March 2009 Issue • Volume 37 • Issue 3

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09mtgLooking Forward to the 2009
Annual Meeting in San Francisco

San Francisco
40 Years Later

by Edward A. Tiryakian, Duke University

It is fitting that in this year of a tremendous, calamitous financial crisis, nationally and globally, which for some harkens back to 1929-32, that the American Sociological Association Annual Meeting will convene in San Francisco. It was in San Francisco in 1969, that the ASA Annual Meeting was held amidst an unprecedented period of national and global political and cultural crisis. As a participant at the meetings, then and now, let me shake off the cobwebs of memory to detail a brief historical context of 40 years ago.

Changes at the ASA

The second half of the 1960s had rocked the United States with immense internal conflict over the civil rights movement and the anti-Vietnam War protests, which had steadily gathered steam. This was reflected in popular culture and in the radicalization of college students. In 1967, ASA’s meeting was in San Francisco, with Charles P. Loomis—a student of Sorokin at Harvard—giving a well-received presidential address, "In Praise of Conflict and Its Resolution." A year later, on the heels of the chaotic Democratic convention in Chicago, ASA President Phil Hauser drew upon his on-site experience in Chicago to give his presidential address in Boston on "The Chaotic Society: Product of the Social Morphological Revolution."

In advance of the 1969 meeting, sociologists elected as 59th president Arnold Rose, who had a long career at Minnesota. He was as much if not more of an "activist" in race relations, civil rights, school desegregation, and the labor movement as in academic affairs. Tragically, terminal cancer took his life before he could take office, but the ASA Council decreed that Rose should be taken as President. Accordingly, his already prepared presidential address, "Varieties of Sociological Imagination" was read in San Francisco by his wife, Caroline Rose (and published in the October 1969 issue of the American Sociological Review). On short notice, Ralph Turner became ASA President.

Social Context

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Before the ASA Annual Meeting in September, 1969 saw tumultuous events taking place on college campuses, throughout the United States, and abroad. In January, Richard Nixon, hardly a favorite of academia, took office as the 37th U.S. President; and martial law was declared in Madrid and the university closed. In February, the radical Front de Libération du Québec bombed the Montreal Stock Exchange; in April members of the Students for Democratic Society (SDS) took over Harvard’s Administration Building, and Berkeley community members seized an empty lot owned by the university to start a "People’s Park." In May, the National Guard dispersed and evicted young adults in North Dakota and used helicopters to spray anti-war protesters in California. At the start of the summer, the radical anarchist Weathermen faction took control of SDS, and the modern gay rights movement began with the Stonewall riots in New York City.

Directly preceding the ASA meeting in San Francisco, while Nixon had announced a disengagement of the United States in Southeast Asia, the cultural scene was rocked in August by the Woodstock Festival in New York and by the sensational killings in California by the Manson Family cult. Lastly, the first week in September (when ASA met) saw news of the My Lai massacre with an American military charged with premeditated murder for the slaughter of 109 Vietnamese civilians, victims of "collateral damage." This served as further fodder for the anti-war movement, which mobilized students across the United States (and elsewhere in Europe).

ASA in 1969 San Francisco

Perhaps reflecting the mood of the country, there was an "establishment" annual meeting and a "rump" meeting. The latter was organized by students who found a nearby church as a "sanctuary" from the official program of activities, the latter held at the comfortable Hilton Hotel. I signed in at the registration desk, and then wandered around looking at the various display tables, noting the diversity of professional and non-professional literature, advertisements, pamphlets. I noticed a flier announcing that students had organized a session in honor of Pitirim A. Sorokin that afternoon at a nearby community church. I had been his teaching assistant at Harvard, and had enjoyed a long friendship with him (despite his nemesis, Talcott Parsons, being my thesis advisor). Sorokin, like Arnold Rose, had taught at Minnesota, and also like Rose, had died of cancer in 1968. Leaving the Hilton and the more staid sessions in progress, I went to the student gathering. Dozens of students—perhaps hundreds—proudly displayed buttons, which I have kept to this day. The three buttons in greatest display proclaimed: "Sorokin Lives!," "Sociology Liberation Movement," and "Revolution not Counter-Insurgency."

The last referred to the military use of social science research in ascertaining the appeal and strength of insurgents—actual or potential—in other countries, most notably in Latin America, which had equally violent protest movements in the later 1960s. "Project Camelot" had been exposed in 1965 and together with the Vietnam War provided radical sociology students with an important target for anti-military feelings. But why would the "Sociology Liberation Movement" adopt Sorokin as their totemic figure?

Sorokin’s posthumous attraction for radical students was multifold: He himself had been a student sentenced to death for revolutionary activities in Tsarist Russia; he had been a maverick, anti-establishment figure during Parsons’ hegemonic years; in his later writings he condemned the power elite, yet still elected 55th President of ASA on the first write-in campaign in ASA history, and as a badge of honor, he had been bitterly opposed all along to the Vietnam War. For more details, see Barry Johnston’s excellent Pitirim Sorokin, an Intellectual Biography, 1995.

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Pitirim A. Sorokin

The students had taken the initiative to organize a panel session in his honor, with a distinguished panel speaking about different facets of Sorokin’s works and life. I listened and appreciated the testimonies about Sorokin, his commitment to sociology and social justice, nuclear disarmament, and other laudable causes. Then came the last speaker, perhaps the most imposing figure in sociological theory after Parsons at the time, Alvin Gouldner. Gouldner strode on the stage, and startled us all—faculty, students, and non-sociologists attending this event—by deriding and mocking Sorokin. To paraphrase, Gouldner said there have been only two radicals in the social sciences: Marx, who is now dead, and himself, who is alive. Gouldner’s ill-timed remarks brought consternation to the joyous gathering, and left a bad taste in the mouth of all, save perhaps his devotees. This may have been a preview of his next target, Parsons, in The Coming Crisis of Western Sociology, which came out the following year. And, in 1970, with Reinhard Bendix as ASA President and with the United States entering a new policy toward Asia, the Annual Meeting (and the country) returned slowly to more normal conditions, although far from being drab.

As I reflect on San Francisco 1969, I like to think the tumult, conflicts, and challenges of the crisis of that period laid the foundation for this year’s ASA theme of "The New Politics of Community." There was then, implicitly if not overtly, a searching for a new community with "a variety of contradictory meanings and around which diverse social practices and understanding occur" (to quote from this year’s theme description). The student grassroots "Sociology Liberation Movement" did well to seek the reconstruction of the sociology community, and in my opinion, did well to select Pitirim Sorokin as an icon (and we all would do well to read his presidential address, "Sociology of Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow," published in ASR, December 1965). Yes, I plan to wear my 1969 buttons at our 2009 meetings! logo_small

Edward A. Tiryakian can be reached at Durkhm@soc.duke.edu

 

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