson, spurred a heated exchange by several of Harvard's senior scholars, turning a minor dialogue about the nature of departmental "loyalty" into a more complicated and controversial academic debate.

A times questioning the fundamental scholarly approaches of both concentrations, professors from both Sociology and Social Studies publicly criticized each other in an unprecedented show of personal and political fragmentation within the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

Patterson and Sociology Head Tutor James A. Davis argued that Social Studies studied classical Western social theorists in a vacuum, without regard for contemporary issues. At the same time, some Social Studies affiliates defended their approach against what they saw as an overly quantitative emphasis in recent Sociology appointments.

After the dispute reached the pages of the national media, Dean of the Faculty A. Michael Spence--responding to demands by Social Studies Chair David S. Landes--eventually issued a public statement disassociating himself from Patterson's criticism of the inter-disciplinary program.

Despite a wariness about the whole incident and a hesitancy to get involved, Sorenson in quick to break from Patterson's criticisms of Social Studies, where he has taught for several years and where his son recently completed his undergraduate degree.

"The five years I was chair before, we've had an excellent relationship with Social Studies," he says. "Social Studies is an undergraduate concentration which I think is a valuable part of the curriculum."

While Sorensen acknowledges that the recent events have been less than positive, he, like Dillon Professor of the Civilization of France Stanley H. Hoffmann earlier this spring, seeks to minimize their long-term significance.

"It is a little crisis," Sorensen says. "It is a little whirlwind in a teapot."

Indeed, both Patterson and Landes now say they would like to put this spring behind them and concentrate on building bridges between the two programs.

"I don't think we have a problem at all for next year," Patterson says of his department's commitment from graduate students. "I'm generally satisfied."

But while Patterson says he has solved his logistical and personnel problems for the coming year, Landes is less pleased with the debate's impact.

Although Social Studies' talented concentrators should make his department attractive to teaching assistants, Landes says Patterson's initial memorandum to graduate students seems to have caused some intimidation.

"I do believe we didn't get one application from Sociology graduate students to teach in Social Studies next year," Landes says. "That's going to be their loss."

Despite the greater number of graduate students who have committed themselves to teaching Sociology courses next year, Patterson says he continues to have concerns about the methodology used in Social Studies.

"There are intellectual differences," Patterson says. "It's not an attack on teaching social thought but on their approach to it."

And even as he distances himself from Patterson's remarks about a Social Studies curriculum engaged in "antiquarian exigesis," Sorensen defends what he sees as the acting chair's good intentions.

"I don't think Orlando Patterson meant to change anything about the relationship between Sociology and Social Studies," Sorensen says.

Although Landes reports a decline in Sociology graduate student applications to his interdisciplinary, honors-only program, Sorensen says emphasizing "loyalty" to the discipline was not meant to discourage interaction between the two departments.

"It wasn't intended to change the proportion of Sociology graduate students in Social Studies," Sorensen says.

Yet all the same, according to Landes, this has become one of the lasting effects of the year's controversy. And while Sorensen says he would like to begin fresh in the fall, Landes still maintains that he is pushing for a stronger response from the dean of the Faculty.

In particular, Landes says he finds Patterson's reference to Social Studies as the "graveyard of academic careers" severely troublesome.

"I've written [Spence] a letter on this point," Landes says. "I'll bother Professor Rosovsky with this matter in the fall," referring to new Acting Dean of the Faculty Henry Rosovsky.

But despite continued antagonisms and disagreements, both sides seem to be reaching for a more peaceful future.

"I want to emphasize that I think it's important for Sociology and Social Studies to work together," Landes says. "I'm hoping the fall will be better."

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