We have been doubly blessed ...

(Interview with Gary T. Marx; Professor Emeritus of Sociology of MIT)
By Nasrin Pourhamrang

 Note: Gary T. Marx is Professor Emeritus of MIT. He has worked in the areas of race and ethnicity, collective behavior and social movements, law and society and surveillance studies. He is the author of many books such as "Protest and Prejudice", "Undercover: Police Surveillance in America" and "Collective Behavior and Social Movements" and a lot of articles. He was one of the first students of Prof. Smelser at The University of Berkeley.
What follows is the text of my interview with him on the role of Prof. Smelser in American sociology.
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 Nasrin Pourhamrang: When did you get acquainted with Prof. Smelser and for how many years have you cooperated with him?
Gary T. Marx: I first met him in Feb. of 1961 in Berkeley. It was my first year in graduate school and he was the professor in the required course on modern social theory. He was on my orals exam PhD committee and asked questions about social theory. He continued to advise me over my career, particularly in the early years. I have not cooperated much directly with him on projects. I was co-editor of a volume with articles from his students honoring him that was published some years ago which I cite from below.

 NP: Which one of personality traits of Prof. smelser has drawn your attention during those years?

 
GM: Not sure can talk about personality trait which has a deeper meaning. I can talk about kinds of behavior that were impressive. He in the first instance was approachable, humble, polite, kind, a good listener and seems genuinely interested in students. He was self-confident and seemed well-adjusted which permitted him to be a good listener and to take note of others. Intellectually he was very smart, original and also very broad and open –he offered a way of seeing and thinking about the world and asking questions, rather than being fixed on a particular answer or substance. He also was very productive. He expressed himself clearly and logically. He was learned and didn’t just stay within the field of sociology –drawing particularly on history, economics and psychology.
 

NP: What prominent features can be found in Prof. Smelser's personality which may serve as a model for young sociologists and researchers?

GM: What I say above but in addition I reproduce below something from the edited book done with my colleagues:
Academic researchers are nourished by a rich network of inherited ideas initially obtained from those with whom we study. Under the best of conditions, our teachers go beyond offering substantive knowledge and methodological guidance to offering models for how to be in the world. We learn from our mentors directly, through the transmission of ideas, as well as indirectly, through observation. Those of us privileged to have been Neil's students and colleagues have been doubly blessed in this regard. We have benefited from his knowledge and intellect as expressed in his writings and lectures, from his incisive, but diplomatic and supportive, criticism of our work, and from his mentoring and guidance in how to be in the academic world.

 NP:Which of Prof. Smelser's theories are more effective for enriching and developing sociology?

 

GM: I think both his way of being in the world as a gentlemen, as a scholar, as one interested in and helpful to others and his approach with its breadth, integrative qualities, imagination, emphasis on the need to think conceptually to appreciate both structure and process and the importance of thinking about social topics in a systematic way which calls attention to their interdependence.

 

 NP: As a sociologist, do you have any objections to his theories and methods? 
 

GM: In the beginning was pretty abstract ala the theories of Parsons and jargon filled, just too far removed from the empirical and was unclear to many what the concepts meant. He hasn’t revisited or revised his work and would be good to know how he looks back on it given all the changes in last 50 years. His balance and moderation sometimes makes it hard to know where he stands or what re policy ought to be done. That is an occupational hazard that comes with being smart and listening to many points of view and realizing how much the opinions we strongly hold are not based on the empirical, or rather are not adequately based on that. I don't think it is a correct reading by in the later 1960s he was criticized for supposedly being unduly conservative and favoring social control of movements and taking an establishment point of view. But that is a misreading as his 1970 article "Two Critics in Search of a Bias" in the Annals of American Academy of Political and Social Science makes clear

 NP: Would you please recount one of your prominent and interesting memories with Prof. Smelser?

GM: The care with which he offered comments on my term paper –2 pages of typed  notes; his interest in my desire to take a year off from graduate study and travel around the world.
 

 NP: As an interdisciplinary researcher, what has been the legacy of Prof. Smelser in the University of Berkeley?

 

GM: I can’t say he has probably trained more leading US sociologists over the last 50 plus years than any one else, has helped spread knowledge through his editing work and the internat ency. of social science, his work in economic sociology and in collective behavior was very innovative and influential. His administrative work in helping build institutions in support of social science is noteworthy, very involve in leadership roles bolstering the socials sciences, university education and scholarship.
 

 NP:Thank you for accepting my invitation to take part in this interview.