January 26, 2011

· Sociology

Daniel Bell has died at the age of ninety one. The New York Times has an obituary, and I’m sure there will be more to follow elsewhere. I heard a story once about Bell being asked what he specialized in. “Generalizations”, he replied. But not the sterile, merely verbal generalizations of something like structural-functionalism. Bell was prepared to sick his neck out. This meant he could get things wrong. His cultural criticism in particular has not aged well: his worries about “aggressive female sexuality”, for instance, or his view that the “new sound” of the Beatles made it “impossible to hear oneself think, and that may indeed have been its intention” are unlikely to play so well today. But we should be so lucky to coin so many phrases that become part of the language—- “The End of Ideology”, “The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism”, “The Coming of Post-Industrial Society”. The latter book, in particular, is one of the most impressive pieces of economic sociology written in the twentieth century. It asks a big question about the future, it works out an answer, and gets it mostly right. At the beginning of his academic career Bell was on the periphery of the self-consciously scientific sociology department at Columbia that had Robert Merton and Paul Lazarsfeld at its core. (A little like C. Wright Mills, interestingly enough.) I believe they thought of him more as a journalist and political type, at least initially, given his background at Fortune magazine. Yet a book like The Coming of Post-Industrial Society has more truly scientific spirit about it than Social Theory and Social Structure.

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I am Associate Professor of Sociology at Duke University. I’m affiliated with the Kenan Institute for Ethics, the Markets and Management Studies program, and the Duke Network Analysis Center.



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