Orlando Patterson may be the last of Harvard sociology’s big thinkers, Craig A. Lambert argues in this article for The Harvard Magazine. Here are some excerpts, with a link to the full text below.
IN THE SPRING OF 2012, Brown University hosted an extraordinary academic conference. “Being Nobody?” honored the thirtieth anniversary of the publication of Slavery and Social Death by Orlando Patterson, Harvard’s Cowles professor of sociology. Giving a birthday party for a scholarly book is a rarity in itself. Even more unusual, the symposium’s 11 presenters were not sociologists. They were classicists and historians who gave papers on slavery in ancient Rome, the neo-Assyrian empire, the Ottoman Middle East, the early Han empire, West Africa in the nineteenth century, medieval Europe, and eighteenth-century Brazil, among other topics. “I’m not aware of another academic conference held by historians to celebrate the influence of a seminal work by a social scientist writing for a different discipline,” says John Bodel, professor of classics and history at Brown, one of the organizers.
But Patterson is no ordinary academician. “Orlando is one of a kind—the sheer scope and ambition of his work set him apart from 99 percent of social scientists,” says Loic Wacquant, JF ’94, professor of sociology at Berkeley. “In an era when social scientists specialize in ever-smaller objects, he is a Renaissance scholar who takes the time to tackle huge questions across multiple continents and multiple centuries. There was another scholar like this in the early twentieth century, named Max Weber. Orlando is in that category.”
PATTERSON IS a historical-comparative sociologist who has written extensively on race relations and, especially, slavery and freedom. Slavery and Social Death is “a landmark study that has had very broad and deep impact,” says Goelet professor of medieval history Michael McCormick, who participated in the “Being Nobody?” conference (see “The New Histories,” page 52). Patterson’s Freedom in the Making of Western Culture, a kind of obverse to Slavery and Social Death, won the 1991 National Book Award for nonfiction. Like his mentors, Harvard sociologists David Riesman and Seymour Martin Lipset, “Orlando tries to speak to a broader audience,” says Diker-Tishman professor of sociology Christopher Winship. “In many ways, he ranks among Harvard sociology’s last big thinkers—David Riesman, Daniel Bell, Talcott Parsons.”
The study of culture—of values, established ideas, traditions, language, customs, learned behaviors, symbolic materials, including the arts, and other nonbiological inheritances—has been central to Patterson’s work. Sociologists often contrast culture with structure: the “hard” variables that include prevailing institutions, distribution of wealth, education, housing, jobs, and other “physical-world” factors. For decades, researchers have debated whether culture informs structure, or vice versa.
Many scholars oversimplify culture by equating it simply with values, Patterson says. This can lead to paradoxes like citing the same cultural complex as the cause of opposite results. “Confucianism was used in the past to explain backwardness in China, before it became successful. The Confucian ethic was supposedly inconsistent with capitalism,” he explains. “Then China becomes economically successful, and suddenly it is the Confucian ethic that explains its success. The same cultural values can move in either direction. So you need a dynamic approach that shows how culture interacts with structure.
“Culture is a very tricky concept,” he continues. “It’s like Typhoid Mary—you’ve got to be very careful with it! Most conservatives tend to use the concept in a simplistic way. Liberals are wary of it—there is guilt by association.” That association has roots in the 1966 book La Vida: A Puerto Rican Family in the Culture of Poverty by anthropologist Oscar Lewis, which gave an in-depth portrait of a former prostitute living with her sixth husband. Liberal critics attacked Lewis’s “culture of poverty” concept as one that “blamed the victims” for holding values that perpetuated their state: he suggested in La Vida and other work that the poor could pass down poverty-related beliefs for generations, and that such values might persist even after people had achieved better circumstances.
“No one talked about culture for a long time,” Patterson says. “Now it is back, but still wishy-washy as a causal explanation. It’s fine now to use culture like [anthropologist] Clifford Geertz does, as an interpretive, symbolic vehicle [in a classic essay on Balinese cockfighting, Geertz interpreted the cocks as symbols of important men in the village], but not as having a causal role in social structures.”
The Cultural Matrix: Understanding Black Youth, edited and to a large degree written by Patterson (with Harvard graduate student Ethan Fosse as co-editor), to be published by Harvard University Press in January, breaks with that convention. “Orlando is first and foremost an iconoclast,” says Winship, and the new book, about impoverished young blacks in American cities, does challenge some received wisdom. It shows not only how much culture matters to these young people, but also their disproportionately large impact on mainstream culture. In October 2003, for example, a turning point in the history of American popular culture occurred when “all of the top 10 positions on Billboard’s pop chart were filled by black artists, nine of them in the inner-city-created rap genre,” Patterson writes in the new book. “It is hardly to be wondered that the typical Euro-American imagines the African-American population to be somewhere between 23 and 30 percent of the U.S. population, over twice its actual size.”
The Cultural Matrix (with chapters by Winship and by Robert Sampson, Ford professor of the social sciences) may also enlighten some readers by demonstrating black youths’ “deep commitment to some of the most fundamental values of the mainstream—its individualism, materialism, admiration for the military, and insistence on taking near complete responsibility for their own failures and successes,” Patterson writes. The young African Americans are surprisingly self-critical, he notes. For example, he writes that “92 percent of black youth aged 18 to 24 say ‘young black men not taking their education seriously enough,’ is a ‘big problem,’ while 88 percent declare likewise on ‘not being responsible fathers.’” Patterson adds, in an interview, “They are more American than Americans.”
Responsible fatherhood is a particularly sticky issue, one that Patterson has often addressed in his studies of African-American history and culture. Slavery in the American South, he says, left no legacy more damaging than the destruction of the black family—the relations between husband and wife, parent and child. Marriage among slaves was illegal, and slaveholders brutally broke slave families apart by selling off children or parents to other masters. “It is true that many slaves were involved in social units that looked like nuclear families, but these were largely reproductive associations based on fragile male-female relationships,” Patterson says. “In many cases the ‘husbands’ lived on other plantations and needed permission to visit their ‘wives,’ and parents had no custodial claims on their children, who at any time could be sold away from them. To call these units ‘families,’ as revisionist historians have done, is a historical and sociological travesty.”
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PATTERSON WAS IN ENGLAND during the watershed moment in 1962 when Jamaica achieved full independence by leaving the Federation of the West Indies. A few years later, despite his successful life in London, he felt a pull to return home. In 1967 he resigned from the LSE to take up an appointment at the University of the West Indies, and built a house in Jamaica. Then, while guest-teaching at Roosevelt University in Chicago in the summer of 1969, he got an unexpected phone call from Harvard’s Talcott Parsons, a high-level theorist and one of the most prominent sociologists alive. Parsons offered Patterson a visiting professorship in African-American studies and sociology. He accepted, and soon gravitated toward the latter.
As a Jamaican who grew up as part of a racial majority, Patterson had not been socialized to feel like part of a minority group. Without a personal history of racial discrimination by a majority group, he hadn’t experienced the slights and affronts that assail Americans of color daily. “I never felt awkward here,” he says of the United States. “Not having been raised in a predominantly white society, you don’t see racism, even when it is all around you.” Furthermore, in Jamaica, the focus was on Oxford, Cambridge, and the LSE, not the Ivy League. “So being the second black professor at Harvard [after Martin Kilson, now Thomson professor of government emeritus] was no big deal to me, though it seemed to be for others,” he recalls. “I came from the British system where there was no affirmative action, no pressure to appoint blacks, so I took it all in stride.” He has remained at Harvard ever since, and now lives near the Square with his second wife, Anita (Goldman) Patterson ’83, Ph.D. ’92, a Boston University professor of English whom he married in 1995, and their 10-year-old daughter, Kaia.
But his Jamaican ties remain strong. Patterson met Michael Manley when the trade-union leader visited the University of the West Indies when Patterson was a prominent, politically active senior—one of the “young Turks” who were the first generation of Caribbean students to study social science. The two men hit it off.
When Manley won the Jamaican prime ministry in 1972, he appointed Patterson as his special adviser, and the scholar began living two lives. For four to five months annually until 1980, during summers and at Christmas, he changed his clothes to tropical fabrics and departed the academic calm of Widener for the political turbulence of Kingston, where he wrote reports, did a major study on the living conditions of the poor of Kingston, and fed Manley ideas for helping his new leftist government implement a democratic socialist revolution.
It was hardly easy. Manley (who served as prime minister until 1980, and again from 1989 to 1992) “drove Jimmy Carter crazy,” Patterson says, and at one point “the CIA came after us.” (After Manley was photographed embracing Fidel Castro on a 1975 visit to Havana, “there were strong suspicions that the CIA was trying to destabilize the Manley government,” Patterson explains.) The left wing of Manley’s party, which had little actual power but did include bona fide communist D.K. Duncan, who held a minor ministry in the government, was “scaring the hell out of the middle class,” which fled the island; at one point Jamaica was down to two dentists and not many more doctors. In such a transition, “you need managers more than ever,” Patterson says. “You can’t implement things with hotheads who couldn’t run a chicken coop.”
Instead of demolishing tenements to build high-rise public housing “for the 5 percent, while kicking the other 95 percent out to another slum,” Patterson advocated “urban upgrading,” bringing in services like water, electricity, daycare, health centers. “It will still look like a slum, but it is a more livable slum,” he says. “The minister of housing hated my plan.” Patterson did put into place a program that sold 12 essential items to the poor at highly subsidized prices. “It was one of the worthiest things I’ve ever done,” he says. “It meant that thousands went to bed each night, not starving.” Eventually, though, he decided, “I am willing to be a public intellectual, but not a politician or revolutionary. Scholarship is what I wanted to do.”
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For the original report go to http://harvardmagazine.com/2014/11/the-caribbean-zola