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Monday, March 28, 2011

The Marginal Sociologist

          A great deal of success in life comes from being in the right place at the right time. Since most people are not in that place at that time, most people do not become great successes.

          Having been admitted to the Harvard Department of Social Relations in 1966, I was deluded into thinking that I was on the way to becoming famous. I was indeed in the right place at the right time. I was a Catholic priest with good grades applying to a prestigious school at a time when everybody was enthused about ecumenism and the opening of doors to new groups. What I did not realize, and what I am only now beginning to appreciate, is that getting admitted to a good school, and completing a degree in that school, did not remove all of the obstacles to becoming famous.

          Not that becoming famous was a central goal for me--after all, I am a follower of Francis of Assisi, whose goal in life was to become the least in his society. But who can resist giving in slightly to a faint dream of having your name recognized all over the world? Certainly not me.

          The obstacles to making it in the academic Big Leagues are both external and internal. One big external obstacle is the lack of contacts with the Right People. Going to school in a seminary in rural southern Illinois is not a way to make friends with the intellectual elite of the country. The bigger obstacles are internal. Going to school in rural southern Illinois made me hesitant to open my mouth. “Better to keep your mouth shut and allow people to think you are stupid than to open your mouth and prove it.” In several years of graduate classes at Harvard, I hardly ever ventured to ask a question in a class. I am not even sure I know how to hold a fork in polite dining (even though I once bought a book on etiquette and studied it from cover to cover). Add in a slight tendency to depression and you have someone who is likely to avoid any opportunity to take the initiative needed to become famous.

          Neither of my parents even went to high school. I was proud of the fact that my father dropped out of school after seventh grade, and that my mother wanted to go to high school but the family couldn’t afford it--they needed the income she could get by going to work. Those were great credentials for proving my membership in the Lower Classes, but I am only recently realizing the cost of those credentials. The biggest cost was the lack of coaching in the disciplines needed to do good intellectual work.

          Most young people would rather enjoy life than buckle down to hard tasks. The purpose of coaches is to motivate young people to undertake the hard tasks, show them how they can be successful in mastering those tasks, and lead them on to more and more challenging tasks. Playing in the intellectual big leagues requires a lot of such discipline. For example, you need to learn how to search out and read more and more sources for your thinking, and you  need to learn why you have to cite where you got your ideas. I never got such coaching. I read for pleasure, which seemed to convince my mother that whenever she caught me reading, that meant that I needed to be doing something more useful. Reading in my home consisted in my father’s subscriptions to Popular Science and Popular Mechanics, and my mother’s subscriptions to the Sacred Heart Messenger and the St. Augustine’s Messenger. The latter was a publication of the seminary for African American students operated in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi by the Society of the Divine Word. It happened that my mother’s best friend, who lived on the street behind ours, was the sister of the rector of that seminary. Both my parents liked the St. Anthony Messenger, a publication by the Franciscans from Cincinnati. The only thing my father ever published was a brief letter in that magazine thanking St. Anthony for the great gift in his life of a son (me). 

          My own reading tastes were hardly conducive to getting into Harvard. I bought every book in the Hardy Boy series and kept reading the same books over and over, often out loud to my younger brother, in bed before going to sleep, drinking Pepsi. No wonder I became overweight.  I never even wondered what that experience meant to the younger brother.

          The skills involved in finding and citing scholarly sources are changing rapidly, with the coming of Wikipedia and online libraries, but the basic rationale for having such skills remains the same: you need to think critically about where ideas come from, and you need to be able to show other people how your thinking has developed from those sources. Never in fourteen years of seminary training did I get training in such skills. My three years of philosophy study were intellectually stimulating, but half of the textbooks were authored by our teachers, and they never documented where they got their materials. That made sense in a system where the goal was to prepare the student to do the “care of souls” among uneducated lay people, but it caused culture shock when I arrived in graduate school. There it seemed that the game was to offer a critique of every statement made by a professor, along with the source of your critique. “But so-and-so says . . .”

          The bottom line was that I finished my graduate degree, went out into the world with my Harvard Ph.D., and failed totally to do anything remarkable with it. Not that those years of study were useless. They provided me with many skills, and I have often said and still say that the years at Harvard were one of the great experiences of my life. They just didn’t make me Famous.

         You can tell that I still haven’t quite gotten over the hidden dream of fame. 

          But being marginal in that way did give me an advantage in one way. It gave me some distance from the established ways of thinking in academia. I was always an outsider, with a little resentment at how outsiders always get treated in any game. Being a total failure at any athletic contest contributed to that sense of resentment.

          Why am I saying all this? I am leading up to presenting my great ideas about sociological theory, and explaining why my ideas will not be totally useless. The next entry in this series (which may end up being a series with only two entries) will be “The Marginal Sociologist Looks at Sociological Theory,” or, “The Machine and the Game: Sociological Theory Boiled Down to Two Simple Models.” Stay tuned.