Kenneth Bock (1941)

Emeritus Professor of Sociology, University of California, Berkeley

Ken Bock Died August 9, 2014 at the age of 98


Rick Biernacki (PhD 1988) writes:

Prof. Bock served graduate students as a model of prudence in remaining unfashionably true to the grand questions of social inquiry.  He also rescued me with his calm adroitness.  During the interminable period in my graduate studies when I was readying field papers for the qualifying exam, Prof. Bock spontaneously invited me to his office and began quizzing me on historical method.  “How would a happening qualify as an historical event from your point of view?” he asked.   Then he queried me on interpretations of The Eighteenth Brumaire.  I had no clue as to why Prof. Bock was quietly posing such a variety of challenges.  It seemed my drafts had struck him as unintelligible.  After thirty minutes of probing, Prof. Bock advised me to take the qualifying exam as soon as the relevant faculty could assemble – quit rewriting the qualifying papers was his advice.  Prof. Bock was so statesmanlike in shepherding me toward the dissertation itself, I have tried to carry on his earmark style of wisdom in advising graduate students ever since.


Jack Bloom (PhD 1980) writes:

I was a TA for Ken Bock.  He was my first experience teaching; I was nervous, not sure that I had something to say to the students I would be teaching.  He encouraged me, allowed me to participate in choosing the books for the course and to give some lectures to the whole class, not just the sections I was teaching.  He regularly sat in on one of the twice-a-week section meetings, never saying anything, but he included questions about what I had been teaching on the final exam, which told me that I was at least on the right track.  He was always encouraging, even though he did not agree with my point of view.  (He was much more conservative than me.)  He was a true mentor, and I am grateful for the experience he provided me.


Robert S. Palacio (Ph.D. 1980) writes:

I met Professor Kenneth Bock during my first year as a graduate student at Berkeley, fall 1972.  In his courses on Social Change and Social Evolution he introduced me to a body of literature and set of ideas that continue to fascinate me to this day.  My life-long interest in the writings of the Enlightenment, as well as his views related to the “organic analogy” vs. the “historical sociology” approach to the study of social change and development, began in his courses.  All this was new to me at that time.  I have fond memories of seminars at his home up in the Berkeley hills.  We sat around the living room with drinks in hand, bread and cheese, discussing the assigned readings related to theories of social change.  It was my introduction to student graduate and academic life.  I was just beginning to read some of the great writers in the history of sociological ideas, and therefore did not feel too secure, yet with him and his courses, I felt welcomed and accepted.  Although formal, Professor Bock always made us feel comfortable.  This mentoring made an impression on me, and over the years, I have tried to mentor my students in a similar way.  

I remember one day I mentioned to him that I did not have transportation to his home for a seminar, so he offered to take me in his car.  Along the way we talked about my academic interests and about my background.  I mentioned to him that I was from the rural central valley of California, Fresno more specifically.  I found him to be interested in me as whole person, not just as a graduate student.   During the ride I   learned that he had lived in Modesto, CA in his youth.  I felt some degree of connection with that.  As my dissertation committee Chair, Ken Bock guided and encouraged me through my some difficult times.  I had some problems forming a dissertation committee, since I did not have any contacts with faculty outside the department.  He arranged a meeting with Jack Potter from Anthropology; he also introduced me to Wolfram Eberhard who became the second member of my committee. After I completed graduate studies, Professor Bock was always available to help me with letters of recommendation for teaching positions at many colleges and universities; I often felt I was burdening him; but he was always supportive.

When my wife and I learned about Professor Bock’s passing, we recalled the time when he called me at home at our graduate student housing (University Village) and our three year old daughter picked up the phone.  He was not upset even though she chatted with him for several minutes before we knew we had an incoming call.  When I got the phone, he said it was no problem, even though she had taken up some time with him.   Professor Bock was a kind and gracious person.

Over the years, we kept in touch by letters and my visits to his office.  He sent us a gift when our third child was born in the early 80s.  But I regret that I did not continue to reach out in later years.  I wish I had said that he was an example to me, not only as a teacher-scholar, but as a gentleman.


Mary Waters (PhD 1986) writes:

Professor Kenneth Bock was a wonderful man who taught me a great deal.  At the time I studied with him I would have said he taught me social theory.  He cared a lot about social theory and appreciated very much that my undergraduate degree had been in philosophy and so we had a lot to talk about.  Now, 28 years after I graduated from Berkeley, I realize what he taught me was far, far more important than social theory.  He taught me how to treat graduate students and how to live a balanced life.  I don’t think I have been as good at either as he has, but his example has given me something to strive for. 

If you did not know Ken Bock well you would have thought he was old fashioned and conservative.  He always wore a suit and tie to teach and he was rather formal when you first met him.  In fact, he was ahead of his time in so many ways. His politics were progressive but he also lived according to his principles. He treated women graduate students exactly like the men—something I see few male professors able to do even decades later. He drove a truck, waxed eloquent about fly fishing and the mountains, had many friends, and did not get upset about academic nonsense. He had a great sense of humor and enjoyed being with people a great deal. He and his wife Margaret invited me to his house for wonderful dinners and drinks where we talked about ideas and everything else under the sun. He told great stories and had a great laugh. He was generous and kind and he and Margaret once even had me spend the weekend with them so that I could take a break from writing my dissertation.  We walked the dog, drank stiff drinks on the deck overlooking the hills and he gave me advice about being a professor; the most important of which was not to get caught up in academic politics. When his wife Margaret died I wrote a letter to him, remembering her and describing her personality and specific acts of kindness I had experienced with her.  Ever the teacher, he responded and added a sentence at the end, “Such letters are a great help and matter a great deal you know”.  Of course I didn’t know.   I was young and no one close to me had died yet.  I had written because it was something I had heard was polite to do.    I know he did not believe in obituaries and did not want one when he died, but writing this has helped me feel better.  It helps, you know, to remember and to celebrate the life of such a good man.


Steve Warner (PhD 1972) writes:

Being a student of Kenneth Bock in my senior year at Berkeley was the chief reason I wound up going to graduate school. I was one of the small group in his Senior Honors seminar (Janet Salaff was another), all of whom he encouraged to grow intellectually, in part by taking advantage of our privilege of access to the stacks of the Doe library. I also took his course called “Social Evolution,” numbered Sociology 100 as I recall, which meant that advanced undergraduates and graduates were in the same class. This was my real introduction to independent scholarship in sociological theory, which turned out later to be the bread-and-butter of my career. Prof. Bock (I never called him “Ken”) was ready to write me a glowing letter of recommendation for graduate fellowships, but, aware of his obscure status in the profession, introduced me to then department chair Kingsley Davis who, so far as I know, endorsed the letter as his own. It worked. I’m glad I listed Bock among my teachers in the acknowledgments to the first monograph I published (in sociology of religion). I regret that I didn’t reach out to him in his years of retirement.

By the way, when I became a major in the department at the start of my junior year (fall 1961), it was still called the Department of Sociology and Social Institutions. I always felt that Bock’s historical leanings were not at all marginal given the huge presence of such figures as Reinhard Bendix, Leo Lowenthal, Franz Schurmann and others in the department.


Charles Perrow (PhD 1960) writes:

Kenneth Bock was responsible for setting me on the sociological path, which in the early 1950s was narrow but rapidly expanding. I took my first sociological course from him, "The Idea of Progress." We started with Hesiod’s “Works and Days” and ended, I think, with Hannah Arendt. In keeping with the broad scope of the course I wrote an impertinent paper called "All About War," and he loved it. His course was so much more trenchant than my history courses and his amiable manner and wide ranging erudition reinforced his urgings that I pursue a sociological career. It was also encouraging that you could be a good sociologist by taking time with projects and not perish for the lack of publications. Alas, those days and that kind of a mentor have long since perished.


Irwin Sperber (PhD 1975) writes:

I still have a vivid recollection of Kenneth Bock as the very first professor from whom I took a course (Social Change) in the Spring, 1961.  Freshly arrived from NYC, I was altogether insecure and uncertain about the courses I should initially take.  A couple of unofficial "greeters" from the Graduate Sociology Club assured me that he's especially interested in the history of social theory, and, in the bargain, an extraordinarily calm and reflective person.  So I signed up accordingly.  Thanks to his empathetic and sympathetic outlook, I was able to accept and utilize his trenchant criticisms of my work over the long haul.  He guided and encouraged me at every turn in my fits and starts throughout my "progression" toward the doctorate.  As the decades have rolled by, I've continued to incorporate his work into my teaching of the history of sociological theory.

Since his remarkably long and distinguished career at Berkeley will be the object of many informed accolades by his faculty colleagues, it would be redundant to attempt a survey of his courses and his publications in the present context.  I cannot help but offer a footnote to the many reminiscences that will be presented in his honor.  Although he was not a prolific author, his substantive writings on the history of sociological theory and, most importantly, on the impact of evolutionist assumptions and ideologies in mainstream theorizing are among the most cogent and profound contributions to our discipline in living memory.  The world and the academic community are poorer places with his passing.


Troy Duster writes:

Throughout the tumultuous period of the 1960s and 70s, when local and national politics often rendered “department politics” very contentious, Bock was a model colleague by every measure - always  gracefully engaged with all factions. He was a kindly and quiet mentor, who spoke softly but effectively. One important example was the story of how he guided the late Lillian Rubin into a career in Sociology.  Bock took notice of a fine paper she had produced in her last year as a late-entry undergraduate.  Lillian fondly remembered how Ken Bock called her into his office and asked if she had considered graduate school.  She replied that this was hardly on her agenda, at which point he told her to “go see Phil Selznick” and show him the paper. The rest, as we say, is history.  Ken’s own scholarship was a socio-historical account of evolutionary theory – and how it would influence social theory for a full century.  It certainly influenced me, and was a significant pre-cursor of what would become the Social Studies of Science.


Lyn Spillman (PhD 1991 ) writes:

Ken Bock's first year theory class in the 80s surprised me. New to Berkeley, but not to sociology or philosophy, I'd never really been introduced to the links between the two. ‚ÄčKen's erudition showed me that link. His strong emphasis on the influence of theories of human nature has stayed with me through the decades, and seems more important than ever these days. Apart from his erudition, I'll remember Ken for his egalitarian kindness in many Barrows Hall conversations about grad school worries which must have seemed to him by that time both minor and predictable. Erudition and kindness made a great combination, and a good model.


Bob Blauner (PhD 1962) writes:

Ken Bock was the only faculty member who had been a student of Teggart,  the leader of the dept before it was sociology: Social Institutions. He was definitely marginalized, once the department had highpowered publishing giants like Bendix, Lipset, and Selznick. He was a very gentle, nice person, who got too little respect from faculty or students. In the 70s and 80s, his theory course was chosen by the new group of minority students to fulfill the theory requirement so he became popular. He was accessible, nonthreatening, and therefore blacks and chicanos were comfortable with him.  I once visited him in Grass Valley where he lived after retirement.  He must have been 95 or so. I liked him a lot.  Bob


Elwood Carlson (PhD 1978) writes:

Ken's remark that he was "left homeless" when Social Institutions gave way to Sociology resonates with me, because I was also "left homeless" when UCB's department of Demography was dissolved a month after I was admitted to it in 1972. My grad funding survived the end of the department, though, and Sociology graciously took in three of us orphans. There I found Ken Bock, and took his History of Social Thought seminar not once but twice, since it was a different course each time. He showed us the way into the labyrinths of historical development of social theory, and I too got Halevy's Philosophic Radicals to read. I spent many hours talking with him in his office, pretty continuously during the entire time I spent at Berkeley, and he shaped my perspective on sociology more than anyone else in the department at that time. Eventually I went off and did my demographic thing, but I can still hear the country music coming from the radio in his small pickup truck to this day. I treasure the copy of Acceptance of Histories he gave me, and have read it several times. Thank you, Ken, for being the best example of a mentor I have yet encountered.


Arlie Hochschild (PhD 1969)writes:

Ken Bock was a quiet and kindly scholar who taught the history of sociological theory, who wrote elegant prose, stood aside from fractious departmental encounters, felt bypassed by the march of the hotshot quants but upheld  a qualitative flag.


Christine Williams (PhD 1986) writes:

Ken Bock was my professor in graduate school in the 1980’s.  He taught social theory to generations of graduate and undergraduate students, but he never called himself a sociologist.  He was quintessentially an historian of ideas and a humanist.  He assigned Hobbes, Locke, and Tocqueville to his undergraduates, and among many other books, I recall reading Mandeville’s Fable of the Bees and Halevy’s Growth of Philosophic Radicalism in his graduate class.  (I didn’t recognize this approach to social theory as subversive until much later in my career.)  I had the privilege of being his RA when he was working on his book, Human Nature Mythology.  Ken labeled “human nature” a myth that denied humans agency and responsibility for history.  He traced the myth of human nature from its origins in religion, through the enlightenment, to the twentieth century rise of psychoanalysis, sociology, and sociobiology.  He believed that disciplines like sociology—with its emphasis on structural causes for social behavior—robbed people of our agency and responsibility for making the world a better place.

Ken taught me that being a good sociologist is not as important as being a good person.  He and his wife Margaret often invited Martin and me to his house for delicious dinners, country music, and martinis.  He was an avid fly-fisher who escaped every summer to his cabin in the Sierras, where we visited him once.  I remember the only time he raised his voice at me was when I stood upstream of him in the river and scared away the fish.  He was a fair, kind, and wise mentor and role model, and I miss him very much. 

Ron Roizen (Phd 1991) writes:

Everybody, I hope, especially remembers at least one teacher for the deep and lasting impact he or she had. Mine was Ken Bock. I first encountered Prof. Bock soon after transferring, as a Junior, to Berkeley in February, 1963. He led the sociology honors program in 1964-1965 and I, a lowly and not very confident transfer student, was invited to join the honors seminar. All of us in the seminar, I recall, got special passes into the Doe Library’s stacks and keys to collective office space on the top floor of Wheeler. These were big, big bonuses for mere undergrads, and I vividly remember the rich sense satisfaction and pride associated with making use of either of these perks. The main text Bock used was Theodosius Dobzhansky’s then-recently published volume, Mankind Evolving: The Evolution of the Human Species. I also remember reading Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, but no longer recall which specific work or works. Truth be told, I had a very hard time making any sense out of the seminar’s fare. Bock’s quiet style of seminar management and the open-endedness of the medium left me struggling to figure out what I was supposed to be learning.

I have no trouble at all however remembering the critical comments Bock made on a number of the short commentaries we were assigned in the seminar. Bock was entirely straightforward in his responses to the weaknesses and immaturity in my writing. I, in turn, slowly learned important lessons from his comments. For instance, he made me aware of the overarching scholarly norms requiring plainspoken exposition and carefully crafted argument. Somehow, nobody had mentioned these to me before!  To this day, I’ve never known anyone who could identify the flaw in an argument’s construction as precisely as could Ken Bock.  He introduced me to other scholarly norms as well. I remember he once commented, more favorably this time, that my essay had used secondary sources when they were appropriate and primary sources when they were.  Until the moment of this comment I don’t think I was consciously aware there were scholarly norms and standards governing that sort of thing. Kind and gentle as Bock, the man, was, it was his sterner side that for the first time opened my eyes to what constituted acceptable scholarly exposition and argument. Incidentally, I belatedly submitted my honors thesis to him in 1965. Alas, he didn’t think much of it.  Even after all the effort we’d both spent on improving my prose, his penciled-in, sharply critical marginal comments let me know I still had a long way to go.

There was a lot going on in the University, in Berkeley, and in the nation in the mid- and late-1960s. Social change was furiously afoot.  Language norms, among others, were changing.  I remember Bock once commenting to me privately about how taken aback he was when, for the first time, during an office hour, a young, female undergrad spoke to him about being “pissed-off” about something. I left Berkeley, without a B.A., in the mid-‘60s and returned in 1970-1971, when the foreign language requirement was dropped. Somehow, I managed to slip into the graduate program, leaving with an M.A. in 1972.  Marriage, family, work, divorce, and my military experience in the U.S. Army Reserve filled my time over a long stretch. Then, in the early ‘80s, I re-enrolled in the graduate program, now determined to finish a Ph.D.  One of the bonuses of my new commitment was Bock’s graduate social theory class (Sociol. 201).  I was “the old guy” among the class’s students.  But absorbing Bock’s lectures in this class was fresh and wonderful.  It was a distinct pleasure, in fact, to hear him actually lecture, in part because of the frustration I remembered feeling in the honors seminar’s sessions, when he said so little.  One day, as class ended, a fellow student must have noticed the look of appreciation and even awe on my face as Bock’s lecture came to an end.  “Don’t you wish you could bottle this stuff,” he said to me as he passed by my chair-desk.

Bock formally retired at the end of that same academic year.  Some of us organized getting a big, decorated flatcake, with an inscription, along with paper plates and plastic forks, for after the class’s final lecture. The cake’s inscription read, “We Go Vico!” — for one of Bock’s favorites in the history of social thought, Giambattista Vico.  I remember sitting through the last twenty minutes of the class with the cake on my desk wondering if Bock would be kind enough to wind-up the lecture a little early, making more time for the little party. But,  true to form, Bock consumed the entire class period with his prepared remarks.  Yet, this was a laudable and memorable example of a teacher’s profound commitment to his duty and task, even right up to the last seconds of his last teaching hour. I turned in my term paper for this class with a little trepidation, remembering Bock’s unforgiving disposition in the then-deep past. Thus, what a pleasant surprise it was, a few days later, to see the paper returned with an “A+” grade and very positive remarks. I was already a 40-year-old man at this point, and yet Bock’s glowing evaluation of my humble paper remains one of the things I’m proudest of in my life.

By the mid-‘80s Bock’s and my relationship had taken on something of a more personal side. I remember exchanging stories with him on a few occasions. Once he told me a story about a well-known chemistry professor (maybe Hildebrand) in years past. Apparently this professor had served as an expert witness at an important trial.  During the trial’s course he’d responded to a lawyer asking if he were “the world’s greatest expert” on the particular area of chemistry the case called into play.  The professor responded that yes, he was.  Sometime later, the professor was chided by colleagues at the Faculty Club bar about this response. “Well,” replied the chemistry professor, “I was under oath!” We also talked about substantive matters from time to time, including subjects Bock was currently working on.  These conversations touched on Bock’s interests in such topics as Adam Smith’s “Invisible Hand” and Christianity’s “Original Sin.”  I once got a good chuckle out of Ken by asking him why he spent so much time thinking about things that didn’t actually exist!  It was, as might be imagined, no little honor for me to be invited into those conversations with him.

Once again, years passed between when I was advanced to candidacy and the completion of my long-overdue, midlife dissertation. Bock was my dissertation committee’s chair. He patiently struggled over the chapters I gave him for review. Once he told me, ruefully, he was “eye-sore” from reading one of the work’s longer chapters. My dissertation’s subject matter was of little interest to him, but Bock’s commitment to maintaining high scholarly standards was no less strong on that account. If nothing else, at least my narrative was about one aspect of social change, a subject Bock had interested me in long before and certainly one of his own enduring scholarly preoccupations. I hammered away on the text in my chapters, trying one way or another to get them into presentable shape. By the time the dissertation was ready for filing, I gave Bock another look at its preface. The next day, I think it was, he responded that it was “beautiful.” I was so surprised and pleased I asked him to repeat it – and he did.  My thank-you to Professor Bock in the preface’s acknowledgment section read as follows:

Kenneth Bock, my dissertation committee’s chair, sparked my interest in social change a long time ago — when, as an undergraduate, I had the good fortune to enroll his 1964 seminar on that subject. My indebtedness to him, however, must be said to stretch considerably beyond. As scholar, teacher, and mentor, Professor Bock, more than anyone, has provided over the years my clearest image of the ideal of scholarship and the scholarly life. He has also played an all-important part in this dissertation–indeed, without him it would never have seen the light of day.

When my degree was finally granted, Bock presented me with the gift of a fine, cherrywood (I believe it is) reading stand.  It’s performed its very useful function on my desk ever since and sits near at hand on my left as a write this. I visited Ken once in Grass Valley, ten years ago or so.  I was en route from North Idaho, where I live now, to visit family in the Bay Area.  His house was so orderly, spotlessly clean, and well-cared-for that I felt a little out of place. We had a good visit, but I remember having the impression that living alone was no picnic for Ken.  He’d buried his first wife, Margaret, and then, years later, his second wife, whose name I cannot now recall. I do remember him once, sometime after Margaret’s passing, remarking quietly that the arrival of his second wife saved his life.  I’ve emailed the department three or four times over the years asking if Ken Bock were still alive, but never got a reply. I guess in the back of my mind I assumed he’d passed away in one of the intervening years. So it came as something of a surprise — a melancholy surprise — when word was circulated of his death yesterday.  I know all of us must one day die. But somehow it would be better if an exception to this rule were made in the case of especially respected and loved scholars and teachers – for instance, Ken. Even today, and as I write this at over age 70, I sense how much whatever critical capacity I may have for evaluating argument I owe, from so long ago, to him.


Neil Smelser writes: 

Ken Bock was the principal transition figure between the "pre-sociology" department of Social Institutions (notable members of which were Frederick Teggart, Margaret Hodgkin, and Robert Nisbet) and Berkeley's "new sociology" department.   In 1946 this name was changed to the Department of Sociology and Social Insititutions, and Herbert Blumer was hired with a mandate to build it into a first-class general sociology department.  All three of these figures either retired or departed, and none of them were present in the department when I arrived in 1958.  Current members of the department at that time, all of whom came after 1946, almost never talked about the Social Institutions past. Ken Bock, who was an Associate Professor in the transitional period, carried on until his retirement as a member and citizen the transformed department.
Given the great transition into a general sociology department, Bock's work, which was still primarily in the area of evolutionary sociology (the main stress of Teggart and the Department of Social Institutions), was outside the new emphases on theory, stratification, and political sociology in the 1960s (Bendix, Lipset, Selznick, Kornhauser). That work on evolution was marginalized and unrewarded in the atmosphere of the new, aggressive department.  He remained a loyal citizen of that department, however.  In my period as editor of the American Sociological Review I published one of his essays (on a topic in evolutionary sociology) in the American Sociological Review, and essay that I regarded as of excellent sociological quality, even though far removed from the dominant emphases of the field of sociology in that period.
I also became personal friends with Ken in his continuing years in the department, right up to his retirement.  I found him a very intelligent, thoughtful man, and balanced in his intellectual judgments.  He was a good citizen of the department, even though he was not highly rewarded intellectually or professionally, given its emphases.  I also regarded him as a kind, tolerant, pleasant, and congenial colleague and friend.

In 2002 Ken Bock wrote this for the alumni site

I do not really belong in this group, for my degree from the University was in Social Institutions, not Sociology. Because the Department of Social Institutions soon disappeared in 1946 (mine was the last degree I believe) I was left homeless. It was my good fortunate, then, to be received as a faculty member in the new Department of Sociology and allowed to teach and write in the field of history of ideas for more than 45 years. The many friends among students, faculty, and staff that I made during those years remain fresh in my memory.

Dissertation Title: 
The Comparative Method