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Sociologists Remember Lewis Coser

Rare in the academy is the unique combination of human qualities that Lew Coser possessed: openness to ideas, a focused and disciplined brilliance, and deep convictions about social welfare and political governance. Special, too, was his inconsumable interest in all of sociology because for Lew it was important that our field have coherence and integrity. His book reviews for Contemporary Sociology always reflected his great ability to consider how a book or topic related to that coherence and integrity. Once it was said at a department meeting it would be a good idea to include Coser’s book reviews on the reading list for comprehensives as they often surpassed the book author’s understanding of the topic. If not that always, we prized them for their style and his gracious synthesis. His own range of interests was especially broad: sociological theory, the history of ideas, social conflict, and the sociology of literature, and these complemented—but did not especially overlap with—his other interests in social and political commentary. I have many wonderful memories of Lew, and Rose, as well as of my husband’s high regard and affectionate feelings for them both, whom he knew from the days when they were graduate students at Columbia University.

In his 1975 ASA presidential address, Lew spoke of the importance of the tradition of critical social thought and about two contemporary works that threatened to undermine this tradition. One was micro (i.e., ethnomethodology), and the other was macro (i.e., Blau’s and Duncan’s work on stratification). Peter, sitting next to me, was totally intrigued with Lew’s criticisms. “He is completely right about ethnomethodology, and half right about stratification.” At dinner later, congratulations said, the two of them started fresh on the debates that had always brought them close together: How is sociology embedded in history, science, and politics? That generation of sociologists, I believe, cared more about this big question than we do these days. But for Lew, it mattered not only that sociology was embedded in these other spheres, but also that sociologists draw from a broad knowledge base to ambitiously pose important questions about social life, and therefore to challenge our biases and preconceptions about society so that we might consider ways of improving it.

Judith Blau, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill


I met Lewis Coser the first day of school [SUNY-Stony Brook]. There he sat at the head of the seminar table peering at us through a cloud of smoke, chain-smoking. In a thick German accent he mesmerized us with stories of our forefathers, our heroes, the masters of sociological thought. There were the Europeans: Mannheim, Simmel, Veblen, the refugees and the Americans, George Herbert Mead, and Robert Park. Coser placed the great thinkers in the context of their time. It felt like a tribal campfire, a ceremonial rite of passage.

Usually I sat in class writing song lyrics or making up names for imaginary bands. But Coser’s “Classical Theory” course changed my life. From cosmetology to cosmology, the sociology of knowledge slowly lifted me up from the gutters of positivism. I departed the material world and entered the spiritual realm, unknown, and unseen. Once, pointing from his office window out to the snowy walkways and trees of Eastern Long Island, Professor Coser referred to data as “anything out there.” After that, anything seemed possible.

Most American intellectuals at the time [1980s] seemed xenophobic, like they hated the U.S.A. Not Coser. He and his wife Rose—an acclaimed scholar in her own right—did not look back to the killing fields of Europe, to “good old days” that were never really that great. Instead, they pushed forward, forging an intellectual bridge between the old world and the new. More sedate in their later years, the Cosers were rebels for their time, bohemians.

[From “Science as a Vacation,” in A Misfit’s Manifesto: The Spiritual Journey of a Rock & Roll Heart, 2003].

Donna Gaines, New School University


The men and women of Lew Coser’s generation have always held a special fascination for me. They came into political awareness during the scariest of times—the Fascist victory in Spain, the triumphant rise and growing power of Hitler, and the bombastic rhetoric of the Soviet Union overlaying an ugly reality. I am a half-generation younger but I lived in this era vicariously, through obsessive reading of historical accounts and memoirs.

The intellectuals with whom I identified were, like Lew, carriers of what Richard Flacks calls the “tradition of the left.” The recognition of a variety of cultural and material inequalities and a commitment to change them is at the core of this tradition. But many of these representatives of the “old left” drifted away. For them, the 1960s produced a prolonged case of dyspepsia. In the rhetorical excesses and sometime foolishness of some elements of the “new left,” they heard the echoes of stormtroopers from their traumatized history.

But not Lew Coser. He maintained his critical edge while others around him were losing theirs. He recognized his younger self in many of the movement participants. Albeit sometimes misguided, but nonetheless they were fellow carriers of a tradition to which he remained loyal. His example told me that the pathway from the tradition of the left to the celebration of power and privilege among many former leftists was not a developmental process but a life choice. He provided a needed reminder that one can maintain an oppositional consciousness one’s whole life. And a reminder also that one can do this with grace and humor without ever becoming an old curmudgeon. For these lessons, Lew, I salute you.

Bill Gamson, Boston College


After having been forced out of two countries, Lewis A. Coser, born in Berlin, arrived alone on American shores in 1941. He was penniless and carried one small handbag. Uprooted twice and surely traumatized, out of his “handful of thistles” (the title of his collected essays volume) he shaped a distinguished and noble life that bound together scholarship and politics in equal measure. Most of the twentieth century’s major “macro and micro” upheavals intersected directly with his journey.

At the center of his scholarship, often in concealed forms, stood a major theme in the works of his spiritual mentor, Georg Simmel: marginality. This (as he would have said) was not by chance. The son of a strict Lutheran mother and a Jewish banker father, he became a rebel and left-wing radical in Weimar Germany—and aware of himself as a Jew. He then found a home in Paris (1933-41) and became a citoyen—until rounded up and sent to a labor camp. In the 1940s he fell in with a crowd of Leftist intellectuals in New York City. Although at the time too far to the Left (and too European) to feel fully at home in the American political landscape, he discovered in the late 1960s, after several visits to Europe, that he was more American than European. Even in sociology, and despite having moved from Marx to Weber, Simmel, and (not least) Merton, he always described himself as a “heretic within the church of Structural-Functionalism.” Although fully dedicated to the discipline (and a scholar who unfailingly read the major journals from cover to cover) and a major civic player for more than 40 years, from time to time he immersed himself in fiction and world politics—while The Functions of Social Conflict, a classic text instrumental in weakening the Parsonsian hegemony, became one of the most widely read and translated books in post-war American sociology. At times one wondered whether his comparative-historical writings on “greedy organizations” (which thoroughly encompass the individual) might not have contained an element of personal longing. Not by chance, more than half of his 18 books charted out how ideas and theories can only fully be understood if located in their political, social, and intellectual contexts (Men of Ideas and Masters of Sociological Thought). He abhorred “the foreshortening of historical vision” that led to a “parochialism of the contemporary.”

The “wanderer” immigrant in possession of “the bird’s eye view” produced, in every decade from 1950 to 1990, classic works that broadly influenced the discipline and from which we benefit deeply, even today. Magnanimous and engaged, Lew Coser eventually became convinced that he belonged in American scholarship and politics. Here his thistles intertwined.

Stephen Kalberg, Boston University


Perhaps the toughest criticism I ever published about a colleague concerned Lew Coser’s work on social conflict. Characteristically, he responded with grace and precision, acknowledging the aptness of my points and going on to advance inquiry about them. Such criticism did not deter him from staunchly supporting its authors.

Lew did much to raise the literacy bar for the sociological community. Many of us would have had careers that were poorer, more solitary, and more brutish without his enthusiasm, his chuckle, and his wit. Personally and collectively, we shall miss his irreplaceable combination of political engagement and intellectual integrity.

Donald N. Levine, University of Chicago


In the fall of 1974, I arrived for graduate study at SUNY-Stony Brook. I had few clues of what to expect from a graduate program. Having been accepted by several doctoral programs, I was uncertain about which to choose.

Lewis Coser determined my choice without having a conversation with me. I grew up during the heyday of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements. As an African American, I was acutely aware of American racism and identified deeply with those movements. In the early 1970s social conflict was not a major focus of American sociology. Structural/functionalism with stresses on value consensus and social order still held sway. I was interested in social conflict and social movements, not social order. My undergraduate advisor informed me that of my choices only Stony Brook was truly interested in conflict and that Coser, the main conflict theorist of American sociology, taught at Stony Brook. I headed to the “Brook.”

At that time the Sociology Department was experimenting with admitting Black students and had decided to select a mentor for each of them in advance. I was excited to meet with Coser, once a week. Upon arriving in his office I was struck by the large portraits of Marx, Weber, and Durkheim that graced his walls. He asked me what I was interested in studying. I said the Civil Rights and the Black Power movements. He nodded affirmatively and glanced towards the portraits and asked if I had mastered the works of these sociological giants. I replied, not really. He went on to argue that classical theory was critical to the understanding of all important social phenomena. He then quoted Goethe, “What you have learned from your fathers, you must earn in order to possess.” I remember thinking, “Hmmm, I doubt that these dead white men are my fathers,” but I decided to follow his advice and read these scholars in depth. From that moment on I have always taken theory seriously.

When I entered graduate school I was well aware that my white professors were experimenting with admitting minority students and were suspicious of our abilities to succeed. Coser was quite European in style and demeanor. I speculated that he probably did not harbor the same doubts about minority students as most of the white American professors. In my second office visit with Coser I straight out asked him what caliber of student he thought I was. He looked at me quizzically and replied, “Solid B.” After skipping past my great disappointment in his assessment, I pledged to myself that I would show him differently.

Professor Coser did change his mind about my abilities. He served as my dissertation advisor and when I turned in the first draft he responded that it was just what the doctor ordered. He wrote strong letters of recommendation for me when I applied for grants and my first job. He introduced me to publishers and sent interesting articles and books my way. He became a mentor. Our intellectual bond was built on the foundation that social conflict is necessary for change and deserves serious sociological study.

Aldon Morris, Northwestern University


I met Lew Coser shortly after I began teaching at the University of Virginia. He had been struggling to complete an introductory textbook for several years. I joined this project midway through its development. Our text went through three editions. Lew was senior author and made all executive decisions. I simply counted myself lucky to have the chance to meet and work with such a scholar. Anyone who knew him will attest to his high standards of scholarship, which were always mixed with a delightful sense of humor. Our collaboration was one of the highlights of my early years in the profession.

Shortly after the publication of the second edition of our text, we received a letter from Chinese officials congratulating us on having our book adopted for use in universities throughout that country. The only wrinkle in this great honor was the fact that the book would be translated and published by the Chinese government without any royalties paid to our publisher. In his characteristic way, Lew showed us how to gracefully accept such a situation when he said, “Better that millions read it than millions be earned from it.”

Steven Nock, University of Virginia


I met Lew Coser a few days after arriving at Stony Brook for graduate study in the fall of 1972. He was urbane, impeccably dressed, and the most erudite person I had ever encountered. I was a scruffy, long-haired surfer with a very low draft lottery number. I read Coser’s Masters of Sociological Thought as an undergrad and opted for graduate school over Vietnam. I took two courses from him in my first year, and wrote several papers on his beloved Simmel. We grew close, but he remained Dr. Coser. In May, as he prepared for his annual retreat to Cape Cod, he said I should contact him if I was in the area. Later that summer, my wife and I were in Cambridge, MA, and we called the Cosers on a lark, and they invited us to visit. We arrived, and after a few glasses of wine, were put to work cleaning fish. Preparations were underway for a grand dinner. We tried to leave, partly out of embarrassment at our imposing on them, but were urged to stay. The dinner guests were their close friends—Marianne Simmel (Georg’s granddaughter), Digby Baltzell, Frank Manuel, and Bernard Rosenberg and their families. At dinner’s end, we tried to excuse ourselves to find a hotel. “Nonsense,” the Cosers said, “stay on the bunkbeds upstairs.” We left six days later. Thus began a relationship that spanned Thanksgiving dinners, annual visits to their Wellfleet home, a co-authored book (The Culture and Commerce of Publishing), and much, much more.

Conversations with Lew were a joy, given his breadth of experience and engagement. Politics occupied a central place, as did his abiding interest in patterns of receptivity to ideas. When discussing his remarkable life, he did not like telling stories per se, but in the right context, he would reflect on his contacts with Andre Gide in Paris in the 1930s and involvement in antifascist movements then, or on the world of post-war political magazines, such as Politics, Partisan Review, and Dissent, and his close relationships with Dwight MacDonald and Irving Howe. One of Lew’s funniest stories involved his move to the University of Chicago to teach. He was staying at David Riesman’s home, which he was sharing with another young lecturer he had not yet met. Neither Rose nor Lew had ever been to the Midwest, and the unfamiliar setting of the first evening was rendered more unusual by the sounds of gunfire. Racing down the stairs, Lew met his new housemate, C. Wright Mills. ‘Charley’ was shooting at empty beer bottles in the Riesman’s fireplace.

Lew wrote, with great facility, thousands of book and journal reviews. The most remarkable thing was that he often wrote the review upon receipt of the book or manuscript. When staying with them at their summer cottage, I would make the morning mail/newspaper run. I remember giving Lew a new book or manuscript, whereupon he would disappear for a few hours, and pound out a review on his old manual typewriter. I envied his first drafts, written with such panache and verve. His writing was infused with his commitments—to a more just and egalitarian world, to the role of public intellectuals, and to a sociology that was not lost to either theoretical or methodological fetishism.

It is the personal moments that I treasure the most. A phone call late on a Saturday evening saying that Rose was out of town and he needed a “professor-sitter.” He would soon arrive for dinner with a wonderful bottle of wine. He decided early in our research on the book publishing industry that I needed to learn about wine and spirits in order to facilitate interviewing, so we began a multi-year course. We would visit various wine shops in Manhattan, and he would stock up for the many gatherings at his house. We would always select a bottle for us to share. I still revere these memories, and the world of ideas that Lew Coser opened up to me.

Woody Powell, Stanford University


I always admired Lewis Coser for his important role as a social theorist and public intellectual. My fondest memories go back to 1941. When I first met Lew (and Rose), we engaged in very weighty discussions about the miseries of left-wing politics and the future of socialism. At that time I was riding an express train, destination unknown but definitely away from Marxist doctrine. Rose and Lew had just arrived from Europe, and they too were seeking something different from left-wing orthodoxies. I was about to edit a new “little magazine” called Enquiry: A Journal of Independent Radical Thought, and Lew showed some interest in the project. When the magazine did appear (from 1942-45), Lew (writing as Louis Clair) wrote some pieces for it. They were mostly in defense of more traditional socialist ideas; he objected to the revisionist notions some of us were expressing. He was more committed to the socialist vision than I was, and this led later to his collaboration with Irving Howe as a co-editor of Dissent.

Although Lew and I had some basic disagreements, we remained good friends as both of us concentrated on the work we were doing in sociology. Some echoes of the past remained, however. In the early 1960s, Lew was a visiting professor at Berkeley, and he helped organize a “Dissent Forum” on the topic, “Should Students Be Radicals?” I said students should be students and should let the chips fall where they may. I also warned against “premature commitment” to radical ideas because that could prompt charges and fears of “apostasy,” with attendant self-doubt. For Lew, the intellectual should always be a critic of his society. He gave short shrift to the role of intellectuals as creative interpreters and defenders of received institutions or traditions.

For me, Lew always remained a valued companion along the road to more secure and more profound knowledge of the ideas and values we shared and cherished. And yet we remained friendly antagonists, each seeking his own way to theoretical and moral enlightenment.

Philip Selznick, University of California-Berkeley


In the mid and late 1960s, when I was a graduate student at Brandeis University, Lewis Coser taught the required seminar in classical sociological theory and introduced us not only to Durkheim, Marx, Weber, and Simmel, but also to thinkers such as Max Scheler, whose ideas have fallen from view. Dressed in tweed jacket and tie, Coser spoke with an accent etched by both French and German. As Juan Corradi recently observed, Coser’s lectures were “systematic, never boring, both authoritative and friendly at the same time”; the content, Judith Adler recalls, “almost fell effortlessly onto one’s page as an ordered, coherent whole.”

Lewis Coser’s European background, and the experiences he occasionally shared (e.g., about his youthful participation in Marxist political groups in Paris) extended our intellectual and personal horizons. One day in the theory seminar Coser shifted topics by standing up and slowly, lovingly writing a name—Maurice Halbwachs—on the blackboard. As he wrote in a rightward-tilting script, Coser began to describe Halbwach’s fascinating theory of collective memory; he also told us about the French sociologist’s death at Buchenwald in 1945.

Coser linked us to the past, and he also welcomed us into the future of sociology. I remember sitting in the hall by his office, anxiously awaiting the results of my qualifying exam in social theory. He came out smiling, called out “Mazel Tov!” and opened his arms for a bear hug. Lew extended his welcome as fully to women as to men. He often spoke respectfully of his wife, Rose, a sociologist with her own trajectory of interests and publications. As a dual-career couple, they provided a model and an inspiration, even as many of us noted her difficulties in finding a regular job. In the late 1970s I experienced a sweet sense of shared cause when Lew and I served together on the ASA Status of Women Committee.

Barrie Thorne, University of California-Berkeley


I first “met” Lew Coser in 1971 as a senior in college through reading Men of Ideas in a class on the sociology of intellectuals. Soon after, I came across his equally inspiring Sociology through Literature, an unprecedented introduction to sociology through fiction, and discovered his distinctively eclectic intellectual taste. Where else could a sociologist read a sixteenth-century Chinese story by Chin P’ng Mei along with a Yiddish story by Sholom Aleichem and works of Pirandello and Balzac? I suspect those writers didn’t know that they were doing sociology, yet Lew did know that and succeeded in making us see it too.

My favorite piece of Coseriana is Greedy Institutions, a classic study of the “traditional” form of group affiliation. Like his hero, Georg Simmel, Lew was at his best assembling in the same work historically and culturally different players such as the Byzantine eunuch, the modern housewife, the Bolshevik revolutionary, and the celibate priest. By lumping them together he managed to compellingly demonstrate how the similarity in the formal profile of their patterns of social affiliation outweighed their sociohistorical differences—a perfect illustration of formal sociological theorizing.

Along with Masters of Sociological Thought, those were Lew’s works that inspired me to become a sociologist. Yet he influenced me even more as a professional role model, an intellectual who combined an exceptionally broad range of interests, concerns, and erudition with excellent scholarship. Years later, when I became his colleague during his last year of teaching at Stony Brook in 1985-86, I was fortunate to also witness how scholarly eminence need not entail an “imperial” aura or pomposity—an experience certainly shared by anyone who participated in the monthly soirées at the Cosers.

I shall always remember Lew Coser as a great sociologist, a good friend, and a unique professional role model.

Eviatar Zerubavel, Rutgers University