Bennett Berger, Professor Emeritus of Sociology, died November 10, 2005 at his home in La Jolla. The cause of death was pancreatic cancer. He was 79.
Professor Berger's research and writing covered several fields, including suburbanization, youth culture , counter-culture and communes. Such a bare recital of "fields" (a term he hated) does injustice to the thrust of his interest. He was focused on the images of public attention. Thus in his first book, "Working-Class Suburb: A study of Auto Workers in Suburbia" (1960) he asked: "Does living in suburbs create a unique style of life or do residents continue to practice the cultures they bring with them?" He observed and interviewed auto workers living in a suburb of San Jose, mostly new home owners with middle-class incomes. Residence in suburbia had little effect on styles of life. Berger concluded that the idea of a suburban culture was a myth. But he did not stop there. He was interested in why and to whom the myth existed, for some as an aspiration, for others a nightmare.
His interest in the cultures of America and the images of them in public discourse was the center of his formidable contributions to Sociology. He published a number of papers and book reviews on what he called the myth of a unique American youth culture He criticized the view that adolescent culture was unique to youth. For Berger it was at one with the American emphasis on glamour, romance, sports and popularity backed up by parents' and the schools' efforts to promote solidarity. These thoughts and observations are collected in his 1973 book "Looking for America: Essays on Youth, Suburbia and Other American Obsessions".
These themes of cultural imagery were continued in his many papers and other books. Chief among these was his 1981 observational study, "The Survival of a Counter-Culture: Ideological Work and Everyday Life Among Rural Communards". Here again his focus is on the self-images of the commune dwellers and the contrary actions which practical activities demanded. What he called "ideological work" was the ways this was made acceptable.
As he often said, he was born in Brooklyn, raised in the Bronx but did not grow up until he came to Berkeley as an adult. He served as a Marine in the Pacific during World War II. Was a high school athlete and once tried out for the NY Giant farm system. He was, for a brief time, a singer with a popular music band. He did his undergraduate work at Hunter College and has a Ph.D. from UC Berkeley where he was a lecturer for one year. He was a faculty member in the School of Communications at the University of Illinois. After four years he left to assume the Chairmanship of the Sociology department at UC Davis in 1963. He joined UCSD ten years later.
At UCSD he served as Chair for three years; was active on many committees and since retirement in 1991 was on the advisory group for the Theatre and Dance Department. He was active in Sociological meetings, conferences and guest lectureships and was the editor of the major review journal Contemporary Sociology (1975-78) He is survived by his daughters, Jane Berger, of Augsburg, Germany, Nora Mitchell of Mendocino, CA , Stephanie Berger of Long Beach, CA, a son, Kenneth Berger of San Francisco ,CA and one grandchild, Sarah Veith of Augsburg.
His wit, his insight and his analytic skill will be deeply missed.
Richard Madsen, Chair, Department of sociology, November 23, 2005
Bennett Berger wrote the following bio in 2002:
I got my Ph.D. in 1958 with a dissertation on suburbia under Reinhard Bendix and Bill Kornhauser. UCPress published it unchanged in 1960 and 1968. After year lecturing at Berkely, my first ladder job was at the University of Illinois which gave me tenure in 1962. In 1963 I moved to UC Davis as Chair of its then rapidly expanding dep't. While there I began studying and writing on youth and was eventually given a large grant by NIMH for field research on child rearing in Hippie communes. That research produced several Ph.D.s by my students and ten years later my book The Survival of a Counterculture which will soon re-appear in a new edition. In 1971 a collection of my essays was published. In 1973 I moved to UC San Diego. In the late 70s I was Editor of Contemporary Sociology. At San Diego I chaired the committees of several first class Ph.Ds (some mediocre ones too) and continued writing lots of reviews and review-essays. In 1990 UCPress published Authors of Their Own Lives, my collection of 20 autobiographical essays by American sociologists and in 1995 my last book An Essay on Culture. I retired in 1991 and don't do much sociology anymore though I continue to write a lot, mostly not for publication.
Berkeley shaped my way of thinking by its theoretical diversity which prevented me from ever becoming a partisan of a particular "school of thought." Pierre Bourdieu was the first theorist I ever read who thought like I did. I doubt that "my" sociology has shaped the world in any way. The poet Auden is often quoted as saying "poetry makes nothing happen" (an exaggeration of course, which makes it quotable). Sociology also seldom makes anything happen, maybe because its structural way of thinking is deeply offensive to American individualism which is why economics (which knows perhaps even less than we do) has become the dominant social science.