IN MEMORIAM: NEIL SMELSER PASSED AWAY ON OCTOBER 2, 2017
Neil Smelser passed away on Monday, October 2, at the age of 87. He was one of the most distinguished sociologists to have walked the earth. Educated at Harvard and Oxford, he came to Berkeley in 1958 and retired in 1994. During that time he occupied that very rare and prestigious position of University Professor. He was the author of many classic treatments in comparative history, collective behavior, economic sociology, higher education and psychoanalysis. Legions of students will remember his wise teaching and solicitous mentoring and will mourn his passing.
Contributions to the Neil J. Smelser Graduate Student Support Fund can be sent to Michael Schneider, Department of Sociology, 410 Barrows Hall, UC Berkeley, CA 94720. Or you can contribute online via this link:https://give.berkeley.edu/egiving/index.cfm?fund=FW606300
From Suava Zbierski-Salameh. I have been reading all these poignant tributes to Neil Smelser, thinking that as much as I wanted to pay my own respects, doubting I had anything new to add to the reflections on his exceptional qualities as a scholar, a mentor, and most of all, as a human being. These were also my memories of him as my mentor and the chair of my Qualifying Exam.
Yet, I finally decided to add here a few comments, because all the attributes others wrote about, affected me in a different way. I was accepted to the Graduate Program in 1979, as the only foreign student in my cohort, who happened to come from behind the Iron Curtain, from the University of Poznan, in Western Poland. I came to the US not fully a year prior to the acceptance to the Berkeley Program, shortly before the dawn of the Solidarity movement in Poland. Quite a novice in the US., the welcoming sessions at the Berkeley department for the upcoming class, inadvertently, were revealing another layer of my “uniqueness“ — in contrast to my peers coming from the Ivy League Universities, I had to introduce myself as a graduate of the University of Poznan!
My first interaction with Neil Smelser compounded my axiety. The very first course I signed out for was with him. I arrived far earlier for the first class to familiarize myself with the building. While nervously waiting for my first real encounter with the famed Berkeley Sociology—I was dreaming about during my undergraduate years in Poland—I spotted a man, casually dressed in a T-shirt, wearing a helmet, with a bike, walking towards the room where I stood. I assumed he was a maintainance person, checking the classroom before the lecture, so I asked, if I was at a correct room for a course with Prof Neil Smelser. Wiping his sweaty forehead, he politely confirmed, asked me if I was planning to take the course, and then, with a big smile, he introduced himself:” I am Neil- welcome!”
During this seemingly simple and cordial exchange, I realized I was not just a student from another country, but a system divide was between us. This divide can be summarized by the content of the word “to educate” in Polish (nauczać) = “to bestow knowledge”. Conversely, to acquire education in Poland then, was to become an effective receptor of this knowledge, verified by definitive measures— passing mostly oral exams. In the country that was a part of the socialist block, with its proclaimed egalitarianism, relations between faculty and students could not be more stratified. To address a professor, (who would dress formally), by his appropriate and full title, at every exchange, was to reinforce daily, the hierarchical structure within the academic world. This instantly was putting a student in a docile position of a follower, discouraging debate or discussion. Such educational world was an extension of a broader political system. Ironically, Neil Smelser’s great informality in dress and demeanor, as much as made me feel welcomed, confused me, running counter to my understanding of what distinguished professor should look like, and how the interaction between professor and student should be.
The content and the dynamics of my first course further challenged my assumptions. (As I learned later, I was privileged to participate in what was even for the Berkeley Sociology department rather a unique course). The course was co-taught by Neil Smelser and Michael Burawoy and focused on the significance of the Industrial Revolution for sociology. It was also a forum for heated debates between the department’s senior and junior Faculty members, and my future chairs of the Qualifying Exam and my dissertation, respectively; The Professors did alternate in the roles of a presenter and a discussant; their fierce debates, often also prompted long commentaries by my fellow students in the course. The course dynamics could not be further from the dynamics I was accustomed to in Poznan. It was an exquisite presentation of distinct theoretical perspectives and an equality between debating participants. I was mesmerized and terrified by these amazing exchanges, but one particular course requirement was striking biggest terror in my heart— writing my own arguments on the successive weeks’ extensive readings and on the classroom debates. Beyond the difficulty of articulating a nuanced argument in not-my-native language, I struggled with a more fundamental, internalized obstacle - my believe that I am not in a position, as a beginning student, to challenge the published authors, or the course’s Professors.
Neil Smelser always wrote elaborate comments on my assignments, not only giving me a detailed input on the structure of my answers, but with his constructive and encouraging engagements with the content of my essays, he was slowly erasing my apprehension, validating in small, yet definitive steps my intellectual voice. He could not have been more generous as the Chair in his assessment of my performance at the Qualifying Exam. I cherish it to this day. His mentorship was a powerful motivator for me to re-entered the department a few years later, having two children. He was supportive of me as a student and a mother, which, -particularly a couple of decades ago-presented a challenging combination for both faculty and for me. He wrote very strong recommendation letters in my job search. I saw him a few years ago at a conference, decades after completing my PhD, and I was touched that he recognized me and greeted me warmly. Prof. Neil Smelser played an extraordinary role in my life —as a great human being and a brilliant scholar who patiently help me bridge the vast divide between Poznan and Berkeley —an ultimate educator to me - who inspired his students to seek new approaches instead of preserving the established ones.
From Jualynne (Norris) Dodson. I hesitated to send my comments about Neil Smelser because I felt others had captured my thoughts. However, I’m not sure of the anyone has expressed specifics of my experiences at Berkeley. When I entered graduate school in sociology, the department had a 100% attrition rate for African American women. I’m not sure the faculty had seen as many Black graduate students as were there when I arrived. Neil Smelser was my “theory” professor for the first year and, though I only think our presence was new to him, my experience was with a gentle, quiet-spoken, well organized, and superiorly competent professor. I learned/acquired more ‘sociology’ with Smelser than I had ever appreciated, and much of that knowledge was not consciously acquired. When I took an ‘oral comprehensive exam’ with Smelser, held by the way at his home, the question that continues to stand-out was: “Discuss the latent and manifest function of earrings.” I will always remember Neil Smelser though I did not work closely with him and think I wish I had.
From Michelle Williams. It was with deep sadness I learned of Neil’s passing. But I’ve loved reading all the tributes to Neil as it’s made me realize that the special relationship I had with Neil was shared among many people across generations and around the world. I think I was his last student, well not really his student, but the last student he mentored. He had already retired when I entered graduate school at Berkeley, but I had met him in my last year as an undergraduate. Despite not ever having taken a class with him or having him as a supervisor, his influence on me was deep and varied. He hired me as his research assistant throughout graduate school, which meant that I had the good fortune of seeing him (and very often Sharin) at least once a month for almost ten years. Over this time, he became an incredibly important sounding board, sympathetic and generous ear, and most of all a friend. He always engaged with such generosity and wisdom (which many people have mentioned), having a way to put things into perspective without making one feel belittled. He would ask probing questions that made me think differently and often deepen my analysis, and he always gave such good advice! On one occasion, when we were working on a project and Neil was having to deal with an especially difficult (and nasty) author, I asked him if his psychoanalytic training helped understand people better. He said ‘No, it has made me understand myself better’, which allowed him to not react emotionally to others. I was always struck by his interpersonal skills and genuine interest in people’s well-being. He enjoyed the small things in life and always loved hearing from and learning about former students, which he would share proudly. Since graduating in 2005, Neil and I kept in touch periodically. He never lost his kind and generous interest in developments in my life and engagements in the world. I will miss him deeply and his passing is a loss to many of us, but his legacy clearly lives on! Hambe Kahle Neil! Go well Neil!
From Yiannis Gabriel. With deep sadness, I learnt of the death of sociologist Neil Smelser. Neil was the chair of my doctoral committee and a good friend. He was a true scholar, a brilliant teacher and great colleague. His death leaves all of us who knew him and worked with him much poorer.
I first met Neil in October 1974 on my very first day at Berkeley. Freshly arrived from London and temporarily staying at the Berkeley YMCA, I was pleased to find an invitation for a reception at Neil's house. At the time, Neil was the Head of the Sociology Department and his hospitality was as boundless as his humility, informality and his interest in the ideas that prospective students were bringing to Berkeley. I was pleased to meet an animated group of doctoral students, some of whom were seasoned veterans keen to meet the new talent on arrival, others, like me, had just arrived and were trying to find their feet on the ground. By the end of the evening I had made several acquaintances and friendships; I had had several offers of accommodation which meant that I only stayed at the Y for a couple of nights.
I subsequently got to know Neil very well, first as his teaching assistant and later as his doctoral student. In spite of being Head of the Department, Neil did not scorn teaching first year undergraduates and I supported him in a couple of the courses he taught. One has stayed firmly in my mind - having the rather dry title "Evaluation of evidence", it involved a close reading of half a dozen key sociological texts, each demonstrating the uses of a different type of empirical material. Neil used Durkheim's Suicide to show how even the driest statistical material can inspire dazzling social theory; he used George Rude to demonstrate how police records from a couple of centuries earlier could be used to develop a new theory of crowd behaviour; he used Schachter and Zimbardo to show that even psychological experiments could be used in imaginative ways to develop new theories.
I gradually became aware of Neil phenomenal breadth and depth of scholarship. His knowledge of social theory was dazzling - he knew and understood even theories that he did not particularly embrace or like. For example, I think that he knew Marxism better than many of the seasoned Marxists I befriended in Berkeley. His understanding of psychoanalysis was supreme and was the product of both theoretical and practical engagement. I believe that Neil was the first non-medically trained psychoanalyst to be certified in the state of California, something that he once mentioned casually as he was never one to blow his trumpet.
Neil was not by temperament a critic and was open about his dislike of 'shrill' voices. He was, however, able to listen and he used his sociological insights to understand arguments and views with which he disagreed. He was by nature a peace-maker and a bridge-builder. If I had to single out two of Neil's exceptional qualities as an academic they would have to be his teaching brilliance and his ability to synthesize large volumes of literature, distilling the essence and identifying connections across different traditions. Smelser was also capable of dazzlingly original insights. If I had to point out one, I would forfeit many of his well-known and highly cited works for a hidden gem in which he anticipates so much of the work of Ritzer and Sennett in his analysis of the 'myth of the good life in California'. This deserves to be a classic, even though, like so many of his best works, it is not so easy to find (Smelser, N. J. (1984). "Collective myths and fantasies: The myth of the good life in California." In J. Rabow, G. M. Platt, & M. S. Goldman (Eds.), Advances in Psychoanalytic Sociology. Malabar, Florida: Krieger).
Neil had a remarkable number of doctoral students, many of whom went on to have very successful academic careers themselves. What is more remarkable is how diverse the interests of those who earned their doctorates under his supervision. Looking at the list of contributors to the Festschrift published in Neil's honour Self, social structure and beliefs (University of California Press 2004) and edited by his students Jeff Alexander, Gary T. Marx and Christine L. Williams, I see the names of Piotr Stompka, Arlie Hochschild, Nancy Chodorow, Robert Wuthrow, Burton R. Clark and several others including mine whose interests range far and wide and none of whom would be pigeon-holed as a 'Smelser-clone'. This could hardly be said of many scholars today.
I met Neil regularly, earlier during his visits to England which he really loved (his own PhD had been on the dramatic social changes in the cotton industry during the English industrial revolution), and later during my own bi-annual visits to Berkeley. I last saw him in the summer of 2015. I will conclude this posting with an account of my meeting Neil, as I recorded it in a message to a close friend:
"My day yesterday started with a wonderful conversation with old Smelser, who at 85 is aging gracefully both physically and mentally. We had a 90 minute chat with no reference to health issues and touching on many of the interests that have brought us together in the past – the state of sociology today, the changes in the Berkeley sociology department, some nostalgic memories of the past, the importance of the teacher (he was a great teacher and continues to teach a course at 85!) It is always a pleasure to meet him, although now accompanied with a little anxiety lest he has reached the point physically or mentally when he may be too far gone. He is still interested in ideas and was keen to know my views on Greece ... It is curious that when he was my supervisor, I didn’t see him that often, maybe half a dozen times in all, since much of my thesis was written while living in England. But we have had a very warm relation over the years which has endured ..."
Earlier this year, I emailed Neil hoping to meet him during a visit to Berkeley. Unusually for him, there was no answer. I knew ... Neil will be greatly missed.
From Federico D'Agostino. I like to join the family of the students of Neil Smelser who was my teacher in Berkeley.He will be always in my memory up to the last days of my life with feelings of love, gratitude and recognition of his great generosity, his support, his friendship during my work for Ph.D . Smelser has been a giant in many areas of sociological research,but at the same time he has been a humble scholar to the point of perceiving him like a companion of our sociological adventure.Once I invited him to the Univ. of Naples where I was teaching, but he prefered to come to my home town in the South of Italy where the Major gave to him the honorary citizenship that he liked to show on his desk in Berkeley.I like to think that he will be part of my family and our common friends in the next life to whom I will be in communion with my prayers. All my sympathy to his wife.
From Steven Millner. Neil Smelser's essence has been captured very accurately by many...He was both a scholar and a teacher's teacher...I too marveled at his devotion to classroom duties and his deep knowledge of this society's operations...but his willingness to extend those qualities to all...including those of us...from America's underside...students of color coming in via affirmative action, in the early 1970s were treated in Smelser's world with the same graciousness as well as prodding scrutiny as all his students. Given the sometimes harsh climate of those times I found this attribute of his...simply wonderful. He was willing to listen to our sometimes angry or infantile rants...before providing thoughtful reminders of points of view or readings we hadn't...bothered to consider...that took a certain courage of spirit by him...that too should also remain appreciated. It is by me,
From Stephen Warner. I was greatly saddened to learn of Neil Smelser’s death. He had a huge impact on my career and on my life, from 1962 on. As I’m sure was true for countless students, he instilled confidence in me, opened doors for me, went to bat for me, counseled me in times of distress, and above all, inspired me as a model of what a professor should be. He was always well-prepared for class, spoke with open-minded conviction, illuminated kernels of truth in flawed theories, challenged students to stretch themselves, gave timely and thoughtful feedback, conveyed respect and sensitivity in one-on-one consultations, and seemed unflappable in public. Although other contributors to this book of remembrances knew him better than I did (I was not comfortable calling him by his first name until he retired from Berkeley), he continued to inspire me well after his retirement (in his writings on the odyssey experience, for example). I will always be in his debt, conscious of the obligation to pay it forward.
From Jay Demerath. Sorry to be so tardy in responding to Neil's passing. The two of us arrived in Berkeley from Harvard in the same year in 1958..He came as star professor and I was just a first year graduate student. Of course, he remained a star and I struggled to the degree in part with his help. I still remember his first question in my doctoral oral exam "Define a tautology and illustrate its use among sociological theorists?" Somehow I recovered and we remained friends ever since. He will be greatly missed even by those who never knew him personally.
From Debra David. I echo others’ words of deep appreciation for Neil Smelser. As chair of my dissertation committee, he supported my forays into fields beyond traditional sociology – psychology, psychoanalysis, anthropology, and philosophy. My career took me even further along interdisciplinary pathways, influenced in part by his openness and imagination. His thoughtfulness and kindness continued beyond my years at Berkeley, as he wrote several excellent letters of recommendation. It was privilege to have worked with him.
From Colin Samson. Like the others who have contributed here, I had very positive experiences with Neil. He was my main dissertation supervisor, and in that role he was always encouraging. He seemed to intuitively understand the substance and contexts of my intellectual concerns, and gave both creative and practical advice throughout the PhD process. At each meeting, I would receive a sheet of clearly articulated observations on my work, and these were invaluable as I exchanged ideas with him and then went on to edit and refine my dissertation.
Neil had a worldliness about him that allowed me, like Debra, to cross into other disciplines to bring different kinds of insights to my work. This was refreshing, as at the time some other faculty were resolutely mono-disciplinary and seemed to want to confine sociology to as narrow a remit as possible.
Above all, Neil was charitable and generous. He wrote me the recommendation letter that got me my job now of 27 years. My only regret is that I did not have continuous contact with Neil after my graduation...but I am eternally grateful to him.
From Susan Bettelheim Garfin. Where would I have been without Neil Smelser as my PhD advisor and mentor? His ideas shaped my view of the world. His courses prepared me for those I taught in my academic career. His ease with all of us who were his students was remarkable. I remember Neil’s UC retirement party when so many of us came to honor him and so many wrote testimonials to his powerful, positive influence on our careers. I remember Neil’s willingness to serve as outside evaluator for my department’s WASC accreditation review and his receptiveness to hearing students express their views, positive and negative of our major and our courses. After Neil left our campus (Sonoma State), students couldn’t stop talking about the wonderful experience they’d had with one of their academic heroes. Thank you, Neil, for all you gave to our discipline and for all you gave to us, your students. You are remembered and you are missed.
From Armand Mauss. Let me add a word of appreciation for Neil to all the others that have been offered here (and no doubt will continue to come in). I started my doctoral work in 1958 while already supporting a family with my employment as a public school teacher. Accordingly, I had to drop in and out of the program as my time and other circumstances might permit. I finally finished all my course work and exams in 1967 but didn't finish the dissertation and degree until 1970. I worked mainly with Charlie Glock, but Neil Smelser was only slightly less crucial to my success, both as a professor and as Dean of the Graduate School. In both of those roles, Neil did whatever he could to facilitate my progress, despite the unusual configuration of my career track. His course and his publications in collective behavior/ social movements provided the basis for one of the main preoccupations of my career as a professor at Washington State. Although I gradually abandoned the traditional functionalist theoretical framework in favor of a social constructionist one, Neil never held that against me. In fact, he put several copies of my work on library reserve for a later cohort of his students in CB/SM. That was only one of the ways that he continued to support my career even after I finished up at Berkeley. He was the epitome of the proverbial "gentleman and scholar," and I have never stopped being grateful to him.
From Faruk Birtek. Neil was St Paul to American Sociology. If our department was one of the best in the country, if not the best, it was also in part due to Neil Smelser's presence. After Blumer, Neil smelser was one of its intellectual architects. As a person he was always most gracious, thoughtful and polite. as a teacher always most attentive to his students, no paper would come back without a well studied comment. He and Art Stinchcombe in their very different ways brought rigour to the study of sociological theory and made it into a discipline. ı personally owe them fifty years of my career,"selling my wares" in different parts of the world with success. Happy are we who experienced those glorious years of the department.
From Tom Piazza. I was in the Department the same time as Faruk — late 1960’s and 1970’s. I also recall Neil as a pillar of the Department, a calm voice of reason in turbulent times. Those of us who entered the Department in those years had varied expectations about what sociology could teach us about the world. Neil had something to offer all of us, and I only have fond memories of him. Even later, over the years, we would occasionally cross paths, and he was always a gracious friend and former professor. I will truly miss him.
From Anita Weiss. Neil had a great impact on my professional career in demonstrating how important it is to truly care about students. He was not on my dissertation committee, and I only took one course with him at Berkeley. However, while I was a graduate student and in the many years following, whenever we met at professional meetings and conferences, he would always check in with me, inquire how things were going, asking specific questions about past and present research. The feeling of empowerment I took away from these interactions has influenced me greatly, and I try to have the same kind of impact on my students. HIs influence lives on!
From Ann Neel. My first encounter with Neil J. Smelser was in 1960. I had entered UC Berkeley in the fall of 1959 as a graduate student in the School of Social Welfare but at the time found their program too little sociological and too Freudian. Checking out the Sociology department as an alternative, I visited one of their classes and was bowled over by what I experienced as the intense, “rapid-fire” delivery of a brilliant 30 year old professor Neil Smelser. Here was intellectual engagement; here was substance; here was the analysis I craved. So I dropped out of Social Welfare without regret.
In order to be accepted in the graduate program in Sociology I needed to compete a full major which included Smelser’s famous undergraduate theory course. I still have its notes, well over 50 years later. But l wanted the full dose. So I took Smelser’s graduate courses on Social Theory, Social Change, and Collective Behavior; he was the principal advisor of my Master’s thesis, and on my Orals committee for the Ph.D., (though my dissertation regarding internal colonialism was under Robert Blauner).
I can give no higher praise than to say that Smelser taught me how to think – systematically and creatively. He was a consummate scholar and professor, besides being a mensch. Gary T. Marx put it in his introduction to Mastering Ambivalence…on Smelser, "Those of us privileged to have been Neil's students and colleagues have been doubly blessed… We have benefited from his knowledge and intellect as expressed in his writings and lectures, from his incisive, but diplomatic and supportive, criticism of our work, and from his mentoring and guidance in how to be in the academic world."
From Nancy Chodorow. First of all, I am so sad. Neil Smelser was a mentor, a friend, a constant and committed supporter. He was unproblematically kind. He also represented for me a sustained professional ethic, one to which I aspired but did not attain. I draw on our professional commonality beyond sociology -- psychoanalysis -- to hypothesize that Neil was both born with and formed, through his early years in his family, generosity and integrity, and that he had a "good analysis," so he didn't impose his conflicts and ambivalence (however much he wrote professionally about these topics) on his students and younger colleagues.
I heard from Neil long before I met him. A second year graduate student at Brandeis, I wrote a paper on Parsons' theory of internalization (the psychoanalysis-sociology bridge). When asked by his graduate student Jeff Alexander whether Neil would read my paper, he readily agreed, and he gave me extensive written comments. Here was a leading Parsonsian sociologist interested in the psyche, not to mention a world famous sociologist in one of the leading departments in the country, willing to read a paper by an unknown student from a non-mainstream department! And who continued to foster me and to model our mutual psychoanalytic sociology commitments.
I do not know when I met Neil after I moved to California in 1974, but I certainly knew him by the late 1970s, well before I moved to the Berkeley Sociology Department in 1986 (I am sure that my appointment was also largely facilitated by Neil, who would never reveal such specifics). What I do know is that although I knew him only slightly, his support was unproblematic and unstinting. When I submitted The Reproduction of Mothering to UC Press, Neil's enthusiasm carried the day, and, ever-interested in colleagueship and mentoring, this was not an anonymous review: Neil wanted me to know that he was there, and available for conversation and support. Neil's ethics pervaded his professional work.
So, there's the commonality of interest. Neil was the first sociologist to undertake full psychoanalytic training, to do clinical work, and he was entirely and enthusiastically supportive when I decided to follow that route. Why, he asked, do our work if we do not follow our passions? Later, I could watch and read as Neil published an entire book on The Social Edges of Psychoanalysis and gave an ASA plenary entitled "Depth Psychology and the Social Order," as he collaborated and taught with renowned psychoanalyst Bob Wallerstein.
Freud wrote many works that expressed his interest in the social and his sense that psychoanalysis could give us sociological understanding and vice versa. Yet, for those of us who cut our teeth in the Harvard Soc Rel Department, in Neil's case as a Parsons student, it is certainly the concept of internalization, as much as the great Freudian sociological works, that makes the most everyday link to psychoanalysis. Here, Freud's 1917 paper, "Mourning and Melancholia," is key. Freud says that when we lose someone, we call up, one by one, memories of that person, we attend to them more intensively, and then we relinquish the person, while making the memories our own, perhaps helping to form and reshape us. As I have been thinking of Neil, I picture his kindness, his smile, his unproblematic support, his deep integrity as a scholar, a mentor, an administrator, an ethical human being -- and I picture our now long ago yearly lunches at the Faculty Club, where we ate BLTs, or hamburgers, or tuna sandwiches, and drank (as I remember) iced tea, or lemonade, or coke. And we talked. And talked.
From Alessandro Ferrara. Deeply saddened by the news of Neil Smelser's passing, memories of my hours spent in conversation with him in Barrows Hall come to my mind. The enfant-prodige who already in his twenties co-authored a classic with Parsons and later left a mark on so many fields of sociology, the prominent academic, the explorer of cross-disciplinary boundaries deep down was a marvelous, warm and supportive mentor. I was a teaching assistant for his “methods” class in the early 1980's and later had him as chair of my dissertation committee in 1984. My topic – Rousseau as the inventor of the idea that self-identity can be a source of moral and political normativity and that an identity's potential for playing such a role rests on its capacity for being authentic – was not exactly his cup of tea. Yet he perfectly grasped what I was trying to do, in response to a wave of then dominant neoconservative cultural criticism. Neil promptly read and generously commented on the chapters that I would submit to him, always offered encouragement, recognition of my efforts, constructive criticism, animated by an exemplary “generativity” – the disinterested interest for the unfolding of the creative effort of someone else. Neil's genuine supportiveness, broadness of interests and unpretentious style of supervision struck a deep chord in me. Over the years, my career developed in Europe and, after a while, in political philosophy. Our contacts became more sporadic, but the legacy of his way of inhabiting the intellectual and academic world remained an unequalled role-model for me. I'm forever grateful to him and trust he will be missed by everyone as one of the greatest sociologists of his generation.
From Gary T. Marx. When learning of the unexpected death of a mentor, words of sorrow can never adequately communicate the sense of loss. But written memories can offer trace elements of the specialness and love the person inspired. These remarks are offered in that spirit and in the good fortune to have had Neil as a teacher and friend for 57 years.
If we are among the very fortunate, sometime in life we are inspired and gently guided by a person of extraordinary insight, character, competence and kindness. Neil Smelser was such a person for legions of students and colleagues in higher education. His unselfish dedication to individuals and hallowed institutions set the bar as high, and at times it seemed even higher, than was humanely possible.
Such persons by their deeds and the simple act of being, help others find their own path, uplift the human spirit and create and sustain our highest civilizational ideals. While I profited intellectually from other mentors, their lessons were largely practical, professional and impersonal. Not so with Neil, who was a role model both personally and professionally.
Neil was the engineer on a very long train whose antecedents are deep in Greek history. The train continually evolves with each new crop of engineers. Georg Simmel has written of the "irredeemable gratitude" felt toward the gift giver. This applies to what one feels toward the mentor who offers his or her intellectually and morally powerful sensibilities and insights to guide a career and a life.
Awareness that such gifts cannot be directly reciprocated, deepens the indebtedness. Yet reciprocation is possible by doing for our students (whether those in the class room or those reached through writing) what Neil did with such skill and grace --passing on the values, sentiments, style, method, substance and even love of what he was given, enhanced by his own experiences and creativity. The giver is paid back in knowing that what he or she offers is a gift that keeps on giving, as links are added to the chain.
Wordsworth tells us that we should not grieve for the splendor in the grass, nor for the glory of the flower, but rather seek strength in what remains behind. Yet we can also gain strength in what lies ahead that we will never know.
We pay back those who have given us so much by passing it on. As teachers we are rewarded in knowing that through our students and their students ad infinitum some of what we give seeps into the culture and geometrically trickles across generations --whether in direct interaction or to those we don’t know who encounter our work.
From J. Herman Blake. Although he was my professor and also chaired my dissertation committee, my most compelling memories of Neil Smelser are as a friend and unequivocal supporter of my administrative career. My first encounter with him was in a graduate course in contemporary sociological theory in 1961. To increase my understanding I visited with him during office hours to discuss every aspect of the course—his lectures, the readings and the small group discussions he led. The academic and intellectual perspectives opened me to a world beyond my imagination. They continue to guide me—more than 5 decades later.
In 1966 I was appointed to the faculty of the new University of California campus in Santa Cruz. As a friend and mentor Neil helped me critically analyze the multiple opportunities that quickly opened. The University presented me with a unique opportunity—create a new academic institution with the monumental challenge of infusing new content and a broader range of students into the traditional academic values and goals of liberal education.
Neil’s piercing questions and astute observations were clarifying because of their intuitive insights. His comments led me to accept the offer to lead Oakes College at the Santa Cruz campus of the University.
Neil was the first social scientist appointed University Professor. This extraordinary position meant he could teach on any of the nine campuses of the University of California with full support from the Office of the President. In one of our conversations he made an amazing offer. He proposed to spend a term at Oakes College with a dual responsibility. Primarily he would counsel and advise individual faculty of the College—regardless of their discipline—critiquing their scholarship and research. Secondly he would join me in co-teaching an undergraduate course on social change and collective behavior. We would combine social theories with my research in grassroots communities and inner cities in California. It was an exceptional statement of confidence and respect for the new college.
Faculty were inspired by his individual consultations with them—his advice on their research and scholarship, as well as recommendations about publishing. Students became engaged in our course realizing the approach placed significant emphasis on their active involvement in the learning process. Neil Smelser exemplified how a great university can substantively change without compromising its intellectual and academic values.
In my current research in isolated and rural communities of Gullah and Geechee people in the islands along the coast of South Carolina and Georgia I still sense the presence of Neil Smelser. In a recent conference presentation on social organization and sustainability of Gullah Geechee communities in post-Reconstruction years, I found my observations guided by intuitive understandings of the “pattern variables.”
“Neil was one of the most distinguished sociologists to have walked the earth” (Michael Burawoy). It cannot be said any better.
From Claude Fischer. I will add another angle to Neil Smelser, the scholar, teacher, and leader of the discipline. He was a consummate political actor--in the best sense of the term. In the midst of conflict and tension, Neil would sense the common ground and direct the the deliberations, gently, calmly, and thoughtfully, to that common ground. He was a masterful diplomat and negotiator who used his skills for the common good. Would that the world had more such like him.
From Mark Peterson. Neil was indeed a great friend of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Scholars in Health Policy Research Program, a scholarly superstar who simply reveled in spending time and working with Scholars from all three disciplines. And he just kept on working, writing, and publishing with a sense of intellectual passion that rivaled anyone in the academy. Neil was also a close personal friend of my in-laws (my late father-in-law, Julius Margolis, had been a colleague at Berkeley many years ago)--I am thankful to the Scholars program for giving me the opportunity to get to know him as well, and the opportunity to rekindle stories from those times.
From Ben Handel. I interacted with Neil as an RWJF Scholar at Berkeley during my two years in the program. Neil was always so much fun to interact with, and really gave the seminar series we had together a lot of enthusiasm. Neil had an amazingly broad perspective on issues related to health care, and helped me understand many important concepts, which was not simple, since he was a sociologist and I am an economist. He was such an incredible scholar and person, and really lit up any room he was in. It was a great privilege to get to know Neil and spend so much time with him.
From William Dow. I had the privilege of co-teaching with Neil the Health and Social Science Research seminar for the last several years of the RWJF postdoc program. I learned more and more every year that we taught it together. He turned it into that unicorn seminar that many of us thought we would have in graduate school but rarely happens -- deep, interdisciplinary discussions about research, policy, and life. What a contribution to so many cohorts of scholars.
From Mary Waters: I have known Neil for 38 years and he was a wonderful teacher, advisor and friend. I took a class from him, worked as his RA, and he was a terrific advisor on my dissertation committee. I think he was most pleased with me in grad school when he found out that one of my summer jobs was teaching computer programming to little kids at the Lawrence Hall of Science, and his daughter Sarah was in my class. He always went back to that experience as a special bond between us. It was in the years after Berkeley that I got to know Neil as a good friend. We overlapped on many committees at various institutions, especially at Russell Sage and Guggenheim. I watched him lead scholars across many disciplines with his characteristic low key, kind, yet firm style. I learned so much from him. Neil was a true intellectual, with a quick and wide ranging mind. I enjoyed spending time with him and Sharin over the years and enjoyed his sense of humor and warm good cheer. I will miss him very much.
From Alberto Martinelli. I was deeply moved by the news of Neil Smelser’s death. I knew him well. He was the chair of my Ph.D. Committee in 1975 and later on a wise colleague and a gentle friend. We collaborated on various grounds, the Economy and Society reader, the International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, the Handbook of Economic Sociology and in the activities of the International Sociological Association.
Neil has been a great intellectual figure, with a broad spectrum of research interests, truly innovative ideas, keen sociological imagination. He was also a special educator and as mentor for many, an active institution builder and defender of sociology as a science and of the sociological community of scholars, a sincere liberal in his staunch defense of the freedom of thought and speech. His contribution to sociology, social science and contemporary culture in general will last for long time.
From Lyn Spillman. From our first casual conversation about my dissertation, in the Stephens Hall courtyard, to our last face-to-face meeting in the lobby of a San Francisco ASA, with professional chat and news of his travels and grandchildren, Neil’s stalwart and kind presence in my life over thirty years was a happy gift. He was a lovely man, and I’ll miss him.
Thirty years of support and friendship leaves a lot of memories. Amazingly, there’s not one upsetting memory among them. As a dissertation advisor, Neil may not have realized how much it meant to find his long letters of careful reflections in my mail so promptly after I’d given him something to read. He was balanced, undogmatic, open, interested, and supportive. Never unduly directive, he didn’t create “Smelser students,” but rather helped us become scholars in ourselves. Yet years later I would be surprised to realize– sometimes embarrassingly late– that Neil had pioneered the scholarship generating some new idea of mine.
But that was the least of it. I also remember the years of advice and reassurance about early-career insecurities, when I could always turn to him with my latest worry about navigating the system, or my latest request for letters. (Now, it looks to me like a lot of hand-holding; but back then, it was sustaining, and I know it might well have made the difference between swimming and sinking). And later, as he plunged into his active retirement, I always enjoyed hearing the latest enthusiastic accounts of his next book, his keen travels, and the grandchildren who delighted him.
To me, Neil seemed amazingly unpretentious. If it had been left to him, I would never have known what a significant figure he is in twentieth century sociology. Yet, looking back at all he did, he must have been a professional virtuoso. Occasionally, he might mention some obligation to travel– on the program committee for ISA, or to Berlin to give the Georg Simmel Lectures, or to a National Academy of Sciences meeting. Or he might mention an acquaintance from his long tenure in the rarefied circles of Guggenheim or SSRI, or directorship of CASBS. Or he might mention a project he was particularly engaged in– like a national report on terrorism, or a plan for the UC system in the coming century. The Toronto meeting concluding his presidency of the ASA was a high point for both of us. Yet all this was a tiny fraction of all he contributed to the academy, mostly behind the scenes.
He was similarly unpretentious about his scholarship. But ultimately, it is his scholarship we should remember most; the fact that he treated his retirement as a happy opportunity to write more books reminds us how important it was to him. His contributions covered a vast terrain, because he was always pleased to puzzle over a new problem, or rethink an earlier position. We could talk about favorites for a long time, and we all have our particular interests. But Neil wrote a lot that any sociologist can profit from, whatever their interests. I remember his particular delight in The Odyssey Experience, about transformation in daily life. I think every sociologist should read “The Rational and the Ambivalent in the Social Sciences” (ASR 1998). I think every student should read Problematics of Sociology, for a lucid and balanced map of our field. Neil’s wise reflections on the scope and inherent tensions of the discipline, and the forces that shape it, are explored in more depth in Getting Sociology Right: A Half-Century of Reflections, which includes the classic “Sociology as Science, Humanism and Art”– another required reading. I’m grateful, not only for his support and friendship through the years, but also for the distinctive voice he offers sociology.
From Lois West. Thank you, Dr. Smelser. I never called him by his first name nor would I have. He was the quintessential mentor and professional who genuinely liked and encouraged women students (too rare a quality in academia I found). For my Reagan-era cohort he was our first research methods professor. I have always been grateful to him for having us read and critique a breadth of classical sociologists, Emile Durkheim, Max Weber, Sigmund Freud, as well as sharing his struggles and blocks with his own higher education work. His comments on our analyses were trenchant, thorough and always typewritten which I appreciated over others frequent brevity of handwritten marginalia. After my orals exam, he awarded me a white Styrofoam cup that he had decorated with ink drawings he created while we all spoke. I wish I had kept it. He gave me more typewritten pages for my dissertation and advised me on navigating university politics—“Raise your voice. Yell and slam your fist to get their attention.” That surprised me but I got the message. He wrote me positive, supportive and much needed letters of recommendation for a sociology professor job and for tenure, and I followed his work as ASA president and always appreciated it. He was irreplaceable and I will miss him. Thank you, Dr. Smelser.
From Jeffrey Prager. I am saddened to learn of the death of Neil Smelser, an important mentor and significant influence on my life and career. Learning this news has prompted many memories of my time with Neil that I would like to share.
Neil was my first instructor, offering the Introductory Sociological Theory to in-coming graduate students. This was in 1969. Many of us were drawn to Sociology largely because of its close intellectual connections with the contemporary politics of the time. Few, I believe, entered graduate school to become professional Sociologists; in fact, as hard as the idea may now sound, most of us had not even considered the professional consequences of graduate training. It was not surprising, then, when Neil introduced us to sociological theory, he being a student of Talcott Parsons and his action theory, not only were Neil’s presentations nearly impossible to understand but most of us were convinced of their irrelevance. I think I really understood almost nothing of the class because I was so preoccupied with the political struggles at the time. [I date my arrival at Berkeley as post-People's Park and pre-Cambodia] One distinct memory was when one of my classmates prefaced his question to Neil with “As a Marxist revolutionary.....,” and many of us took great pleasure in our comrade’s audacity. That year, Neil decided to require oral examinations with each of us rather than to have a written assessment. Not only was I at a loss at how to study for such an exam but, though I passed the class respectably, I think my oral performance left much to be desired. Neil asked me about my understanding of the dialectic. Even on my own terms, I probably should have understood it better but he was searching for the idea of an ever-changing dynamic in which as one side of the dialectic becomes stronger, the other becomes weaker. Almost 50 years after being confronted with his question, I still find myself often pondering it. It is certainly ironic or, in psychoanalytic terms, perhaps over-determined that, as an instructor myself, sociological theory has been my deepest professional commitment for the past thirty years or so. I routinely teach Sociological Theory and Contemporary Theory to both undergraduates and graduate students.
Partly because of that confidence-shattering experience of the first year, I kept my distance from Neil as a graduate student. Some years later, I finally screwed up my courage to invite him to be a member of my dissertation committee to which he readily agreed. William Kornhauser was my Chair because the dissertation fell squarely under the purview of political sociology, though Neil’s work on historical sociology also made him an appropriate choice. My progress on the thesis was slow, as I think nearly everybody else’s was as well, but during the course of that time, I met with Neil only a few times. His obligations were intensifying both in terms of his professional visibility and also because of his administrative acumen. He was the only person I have met who used his time as Chair of the Department to collect data on the Departmental search for an Assistant Professor and use it to publish a book on Affirmative Action at the University. Instead of regular meetings with him, I would submit to him a completed chapter. He told me he preferred not to meet to discuss the chapter but he would provide me with written comments. Before too much time passed, I would receive back from him a paragraph or two of comments on his thoughts on the chapter. Though more impersonal than I would have liked, it was a model both of impressive efficiency on his part and also an extremely useful teaching technique. I was able to read over and over his comments and, in time, absorb their import. They were always extremely useful.
The most memorable moment, however, was when, after several years of my teaching at UCLA, I returned to the Department to meet with him. I told him then that I had decided to enter into a full psychoanalytic training program in Los Angeles to better learn the field for my academic research. In a genuinely spontaneous outburst of support, Neil said “Finally!, I am a role model for someone.” He was genuinely pleased by my decision and extremely supportive. From then on, when talking to me, or talking of me to others, he would say he was the Chair of my dissertation committee. I never had the courage to correct him on his misimpression. He read my Ph.D. Thesis from the Southern California Psychoanalytic Institute with great enthusiasm. When I published a version of that as my second book, Presenting the Past, Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Misremembering, he provided a blurb for its publication which was wonderful if not excessive in its praise. I felt I was rewarded both by letters he would write on my behalf and also his invitation to contribute to his Handbook of the Social and Behavioral Sciences an entry on The Psychology of Collective Memory. I think I rightly concluded that the category itself was created with me in mind as its author.
Still, Neil forever remains my teacher. One article in particular, written with his own San Francisco analyst Robert Wallerstein, a leading intellectual light in the field of psychoanalysis and an important figure in the psychoanalytic movement, has continued to haunt me. It is a brilliant article—whose title right now escapes me but for which I am committed now to re-read—written as a cautionary theoretical tale of the dangers of using psychoanalytic theory and ideas for sociological analysis. They carefully dissect the basic epistemological presumptions of each to show only the narrowest of possibilities for integration between the two fields. The essay illustrated, first, how different Neil’s way of thinking was from mine—he was far more dispassionate and analytical than me in a philosophy of social science kind of way—and how muchit constrained me from trying to achieve the kind of integration I aspired to. There came a point, many years after reading it, that I almost consciously decided to defy the article's warnings and to begin to develop a kind of psychoanalytic sociology that, to this day, I’m not sure he would approve of. My article “Healing from History,” I think marks my rebellion, however limited it was, against my teacher. But I continue often to be reminded of his importance in shaping my thought and career when, with nearly every new publication of mine and with every comment of praise for my work, Neil and this article comes to mind. He now has been firmly lodged within me in the form of my own self-criticism, a super-egoist warning not to be too pleased because the flaws in my own research are known to me and could easily be discovered by others.
So, with his death, the question I now ask is whether I will be personally emancipated from his constant authoritative presence. Will I experience his death as a kind of an Oedipal victory? Will my inchoate albeit unfounded concerns about retaliation lessen? Of course, I would like to think so. But, in fact, I think he will always remain firmly lodged within me as an example of an extraordinarily powerful intellect who sets a standard for my own scholarship that I will never achieve. I will miss knowing of Neil’s presence on this earth. However, I don’t worry about the memory of his example disappearing because, since I began teaching, I have passed that on to my students. It is impossible to imagine that changing now.
From Gail Kligman. Neil chaired my dissertation committee. As a graduate student, his support was steadfast, even when he pushed me in unanticipated directions. I am indebted to him for his consistent encouragement to be receptive to new ideas as well as interdisciplinary perspectives, and to embrace the challenges that so often accompany them. He urged me to approach research with an open mind, but with an equally open critical eye. His influence on my own approach to pedagogy in general, to mentoring undergraduate and graduate students, has been unparalleled. Neil has left a towering legacy not only to the department to which he dedicated most of his academic career, but to the University of California more broadly, to sociology across the globe, and to the promotion of scholarship as well as the practice of psychoanalysis.
From Victoria Bonnell. Neil Smelser was a much admired colleague and friend. He had a brilliant mind and a big heart. Watch Harry Kreisler's interview with Neil in 2005 to grasp his intellectual range and depth as well as his humanity (https://conversations.berkeley.edu/content/neil-smelser).
Neil’s modesty and unpretentiousness belied his prodigious accomplishments. A Harvard undergraduate and Rhodes scholar (1952-1954), he returned to Harvard for graduate school and by 1956 had coauthored Economy and Society with Talcott Parsons. He came to the Berkeley sociology department in 1958 where he remained for thirty-six years until he left to direct the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford, a position he held until 2001.
The author of a vast number of books and articles, Neil had at his command multiple fields of inquiry. His erudition brought him preeminence in many different subfields of sociology, and he made original contributions to a great many subjects, ranging from economic sociology to social theory and a lot in between. It would be fair to say that most trained sociologists over the past sixty years have at some point encountered and engaged with his ideas. And to add to the miracle of it all, Neil had a dual career as both a sociologist and a psychoanalyst.
Neil formed deep and lasting personal relationships with colleagues, students, and staff. I know because he took me under his wing when I came to Berkeley. He was chairing the department when I was hired, and after I joined the faculty, he brought me into his inner circle. We were not an obvious match. In the politically charged atmosphere of the Berkeley sociology department in the mid and late 1970s, Neil and I had found ourselves at odds over a number of scholarly and other issues. Yet he invited me to be part of his intellectual world and he opened doors for me that changed my life.
Not long after my arrival at Berkeley in 1976, he invited me to join an inter-departmental faculty group designed to explore new theoretical perspectives. The group, which assembled monthly for dinner at the Faculty Club, was established by Neil in the 1960s under the auspices of the Institute of International Studies. When I first joined, all the participants were tenured and the anthropologist Elizabeth Colson was the sole female member of the group. The composition grew more diverse in the years to come but the departments of history and anthropology continued to supply most of the participants. Discussions were exuberant, sometimes passionate but always cordial and without rancor. (I recall a thrilling and contentious conversation about Pierre Bourdieu’s Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste.) This was academia as I had never experienced it before and haven’t since. Neil was the catalyst for the group and its inspiration—he selected the participants, the menus, and the topics, and he presided over the meetings. At some point in the late 1980s, he invited me to co-chair and when he retired, I took over. But the seminar survived only for a few more years. Neil’s departure and changing academic agendas dispersed the group.
Neil believed in the mission of the university and its inclusiveness. In the Berkeley sociology department, Arlie Hochschild, Nancy Chodorow, Ann Swidler, and I—among others—were beneficiaries of his tremendous support for women scholars at a time when there were relatively few of us on the faculty. Many honors and distinctions flowed to Neil over his long career. He richly deserved the recognition and carried it with grace. He will be remembered as much for his kindness and generosity of spirit as for his stunning intellect and devotion to the academy. A great man has passed away.
From Arlie Hochschild. Neil Smelser died October 2, 2017, at 87, leaving behind an extraordinary legacy. He created an astonishing career in sociology, became a major pillar of sociology, and great contributor to sociology, and a truly great mentor, as I came to know. A Harvard and Oxford-trained wunderkind, Neil was ultimately the author of twenty books and thirty edited volumes. At his death, he was about to be awarded the 38th Constantine Panunzio Distinguished Emeriti Award, offered by the U.C. system. Neil left “active UC employment in 1994, ” Marjorie Caserio writes: "But after he retired, he went on to write seven more books, all on vastly different topics—the odyssey, terrorism, the use of sociology to private enterprise, for example -- and twenty major research articles. Throughout his life, Neil also held many administrative roles—including Chair of the Sociology Department, Assistant to the President of UC, and Director of the Center for Advanced Studies in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford.
Until a person like Neil Smelser has passed from life, it is hard to appreciate the enormity of the intellectual and emotional space a person inhabits in a discipline, an institution, and the lives of many students. For all these other great accomplishments, I know I am one of many graduate students whom he took time to mentor. This he did through his even-tempered positive attitude, his ecumenicalism and his reassuring sense of forward motion. “Helped” is too weak a word for what Neil did for me as a mentor. Without his support, I would have dropped out of sociology. What I felt was “rescued.” Neil read my feeble papers with lightning speed and helpful, encouraging comments. I would disappear, not see him for months and reappear with another paper. Again, he responded within the week and with many comments. Had he actually read so quickly something I’d struggled months to write? I wondered. Yes. He’d written two single-spaced pages of comments adding an encouraging final remark. I remember bringing in yet another research paper on a rather minor topic — the invisible work done by the wives of foreign service officers, who represented their husbands and country in whom they saw, what they could say, how they should seem to feel and nearly everything they did. I had shown the paper to another male professor, now deceased, who had written me “Fine, if you want to write for the Ladies Home Journal…” Neil, on the other hand, suggested I revise the paper and send it to the Journal of Marriage and the Family which he said “had improved in recent years.” He made this latter remark in such an off-hand way, as if he were on the journal’s side as it was improving, and as if I, like the journal, might also be improving, might one day have an opinion, and join the tribe. At least I took the remark that way. My topic didn’t fall within Neil’s areas of interest. It didn’t reflect his conceptual approach. But Neil was far bigger than that; he never asked similarity of his students; he cared about helping us grow in the ways we seemed to need to grow. That paper became the first I ever published. I think of it as my Neil Smelser paper, the one that got me going. Neil had legions of students and mentees whom I’m sure have the same kind of story to tell. So I know I speak for many former students and colleagues, when I say, “Thank you so much, Neil. We will miss you very much and remember you always."
From Ann Swidler. From my first days in graduate school, where Neil taught the introductory theory course, to long after I had left Berkeley and then returned, Neil was a generous, inspiring, steadying presence. I still remember much of what he taught us about theory--the difference between a strong theory that took the risk of being wrong and a weak theory that aspired to account for everything, for example. His great intellectual contributions as well as his many kindnesses have stayed with me. I remain grateful for all he gave to the discipline, the Department, and the University he loved.
From Earl Babbie. I was saddened to learn of Neil’s passing. I had him as a professor during my graduate schooling at Berkeley. Then, I was on ASA’s EOB during Neil’s term as president. I held him in the very highest regard in both situations. He was a great sociologist and a great human being.
Here’s something I bet few people knew. Sitting around with coffee in stereofoam cups, Neil would decorate his cup with a ballpoint, turning it into a true work of art. At one EOB (Executive Office and Budget) meeting, we auctioned off his cup with the winning bid going to ASA. Anyone who crossed paths with Neil was blessed by that and will miss him deeply now.
From Magali Sarfatti-Larson. So many will praise Neil Smelser for his work as a sociologist, unparalleled in its diversity and its breadth that I don’t know what I could write. From the first masterpiece, Social Change in the Industrial Revolution to the classic works on the sociology of economic life and the sociology of culture, to the Simmel lectures and The Faces of Terrorism and Getting Sociology Right and the amazing Odyssey Experience, I can repeat, as others undoubtedly will say, that everything Neil wrote was fundamental in any of the various fields he approached –incontournable, as the French say, which means unavoidable and indispensable. His works were like his teaching: clear, lucid, critical, removing and resetting boundaries, daring us to go where we thought we needed to go, but with rigor, with discipline, with reason and humility, guided by painstaking research.
In times of turmoil, Neil was always the voice of reason, and he was listened to and heard. He was a great teacher and a necessary mentor, one who asked the right questions and helped us see where we were wrong, or just superficial, which is something he was not. I think of him, above all, as one of the kindest, gentlest and calmest men I have ever met. His integrity and depth as a human being and as an intellectual always reminded us of what universities are or should be, starting with Berkeley which we all loved and to which he gave so much. We all owe him so much that there is no goodbye to say, only living love and gratitude.
From Richard Weisman. Neil was Professor Smelser to me when I was a graduate student in the 1960’s. It wasn’t until some forty years later when I wrote him a note acknowledging his impact on me in my own career as an academic that he became Neil to me. I was not surprised when he wrote back that he was “still at it” seven years after his retirement. What I said then I still believe even now that I too am retired. As a teaching assistant in his introductory course in sociology, I learned what it meant to prepare lectures that were rigorous, challenging, and yet totally captivating for their engagement with core sociological issues. As a student in his seminar on Talcott Parsons, I learned what it was to be a committed scholar who was nevertheless open to perspectives that might challenge those commitments. Neil was someone who had much to give to his students but was never too proud to learn from them as well. When I look back at the intellectual ferment of the 1960’s, I think of Neil as one of the few scholars during that period whose vision of scholarship and embrace of teaching as a vocation never faltered. Neil inspired me as I know he inspired others to try to live up to his high ideals in their own careers.
From Simon Frith. When I joined the graduate school in the Sociology Department at Berkeley in 1967, fresh from doing PPE at Oxford, I knew little about sociology and nothing about the US university system. Neil Smelser became my mentor by default. One of the requirements of my scholarship was to be someone’s research assistant, and because of my interest in historical sociology, I chose to be Neil’s. Not knowing any better I began by thinking I was doing him a favour and ended up, under his guidance (and inspired by Social Change in the Industrial Revolution), choosing as my PhD topic the history of working class education in 19th century Leeds.
Neil was my supervisor, initially in regular meetings, later, when I was doing the archive research, by letter (this was long before the digital age). It’s only in retrospect that I realise his exceptional patience, grace and generosity in dealing with a student who took for granted so much of what actually made him an exceptional teacher. My thesis was written from a Marxist perspective, and although I was influenced by Neil’s work I also wanted to challenge it. He never showed anything but enthusiasm for this project and, indeed, always seemed to enjoy being challenged. In teaching terms, what I learnt from him, what I have tried to apply in my own career, is the pedagogical importance of tolerance, argument and the ability to change one’s mind.
Neil was never what is labelled a ‘charismatic’ teacher but he was an exceptionally good one. For me he was always both genial and demanding, calm and passionate. I was extremely lucky that he was my teacher when I was deciding what sociological scholarship could and should be.
From Michael Kimmel. Neil chaired my dissertation committee. (My dissertation was on tax policies in 17th century France and England.) He actually read it and found ways to support my archival research in Paris and London. Over beers in London, he told me that he now understood what etatisme meant in practice. But I was never able to convince him that popular uprisings and revolutions were more rational than spasmodic emotional collective outbursts.
From Christine Williams. I was a socialist feminist interested in psychoanalytic theory when I asked Neil to be my advisor. People are often surprised by this. But more than any other person, Neil taught me how to be a sociologist. He was open-minded and fair and never dogmatic. He encouraged me to be adventurous in my thinking. Knowing he had my back, I developed confidence in my abilities. My career owes everything to him. I miss him very much.
From Miki Kashtan. I was perhaps the last student that Neil accepted as a dissertation chair, after he already retired, and I experience my years of working with him until I produced the final version of my thesis an extraordinary privilege I will never forget.
In my work, I ventured into the holy of holies: social theory. I pursued a path of critique and challenge of the foundations of sociological theory. Neil demonstrated his big spirit every step of the way. He never once asked me to say anything different from what I was trying to say, nor did he have any agenda for me about my ideas. His entire focus was on supporting me to say what I wanted to say in the best possible way. His reading of my work was generous, thorough, and affirming. His suggestions for further reading and his questions for deeper reflection exactly on target to get the most out of me that anyone could. We had extensive conversations about our similarities and differences in terms of social theory. He always engaged with care and grace, challenging me and supporting me without ever making it too clear what his own political and existential commitments were. And he also made himself open to learning from my explorations such that I was surprised one day to see one of the core ideas I engaged with and about which we had many discussions informing his annual address of the American Sociological Association, as he so openly acknowledged.
A few years ago, quite some time after I graduated, Neil and I had one final meeting in a coffee shop in Berkeley, where we shared with each other as two caring, aware, committed individuals. I sensed then that this was my last time with him, and I took in deeply his lingering sense of humor and exquisite capacity to focus on being with another person. I feel blessed with every moment of knowing him, from my first social theory class in 1990 to that very last smile and hug we shared as we parted.
From Nicolas Vaca. In 1963 I took Sociology 101, Introduction to Sociology, a class then taught by Neil Smelser. During the final class of the semester, two days before our final examination, Neil told the following story: A student was preparing for a final examination and as he reviewed his extensive notes he concluded that if he worked hard enough he could reduce the voluminous notes to ten pages. After more thought he concluded that even harder work would allow him to reduce his notes to five pages. After more arduous work he was convinced that he could reduce them to one page. And even more dedicated work he thought he could reduce them further to one paragraph. The night before the final examination, he was knew he could reduce it to one word. The following morning he walked into class, opened his blue book and began to write; but he forgot the word. For all the wonderful and positive things that Neil did for sociology, for the Department itself, for his colleagues and for his innumerable students, including me, it is not that I cannot remember the word to express it all, it is that I cannot find it.
From Howard Greenwald. Smelser's great contribution to my thinking was a sophisticated understanding of "functionalism." The understanding I attribute to him is that in a collectivity a practice may be functional for some people (such as managers) and dysfunctional for others (such as workers). Moreover, even for an individual, a practice may be functional on one level and not another. For example, for a workoholic, the practice may be functional financially or creatively, but dysfunctional for her/his personal relationships. Thanks, Neil!
From Robert Kaffer. One of the most intellectually stimulating evenings of my life was Neil Smelser's clear, uncluttered explanation of structural functionalism in Herbert Blumer's theory class and then the dialogue between the two about functionalism and symbolic interaction. Two brilliant, gracious and down-to-earth people whose explanations were so eminently cogent and understandable. Never have three hours gone by so fast.