One of the commentators ["Wallyverr"] asks a very probing question about the study of society. Has Social Studies outlived its usefulness, he [she?] asks, suggesting that Foucault, Habermas, and de Beauvoir, among other authors added to the core reading list, are not in the same league with the originals: Smith, Marx, Durkheim, Weber, et al. I actually had an elaborate answer to that question in the main body of my remarks at the Social Studies lunch, but in my first blog on the affair, I only reproduced the final portion of my little speech, the portion devoted to the Peretz affair.
Since I did not write any of this down, I must reconstruct what I said from memory -- and you will understand that it was crafted for the event, not as a general discussion of how to study society. Still and all, what I said expresses some thoughts that are apposite to Wallyverr's question, so I shall try to reproduce here what I said. Those who find this much attention to Social Studies too parochial can just take a break from this blog until I return to Sarah Palin and Christine Donnelly. [I see that Donnelly has been falsifying her educational resume. That always strikes me as just dumb, since it is the easiest thing to check. Probably better to claim that you are a Mafia informant in the Witness Protection Program.]
Leaving aside some introductory remarks, here, as best I can reproduce it, is what I said at the lunch, before turning to the Peretz fiasco.
"But why is it that the core readings in Social Studies have not changed for fifty years? [I actually had with me the original reading list from 1960-61]? I will try to answer that question with yet another story from the early days of Social Studies, but it will take me a moment to sketch the background, so bear with me.
"In the early '50s, a famous Swarthmore social psychologist named Solomon Asch did an experiment to study the effect of social pressure on belief and perception. [Asch published an article about his research in SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN. You can find it if you Google it.] Briefly, Asch put a small group of young college men in a seminar room and told them he was studying perception. In fact, only one young man was a real subject; the others were Asch's collaborators. Asch then showed the men two cards. On the first were three straight lines of very unequal length. On the second was one line, obviously equal in length to one of the three lines. He asked each student in turn which line on the card of three the single line matched. At first, as he went around the table, everyone gave the same correct answer. But then, as he showed them successive pairs of cards, everyone but the last to be called on [who was the real subject] gave the same obviously wrong answer. The first or second time around, the real subject, looking puzzled or troubled, gave the correct answer, but as the experiment continued, with everyone in the room giving a wrong answer, a significant percentage of the subjects -- more than a third -- started to go along with the group and give the wrong answer also. When Asch interviewed these men later -- the ones who had switched to the wrong answers -- some said they just did not want to "spoil the experiment." Some said that at first they thought everyone was wrong, but after a while they began to think something was wrong with their own judgment. And some even said that although the line chosen by the group looked unequal to the other line, when they looked closely they could see that it was really equal.
"The experiment was much commented upon, and everyone took it as distressing evidence of the effects of social pressure on conformity of behavior. But I was interested in another aspect of the experiment. It occurred to me that in order to perform the experiment, Asch had first to take a position on what the correct and incorrect answers were. Otherwise, he would just have statistics about shifting public opinion, which would reveal nothing about the distorting effects of social pressure. Well, obviously, you will say. After all, Asch needed simply to put a ruler down next to the lines and measure them.
"I first read the Asch experiment in the early Fall of 1960, just as Social Studies was starting. One day, in October, I ran into Barrington Moore on the street and we stopped to chat. [I had already explained that Barry and I co-taught one of the first Sophomore group tutorials that first year, and I spoke of what an extraordinary educational experience this was for me.] This was during the run-up to the 1960 presidential election in which John F. Kennedy was running against Richard M. Nixon. Everyone at Harvard was mad for Kennedy, of course. He was a Harvard man, his wife spoke French, and he had even won a Pulitzer Prize -- although we did not know then that Ted Sorenson had written the book for which he won the prize. I talked excitedly to Moore about the campaign, and said that I hoped Kennedy would win. Moore looked down his long, aristocratic nose at me and then said, 'There's not a dime's worth of difference between them.' Then he walked on.
"I thought that was just Barry being his usual contrarian self, but Kennedy got selected, and the first thing he did was to invade Cuba. The scales fell from my eyes and I realized Barry was right. Now, even back then, social scientists were doing a good deal of public opinion polling, but I thought, 'Wouldn't it be interesting for someone to do a study of why so many voters perceived Kennedy and Nixon as unequal when they were obviously equal?'
"'Ah well,' you will say. 'To do such an experiment, the social scientist would have to be able to look beneath the surface appearances of society to the underlying socio-economic reality. AND THAT IS PRECISELY WHAT THE STUDY OF SMITH AND MARX AND DURKHEIM AND FREUD AND WEBER TEACHES US TO DO. Each of these authors, in his different way, goes beneath surface appearances to examine underlying social and economic realities. That is why those authors have been on the reading list for fifty years.
"But, you will protest, it is easy enough for Asch to determine whether two lines are equal or un equal in length. He just lays a rule down next to them and measures them. But to say that Kennedy and Nixon are equal, the social scientist must take a political or ideological position. Any such investigation is, as the French used to say, guilty. That is, it is inseparable from some ideological stance. How will we as students know what ideological stance to take?
"You are correct. And what is more, Smith and Marx and Durkheim and Freud and Weber cannot answer that question for you. I will give you an answer, by telling you another story, this time from my years teaching at Columbia. In 1968, as some of you will recall, the students occupied several buildings and brought the university to a screeching halt for two weeks. The next semester, I was teaching a course in which I was anguishing over my inability to find, in the text of Kant's GROUNDWORK OF THE METAPHYICS OF MORALS, an absolutely valid a priori proof of the universal validity of the fundamental moral principle, the categorical Imperative. After class one day, one of the students came up to talk to me. He was one of the SDS students who had seized the buildings, and I knew that he was active off campus in union organizing. 'Why are you so concerned about finding that argument?' he asked. Well, I said, if I cannot find such an argument, how will I know what to do? He looked at me as one looks at a very young child, and replied, 'First you have to decide which side you are on. Then you will be able to figure out what you ought to do.'
"At the time, I thought this was a big cop-out, but as the years have passed, I have realized the wisdom in what he said. I want [I now said] to direct these next remarks to the undergraduates who are here today. [There were maybe two dozen among the 200 people at the lunch]. As you complete your studies and go out into the world, you have a decision to make. You must decide who your comrades are going to be in life's struggles. You must decide which side you are on. Will you side with the oppressed, or with the oppressors? Will you side with the exploiters, or with the exploited? Will you side with the occupiers, or with the occupied? I cannot make that decision for you, and neither can Smith and Marx and Durkheim and Freud and Weber. All I can do is to promise you that if you side with the oppressed, with the exploited, with the occupied, then the next time you decide to seize a building, I will be with you."
Then I went into my little speech about the Peretz affair.
I do not know whether this answers your question, Wallyver, but it is what I said last Saturday.