American Sociological Association

ASA Footnotes

A publication of the American Sociological AssociationASA News & Events
June-August 2018

A Tribute to Stanley Lieberson, 82nd ASA President

Mary Waters, Harvard University

Stanley Leiberson

Stanley Leiberson

Stanley Lieberson, Abbott Lawrence Lowell Professor of Sociology Emeritus of Harvard University and the President of the American Sociological Association in 1990-1991, died at age 84 on March 19, 2018 from neurological complications stemming from an accident he had as he bicycled to work nine years earlier. I think he would want me to tell you that he was, indeed, wearing a helmet.

Stan was a towering figure in American sociology with award-winning contributions to a wide variety of subfields of the discipline. A member of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the American Philosophical Society, he was also the former President of the Pacific Sociological Society and the Sociological Research Association.

Yet with all of his scholarly contributions and awards, Stan will be most fondly remembered for his warmth and kindness, his incredible sense of humor, and his inherent sense of fairness and equality. Stan despised hierarchy and status and enjoyed socializing with students, staff, and junior faculty. He never took himself too seriously, answering his office phone by saying "Doctor's office," telling people he worked at "H.U." and responding to anyone who happened to ask him "How are you?," with either "Sobering up" or "Advancing human knowledge." He is probably most fondly remembered by those of us lucky enough to be his friend or colleague for his long walks at ASA or his legendary lunch dates where he loved to talk about the millions of questions he had about the social world, often seeking the opinions of the waitresses as well as his lunch partner on whatever topics he was interested in that day.

Stan was born in Montreal in 1933, and was two years old when his family immigrated to Brighton Beach, Brooklyn where he, and his brother Melvin, grew up. His father, Jack, had immigrated from his native Warsaw and worked as a garment maker. His mother, Ida, a native of Canada, worked in a dime store. You can learn some key insights into Stan's personality by reading his CV and the biography he wrote for his website. His biography mentions that he was a graduate of PS 253, JHS 234 and Abraham Lincoln Public High School. It also states "BA: None." The story is that Stan attended Brooklyn College for two years and found out that he could apply to the University of Chicago by taking a test. He took the test and, much to his astonishment, he was admitted directly into the graduate program in Sociology where he enrolled at age 18, earning an MA in 1958 and a PhD in 1960.

Lieberson studied in Chicago with Otis Dudley Duncan, and his early work was on metropolitan and regional growth. He was the co-author, with Duncan and colleagues, of his first book, Metropolis and Region (Johns Hopkins University, 1960), while still in graduate school. His dissertation examined ethnic and racial residential segregation and assimilation in 10 cities of the U.S. during the first half of the 20th Century. It won the University of Chicago Colver-Rosenberger Dissertation prize for 1958-1960 and was later published as his second book, Ethnic Patterns in American Cities (Free Press, 1963).

The Colver-Rosenberger prize came in very handy because it provided the money for Stan and his wife Pat's honeymoon. Stan and Patricia Beard met at his first job, at the University of Iowa where she was a graduate student. He liked to note that theirs was a "mixed marriage" because Stan was a Jewish New Yorker through and through and Pat was raised as a Protestant in the small town of Mount Ayr, IA. It was a loving marriage that lasted 57 years and brought both of them much happiness. Stan and Pat loved to take long walks and talk, and he came to share her love for nature and the outdoors, an interest they shared together with their four children. They particularly enjoyed canoeing on the Mystic River near their home in Arlington, MA.

The Liebersons moved a lot during the first half of Stan's career as he held faculty positions at Iowa, Wisconsin, Washington, Chicago, Arizona and Berkeley before coming to Harvard in 1988 where he taught until his retirement in 2007. He continued writing and teaching after retirement until the effects of his bike accident made that impossible.

Stan's scholarly achievements concentrated in four areas—race and ethnicity, linguistics and language diversity, social research methods, and cultural taste and social change. He published many important articles and books on race and ethnic relations in both the United States and elsewhere. I particularly recommend an early paper of his that is still eye-opening in its theoretical contributions: "A Societal Theory of Race and Ethnic Relations" (ASR, 1961). As he was teaching courses on race and ethnicity in the 1970s, Stan was bothered that he did not have a good answer to his students' questions about why immigrants from Europe had succeeded in ways American blacks had not. He found unique data to address the question, and the resulting book, A Piece of the Pie: Blacks and White Immigrants Since 1880 (California, 1980), received the Distinguished Contribution to Scholarship Award of the American Sociological Association in 1982. A follow-up book on the outcomes of later generation whites using the 1980 Census ancestry data, titled From Many Strands: Ethnic and Racial Groups in Contemporary America (Russell Sage, 1988), he generously co-authored with me, a graduate student at the time. Throughout his career, Stan often co-authored work with graduate students, long before that became common in the discipline.

Growing up in an immigrant household, Stan's fascination with language began at home. Both of his parents spoke Yiddish and English and, in addition, his father spoke Polish and his mother spoke French. Stan's research on bilingualism, language conflict, and language use in multi-ethnic nations contributed to the early development of the interdisciplinary field of sociolinguistics. A collection of his articles on this subject, Language Diversity and Language Contact: Essays by Stanley Lieberson, edited by Anwar S. Dil, was published by Stanford University Press in 1981.

When Stan and Pat had their first child, they thought long and hard about a name, choosing Rebecca because they thought it was unique. When she started kindergarten, they realized that many other parents had independently made the same choice and they were surrounded by Beckys. Fascinated by how that could happen, Stan eventually turned his attention to the study of first names, producing the prize-winning book A Matter of Taste: How Names, Fashions and Cultures Change (Yale, 2000). In this book, Lieberson shows that changes in taste or fashion in names, and in other areas of culture, operate in an orderly way with an underlying structure and process. He also often told expectant parents that years of research had taught him the very best name for a boy would be Stanley and for a girl Stanleyetta.

He also often told expectant parents that years of research had taught him the very best name for a boy would be Stanley and for a girl Stanleyetta.

Stan felt very strongly that the best sociology was rigorous and empirical. Throughout his career he managed to find unusual data to answer his questions about how the social world worked, but he worried a lot about whether we had the right methods and whether the answers we came up with were correct. He made many contributions to empirical methods in sociology, winning the Methodology Section's Paul F. Lazarsfeld Award in 2007. His 1985 book, Making It Count: The Improvement of Social Research and Theory (California), challenged sociologists to think hard about the nature of causality and the limits of the models we use. For many years he taught a very popular graduate seminar on methods based on these insights. He never got to finish the book he was working on at the end of his life that would propose his solutions to the problems he had identified in this earlier work. We are all the poorer for that loss.

Stanley Lieberson leaves many former students who loved him and learned so much from him; many friends and colleagues around the country who enjoyed his humor, his wisdom, and his humanity. Stan was devoted to Pat and his family, and drew great strength and joy from them throughout his life, and especially during his illness these past years. He was the beloved husband of Pat, the devoted father of Rebecca Lieberson and her husband James Babb, David Lieberson, Miriam Pollack and her husband Stuart, and the late Rachel Lieberson. He was the adored grandfather of Simon, Amelia, Sarah, and Hannah; the dear brother of Melvin Lieberson; and the loving uncle of Lisa Lieberson. The family asks that any remembrances in his memory be made to Greater Boston Legal Services,, Amnesty International,, or Doctors Without Borders,