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A Lifetime of Looking at Life

The Monitor begins a series of interviews with social scientists. Today: sociologist Daniel Bell. INTERVIEW

TO say that sociologist Daniel Bell has retired is almost a contradiction in terms. He's no longer on the faculty at Harvard University. But the man who gave us such terms as ``post-industrial'' and ``the information economy,'' and such books as ``The End of Ideology'' and ``The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism'' has hardly slowed down. He still welcomes graduate students into his sunny living room, still is interrupted by phone calls about manuscripts. A generalist who speaks with equal ease about 18th-century philosophy or 20th-century Poland, he carries a well-deserved reputation as one of the true intellectuals of his age.

What interested him in sociology? ``I grew up on the Lower East Side of New York during the Depression years,'' says Professor Bell in a voice still rich with his boyhood accent. His father died when he was an infant, his mother went to work in a garment factory, and young Bell grew up watching people who lived in tin shacks along the East River scour the garbage barges for food.

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In 1932, aged 13, he joined the Young People's Socialist League - a ``natural extension'' of his life, he recalls, because his mother was a union member and many of his friends were members. The Socialist Party ``had what they called a Socialist Sunday School, as well as evening courses. There I was, studying society.''

This early education, coupled with his religious training in Hebrew school, was reinforced at City College, where his classmates included such future luminaries as Irving Kristol, Irving Howe, and Seymour Martin Lipset. There, engaged in ``intense, feverish debates'' among communists, dissident leftists, socialists, and anarchists, the students educated themselves about social issues.

Now, Bell thinks of himself as ``a right-wing socialist.'' His explanation for his gradual shift to the center? One's temperament, he explains, is more important than one's ideology in shaping one's beliefs. ``The way you hold beliefs is more important than what you hold. If somebody's been a rigid communist, he becomes a rigid anti-communist - the rigidity being the constant.''

By the time the ferment of the 1960s arrived, Bell had seen it all before. ``These kids were talking about reacting against the bourgeois world, when in fact they were reenacting things that had already taken place before World War I in Greenwich Village.''

The lesson he draws from that experience, he says, is that ``there's really nothing new under the sun, as the preacher says in the book of Ecclesiastes. There's a principle of limited possibilities in human affairs. There are only so many different ways things can ever come up.''

That doesn't mean, however, that sociology can predict the future. ``You can always more or less indicate when things are sliding out of control,'' he says. ``What will replace them is much more contingent.''

In pre-revolutionary Russia, for example, it's clear that ``the czarist regime would crumble because of the backwardness of the society, the patrimony and clumsiness of the bureaucracy, and the restriction of industrializing forces. But the outcomes are not determined. You don't know what the balance of forces will be.''

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As with czarist Russia, he says, so with Eastern Europe today. Writing about the region as early as the 1960s, he says, he could foresee a collapse. ``This was never communism in a classical sense - it was a forced industrialization,'' he notes. ``What you had was a series of imposed regimes with some degree of direct control but no popular support.''

Why can't sociology do better at predicting the outcomes of such collapses? The answer is that sociology, despite belonging to the so-called social sciences, is not a science. Although the discipline began with ``the notion that you can discover social laws,'' Bell says that ``now nobody believes that.'' Nor can it ever ``be like the natural sciences, in which you isolate particular variables, control for other variables, and then see the causal weight of these variables.''

The problem, he says, is that sociology is ``caught between history at one end and economics at the other.'' The historian, dealing with culture in a narrative, humanistic way, addresses ``existential predicaments: `How do you deal with death? How do you define courage? What is the meaning of love?' The answers vary, because there are people living in different circumstances.''

Economics, by contrast, ``tries to make generalizations which apply across time and place. It's very similar to classical mechanics, where you take the general properties [of matter] and look for the equations among them.''

Yet economics has ``a metric, which is price.'' Given a schedule of prices, ``I could take a pound of potatoes and a pound of automobiles and put them into a common metric. The trouble with sociology is that it doesn't have a metric. If I take the main problems of sociology - wealth, power, status - how do I convert wealth into power or power into status?''

Where, then, is sociology heading, and what are the cutting-edge issues facing it in the 21st century?

The methodologies, he says, are ``fragmenting'' into ``three different developments.'' The first is characterized by ``very meticulous inquiry'' into sharply defined topics. The second tries to reconstruct behavior by studying rational choice, and produces ``the sort of larger generalization that you associate with Marx or [Max] Weber or [Emile] Durkheim.'' The third, employing narrative, involves an ``interpretive twist which uses more of the humanities.''

Looking ahead, he sees ``crucial problems'' of two sorts. ``One is that most of the conceptual structures we have in Western philosophy may be increasingly inadequate to the non-Western worlds.'' Western philosophy, he says, has an ``evolutionary framework'' centered on rational ideas about development and progress. But some cultures are characterized by irrationality - and sociology, he notes, has very few ways of explaining non-rational behavior.

The second problem, he says, is that ``the units of society are breaking up in many different ways. It's religious in Northern Ireland, it's linguistic in Belgium, it's tribal in Nigeria.'' The common element in these shifts, he says, is that ``the political unit is not adaptive to the economic situation - that the nation state becomes too small for the big problems of life and too big for the small problems of life.''

What will happen, he asks, as it becomes more obvious that ``capital can move freely, but people cannot: Does a government protect capital or does it protect people?'' These days, he says, ``more and more people turn to a political unit for protection against the hazards of capital flows.'' As a result, political units are ``cracking up in ways we can't wholly understand.''

In sum: ``When you ask me `What is the cutting edge?' I'd say it's an awfully blunt edge.''

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