THE MOST CIVILIZED OF HUMAN CREATURES
Benjamin D. Singer (1931-2012)
Mayer N. Zald (1931-2012)
Memoir, Tributes section of the K. Westhues Homepage, 2012.
In today’s sociology, marginality is generally thought to be a bad thing, the condition of being relegated to the fringe of society. Google yields a million hits for the phrase, “poor and marginalized.”
Robert Park (1864-1944), a giant of early American sociology, considered marginality to be a good thing. In his view, the condition of being on the fringe or boundary between different societies or ways of life, quickens the mind and tenders the heart. Park coined the term “marginal man” to describe someone in this condition, an admirable figure likely both smarter and kinder than one in any society’s mainstream.
Park’s archetype of the “marginal man” was the Jew in the Diaspora, for whom tension between Jewish and Gentile ways of life inescapably enlivens everyday experience. In his introduction to a 1937 book on the subject by his student, Everett Stonequist, Park wrote a sentence whose hyperbole underscores the point: “The Jew, particularly the Jew who has emerged from the provincialism of the ghetto, has everywhere and always been the most civilized of human creatures.”
I recalled Park’s observation last summer, reflecting on news of the deaths of two fellow sociologists, both of them Diaspora Jews, who helped shape my career and life. Each was 81 years old when he died, and to each death came suddenly – to Ben Singer by brain aneurysm on July 8, to Mayer Zald by heart attack on August 7. I eulogize them together here not because they were much alike. They did categorically different kinds of sociology. Singer was as volcanic as Zald was composed. If they had known each other, I’m not sure they would have liked each other much. This joint tribute is partly because they were the same age and died just a month apart, but mainly because they were both marginal men in Park’s best sense of the term, of whose intelligence, broadmindedness, and kindness I am a grateful beneficiary.
I met Zald in the fall of 1966, when I began graduate study at Vanderbilt, where he was the professor most trusted by graduate students. He was a compleat sociologist, detached from politics so far as we could see, focused and intent on advancing a true science of society and on enlisting us students in that quest. There was no flamboyance in him, nothing trendy about him. His lectures were serious and dry. Like good scientists of whatever stripe, he was humble in the face of evidence. He took delight in powerful new hypotheses formulated in testable terms.
Among the department’s professors, Zald was the most structural in his thinking. At Vanderbilt as elsewhere, a lot of sociological research took the individual as unit of analysis. It was nose-counting – comparison of people in various social categories. There is nothing wrong with this. Adroit nose-counting yields valuable knowledge. Zald’s main unit of analysis was more properly sociological: the group, the movement, the organization. He wanted to understand how organizations behave: how they get started, change, evolve, adapt, and eventually fall apart, dwindle away, or (as his elder colleague, Philip Selznick, discerned) are co-opted for new purposes. Zald identified his specialty as “complex organizations,” in particular those that had begun as social movements. Developing sound, middle-range theory in this area was his life’s work. He never wavered. In the weeks after his death, tributes to Zald piled up on the website of the Organization and Management Theory Division of the Academy of Management.
I was not enamoured with this research area, but it appealed to me more than others on offer in Vanderbilt’s graduate program. I recognized in Zald, moreover, a professor who would help me do good work, jump the necessary hoops, and earn my degrees, without having to parrot his thinking. Knowing something about the Catholic Church from my background and previous studies, I decided to apply Zald’s brand of organizational theory to this and other religious bodies in my MA and PhD theses. Zald supervised both projects. James D. Thompson had joined the Vanderbilt faculty by the time I was doing the doctorate; he thought along the same lines as Zald, and was similarly helpful in my research.
My relationship with Zald was cordial, professional, purposeful, and pretty much limited to the contributions he was helping me make to research on organizations. Although we jointly authored an article in Social Forces, I don’t believe we ever met more often than once every couple of months. I don’t believe I ever called him Mayer. When our conversation strayed outside our shared research specialty, it tended to falter. I asked him once what he thought of philosopher Norman O. Brown’s then-popular book, Love’s Body, which I had read and liked. Zald knew the book but responded uncomfortably, as if Brown were from another planet.
If Zald was what the Germans call a Doktorvater to me, then I was his prodigal son. By temperament and circumstance, I could not immerse myself in academic sociology as he did, nor wall political and social concerns out of my scholarly life. My head spun from my personal transition from a conservative Catholic upbringing on a Missouri farm to the swirl of the 1960s social revolution into which I was plunged at Vanderbilt. In particular, throughout my years of graduate study, I was under constant threat of being drafted into military service in what I thought was a senseless war. Day after day I agonized over what to do if an induction order came in the mail (mercifully, it arrived after my thesis was done).
Zald was one of several panelists at a symposium held at Vanderbilt when I was there, on the war in Vietnam. I attended, sat in the back. In my view, Zald temporized, said things beside the point. That disappointed me, but not too much. He and I never discussed politics anyway, neither the war nor anything else. What mattered was that I could count on Zald to give helpful feedback on my work, to evaluate it fairly, and to guide me along toward completion of my degree.
Above all, Zald was kind to me. He might have written me off as a restless rube unlikely ever to embrace professional sociology. Instead, he put up with my shortcomings and gently helped me overcome them. In early 1969, I bought my first new car, a little white Datsun. I mentioned this to Zald, told him the list price was high but that I had “jewed the salesman down.” Zald looked at me from across his desk with a weary smile: “Ken, would you mind very much saying you bargained the salesman down”? I was mortified, must have turned ten shades of red. This was not the least of the lessons I learned from Zald.
Maybe, until then, I hadn’t realized he was Jewish. To Zald and in the loose circle of students around him, what mattered was not personal background but interest in research on organizations. There was a lot of variation among us — in age, sex, ethnic and religious origin, even nationality. As I think back on it, each one of us was in a kind of micro-diaspora. It was stimulating and fun. Nobody seemed to mind, certainly not the professor around whom we gathered.
Zald shook my hand warmly after my thesis defense in the fall of 1969. It was our last meeting. I moved to Canada the next June. Zald served a term as department chair at Vanderbilt, then moved to a joint appointment in sociology and social work at Michigan in 1977. There he continued to publish prolifically and anchor the careers of successive generations of novice sociologists. About the time he retired, I set down in a letter my heartfelt appreciation for his work with me decades earlier. I told him what is true, that I didn’t realize at the time how lucky I was to have him for a supervisor. Zald replied with the same graciousness, restraint, and professionalism I remember from graduate school. Park’s appellation, “the most civilized of human creatures,” fits.
Sociologists are divided by method, theory, and in other ways, but no divide runs deeper than the one between professionals like Zald, who work comfortably within the boundaries of academe, and intellectuals like Singer, who chafe at the bit for engagement in public life. The former tend to be prudent, judicious, and methodical. Collegial solidarity ranks high in their scale of values. The latter are edgier. They are truer to themselves than to their colleagues. They are quick on the draw; their aim is often high.
When Singer died, his home department at Western University described him on its website as “always interesting, frequently difficult, but never dull.” The brief memorial note said he “added a great deal of colour and life to the department for more than three decades. During his retirement, he touched a number of lives, always leaving a memorable impression.” More and better can be said of Ben — not least his and Craig McKie's textbook, Communications in Canadian Society, which has gone through at least five editions.
Ben had been at Western six years when I joined the department in 1972. His research career was already well established. He was proud of his new book, Black Rioters, co-authored with Jim Geschwender, based on first-hand interviews with participants in the Detroit Riot of 1967. Singer was even prouder that his friend Alvin Toffler had cited and praised his scholarship in the latest bestseller, Future Shock. Singer was delighted that Orrin Klapp, an elder statesman of engaged, public sociology, had joined the Western faculty. Ben seemed to find my presence promising, correctly sensing in me a kindred spirit. His vision of a sociology department was as a treasure chest of intelligence and insight about the direction of the human journey in our time.
That vision gradually faded at Western, as at other universities. The trend was toward what Russell Jacoby called, in his 1987 book, the academization of the intellectual life, the dwindling of intelligent public discourse and concomitant sequestering of great minds in ivory-tower specialties. At Western that meant demography above all, a field Singer steered clear of. The drift of the time was also toward a postmodern sensibility, a relativism that makes everything dependent on circumstance and no social practice much more valuable than competing ones. Singer recoiled against these trends, as also against the penetration of identity politics into social science and scholarship. He had grown up before the cultural revolution of the sixties set in, and he had never bought into it. Over time, the mainstream of his department moved steadily farther away from Singer, and he moved steadily more into the role of culture critic. He became a kind of scholarly curmudgeon.
There is a character named Ben in W. O. Mitchell's classic novel, Who Has Seen the Wind, but nobody in the book refers to him as Ben. He is too exceptional a man for that, too clever, shocking and unpredictable. For that reason he is always referred to as "the Ben," as in, "What is the Ben up to now?" It has occurred to me that in sociology at Western, Singer could appropriately have been referred to as "the Ben."
I left Western for Waterloo in 1975, but Ben and I kept in touch. From time to time we sought each other's feedback on first drafts. The most important scholarly contribution of his later career was probably his articles, one in Sociological Inquiry in 1989 and a follow-up in the Canadian Journal of Sociology in 1996, on the distinction between standards and criteria, and on the need for a systematic sociology of standards. CJS published two critiques of Singer’s article there, one by Augustine Brannigan, the other by Richard Apostle, along with Singer’s reply. Apostle described Singer’s outlook as one of “conservative elitism. North American universities have been overtaken by the masses; peer review systems have broken down under the weight of too many journals, mechanical criterial systems and widespread academic fraud associated with excessive ‘productivity’ demands.”
Given how out of sync Singer had become over time with sociology’s prevailing direction, one might have guessed that his home university would give him a kick in the rear as he retired in 1996. So it was. A couple of students charged Singer with expressing politically incorrect sentiments in a private conversation with them. The dean wrote him a threatening letter and then ordered an inquiry that led to proposal of a departmental ethics code. The Society for Academic Freedom & Scholarship published an exposé (PDF, p. 3). That organization was important to Singer in his later years. Its annual meetings were welcome opportunities for me to reconnect with him. Each time we met, he would urge me to subscribe to Roger Kimball's magazine, The New Criterion.
Singer enjoyed repartée, mixing to the point of irritation serious points with puns and jokes. One I remember is especially telling. I heard it more than once. It was about a Jewish fellow named Levi. Whenever Levi heard news of an accident or tragedy, anything bad happening, if the victim was a Gentile, Levi would sadly shake his head and say, "Better one of them than one of us."
In advanced old age, Levi became ill and was diagnosed with a terminal disease. It was then he shocked all his Jewish friends by declaring he wanted to convert to Christianity and be baptized.
"Oy, Levi," one of them objected, "How is this possible? Don't you know you are going to die soon?"
"Yes," Levi answered, sadly shaking his head, "better one of them than one of us."
Ben liked this joke, I am sure, because Levi was the butt of it. Robert Park, the great scholar I quoted at the start, would say Levi had not yet emerged from the provincialism of the ghetto, that he was not marginal enough, insufficiently touched by the diaspora, not very sophisticated in his thinking. That is why Levi could think he would serve Judaism by forsaking it. Levi was exactly what Ben was not, and what Ben tried to help his students not to be. Singer was an acutely conscious man. In his book, ignorance could never be bliss.
Just as Zald respected my differences with him, so did Singer. His standards were higher than mine in restaurants, hotels, neighbourhoods, and much else. He was Starbuck's, I merely Tim Horton's. He was indeed elitist. This rankled me sometimes. The last time we met, a few weeks before his death, I told him that having retired from Waterloo, I had moved to Niagara Falls. "You mean Niagara-on-the-Lake," Ben replied, referring to the tonier town of the peninsula. "No, the Falls," I said. Ben flinched.
No matter. Ben Singer made me smarter, less stupid than I would otherwise be — the same favour Mayer Zald had done for me earlier. Their being Jews in mainly Christian societies, marginal men in the classic sense of the term, had a lot to do with it. In their different ways, they were both highly civilized sociologists.