Travels with Marty: Seymour Martin Lipset as a Mentor
American Sociologist, vol. 37, no. 4. Winter 2006, pp. 76-83.

Back to Main Page  |  Gary Marx bio

By Gary T. Marx (emeritus professor, MIT)

Seymour Martin Lipset was Whitmanesque in his amplitude -in physical and social stature, in the breadth of his vision, and in his passion for America. He was born in the USA. The virtues, paradoxes and contradictions of America are a key to his persona and work. Reminiscent of his mentor Robert King Merton, Marty wrote, "we are the worst as well as the best..." The good and the bad are closely linked to values "which make for achievement and independence." There are no easy answers, which is all the more reason to seek them in a tolerant, tentative and open minded spirit of inquiry.

I first met him in the Fall of 1961 at Berkeley through his fellow Columbia Lazarsfeldians Charles Glock and Hannan Selvin, my teachers in the required 201A-B methods class. I had a strong interest in, and indignation over, what was then called "prejudice" (racism had not yet become fashionable as a concept). I was highly motivated and increasingly self-confident after a successful year of graduate study. The gate to the highway had opened a crack, but it was still a dark and foggy (although not cold) morning and the path could barely be seen.

Ever the comparative thinker and on the prowl for ideas and data, Marty had discovered some long forgotten 1938 American Institute of Public Opinion surveys that had questions on Father Coughlin, the pioneering mass media anti-Semitic radio priest who was eventually silenced by the Church. Marty was extending his interest from left to right wing social movements. With the deep reservoir of exploitable public anger and fear in the depression, had Huey Long not been assassinated, he could have (with the support of demagogues such as Coughlin) been elected President in 1936.

American history might have been very different (e.g., the imagined versions of Sinclair Lewis in It Can't Happen Here and Philip Roth's recent The Plot Against America). The dependent variable of an enduring American democracy that intellectually and socially nourished Marty and so many of his distinguished students could well have disappeared to be replaced by a Sorokinian concern with cycles if scholars of tainted (or any) ethnicity even had the freedom to pursue such questions.

One of my earliest memories is of his coming into the Berkeley Survey Research Center early one morning. While never known for his sartorial splendor, this time he looked more bedraggled than usual. He announced that he was very tired because he had stayed up all night listening to the results of the Swedish election on his short wave radio.

Voluntarily staying up all night to learn the details of an obscure election was noteworthy in the extreme. To a callow 22 year old whose only all-nighters had been compelled by social necessities or being unprepared for a final exam, this example was an introduction to Marty's energy, intellectual curiosity and abiding interest in politics.

Marty provided me with research support, entry into the profession and a thesis topic analyzing the Father Coughlin data. I provided Marty 1/3 of his article contrasting Coughlin, Joseph McCarthy and the John Birch Society. Not a bad deal by the standards of 1962. Marcel Mauss instructs us that gifts may serve the needs of the giver as well as the recipient. In this case it is not easy to decide just who is giving and who is receiving, but it is clear to me who got the better of the deal.

As Marty's research assistant I was in very good company given students who had recently worked with him such as Juan Linz, Jim Coleman, Bob Alford, Bob Blauner and Amitai Etzioni. A few years later several of my fellow graduate students— Art Liebman, Metta Spencer and Ken Walker—also worked with him.

He handed me the data in the form of punch cards, told me to take his well attended graduate course on social stratification that met in the evening in Sproul Hall and to write a paper based on the surveys. Once he suggested a particular data run, but other than that left me alone. Whether that represented trust in a budding scholar who was or should be a self directed professional, or his simply being too busy to carefully supervise me I don't know. Perhaps some of each. I did experience some doubt about what to do, but with the initial whirring of the old IBM counter-sorter and some surprising empirical findings (it wasn't the lower middle class who was most supportive of Coughlin) the thesis almost seem to write itself.

After completing the MA thesis and studying hard to fail the French and Spanish language tests then required of PhD candidates, my wife Phyllis and I took the opportunity to spend a year traveling the world, before the concrete of work, family and home set. I can still recall my shock in India in reading about the Free Speech Movement in December of 1964 and disappointment about not being there.

The issue divided the campus and the sociology department. Marty was caught in the middle and the issues reflected the early and more mature Marty and all of the enduring tensions between authority/power and participation, the university and society, mass education and elite standards, direct democracy and restraining institutions and freedom and responsibility. Sociology students were very active in the Free Speech Movement. An effort to arrest a colleague sitting at the Congress of Racial Equality table at the corner of Telegraph and Bancroft was the precipitating incident. I had sat at that table the year before distributing information and collecting funds during the visit of James Farmer to campus (I am still sitting there, forever young, in news footage used in the PBS documentary Berkeley in the 60s).

In the road-not-taken-imaginings that plague those with the leisure to indulge in them, I sometimes wonder if life would have been different had I been in Berkeley sitting at the table that day, rather than scurrying around caves in India looking at ancient Buddhist art. I certainly would have experienced the cross pressures I had learned about from Lazarsfeld via Marty, pressures that Marty no doubt felt but did not discuss.

Another "what if" question can be asked of Marty's life. What if his father (who according to an account in the New York Sun, January 4, 2007) had not been denied his request to return to the Soviet Union in the 1930s?

With respect to the Free Speech Movement, there was no way to avoid the conflicting emotions the actions of a mass movement for change aroused in a youth righteously indignant over all the 1960s issues who, through his studies, was coming to appreciate the limits of disruption, the importance of institutions and traditions, the complexity, trade offs and unintended consequences that quick-fix ideology never acknowledged and the dangers of demagoguery. The work on Father Coughlin and fine books by Leo Lowenthal (Prophets of Deceit) and by A.M. Lee and E.B. Lee (The Fine Art of Propaganda) reinforced concern with the last topic. As John Lennon was to write a few years later, "Well, you know We all want to change the world... You say you've got a real solution Well, you know We'd all love to see the plan."

Studying collective behavior and social movements, and society more broadly, might offer some clues as to why the gap between values and reality is often so pronounced, why movements often betrayed their goals and how popular sentiment could be woven into responsive principled institutions that none-the-less took wisdom from the past.

The push from Berkeley's tensions and the pull from Harvard led to Marty's departure by the time we returned in the fall of 1965. I didn't see him for a year, but he was aware of my work on the civil rights movement at the Survey Research Center under Charles Glock. He invited me to apply for an assistant professor position in the Department of Social Relations which I received two months after applying, with no need even of a job talk. He said, "you are the first one I have been able to get hired." I never knew what he meant and didn't ask (the first non-Harvard PhD., Berkeley graduate, Jew, survey researcher?) He also nominated me for a Junior Fellowship (a marvelous 3 year post-doc). Since I already had the job offer, not getting the fellowship hardly mattered. However an all expense paid trip to Cambridge and the chance to meet Crane Brinton and other luminaries was a highlight.

Our 1967 move to Cambridge from Berkeley was truly a move to another country, with changes in language, wardrobe, cuisine (Julia Child was a neighbor) and social structure. Once we arrived in Cambridge Marty was hospitable and continued to be professionally supportive—involving me in an ASA project writing a book on sociology for high school students and introducing me to senior colleagues.

Marty was the most work focused and hardest working person I encountered in a variety of elite institutions which attract such types like flypaper. This, along with an inherent shyness and inability to make the small social talk which is about so much more than its content, would not lead you to describe him as personable. Relative to the delicious biting, but also often hurtful, conversational satire of Erving Goffman, Marty was gentle. He did not speak critically of others. Yet in his way he was warm, kind and loyal to those within his circle. Although acutely sensitive to the nuances of upward mobility, he was true to himself. He never adopted the affected style or name changes of some of our more inauthentic Cambridge colleagues who were also upwardly mobile.

Shortly after I returned from a sabbatical in France doing a comparative study of police, Marty and Alex Inkeles left Harvard for Stanford. That move was surprising because they had only recently spearheaded a bitter struggle to create an independent sociology department from the Department of Social Relations.

Later our paths additionally overlapped in Palo Alto and Washington D. C.—overlaps aided by his continual support over four decades. In the last communication I received from him, he suggested I apply for a position in his department at George Mason University where he had gone after his retirement. Having retired myself and modeled aspects of my career after Marty's, that seemed like a good move. I didn't get the job, but did get one of those consolation letters that are better than the letters some receive, "...there appear to be other applicants who present a better match for the position. However, since you are a strong candidate, we would like to keep your materials on hand should the situation change." Sure keep 'em as long as you like and if you don't like those I can always send more that might offer a better match.

Marty was very proud and supportive of his students. He must have gone through reams of stationary continuing to write on their behalf over his lifetime. In a reversal, it was very satisfying for me play a role in his receipt of the unconscionably delayed (because of gender politics) ASA Career of Distinguished Scholarship Award. He also is distinguished by being the only sociologist or political scientist to have had PhD students named Gary Marx and Gary Marks. The latter at the University of North Carolina even co-edited a Festschrift, in which no doubt to avoid confusing the reader, I was not invited to participate.

A multitude of empirical indicators establishes Marty's place among the pre-eminent social scientists of the last half century. Rather than comment on the gift of his substantive work and its impacts (of which I know only a small part) I will briefly mention the gifts, both direct and indirect, Marty offered as a partial role model to this aspiring sociologist. These were formative for many of the 37 moral imperatives I have suggested for aspiring sociologists (The American Sociologist, Spring 1997).

  1. In the beginning there are the questions. Marty had the vision, courage (chutzpah?) and ability to frame big enduring socially and theoretically meaningful questions (across societies and history) pursued throughout his career. He started with empirical variation (both what is and isn't or what might have been or might still become). This required historical and comparative international material and following the questions not the method. While emphasizing the middle range, it also made room for broader questions.

    In staying with a few questions throughout his life, he reflected one end of a continuum of consistent, against changing, research concerns over a career. His abiding interest in democracy, stratification and America encompassed most of what he did. This offers the advantage of direction, continuity, knowledge accumulation across generations of researchers, the ability to revise and change the answers and ever more material (which when it is as good as Marty's) means an ever greater contribution. This is a case where more is better.

    He shows how important one's personal situation can be in defining research questions. For example, the atypical persistence of democracy in his father's printer's union, being the upwardly mobile child of immigrants and a U.S. citizen in Canada stimulated his intellectual inquiry.

    I am grateful to Marty for the gift of curiosity and the model and tools for converting themes in one's personal life into researchable topics. Many of the topics I have studied, such as those around the ironies and complexities of social control, reflect my personal Janus- (and more) headed experiences with authority. My interest in mass movements similarly reflects ambivalence and awareness of both their promise and their danger.

    Marty's interest in right wing extremism and in issues of Jewish identity and mobility led me to approach my own identity in a new way. Previously, being Jewish in the relatively tolerant, diverse environment of Los Angeles, was not something I thought (or worried) much about. It was subjectively neither liability nor asset (accept in certain social situations involving the opposite sex) and was much less important than my identity as a privileged middle class California male jock boy scout (I couldn‘t be a choir boy). But seeing Marty define the atypicality of the American Jewish experience as a topic for research changed that. In conjunction with what I was learning about anti-Semitism and from Erving Goffman about the presentation of self, the ironies of the American Jewish experience became of great interest and not something simply to be taken for granted. My interest has always been more academic than participatory (eating the fruit of the social construction of knowledge tree does not help sustain pretty illusions, even if it inspires one to analyze them).

    However there is a practical side too. I worked a bit with Earl Raab, one of Marty's co-authors, who also had a real job in San Francisco with the Jewish Community Relations Board. Earl was not only a scholar but he applied his knowledge to help improve inter-group relations. Yet they too serve who only offer data, clarify the issues and analyze. Research could not only aid in understanding, it could be useful. This suggested there was hope for those who out of liberal guilt or self-interest, wanted to be relevant and part of the solution, but who were not temperamentally suited for a life of action. This leads to the next gift.

  2. Two cheers for science. Marty shared the Enlightenment faith in a positivist social science that could provide answers and be used for social betterment. Yet he was no mindless empiricist. The questions he raised required attending to the empirical record and cross-observer-analysis and commentary, but they were never fully answered by empirical inquiry, no matter how systematic.

    Marty was like a pointillist painter rather than a laboratory scientist. He judiciously selected among the wealth of possible empirical details to offer larger understandings and develop arguments -not unlike a trial attorney. This required a polymorphous, pack rat methodology—taking whatever seemed useful from Aristotle to the evening news to the latest case study or quantitative analysis.

    He suggested that we apply the logic of the multivariate approach to historical data in the form of thought-experiments, trying to account for differences by identifying key variables that separate otherwise equivalent cases. While we can't (and shouldn't pretend to) ever match the precision of physical science, we can benefit from aspects of its logic. The left's emphasis on structure and the right's on culture as explanations offered a false choice.

    The integrative and synthetic total goes beyond the individual components chosen for inclusion. Given the sweep of his questions, the limits of our methods, subjectivity in method and fact selection and the complexity and dynamics of causation in historical events, such grand pictures are always subject to debate. Much of Marty's work will endure because of the breadth and timelessness of the questions and answers which are so clearly expressed and organized around clear arguments (e.g., the link between democracy and economic development and the importance of a large middle class and a vigorous associational life). Some of the writing reads like a conversation with the author.

    Mannheim's sociology of knowledge paradox can be noted, but not escaped. Yet standards of evidence and logic, however imperfect, are needed to take us beyond conclusions based only on social location, tradition, power or passion. Marty's approach helped to order the empirical cacophony, provoked thought, blazed trails and inspired a vast amount of research.

  3. Multiple roles in their appropriate places. Related to the above point, Marty was acutely aware of the difference and tensions (but also the links) between scholarship and activism and of the legitimacy and importance of scholarship for those who desire change. This made it easier to deal with the pleasures of reading and thinking about big issues, as against the internal and external pressure of being on the barricades. I have written about this tension in an edited book on muckraking sociology and an article on dirty data.

  4. What makes Marty run? Lipset had an insatiable curiosity, and unbounded enthusiasm for understanding politics and social life and a bigger-than-life (or a big as it gets) need for achievement and capacity for hard work. In spite of his religion, his productivity gives new meaning to the Protestant Ethic. Being around someone so prolific, who also (in the days before the internet) made sure through sending out a large numbers of reprints that others kept up with his work set a standard to aspire to. While some residual norms of an aristocratic professoriate remained, one needed aggressive street hustle as well.

  5. The virtues of talk. Marty had a hot, Talmudic, New York gift for animated, energized, erudite, discursive, free associational conversation, if often in the form of an encyclopedic monologue or a self-interrogatory soliloquy. This style informed and dazzled listeners, especially the youthful student more accustomed to a laidback cool Southern California conversational style. I now take it as a complement that many people assume I grew up in New York.
Greek tragedy reminds us that strengths can sometimes be weaknesses, that what helps can also hinder, depending on the context and point of view. Maximizing productivity and an intense need to succeed can lead to rushing into print too quickly, repetition and cutting corners and can make it hard to have a well rounded life. An instrumental orientation to others (even when there is ample reciprocity and generosity as in Marty's case) will not please everyone. The admirable focus on a topic over a lifetime can lead the jealous to say, "there is nothing new here" or "yes, it's a good book, it should be: it's the third time it has been written."

In stating above that Marty was a partial role model above, I meant that in several senses. First he was partial in being so very supportive. There are usually a lot of good candidates and scholars and beyond a certain achievement level, it is difficult to rank applicants and personal and network factors matter in selection. In such situations the prestige of the letter writer takes on added significance. In On the Waterfront, Eva Marie Saint asks priest Karl Malden to pray for boxer Marlon Brando. The priest says, "OK, but it will help if he can punch." In the same way for academics, it helps to have sponsors with punch.

Marty was also a partial role model in being one of several mentors and in a few ways helping me define what I did not want to do. It would not be accurate to say that he was an anti-role model. Rather Marty was who he was and what was appropriate for him would not necessarily be for others. I did not want to work as hard or single mindedly as he did on social research. Life was too short and there was too much else to do. The idea of the Renaissance person has always held great appeal, even though in our age of specialization it is hard to be more than a dilettante. Nor did I want to stay with a single topic or two. My interests changed markedly over 45 years, even if there were connective ideas around democracy and the decent society. I also lacked Marty's power as a monologuist, but apart from that, while I thrive on talk, I much prefer dialogue (and am often even a little hesitant to show my aces until I really have to). It is not only polite to listen and to draw out the other in a conversation, but you save energy and are likely to learn more as well. In that sense being a good listener can be very instrumental.

Marty emphasized the positive and distinctive aspects of American society. For many analysts however, the failure to fulfill the American promise for all groups and to more adequately limit corporate power calls for greater emphasis on what is wrong, rather than what is right. Some colleagues have been critical of the mature Lipset for the failure to more directly analyze our myriad problems linked to social stratification. In creating the good society and being in touch with reality, it is of course vital to think in comparative empirical terms. Yet it is not enough to look good in relative terms or to explain away undesirable outcomes as necessarily inherent in the system. Societies are dynamic. The water glass must be viewed from both perspectives. Given the links between power and culture, the case for emphasizing the glass's emptiness is clear.

The work of our stars is particularly appropriate for critical analysis, lest their luminosity blind us to the partial truths and limitations of even the best work. But some of the criticism of Marty is misplaced. He was wrongly attacked because of his affiliation with the Hoover Institute, a place a majority of sociologists would probably not donate funds to. Yet such criticism not only ignores the importance of dialogue with those we disagree with and the potential of conversion, it represents guilt by association. The emphasis must be on critically assessing an individual's ideas, not who they have lunch with. Marty seemed bemused by the ideological labels others applied to him and I think took pleasure in being hard to classify relative to many neo-conservatives. His beliefs, like the empirical world he sought to understand, could not easily be reduced to such stereotypes.

During those golden bear years of the 1960s at Berkeley I had the good fortune to learn from many scholars—Erving Goffman, Neil Smelser, and Charles Glock in particular. But also Herbert Blumer, Kingsley Davis, John Clausen, Nathan Glazer and Reinhard Bendix and earlier at UCLA from Ralph Turner, Don Cressey, Mel Seeman and Melville Dalton. Of course there were mentors at a distance such as Robert Merton, David Riesman, Lew Coser, Howie Becker and Herb Gans. Disentangling influences, whether intended or unintended is hopeless, especially after more than four decades. Yet Marty was a powerful beacon illuminating pathways to a career.

Professor Lipset's awareness of the fragility of democracy was a driving force in his lifetime effort to understand its social requisites. From him I learned that a naďve leftist faith in the people was not supportable. But neither was an equivalent rightist faith in elites. As Yeats wrote, the government and the church might be the mob howling at the door as well. The smart money had to be on ideas and structures that could moderate the ever present tendencies toward violent political conflict and the tendency of power and privilege to corrupt. Central to this were procedures involving transparency and accountability, the sharing of power and negotiation, and on influence via both value socialization/education and interest. The dynamic and complex nature of social situations and the legitimate claims of different groups (holding apart the eternally problematic questions involving definitions of legitimacy) must be acknowledged.

My career focus on issues of civil liberties, civil rights and social control was one strand of Marty's broader democracy project. Such concerns relate to the suspicion of the state (and authority more broadly) and the paradoxical tilt toward individual/achievement and inequality connected to America’s origins that Marty stressed. Pluralism and the public-private distinctions, however hazy and imperfect, represent brilliant partial solutions to enduring issues of modern society. The sanctity of De Tocquevillian civil society and private life borders in the face of the challenges (now so greatly abetted by technology) whether from government, the commercial or fundamentalist sectors is more vital than ever. My gratitude is unbounded for the substantive and methodological inspiration Seymour Martin Lipset provided.

Back to Main Page  |  Gary Marx bio  |  Top


You are visitor number to this page since January 26, 2007.