Remembering Bob Bellah

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The other night I learned via a friend’s Facebook post that Bob Bellah had died.  The tributes have already begun to flood in. A brilliant sociologist of religion and analyst of American culture, mentor to so many students, and prominent public intellectual, Bellah was in his mid-80s, but his death still registered as a shock. Last December, when he spoke in New York about his latest work, a mammoth book about religion in human evolution, he was as sharp as ever. Afterwards, at a group dinner, he regaled us with stories of Talcott Parsons, opinions of Obama (he was, in the main, impressed), the story state of higher education in a neoliberal era, and  the three-book series he was madly trying to finish because, he said, “I don’t know how much time I have left.”

He was a member of a dying breed: an engaged intellectual who lived for ideas, who was dedicated to translating those ideas and sharing them with as many people as possible. Habits of the Heart, for all of its flaws, was a path-breaking book that dissected American culture’s love affair with individualism. I read it as a first year graduate student the year it was published, and it had an enormous impact on me–as much as for its form as for its content. At a time when sociologists were working on issues of diminishing scope, dividing the world up into smaller and smaller pieces, that book made a big argument about what it meant to be an American. It was beautifully crafted, written in a style that any “educated” person could read and understand. It wore its deep theoretical lineage lightly, and was written expressly to be read and talked about–and it was.

I was not the sort of person who would normally have gravitated toward Bob. He was always surrounded by a coterie of young male theorists –and I was clearly not in that league. Though committed to social equality, he was culturally pretty conservative, at least in his public pronouncements, and I was a feminist, and a lesbian to boot. (I never forgave him for characterizing gay and lesbian communities, in Habits of the Heart, as transient  “lifestyle enclaves” versus “communities of memory”). And finally, he was a Christian believer who thought that religion should be a foundational part of public life, and I was an agnostic Jew.

And still, in our conversations in his small office in Barrows Hall, he always made me feel that I had something important to say, and I will always be grateful to him for that.

Intellectual Craftsmanship as Refusal

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Today, we laborers in the groves of academia are pitted against one another in a quest for increased productivity. Academic departments and units compete against one another for increasingly scarce goods, such as the right to hire faculty; individual scholars in the same department compete against one another for small pay increases, euphemistically termed “merit pay.” In my own university, Rutgers, the public flagship university of New Jersey, “austerity” is the new normal, justifying stagnant salaries and higher tuitions. As state funding provides a smaller and smaller percentage of annual operating budgets, university administrators try to introduce entrepreneurial initiatives into academic departments to generate revenue–with varying degrees of success.

Competition in academia, like competition elsewhere, can at times spur one on to produce great things. (Just think of the fierce mid-1960s rivalry between The Beatles and the Rolling Stones!) Too often, though, competition for scarce resources leads individuals –and I’m speaking of academics here– on a quest to distinguish ourselves from our peers merely to stand apart from the crowd. Today, market values and “fast capitalism” increasingly permeate academia, leading to ever higher expectations of output (read: publication), and higher productivity for productivity’s sake—accumulating more and more lines for one’s cv instead of contributing work that really makes a difference to oneself, and to others.

When we mistake quantity for quality, we create a situation in which alienation flourishes.“We lack the time to craft the elegant phrase as we churn out paper after paper,” observes British sociologist Michael Billig, writing recently in the Guardian.  Publishing may stave off one kind of perishing, and at the same time lead to a more imperceptible but no less insidious kind of wasting: the production of routine work that fails to inspire oneself—or to inspire others.

Perhaps it’s time to dust off C. Wright Mill’s notion of “intellectual craftsmanship, discussed in the appendix to his 1959 book, The Sociological Imagination. We tend to think of a craftsman as a carpenter in his/her shop, surrounded by apprentices, but the craftsman can also be found in the laboratory, in the concert hall—in the classroom, and in the study. Craftsmen—and women– combine technical skill with imagination and pride in their work.[i] They are dedicated to good work for its own sake—to practical activity, but their labor is not simply a means “to another end”—such as career advancement. The craftsman, writes Richard Sennett, is “engaged” in the fullest way possible with his or her work. He or she does not split work from the rest of life.

the-craftsman

Mills spoke about the benefits that accrue to those who approach writing as a craft rather than simply as a means to an end. The main reason, he said, “I am not ‘alienated” is because I write.” Writing can make us feel more connected to others, and allow us to make a contribution to the society in which we live, he believed. Mills saw writing as a skill that one can develop, as well as an art form, and a form of self-expression. A mixture of technique and inspiration, good writing requires an acquaintance with the methodologies of research needed for the task. There is, he believed, an unexpected quality about writing too—a “playfulness of mind, as well a truly fierce drive to make sense of the world, which the technician as such usually lacks.”

In Mills’ view of intellectual craftsmanship, writing is a form of self-expression that is as much about the process as the product. He described his relationship to his book White Collar. “I am trying to make it damn good all over,” he wrote. “Simple and clean cut in style, but with a lot of implications and subtleties woven into it. It is my little work of art: it will have to stand for the operations I will never do, not being a surgeon, and for the houses I never built, not being an architect. So you see it has to be a thing of craftsmanship and art as well as science.”

In other words, writing is not something that simply happens at the end of the research process. Writing is also an aesthetic practice that entails play – what Mills calls “sociological poetry.””[iii] Hegemonic notions of the social sciences suggest creativity is something that we study, and is not a element of our practice.

But thinking of what we do as a craft may be a first step in resisting tendencies within the academy (and beyond) to instrumentalize intellectual activity, defining success in quantifiable, ever narrower ways.

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[i] Richard Sennett, The Craftsman

[ii] Mills and Mills 93.

[iii] Mills and Mills 112, 279.

For whom do we write?

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C. Wright Mills once wrote about being at a party of sociology grad students at Columbia who were working on the PhDs. “After they’d introduced themselves, I’d ask: What are you working on?” It would always be something like ‘The Impact of Work-Play Relationships among Lower Income Families on the South Side of the Block on 112th St between Amsterdam and Broadway.’ And then I would ask: Why?”

Mills called the tendency to conceive of one’s work in narrow terms “abstracted empiricism.” In contrast, he believed that the task of sociology should be to encourage public discussion of things that really matter. He called for a bigger, bolder sociology, one that would take on the big issues of the day, in a fashion that was engaging, and that would help people living in an increasingly complex world to make sense of their lives.

I remember that when I first encountered Mills as an undergraduate, he had an enormous impact upon me. I was captivated by his idea of a “sociological imagination” that would allow individuals to see the connection between personal troubles and public issues, biography and history.

But is it possible to channel Mills’ spirit to reimagine sociology, and sociological writing, today?

As sociologists we write to convey ideas, change the way people think, and influence public opinion. We also write to assert our scholarly authority and to advance our careers. But there’s a tension between these two sets of goals. We advance our careers by publishing in peer-reviewed journals, and by speaking to others like ourselves–not by influencing the broader public.

But these goals were not always at odds with one another. In 1895, in the first issue of the American Journal of Sociology, founding editor Albion Small described the goal of the journal as follows:

[This journal will] attempt to translate sociology into the language of   ordinary life . . . It is not . .. essential to the scientific or even the technical character of thought that it be made up of abstractly formulated principles.  On the contrary, the aim of science should be to show the meaning of familiar things, not to construct … a kingdom for itself in which, if familiar things are admitted, they are obscured under an impenetrable disguise of artificial expression.

Writing in sociology journals, at least through the 1940s and 1950s, was essayistic, dialogical, and marked by the author’s presence. But over the next few decades, it came to resemble natural science journals—with growing attention paid to literature reviews, charts, and tables, and methodologically driven articles–what Ben Agger calls “secret writing.” Professionalization went hand in hand with an emphasis upon quantitative analysis of empirical “facts” and an aspiration to a natural science model; sociological writing came to emulate the scientific journal article.

Mills feared these trends. The use of specialized language, addressing concerns that are mainly disciplinary in origin—the “private” as opposed to the “public” intellectual would, he believed, lead to intellectual introversion. Rather than valuing small incremental increases in knowledge, we should do “big picture” research, he believed. He saw sociology as an activist project and believed that a sociological imagination could “counter the drift toward conformity, homogenization, and instrumental rationality.” Critical, publicly engaged sociologists, he believed, could lead the way to a better society.

Today the field of sociology is larger and more decentralized than it was even in Mills’ day. Hierarchies of prestige are reflected in the rankings of academic journals and graduate departments. When competition for employment and promotion is fierce, greater rewards accrue to those who adopt professional identities that conform closely to hegemonic understandings of the discipline. Since academic advancement is securely mainly through publishing and communicating with other experts, professional intellectuals have little incentive to translate their work to broader publics. When professional gatekeepers pronounce upon the student who is and isn’t doing important work, and indeed, who is and isn’t doing “sociology,” students and faculty internalize these standards and receive rewards for adhering to them.

Over the past decade, those who are looking for an alternative have gravitated toward what some call “public sociology.” Public sociology is not a specialty, a set of theories, or a methodology: it is a way of thinking about one’s work that shifts conceptions of audience, and values the importance of clear communication.

I’ve written about some of these issues. See, for example:

http://www.academia.edu/2025221/Discipline_and_Publish_Public_Sociology_in_an_Age_of_Professionalization

I’m also co-authoring a primer for those wishing to do public sociology, and in periodic posts I’ll share some of this work in progress.


[i] Buxton and Small, 1992:376.

[ii] Schorske 1998, 315.

[iii] Thomas Kuhn 1962/1970

[iv] Mills and Mills 12

[v] Mills and Mills 3

[vi] Mills and Mills 257

[vii] See also Richard Rorty 1988; Richard Posner 2002; Martha Nussbaum.

[viii] Mills and Mills 279