Can you tell us about where you are from, and a bit about your family and educational background?
I grew up in an iron mining town of about 10,000 in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, near Lake Superior. It was a multi-ethnic place with large concentrations of various European origin groups, including the Cornish, English, Finns, French-Canadians, Italians, Norwegians, and Swedes. The Native Americans in the area tended to live in more rural communities. My father was the child of Finnish immigrants, while my mother’s family emigrated from Cornwall. My father was a high school math teacher, while my mother was a teacher’s aide in a special education class. The public school system was quite good and during the 1960s an ever-increasing number of high school graduates went off to university. While most of my friends went off to Michigan Technological University and became engineers, I headed to the University of Michigan.
Who were your teachers? What were the ideas that inspired you most?
When I arrived in Ann Arbor in the fall of 1966, I assumed that I would major in political science and head off to law school after completing my undergraduate education. However, a friend suggested that I ought to take a sociology course. I don’t think I had ever heard of sociology before that, and if I had, I had no idea what it was about. The course really got under my skin. The professor, Max Heirich, was an excellent lecturer and along with his graduate student assistant Stephen Berkowitz, who was responsible for leading discussion groups, he revealed the potential of sociology to explain current issues swirling around us at the time. The first thing we read was the white paper report commissioned by the White House to understand the underlying factors that led to the race riot that took place in the Watts section of Los Angeles in 1965—the first of what would be a series of similar riots across the country for the next few years. Given that I became active in both the anti-war movement—beginning with taking part in the 1967 Mobilization against the War in Washington, DC, my first trip to the nation’s capital and the first time I was tear gassed—and the civil rights movement—including working for Cesar Chavez’s United Farm Workers campaign—sociology had drawn me in. But so did religion. I took a lot of courses in religion and ultimately majored in it. Max was a wonderful teacher and an especially kind and generous man. I took social theory from him and undertook an independent ethnographic research project with him at Northville State Mental Hospital, the large mental hospital outside of Detroit.
After receiving my BA degree in 1970, I made my way to Yale University, where I studied for three years in the Divinity School, receiving a M.Div. degree in 1973. The curriculum at the School was wide open during this time, which afforded me the opportunity to continue pursuing my interest in sociology. I studies with three engaging professors “down the hill” from the Divinity School in the building housing political science and sociology (ironically, the building had formerly been an Episcopal seminary). David Apter, an expert on post-colonial Africa, taught me something about modernization theory and development. Norman Birnbaum (at the time a professor at Amherst who was a visiting professor at Yale) introduced me to post-World War II European theorists, particularly from France and Germany. While like all good New Left students of the time, I had read quite a bit of Marcuse when I was an undergraduate, in Birnbaum’s course I was introduced to the other key figures of the original Frankfurt School, most importantly Adorno, Benjamin, and Horkheimer. And we got to know their heir, Habermas. I also became acquainted with the likes of Althusser, Gramsci, Lefebvre, and Touraine. For some time afterwards, I remained interested in the last named figure’s work, in the end publishing two articles on aspects of his sociology of post-industrial society. Birnbaum also introduced us to thinkers whose reputations have not endured quite like these figures, but who remain worth reading, including Georges Gurvitch and Alexander Mitscherlich. We also became acquainted with central figures associated with the Yugoslav Praxis School.
The third person at Yale who turned out to have a much longer impact on my work was Steven Warner. I took two basic theory courses from him, one on classical theory and the other on contemporary theory. He, more than anybody else, provided my foundation for understanding both the range and scope of theory, but also its purpose. I came away from this experience with what I can see in retrospect was a very solid grounding in social theory. Steve had been Neil Smelser’s first PhD student and around the time I studied with him, the two of them co-authored a theory textbook that sought to examine theory both as annalists of ideas and as analysts of ideas. I read more Marx—which is to say that I also read Marx for Apter and Birnbaum—but more importantly, I came to know Durkheim and Weber, as well as contemporary theorists, not the least of which was Parsons (who visited Yale during my years there). Steve ended up teaching for most of his career at the University of Illinois in Chicago and shifted from theory to the sociology of religion. His 1993 American Journal of Sociology article on a new paradigm for studying American religion has become a classic. Shortly after it was published, he launched the first major research project on religion and the new immigrants in the United States. We reconnected as I, too, began to explore religion and immigrants. I was pleased that he wrote a promotional back cover blurb on my 2014 Polity book, Religion and Immigration: Migrant Faiths in North America and Western Europe.
When I finished my studies at Yale, my wife and I headed to San Francisco with very little by way of plans. Our goal, quite simply, was to live for a while in San Francisco. I found work as a counselor in a mental health clinic run by the city. After a year, my boss urged me to pursue a social work master’s degree at Berkeley, and informed me that the clinic would pay for my education if I did so. I had to think long and hard about whether or not this was what I wanted to do with my life. In the end, we packed our meager belongings in a U-Haul van and made the trip back to the East Coast. I entered a program in sociology at the New School for Social Research in New York City in the fall of 1975. I was convinced that my specialty areas would be social theory and political sociology. Immigration was not on the horizon as an area of interest. The two faculty members I was most closely connected to were Stanford Lyman and Arthur Vidich. Lyman operated out of a theoretical tradition aligned with symbolic interactionism and phenomenological sociology. He variously referred to his approach—like Goffman—as dramaturgical or at times he said he was doing existentialist theory. Vidich had studied with C. Wright Mills at Wisconsin and then went on to Harvard. He was primarily interested in changes brought about by the advent of mass society—a major preoccupation of 1950s American sociology—and the changing class structure in the advanced industrial nations. I also took courses from Benjamin Nelson, who served to further my interest in historical sociology. I took a course from Niklas Luhmann, though I found it difficult to come to terms with his systems theory. I had the sense that one needed grasp his overall intentions before the various components of the system made sense, and I had a difficult time grasping it. Moreover, I was encouraged by my main professors to treat theory as something other than an end in itself, but rather as essential to the task of empirical inquiry, and thus I was not as enthused as some are about Luhmann’s efforts at grand theory.
On a visit to northern Michigan in 1977, I came across a just-published book that offered an account of the political radicalism of a substantial portion of the Finnish-American community from the late nineteenth century until the 1940s. This was a history I knew nothing about, which was surprising because I had grown up in the heartland of Finnish America and as I noted earlier, my ancestry is half Finnish. I did a term paper for a Lyman course and afterwards Stan said to me, “I think you’ve found your dissertation topic.” Indeed, I had. Of course, what this means is that I am very much an “accidental” migration scholar. The result was my first book and the beginning of a career as an immigration scholar. One of the consequences of taking on this topic was that I became a historical sociologist, which was fortuitous for this happened at that moment when social historians and historical sociologists were engaged in a most productive moment of interdisciplinary activity. I was the beneficiary of this convergence. One of the long term outcomes of this convergence was that I got to know similarly minded scholars, in particular Ewa Morawska.
How have your research interests and topics changed during your professional career? What were the sources of these changes?
I began my professional career in 1982, when I was hired as an assistant professor at Augustana College, the small liberal arts college in the American Midwest that has been my academic home ever since. During the first several years, I continued to pursue research on Finns and added Swedes to the mix. However, by this time many of the research questions motivating me about this past wave of migration had been answered to my satisfaction and meanwhile the new post-1965 wave was well underway. I turned my attention to it, and at the same time expanded my scope to include non-European immigrants, as well as the significance for the American experience of the African American community. At the same time, I both dug deeper into the history of American sociology (getting more and more familiar with the Chicago School, for example, while at the same time coming to an appreciation of Parsons, who had been the subject of intense criticism during the last phase of his life) and immersed myself in new currents of theorizing, particularly with the rise of postmodernism and globalization theory. I think it’s fair to say that the reason for various shifts of focus have been due to my willingness to pursue things that interest me at the moment and to move away from those that no longer do.
I’ll give you one such example to illustrate my point. I read Jeffrey C. Alexander’s The Civil Sphere shortly after it was published in 2006 and was immediately struck by its sociological significance. I think it can be said without exaggeration that this sweeping work offers the most original and significant contribution in a generation to our theoretical understanding of civil society—nothing quite like it having been written since the publication of Jürgen Habermas’ work on the public sphere and Talcott Parsons’ development of the idea of the societal community. In the intervening years between the publication of their work and Alexander’s book, a substantial body of writing on civil society has emerged, including influential contributions by theorists such as Andrew Arato, Jean Cohen, John Keane, Carole Pateman, Robert Putnam, Adam Seligman, and Michael Walzer. The work of these and numerous other scholars offers ample testimony to the salience of the topic, but I concluded that it was Alexander who actually succeeded in getting us to think anew about civil society.
Over the next decade, I organized an author-meets-the-critics session at a sociological conference that resulted in a symposium in The Sociological Quarterly. I presented papers on the book and published a substantive review essay in Thesis Eleven. I co-edited an Oxford University Press book on the topic with Giuseppe Sciortino from the University of Trento. Appearing in 2015, Solidarity, Justice, and Incorporation: Thinking through The Civil Sphere contained essays by several prominent scholars, including the late Robert Bellah, Bryan S. Turner, and Axel Honneth, along with a rejoinder by Alexander. I also published another essay that appeared in the 2016 book Globalizing Cultures, edited by Vincenzo Mele and Marina Vujnovic. In that article, I attempt to connect Alexander’s civil sphere thesis to his cultural sociology and explore its utility in coming to terms with authoritarian states and with the European Union. And at the moment, Alexander is arranging a series of conferences that seek to move beyond the American focus of the book to other parts of the globe. I will be participating in the first conference—on Latin America—at Yale in the summer of 2016. The plan is to follow this with one focusing on Asia, and then one on Europe. In short, little did I know in 2005 that civil society would have become one of my abiding research foci.
What does it mean for you to be a sociologist? What is the place of sociology in the contemporary world?
I keep an index card on my desk that reads, “Sociologists are keepers of the common good.” A friend of mine once told me that Paul DiMaggio said it, but I have not been able to verify authorship. What I do know is that I am grateful to whoever did utter these words, for they summarize in as parsimonious a manner as possible what I have come to understand as the sociological vocation.
While that is a nice shorthand account of sociology’s raison d’être, there are challenges to our discipline build into that purpose. There have been, are, and always will be debates over where to draw the line between scholarship and partisanship. If it tips too far in the direction of the latter, the discipline will be placed in jeopardy. Funding can be readily cut, policy makers can ignore the work sociologists publish, and in other ways the discipline can become irrelevant. On the other hand, we need to reckon with the fact that the implications of sociological research tend to tip in favor of left-of-center political agendas. And it is clear that the political right in the United States is aware of the political implications of sociological research, evident in their growing hostility to sociology. If the sociological evidence indicates that inequality has all kinds of negative consequences, but you are committed to maintaining existing levels of inequality, sociological knowledge will have to be rebuffed. Actually, that hostility extends to other social sciences as well, but sociology appears to be particularly problematic from their vantage. As it turns out, at least in the United States, this is part of a more general animus towards all science, including the natural sciences, as is seen most clearly in the right-wing rejection of the scientific consensus that not only does climate change pose serious threats to the future of the planet, but that the changes taking place are in no small part due to human intervention.
In recent years there has been considerable discussion about public sociology, advanced in no small part by Michael Burawoy. I am all for public sociology, especially if it takes many different forms. On the one hand, I wish that in the United States sociologists had a larger voice than they do in shaping public policy—compared to their counterparts in Western Europe (I think I am right here and that my perceptions are not simply a case of the grass being greener on the other side). But critical sociology also must be part of the mix, by which I mean a sociology critical of the limited perspective on the possible that tends to shape the policy decisions of political and economic elites. And, of course, there should always be room for scholarship that has no, or at least no obvious, relevance to making the world a better place. I am always drawn to the claim of Erving Goffman, near the end of his life in his American Sociological Association Presidential Address, in which he wrote, “We all agree, I think, that our job is to study society. If you ask why and to what end, I would answer: because it is there.” My perspective, thus is decidedly in favor of treating sociology as a “big tent” discipline.
What research projects you are working now?
At the moment, I have a few projects that are underway and in various stages of advancement. I have already mentioned my ongoing work on the civil sphere. Second, I have been spending time in the archives at the University of Chicago exploring the life of Robert E. Park. While the immediate objective of this work is to finalize an edited book on Park, which will include two chapters by me, my longer term objective is to write a major work on Park and the Chicago School—something that has not been done since the 1980s. Lyman introduced me to Park and throughout his career kept revisiting Park’s legacy from a perspective that was always appreciative, but critical. Lyman made much of Park’s “race relations cycle,” a topic that others have taken up usually without actually consulting Park’s work. I discovered that Park wrote about the cycle only infrequently and in non-scholarly publications. Thus, I concluded that his substantive contribution to assimilation theory had been misconstrued when seen in terms of an inevitable four-stage cycle. Beyond the particulars of this issue, I want to examine Park as one of the early expounders of sociology who developed a distinctive take on modernity, one that focused particular attention on race relations and on the city.
I am in the early stages of a study looking comparatively at the rise of right-wing populist parties in Europe and North America, with a particular focus on the interrelationship of their anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim stances and their anxieties and fears concerning national identity. The rise of right-wing political parties in Western Europe and the United States that work through legitimate legislative channels and the electoral system where they seek to win over voters in the court of public opinion has led to a growing body of social science research on this phenomenon. On some issues, these parties exhibit considerable consensus. This can be seen most readily in the hot-button topic of immigration policies. In Western Europe, a similar consensus is evident in attitudes regarding the European Union. On the other hand, on some topics, there is dissensus. Such is the case with perspectives on the welfare state.
The precise number of countries that will be included in the project is uncertain. I begin with those that I am most familiar with and that collaborators will have the language competencies necessary to study them. These would include Finland’s Perussuomalaiset (variously translated as True Finns or Finns Party), France’s Front National (National Front), Italy’s Lega Nord (Northern League), the United Kingdom’s UKIP (UK Independence Party), and the United States’ Tea Party (not literally an independent party, but rather a powerful faction within the Republican Party). With adequate time and resources, I would expand the number of parties, hoping to include such parties as Austria’s Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs (Freedom Party of Austria), the Netherland’s Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom), and Switzerland’s Schweizerische Volkspartei (People’s Party). The goal of the project is to offer granular analyses of specific cases as well as comparative analyses that I hope will lead to offering theoretically-informed assessments of the short and long-term futures of such parties.
Finally, I am currently in the middle of a project in which I serve as editor for a social theory handbook that Cambridge University Press will publish in two volumes, with somewhere between 45 and 50 entries. In taking on this rather daunting task, I have in mind an understanding of what a handbook is and what its function ought to be. In Literature and Bibliography of the Social Sciences, a book published in 1973 that is little known today, Thelma Freides offered the following succinct rationale for handbooks, writing “In the effort of the scholarly enterprise to synthesize a body of knowledge…it is sometimes useful to pause and take stock of the accomplishments of the past and the foreseeable tasks of the future.” This is precisely what this project sets out to do. It is intended to take stock of current developments in contemporary social theory, which includes locating these developments in terms of their respective relationships to a tradition of theorizing about what Charles Lemert would call “social things.”
This is obviously not the first such stock taking, and after surveying a number of earlier efforts, it is clear that in fundamental ways the editors of those collections would no doubt agree with this general sense of what the enterprise is all about. That being said, I suspect that not everyone would see eye-to-eye with my understanding about what makes handbooks distinctive. In the landscape of reference books, one can find three basic types: handbooks (sometimes called something else, such as a “companion”), encyclopedias, and dictionaries. While all would agree that dictionaries are intended to offer relatively short definitions, sometimes the length of those definitions is similar to some of the shorter entries in encyclopedias. If there is one rule of thumb for dictionary editors it is that the entries should be as ecumenical and impartial as possible and authorial voice should be muted. While the entries in encyclopedias generally call for more information and greater in-depth treatment, it is my understanding that a similar ecumenical and impartial style in which authors are more concerned with providing an overview of a topic than entering into sustained critiques and position taking is the order of the day. I note this because it is my sense that handbooks are different. Specifically, they are to be distinguished from encyclopedias in two ways. First, the articles in a handbook should be significantly longer than those in an encyclopedia. Second, authors enter into contested terrain where, while they must be as fair to competing sides as possible, should nonetheless see their task as that of laying out an argument that tips one way or the other in the debates of the moment. In other words, while civility, fairness, comprehensiveness and so forth are essential (this should be seen as encouraging a dialogue, not a debate), the authors of handbook essays should be expected to articulate their own particular positions in terms of the issues relevant to the topic at hand.
What does “transnationalism” mean? Why is it important for social sciences?
At its most basic level, transnationalism as applied to immigrants means that people are capable of living with, in effect, one foot in the homeland and the other in the receiving country. I actually like the term Roger Waldinger has used in his recent book: “cross-border connections.” Transnationalism exists in many arenas of social life: corporations, popular culture, globalizing religions, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), etc. When referring specifically to migration, transnationalism has had the salutary effect of forcing scholars to consider not only the country of settlement, but also the sending country. In other words, a transnational “optic” forces the field of migration studies to abandon methodological nationalism. That being said, it ought not to imply that states are no longer relevant, as with the now largely abandoned idea that we have entered into a post-nationalist world.
Contrary to what some of the early spokespersons contended, migrant transnationalism is not a new phenomenon, but it has been one in which state actors—both sending and receiving states—have played significant roles, along, of course with the immigrants themselves and with the publics of both sending and receiving nations. One explanation for the presumed novelty of contemporary transnationalism involves the role played by modern communication and transportation technologies: international phone calls, the Internet, Skype, jet planes, and so forth. One could just as readily point to nearly a century earlier, when Robert Park and Herbert Miller wrote of the role played by the “locomotive, the post, the telegraph, the press…in dissolv[ing]distances.” I was recently a reader for the University of Illinois Press of a manuscript edited by historian Nancy Green and sociologist Roger Waldinger that offers rich, detailed empirical cases from a range of geographic locales. It makes the case convincingly that transnationalism occurred in the past as readily as the present. Moreover, one should heed offering an explanation that tilt towards technological determinism, for not only does such an approach fail to appreciate that people make use of technologies or ignore them in ways that often surprise, but moreover, not everyone has access to technologies (e.g., what we call the digital divide today). We need, instead, to be more attentive to the role played by all of the actors involved in mass movements across international borders. Indeed, in the blurb that I wrote for the book cover, I praised A Century of Transnationalism: Immigrants and Their Homeland Connections for offering what I called a “critical, historically-grounded, and state-centered perspective on transnationalism.” This, in a nutshell, is how I think future research agendas ought to be shaped.
Again contrary to some of the same proponents of transnationalism who viewed it as an alternative mode of integration to assimilation, the evidence indicates otherwise. Indeed, transnationalism is not a mode of integration, but rather a factor that may or may not in different circumstances impinge on the capacity and the way in which immigrants become integrated into the receiving society. When we speak of integration or modes of incorporation, in fact the two competing alternatives—each with their own locally circumscribed distinctions—are assimilation and multiculturalism. The former stresses the need for cultural homogeneity, while the latter promotes the ideal of achieving unity in diversity. Whichever mode of incorporation any particular society opts for amounts to a political decision, which is at the same time a moral decision. We need to think theoretically about how transnationalism might play a role in tipping the choice of incorporation approach in one direction or the other.
Finally, and here I concur with Waldinger, while we now have a basic understanding of how transnationalism works and what it produces, we have to date ignored the forces that over time tend to undermine the efficacy or staying power of transnationalism. Place matters, distance matters, and the demands of states for newcomers to engage in what Waldinger calls a process of “political resocialization” (something he thinks assimilation theorists ignore) also matters a great deal. Thus, while transnationalism is a real phenomenon with real consequences, it is also a phenomenon that generally has a relatively short shelf life, which is to say that it is in most cases a first generation phenomenon, as the seeds of the forces that serve to undermine transnationalism germinate.
Do you think there is any difference between European and North-American studies of migration and transnationalism? Do your think these Western frames are applicable to analysis of “the rest” of the world?
Migration studies has experienced dramatic growth during the past quarter century, reflecting the fact that we live in an age of global migration. This upsurge in both research and theory building was initiated in the United States and in a smaller way in Canada. This isn’t surprising given that both countries are and were in the past major destinations for immigrants. As historic settler nations, they have considerable experience addressing the integration of newcomers and the challenges associated with doing so. The field of migration studies within sociology was launched in the United States as early as the late nineteenth century, but really taking off during the early decades of the twentieth. Indeed, most of the early sociologists during the formative period of the discipline wrote about immigration. Some, such as E.A. Ross and Franklin Giddings, were unsympathetic to, even hostile towards, immigrants. However, such was not the case with those figures associated with what became known in retrospect as the Chicago School of Sociology. Thus, the core concepts and research findings from the formative period of sociology were decidedly American-centric.
The second question you pose is a critical one and I would contend that at the moment we simply do not know the answer to it. During the current era of global migration the geographic scope of research and theorizing has expanded to include Western Europe and Australasia. These are all wealthy industrialized nations with liberal democratic political regimes. The open question is whether the dynamics of migration processes—settlement, incorporation, and control—are similar or different in other parts of the globe.
Until fairly recently, most research in these nations was very much nation-specific, which is to say that it was not comparative. At the moment, a growing body of comparative research is appearing in print and is underway. Among the challenges associated with this research are disagreements about terminology. For example, Europeans often have an aversion to the term “assimilation,” while endless debates ensue about what inclusion, a more widely used term in Europe, actually means. Or take the matter of multiculturalism, which means different things in different nations. Even within Europe there is considerable debate about what the term means. Thus, one can find British sociologists such as Tariq Modood offering cogent and careful accounts of and defenses of multicultural policies, while their French counterparts—take former ISA President Michel Wieviorka as a prime example—are often remarkably dismissive of the idea. In addition, there are different research traditions at play. Thus, European researchers are often heavy on theory and light on sample size, while the reverse is true in the United States. Moreover, Europeans often focus research agendas on the state and on public reactions to migrants, while the focus of much American research is on the immigrants themselves. Yet despite all of this, I think we are headed in productive directions. There is still a tendency to get bogged down in conceptual debates that remind me of Freud’s idea of the narcissism of small differences (e.g., see the debates pitting multiculturalism against interculturalism), taking us away from the real task at hand, which is to actually engage in empirical research. However, I can point to recent research that truly advances a comparative sociology of migration. One book that I think will—and indeed should—receive considerable attention is Richard Alba and Nancy Foner’s Strangers No More: Immigration and the Challenges of Integration in North America and Western Europe (Princeton University Press, 2015). I have put together a symposium on this book for Ethnic and Racial Studies that includes two American scholars, a Canadian, and three Europeans. It should appear in print sometime near the end of 2016.
In 2015 the international research laboratory “Transnationalism and Migration Processes: Comparative and Institutional Analysis” under your leadership was established in St. Petersburg State University. Please, tell about it in more detail.
This gets to the matter of how applicable theories and concepts used elsewhere apply to places like Russia. The fact of the matter is that Russia is the second largest immigrant receiving nation, and at the same time considerable out-migration is occurring. While research is being done on these movements across borders, given the size of these population movements this definitely constitutes an under-researched arena. The goal of the research laboratory, thus, at one level is a very simple one. We seek to make a dent in that research lacuna. This involves studying both migrations into Russia, which as we know come overwhelmingly from former Soviet states. We also want to explore Russian emigration. While such a study is currently underway by researchers at the laboratory, examining Russians in the Los Angeles area, I would also like to see us launch a collaborative project with Finnish researchers on Russian immigrants in Finland—the largest group, followed by Estonians, in that country.
Beyond such empirical research projects, I want to begin to address the theoretical issues you asked about in the previous question. When we talk about assimilation, integration, multiculturalism, transnationalism, diaspora, and so on, are these concepts developed in specific contexts applicable to the Russian situation? In short, one of the ultimate objectives of the laboratory is to determine in what ways these and related concepts are or are not generalizable to all national settings.
How do you manage to combine your research activities with teaching and organizational work? Do these activities help or impede your involvement in research?
I should begin by noting that I enjoy teaching. Of course, there are always limits on one’s time and some scholars rue the fact that teaching takes them away from scholarly endeavors. While I sometimes am torn between commitments, I also think that teaching and scholarship can be mutually reinforcing. We spoke earlier about public sociology. One important public—constituency—that we need to engage is made up of our students. Some will become future sociologists, and thus we have the task of socializing them into the discipline. But, at least where I teach, most students do not go off to become sociologists. They become lawyers, doctors, accountants, social workers, teachers, and take up a wide variety of other careers. If sociologists really are guardians of the common good, we want to instruct these students in ways that they come to appreciate and embrace what C. Wright Mills long ago called the “sociological imagination,” which will help to inform their understanding of what it means to be a citizen.
In last decades there have been many debates about the crisis of the university and its possible futures. What is your position on these issues?
This question could be the subject of a far lengthier excursus than this interview permits. Suffice it to say that I am concerned about the future of the university and I think that the crisis is real. It takes different forms in different nations. I am most familiar with what’s happening in the United States. Three things have been occurring there for some time. First, public funding of higher education has been on the decline, which impacts the affordability of university education for a growing sector not simply of lower-income families, but middle-class ones as well. Second, the traditional liberal arts disciplines, including the humanities and social sciences, have been devalued while the STEM sciences and business programs in marketing, advertising, and human resource management have been elevated in status and in funding levels. Third, there has been a growing tendency to treat higher education like a business, using market-driven criteria that are inappropriate for educational institutions. The widespread use of a variety of highly questionable metrics to measure output and performance is one manifestation of what has been accurately described as a neo-liberal agenda. One recent reflection of that trend is the growth in the managerial/administrative sector of universities, while full-time tenured and tenure track positions have declined in numbers. A particularly disturbing consequence of this third trend is that the professional autonomy of the professorate has eroded. I unfortunately have no faith at the moment that any of this will be turned around in the foreseeable future.
You have visited Russia in January, 2015 and delivered public lectures in Moscow and St. Petersburg. What are your impressions about Russian audience?
On rather short notice, I was invited to present three lectures in January, 2015 over the course of four days, one in Moscow, followed by St. Petersburg and Kiev. The organization that invited me was called InLiberty. I was unfamiliar with I, but did a little investigating and discovered that it was a libertarian organization receiving funding from two right-wing think tanks in the United States (the Heritage Foundation and the Atlas Economic Research Foundation, both recipients of Koch brother’s money and the latter obviously named after Ayn Rand’s dreadful speech parading as a novel). The sponsorship of InLiberty, in short, gave me pause.
The organizers asked me to speak about citizenship, a reasonable request since I’ve published two books and several articles on the topic. While they did request that I say something about dual citizenship, there was no other stipulation. They asked to see an outline of my talk in advance, but only so the people doing instant translations could have an idea of what I was doing. I came away thinking that I could give the sort of talk I wanted to rather than conforming to some ideological litmus test. Thus, overcoming my initial discomfort, I agreed to give the lectures.
I am glad that I did. Despite the fact that my visit occurred in January and the weather was cold, I was pleasantly surprised by the number of people who attended the lectures. The number in Moscow was over 190 and the total for the three venues turned out to be over 400. My talk was very much in line with T.H. Marshall’s depiction of three rights attached to citizenship. Given that libertarians in the United States do not think that what he called “social rights” are in fact actual rights appropriately attached to citizenship, I assumed that in the question-and-answer period I would be challenged. As it turned out, not one person did. Instead, in all three cities the questions posed—and there were a lot of questions raised—appeared to reflect a general agreement with the main points of my talk. Thus, I came away thinking that the audiences did not actually share the libertarian views of the sponsors. At the same time, based on the give and take afterwards, it was evident that all three audiences were composed of highly educated and well-informed people. I am not quite sure why they came out in such numbers to hear me, but was gratified that they did. I will say that there were no politically charged questions posed in Moscow and only one in St. Petersburg. However, in Kiev the matter of dual citizenship and of stateless was raised, with recent events in Crimea well in mind.
What would be your main message to Russian sociologists?
I think this question is best answered by another question: what do we mean when we say we are “for sociology”? This phrase was the title of a collection of Alvin Gouldner’s essays published back in 1973, a collection that he intended to promote, as the subtitle of the volume indicated, “renewal and critique in sociology today.” I am all for a critical and self-reflexive sociology, and understand that part of the task of being a social scientist involves moving beyond the current state of the discipline, both in terms of empirical research and theoretical development.
That being said, if there is a concern I have today it is that in doing so, too little attention is paid to the tradition that we build on. We need to think more deeply about how as we move forward we are part of discipline with a long and rich history. We need to be more attentive to sociology’s past not so much in order to avoid its mistakes, but to prevent ourselves from continually reinventing the wheel. We ought to see ourselves more than we often do as engaged in a cumulative enterprise. It is somewhat dismaying, for example, that of the more than 13,000 members of the American Sociological Association, fewer than 200 opt to join the History of Sociology section. This is not only an American problem. I suspect that a substantial part of the problem has to do with demands from funding sources, professional evaluation committees, and the like to be “cutting edge” and “innovative.” It is also a result of what might be called the intellectual fashion consciousness of the academy, which like the world of couture is subject to the rapid circulation of the “new.” My message, simply, is that this is not helpful. I am not calling for being stuck in the past, but rather better understanding it—rather than ignoring it—so that we can actually move into the future in genuinely productive ways.