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of  the


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No. 005  





May, 1974

Distributed as part of the
TRANSFORMING SOCIOLOGY SERIES of The Red Feather Institute, 8085 Essex, Weidman, Michigan, 48893.


Transforming Sociology:

The Graduate Student*

In the writings of radical sociologists, there is the proposition that establishment sociology; theory and methodology alike is part of the technology of repression in the managed society. There is the corollary that American sociologists beginning with Spencer, Ward, Small and Ogburn and including such modern sociologists as Merton, Lipset, Shils, Moore, Levy, Hopper, and even Gamson are charged with providing the theory and research by which to predict and manage the masses; to research and control the dissidents; to polish and push the validity of a repressive society. Let us accept that analysis. 1 The question then becomes how to respond to the alleged repressive character of sociology. There are several responses available.

One may take the extreme view that to work at all in sociology in managed society is to have one's work used disproportionately by the managerial functionaries. The one-sided use of social psychology by a managerial cadre of social workers; guidance, counseling, and personnel workers; political campaign managers; sales and advertising specialists as well as public relations and military tacticians is a case in point. Under this view, all scientific work is compromised since the context in which it is produced and consumed is an essentially controlled context; the one controlled by a consortium of big government, big business, big military, big labor and big university. Even the work of the purest of the most radical sociologist is fed into the maw of the managerial machine and is turned into harmless (but profitable) mass cult. Such putatively radical elements in the culture such as soul, counter culture, guerrilla theatre, the Beatles, women's lib, and the advent of radical social scientists are efficiently integrated into advertising, political campaigns, Sunday sermons, Monday lectures, and, thereby, lose their radical nature.

The radical points become absorbed, deflected, altered and converted into puffs of excitement in a continuing bland, manageable world of corporate control. The art of Peter Max is used to sell trousers, the soul of Sammy Davis is used to sell radios, the genius of Bill Gamson is at the service of the counter revolution. The implication of this view is one of hopeful quietism: to sit and wait for an historiographical discontinuity after which the liberative components of one's work will be expressed rather than repressive components. There is much to be said for this view if we take into account the linguistic rule that meaning always emerged from context; the meaning of sociology as a complex verb is always in the context of the larger language of social enterprise. Since today the social enterprise is bent toward management; today sociology must mean repression.

An alternate response derives from the work of Gouldner who has argued for a reflexive sociology which, by such self analysis, can liberate the propensity of sociology to serve the underclass. The question here is how. There are some preliminary suggestions to be made here. These suggestions necessarily focus first upon the graduate student; his curricula and his world view. If we accept the sociology of knowledge precept that one's world view varies with one's position in the social order, then it follows that sociology professors, researchers, consultants, and graduate students are not going to be able to be liberated in as much as they are the salaried functionaries in the various corporate enterprises. Being part of the formal organization, the world view of almost all sociologists will be extensively determined by their role as senior technicians in the corporate hierarchy

Examining the five major components of contemporary sociology, it appears that graduate students are the most vulnerable to liberation in as much as they occupy the most marginal and most vulnerable positions in the structure of the profession. It is clear that graduate students are also the most vulnerable to repression.

Given the major features of graduate school experience; atomization of learning, economic dependence, weak political structures, competitive grading, monopoly of curricula by faculty; transient membership, veneration of establishment luminaries, selective recruitment of those socialized to prepackaged learning and regimented teaching, the placement networks, sophisticated cooling out techniques, as well as a conservative faculty, all these bespeak the difficulties to be encountered in attempting to liberate the graduate student, But, alone of all the major components of modern sociology practitioners, graduate students offer the richest soil for liberation. If it's to be done at all it's to be done with the graduate school. The researchers at the various university institutes; the consultants in the various polling agencies; the professors in the various teaching departments must be written off as inevitably lost to the liberation movement. 2 The fifth component, the professional leadership, have far too many interconnects with their counterparts in big government, business, military, and labor to opt for a technology of liberation. Good people, Coser, Blau, Goode, Komarrosky, and their equally fine predecessors have shown themselves incapable of leading the profession away from the managerial ethic. If the major point of vulnerability of contemporary western sociology is the partly assimilated graduate student, some considerations of strategy for liberation are appropriate The following suggestions are put forth as a point of dialogue and a point of departure for prospective radical sociologists.

Communication Media: Critical to the liberation of graduate students is their access to radical analyses; especially those focusing on their own alienation, exploitation and betrayal to the corporate society by their faculty and their committee members. It would be desirable for each group of graduate students to have their own media; for example the graduate students at Berkeley and other universities control the publication of a journal. A nationwide newsletter would be even better; something akin to Footnotes, but dedicated to graduate students' interests and issues. And graduate students could insist on some space in Footnotes and The American Sociologist. At present, the A.S.A. takes their money but serves their information needs in piece-meal and conservative fashion. Mailing lists are available from the Insurgent Sociologist for those graduate students interested in circulating newsletters or case histories.

Parallel Courses: If the thrust of courses in establishment sociology departments is to produce a standardized information flow specialist under a veneer of theoretical respectability, then the liberation of graduate students calls for an alternative course of instruction. There are at least two ways to do this as far as I can see. One way is to participate in the construction of the course offerings at the graduate level. Graduate students could vote to see which set of graduate seminars they'd like to see offered in any given term and then get politically organized to force the participation of the faculty. Confrontations, selective boycotts of the most onerous courses as well as prior negotiation with receptive faculty are legitimate and effective tactics. Many research courses only make sense if one is going to serve the information needs of corporate society; they could be the first to go.

Another means by which to get an alternate education is to seek out course syllabi from radical faculty and schedule an informal seminar at least once a week; one does not need a professor to make a seminar a going concern. All of us have been in seminars where the professor was absent: literally or figuratively. The Red Feather Institute has issued a call for radical syllabi and bibliography and will make these available as they arrive to groups of graduate students.

Parallel Faculty. Graduate students can organize symposia, discussion groups, panels, all-day seminars and other such affairs and invite radical sociologists in the area to take part. The payoff from this sort of thing is two-fold: a) the very context in which the forum is organized is done on terms established by graduate students; the faculty involved must come to the student rather than otherwise, and b) the student could be exposed to alternate visions and competing analysis as prelude to that dialectic of ideas which makes for authentic education.

Interested students should assemble and share lists of area radicals and their specialties. Above all graduate students should feel free to call on them for participation in such affairs. Radical sociologists have a special obligation to respond, to explain, and to document a radical perspective; there is so much at stake not the least of which is the fate of a lot of bright, good young people.

Goals and Priorities. Presently the graduate student has the particularly narrow (and selfish) goal of survival as priority. Grasp of a sociological perspective, self actualization, peer-group solidarity, social responsibility, and confrontation of iniquities are progressively subordinated to the task of survival. As long as graduate students focus on their future as individuals, they wear blinders to liberation. The first task in liberating the graduate student is the establishment of peer-group solidarity. Graduate students must be alive to the distress of their colleagues, and acting on a sociological perspective, be ready to examine the social milieu in which they live as the probable source of that distress. Graduate students must be alive to the necessity of affirming each other by a readiness to confront the graduate faculty on behalf of each other rather than for one's own gain. Graduate students must widen their sense of self to include concern for other groups in the graduate program. Men must actively work on behalf of their sisters to oppose the endemic sexism in the graduate program. Current students must, absolutely must, be concerned for the generations of graduate students following them.

The transient membership in graduate school must be transcended by some means and converted into a solidarity of similarly situated brothers and sisters. Some of the genius and some of the energy of a great number of bright, young people should be turned to this task. Most graduate students have Graduate Student Councils. These could be utilized for political solidarity rather than an episodic social solidarity. I must confess that, while at Michigan, our graduate student council (of which I was a member) focused upon beer and scholarly, but safe, lectures by visiting dignitaries. The net effect of such solidarity activity was to bind students into the system on terms suitable to the faculty who sponsored the organization (Hubert Blalock being sponsor that year). Faculty always have a different set of interests from students; while they may be invited in on occasion, they should never be in control of the graduate student organization.

Independent Political Organizations: Each department, state or region should have its own independent graduate student organization meeting at least once a term early on in order to raise political consciousness, identity interests, clarify issues, formulate policy, decide on strategy and get to know each other. As long as graduate student organizations are clubs established and proctored by faculty, then graduate students will continue to be infantilized at graduate school.

[Note: There was a companion Bill of Rights attached to this article.  It has been lost in the years since the paper was written and distributed free to Grad Students at ASA, MSS, ESA, SWSA and PSA.  We will post the Original when and if we locate it].

Parallel Credits: Graduate students can offer credit hours from parallel educational structures; their committee may not accept those credits but there is no reason why students should not seek, obtain, and offer credits from their parallel courses in radical sociology. There are many ways to do this but the easiest is to ask the radical sociologist with whom one has been studying for a letter asseverating the hour investment and the quality of work based upon mutually determined criteria for excellence as well as mutually determined evaluations.

It is possible to organize one, two, or three day seminars on weekends, holidays, vacation or summer breaks with radical faculty in the area sharing expenses and working together. 3 Once the graduate group has done this and offered such credits, it will be easier the next time and each succeeding generation of graduate students will progressively have more power over the conditions of their education.

Cooling-off the Cooling-out Routine. The far-sighted graduate student organization will give special attention to control of the cooling-out process. At present, the faculty, chairmen, and/or committee has unilateral control over the cooling-out apparatus. It is mandatory for graduate students to establish an appeals mechanism partly or totally controlled by graduate students. Faculty will argue that they alone have a true vision of adequate scholarship (even if they sometimes stumble themselves). But the model of graduate student to be chosen is always a political decision. So far, faculty have had all the power and so they select which model to keep and which to discard. If graduate students were children, one could argue that they be excluded from such selection; but they are not children, only adults without power. 4

The Graduate Committee. The graduate committee presents a special problem. In everyday operation, it may be one of the most effective defenses for the graduate student (taken one at a time) or it may be the most repressive structure in the entire experience of the graduate student. It has the capacity to protect and to intervene on behalf of the graduate student. The intimacy and stimulation found in one's committee is something to be cherished and to be remembered. However, there is the model of professional tailored by the committee to be considered. The graduate committee is the primary agent of socialization. As such, it is charged to transfer traditional values and models of comportment. It works to produce still more establishment sociologists. R. D. Laing has spoken of the use of love and affection to betray the child in the politics of familial experience. The same is true of the politics of experience within the committee. One should always remember that one has the right to form and to charge one's own committee. If that right has been diluted or abolished, a first political act of a graduate student organization is to restore that traditional right.

Beyond this privilege is the responsibility for graduate students to help each form one's committee--warning off from those faculty who deal with the student in capricious or arbitrary manner and suggesting those faculty who are able to give the graduate student autonomy. Alternatives to the committee system which maximize progress to a competent sociological perspective while offering continuing support and feedback should be explored by the political structures at the local, regional, and national level serving the graduate student.

Demystifying Sociology's Heroes. Graduate seminars in sociological theory are little more than litanies in praise of famous men.  Marx, Weber, Spencer, Parsons, Merton, Ward, and Comte are not so much analyzed as canonized. In such seminars, it is not necessary to evaluate their ideas but rather to absorb those ideas. Faris, Hauser, Hare, Bales, Lundberg, Larsen, Davis and Turner are presented as apostle to the larger gods of social science. The liberation of the graduate student depends upon the development of quite another mode of learning in higher education. Instead of testing (and grading) graduates on the thoroughness with which they memorize and list the major contribution. Of the masters, a better format would involve the adequacy with which a student is able to evaluate propositions derived from those alleged contributions. Under this procedure, every "master" would be subjected to the empirical world as a test for the validity of his propositions instead of a test of the student of the student's grasp of the proposition. With rare exception, theorists such as Durkheim are brought to the student more as a given rather than as a giver.

This is not to suggest that the ideas formulated by preceding generations of sociologists are to be held up to ridicule. Rather that those ideas should be the subject of testing by the student; not the student tested for his grasp of the idea. Most students know how very much I respect Marxian critique of capitalism; I think much of it valid and will remain valid as long as a privatized capitalism remains central to the human project.   Still there is much that is new in the knowledge process; much that Marx could not have known and used.  The capitalist system is very, very different.  Socialist Revolutions have come and have failed to build praxis societies as a marxian vision demands.  Chaos theory and non-linear social dynamics offer a much better understanding of the co-existence of contrarieties than Hegelian dialectics ever did.   So much is new; Marx is dead--we are not.  We must incorporate these new realms of knowledge if the critical spirit is to be renewed.

Sociology is a perspective; a way of organizing one's thinking about human events and associations; it is not a body of facts--the facts change; it is not a body of propositions--the relevance of theoretical models change--it is not a set of ideas-- there are many ways to package social experience into thoughtsets; nor, least of all is it a body of famous women and men. However, from looking at the textbooks on sociological theory, one would think so. Men come and go, who is to untangle the ownership of ideas; today's hero is tomorrow's fool--the better approach for the graduate student is to seek to master a sociological perspective. When one can understand events like Watergate or The Freak Community from a sociological point of view rather than a moralistic or psychological framework, then one has a right to claim to be a sociologist, even if one has not read Gumplowitz or Kropotkin.

Theses and Dissertations: Perhaps the conservative bias is built into sociology by the format of theses and dissertations as much as by anything else. The usual instruction to a prospective sociologist is to identify a problem and, solving it, bring into the discipline new knowledge. That this is a fraud in its completion and a betrayal in its inception should be understood.

To deal with problems is to ignore issues; to solve problems requires consensus methods while to resolve issues requires conflict methods. The idea of "stating problems" is an idea which derives from the interest of academia to serve the power structure. A problem is something which can be solved within existing rules; issues require political action in the course of settling the rules. The focus on problem oriented topics requires information available by following the existing rules of sociological method. The focus on issues would require one to obtain relevant information closed off from the researcher by existing rules about how to gain quality data. It is the difference between what Argyris does in solving the problems of the corporations for which he works and the activities of Nader's Center for Responsive Law.

Another way to grasp the difference between issues and problems is to focus on the difference between a graduate student following a program of study established by a faculty and a graduate student organization contributing to the formulation of a program of academic objectives, study, action, and evaluation. It is the difference between being a technician and a professional. One services a technology; the other shapes and evaluates it.

Conclusion: If graduate students are to be liberated, they must do it themselves, as a collective. They cannot depend upon the professional organizations, the university nor yet upon their faculty. They must do it in the face of obstacles more difficult than in the Ph.D. program itself. They can depend upon a few marginal radicals; they can depend upon their peers for some support; they can command some support from putatively professional associations but in the main they must liberate themselves.

They can build alternative structures with a minimum of expense and with much effort; temporary, parallel, and underground structures of communication, of learning, of political activity, of accreditation. After graduation, they must capture the professional organizations; establish centers for conflict theory and research (much as Nader has done in the field of law), and control the conditions under which and for whom research is to be done. The managerial society needs accurate, timely, comprehensive, reliable data on the publics it seeks to manage. Sociologists are the functionaries destined to provide those data. By liberating sociology, and con trolling the focus of social research, sociologists may be able to join in the constraint of the corporate-dominated managed society. By continuing as we have in the past twenty years especially, we guarantee the emergence of sociology as the major partner, along with mass media and Madison avenue, in the technology of repression in mass society.


* I am indebted to those graduate students at C.S.U. who read and critiqued this article. Margaret O'Farrell in Psychology and Curtis Cole in Sociology made many helpful suggestions. Return


1 One may change the list of establishment sociologists: expanding or altering it if one wishes without changing the basic point. For a nice piece of work on this position see "The Scientific Institution," by D. L. Smith in American Society, Reynolds and Henslin, eds., pp. 145-170. Return

2 Those few departments controlled or dominated by radicals are not exempt from this analysis. The ability of college administrators to manage radical theory and research should not be treated lightly. The purges at Simon-Frazer, Washington University, and other departments token the fate of that faculty able to liberate itself temporarily. Some of what I say to the graduate students concerning parallel and underground structures is relevant to sociology faculty. Return

3 Graduate students should feel no great obligation to pay radical faculty anything beyond travel and per diem expenses. After all, they have as much to gain from such services as the graduate student; perhaps more. Some radical sociologists will object to this; if so, negotiate... that's more than you can do with your own faculty. Return

4 It is a matter of no small irony that the same professors who monopolize the selection among models of men routinely require reading Maslow's writings on the self-actualizing person for their undergraduate students. Return