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Lewis Coser Remembered

by Andrew Perrin, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill

I am fortunate to have known Lewis Coser, quite literally, all my life. Since he thought “Grandpa” was too pedestrian and his native “Grossvater” or “Opa” too Germanic, I knew him first as “grand-pe`re,” a name he and Rose—both Francophiles—chose when I was born. As I became more aware, first of his political persona and, later, his academic one, I gained additional admiration for his remarkable life.

Born Ludwig Cohen in Berlin in 1913 (his father later changed the family name), Coser left for Paris in 1933. There he studied comparative literature and sociology at the Sorbonne and was active in Marxist politics. In 1940, he was arrested by the French government, which, as he told the story, rounded up all native Germans, even Jewish anti-fascists, and placed them in internment camps in the South of France. As a result of an expansion of U.S. quotas for immigration of political exiles, and with the assistance of the International Relief Association, he traveled through Marseilles and Portugal and boarded a boat to New York in 1941.

On the advice of an immigration official, he changed his name from Ludwig to Lewis. Anxious to thank the caseworker at the International Relief Association who had worked to obtain a visa for him, he met Rose Laub and soon married her. The two began a lifelong companionship and collaboration, studying at Columbia University under, among others, Robert K. Merton and Paul Lazarsfeld, and both received PhDs in sociology. Rose Laub Coser—also a pathbreaking sociologist and a founding member of Sociologists for Women in Society—died in 1994. Lewis Coser’s dissertation, The Functions of Social Conflict, became a classic in social theory, and was listed in a 1997 Contemporary Sociology review as one of the best-selling sociology books of the century.

During the postwar years, Coser was a member of the circle of leftist intellectuals active in New York. He wrote for several political magazines, including Dwight MacDonald’s Politics, Partisan Review, The Progressive, Commentary, and The Nation. Along with Irving Howe and others, he founded Dissent magazine and served as a co-editor for many years.

Coser taught at several universities, including the General College of the University of Chicago as well as the University of California-Berkeley. He founded the sociology department at Brandeis University and taught there for more than 15 years before joining the sociology department at the State University of New York-Stony Brook, where he remained until his retirement. In 1987 the Cosers retired to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Lewis Coser was Professor Emeritus, first at Boston College and then at Boston University. He was the author or editor of more than 18 books, including the classics Men of Ideas and Masters of Sociological Thought, and the author of numerous articles. He was president of the Society for the Study of Social Problems in 1967-68, the American Sociological Association in 1975, and the Eastern Sociological Association in 1983.

In Stony Brook, the Cosers were famous for their monthly “salons,” to which scores of guests would come for gourmet food, drink, and intellectual stimulation. Similarly, at their house in Wellfleet on Cape Cod, they welcomed friends, colleagues, comrades, and students to a summer-long series of cocktail and dinner parties at the pond.

Although he prided himself on separating his political and sociological thinking, he was critical of modern American sociology’s abandonment of social criticism for what his ASA presidential address called “the fallacy of misplaced precision.” I traveled with him to East Berlin, Dresden, and Leipzig in 1990, where he warned in his lectures that sociology was “in danger of losing its critical bite.”

His love of books and reading permeated his life. I remember, as a child, walking with him in downtown Boston when we found a small amount of money on the ground. He quickly walked me to the nearest bookstore and bought me Gulliver’s Travels, reading it to me later. Late in his life, he proclaimed, “if ever I can’t read, that’s when I want to go.” Less than two weeks before his death, he found it too difficult to continue reading.

When my son, his first great-grandson, was visiting him at his Wellfleet house at the age of 9 months, during the summer of 2001, we asked him what it felt like to be a great-grandfather. “It’s wonderful,” he replied. “You get all of the honor with none of the work!” His charm, wit, intellect, and commitment will be remembered and continued by colleagues, students, and family.

A memorial service will be held in the fall at SUNY-Stony Brook. The Theory Section of the ASA will be awarding an annual Lewis Coser Prize in his memory; those wishing to contribute to that memorial may send checks to the Lewis Coser Memorial Fund at the American Sociological Association, 1307 New York Avenue, NW, Suite 700, Washington, DC 20005.

In addition to me, his grandson, Coser is survived by his partner, Leona Robbins of Cambridge, MA; his daughter, Ellen Coser Perrin, of Brookline, MA; his son, Steven Coser, of Melrose, MA; two other grandsons: E. Benjamin Perrin, of Cherryfield, ME; and Matthew Coser, of Melrose, MA; and a great-grandson, Jonah Perrin, of Chapel Hill, NC.

Sociologists Remember Lewis Coser