The clear sign of changes in socialist Poland of 1970s was the reopening of sociology departments, dismantled in the earlier, socialist phase. Staggering numbers of students, myself among them, flocked to analyze what type of society we lived in. Study there failed to provide me with insightful answers to that question, nor prepared me for such sociological exploration. For that I had to tap into Western Sociology, rendered by the Berkeley Sociology Department.
I arrived at Berkeley in 1979 anxious and eager to become a sociologist. However, the department was not quite prepared for a dark-skinned Chicana raised by working class parents. There were no safe spaces for my language, values, experiences, or transformations.
I came to graduate school to get a PhD so I could get a job as a professor, but I soon learned that most of the students who were finishing their PhDs could not find jobs and were very bitter about it. Barrows Hall was deserted; the faculty almost all seemed either sad or angry, and they were profoundly alienated from the discipline they were supposedly teaching us about. The grad students were left alone mostly to socialize each other, with some rather bizarre results. I decided to get an extra masters degree in demography so that I would at least be able to get a job as a consultant.
I am a moralist and a hedonist, and went to Berkeley in 1979 because it promised serious political analysis and a luxurious environment (the Bay Area, not Barrows Hall). I was attracted to the Frankfurt tradition's combination of politics and culture, the same intersection that all of my books have explored in one way or another. At the same time, observing Leo Lowenthal at close range helped me see the underside of that tradition. The authoritarian personality in the flesh!
I came to Berkeley in 1977 on a Harkness Fellowship. Initially I circled around the Philosophy Department, much too analytical for my European background at the time, and in 1979 I got on the Ph.D. program offered by the Department of Sociology. This has been the best educational experience of my life: I still remember with great nostalgia the passionate climate of discussion in the theory class taught by Michael Burawoy for us incoming graduate students.
I decided to do my graduate sociology work at UC Berkeley because Michael Burawoy told me I'd never get in! I got my undergraduate degree in sociology at Cal, and was much inspired by Michael, notwithstanding his assessment of me. I thought I'd be focusing on social theory and culture studies, but instead, got caught up in early feminist scholarship and found it more compelling. My dissertation work landed me in the realm of social policy, and at the time, it was difficult to find anyone on the faculty specializing in this area, so I didn't have a real mentor.
I arrived at Berkeley in 1979, at a time when many graduate students were intellectuals and political activists and few were getting good academic jobs. People were inspired by the possibility of using academic skills to study power and inequality in the service of social change. This spirit seems to me to be the defining essence of Berkeley sociology. From what I know of Berkeley today, that spirit remains quite lively, with the added bonus that now Berkeley students routinely get hired by leading sociology departments and are able to spread it around the country.