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Mathieu Deflem (ed) Sociologists in a Global Age

Biographical perspectives. Ashgate 2007.


It has become quite popular to approach different occupational or ethnic groups via life stories. Everybody likes to discuss their own biographies, and they are often interesting, or if not interesting, then at least informative in different ways.  It is quite clear that we will always be interested in really famous people’s biographies. Sociologists are in a problematic category: they are neither necessarily interesting nor good objects of biographies, but they want to write them. Yet a very diligent sociologist who has stayed mostly inside the discipline does not normally make an interesting biography.
Even quite famous sociologists will find it difficult to “sell” their autobiographies after they have retired, and when they have time to reflect on their lives (I have had the difficult experience of reading such autobiographies; one reason is certainly that if the author is too nice, and avoids telling unpleasant things, the biography will not find a publisher). 
Anthony Giddens might be a good object only if he tells “all” about Blair and/or opens up about his love life, which he probably does not want to do.

A second alternative to full autobiographies have been the collections of shorter biographies. This has produced quite a few interesting books, so that we have already an extensive array of various sociological lives. Mathieu Deflem has had the good idea (even if not terribly original) to take up the metaphor of globalisation and travels when looking at sociologists’ lives. This is certainly a good perspective: good sociologists travel nowadays a lot, although sociologists of my generation (born directly after the war) do not often have similar itineraries as those of the previous generation who had to flee from Nazi Germany, for example. Their travels are far more benign, and mainly voluntary. Especially if the perspective is mostly European, or establishment. From East European socialist countries there was still emigration, i.e. definitive moves (Morawska), but even then mostly not of active oppositional figures.

In this collection, the majority of the authors are originally European. Some of them have moved to the USA. All of them have been many times to the USA and been influenced by American sociology. A few are Americans, from the beginning. Some writers come from Asia: one Japanese, one Chinese (from the Chinese Academy of Sciences), one is South Korean.  They all have travelled a lot in their life.  The important change, pointed out by Eiko Ikegami in the book, is that nowadays sociological travellers can keep up their contacts in their country of origin so that they can genuinely have different identities, in her case a Japanese identity when she is in Kyoto and an American sociological scientific identity in New York.  This is a good point and might have had an effect on the modern identity talk in social sciences. Those who have spent their time regularly between two places (e.g. Derrida, Foucault, Beck …) are certainly more apt to emphasize that they can have different identities, at will, than those who stay put


 Sociologists tell also of their networks, which gives a good picture of who knows who in world sociology. It is not surprising that the circles are rather small, but of course the group is not an absolutely unconnected collection of sociologists. They also themselves represent certainly a collection of rather well-known sociologists although perhaps not quite the top of the presently active (Giddens, Beck, Castells, Bauman, for example are missing, although they all are mentioned as mentors).  Of  the 17 authors, five are women.  This is probably a fair percentage of the leading sociologists. In general, the stories read very much as career descriptions and in some cases even career planning. Thus, for a sociologist to succeed it is important to be visible, choose good mentors, choose an interesting subject, and have good luck in being at a right place at a right time.

An important and fascinating aspect is that many of the authors are next generation from the modern classics: Parsons, Sorokin, Homans, Garfinkel, Blumer, Schutz, Habermas, Shils, Merton etc., whom they have met and learned from. So they are conveying a  sociological tradition, which is very important.


 In a sense, it would have been fascinating to read also stories of career failures, but this is understandably much more difficult to elicit (at least as such!). And total failures, sociologists of which we hear nothing at all, are by definition very difficult to find (but not impossible: all departments have their share of those, on maybe even failures at good departments might be very interesting indeed). In a recent issue of Antipode, there is a debate between two people from the same department, one a failure (in the department) and one a success, with a very different view of the biographical approach (Mercer 2007, Purcell 2007).


Another interesting subject is the topic of research: Sociological theory is absolutely dominating, urban studies (very big here), historical sociology (a strong second, if all those who combine it with their main research interests, are included)), migration,  criminology, happiness studies … From the large subject areas of Contemporary Sociology, the following are more or less missing: family, work, population, environment. And empirical sociology in a more strict sense is also very rare: only one or two describe themselves as purely empirical sociologists.


The editor has divided the stories in three groups: firstly those whose career has been especially marked by travels. Secondly those whose career had a theoretical linkage (although they certainly did travel a lot, too) and thirdly those where the connecting link is called sociological identity. What this means, is not quite clear to me. In any case it is different from the travelling identity mentioned above. The title of this book is absolutely correct. All sociologists present here discuss globalization from different vantage points.


About the personal life of the sociologists, there is very little. Typical formulations are “my then husband” (when Sassen mentions her failed first thesis)  or “my first wife”. No personal conflicts, difficult divorce proceedings, fights about children are reported (very few children are even mentioned, but Ruut Veenhoven mentions abortion and voluntary childlessness, connecting this to his sociological activity) although one could think that a difficult divorce or custody fight might affect one’s sociological perspective very much. Once again, one gets one’s ethnic prejudices confirmed: Germans are rather dull and pompous, Italians never read the instructions (or if they read they do not follow them), Asians are very formal, Poles are in a class of their own etc.


Note that postmodernism does not have a prominent place in these autobiographies: it is scarcely mentioned as the authors all represent rather a critical realist or phenomenological perspective. A possible explanation is Knorr-Cetina, but even she does not make her standpoint very clear. It would have been refreshing to read the lives of some of the outliers of the field, such as Bruno Latour or Steven Fuller.  At least to see how their irrational stance translates into a life story frame.


To mention some of the individual stories,

Saskia Sassen writes in a highly abstract way and includes very little personal stuff. She mentions only the interesting fact that when she arrived to the US, she was accepted to the university without formal papers or a previous degree. This wouldn’t be possible nowadays! Interestingly, she does not mention her famous present partner, which would probably be considered as unacceptable, if the man would be the author? In her text there are small, but irritating recurring errors: e.g. poesis vs poiesis and Hypolitte vs Hyppolite.


There are many such texts with very little personal content. Richard Munch presents a completely impossible, megalomaniac research program  (p 108),   but does not specify who should do it. Pierpaolo Donati gives a spirited defense of relational sociology, which I sympathize with, but it is rather far from the idea of the book … and there is almost nothing about his academic life story.

Ewa Morawska is very sympathetic and modest in her story, which could have presented much more dramatically. By the way, the horribly self-congratulating sociologists are almost completely missing!


The two Asian men whose career has taken place in Asia, are somewhat similar, and very different from others,  but certainly cannot be said to represent an “Asianness”



Ruut Veenhoven writes in a simple way, very modestly although he seems to have accomplished quite a lot. The Dutch initiative to abortion clinics has had an effect all over Europe. He might of course ponder a little more his comment that voluntary childlessness is still not something considered as praiseworthy although it is practiced and there are some good causes for it. The interesting thing for me in Veenhoven is his stubborn interest in the world happiness studies.  The article recounts some interesting empirical results which are not yet acceptable in sociology.  Veenhoven could have discussed this problem more.


Piotr Sztompka gives us an extremely interesting and open-hearted account of an ambitious, careerist sociologist for whom excellent research is a means to an end, in this case to the academic top. Not everybody will want or will be able to follow Sztompka’s recommendations, but it is clear that he has arrived. Perhaps the funniest detail is his satisfaction that one of his books is obligatory reading for students in Azerbaijan, as a replacement for Lenin.  His cultural contrasts between Polish and American university cultures are illuminating. Personally, having visited Poland many times and knowing many Polish researchers, I dare say there is some cultural specificity in Poland which is both fascinating and problematic. Religiosity is also a problem with Poles. And patriotism: it is fascinating to read of Sztompka’s hesitations between staying in Poland or emigrating to the US.  I don’t think such arguments could be presented by any other high-level intellectuals in Europe.


Edward Tiryakian rounds up the whole thing. He presents a very good example of all the themes, globalisation, multiculturalism,  internationalism, role of important mentors, theoretical developments and changes. He is a clearly of the older generation than the others. He was born in 1929 in the USA, but moved to France immediately after that, came back to the US in 1939,  and made his career after the war in Harvard, under Parsons, Kluckhohn and Sorokin (who was a total failure in Harvard, having quarrelled with everybody and relegated to giving introductory courses!)


One conclusion: sociology needs international contacts but these should be more many-sided. All of the authors have had an important period of their work or studies in the US. The US is almost the only country which offers really good competitive study scholarship possibilities and important environments with both international and good local students. No such experience is described relative to Europe and European studies. Even the European postmodernism seems to find its way to Europe via the US secondary reactions. In Europe, it seems rather that the retired professors have good chances of starting a new career (Martin Albrow), but for students, there are no such openings. Maybe the newest generation of sociologists might have different stories, but certainly not this kind of luxury stories, where one immediately meets the most famous sociologists in very small seminars.

To get Europe really moving, we need to have wealthy institutions which give a chance to graduate students to mingle with the present great names of European sociology. There are some potential places, but nothing really so obvious as the Harvards, Berkeleys New Yorks of this book. And I doubt that there will be.  For instance the European University institute is potentially such a place, but it is too disparate and all its present fellows are more or less lonely wolves, unable to create a sufficient momentum. Thus the present situation will continue, unfortunately. Sociologists in a Global Age is an excellent document about this.




Doug Mercer (2007) The Dangers of Autobiographical Research: A Response to Purcell. Antipode, Journal Compilation 2007, 571-578

Mark Purcell (2007) “Skilled, cheap and desperate”: Non-tenure-track faculty and the delusion of meritocracy, Antipode 39: 121-143



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