Stephen P. Turner (University of South Florida) is a Weber scholar and social theorist. He is also a member of the so-called “disobedient generation,” which left graduated programs and incorporated to US faculties in the years after the 1968 student movement. Departing from his own personal experience, in this interview Turner shares his views on the intellectual, professional, and job-market conditions under which social theory and Weber studies have evolved since the 1970s. He also explains what he sees as the reasons of the social theory’s current difficulties, but also argues for its continued importance as an academic rather than engaged vocation. Here he also sees a place for Weber’s ideas. Turner’s memoir, Mad Hazard: a Life in Social Theory, was published in September 2022.
This interview was conducted in Berlin on the 10th of July 2019 by Álvaro Morcillo (Free University Berlin). The interview was recorded and subsequently transcribed. It has been edited for clarity; occasionally, the order of a question and the answer thereto has been altered. A list of references is available here.
Part I: Social Theory and Weber around 1970
ÁML: What was the intellectual context and state of the field when you started writing on Weber?
ST: The very important argument at the time was the positivism debate. People were obsessed with refuting positivism. Although it was formative for me, it was also, in retrospect, a vast waste of effort. It appeared to be about something important, and also that there were intellectual issues at stake. But it was an empty citadel. The “positivists” never responded to their critics, and for a good reason: there wasn’t really a good argument on their side. It was just power. You could deploy all these sophisticated arguments against them, and there were many available because they were being used in philosophy against logical positivism. But it wouldn’t matter because in sociology there wasn’t a coherent argument for what sociologists took to be positivism in the first place. The basic issue was a technical one that never was addressed: they claimed to be constructing, or aiming for, deductive theory; the methods they used were statistical; but the claims they could support using these methods were not in the form that could be used in deductive theories.
ÁML: So that I understand better, could we imagine these more leftist critics around the citadel in which Merton and Parsons inhabit and the successors of?
ST: The successor to structural functionalism and middle range theory was [Pierre] Bourdieu. He was on friendly terms with Merton, and as Jon Elster has pointed out, was basically functionalist in the first place. But Bourdieu draped it in different methodological language that hid what it was that he was actually doing. At least in the case of Merton and Parsons they nominally adhered to some notion of deductive theory. That was really the core to it. And so that was something that you could make as a target. Bourdieu made it very difficult to even explain what he thought he was doing.
ÁML: You just made a very “brave” connection between Merton and Bourdieu. Can you elaborate that?
ST: There’s a surprising amount of contact in the Merton letters. But all this needs to be understood in the context of the huge generational break of the late 1960s. And this has a close relation to Weber’s reception and presentation in the US by Reinhard Bendix and Guenther Roth. The generational break was very nasty. Harriet Zuckerman, Merton’s wife, referred to it as “killing the fathers,” which I am sure is how it felt to them, and part of what made it so unpleasant. But it was also confusing because it was not simply generational. Those of us who were on the anti-Parsons side were enthralled by Alvin Gouldner, who has published The Coming Crisis of American Sociology (1970) and denounced the “welfare-warfare state.” Then Gouldner created the journal Theory and Society. He recruited Bourdieu and a huge variety of people who said they were going to talk about Philosophy of Science, which was my interest, among many other things. This was about 1973. We got this fantastic brochure (Elsevier I think was the publisher), and it looked like this was the new dawn, the beginning of a new era of theorizing, and that it would be open and inclusive. It didn’t turn out that way obviously. But it created the illusion that there was still a big topic there, and a bright future for those of us still in graduate school, as I was. In fact, what was happening was the enrollments in Sociology were collapsing and the number of students who cared about this stuff was therefore declining. The field was becoming much more about applied topics, so these abstract and theoretical intellectual interests were just not as important. And within a short period, what had been a very vibrant and promising set of issues had just disappeared as topics. There was big theory construction literature, for example. It went for maybe five years and then it cut off like it had never happened.
ÁML: The other thing I would like you to explain is the generational replacement, who was being replaced by whom? And the disappearance of the discussion on theory–is it a simple consequence of the reduction of numbers and then proportionally a diminishment of the number of people working in theory or is it more complex than that?
ST: It was much more complicated. A lot of things happened more or less simultaneously, and I think the biggest thing that happened was affirmative action. Universities were compelled, by very indirect means, to hire minorities. But there weren’t many available. There were, I think, five black PhDs in 1975, the year I graduated. One of them, R. Charles Key, who graduated at the same time and same place as I did. And they were really competed for. He was hired at the University of Massachusetts, then a rising department. But the other beneficiaries of affirmative action were women. When the program was originally created nobody really knew what the rules were. Some departments understood affirmative action to mean they could only hire women until there was an equal number of men and women. And others just hired women. At the same time the job market collapsed, so it was very difficult to get anything if you were a male, and most of the theory people were male, so they were cut out of the system. And because of the generational conflict, powerful males would, instead of putting their students, whom they didn’t like, into jobs, put their girlfriends or wives into jobs. And hiring women also meant was hiring feminists. They had their own already established theory; so, they were hostile to theory. The theory section was referred to in the ASA as a boys’ club, and stigmatized. The effect was that theorists stopped reproducing themselves. The theorists who were so good in the earlier period in producing students and placing them in good positions stopped doing it. There were very few exceptions.
ÁML: We’ll come back later to Bourdieu and the Merton connection. I was a few weeks ago having a look at the correspondence between the two of them preserved in the Merton Papers at Columbia University but I still don’t understand what was going on. Towards the outside Bourdieu’s attitude is very distant, but of course, he was also involved in the Editorial Board of Theory and Society. Someone told me that Bourdieu was very disappointed because Gouldner actually wanted to have the last word on every single article submitted and that eventually Gouldner remained alone without the other people who had been in the Board at the beginning. But let’s go back to that later.
ST: It didn’t last very long because he died. Then it was more or less taken over by Theda Skocpol (see Turner 2012, 357-9). She didn’t like theory at all, so it became a kind of historical sociology journal.
ÁML: And is there something like historical sociology?
ST: That’s a complicated story. At one point “Comparative and Historical Sociology” became the label that theorists gave themselves as an alternative to the dominant generation of Parsons and Merton students. The ASA has a big Section on Comparative and Historical Sociology. It was created by some New School graduates, particularly Ronald Glassman, and others who were outside of the top departments. As soon as it succeeded, without the help of any of the people, such as Theda Skocpol, at the top departments, it was taken over by them. They just kicked the founders out and said “well, this is ours, it’s our game and you’re not welcome”. So, it changed character, intellectually as well as ceasing to be an alternative place for theory.
ÁML: You probably know the book chapter by Craig Calhoun (1996) about the domestication of historical sociology? He makes the same point at least in terms of the characters that played a crucial role in kidnapping the Section, but there is another level to his argument namely that they disguised, well they turned historical sociology into a method in a subfield, and Calhoun’s point is that they destroyed the critical potential of historical social research and many of the consequences that serious consideration of temporality and history in the social sciences could have had were made impossible by isolating historical sociology.
ST: I think that’s probably true. But what I think was more important was that Skocpol was very ideological. She had all the answers in advance, so there wasn’t going to be any need for theoretical discussion, from her point of view.
ÁML: Ideological in terms of epistemology or left/right?
ST: Yes, left. She had a very specific world view and didn’t really acknowledge anybody else’s.