Arthur Stinchcombe (1955)


Arthur Stinchcombe, or simply Art as everyone knew him, passed away on July 3rd. He was 85 years old, having had a brilliant, luminescent career. He received his PhD from Berkeley in 1960. He was a distinguished member of the famous First Berkeley School of Sociology who went on to shape the discipline. There was nothing Art couldn’t do. He began as a mathematician, turning his mind to sociology where he made major contributions to organization theory, sociology of law, sociology of education, and economic sociology. His books dealt with the logic of inquiry, statistical methods, social history, comparative sociology, high school rebellion, and much more. They won him countless awards. Art taught at Johns Hopkins, Chicago, Arizona and Northwestern as well as at Berkeley (1967-75), chairing the department in those hot years, 1971-73. He will be missed by sociologists in many a place; he will be remembered for his gangly, retiring disposition, but always ready to engage with anyone on any topic; he leaves us with original contributions, impelled by his idiosyncratic, quirky, refreshing imagination.

From Margherita Larson: Art Stinchcombe was my teacher, my thesis adviser and my very dear friend for almost half a century. It is difficult for me to write something that tells both what this friendship represented –the constant surprises of his conversation and his company-- and the depth of my intellectual indebtedness. He taught me to think as a sociologist. In part it worked because of what he has called the solidarity born of citing “the same dead Germans:” Max Weber, first of all, without forgetting Marx (I liked that he never forgot to include Trotsky among the non-Germans of his pantheon)

I met Art in 1967: he had just returned to Berkeley after Johns Hopkins; I was working on David Apter’s research project on the politics of modernization. I do not remember what we said exactly, but the sense of relief from the abstract systems of political science, as we discussed how his 1961 article, “Agricultural enterprise and rural class relations,” applied to the Spanish colonial system on which I was working. He was inquisitive and generous with his time since he enjoyed the discussion --empirical “twigs” rather than theoretical trunks, he was to write later when he explained the “mind-complexifying” function of the classics in “Should sociologists forget their mothers and fathers?” Most of Art Stinchcombe’s writings, as any serious conversation with him, aimed at replacing clichés with “complex and flexible patterns of thought.”

I saw him again in October 1970, when I entered Berkeley after solving my visa problems. I wrote a paper to be exempted from the introductory theory-methods class, which Art and Neil Smelser taught, but I still followed the lectures. Art and Neil were faced with a typical but not too clever insurrection, from students who did not want to read Union Democracy or the other classics assigned but Andrè Gunder Frank, Mirra Komarovsky and others I wish I could recall. Art’s response was to write for each “insurrectionary” text an analysis so intelligent, so biting, unconventional and erudite that everyone in the department read them and the students of the insurrection felt humiliated, especially when he brought up Doris Lessing as his own example of feminist thinking. Few students understood then how much of Art’s approach to our field was based on aesthetic judgment and the aesthetics of intellectual work.

We went every other week to his house for conversation. The “habitués” (among whom were Erik Wright and Faruk Birtek) mingled with Art’s children crossing back and forth as did a huge brown rabbit pursued by a cat. It was fun. We shared many stories and one is indelible: there were unsolved machete attacks in Berkeley that winter but Art, who had insomnia, continued walking the streets at 3 am. One night the police stopped him. After having declared that he worked at Berkeley “in maintenance” (ashamed to say he was the department’s chair), he had to stand in the car’s searchlights to be identified by the rescued victim. Only when he turned to his guard to ask how long the ordeal was going to be did the woman see his profile and make a negative ID!

Going back to our work and his teaching, Art was in Holland the whole year when I wrote my dissertation but he was the only mentor I could imagine. I had to send a chapter every month and, in 1973-74, that meant packages and snail mail back and forth. In one of his letters, answering to something terrible that had happened, he wrote about the perpetrators:” Why can’t people understand that when they kill, the others are dead. For ever.”

Much of what I did followed “Social Structure and Organizations,” and then his command to show why anyone would follow the professionalization project that I was trying to articulate in two different historical contexts. Finally, he responded to the last chapter: “It is a real book, why don’t you call it ‘Crime and Punishment’?” I replied that the title seemed to be taken, and what about ‘Pride and Prejudice’ … I imagine he laughed. I had not only taken from him the fundamental question of how to build trust among strangers, but also learned that sociology needs to move from micro-foundations in tangible or possible behavior to the support and reproduction of broader structures. In reading and teaching Constructing Social Theories I found that same injunction in the memorable discussion of the unexplained feedback loop of functionalism: we don’t give countenance to black-boxing.

After Art remarried and moved to Chicago with Carol, I saw them as often as I could get to the happy house on Asbury Street. The radiating happiness of that marriage had made him serene and perhaps less judgmental. I remember fewer instances of his favorite sorting out of social scientists into “first rate,” “second rate” or “not first rate,” seasoned by his taste for twigs over trunks—a taste that once had him tell me he had chosen Hopkins over Harvard because he preferred to be denied tenure by Jim Coleman than Talcott Parsons.

One of the last times I went he was working on When Formality Works: Authority and Abstraction in Law and Organizations. A difficult endeavor, where he rescues formal plans for as long and insofar as their abstract principles are built to be corrected by and adjusted to the “twigs” of reality, it moves from architectural blueprints to law, liquidity in markets and organizations and scientific paradigms with a mastery that I am obviously unable to judge. Six years. That was the time it took him to get to the study of formality from the amazing political economy of slavery in the Caribbean, in which he ultimately clarified the social and political foundations of freedom. Five years before that it was the milestone of Information and Organizations, where I recall that he used Chandler to “modernize” Schumpeter, both authors that he had taught us to appreciate.  Art’s mind worked in this way, seizing a fundamental question that did not necessarily connect to the one before it (although I am sure he could explain the passage), breaking it down, clarifying it, not solving the puzzle but posing more questions.

Art Stinchcombe was original and profound, or profoundly original. He wrote about the classics “The only reason we tend to use older works as touchstones of excellence is that our geniuses are rare and have to be made to last at least until we get the next one.” Art’s work is now the touchstone.

From Seán O'Riain: I was very fortunate to get to know Art a little during my sabbatical at Northwestern in 2008-9. This started since we both had a habit of sitting at the back of seminars – which was worth it just to hear Art’s pithy and insightful summaries as he headed out the door at the end. I still think often of those comments – “well I always behaved as if ideas were real” particularly sticks in my head. Meeting Art inspired me to search out his many works, with important ideas typically lurking behind modest titles. I had no idea that “Organization Theory and Project Management: Administering Uncertainty in Norwegian Offshore Oil” would contain so many remarkable insights in to markets, liberalism and software teams, among other topics. But most of all, it was a pleasure to get to know Art himself. He was mildly cranky in a way that was passionate and generous about ideas and very funny. He was profoundly egalitarian in his respect for and engagement with all, and in his many jokes at his own expense. I feel very grateful for the opportunity to have known him, even for a short while.

From Faruk Birtek:  Art was one of the brightest persons I have ever met.  He had such a breadth of knowledge. I learned so much from him.  The beer parties at his home were all learning expeditions. He was a great conversationalist. He was most logical. He made sociology a science. I learned organizational sociology from him which shaped my dissertation. I am forever grateful. He was cynical and iconoclastic when need be and most serious and impatient with sloppy thinking – a great loss. I have lost three of my Berkeley beacons this year, Smelser,  Matza and now Stinchcombe. I feel naked yet so lucky that I knew them as their devoted student; Art Stinchcombe was a most exceptional person - we were a lucky generation to have known him!

From William C. Cockerham: This is getting freaky. Last night and this morning I was rereading Art Stinchcombe's book, Constructing Social Theories (1968), as background and a reference for a new book I'm writing on sociological theories of health and illness and only hours later, this afternoon, I just received the notice on his passing. I consulted Art's book often over the years, and learned much from it. I really didn't know him enough to write a tribute, but his passing is obviously a great loss to sociology. I know rereading a book published in 1968 or even citing it would be questionable by some, but there is still a lot of contemporary relevance in what Art had to say about theory construction.

From Art Stinchcombe (2002): Dear Michael, putting your re-request for a bio together with an In Memoriam for Phil Selznick, my dissertation supervisor, has jacked up my guilt mechanism to a level that overcomes my embarrassment at tooting my own horn in as bio. The thing I have to guard against is that I think very well of myself, and when I talk about myself that comes through. But I had a lot of experience early in my career with people like Phil (whom I could never call "Phil") that I knew would apply higher standards on my work than I would. Fortunately some of it passed Phil's standards for coherence and sociological depth, and other people like James S. Coleman sometimes thought my treatment of the facts was at least workmanlike. The dissertation was a quantitative one, and I have tried to develop strategies to make quantitative research fit to deal with the sort of complexity of the facts that Coleman was nearly as good at as Clifford Geertz and Erving Goffman, my superiors in my own cohort. My attempt to formulate this task and some ways to approach the problem Coleman used to call "choosing the right oversimplification" is my last book, The Logic of Social Research--Charles Tilly criticized me for the singular "The." Even using them (or Tilly) as a yardstick shows the kind and degree of vanity that I have to guard myself against. Fortunately I have supervised enough dissertations that I never could have managed myself, sometimes by showing that I was dead wrong (as John Markoff  did on the rural revolution on France, by showing I had chosen the wrong dependent variable(s) to explain).

The big problem that I picked up from Phil's work was that of the tendency of formal law and formal organization to oversimplify, or otherwise distort, the complexity of the values that they were supposed to serve. One of the early attempts to study this problem by a strategic combination of ethnographic methods and qualitative components in interviews to guide the formulation of the problems that I could study quantitatively was "Creating Efficient Industrial Organizations". It had essentially no impact on sociology, except that I had the advantage of knowing all the things I found out, and the people that didn't read it didn't. My self-serving interpretation was that South American government-owned steel plant managers that I studied didn't what  a sociologist (rather than a successful steel plant manager)  to tell them how to make steel plant go, and American socialists weren't much interested in the problem of efficient socialist steel plants. In some ways, my most successful book in influencing sociology of organizations was the theory developed in that book, with the steel plants left out, "Information and Organizations".

Sometime during the early period I wrote a theory textbook from some of my lectures, in which setting the problem of building social theories within a positivist view of what "science" was about in a few pages generated almost all of the citations to my work, which people still quote me. In some sense, my sociological biography stopped 40 years ago with "Constructing Social Theories". But I have tried to expand on,those few pages, and the illustrations that accompanied them, in "Theoretical Methods in Social History", and returning to Phil's influence on the substance of formal organizations and laws, "When Formality Works".

I am now Emeritus at sociology at Northwestern, mainly involved in historical and comparative work, advising people around here, and sometimes elsewhere, if I can get them to give me copies of their papers or books to comment on. My own comparative research is on why provinces vary so much in their ability to govern and tax their localities while getting along with their empire or federal center, and arguing that the main variables explaining variations in strength and ability to cooperate with the central government are those describing the commercial flow out of the locality. I expect the market for this book will be more or less the same as the efficiency book and another book that essentially no one has read, on comparative slavery and emancipation in the Caribbean during the 18th and 19th centuries. My excuse for the commercial failure of this last book is that no one really wants to know how some kinds slavery were not as bad as some other kinds, and some kinds of  emancipations are almost as bad, at least for a while, as slavery was.

So in some sense my summary of my biography as a sociologist is suggested by the name of some British degrees, "upper second." I have however loved doing sociological research, seeing many of my students having learned from me  how to find out things I couldn't have found out. I should also mention that my wife, Carol A. Heimer, has made my work and my effects on others better than it was before. And admiring her and my children, as well as loving them, has been a main joy of my life. And may I be forgiven for liking some of my work better than others do.

Dissertation Title: 
Social Sources of Rebellion in a High School
Dissertation Book Title: 
Rebellion in a high school
Chicago, IL