Neil Smelser: Distinguished Sociologist, University Professor and Servant to the Public
Conducted by Jess McIntosh and Lisa Rubens in 2011-2012, Regional Oral History Office, The Bancroft Library, University of
California, Berkeley, 2013.
Neil Smelser is one of the seminal sociologists of the past fifty years. His teaching, publications, service to the University and work with national and international professional associations and research institutions have had a profound effect on academic scholarship, governance and public policy.
This oral history takes us from his sunny, idyllic youth in Arizona to the vibrant and rigorous intellectual world at Harvard and Oxford; from his appointment to UC Berkeley’s Department of Sociology in 1958 and subsequent role as assistant to the chancellor during the tumultuous 1960s and 70s through the academic culture wars of the 1980s and 90s. Smelser left Berkeley to become Director of the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford (1994-2001) but has returned to the campus where he continues to teach, publish and chair an investigative commission on general education.
Recollections of his close association and collaborations with such figures as Talcott Parsons, Erik Erikson and Clark Kerr provide a window on important currents in American intellectual and public life over the course of his long career.
Smelser writes on a wide range of topics, including group behavior, theories of culture, race, terrorism, the sociology of economic life and leadership in higher education. As a trained and practicing psychoanalyst he has pushed the boundaries of his field. With his expansive interests and wide-ranging imagination he was a natural choice to edit the International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences. As a scholar with the Russell Sage, Rockefeller and Guggenheim oundations, and as a leader of the American Sociological Association he has helped to shape the agenda of his profession. These interviews, voiced in the precise, clear analytic style that graces his writing, are suffused with Smelser’s personal warmth and humor. They are an important addition to our understanding of the major intellectual and political currents of our time.