Sunday, August 13, 2006

This Year’s Sociology Convention

Keywords: American Sociological Association; environment; Seymour Martin Lipset; Andre Gunder Frank; World System Theory; globalization; Leslie Howard; Orlando Patterson; Mildred Schwartz; Theda Skocpol; Craig Calhoun; Samuel Clark; Nathan Glazer; Thomas D. Hall; Cynthia Hewitt; Sing C. Chew; Christopher Chase-Dunn; upward sweep; J. M. Jasper; Thelma McCormack; Montreal; Society for the Study of Social Problems; David Segal; globalization; World System Theory.

I’m on the train to Toronto, after spending three days in Montreal at the American Sociological Association meetings, preceded by the Society for the Study of Social Problems, where I gave a paper. (Yes, it went okay, except that it was on an environmental panel where the other papers were about the mercury content of fish and the disposal of nuclear waste in Alaska. I guess they put me there because I was talking about the cultural environment.)

A high point was a three hour visit with Les Howard. We talked about the Iraq War, naturally, and about the politics of religion. And we agreed on this point: that the meetings made us feel especially old. The big shot sociologists we used to see weren’t there anymore. Lots of the famous ones have died, and the rest aren’t coming anymore and certainly aren’t occupying high offices or giving talks in plenaries. We don’t even recognize the young hotshots who are presumably replacing them. I did see several faces who looked familiar, but I couldn’t place them because they were twenty years older now than when I had known them, so usually I didn’t even nod. They wouldn’t have remembered me either.

I did attend two memorial sessions today – one for Seymour Martin Lipset and the other for Andre Gunder Frank (see photos). The one for Marty was full of eulogies – by Orlando Patterson, Mildred Schwartz, Craig Calhoun, Theda Skocpol, and Samuel Clark (S.D.’s son). It was videotaped to send to Marty, and a book was circulated for us all to write notes to him in it. He is still alive (though in extremely poor health) and I hope he’ll be able to absorb it. Because I arrived a little late, I didn’t hear how much the audience was told about the state of his health. The audience had a chance to chime in, so I went last, taking the opportunity to talk about his politics, which everyone agreed had been obscure during the last several decades. He was a liberal, Patterson said. I guess that’s the best term for it. He wrote speeches for Hubert Humphrey, I recalled, and worked for peace in Israel/Palestine, taking a position that Elsie, his wife, told me she disagreed with. He was more ready to accommodate than many others in the Jewish community. He served, and still is on the masthead as a director of, the U.S. Institute for Peace.

Calhoun acknowledged that he hadn’t known Marty well in person. I think he actually got some facts wrong. I’ll have to check to make sure. He said that Lipset came to Berkeley before Blumer, who is credited with having built up the department. I don’t think that Marty arrived there first. And he recounted a story about Marty and Nathan Glazer being on top of a police car during the Free Speech movement, surrounded by protesting students. I don’t remember that at all, and I think I would. The famous police car incident was about a group of students who surrounded a police car, sitting on the pavement. I watched that for a while but then had to go home to fix supper for Jonathan. I didn’t see Marty or Glazer there or even hear about such an outcome.

The session honoring Gunder was different. Although every speaker reminisced wittily about him, especially by imitating his German accent and his favorite slogans, “I don’t know nuttin about nuttin” and Pogo’s “We have met the enemy and he is us,” they all gave substantial papers as well. Oddly, nobody even mentioned . It was all about Gunder’s historical work in World System theory. I liked right away, when he talked about Gunder's emphasis on the importance of and about . There was also a gloomy paper by Sing C. Chew that tried to supply a corrective to Gunder’s tendency to see history as unbroken and seamless. Chew himself identifies a few periods when the general expansive trends were broken by “” after the Bronze Age and the Iron Age. Because he explains these periods of collapse in ecological terms, he manages to find some bright aspects in the darkness – not for human society but rather for nature, which has a long period in which to recover from the resource depletions that empires have caused. He foresees a new and total Dark Age that must be almost upon us now.

The most interesting speaker was Cynthia M Hewitt, a brilliant black woman on the faculty of Morehouse College, who offered remarkably penetrating comments about the development of the world’s systems. I want to find out more about her work. And finally portrayed Gunder’s personal quirks to us in a wonderfully authentic way. I had never met Lauderdale before and was surprised to learn that he is very much a male.

Clearly is the dominant model in sociology today. That and , which of course are clearly related. There were several sessions on globalization, which generally could have equally well been titled World Systems. I attended one yesterday where the most interesting paper was presented by , who apparently works with Thomas Hall, one of the presenters in today’s session on Gunder.

Chase-Dunn’s paper was on what he calls the “upward sweep” of civilizations. He says that empires ordinarily rise and fall, and often rise and fall several times. But occasionally you get a rise that is extreme and lasting, moving the society to a significantly higher level of development. Drawing the trajectory on the screen, he shows the course of history as a series of upward stair-steps, each tread of which has some wiggly ups and downs on its surface before the next big upward step occurs. And each empire is more extensive than the preceding one, with a capital city larger than any previous one. Today our cities are up to twenty million in population, but none is larger than that. The first such city was , then Babylon, then Rome, then London – I think with a couple in the series that I am forgetting. I do need to read some of that research.

Yesterday and today I went to sessions of the War and Peace section. I chatted with David Segal, who says that the membership has expanded above 300 and they are thinking about how to reach 400 now. When I was on the executive, there was a problem reaching 200, the minimum number required to retain status as a section of the association. I suppose that having a war going on makes all the difference.

One other session that particularly interested me was on emotions. There was an independent scholar named , who gave a fine paper on character, by which he was referring to drama. I found it so resonant to my own work that I gave him a copy of my book and said I’d read more of his work. I had brought the book along intending to give it to Thelma McCormack, but she didn’t show up yesterday. We had spent the whole day together on Wednesday. Over dinner we discussed television. Her most essential conclusion, after years of studying media, is that it does not do much of anything to viewers. Since my view is that it’s the most powerful tool we have, obviously we did not see eye to eye. But she was nowhere to be seen yesterday or today.


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