to Main Page | Notes | References | Preface to the Turkish edition
Gary T. Marx
Well sir, here is to plain speaking and clear understanding.
The careers and lives that shape the work we do as sociologists are rarely discussed in the classroom or in our writing. When they are, we need to realize that sociological lives may be entangled with sociological lies and as Freud noted biographies may lead to "lying, to concealment, to flummery" (Bettelheim 1990). But such complexity aside, most of our scholarly communication appropriately emphasizes the dispassionate pursuit and reporting of ideas. We are professionally predisposed to be suspicious of the personal when it seeps onto the formal pages of a journal article or book.
There are of course good reasons for this. But I think that in our training of graduate students and mentoring of those starting out we need to give greater attention to making explicit the insights and wisdom that we pass on informally. In general I find the image of the profession presented to our students to be unduly timid, antiseptic, laundered, formal and scholastic. It does not adequately prepare them for the worlds they will enter. One can know a lot about the theory and history of bicycles and about famous bike riders without being able to actually ride a bike. The situation for aspiring sociologists is often parallel. As a popular 1950s song admonished "you gotta know the tricks of the trade".
It is imperative for us as teachers and mentors to discuss the more personal and professional sides of the discipline, even as we encourage students to find their own answers. It is important to see the bigger picture, to locate ourselves within it, to reflect on why and how we do our work and on what gives meaning to our lives. A little anticpatory socialization might prevent many a mid-life crisis. To that end I offer the 37 moral imperatives shown in Table 1. The imperative tone is stylistic and jocular.  I make few claims to empirical or moral universals. These are ideas that have worked for me and in which I strongly believe. Each begins with the implicit qualification "in my opinion...."
Table Of Contents
1. Develop the habits of critical thought, evaluation, and observation. Have opinions, express likes and dislikes, and be able to make the case for the attitudes you hold. Be clear about the criteria you use in evaluation, and when appropriate be able to set priorities. Be passionate! Social observation, ideas and communication are our life blood. Walker Evans (1982) got it right: "Stare. It is the way to educate your eye and more. Stare, pry, listen . . . Die knowing something. You are not here long." But don't stop with that. Try to order your observations into models and theories that can be systematically assessed, whether by you or by others.
2. Write with clarity, logic and vigor. Ninety-eight-pound communicative weaklings can become heroes of the beach! Although the Nobel Prize for Literature may not be around the corner, the appreciation of your peers is. Take pride in your prose. Communication involves form as well as substance. Read literature and poetry. Discover the power of metaphor. Appreciate the aesthetic and pleasurable qualities of language. Use words as both means and ends. Social change without poetry is in serious trouble. It is not by accident that historians generally write much better than we do. The ability to write can be learned.  Continually edit yourself. Read your work aloud and ask others to read it. Until it actually appears in print, view your writing as in progress, [much as painters often can not stop working until the painting is gone].
3. Write everywhere, all the time, on everything -while waiting in post office lines and in traffic, watching television, and sitting in meetings (especially when sitting in meetings). Write early in the morning and late at night. When you can't sleep or wake you up too early, get up and write. If an idea comes to you at 3 a.m., write it down then; otherwise it may be lost. When you cannot literally write, compose everywhere -while showering, doing the dishes, exercising. Write on everything -napkins, envelopes, credit card slips, blank checks and when they aren't available, on your palm and forearm.
Take notes and keep a journal. For an observer of the social scene it is wasteful not to do that, like leaving a faucet running. Daily experience and thought are our capital.  This is particularly so for those whom Erving Goffman refers to as "sociologists of small scale entities." We need to capture the flow of experience in literary bottles. Don't squander it by doing nothing. Consume it by reflecting on it and then recording it. Don't leave home without your pen.
Discover the wisdom of a Hemingway character in the short story "Winner take Nothing", --"if he wrote it he could get rid of it. He had gotten rid of many things by writing them." Learn to appreciate the cathartic functions of writing in an imperfect universe where words, unsullied by reality can create the world as we would like to see it
Try to find uninterrupted blocks of time to write --you develop momentum and avoid the start-up costs associated with being able to work only an hour here or there. You will likely find that your productivity increases more than proportionally relative to the amount of time involved. In that sense, less can be more. I would rather work a full day, week, or month than twice those amounts in bits and pieces. Learn to ignore ringing phones, voice mail, and fax machines; check your e-mail only once a week. Let a week go by without reading the newspaper. Think twice about whether you really need to go to yet another conference.
Become addicted to writing. Writing should become as natural and easy as eating or sleeping. It needs to be effortlessly folded into your basic life patterns. If more than a week goes by without writing, you should experience withdrawal symptoms and perhaps even guilt. Up to a point, writing is like exercise: the more you do it, the better you become at it, or at least the less pain you feel. That may sound a bit mechanical and not very spiritual or artistic. Certainly there are manic-creative geniuses for whom such advice will not apply. They will need to follow their muse when it suddenly appears and be depressed when it doesn't.
At the same time avoid the hubris and career-induced inflationary pressures that imply that everything you write ought to be published at once, or even eventually. If you view writing as a way to make sense of the world for yourself, then it is its own justification. If you take pride in your ability to craft ideas and to inform others in ways that are intellectually and aesthetically pleasing and seek extensive feedback, then there will be a natural brake on the flow of published materials.
Have a fresh argument! Writing should lead the reader somewhere, and it should offer something that is new to your audience. The major problem in student papers and even those of many colleagues is failing the "so what" test. There is no beef or it is hash. For a paper or a chapter you should be able to summarize your basic points in a paragraph and to indicate what is new or different about your work. If you can't do that the work is probably too diffuse and not ready for release, or it is a literature summary without an incisive critique that will help your peers to view the world differently. You must identify a question that [empirically or logically] you will help answer or suggest ways of improving upon a model or argument that you find wanting.
4. Try not to become too repetitive. Among the most common critiques of academic work is "there is nothing new here," and among the highest praise is "this is fresh and original." But get the mix right. Make sure, that if someone says "this is a good and original paper" it can not then be said "unfortunately the parts that are good are not original and the parts that are original are not good.
5. Write books, don't read them! That advice was given to me by a distinguished scholar early in my career. It was said only partly in jest and was a way of encouraging me to think big and not to be overwhelmed by the printed word. Holding apart the privilege and arrogance of this person, who had rarely set foot beyond the confines of his walled-in elite institution, there is an element of truth in it.
6. Early in your career you are likely to decide (or events will conspire to determine) whether you are going to be primarily a producer or a consumer of research. There is certainly much to be said for the hedonistic joys of the latter. It can serve as a humble reminder not to take one's own contributions too seriously, and it may be of greater benefit to your students.
Even producers of knowledge must know the literature and a major criterion for evaluating work is whether or not it is put in a context of prior scholarship. We are not only creators of new knowledge, but protectors and transmitters of old knowledge. Our inheritance is the astounding richness of the work of prior scholars. Beyond that one has a strategic interest in the peer reciprocity inherent in the citing system.
7. Yet searching the literature must not become an end in itself or a convenient way not to have to face the blank page. When you do read professionally, do so instrumentally. After some initial groveling, know what you are looking for. Approach the literature with questions and remember that your goal is to advance it, not simply to marvel at its wonders. Seek an appropriate balance between appreciation and advancement of the literature
8. Take short cuts! There is so much to learn and so little time that it behooves you to become as efficient as possible. Don't become a bibliophile unless it really suits you. Profit from specialization and the division of labor. There are people who make careers out of serving up computerized information. Make them feel needed. Draw on their usually free services. Sample! Learn how to read by skimming, attending to the first and last sentence, paragraph, or chapter. Read conclusions first, then decide if you want the rest. Most social science books probably shouldn't be books; they have only a few main (or at least original) ideas. Don't feel guilty, or like a fraud, if you cite a book or an article you have not memorized. Learn how to use computer searches, encyclopedias, review articles. Ask experts for help, call reporters and public relations officers, use press morgues.
9. Learn how to be an effective public speaker. Take your oral presentations as seriously as you do your writing. Speak to your audience with clarity, logic, vigor, and examples that will grab them. Never read a presentation. It is far better to list your basic points in an outline and to fill in the blanks as you go. This technique is more likely to engage the audience and it gives you room to swing. The fact that you get only one chance with a live audience may engender anxiety and the written word is a safety net. But it has a pre-determined, even stultifying quality, which denies the fluid and interactive nature of live presentations. You will never know what verbal riffs lie buried in your consciousness if you always cling to the security of the page. I learned that when I once drove several hundred miles to give a lecture and discovered I had forgotten the written talk. I reconstructed it as best I could and it was one of the best talks I ever gave.
It is also important to respond to what others are saying. Phrase the question in your head and perhaps jot down a word or two, but do not write it out. Be proud to have blues singer Mose Allison's line "if silence was golden you couldn't raise a dime" applied to you. As a member of the chattering classes conversation is your life blood. To paraphrase Al Capone's advice to voters, "speak early and often". Asking the first or an early question at a talk can set the stage for subsequent discussion and can help further your intellectual agenda. Treat the answer you get as data regardless of whether it is right or wrong.
Try to remember who you are talking to, and the differential stake you and your audience have in your topic. Gear your talk to your audience. Don't talk down, but be aware of what it means to teach people raised in a media-saturated environment. Their minds have not been irrigated by great literature; rather they have been irradiated by television and computer games. Beavis and Butthead, not Dante and Dostoyevsky, reflect student culture and shape their expectations as an audience. American higher education has become less demanding of students, students have less traditional historical and literary knowledge, and their attention span is shorter than in previous decades. Many students are there under coercion or fear (a required course, parental expectations about attending college), for convenience (the course meets at a good time), for personal reasons (a friend is taking the course), or for purely instrumental, job entry-certification reasons. They are not there because they love learning or view college as an intellectual odyssey.
This stuff is your life, but for many students (hung over from the night before or anticipating the night to come),  it is a duty. The challenge is to keep from giving up in anger because students do not appreciate how important your topic is and do not work harder. Try to remember what was really important to you when you were seventeen -understanding the thought of a German sociologist whose name is pronounced Vayber instead of Web-ber was probably not among them.
Don't assume that you are having the impact you desire. It is vital to seek feedback on your presentations. Give quizzes and ask questions to see if your message is being received. Ask students for a narrative evaluation. Critiques from observers and videotaping can be helpful. Don't talk too fast. Don't offer too many ideas at once. Pause after making a point. Tell the listener where your comments will lead and offer a summary and conclusion. Link the lecture to previous classwork. End with a question or two that leads into the next assignment and lecture. Be mindful of helping listeners see how the current presentation fits into broader issues and why it matters.
10. Don't be scriptocentric! Communicate with images and music, as well as with words and numbers. A decade or so ago when overhead projectors were becoming common, I recall feeling superior to my colleagues in business who made such extensive use of visual materials (and in color at that). This seemed like a slick, condescending shortcut, not worthy of the serious scholar. Now I don't leave home without it. The visual capabilities offered to audiences by computers are spectacular. We ignore them at our peril. The reasons for this are not simply the receptivity of this generation of students. Visual images can free the imagination and communicate differently and more powerfully than words. Broad social understanding must involve imagining the experience of others. The visual offers a means of doing this. It can also aid an audience in thinking about how different modes of communication reach us differently and what that implies about truth and understanding.
11. Disaggregate and aggregate. Learn from George Simmel's (1994) statement that "we are at any moment those who separate the connected or connect the separate." Because we deal with the taken-for-granted social world, we have a significant contribution to make by showing that things are not necessarily what they appear. The very general nature of popular terms such as "revolution," "crime," and "democracy" makes the latter a relatively easy task for those of an empirical bent who can think conceptually. In the same way the sociologist, like any intellectual, can discover generally unseen links, such as those between the ideological systems of some political revolutionaries and religious fundamentalists or between science and humor. Science can be seen to be in continual contradictory movement in showing us that the world is both more and less complex than it initially appears. Ideally out of our breaking things down can come new ways of building them back up. We need to think of both parts and larger entities. Perhaps this is just another way of saying we need legitimacy for, and also the integration of, the micro and the macro. Certainly a division of labor is needed here, but it is also important not to become fully captive to one mode or the other.
12. Be wary of sociologists bearing over-broad generalizations. Given the role of culture, consciousness, history and local contexts in human behavior, we must be humble in the face of a complex and changing world in which our claims to knowledge may alter the very behavior we are talking about (e.g., the widespread impact of the belief in of Keynesian economics on subsequent economic behavior). Don't confuse incomprehensibility with profundity, nor abstraction with truth. Certainly we need abstraction, but taken too far from the empirical it can become just another act of faith, with victory to the person with the largest or most elegant megaphone. Just as we are advised not to use a big word when a small one will do, other factors being equal, a simple theory is usually preferable to a more complex one.
13. Be wary of "Jack Webb-Badge-714 'just the facts ma'am'" sociologists. Be aware of the intellectual traditions and choices out of which the "data" emerge and of the need to develop their implications for ideas. The facts do not speak for themselves. Look for the ventriloquists in the wings.
As a young scholar trained in the Columbia survey research tradition, I found that Sherlock Holmes's observation "the temptation to form premature theories upon insufficient data is the bane of our profession" seemed correct. Yet as an older scholar who has come to see that thinking is a method too, I believe it is equally true that "the temptation not to form premature theories until all the data are in is the bane of our profession." Data without theory is like melted ice cream.
The field suffers as much or more from a lack of conceptual and integrative thought as from insufficient data. The facts must be combined and compared, and the theoretical, or at least conceptual, assumptions embedded in our definitions of fact must be acknowledged. If this is not done, the data forever remain yesterday's non-cumulative news and there is the danger of reification.
These problems are accentuated by the proliferation of too many unrelated fields and little fiefdoms. This efflorescence may be good for maximizing participation in the American Sociological Association and avoiding competition, but it is not good for the theoretical, cumulative and integrative development of the discipline, nor for conversations with those not in your specialized field. We are ill-served when subfields of sociology are defined by political interest groups or trendy issues, rather than by more transcendent intellectual questions about society, if our goal in the first instance is to pursue truth and understand society.
The conventional wisdom resolves the tension between this imperative and the one above (over general vs. drowning in facts) by favoring Robert Merton's important call for middle-range approaches. In my work on the sociology of norms (studying rule making, breaking, and enforcing), I find middle-range, metaphorically graspable ideas to be much more useful than general theory, obtuse models, or very local description. Yet I bet on that horse with at least some ambivalence. The middle range discourages us from considering broader questions. For example, those of political economy, which would compare one system to another or to utopian systems. It tilts toward analyzing the social reality we find, and can hardly be said to liberate the sociological imagination.
14. Try to avoid the dangers (including arrogance, closedmindedness, premature closure, and abandonment of the skepticism and self-questioning required of the scholar) that can arise from rigidly taking sides in doctrinal debates over theory method and the search for the "right" school of thought. Focus on the work, not on the label or the person. Rarely will an either/or approach apply to complex social questions. Look for ways to integrate and to harmonize. Like a good diplomat look for areas of agreement. Seek concrete means by which disagreements might be resolved. At the same time avoid the trap of a wishy-washy relativism in which everything counts equally. Tolerate and appreciate the richness of ideas and methods we are offered. Do not construct unrealistic boundaries between the quantitative and qualitative, the objective and subjective, or between theory and methods.
Theories and methods are human inventions or impositions. They must not become ends in themselves. Sophisticated methods applied to trivial questions (whether intellectually or socially) or theoretical models lacking bridges to the empirical are reminiscent of highly skilled craftspeople who build elaborate ships inside of bottles. Nice to contemplate and collect dust but they don't take you very far.
As socially crafted tools, theory and method have no intrinsic worth apart from their application to particular problems. Two questions must be central: 1) the fit or appropriateness of a theory or method to the problem at hand and 2) the skill, sophistication or correctness of the application of the theory or method. These questions offer at least four broad settings for evaluation --competent or less than competent application to a problem they are, or are not, suited for. Although there will hopefully be reasonable disagreements over specific applications, it is never worth losing friends over.
15. Diversify. Don't stay a specialist in one area too long. It gets boring, you lose your edge, and not much new appears. Blake tells us to "expect poison from standing water." A common academic put-down is, "Yes, her recent book is good, but it's the fourth time she has written it." Too many sociologists remain one-trick ponies. Be free-wheeling and wide-ranging, but within an intellectual framework.
Although changing topics and breadth are vital, this is not an endorsement of the current trend toward 31-flavor sociology. Undue specialization may be good for insects and the young seeking tenure, but it has its limits elsewhere, particularly if we are to build a discipline. Always be able to show how your work relates to more fundamental intellectual issues.
16. Be problem focused and interdisciplinary --as well as discipline-focused (especially once you have tenure). Be a poacher. If you do stay with an empirical topic, view it broadly and from multiple perspectives. A nice example is Alfred Lindesmith's interdisciplinary work on the study of drugs. You will certainly have more to say to a general audience interested in broad understanding rather than in how much of the variance can be explained by a particular sociological variable.
History is particularly important here. Things have origins and beginnings. Somewhere between Shakespeare's "the past is prologue" and Henry Miller's "history is just one damn thing after another" lies the truth. A part of going beyond the taken-for-granted, contemporary social decks we are so invisibly dealt is to make the past problematic and to ask why and what was there before and how has the phenomenon been effected by the conditions of its emergence, developed and changed. Beyond the descriptive understanding this may offer, analytically it is vital because it can give you two sources of variation to reflect on (and the analysis of variation is what separates the social scientist from the journalist). The first is the contrast between beginnings and the present and the second involves comparing settings with different processes of historical development. Comparisons across national borders are equally important.
Yet in seeking breadth, don't forget that there is a sociological level of analysis. Sociology, like any social science discipline, can be insular, self-aggrandizing, myopic, reductionist, and imperialist, and it gives only a fraction of the total picture. But everybody's got to be somewhere, and at least it's ours. If we don't do it, who will?
The dangers of disciplinary
purity should not lead us to ignore the questions about structure, process
and change that cannot be understood by focusing on individual actors,
however powerful their economic, sexual or other motivations may be. Our
job is partly to make visible the ways in which historical, social and
cultural factors that transcend individual psyches (e.g., scale, density,
centralization, differentiation, hierarchy, values, ritual, cycles, systems,
etc.) channel, facilitate, constrain and shape behavior and social forms.
The second wisdom of sociology is that the group is not simply the sum
of its individual parts.
Be wary of sociologists denying the desirability and possibility of scientific approaches to understanding society. Yet acknowledge that there are questions science is unlikely to help us answer. Certainly there are different kinds of truth and ways of knowing. As we move from descriptive to explanatory to evaluative statements, the science component becomes more disputed.
We do not have very good ways of thinking about the role of chance, accident, error, and surprise in social life, and when you get down to cases, social science as specifically deterministic rather than probabilistic often fails.
Yet we are in business because of the significant degree of structure, patterning, and predictable sequences and processes of interaction and development that social life shows. Randomness matters more for individuals and particular incidents than it does for aggregates. Abstract models that can order the facts across contexts further our understanding by their generalizing function and by directing research. Science is an approach to one form of understanding. It is not a subject matter (e.g., physics and biology can be approached nonscientifically). Nor is it defined by its ability to predict or control outcomes (e.g., astronomy can predict but not control, medicine can sometimes control things it can't predict, and geology, in focusing primarily on the past, does relatively little of either).
Science intentionally distorts through omission and the creation of ideal types. Some temperaments find this distortion offensive and prefer a more holistic focus on particular cases in greater empirical detail. In that sense, one's stance toward scientific vs. other forms of understanding is a matter of taste and varying comfort levels with different degrees of abstraction.
Science offers a type of understanding that seeks to go beyond time and space and any particular instance. It can never replace the understanding that may come from rich empirical descriptions of particular cases. Nor can it convey, with its focus on the quantifiable and objectified, what another person experiences, in the way novels, poetry, theater, film, dance, painting, or sculpture can. Nor must we equate science with wisdom, even as we argue for discussion that begins with the facts as we define and know them across observers.
Treasure and develop the unique position of sociology as both a scientific and a humanistic undertaking; and should you choose not to straddle the fence, be tolerant of those sitting elsewhere. For some this duality is a curse and evidence of our failure, but it is in fact an opportunity and our salvation. Entombed for several decades in the academic engineering and scientific center of the universe at M.I.T. and a sociological profession that in recent decades too often seemed to value technique over substance, I have certainly had my doubts about the Science side. I admit to taking solace sometimes from Rene Descartes's "Thanks be to God, I did not find myself in a condition which obliged me to make a merchandise of science for the improvement of my fortune," and W.H. Auden's "Thou shalt not sit with statisticians, nor commit a social science." Yet to commit to one or the other side is a mistake. Thinking well is what should count, regardless of whether or not anything is really counted.
We must say a resounding "yes" to rigor and scholarship and a "sometimes" or "it depends" to quantification and hypotheses. Don't equate empiricism with science, even though science requires it. I prefer to think of my field as empirical social studies or inquiries that involve scientific and interpretive components. With respect to the latter, understand what David Reisman meant when he said, "Sociology is fiction by other means." Scientific and interpretive methods are necessary for understanding society, but apart from each other are not sufficient for it. They may also overlap. There can be intuitive leaps and great passion in scientific discovery and there is often a tacit logical structure to interpretive understandings.
Our discipline needs the tolerance that C. Wright Mills (1980) bitingly called for in 1952 in noting that focused empirical studies are fine for ". . . those who are not able to handle the complexities of big problems" and for ". . . highly formal men who do not care what they study so long as it appears to be orderly. All these types have a right to do as they please or as they must; they have no right to impose in the name of science such narrow limits on others." The same of course holds for not imposing in the name of the humanities narrow limits on those in the scientific tradition. As was said of Ireland, sociology has too many Catholics and Protestants and not enough Christians.
17. Know what the questions are! There is a great line in the film "A Star is Born" in which Kris Kristofferson, as an aging rock star in the back seat of an endless limo, is asked by an adoring groupie, "What's the answer?", and in a drug-induced stupor he replies, "Shit, man, I can't even remember the questions." Our first task is to remember the questions. My initial goal in teaching and research is to help to identify the sociological issues. Answers can be hard to come by, may change and are often disputed, but questions endure. We are probably remembered as much or more for our ability to ask questions as to answer them. Graduate sociology programs in general do a terrible job of helping students to do that. The ability to define the problem and to identify the sociological issues is more difficult to teach than traditional methods. Perhaps like some abilities it cannot be taught but must be learned through practice.
Where do research questions come from, and how can I get one? This issue is worth more attention than it generally receives. You will live with your topic for a long time, and it is important to pick problems that will continue to engage you and that can be done within your resource limitations. One of the wonders of our profession is the freedom to choose what you will study. Some sources:
19. Cultivate marginality! Be able to be at both the center and the periphery. Being outside can help you understand what is inside. You need a context and a frame of reference. Some ways of obtaining them: travel, and study of other disciplines, methods, and languages, have a life beyond the university and people who read only periodicals that have New York in the title. I think we need to rotate between Robinson Crusoe and Marco Polo. Get marginal, but don't get lost! Better still be inter-stitial.
20. Have short- and long- range plans and goals. Let spontaneity be in the details. Try to leverage your work. The sociological equivalent of a bases-loaded homerun is to take material prepared for a class lecture, deliver it at a professional meeting, publish it in a refereed journal, have it reprinted in an edited collection, use it in a book you write, publish foreign versions and a more popular version and have the work inform a documentary.
C. Wright Mills, echoing the poet, recommended letting your plans exceed your capacities and energies. Have a dream and think big! View the future as open-ended and be prepared for unexpected windows of opportunity that provide research possibilities and publishing outlets. Stay loose and appreciate the Zen paradox of ideas and opportunities sometimes coming to you when you don't expect or seek them. Understand what Wynona Judd is saying when she sings, "When I reach the place I'm going I will surely know my way." Given enough time, diverse strands of your intellectual work may come together in surprising ways that make retroactive sense and can guide the future. Try to identify the master questions and themes that can inform and direct your work and relate seemingly diverse ideas and empirical inquiries.
21. Life and sociology are about unfinished business and process. Have multiple projects in various stages of disarray. Mighty books from little ideas grow if you cultivate them and wait. C. W. Mills's appendix in the Sociological Imagination argues for the importance of keeping notebooks and files. At a certain point, projects inform each other and you will see things relevant to your topic everywhere. It's time to hang it all up when the answers don't lead to new questions.
If you can develop that level of scholarly maturity, your intellectual work will never really be done. The publication of a book or an article is then simply part of an ongoing process. The research may suggest new issues, and its completion frees you to turn to other matters. With the passage of time, not only will situations change, but new ideas, methods, and data will become available that may require a revisiting, perhaps some revision, and certainly expansion.
22. Create real and virtual communities. Talk to each other. Locate reference groups and audiences. Figure out who the buyers are for your wares. With respect to the search for intellectual community, it doesn't get much better than graduate school. Later on you are too busy, specialized, competitive, or tired to work very hard at it. But you have to make it happen, and the structural conditions are ideal in graduate school for this (shared place, status, and anxiety, the beginning of a journey, time).
23. Actively look for mentors and role models, as well as anti-role models with respect to both academic and life styles. Go for the combination plate and even order things that are not on the menu. This is a lonely business and no one can do it alone. Yet also see the hero's limits and the complexity and conflicts in such relationships. You need to differentiate and perhaps distance yourself from your mentors. Not much grows in the shade, as Brancusi said after his short tenure in Rodin's studio. It can be liberating to see weaknesses in one's role models. As Whitehead observed, every way of seeing is also a way of not seeing and we are all bound by cultures and structures of which we are only dimly aware. Even if we discount the observation that originality often involves the art of concealing your sources, the giants on whose shoulders we stand also stand on the shoulders of others. Your role models will feel in the shadow of others when looking across generations or continents. All but a handful will simply be a footnote to the work of some still greater scholar.Seek out those who are more knowledgeable, clever and/or successful than you are. 7 Send your writing to scholars who you think might find it of interest even if you don't know them. Contact people working in related fields for help. You can learn from them, and they can help you in matters of substance, style and connectivity (whether to opportunities or ideas). View their success as at least partly transferable.
Be humble yet quietly self-confident and aggressive (the Clark Kent model of the last laugh). The humility makes it possible for you to learn continually from others and to be liked by them --because you are curious and do not inflict your ego needs on them and because you appreciate their work. The self-confidence steels your armor and gives you the inner-direction to follow your star and to withstand the justified and unjustified rebuffs every seeker encounters.
For Emerson self-trust was the essence of heroism. Yet even Ernest Hemingway wrote, "A man alone ain't got no fuckin' chance." Salvation lies somewhere in between. Successful academics seek the criticism that is freely (in both senses) available from professional gate-keepers.
Grace under pressure is admirable, but grace in the face of failure is even better. Those who have made it are all successful failures. What separates them from less successful academics is not necessarily ability or luck, but the willingness to try and to risk failure through submissions and applications (in which after all, nothing really gets hurt but your pride and someone else's postage). Shoot for the moon; although you will likely miss, you may still grab a few stars on the way down.
In facing failure, recall Teddy Roosevelt's words, "Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to take rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in the gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat." Have thick skin and carry a big Rolodex.
Yet don't be an arrogant fool. Frank Lloyd Wright's motto "truth against the world" seems a bit strong. Learn from criticism for both strategic and intellectual reasons. You need to know when to hold and when to fold, or at least when to change games or tactics. It is possible to stay too long at the fair, especially if the games are rigged and the hall of mirrors sustains an Alice in Wonderland view of the world.
24. Learn from Kipling's poem "If" to "meet with Triumph and Disaster and treat those two impostors just the same".8 Success has its limitations and failure is not necessarily forever. Success should no more lull one into expecting that it can continually be pulled off, than should failure lead one to stop trying. For many academic competitions, rejections are more a reflection of the scarcity of rewards and the quality of the competition than of the inadequacies of the applicants. Adopt a relational and temporal perspective in which there are always those more and less successful than you. The possibility that a brighter future may lie ahead with a subsequent application or submission can stop one from feeling too bad about rejection, although the same can be said for feeling too good about success. Success often reflects luck and good timing rather than being far better or more deserving than those who were not successful in a given round.
In a highly competitive world with more qualified people than rewards and less than perfect selection systems (not to mention the vast structural and accidental factors over which there is no control), there is much to be said for valuing the process of intellectual production as an end in itself (if one can otherwise find a way to eat). What is crucial is a sense of engagement with your work and a feeling of movement.
25. Don't be selfish. Give of your time and your thoughts to others, particularly students and beginning scholars. This is the reciprocal of 24 above. Knowledge is a very special commodity which is not diminished and is often enhanced by being shared. Furthermore, as a communicator you need audiences to hone your critical and expressive capabilities. Staying in touch with the young can help keep intellectual inquiry fresh. Among the ugliest of the academic fauna are the self-seeking, self-impressed (but usually terribly insecure) careerists who never let a student, colleague, or departmental obligation get in the way of advancing their own career as they narrowly define it. This is destructive of community and a far worse sin than incompetence or ignorance (it is right up there with a lack of integrity). In the long run there is fortunately often reputational justice in which bad actors get their due and come to be indelibly marked by their selfishness. As you likely have seen from your own experience, academic settings offer rich possibilities for behaving irresponsibly to those who have tenure. Once the potentially great holiday has begun, don't give in to the temptation.
26. Be proud
to be an academic. If you have tenure and your job does not involve an
undue amount of teaching or administration, appreciate the incredible luxury
and privilege of your position, as well as the opportunity it offers to
go beyond being a technican to being an intellectual. You have in effect
been given a fellowship for life --often in an idyllic campus setting at
that. You get paid to create, to "learn and propagate the best that is
known and thought in the world," as Matthew Arnold put it. Within broad
limits your activities are protected by freedom of inquiry and speech.
Don't indulge in the self-hatred shown by so many sociologists and academics more generally. This is not the place to analyze the source of negative sociological self-images or why the sociological perspective can be so compelling and satisfying on so many levels. At its best, sociology is a noble and humane calling that can offer sustenance and substance for personal sense-making and social understanding and betterment that is not otherwise available.
The condemnation "it's academic" in popular culture, implies irrelevance and impracticality.9 Even if true, that is not necessarily bad. In fact your very removal from immediate concerns and constituencies to whom you owe allegiance (other than that of an invisible community of scholars) can be an asset. Don't worry about charges of impracticality or not being immediately useful.
27. Participate in the dialogue of the culture with an eye to the future and an inner voice that does not necessarily equate truth with democratic popularity. Recall Norman Thomas's observation "I am not the champion of lost causes but of causes not yet won." (Much of his democratic socialist platform was taken over by Roosevelt in the 1936 election.) Some of the most important Supreme Court decisions were based on minority opinions in earlier (losing) cases. Ideas, forms of expression, methods put forth in one generation that are called unrealistic, wild-eyed, radical and worse, may become accepted in later generations (e.g., calls for an end to monarchy or slavery, universal suffrage, the abolition of child labor, pensions). This is of course also often true in science and art. Have the plan in hand and follow your muse.
There are no simple rules for being an intellectual and it feels a little pretentious in the American context even to be writing about it, but at a minimum it involves:
28. Tell it like it is. Speak truth to power and to others. Identify naked empresses and emperors. Don't suffer fools, incompetents, charlatans, ideologues, or the jealous, the unprincipled and the delusional (whether found in sociology departments or beyond) gladly, but do so patiently and with civility. As privileged people and as intellectuals, we have an obligation to trouble the comfortable and to comfort the troubled. Remember with Czeslaw Milosz
passionate curiosity and an unrelenting and unremmitting search for truth defiance of pressures to compromise intellectual integrity asking the difficult questions that those in structurally less conducive positions do not think to ask or do not ask.  being as independent and even distanced in your scholarly work from institutions, sponsors and interest groups as practicality and civility will permit.11 Such independence gives you the priceless freedom to set your own research agenda and, based on your professional sense of things, to decide what the questions and methods are and what the answers seem to mean. The temptations of patriotism and mandarinism are difficult to resist, but guard your intellectual independence carefully. It is sacred. being in it for what you owe to civilization not to old Moo U and the citizens of your state, or for riches or fame. Attend to the outcome not the income. appreciating the radical egalitarianism that in principle is at the core of scholarship, in which the qualities of the work, not the worker, are what matter. sharing the knowledge! You are its guardian, but not its owner. Be public about your claims and seek critical evaluation of them.
In a room
where people unanimously maintain
a conspiracy of silence,
one word of truth
sounds like a pistol shot.
When the myths and behavior of the powerful are destructive we must confront them, even if, as George Bernard Shaw says in St. Joan, "He who tells the truth will surely be caught." An ancient proverb holds out more hope of getting away -- "when a man tells the truth he best have one foot in the stirrup."
In the same fashion, the destructive myths and behavior of the less powerful should not be ignored, even if they may do less harm in some overall sense. This is also true in departmental contexts --truth seeking and speaking, like charity, must begin locally. If we are to speak truth to power, we must begin by speaking it to each other. I have been surprised in recent years at the timidity of many colleagues who keep silent in the face of the most brazen distortions, particularly when underdog issues of race or gender are involved. I think to keep silent in the face of outrageous words and deeds by colleagues is to show them maximum disrespect.
Yet try not to let academic disputes degenerate into personal feuds. That can be difficult if your opponents, whether out of strategy or maliciousness (or both), are given to personalization and demonization. If one is fortunate, uncivil behavior in the university will, like Shakespeare's cuckoo in June, simply be "heard but not regarded." To be sure it may be the case that "a Smith and Wesson beats four aces every time". Yet it is sometimes also true that "that which originates from a black deed will blossom in a foul manner." Even when the moral high ground is not strategically wise, it is well to remember that more is at stake than winning. Means as well as ends have a moral component, you have to live with yourself, and there may be another day.
29. Believe in the
sociology of knowledge and use it responsibly for insight. Look for others'
and your own blindnesses and question your most cherished orthodoxies,
but don't fall into the absurd and immoral traps of cultural relativism
or fundamentalism. Don't become immobilized by the complexity and the absence
of easy answers. Recall that Sir Thomas More at first counseled skepticism
but then said "doubt your doubts". Acknowledge the weakness/failings/limitations
of all views and methods. Even if empirically and logically acceptable
they are always only partial. To choose is always to not choose.
Try to understand how those you most strongly disagree with can see things as they do without automatically reducing the answer to ignorance, incompetence, greedy self-interest, ill-will, or personal pathology. But don't deny these deficits when they are present.
We cannot stand outside of the social order to the extent that Karl Mannheim thought desirable. Yet we must do our best, realizing that the effort to be objective will give us greater legitimacy in a society in which the political values of most sociologists are not widely shared and in which empirical truth in the long run will serve social change better than will ideology.
Certainly, as Erving Goffman (1983) remarks, there are "well-placed persons who are in a position to give official imprint to versions of reality." But the mere fact of social reality being defined, rather than somehow given in nature, does not mean that it is only or always a self-serving and relative mask for the machinations of the powerful. Bridges are human constructions too, but we hardly dismiss them because of the disproportionate role that conventional white males may have played in their creation. There are standards for bridge- building. The fact of their "construction" does not mean that all bridges are of equal merit or simply a reflection of the characteristics of those who had the power to define how they would be built. As with any potent medicine, these ideas have a great potential for misuse. It is an ironic betrayal and a defilement to use the sociology of knowledge (as some post-modernists do) to dismiss contemporary sociology. It is equally unbecoming to move from the healthy skepticism of the critical question-asking scholar to the leaden cynicism and status-quo- enhancing inaction that can come from being certain about the futility of good intentions
30. Learn to walk deftly back and forth between the point of view of the actor and the observer. Appreciate both reasons and causes and be able to separate them when appropriate. Certainly we need to be good listeners. Actors should be granted the dignity of their beliefs, but we should not assume that their beliefs are necessarily legitimate (either empirically or ethically) when judged by other than their own standards. Aware of the ravages of extreme stratification systems, sociologists studying social problems in general find it easier to take the point of view of subordinates while dismissing that of elites. Yet there is a need for consistency and for understanding the point of view of all relevant actors. At the same time, there is a need for independence on the part of the observer. Victimized status, sincerity, and ignorance on the part of subjects is no excuse for suspending judgment as an outside observer. Nor do you ever have to apologize for using your creative intellectual powers to comment on the world as you see it. Sociology is like art --you have to draw the line somewhere.
31. Know the difference between a scholar and a fundamentalist. The scholar starts with questions, not with answers. The fundamentalist says, "It's true because I say it's true." Don't base a career around your ideology, ethnicity, gender, class, or life style. Base it instead on intellectual questions that you seek to answer empirically. Whether as a science or a humanities, sociology takes us further when it permits generalizations and comparisons. It thrives on the analysis of variation and the identification of non-commonsensical verities. To start with your ideology, rather than with empirical inquiry, may make you feel good, but it will not advance knowledge and it de-legitimates the efforts of your peers. It will also blind you to certain fundamental truths about the empirical world such as:
32. Avoid the exclusionary notions that you must belong to a group in order to study it and that individuals have some special obligation to study groups they belong to. To be human means that we have the ability to empathize and to understand to a significant degree what others experience. In-group membership does not automatically qualify one as an expert, anymore than out-group membership should exclude one. It is terribly patronizing to assume that people necessarily will (or should) be experts in a group you may identify them with or that they identify with, or that they have some special obligation to study that group rather than being free to study other groups and issues that do not touch that aspect of their identity. American society and indeed modernism value the liberty of people to make choices about how they will behave and what groups they will identify with. In our age of relative liberty, we all have multiple identities.
the kinds of complex behaviors and outcomes we are interested in generally have multiple causes and can rarely be reduced to any single causal factor categories such as race, ethnicity and gender show significant internal variation; they are also socially constructed and constantly undergoing change.
Social scientific claims must be judged on the basis of the usual criteria (scholarship, originality, imagination, coherence, elegance, logic, empirical base, external and internal validity, and methodological cleverness and sophistication), not on the characteristics of the analyst. To be sure where you stand sometimes depends on where you sit. There are often systematic sources of bias or selection in the views we unreflectively hold (on the average in-group members may see things differently from out-group members, but that implies nothing about the empirical correctness or moral legitimacy of these views).
The word university comes from universitas. Our assessments of each other must be based on the characteristics of the performance not of the performer. As a public institution the university is under increasing pressure to abandon that inclusive and protective principle. A university must not become just another municipal spoils system, whatever degree of short-run domestic harmony that may purchase or career advancement it may hold for cowardly administrators with burned bridges or academics who choose not to, or are unable to, meet well-defined achievement criteria.
Be suspicious of any theory
or method that begins with an adjective that
can be easily related to a current social movement. I want my theories
and methods to help explain variation that transcends the socially defined
and somewhat culturally relative and evolving categories of the moment.
We need theories of human phenomena not theories for particularistic groups.
If social research and theory are to advance social justice, this is best
done on behalf of broad values that transcend particular and changing group
33. Don't join the thought-police or spend undue amounts of time looking for any possible evidence of racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, or ageism on the part of your peers. Those biases, of course, may be present and must be understood and confronted. But there are issues of degree and interpretation. Correlation (e.g., under representation of a given category) is not automatic proof of causation, although it can certainly be grounds for trying to change the pattern.
It is intellectually dishonest and a cheap, safe shot to engage in sociology-bashing with respect to issues of race and gender. American sociology has been in the forefront of attacking the ugly isms that separate American reality from its ideals. There are social groups that are worthy of our attention as researchers and citizens, but as several decades of survey research have shown, sociologists are among those most concerned with changing social conditions. Your primary role should not be to censor words, body language or personal styles but to learn and analyze and strive for excellence. To vote against a demonstrably better qualified candidate for a departmental position on the grounds that: "I know a macho man when I see one" (as a colleague reports doing), is not an inspiring act.
Freedom of inquiry and speech are fundamental to our activity. Challenges to this freedom from whatever source must be vigorously resisted. It is not news that the flame of Erasmus is ever vulnerable, but it is news when significant threats to that flame come from within the university.
34. Be aware when you are operating as a scientist and trying to be value-free and when you are a more explicit political actor. Try not to confuse the roles nor to deny their importance. Understand the debate around what used to be called "moral philosophy" or the normative. Follow Emile Durkheim and Karl Marx in acknowledging both the scientific and the normative. Think about the links between scientific knowledge and action and between explanation and change.
As a social scientist with a discipline, method, systematic data, and standards of scholarship, you have stronger grounds to be listened to with respect to policy issues than do most ideologues, activists, politicians, and journalists, who tend to lack these armaments and who start with answers rather than questions. Yet as a political actor or policy analyst, be clear about what parts of your claims are based on science and what parts on values (and acknowledge how they become intertwined).
When dealing with emotionally charged issues don't forget that in the university you are first of all a scholar. As humans and as scholars, language is our most precious possession, and in a university of all places, it must not be debased. This entails norms of scholarship, civility and support for the freedom of inquiry of those you most strongly disagree with.
Although there are strong internal and external pressures to be socially useful and contemporary, don't forget that the liberal arts ideal begins by asking "why" and not "how." The "why" question refers to values as well to empirical causes. The liberal arts ideal values the search for beauty, as well as the search for usefulness. It instills a love of learning, knowledge, and creativity for their own sake. It rejects Mao's assertion that "an arrow has no use unless it hits its target."
The parochial person who says (as a former colleague of mine did), "I don't give a damn about advancing sociology, all I care about is liberating my community" belongs in a political movement, not a research university. Such a person has forgotten, or never understood, what a university is about and lacks the understanding that social research that tries to be objective can better contribute to social change.
35. Have fun! Enjoy what you do! Sociology as a vacation and a vocation! (with apologies to Weber 1958) To paraphrase the popular song, "Sociologists just want to have fun." Being playful can yield insights and pleasures denied those whose manner is unduly sober and whose method is rigidly formalistic. Erving Goffman said that early in your graduate career you would either click with the materials or not. If it turns out that it isn't enjoyable and you aren't loving it, then you are probably in the wrong business. This may be cyclical as one moves from the excitement of graduate school to the dulling tensions of the tenure chase, to seeking to recapture that early excitement, as one is partially freed from the confines of careerism. Thrill to the joys of discovery, the beauty of communication and the sense of satisfaction that comes from finding or imposing a reasonable pattern amidst seeming chaos. As with Thelma, in the film Thelma and Louise, you need to understand "what all the fuss is about."
36. Have a sense of humor! Spinoza demonstrates an admirable humanism and scientific neutralilty in observing "I have sedulously endeavored not to laugh at human actions, nor to lament them, nor to detest them, but to understand them." Yet I think he is too dour and unrealistic here. Become a connoisseur of irony and paradox. Things are bad, but they could always be worse. As Emerson noted, there seem to be laws of compensation. There is a rich potential for satirical humor and insight in the skeptical stance of science and the sociology of knowledge. As long as you can laugh, you are not truly doomed. The only sanity-enhancing stance for a student of our society is a degree of comedic detachment. This is sociological realism with a mental health component. Humor will also aid in communication with your audience.
37. Finally, keep the faith! Do this in spite of aging, your increased understanding of complexity, and the slowness, difficulty, and unintended consequences of change. Let encounters with those hostile to the idea of a research university lead not to withdrawal or bitterness, but to enhanced commitment to the ideals of universalism, freedom of inquiry, and civility that must be at the core of any university worthy of the name. The moral power of ideas and the rights of your position come with a mandate to use them responsibly. Know that both principles and ideas matter and that the individual can make a difference. Believe that knowledge is better than ignorance, that knowledge is possible, and that empirical and scientific knowledge about human and social conditions can result in the improvement of those conditions.
Back to Main Page | Notes | References | Top | Preface to the Turkish edition
1. This suggests still another imperative: be humble and appreciative of the efforts of peers, even as we show them the respect we have for the ideals of our profession by offering critical comments. Reciprocity, the complexity of the world and career success of course require a degree of ritual deference. In a peer-based field nice guys rarely finish last. In fact, niceness (or at least the absence of its opposite) is almost a necessary condition for professional success.
At the same time honesty is vital. I have been shocked to see that some in the university hold contemporary ideologies that prevent them from making meaningful evaluative distinctions between students or faculty members, nor will critical remarks be made for fear of hurting people or being attacked oneself. To offer critical comments in a supportive fashion is not just another mad dog male vice. Of course one should never use a stiletto to cut jello. Yet critical comments can be seen as a high form of appreciation, since one cares enough about others to take seriously what they have to say.
In that spirit the following background to this article is offered. Question: "How many chairs does it take to change a sociology department?" Answer: "Only one, but the department has to really want to change." This article partly grows out of a recent experience in trying to change a sociology department that did not really want to, or was incapable of changing. Although we had success at making many formal structural changes, it was much more difficult to change the culture. The ideas contained in this article reflect the kind of cultural climate I would like to see in a department.
2. This contrasts with the more tentative tone in Marx (1990 and 1995) in which the emphasis is on creatively moving between enduring tensions involving different types of understanding, different methods, specialization and generalization, single, multi-disciplinary and inter-disciplinary approaches, the desire for knowledge and for action, and speaking to popular and academic audiences. These enduring tensions do not lend themselves to glib imperatives (unless it is the imperative of rejecting imperatives), and they are more interesting, if less provocative, as a result.
3. I failed UCLA's Subject A (writing requirement) several times. I still cannot diagram a sentence grammatically, not that I have ever needed or wanted to.
4. There is of course a great deal to be said on behalf of attending conferences. Yet once you are established you must be very selective. In a recent social evening with colleagues who had flown in for a conference that I was not involved with, I could not help but notice how over-tired they all seemed from the long trip, how apologetic they were about not having had time to carefully read the conference papers they were sent or to finish the paper they were to present the next day. There is a life cycle element to conference attendance --the young first go for socialization, as tourists and perhaps in search of romance and because someone else may be paying for the trip; for those a bit farther along the goal is professional opportunities; for those who are more established, career maintenance and visibility play a larger role; and for those still farther, honor-collecting and nostalgia may become paramount.
5. Here we need to combine into one the two types of person Charles Coburn speaks of in the film The More the Merrier: "There are two kinds of people. Those who don't do what they want to do, and so they write down in a diary about what they haven't done, and those who are too busy to write about it, because they're out doing it." It is true, as John Le Carre said, that "a desk is a dangerous place from which to view the world." Yet it is also true that given its inherent myopia, temporality, and activity, "the field is a dangerous place from which to theorize."
6. The data clearly suggest that students drink more now than their teachers did when they were students. One unobtrusive indicator of this change is the Wednesday night celebration known as GOH --"getting over the hump" --a not insubstantial movement from the TGIF celebrations of the 1960s and 1970s.
7. At the departmental level, the failure to do this is very damaging. It is aided by secret ballots and the tenure system. Entrenched faculty of modest achievement, happy with the status quo or having ideological or personal (rather than academic and community) goals, may block efforts to recruit and promote highly talented people. Perhaps they fear that strong competitors compare invidiously with their own achievements. But in fact the outcome can be the opposite, as a rising tide lifts all within it. The absence of excellence is hardly a vice, but its denigration surely is
8. Success, for example, doesn't last, is always relative in that there are or will be those who do better than you, becomes harder to obtain the more successful you are as your goals rise, has a diminishing-returns effect, and may have costly and unintended side effects (apart from the price initially paid to achieve it).
9. The contrast with Europe is great as Loic J.D. Wacquant (1996) pointedly argues. There are far more derogatory terms for intellectuals in the United States than in Europe.
10. They may be difficult because they are subversive of taken-for-granted views, the established order or sacred cows, beause they are hard to identify given the power of culture which so encapsulates and defines us, or because they are technically challenging.
Certainly one needs roots just as one needs wings. In questioning don't assume that today's orthodoxies are necessarily wrong and automatically reject them. Your questioning may lead you to support them. But the decision is arrived at after critical reflection rather than automatic acceptance. Yet because once functional roots may become gnarled and rotted, systemic factors that tend toward entrophy, and the toll social stratification can extract from truth, orthodoxies will often be found wanting. We need to let our imaginations soar.
This stance has costs. You may find it hard to commit unequivocallly and enthusiastically to any cause or point of view because of your skeptical starting point and the distance permits you to see the glimmer of truth (whether empirical or normative) in each.
Define your place as working "in, around, and [sometimes] in spite of institutions of higher education," as a 1960s document central to the student movement urged. Appreciate why John Adams observed, "Learned academies not under the immediate inspection and control of government...are incompatible with social order." If you view being an academic as a calling, rather than an occupation, then you will never be out of work (which can be different from being out of a job).
Back to Main Page | Notes | References | Top | Preface to the Turkish edition
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