February 10, 2014

Parsons, Seeger, and Marx

RaskoffBy Sally Raskoff

Pete Seeger, one of many well-known sociology majors, passed away in January 2014 at the age of 94. His education in sociology reflects a specific time and place in history and his life experiences and impact on society reflect changes within sociology itself.

Seeger was a folk singer and activist, best known for songs like "If I Had a Hammer" and "Turn! Turn! Turn!" As is widely reported, he went to Harvard in 1936 to major in sociology to prepare for a career in journalism. Two years into the program, he dropped out (or, after failing an exam or failing to take an exam, he lost his scholarship).

It is reported that Seeger was a disillusioned sociology major and left school after a sociology professor said, “Don't think that you can change the world. The only thing you can do is study it.”


Pitirim Sorokin chaired Harvard Sociology upon its creation in 1931 and the faculty was dominated by Talcott Parsons throughout the 1930s and into the 1940s and later decades. Parsons’ work—and much of American sociology at the time—was largely rooted in functionalist theory, which stresses the importance of social stability and does not focus as much on creating change.

Photo courtesy of Anthony Pepitone

Although nothing is documented, I would imagine that Parsons, not known for being an activist, and Seeger, who grew up living and breathing activism, were not often on the same page. Seeger had already read some of Karl Marx's work before coming to Harvard, and being in a sociology program so dominated at that time by a perspective so different to Marx’s views on social change must have been frustrating.

In the decades after Seeger’s college years, Marx became more widely read within sociology programs and the field became more accepting of a diversity of approaches. Quantitative methods still dominate but qualitative methods have been established as a legitimate and viable research method in the last few decades. Functionalist theory dominated at first, but was then joined by conflict theory and then symbolic interactionist theories –then by feminist theory and later queer theory. Theory construction and analysis was joined by applied theory and public sociology. Once we identify all the separate strands of theory within each of those broad fields of theory, sociology can be understood as a more accessible and encompassing of a more holistic understanding of how society works.

In the years since the 1930s, it is clear that  in the United States the field has opened up to see the world from a variety of perspectives – all of which tell us something about society. Hopefully, knowing as much as possible helps us see societal problems more clearly and, ultimately this knowledge can foster changes that will help solve those problems, if we have the wherewithal to do so. We don’t assume that each theoretical perspective is happily coexisting with the others – in fact, healthy opposition and debate is key to developing theory, especially as we test them through empirical research.

Ironically, in the decades before Seegar started college, sociology and social work – the empirical application of a sociological understanding to solving problems – were inextricably linked. There is much written about their split – and subsequent gender segregation and devaluation of social work and women in the field. If you haven’t yet read Mary Jo Deegan’s work on Jane Addams, do so soon! It helps to give a better understanding of the ongoing relationship between sociology in general and social work – and how public sociology fits into all this.

Pete Seeger’s work in music and social and civic engagement illustrates how one can change the world. His legacy is a counterpoint to the statement of the anonymous sociology professor above and is instead reflects the quote on Marx’s grave in Highgate Cemetery, taken from his Theses on Feuerbach:

“The Philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways. The point however is to change it.”


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Pete Seeger was trully one of the best they where out there.

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