American Sociological Association

Herbert J. Gans Award Statement

Herbert J. Gans Award Statement

Herbert J. Gans is the Robert S. Lynd Professor of Sociology at the Columbia University. Over the past four decades Herbert Gans’ scholarship has helped to illuminate social issues for the public, shape the thinking of policymakers, inform journalists, and guide non-profit and public agencies. He has published clear and accessible analyses in academic journals and widely read books, including (among others) The Urban Villagers, The Levittowners, Middle American Individualism, and The War Against the Poor. Gans has also reached policy-makers and the broader public through his writings in periodicals and newspapers, such as Dissent, The Nation, The New Republic, the Times, and the Washington Post. Herbert Gans has brought his sociological insight to a range of issues. Public discussions of urban and suburban life, American culture, poverty, and the news media have all been indelibly marked by his contributions.

Gans’ writings are undergirded by a populist ethos, evincing a Deweyan conviction in the value of democracy and the abilities of common people. Often his work challenges traditional or conventional wisdom, as The Levittowners challenged the notion of suburban life as a social wasteland and his book Popular Culture and High Culture questioned elitist cultural assumptions. One particularly unique example of Gans’ breadth of sociological interest is the movie reviews he did through the 1970s for Social Policy. In an era predating the emergence of “cultural studies,” Gans provided sociological readings of such popular films as All the President’s Men, Billy Jack—and even Jaws. In exploring popular movies as worthy topics for analysis, Gans demonstrated, from yet another angle, the importance of sociological imagination for understanding American society.

Herbert Gans has been a major public spokesperson for sociology. He has served as President of the American Sociological Association (1988) and of the Eastern Sociological Association (1973). He has been widely recognized as an important voice in the field of media studies, as reflected in his reception of the National Association of Educational Broadcasters Book Award for his 1979 book, Deciding What’s News and, more recently, the Freedom Forum Media Study Center’s Award for Distinguished Contribution to Media Studies (1995).

In his 1989 ASA presidential address, Gans called upon us to take the role of “public sociologists” more seriously. He suggested three distinctive traits that public sociologists must cultivate to be effective: They must develop an ability to discuss sociological ideas in accessible ways, they should have a breadth of sociological interest, and they must strive to avoid the pitfalls of undue professionalism in sociological social criticism. Gans’ work stands as a model of commitment to these qualities, inspiring us all to be more publicly engaged in our sociological endeavors.