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Self, Social Structure, and BeliefsExplorations in Sociology
The University of California PressCopyright © 2004 Regents of the University of California
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Chapter OneMastering Ambivalence
Neil Smelser as a Sociologist of Synthesis
Jeffrey C. Alexander, Gary T. Marx, and Christine L. Williams
Future historians will write about Neil Smelser as an iconic figure in twentieth-century sociology's second half. Smelser has had an extraordinarily active career not only as a scholar but also as a teacher and organizational leader. Every participant in this volume has proudly been a "Smelser student" in one form or another. The distinction of these contributions speaks directly to Smelser's power as a teacher. His immensely impressive and varied performances as organizational leader are perhaps less well known, but they speak equally clearly of scholarly power exercised in a more political manner. His roles have included being advisor to a string of University of California chancellors and presidents; referee of the nation's most significant scientific training and funding programs, from the National Science Foundation to the departments of leading universities; organizer of the Handbook of Sociology and the new International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences; and, most recently, director of the Center for Advanced Study in the BehavioralSciences.
In many respects, both Neil Smelser and the social sciences matured together in the second half of the last century. Smelser expanded his areas of research to include sociology, psychology, economics, and history at the same time that newly synthetic cross-disciplinary programs, area studies, and applied programs appeared. Through his work with commissions and foundations and as a spokesperson for the social sciences, he sought a greater public role for sociology and helped to foster the gradual infiltration of their findings and methods into other disciplines, practical settings, and popular culture. Smelser's early interest in comparative international studies anticipated their expansion, an increase in international collaboration, and greater awareness of globalization issues. His move from optimism about positivist approaches and functionalism in the 1950s to a more guarded optimism and plurivocality today has paralleled broader doubts within the academy and greater tolerance for other ways of knowing.
There is one fundamental respect, however, in which Smelser has broken with dominant trends. The last thirty years have been marked by increasing fragmentation and seemingly endless specialization. It has been an age of centrifugal conceptual forces and centripetal methodological rigor. These post-1960s scientific developments have unfolded against a background of ideological jeremiads, the continuous reference to social crisis, and alternations between elegies and eulogies to revolutionary social change. Through all this Smelser has continued to uphold generality and synthesis as worthy scientific goals. He has maintained his intellectual commitment to uniting divergent disciplinary perspectives, and even expanded significantly his own disciplinary reach. He has become ever more dedicated to bridging various conceptual and methodological divides. He has also maintained a quiet and impressive serenity about the continuing possibility for progressive social reform and democratic political change. He has kept his eye on the ball as well as on the ballpark, on what is enduring as well as what is new.
This book honors Smelser primarily as a man of ideas. It does so by exploring the sociological pathways that he has inspired others to take. In this brief introduction, we first make some general points about Smelser's intellectual career, highlighting what we take to be his most significant contributions. We conclude by returning to Smelser as a man and a teacher. It has been these human qualities, not only his intellectual ideas, that have inspired his students to move forward on our diverse paths of intellectual life.
Smelser the Scholar
Because he started so early and so fast, lasted so long, and matured so well, Neil Smelser has had an active life as theorist and researcher spanning almost fifty years at the time of this writing, and it shows no signs of slowing down. In 1962, at the age of thirty-two, he became editor of the American Sociological Review, the most influential editorial position in the discipline. Almost thirty-five years later, in 1996, he was elected president of the American Sociological Association, in recognition not only of his lifetime achievement but also of the influence, both scientific and organizational, that he had wielded over those decades.
Neil Smelser began his public life as a wunderkind. Having barely settled into Oxford as a Rhodes scholar in 1952, he was tapped by Talcott Parsons, his Harvard mentor, to advise him about preparing for the Marshall Lectures at Cambridge. Parsons wanted to demonstrate that his newly developed AGIL theory could handle economics. However, he had stopped reading in that discipline before John Maynard Keynes's General Theory. Smelser was au courant with the Keynesian revolution and AGIL besides.
During their collaboration, it was actually Smelser, not Parsons, who suggested the scheme of double interchanges that allowed AGIL to be applied to social systems. This brilliant conceptual innovation formed the core of their jointly written book, Economy and Society (1956), which accomplished what its subtitle promised: an integration of economic and social theory. Along with Smelser's later work, especially The Sociology of Economic Life (1963), Economy and Society laid the foundations for the new field of economic sociology that has become central to the discipline today. It was only three years later that Smelser published the extraordinarily innovative and deeply researched book Social Change in the Industrial Revolution: An Application of Theory to the British Cotton Industry (1959); and only three years after that, he brought out the equally pathbreaking Theory of Collective Behavior (1962).
While Smelser gained great distinction for this rush of early work, he also aroused great controversy. It was high noon for the functionalist paradigm. Smelser was its crown prince and its clear leader-in-waiting. His work was not only systematic, original, and erudite but also intellectually provocative and aggressive. It brimmed with great ambition and utter self-confidence, and it seemed to suggest that, with the emergence of action theory, the solution to sociology's struggles had arrived. Revealingly, the second chapter of Social Change in the Industrial Revolution was titled "Some Empty Boxes," and the chapter that followed was titled "Filling the Boxes." In Theory of Collective Behavior, Smelser began with the pronouncement that, "even though many thinkers in this field attempt to be objective," they had not succeeded. Because of their failure, "the language of the field ... shrouds its very subject in indeterminacy." The aim of his study, he proclaimed, would be to "reduce this residue of indeterminacy" by "assembling a number of categories" so that "a kind of 'map' or 'flow chart'" could be constructed of the "paths along which social action moves." While he was strongly assertive, his goal appropriately was to reduce, not eliminate, the residue of indeterminacy.
The youthful Neil Smelser did, in fact, succeed in filling his boxes, forever broadening our view of the industrial revolution as a multidimensional social process-political, economic, familial, cultural, and scientific, and very much contingent, all at the same time. He also managed to create an utterly new and fascinating conceptual social map, one that simultaneously separated and intertwined the different dimensions of collective behavior, social structure, and social movements in a value-added manner never before achieved. What he could not do, however, was assure the continuing sovereignty of functionalist theory. In the history of social science, much more than conceptual precision and explanatory power is involved. Every powerful approach tends to overreach and is partial and, to a degree, situationally conditioned.
Thirty years after his unabashed and triumphal entrance on the sociological scene, Neil Smelser penned a "concluding note" to his penetrating essay "The Psychoanalytic Mode of Inquiry." He warned his readers to be careful of their imperialist urge. Was he not looking back with rueful reflection on the grand ambitions and urgent polemics of those early years?
Whenever a truly novel and revolutionary method of generating new knowledge about the human condition is generated-and the psychoanalytic method was one of those-there emerges, as a concomitant tendency, something of an imperialist urge: to turn this method to the understanding of everything in the world-its institutions, its peoples, its history, and its cultures. This happened to the Marxian approach (there is a Marxist explanation of everything), to the sociological approach generally (there is a sociology of everything), and to the psychoanalytic approach (there is a psychoanalytic interpretation of everything). (Smelser 1998c: 246)
In the halcyon days of the Parsonian revolution, there had always been a functionalist approach to everything-though few approaches, if any, could rival the power and insight generated by those developed by Smelser himself.
By the late 1960s, the functionalist approach had stalled. Attacked as ideologically conservative, accused of every imaginable scientific inadequacy, functionalism eventually lost its position of dominance. Yet Smelser's postfunctionalist career has also been an extraordinary one. He did not blame the enemies of functionalism for his tradition's weakening. Instead, he targeted the nature of Parsonian thinking itself. He engaged in implicit self-criticism. This required courage and maturity.
Smelser accused foundational functionalism of hubris, of overreaching conceptually and underreaching empirically. He dressed it down for being one-sided and polemical. After making those observations on the imperialism of every "truly novel and revolutionary method" that we noted above, Smelser continued with the suggestion that "it is always legitimate to ask about the relative explanatory power of the method in settings and circumstances in which it was not invented." Only on the basis of such further reflection is it possible to be objective about "what are the emergent strengths and weaknesses of the method" (Smelser 1998c: 246, italics added).
It was just such a commitment to the task of explanation, over and above the allegiance to any particular theory, that allowed Smelser not only to stay afloat but also to flourish after the functionalist ship sank. When Parsons published his first collection of articles, in 1949, he called them Essays in Sociological Theory. When, two decades later, Smelser published his own, he called them Essays in Sociological Explanation (1968). His ambitions were tied to the scientific goals of discipline, not to any particular approach.
In 1997, in his presidential address to the American Sociological Association, Smelser developed what has already become the most influential essay of his later career. In "The Rational and the Ambivalent in the Social Sciences," he developed an argument that exposed one-sided intellectual polemics as a simplistic defense against the ambivalence that marks human life. "Because ambivalence is such a powerful, persistent, unresolvable, volatile, generalizable, and anxiety-provoking feature of the human condition," Smelser suggested, "people defend against experiencing it in many ways." For intellectual life, the "most pernicious" of these defenses is splitting, which involves "transferring the positive side of the ambivalence into an unqualified love of one person or object, and the negative side into an unqualified hatred of another" (1998d: 176-77, original italics). Smelser went on to directly apply this critical observation to sociology itself. Admonishing his colleagues that, "in our search for application of the idea of ambivalence, we would do well to look in our own sociological backyard," he observed, "There is almost no facet of our existence as sociologists about which we do not show ambivalence and its derivative, dividing into groups or quasi-groups of advocacy and counteradvocacy" (1998d: 184).
In his third major historical-cum-theoretical monograph, Social Paralysis and Social Change: British Working-Class Education in the Nineteenth Century (1991), Smelser demonstrated how this advice generalized from the path that he had now chosen for himself. Rather than declaring all preceding theoretical boxes empty and announcing that he would now proceed to fill them in, his new approach made carefully circumscribed criticisms. It proposed a theoretical model based on reconciliation and synthesis. After reviewing Whiggish, functionalist, Marxist, and status-group approaches to the history of British working-class education, Smelser suggests that each must be "criticized as incomplete, limited, incapable of answering certain problems, and perhaps even incompatible with the others." The alternative, he writes, is "to develop a perspective that is synthetic," that "incorporates insights from approaches known to have usefulness" (1991: 16-18).
From his first, vivid entry into the field of intellectual combat, Neil Smelser exhibited one of the most lucid and coherent minds that ever set sociological pen to paper. As his career continued to develop, he revealed another distinctive capacity: he became one of the most incorporative and inclusive of thinkers as well. In fact, it has been Smelser's penchant for combining opposites-the acceptance of sociological ambivalence without fear or favor-that has perhaps most distinctively marked his intellectual career. Here are some of the most important binaries that Smelser has successfully combined:
He is one of the most abstract of theorists, yet he became an acknowledged "area specialist" in British history.
He is a grand theorist, but he employed grand theory exclusively to develop explanations at the middle range.
He is a functionalist, but he devoted his theoretical and empirical attention almost entirely to conflict.
He is a liberal advocate of institutional flexibility, but he has written primarily about social paralysis and the blockages to social change (cf. Smelser 1974).
He is a psychoanalyst who has highlighted the role of affect, but his major contributions have attacked psychologistic theorizing and explained how to fold the emotional into more sociological levels of explanation (e.g., Smelser 1998b, 2002; Smelser and Wallerstein 1998).
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