Commentary Magazine


Sociology

To the Editor:

Although reading Stanley Rothman’s review of my book, The Coming Crisis in Western Sociology [Books in Review, December 1970], leaves no doubt that we differ on many issues, I take comfort in the fact that we do share one human quality, namely, a capacity for confusion. I am confused by Mr. Rothman’s infinite ability to misunderstand my book, while Mr. Rothman seems to have confused me with Elsie Dinsmore. Somewhat cynically Mr. Rothman manages to transform a love for “the good, the true, and the beautiful” into a symptom of naiveté. With all humility, I must suppose that Mr. Rothman would also upbraid Socrates for a similar fault.

Apparently, Mr. Rothman regards me as some sort of a self-righteous prig. . . . Thus, his heavy-handed accusation: Lo! Gouldner thinks “all men are inherently good” is supposed to make me bow my head in shame. (Mr. Rothman does, however, convince me about the evil of banality, if not the banality of evil.)

When Mr. Rothman mentions more specific criticisms, the slapdash quality of his judgments becomes even more obvious. For him to claim that Talcott Parsons was not polemicizing against Marx is tantamount to declaring that the WCTU is not against bartenders. And my conclusion to this effect is not, as Mr. Rothman says, undocumented, but is nailed in with page after page of documentation. Moreover, to say that my criticism of Parsons is “largely ad hominem” is also delightfully unthoughtful; I devote at least 175 pages to analyzing Parsons’s work—does Mr. Rothman mean that all of these 175 pages are ad hominem, or only a majority of them, that is, 88 pages? I would say that Mr. Rothman’s remarks would lead one to suspect that he is a former Harvard student defending a Harvard professor, except for the fact that he would say that such a remark was “largely” ad hominem.

But absurd is worse than ad hominem, and Mr. Rothman is absurd when he maintains that David Riesman, C. Wright Mills, and W. H. Whyte were more influential than Parsons in the sociology of the 1950’s. Here he manages to defend this absurdity by confusing his audiences. While the general public certainly knew more about the first three sociologists mentioned above, professional sociologists—and it is their views alone that were at issue—treated Mills as a pariah, Whyte as a clever journalist, and Riesman as an outsider; and all of them were suspect by reason of their popular success. Parsons was undoubtedly the most influential voice of the 50’s inside of sociology. Perhaps Mr. Rothman, not being a sociologist, is unaware of this. Clearly, however, it is Mr. Rothman and not I who takes a “cavalier” view toward history when he makes such flip statements. And he is surely an imaginative reader, to say the least, when he reads me as saying that sociologists should be “primarily” concerned with the social consequences of their findings. I wrote the book and I read it, but nowhere can I be found saying that.

In Mr. Rothman’s last paragraph, I am branded, first, as a dangerous revolutionary who “proposes overturning [the Establishment],” and, in the very next breath, I am castigated for having become the darling of the “Establishment” press. Mr. Rothman again plays fast and loose with the facts, stating that The Coming Crisis received two “ecstatic” notices in the New York Times, when the fact is it received four. (The Establishment must surely be thankful that COMMENTARY, at least, could not be taken in, even if the Times has grown a bit careless.)

It is obvious that the reason Mr. Rothman actively dislikes my book is primarily because his ideology differs greatly from mine; it would have been less confusing and more honest if he had simply said so, rather than attempting to portray me as an uncritical exponent of New Left subjectivity and to exalt himself as a faithful defender of “objectivity.”

Alvin W. Gouldner
Washington University
St. Louis, Missouri

_____________

 

Stanley Rothman writes:

I never attacked Alvin Gouldner for loving “the good, the true, and the beautiful,” but only for assuming that he knew what it was and, indeed, had a corner on the market. Socrates, with whom he modestly compares himself, would never have had the chutzpah even to think such a thing.

Parsons’s influence is not to be denigrated. The fact that most sociologists today (including Mr. Gouldner) rely to some extent upon a functional approach is partly the result of Parsons’s work, and his reputation as a theorist among professional sociologists has certainly been higher than that of Riesman, Whyte, or Mills. This is quite different from arguing, as does Mr. Gouldner, that most sociologists embraced Parsons’s system whole or even adopted substantial segments of it. Most undoubtedly felt that they should try to understand what Parsons was doing. However, few really mastered his system and fewer still tried to apply it, except for deriving some general ideas or using specific portions of it in a very eclectic way.

There is an obvious difference between a polemic and a disagreement. Parsons disagrees with Marx within the context of his own concerns. As any reader of his work knows, Parsons’s style is rarely polemical, and Mr. Gouldner’s efforts to prove that Parsons sought primarily to refute Marx are quite simplistic. His letter adds nothing to the argument.

Perhaps I am confused as to Mr. Gouldner’s position regarding the role of sociologists, but little clarification is to be gained from an author who argues, to quote but two among dozens of similar statements:

In short the problem is: What are the social and political consequences of the intellectual system under examination? Do they liberate or repress men? (p. 13)

. . . a Reflexive Sociology is and would need to be a radical sociology. . because it seeks to transform as well as to know the alien world outside the sociologist. (p. 489)

To be sure, Gouldner qualifies these statements by paying obeisance to the “cognitive validity” of an intellectual system, but the thrust and the implications of the analysis seem clear and disturbing. For example, Gouldner dismisses psychoanalysis, not because the evidence fails to support it, but rather because: “Freudianism has ceased to be the liberating force it once was” (p. 499).

Overall, I find Mr. Gouldner’s tone unfortunate, but perhaps I can help him regain control by apologizing for crediting his article with fewer ecstatic reviews in the New York Times than he remembers having received.

_____________

 

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