Producing Radical Scholarship:
The Radical Sociology Movement, 1967-1975
Abigail A. Fuller
Box 178, Manchester College
N. Manchester, IN 46962
The Radical Critique of Mainstream Sociology
Radicalize Academia or Work in the Movement?
The Relationship between Theory and Practice
Doing Radical Sociology
The Hiring and Firing of Radical Faculty
This article investigates how the radical sociologists of the 1960s understood
and dealt with the dilemmas of producing knowledge for social transformation.
Radical sociologists sought to develop a "sociology for the people," in
contrast to mainstream sociology which they saw as maintaining ruling class
power in America. I examine their views on the political functions of mainstream
sociology; whether to radicalize academia or work with the Movement; the
relationship between theory and practice; the merits of different ways
of working with radical movements; and the difficulties of surviving within
Many sociologists want their scholarly work to better human life. Peace
researchers, students of women's studies and minority studies, and Marxist
sociologists, for example, generally intend their work to contribute to
the elimination of different forms of domination in society. Yet we have
been remarkably unreflexive about how precisely our work can serve this
end. Specifically, we have neglected to investigate how the social arenas
within which we work--the university, on the one hand, and radical movements
on the other--affect the scholarship that we produce. Given the conservative
nature of the university, how is it possible for radical academics to survive
within it? What kind of working relationship with radical movements is
most conducive to producing knowledge for social transformation? One group
of scholars who asked these questions was the radical sociology movement
that emerged in the late 1960s and early 1970s in the United States. Radical
sociologists sought to develop a "sociology for the people," exposing what
it perceived as the complicity of mainstream sociology in maintaining ruling
class power in America, and creating a "radical" alternative supportive
of radical social change. In short, they sought a reflexive understanding
of their participation as sociologists in social transformation.
The radical sociology movement (RSM) began in 1967, at the height of "the
Movement" (this term was used by activists in the civil rights, student,
antiwar, and women's movements to denote their common political, cultural,
and social worlds) (Teodori 1969). Since college campuses were centers
of radical activity, many academics were drawn into the Movement, and in
virtually all the academic disciplines they challenged the established
academic paradigms as supportive of the repressive status quo. By one count,
there were eighteen radical academic groups at that time (Perrucci 1973).
Radical sociologists first came together at the 1967 meetings of the American
Sociological Association (ASA) in San Francisco when several sociologists
proposed a formal resolution condemning the Vietnam War. While most were
already Movement activists, for the first time they were proposing the
participation of sociologists in the Movement as sociologists.
The resolution failed, but it put into contact Movement-oriented sociologists
who organized the RSM (Colfax and Roach 1971). At the ASA meetings the
following year, the radical contingent was larger and more vocal; by one
estimate, there was a core group of about thirty to forty activists, with
a hundred or so followers (Roach 1970). ASA president Philip Hauser, reportedly
alarmed by rumors that the radicals planned to disrupt the meetings, allowed
an RSM representative to respond to a plenary address by Secretary of Health,
Education, and Welfare Wilbur Smith (Flacks 1991a). The result was Martin
Nicolaus's legendary "Fat Cat Sociology" speech, in which he declared that
"the eyes of sociologists...have been turned downward...to study the activities
of the lower classes" while "the professional palm of the sociologists
is stretched toward" the dominant classes who provide research funds (Nicolaus
1991: 252-253). The radicals organized sessions and proposed resolutions
at the Business Meeting, a practice that was to continue for several years.
To protest Chicago's treatment of demonstrators at the Democratic National
Convention, the ASA passed a resolution to move to other cities future
ASA conventions scheduled for Chicago.
The RSM's visibility peaked at the 1969 ASA meetings, held in San Francisco,
with its main meeting attended by 400 people (Brown 1970). Radicals published
the first issue of the Insurgent Sociologist, which continues today
as Critical Sociology, as a pre-conference newsletter. They held
sessions on radical sociology both as part of the ASA meetings and at an
alternative convention at nearby Glide Memorial Church. In one of the RSM's
most dramatic actions, radicals disrupted the ASA presidential address
to hold a memorial for Ho Chi Minh, who had just died. At the following
year's meetings, the RSM introduced a Business Meeting resolution calling
for an investigation into the termination of radical sociologist Marlene
Dixon's contract at the University of Chicago, arguing that she and others
had been fired for political reasons.
By the early 1970s sociologists were writing a fair amount on radical sociology.
Several readers appeared (Deutsch and Howard 1970; Colfax and Roach 1971).
Radical sociologists shifted their energy from the ASA to east- and west-coast
regional RSM organizations, which held well-attended annual conferences
through the mid-seventies. In 1974, they participated in a successful write-in
campaign to elect Alfred McClung Lee president of ASA. However, the Movement's
demise signaled the decline of the RSM. The causes were similar: internal
dissension; repression, which raised the costs of participation; and a
changing economy. In 1975, with RSM participation waning, radical sociologists
decided to establish a permanent presence in the ASA by forming the Marxist
This paper investigates how radical sociologists understood and dealt with
the dilemmas of producing knowledge for social transformation. They examined
the political functions of mainstream sociology; discussed whether to focus
on radicalizing academia or on helping the Movement; struggled over the
relationship between producing theory and engaging in political practice,
and the merits of aiding radical movements in various ways; and faced the
difficulties of surviving within academia. They did so with a rare urgency,
born of a deep commitment to changing the world and a belief that they
were living in a revolutionary time, and with unusual insight--they were
sociologists turning their skills on themselves and their profession. Their
questions, analyses, and disagreements did not merely constitute theoretical
puzzles to be solved; they were of profound personal and political importance.
The data is from a larger study based on interviews with seventeen people
who were active in the RSM between 1967 and 1975. Respondents included
those who either wrote pieces on radical sociology during that period that
were published in sociological journals or books, or were mentioned in
the Insurgent Sociologist as participating in the RSM. Four of the
respondents were female and thirteen were male. One was Black and sixteen
were white. The sample is probably biased by the under-representation of
individuals who have since left academia, as they were more difficult to
locate than those who currently hold faculty positions, and more reluctant
to be interviewed when I did locate them. Of the three individuals I contacted
who left academia, only one agreed to be interviewed. By comparison, sixteen
of the seventeen individuals I contacted who are still in academia agreed
to be interviewed.
The Radical Critique of Mainstream
The first sociologists in the United States, in the early part of this
century, tended to believe that sociology could be a force for social reform
and were oriented toward the study of social problems. By the 1950s, however,
American sociology was dominated by the effort to produce scholarship that
was more scientific, using positivist methods and a systems approach to
theory. There were several reasons for this change: the development of
computers capable of quickly handling large amounts of data; the political
climate of the times, characterized by a belief in pluralism and consensus
in American life, which was amenable to structural functionalist theory;
and the increased availability of federal and private funds for academic
research after World War II (Friedrichs 1970; Lehmann and Young 1974).
In the quest to make sociology scientific, the idea that it should be value
free became dominant in the profession. Sociologists cited Weber's (1949)
distinction between the "is" and the "ought" to justify their abstention
from social reform efforts.
Radical sociologists argued that mainstream sociology was not, as claimed,
free of values. They saw the myth of a value-free sociology as disguising
the fact that sociologists typically sold their services to the highest
bidder: government and corporations (Wilhelm 1966; Friedrichs 1970). Mainstream
sociology thus helped the state and corporations maintain the inequality
that the Movement sought to eradicate. C. Wright Mills had argued that
"Grand Theory" supported the system with ideological legitimacy, and "Abstracted
Empiricism" provided the ruling class with practical knowledge with which
to quell dissent (Mills 1959). The most famous case of the latter was Project
Camelot, a government-sponsored project to investigate popular dissent
in Chile in order to prevent it, in which some well-known sociologists
were involved (Horowitz 1967).1 Radicals maintained that even
liberal sociological research, which purported to address social problems,
typically upheld state and corporate power by increasing the efficacy of
government programs that alleviated their worst consequences. Such research
focused on isolated social problems without calling into question the system
as a whole. At the 1968 ASA meetings, the RSM adopted the slogan "Knowledge
for Whom?," a reference to Robert Lynd's 1939 book Knowledge for What?,
and distributed a flyer that read in part:
Posing as disinterested scholars, we perform policy research for the
powerful...We have pursued the development of "scientific" methodology
at the expense of meaningful content....[O]ur "theory" exaggerates consensus,
ignores conflict, and assumes that everything can be settled with a little
communication... and a lot of good will.... [W]e have abstained from our
moral duty to speak out against the forces of repression in our society.
The reactionary nature of our government becomes "beyond the scope of our
field"....In the name of value-neutrality, we have failed to help the poor,
the powerless or the unorganized. (quoted in Brown 1970 29)
More than anything, it was the experience of participating in the Movement
that led to the development of a critical perspective on mainstream sociology.
Many radical sociologists experienced a sort of cognitive dissonance in
which the immediacy, excitement, and political import of the Movement contrasted
sharply with what they saw as the sterility, boredom, and irrelevance of
As an activist in the civil rights movement, I could see...the disjuncture
between the realities of being involved and [sociological work on] race
issues and problems in the United States. And in the antiwar movement,
again, I could see the...irrelevance of much of what was being written
in sociology....To be involved in these multiple protests...and then to
be expected to pay attention to Parsonianism, which is just a fancy way
of saying the head bone is connected to the neck bone, the neck bone to
the shoulder bone...to look at that nonsense was just impossible.
One respondent remembers participating in a sit-in at the University of
Wisconsin, at which students discussed their personal fears and their hopes
for a new society; "This too was a type of sociological talk it would never
have occurred to us to have in class" (Stark 1991: 69). Given what they
saw as the intellectual ferment occurring in the Movement, many radical
sociologists were shocked by the negative reactions of faculty and administration
to student radicalism. These reactions undermined their perception of academia
as a bastion of rationality. Howard Ehrlich recalls his colleagues' reactions
to a teach-in on the Vietnam War at the University of Iowa.
I can remember coming back from the first teach-in, finding it the
most exciting thing I had seen on campus, and talking to my colleagues
about it, all of whom thought it was outrageous. I mean...the auditorium
was packed, it wasn't for credit, there were faculty and students exchanging
ideas--you don't see that much excitement in a classroom. And [my colleagues]
stared at me as if I was describing some obscene scene in a favorable manner.
To Radicalize Academia or
Work in the Movement?
Agreeing on what they were against was easier for radical sociologists
than agreeing on what they were for. Early on in the RSM fundamental questions
arose about what it meant to be a radical sociologist--or whether being
both radical and a sociologist was possible. One issue concerned where
radicals would direct their efforts--the university and the academic professions,
or the Movement. Another was how to conduct radical scholarship--specifically,
the appropriate relationship between theory and practice.
At the 1968 founding meeting of the New University Conference (NUC), a
national organization of radical faculty, two speakers laid out the strategic
choices available to radical academics (Ericson 1975). Staughton Lynd,
an historian who had left a faculty position at Yale, strongly doubted
it was possible to work within the academic system without being coopted
by it. At the very least, he argued, the demands of academic life left
little time for Movement work. Academics should become Movement intellectuals,
outside the university. Lynd had organized the Freedom Schools in the south
during the early Civil Rights movement, a model for teaching and learning
outside the university. In contrast, Richard Flacks, a sociologist who
had been an early SDS leader, believed in the potential of the university
to become a force for radical change. He argued that, given the level of
political activity on campus, radical academics had a unique contribution
to make there and within their academic disciplines.
While these options are not mutually exclusive, people do have finite amounts
of time and energy and so must make choices about where to put their efforts.
Five of seventeen respondents I interviewed chose to participate only marginally
in RSM activities because they felt it more important to work directly
in the Movement. In fact, these five identified primarily as activists,
not sociologists. In this they differed significantly from others who,
while deeply committed to the Movement, nevertheless identified primarily
as sociologists. The activist-
identified respondents did not doubt that academia could be radicalized;
several respondents recalled feeling confident that radicals could take
over the ASA should they desire. Instead, they doubted that sociology was
powerful enough in the larger society to merit their efforts to change
it. Compared to the immediate demands of the Movement, academia was simply
not as vital an arena for political activity. As one respondent put it,
"Feed the hungry; the sociologists will take care of themselves."
The logical extension of seeing the Movement as the central arena of political
activity was to leave academia for full-time Movement work. Few radical
sociologists did so: of the respondents in this study, only one left the
university completely and several others remained only tenuously connected
with it. But the argument for leaving the university seems to have held
a lot of credibility and was much discussed.2 What were the
political implications of the choice to remain in the university or leave
it? One view was that there really were none: a division of labor based
on personal proclivity or talent was permissible, and some people were
more suited to university teaching and research, others to community organizing.
Some felt this was more "democratic" than demanding that everyone become
full-time movement activists, which was unrealistic for many people because
of personal and financial responsibilities. Instead, radicals, including
academics, could work in appropriate ways within their professions and
The counter argument was that there were unavoidable political implications
in the choice to either remain a university professor or work in the Movement.
In this view, the university was irretrievably conservative. Those who
stayed within it would inevitably be coopted by its rewards or, at least,
have little time for political organizing in the face of career demands.
I would remember the debates as, should we all quit the university
and become factory workers, or is it legitimate to stay in the university.
And obviously, many of us who were activist sociologists were planning
to stay within the university. But...we felt under fire for it...from real
community activists, for being elitist and having well-paying jobs and
getting tenure and things like that....We were sort of, by definition,
Several years into the RSM, there arose a faction that argued that radical
academics should leave the university. Marlene Dixon, one of the strongest
proponents of this view, maintained that the class position of academics
conspired against them becoming truly radical: the academy bestows privileges
on academics that can be, and are, taken away should the latter engage
in radical activities (Dixon 1971). Furthermore, these benefits are made
possible by the exploitation of others: "faculty are supported on the fat
of the system" which is "rendered from the flesh of Brazilian peasants
and women assembly-line workers" (p. 63). At the 1970 ASA meetings, Dixon,
David Colfax (another leading proponent of this view), and several other
radicals announced their withdrawal from the RSM and the ASA, claiming
that sociology was unredeemably reactionary and radical sociology had become
"just another career hustle" (Dixon, et al. 1972). Dixon and Colfax were
both later fired from faculty jobs and did eventually leave academia.
One critique of this argument was that it displayed an excessive fear of
cooptation, something for which the Movement was criticized as well (Oglesby
1989): since radical sociology was gaining acceptance in the profession,
then by definition it was not radical. Another was that it grew out of
a sort of "politics of guilt," based on the idea that white, economically
privileged people should renounce their privileges, not for reasons of
sound political strategy, but simply because they were guilty of being
privileged. This stemmed from the Movement's emphasis on embodying radical
principles in one's personal life and its glorification of the oppressed
Several respondents in this study never considered themselves especially
hence the argument that they should leave the university did not have much
credence for them. Hal Jacobs attributed this to his class origin.
People don't talk about this much, but there was a split between people
who came from upper-middle-class backgrounds, and those of us who had nothing
behind us....I had no money: whatever was going to happen to me was going
to happen by virtue of whatever I did with my life. There was no money
behind me in case I made a mistake....I was conscious of this, and even
when I was almost...expelled from graduate school for antiwar activity,
I wanted to stay....I was afraid to totally sever whatever link I had with
the established society. Because I didn't know how I would ever support
myself if I did.
Two other respondents said that because they taught at less prestigious
schools, they did not feel privileged; they conjectured that the question
of whether to drop out of academia might have made more sense for people
who were destined to become the elite of the profession. A third position
was that academics were in fact privileged, but this did not necessarily
preclude them from participating in a revolutionary movement.
I always felt...we're middle class, we're professionals, but that doesn't
mean we can't take the side of the working class....I think...most people
felt that they were part of the petty bourgeois deserting its class and
trying to make an alliance with the working class in some sense....We're
in the middle class, but that doesn't mean that we're bad.
Finally, some felt that whatever their class position, the political activity
occurring on campuses justified staying in the university. Jacobs, then
in graduate school at Berkeley, recalls being pressured by Movement activists
to leave school. Once the antiwar movement began, however, with massive
student participation, "those of us who were on the campus felt it was
legitimate to stay...and be part of that." He notes, however, that if the
center of political activity had been elsewhere, that position would have
been less defensible.
In actuality, most radical sociologists felt that there were "all sorts
of things in between the extreme of being an ivory tower academic and doing
nothing but working in a housing project or in a soup kitchen," as Marty
Oppenheimer put it. Most respondents chose to remain in the university,
but maintain a commitment to and involvement in radical social change,
even when it meant pursuing actions that might hurt one's academic career.
Being a radical academic could mean "that one becomes committed to a search
for the truth which is not dependent upon the recognition of the Club because
one's work is carried on outside the Club" (Dixon 1971). Cooptation could
be avoided by making the decision not to stay at any cost. Some felt that
those who took this course of action would inevitably be fired, but that
would serve an educational purpose by revealing the limits of the university's
tolerance for radicalism (Dixon 1971). One respondent who chose to remain
in the university referred to herself as a "guerilla sociologist."
I made certain limitations on myself, that I would not want to be an
administrator, that that would be too big a compromise, that I would always
be in a position where I would sort of be a subversive in the institution.
One option that respondents frequently mentioned was to teach at non-elite
schools, where there were more working-class students. During the Civil
Rights movement, Oppenheimer taught at a Black college in the South. Another
respondent taught in several community colleges "on principle": "not that
I thought there was only one correct line, but the whole idea of elitism,
of wanting to be at the best schools, having to teach graduate students,
wasn't necessarily what we would logically be doing." For many respondents,
how to teach as radicals was important. They strove to develop egalitarian
relationships with students, by sitting in a circle in the classroom or
having students call them by their first names. Some challenged conventional
grading systems by giving all A's (which, they report, was sure to cause
trouble) or having students grade themselves. Finally, they made community
projects part of their coursework. In a course on the family taught by
a respondent, students created a daycare center at the university, then
used their experience to study the university's power structure. Henry
Etzkowitz required students to participate in organizing efforts in the
The Relationship between Theory
Related to the question of where radical academics would focus their efforts
was a dispute, common to the radical caucuses in many academic disciplines,
between "radical activists" and "radical intellectuals" (Bloland and Bloland
1974). The former argued that an intellectual--working within the university
or not--must be actively engaged in political struggle in order to produce
radical theory. They were vehement in their criticism of those who "lay
claim to radical identities, but are either inactive or only minimally
engaged in political action" (Ehrlich 1971). One radical railed against
those who pretended that "'thinking radical thoughts' is even more praiseworthy
than concrete action" (Dixon 1971). Another told of a meeting of radical
faculty from several disciplines, where attendees responded in a "surprisingly
negative" way to his suggestion that they help organize a demonstration.
One argued that it was a higher priority to develop Marxist methodology,
another rejected the idea that academics might be interested in such mundane
tasks. This sociologist concluded, "Apparently, there is great interest
in understanding the world, but little enthusiasm for changing it" (Goertzel
In the eyes of radical activists, the radical intellectuals were merely
rationalizing their refusal to risk involvement in political protest. Mainstream
sociology, they argued, was characterized by the artificial separation
of theory from practice, which radical intellectuals perpetuated (Dixon
1971). The concentration of theory-building skills in the hands of an elite
was, from their perspective, an historical development that kept the general
public from possessing the "sociological-political imagination" necessary
to formulate a radical critique of society (Fasola-Bologna 1970). Some
believed theory and practice would be truly united when essentially all
people were capable of "doing theory." In this scenario, everyone would
become a sociologist by possessing the capacity to understand social reality,
making professional sociologists unnecessary (Flacks 1972).
Radical activists argued that when theory is developed in the university,
in isolation from practice, its quality and relevance for political struggle
suffer. John Howard states:
Theory presumably is about something...and it seems to me...self-evident
that the explanatory power of one's theory, its predictive value, would
be enhanced if one had some real knowledge of the things which the theory
In the words of another respondent: "It's just so obvious to me that people
who are divorced from trying to change things are far less scientific."
The fact that well-known revolutionary theorists like Marx had participated
in the political struggles of their times was invoked as proof of the necessity
for radical academics to do Movement work (Dixon 1971). And the best contemporary
social theory, some argued, was being written by Movement activists, not
by academics. Hence the best way to learn sociology was to participate
in the Movement.
[T]o partake of the student movements presently sweeping the campuses...serves
as a superior teacher to the introduction of society than freshman sociology
courses. (Wilhelm 1966)
Not only does participation in political practice improve the theory that
one develops, radicals argued, but the ultimate test of a theory is its
usefulness in practice (Dixon 1971; Etzkowitz 1974). Theory is developed
based on the experience of political struggle, and then is tested in practice.
In defending her work to a committee considering the renewal of her teaching
contract at McGill University, Marlene Dixon argued that "the true evaluation
of my work is revealed in it usefulness to the [M]ovement itself....I submit
that this is a harder test of merit than is ever demanded of an article
published in the American Sociological Review" (1976:116).
Explicit defense of developing theory without directly participating in
political struggle was less prevalent. Jesse Lemisch had promoted this
option at the NUC founding meeting as a third alternative to Lynd's Movement
intellectual and Flacks's university radical. Lemisch argued for the importance
of intellectual work that may have no immediate usefulness for radical
movements, because "finding out how things actually work and have worked
is an extremely radical idea" (1974:486). One radical sociologist who agreed
was Al Szymanski.
Radical sociology should not mean contributing money to radical causes,
nor should it mean dropping out to organize slum dwellers, draft resisters,
or guerrillas. The goal of radical sociologists should be above all the
formulation and propagation of a sociology relevant to the practical problems
facing man. (1970: 10)
Szymanski followed the Marxist-Leninist position that the revolution needs
a vanguard of highly committed and talented individuals who devote their
time to theorizing and strategizing (Szymanski 1974). In contrast, the
Movement put a premium on practice, on the willingness to engage in actions
that put one at personal risk, and this may have been why few radicals
defended theory-building (Ericson 1975; Jacobs 1978).
Doing Radical Sociology
If radical sociologists were to combine theory and practice, there were
a number of ways this could be done. In the classical Marxist scenario,
intellectuals put themselves under the leadership of a socialist party,
which mediate between them and workers engaged in political struggle, insuring
that the theory they develop is relevant to revolutionary efforts. With
the decline of the Movement, a few radical sociologists did join Marxist-Leninist
political organizations (Pincus 1982). However, the danger in working with
a group that demands such accountability is that political expediency may
take precedence over the development of knowledge (Wright 1978; Pincus
1982). One respondent recalls delivering a paper at a Marxist-Leninist
gathering in which he concluded that the fluoridation of water supplies
causes cancer, and was initiated by a corporation seeking to market the
fluoride it produced as a by-product of an industrial process. This was
met with disbelief by those in attendance, because "if the Cuban government...would
impose mandatory fluoridation, obviously that showed that it's a good thing
for the masses, and therefore we shouldn't criticize it."
This was what Lemisch (1974) had warned of: that demanding that academics
conduct research that is useful to a particular movement ignores the fact
that movements can be, and have been, "wrong"--about, for example, the
social role of women. In fact, most radical sociologists developed their
research agendas independently of movement groups, producing scholarship
that they, rather than a particular organization, felt was useful. While
this afforded more autonomy, they risked producing knowledge that was less
useful for social transformation. Without participating with activists
in the collective formulation of a research agenda, the academic's research
priorities would reflect more her own proclivities than the needs of movements.
In addition to the question of the researcher's autonomy, radical sociologists
were concerned with what kind of research to conduct. While some focused
on solving practical problems facing Movement groups, others did research
meant to have a more general or longer-term effect. Though many radical
sociologists advocated engaging in the former, few seem to have done so.
Henry Etzkowitz (1970) developed what he called institution formation sociology,
which entailed creating new institutions to address social problems and
then studying one's efforts. It was to be a way of doing sociology that
would both change society and produce sociological knowledge. The Community
Cooperative Center in Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn, organized by Etzkowitz
and Gerald Schaflander with college students and ghetto residents, sold
goods and funneled the profits back into community services. The researchers
wrote a book and a dissertation about the effort.
A number of respondents worked with Movement groups in other ways. One
was involved in a project on prisons, police, and crime issues in which
he served as "part of a brains trust component" that conducted research
on the issues. Another worked with the labor union on which he wrote his
dissertation. Howard Ehrlich left academia and formed a collective of several
sociologists, Research Group One, to do research for Movement organizations.
They conducted an evaluation of a conference on radical teaching, a study
of the recruitment and retention of members of a radical left organization,
and a community survey of the practices of local grocery stores and banks.
The collective sought to conduct research in a way that was non-exploitive
of others and provided for the maximum production of relevant knowledge
(Ehrlich 1991). They did this by collaborating with research "subjects";
producing findings that could be acted upon; and making the findings accessible
to a wide audience. However, they report that they failed in their goal
of teaching activists how to conduct their own research: to both the activists
and the sociologists, political tasks seemed more urgent.
The major criticism of these projects was that they did not address larger
issues. One respondent referred to Ehrlich's work as "muckraking," arguing
that it might have some practical political importance but did not contribute
to theory building. Another wrote that radical sociologists should not
simply conduct "market research for a socialist party": "more fundamental
and more arduous is the task of making a theory" that would enable a full
and adequate comprehension of society and its workings (Flacks 1972). Such
theory could radicalize people, guide movements, and provide activists
with an historical context for their struggles, to incite courage.
Other radical sociologists conducted research that they felt would also
help the Movement, but in less immediate ways. Several did studies designed
to correct negative stereotypes about radical groups or spread Movement
ideas. This was the point of Richard Flacks's (1967) widely read study
of student radicals, which countered both the conservative notion that
the students were social deviants rebelling against their parents, and
the left-wing view that they were acting out of material deprivation. John
Howard conducted research on Black Muslims, who he felt had been unfairly
characterized as a threat to the country, and presented his findings on
radio programs. One respondent wrote several books, one on women and popular
feminism in Peru and another on sex roles, that were intended to spread
Movement ideas among the public. Howard Ehrlich, Fred Pincus, and Chris
Bose began a radio program in Baltimore, the Great Atlantic Radio Conspiracy,
that addressed social and political issues. Finally, radical sociologists
saw much of the mainstream research on oppressed groups as a form of spying
for the ruling class, and so they called for the reverse--for research
on powerful groups that would provide useful information to the Movement.
Examples were Domhoff's power structure research and Howard's research
on the John Birch Society.
Radicals were aware that it is typically not possible to control how and
by whom the results of one's research will be used. The director of a proposed
annual national survey of college freshman stated that Flacks's research
on student radicals could be used to identify college applicants who might
become involved in student protests. As a result, Flacks became involved
in a successful effort to insure that the respondents to the national survey
remained anonymous. He reported that this experience "forced me to recognize
that you really have to think much more carefully than I had been about
the destiny of your work." That opponents of radical movements could use
such research for their own ends was not necessarily problematic, as long
as the movements were themselves equally capable of doing so. But radical
sociologists questioned whether this was the case. Ehrlich, wondering about
the consequences of his work on prejudice, wrote, "As long as power remains
with those who control the political economy, then any new knowledge--even
any social reform--can be, and probably will be, coopted" (1971:198). Given
this situation, radical research might not only fail to further social
transformation, but have conservative consequences.
The Hiring and Firing of Radical
For a short time, radical sociology appeared to gain some popularity. More
third of the respondents reported being hired at least once specifically
because of their radical perspectives. The sociology departments at Washington
University and at Livingston College of Rutgers University hired a number
of radicals (Etzkowitz 1991; Oppenheimer 1991). Respondents surmised that,
in other cases, departments wanted a token--a "house radical" or "house
Marxist"--to show that they were up on current trends in sociology. But
it appears that usually radical sociologists were hired not because university
officials were amenable to their politics, because of pressure from students.
Howard Ehrlich was offered a visiting position by the University of Hawaii
"because the radical students had gone on strike and embarrassed the faculty."
At McGill University, the department hired Marlene Dixon at the demand
of sociology students, who faculty feared would stage a strike otherwise.
Several respondents also believe that university administrators felt that
radical professors might be able to calm student radicals.
While there were instances in which it helped to be a radical sociologist,
however, more often it hurt. The demand for radical sociologists was short-lived,
and soon after there began a "purge" of radicals, in the words of some.
Many radicals were denied renewal of their teaching contracts, encountered
opposition to tenure or promotion, or were sanctioned in more subtle ways.
Of the seventeen respondents in this study, all but three believe they
were negatively sanctioned during their professional careers because of
their radical ideas and actions. From about 1970 to 1973, the literature
in radical sociology is replete with similar examples.4 The
RSM estimated that over 200 radical faculty had been either fired or blacklisted
(Dixon 1972). In addition, several respondents reported that their FBI
files revealed that some colleagues and university administrators had collaborated
with FBI investigations of them (Flacks 1991a; Stark 1991; Dixon 1975).
There are several possible causes of this reported repression of radical
sociologists. One is the decline of the Movement, which decreased student
support for the hiring and retention of radical faculty. Several respondents
believe that once university administrators could get rid of radical faculty
without fear of student upheaval, they did so. At the same time, the academic
labor market was tightening. In the late sixties, one could fairly easily
find another job if fired, making it easier to risk being involved in radical
activities, according to respondents. When jobs became more scarce in the
early seventies, young academics were probably deterred from radical pursuits
(Bloland and Bloland 1974).
What lessons can be learned from the experience of radical sociologists?
First, it is possible to change sociology. Nearly all the respondents believe
that today there is more room in sociology for diverse perspectives. Marxist
scholarship has increased since the sixties (Wenger 1986). While the proliferation
of scholarship in such areas as sex and gender studies, social movements,
and race and ethnic studies cannot be attributed solely to the RSM, radical
sociologists were among those who brought these subjects into the academy.
Still, this may have come at a cost. Several respondents believe that to
be accepted by the mainstream, radical scholarship still must be couched
in scientific terms, which distances it from radical movements.
[T]he movements...petered out...and radical sociology became more and
more academic and less linked into anything that was going on in the real
world. It wasn't like it was going to have any real impact, so it became
more of a scholastic enterprise...[with] people like Erik Wright, with
all these conceptual schemes about contradictory locations in the system
of production...and I lost some interest in that.
Increasing attention has been paid in recent years to the practice of working
collaboratively with the subjects of one's research to affect social change---variously
called participatory research, action research, clinical sociology, or
community action research.5 It is not clear that the RSM has
much to teach them. While radical sociologists advocated working with movements,
few actually did so. Those few accomplished some practical tasks but had
difficulty connecting them with building theory. The root of this problem
likely lies in the division of labor between manual and mental work. Academics
are rewarded for developing theory, not for addressing real-life problems.
At the same time, with the rise of mass culture, the public is increasingly
less capable of thinking critically about social reality (though radical
activists may be more proficient at this than most). This points to the
importance of democratizing the research process (see Stoecker and Beckwith
(1992) for an account of one such effort which includes a candid assessment
of the difficulties encountered).
Most respondents considered the classroom an important forum for helping
others develop critical thinking capacities, and it is perhaps there that
radical sociologists made their greatest contribution. Teachers have adopted
many of the practices that were introduced by radical academics to break
down the teacher-student hierarchy and bridge the gap between academia
and the outside world. The expansion of higher education affords radical
academics a significant opportunity to aid social transformation through
their teaching. They can also contribute to social transformation by revitalizing
public discourse on important issues affecting our collective life (Aronowitz
and Giroux 1985; Flacks 1991b). As Jacoby (1987) argues, intellectuals
have been absorbed into the academy where they speak mainly to each other
in a jargon inaccessible to the public. Yet public intellectuals do still
exist: "today the left intellectual is a feminist, an ecologist, a critic
of science and technology, a person of color" (Aronowitz 1990; see also
Boynton 1994; Boggs 1993). These scholars have succeeded in gaining a public
audience both because they address important public issues and their scholarship
starts from the lives of activists and ordinary people.
But the demands of the profession conspire against such work. The major
obstacle to producing scholarship for social transformation today is not
a lack of academic freedom, though the historical record shows that it
has been regularly violated (Kaplan and Schrecker 1983), but the definition
of what "counts" as knowledge in the academy. The "hegemony of positivism"
in academia has resulted in the specialization and fragmentation of knowledge,
at the cost of analyzing the social world as a totality and of including
in one's work considerations of values and meaning (Giroux 1988). Academics
who avoid specialization, include considerations of values in their work,
or write for a non-academic audience risk being denied research grants
and having their work rejected by mainstream journals, making it difficult
for them to meet the qualifications typically required for promotion and
salary increases (Boggs 1993; Cancian 1993). In a tight job market, what
is at stake for untenured academics is having a job at all.
Nearly all of the respondents in this study had difficulty surviving in
the university. But they made the decision to accept these costs rather
than abandon either their political commitments or academia. They chose
to write for non-mainstream journals, to develop their teaching skills
instead of publish articles, or to work at less prestigious schools with
class students, knowing that they are compromising their chances to attain
the prestige and material rewards of some of their colleagues. In doing
so they have displayed a remarkable moral courage. Sociologist Edna Bonanich
has written a poignant essay describing her own choice.
I will...try to speak the truth, try to expose and oppose the oppressiveness
of the institution, and if they get rid of me, so be it. My motto is: "let
them fire me." At least such an action would have a political advantage.
It would demonstrate to my students the hypocrisy of "academic freedom"
in the bourgeois university. (1989:74)
The most important legacy of the RSM is this reflexivity, this willingness
to ask oneself hard questions about the political consequences of one's
work. As radical academics, we have a long way to go yet in developing
answers to these questions. But the first, and most crucial, step is to
1. Another example was Morris Janowitz's work on the U.S. army as a "socializing"
and "therapeutic" agency (he served as Pentagon advisor) and his paper,
"The Social Control of Escalated Riots," which advised police to make mass
arrests during riots to prevent violence and reportedly led the Chicago
Chief of Police to phone him for advice during uprisings following Martin
Luther King's assassination (Flacks 1991).
2. Several historians report that in NUC, Lynd's model of the academic
as off-campus activist was the one most accepted at the time (Ericson 1975;
Bloland and Bloland 1974).
3. The politics of guilt may also have been a factor behind the development
of new working class theory, which posited academics as part of the working
class. In contrast to the classical Marxist notion that the agency of social
transformation was industrial workers, new working class theory argued
that a new class of professionals and educated white-collar and service
workers--the kinds of occupations that university graduates tended to enter--had
revolutionary potential. Instead of economic deprivation, what would radicalize
them was the emptiness and meaninglessness of their lives.
4. Marlene Dixon documents her case extensively in Things Which are
Done in Secret. For accounts of other cases, see Gough 1970; "David
Colfax Fired" 1972; "More on Washington University" 1972; "Purge at the
University of Detroit" 1973; Stein 1973; Colfax 1973; "Academic Repression"
1976; Platt 1991.
5. See, for example, two special issues of The American Sociologist
on participatory research (winter 1992 and spring 1993), as well as
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