Robert Alford (1950)

Former Professor of Sociology, Graduate School, CUNY.


Biography prepared by Roger Friedland, Department of Sociology and Religious Studies, UC, Santa Barbara

Robert Alford died of pancreatic cancer on February 14, 2003, just months before his 75th birthday. There was to be a celebration at his parents' ranch in Avery, California in the Sierras. Bob grew up near here at Angel's Camp, the site of the Calaveras jumping frog contests fabled by Mark Twain. Bob loved to walk the forests paths that radiate out across the property, past the pond dense with water lilies and an apple orchard with forgotten species of fruit. The lupine and the Indian paintbrush would have been in bloom. Bob was a huge man who loped gracefully and could walk for miles. He thought best walking, which was how we worked out the structure of the Powers of Theory (1985), through hours and hours of movement.

A socialist radical with a Wobbly heritage, he dropped out of UC Berkeley in 1951, opposed to the McCarthy loyalty oaths, and went to work and to organize as member of the Labor Youth League in an International Harvester truck factory. Robert Blauner was a fellow worker and cell-member there. After Khrushchev's 'secret' speech to the 20th Party Congress leaked out, a speech detailing Stalin's 'crimes,' his incarceration and execution of spies and enemies who were, in fact, loyal Communists, Alford, like many others, including Blauner, returned to the university. The state's promulgation of information that was, in fact, disinformation, or outright lies, would later become a theme in his work.

A graduate student of Seymour Martin Lipset, his 1961 doctoral dissertation on class voting was subsequently published as Party and Politics, distinguishing between determinants of the class distinctiveness of parties and the partisan distinctiveness of a class in Anglo-American democracies. The young quantitative political sociologist left for the University of Wisconsin, where, together with Michael Aiken, he led the Social Organization program until 1974. In this multivariate citadel, a generation of young students fired by the new-left enabled Bob to return intellectually to the home terrain of his politics, and indeed to leave behind the econometric rewriting of the social. In his turn Alford took his students through a critical re-engagement with the classic debates with Marxism as the way forward. It was at the seminar table, through a combination of withering critique and an overwhelming sense of care, that Bob shaped generations of sociologists who learned from him that a statement of a problem, the choice of an indicator, the settling on a particular level of observation, could have fateful consequences. His objective, as he put it, was 'to unpack' a student's approach to a problem. Doctoral prospectuses, chapters, seminar papers all merited copious, typewritten comments. His seminars were always charged, overcrowded zones of engagement. We all foolishly thought that this was how academic life was lived everywhere. Teaching for him was a kind of wrestling, a loving combat. Sometimes after Bob's 'unpacking,' you just wanted to go home and get in bed for the indefinite future. But you knew he knew you could go farther. And you did. His students didn't just admire him; we loved him. In 1997, he was given the ASA's Distinguished Contribution to Teaching award.

Bob left Wisconsin to return home to California in 1974, taking on the direction of the sociology program at UC Santa Cruz. In 1975, he published Health Care Politics: Ideological and Interest Group Barriers to Reform. In that work he showed the ways in which displays of rationality and rituals of rationalization were forms of symbolic politics, part of a political process by which interest groups, organizations and the very structure of the system blocked substantive reform. The volume won the C. Wright Mills award.

This work on politics as aesthetics, beautiful form as substitute for interested transformation, was later followed by work on the politics of aesthetic production. Music was Bob's first passion and the piano a life-long gift, one whose pleasure was later denied him by a congenital ear defect that steadily rendered him deaf. I think music was, in fact, the template by which he understood the practice of sociology, the imagination and construction of a beautiful structure, a disciplined passion, an enchanted reconstruction of the world. And it was from music that he learned the problematic of technique. A gifted teenage pianist, he had hitchhiked from Angels Camp to San Francisco just to hear Artur Rubinstein play. If you asked him, forty years later, he would still talk about Rubinstein's piano-playing technique. Bob discovered that concert pianists, as well as other types of musician, often experienced bodily pains, sometimes quite extreme, indeed even leading to permanent injury. This pain, however, was not a necessity, but a taken-for-granted cost of an institutionalized technique. Bob wrote about it with Andras Szanto in 'Orpheus Wounded: The Experience of Pain in the Professional Worlds of the Piano' (1996, Theory and Society). He had wanted to write much more, but his own pain at not any longer being able to hear the music ended that research.

Bob used to take out his dog-eared copy of The Sociological Imagination and read passages out loud to me like a catechist. C. Wright Mills had felt that he arrived when he finally made it to Manhattan. Bob had fallen in love with New York City as a result of doing research there for his health care politics book. Like Mills, in 1988 Alford, too, finally made it to Manhattan, where he was Distinguished Professor of Sociology at the CUNY Graduate Center. At CUNY, he spent most of his time working with students crafting their dissertations. Sociologically speaking, Bob was a committed Trinitarian. Everything came to him in threes: home domains, theories, levels of analysis, modes of inquiry, classical theorists, and as it turned out, academic homes. His last major book The Craft of Inquiry: Theories, Methods, Evidence (1998), an exploration of historical, quantitative and interpretative modalities, developed out of decades of doing what he did best--working through the design, the genre, the technique by which one sought to apprehend the social. Bob was the master of the master class. There are hundreds of scholars out there whose craft was learned at his table. And for this we give thanks.

Roger Friedland

Departments of Religious Studies and Sociology, UC Santa Barbara





A Friend for Fifty Years

By Bob Blauner

Bob Alford died of pancreatic cancer on February 14, 2003, after a very brief illness. Because of his incredible vitality and the fact that his father had lived to 90, Bob's death, only months before his 75th birthday, and its very suddenness, came as a terrible shock to his family and to his legion of friends. In this remembrance I recount how we first met in the early 1950s and why of all my old friends, the breadth and range of Bob Alford's humanity was unparalleled.


I first saw Bob Alford in the fall of 1952. He was wearing goggles to protect his eyes and a gray apron or smock over his work clothes to collect the metallic dust coming from the machine he was operating. The punch press was even taller than Bob's six foot plus frame. I watched him pull down the lever and the press made holes in the piece of sheet metal Bob was feeding it. Those holes were needed so that the fenders and other parts he would drill in Department 12 (Sheet Metal) could be assembled onto the chasses of truck frames, after the gray metal parts had been primed and spray painted. Add to each frame a diesel engine and a cab for the driver to sit in and a brand new truck would roll out the door.

There were only 150 blue-collar workers at our International Harvester plant in Emeryville, California in 1952. And yet three of us were Communists, or at least members of the party's youth group. The late Bill Lowe was the party's youth organizer in the East Bay then and it was Bill who told me about the other two guys at IHC who had also quit college "to go into industry". Our goal was to radicalize the working class, for according to the Marxist theory of the time, the proletariat ensconced in such heavy industries as steel, auto, and rubber manufacturing, was the only stratum that had a revolutionary potential. College students, the group each of us had abandoned, was the last---and I mean last---social group that could be expected to shake up American society.

I stood by Bob's machine several minutes before he noticed me. I was fortunate to have gotten a job in parts, which gave me the chance to move from one department to another, sometimes while rolling tires twice my size, a lucky break, since only a few months earlier, while working in an Oakland transformer plant, I had gotten panic attacks from remaining in front of the machine all day. Bob shut off his press, I introduced myself, and told him that Bill Lowe had suggested that the two of us, along with Burt, should start meeting every week as a club in "the League," meaning the Labor Youth League, the party's youth organization.

For four years the three of us would meet regularly at each other's houses talking about the factory, how we were getting along in making friends and influencing people---"contacts" was the word we used---and how we could push our extremely conservative local of the United Auto Workers in a more progressive direction. As you can imagine, given that the industrial concentration strategy was misguided to begin with, and to make matters worse, we were trying to colonize what was sadly one of the more conservative sectors of the society, the American working class, and add to all that the fact that it was 1952, the height of the hysteria brought on by McCarthyism and the Korean War, it's not surprising that we got absolutely nowhere. The best we could point to were the friends we had made in the plant, who once in a while---but only a rare while---consented to go to a union meeting with us.

What workers care most about in deciding whether to accept a new man in the informal work group is how good he does his job---and I say "man" and "he" because we were all men on the shop floor at International Harvester then. And Bob did excellent work on his punch press, and at times on another machine, the shears. He wasn't quite as loose in shooting the breeze as Burt was, but he still earned enough respect to serve as his department's shop steward. And as I walked by his work station, I could see that he was on very friendly terms with several of the young Mexican American workers, namely Johnnie Rivera and Johnnie Mena. Whether they visited back and forth at each others homes as Burt and I did with several of the plant's Negro workers, and I also did with a white guy from Arkansas who had befriended me, I no longer remember. 

I used to think that of all my comrades from the 1950s, Bob Alford was the least likely to have become a Red. I thought that because he seemed to be---and was---a normal, well-adjusted, and happy person. Without any of the deep core of alienation that in my case had come from growing up in an unhappy family with a silent withdrawn father. That may be so, but as I recently learned from Roger Friedland, Bob's grandfather had been a lumber worker and a Wobbly, that is a member of the anarcho-syndicalist Industrial Workers of the World, perhaps the most authentically American---as well as Western and militant--radical movement American society has known. 

Today I believe that Bob's becoming a Communist is best explained by one over-arching quality, his essential goodness. Bob Alford was the most unequivocally good human being I've ever known. His growing radicalism didn't come from a wild-eyed youthful idealism. It went deeper than that. It came, instead, from a an urgent desire to do good, to make the world a better place. So that even when we all had to admit that our early efforts to change the world had not borne fruit, Bob never ceased trying to do good, in politics, in community and university affairs, and above all in his work as a professor and as a father to his three children.

After graduating Angels Camp's Bret Harte High School in the heart of Northern California's gold country, where he was already active politically, Bob came to Cal in 1946. It was one year after the end of World War II, so he had missed being drafted to fight in that conflict by a mere year. At Berkeley he would become first active in, and then the president of, Stiles Hall, the campus YMCA, at the the time its leading liberal organization. As part of our "boring from within" tactics, communists worked in such "mass orgs" as the Y, looking for potential recruits and it was there that Bob met the man who brought him into the Labor Youth League. But as he told me two years ago when I was interviewing old friends about why they had become Reds in the 1950s---a most unlikely time---what most influenced Bob was not any one person or group of people. Nor was it ideology. It was music.

What made music such a fitting vehicle is that it speaks to the heart. And Bob was a man with a big heart. He was also a fine classical pianist, played regularly in the 1950s in a Berkeley Chander group led by a brilliant cellist, Dick Anastasia. But it was folk music that would move him politically.

The late 1940s was the beginning of the folk music revival in America. Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie were gaining big followings on college campuses. Bob heard their music sung by Pete Seeger, but it was the songs of Earl Robinson that most influenced him. Robinson's "The House I Live In" was brought to a mass national audience by two great singers, who couldn't have been more different, Paul Robeson and Frank Sinatra.

Bob graduated Cal and went on to work for an M.A. in sociology during the height of the Loyalty Oath controversy. President Harry Truman had set the process in motion in 1948 when he ordered that federal employees must sign   affidavits that they did not belong to the Communist Party or any organization advocating the forcible overthrow of the U. S. government. A year later the State of California followed with an oath for its employees, including professors at Berkeley and UCLA. The oath was universally despised as a blatant violation of academic freedom. But except for a few brave souls, who years later were exonerated when the law was overturned, most of the faculty caved in and signed.

The oath settled it for Bob. Knowing that if he went on for his Ph.D he'd have to sign just to work his way through school as a teaching assistant, he finished his master's degree and left Cal.

Bob never regretted the years he spent at Harvester. We both felt that there was no other place that could have taught us so much about American society. But by the beginning of 1956, with almost four years under our belts, we were getting restless. The work had gotten old and it had become even more clear that we would never be successful in organizing our fellow workers. And there were all the ambitions to make something of ourselves, to become successful in a profession, that we had put to rest for so long.

And then in February 1956 came a bombshell, the report that Kruschëv had made a "secret speech" to the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, a speech in which he revealed that Stalin had been a criminal monster. The same Stalin who in my first year at IHC had made me feel safe, even as a group of right-wing Irishmen were baiting me as a "Jew-Communist," because with him at the helm in Moscow, all was right with the world. 

Stalin's death in March 1953 would in time lead to a thaw in the Cold War. Tensions eased measurably when the Korean War ended that summer. At home McCarthyism would be dealt a death blow a year later when the Senator from Wisconsin's hearings into subversive activities in the Army backfired.

Years later I would learn that Harvester knew all along that we were communists, but had considered us too harmless to get rid of. Our more politically minded fellow workers also knew what we were up to. Bob may have been red-baited less than I was, because he didn't stand out as a Jew. Our comrade Burt took the most flack, because he was not only a "Jew-Communist like me," but was also married to a Negro woman. But Burt was so unapologetically matter-of-fact about his wife, and also his politics---although none of us ever revealed the full extent of our radicalism---that he was probably the most accepted and the most politically effective of us.

Burt's wife Bru and Ginny, to whom I was then married, were as died-in-the-wool true believers as their husbands. But Gloria never bought into our illusions that the Soviet Union was a workers' paradise or that socialism in America was virtually around the corner. Her healthy skepticism undoubtedly gave Bob a somewhat greater sense of political reality than was typical among Communists and fellow travellers in the 1950s. But reading Kruschëv's speech that spring devastated Bob as much as it did the rest of us. 

Everything we had believed about the Soviet Union, everything we knew to be true about the world,  came down crashing like a house of cards.

For weeks we talked about the Report and what it meant for us. Meanwhile our friends and comrades were beginning to leave the Party and the LYL. First in trickles, then in droves. After a while, as the shock wore off, Kruschëv's words began to look like an act of deliverance. For people like Bob and myself, it meant we had a second chance. The same American society which, only a few years earlier, might have locked us up in concentration camps---for the 1954 McCarran Act had actually provided for the rounding up of dangerous subversives in a national emergency---was now saying that our future was open. 

Although I was admitted to Berkeley's Sociology Department  that September, Bob  decided to wait six months to save up money for his Ph. D. studies. Harvester's union-scale wages were high  and hard to give up.

For two years in the late 1950s Bob and I ate lunch together every day, sitting in the sun in front of the Campanile. We were often joined by others in our cohort, Ken Walker, Ralph Beals, Lloyd Street, and Harry Nishio. Bob and I still packed the same black metal lunch boxes we had used in the factory, but it was what was inside Bob's that provoked the same wonder and jokes that it had at Harvester. With an enormous appetite, he always ate  three or four sandwiches and several pieces of fruit.

Our return to Berkeley came at an opportune time. A new department was being built by Herbert Blumer that would soon be the best in the country. Blumer and his former student Tam Shibutani had a huge following of grad students interested in social psychology that included Tom Scheff and Arlene Caplan Daniels. The other major segment was political and industrial sociology, with such luminaries as Reinhard Bendix, Philip Selznick, Seymour Martin Lipset, and Bill Kornhauser. Along with Bob and I, the political and industrial students included Bill Friedland, Art Stinchcombe, Pat McGillivray, Amitai Etzioni, Fred Goldner, Günther Roth, and Gayle Ness.

The curriculum for students of class, social movements, politics, and work at the time couldn't have been more tailor-made for Bob and me. The books on the Ph. D. core reading list---and the others our profs recommended---were books that helped us make sense of our recent political and industrial experiences, answering questions that we were finally ready to face, questions about capitalism and socialism, the Soviet Union, and the politics of the working class. The books Bob and I read would influence our outlooks forever: Joseph Schumpeter's Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy, Selig Perlman's Theory of the The Labor Movement, Karl Mannheim's Ideology and Utopia, and perhaps the biggest eye-opener of all, Roberto Michels' Political Parties. Art Stinchcombe turned me on to Trotsky's History of the Russian Revolution and I also learned a great deal from the anarchist theorists, Bakunin and Kropotkin.

Although I became an industrial and Bob a political sociologist, we both soon found ourselves Marty Lipset's star students. The year after I was Marty's research assistant for a book on social mobility, Bob became his leading assistant, doing much of the spade work, and even some of the writing, for the classic text Political Man.

What strikes me now as remarkable, looking back over 45 years, is how we remained good friends, indeed comrades, without falling prey to a competition that would have been natural, given that our relation to our mentor made us virtually sibling rivals. And given also the dog-eat-dog nature of the academic world. I attribute that mostly to Bob and his impressive inner security---he never needed to feel better than someone else to feel good about himself. 

After eight years in which we had seen each other practically every day, Bob left the Bay Area to teach at the University of Wisconsin. A dedicated and selfless teacher, his career took off at Madison and he was the first of our peer group to be promoted to tenure. Still, we managed to see each other at least once a year, at ASA meetings, or when he arranged for me to be invited to Madison to deliver a talk.

As a man with such deep roots in California and the West---his favorite novelist was Wallace Stegner---Bob might have been a bit envious when I became the first Ph.D. in a generation to have been invited back as a regular faculty member in sociology. But he returned himself a few years later, as a full professor at UC Santa Cruz. 
My feelings about sociology changed dramatically in the mid-1970s. Involved in primal therapy I became focused on personal experience and much less interested in work and the profession. My contacts with many old sociology friends dropped off as I began to find many academic people---especially men---too involved in their work for my taste, too consumed with ideas, too much "in their heads," if you will.
Bob was the great exception. Even though he himself remained involved in the field, active in professional associations, with his circle of friends and colleagues constantly expanding, whenever we met he was always first and foremost a  human being, a man with feelings, I never hesitated to ask him to read whatever new non-sociological manuscript I was working on. His comments on a memoir about my struggle with depression were especially thoughtful.
He was also much more grounded in the earth than any other professor I've known. A lover of nature, he spent every summer and every Christmas holiday at the family ranch near Avery, California. There in a hundred acres of semi-wilderness, he constructed trails so that he and his friends could go on long and strenuous hikes, reach ponds to swim in, and he also did much of the work himself in building an office where he could work and a home for him and his companion Noll Anne Richardson.
Unlike most of my old friends and colleagues, he became as close to my wife Karina as he was to me. Whereas other academic people usually showed little interest in her work and who she was as a person, after all she was not a sociologist or a professor but a mere artist, Bob was as curious about her projects and her reactions to events, as he was to mine. So that whenever he brought food over to our house for lunch---his hearing deficit having gotten so bad that restaurants were too noisy---he positioned himself at our table with his good ear next to where Karina was sitting. And then halfway through his time with us he would move closer to me.
* * *
Bob Alford made important contributions to sociology in a number of areas: politics, health care, music, theory, and methodology. As a teacher he guided scores of graduate students in dissertation research and to professional  success, teaching with a selfless dedication that earned him their respect and love. But having said all this, Bob excelled even more in two areas: as a father and as a friend.
Bob was an unusually nurturant father when his children were young and they remained his number one priority after they were grown up. At his 70th birthday celebration, Heidi, Jonathan, and Elissa each made a moving tribute to their father, who was always available at every turning point or crisis in their lives.
Along with his family and students, Bob was invested in a rich circle of friendship. And he knew that friendships have to be continuously cultivated, so that he would not think of passing through the Bay Area on the way from New York to his ranch in the gold country without coming over to visit with us. 
A number of qualities made him a great friend: loyalty, being a good listener, modesty, and sensitivity to others. He never boasted about his many accomplishments, so that I had to read Roger Friedland's obituary to learn he had been awarded both the C. Wright Mills Award and a Distinguished Teaching prize from the American Sociological Association. Did he not tell us out of modesty? Or out of a sensitivity that came from knowing that I had regrets about almost winning the first and never having been nominated for the second? 
It must have especially pained him that his cancer progressed so rapidly that he did not have the chance for final meetings with his friends. Still, on the day he died, barely able to speak, he dictated an e-mail to Noll Anne, so that she could forward his goodbyes to us.
I can still see Bob walking through our door with Noll Anne, placing our deli lunch on the table, to free his arms for the big hugs he would greet us with. And then finding his place at the table, ready with his ever present curiosity, to ask us about our lives. Exuding as always a vitality that makes it hard to believe that he won't be coming any more.
Dissertation Title
Class-Voting in Four Anglo-American Countries
Dissertation Book Title
Party and society : the Anglo-American democracies
Entry Year