TO THE INDIVIDUAL social scientist who feels himself a part of the classic tradition, social science is the practice of a craft. A man at work on problems of substance, he is among those who are quickly made impatient and weary by elaborate discussions of method-and-theory-in-general; so much of it interrupts his proper studies. It is much better, he believes, to have one account by a working student of how he is going about his work than a dozen , codifications of procedure’ by specialists who as often as not have never done much work of consequence.
Only by conversations in which experienced thinkers exchange information about their actual ways of working can a useful sense of method and theory be imparted to the beginning student. I feel it useful, therefore, to report in some detail how I go about my craft. This is necessarily a personal statement, but it is written with the hope that others, especially those beginning independent work, will make it less personal by the facts of their own experience.
1. It is best to begin, I think, by reminding you, the beginning student, that the most admirable thinkers within the scholarly community you have chosen to join do not split their work from their lives. They seem to take both too seriously to allow such dissociation, and they want to use each for the enrichment of the other. Of course, such a split is the prevailing convention among men in general, deriving, I suppose, from the hollowness of the work which men in general now do. But you will have recognized that as a scholar you have the exceptional opportunity of designing a way of living which will encourage the habits of good workmanship.
Scholarship is a choice of how to live as well as a choice of career; whether he knows it or not, the intellectual workman forms his own self as he works toward the perfection of his craft; to realize his own potentialities, and any opportunities that come his way, he constructs a character which has as its core the qualities of the good workman. What this means is that you must learn to use your life experience in your intellectual work: continually to examine and interpret it. In this sense craftsmanship is the center of
yourself and you are personally involved in every intellectual product upon which you may work. To say that you can ‘have experience’, means, for one thing, that your past plays into and affects your present, and that it defines your capacity for future, experience. As a social scientist, you have to control this rather elaborate interplay, to capture what you experience and sort it out; only in this way can you hope to use it to guide and test your reflection, and in the process shape yourself as an intellectual craftsman. But how can you do this?
One answer is: you must set up a file, which is, I suppose, a sociologist’s way of saying: keep a journal. Many creative writers keep journals; the sociologist’s need for systematic reflection demands it. In such a file as I am going to describe, there is joined personal experience and professional activities, studies under way and studies planned. In this file, you, as an intellectual craftsman, will try to get together what you are doing intellectually and what you are experiencing as a person. Here you will not be afraid to use your experience and relate it directly to various work in progress.
By serving as a check on repetitious work, your file also enables you to conserve your energy. It also encourages you to capture ‘fringe-thoughts’: various ideas which may be by-products of everyday life, snatches of conversation overheard on the street, or, for that matter, dreams. Once noted, these may lead to more systematic thinking, as well as lend intellectual relevance to more directed experience. You will have often noticed how carefully accomplished thinkers treat their own minds, how closely they observe their development and organize their experience.
The reason they treasure their smallest experiences is that, in the course of a lifetime, modem man has so very little personal experience and yet experience is so important as a source of original intellectual work. To be able to trust yet to be skeptical of your own experience, I have come to believe, is one mark of the mature workman. This ambiguous confidence is indispensable to originality in any intellectual pursuit, and the file is one way by which you can develop and justify such confidence.
By keeping an adequate file and thus developing self-reflective habits, you learn how to keep your inner world awake. Whenever you feel strongly about events or ideas you must try not to let them pass from your mind, but instead to formulate them for your files and in so doing draw out their implications, show yourself either how foolish these feelings or ideas are, or how they might be articulated into productive shape. The file also helps you build up the habit of writing. You cannot ‘keep your hand in’ if you do not write something at least every week.
In developing the file, you can experiment as a writer and thus, as they say, develop your powers of expression. To maintain a file is to engage in the controlled experience. One of the very worst things that happens to social scientists is that they feel the need to write of their ‘plans’ on only one occasion: when they are going to ask for money for a specific piece of research or ‘a project. ‘ It is as a request for funds that most ‘planning’ is done, or at least carefully written about.
However standard the practice, I think this very bad: It is bound in some degree to be salesmanship, and, given prevailing expectations, very likely to result in painstaking pretensions; the project is likely to be ‘Presented,’ rounded out in some arbitrary manner long before it ought to be; it is often a contrived thing, aimed at getting the money for ulterior purposes, however valuable, as well as for the research presented. A practicing social scientist ought periodically to review ‘the state of my problems and plans.
‘ A young man, just at the beginning of his independent work, ought to reflect on this, but he cannot be expected-and shouldn’t expect himself-to get very far with it, and certainly he ought not to become rigidly committed to any one plan. About all he can do is line up his thesis, which unfortunately is often his first supposedly independent piece of work of any length. It is when you are about half-way through the time you have for work, or about one-third through, that such reviewing is most likely to be fruitful -and perhaps even of interest to others.
Any working social scientist who is well on his way ought at all times to have so many plans, which is to say ideas, that the question is always, which of them am I, ought I, to work on next? And he should keep a special little file for his master agenda, which he writes and rewrites just for himself and perhaps for discussion with friends. From time to time he ought to review this very carefully and purposefully, and sometimes too, when he is relaxed. Some such procedure is one of the indispensable means by which your intellectual enterprise is kept oriented and under control.
A widespread, informal interchange of such reviews of the state of my problems’ among working social scientists is, I suggest, the only basis for an adequate statement of ‘the leading problems of social science. ‘ It is unlikely that in any free intellectual community there would be and certainly there ought not to be any ‘monolithic’ array of problems. In such a community, were it flourishing in a vigorous way, there would be interludes of discussion among individuals about future work.
Three kinds of interludes-on problems, methods, theory-ought to come out of the work of social scientists, and lead into it again; they should be shaped by work-in-progress and to some extent guide that work. It is for such interludes that a professional association finds its intellectual reason for being. And for them too your own file is needed. Under various topics in your file there are ideas, personal notes, excerpts from books, bibliographical items and outlines of projects.
It is, I suppose, a matter of arbitrary habit, but I think you will find it well to sort all these items into a master file of ‘projects,’ with many subdivisions. The topics, of course, change, sometimes quite frequently. For instance, as a student working toward the preliminary examination, writing a thesis, and, at the same time, doing term papers, your files will be arranged in those three areas of endeavor. But after a year or so of graduate work, you will begin to re-organize the whole file in relation to the main project of your thesis.
Then as you pursue your work you will notice that no one project ever dominates it, or sets the master categories in which it is arranged. In fact, the use of the file encourages expansion of the categories which you use in your thinking. And the way in which these categories change, some being dropped and others being added-is an index of your intellectual progress and breadth. Eventually, the files will come to be arranged according to several large projects, having many sub-projects that change from year to year. All this involves the taking of notes.
You will have to acquire the habit of taking a large volume of notes from any worth-while book you read-although, I have to say, you may get better work out of yourself when you read really bad books. The first step in translating experience, either of other men’s writing, or of your own life, into the intellectual sphere, is to give it form. Merely to name an item of experience often invites you to explain it; the mere taking of a note from a book is often a prod to reflection. At the same time, of course, the taking of a note is a great aid in comprehending what you are reading.
Your notes may turn out, as mine do, to be of two sorts: in reading certain very important books you try to grasp the structure of the writer’s argument, and take notes accordingly; but more frequently, and after a few years of independent work, rather than read entire books, you will very often read parts of many books from the point of view of some particular theme or topic in which you are interested and concerning which you have plans in your file. Therefore, you will take notes which do not fairly represent the books you read. You are using this particular idea, this particular fact, for the realization of your own projects.
2 But how is this file-which so far must seem to you more like a curious sort of ‘literary’ journal-used in intellectual production? The maintenance of such a file is intellectual production. It is a continually growing store of facts and ideas, from the most vague to the most finished. For example, the first thing I did upon deciding on a study of the elite was to make a crude outline based on a listing of the types of people that I wished to understand. Just how and why I decided to do such a study may suggest one way in which one’s life experiences feed one’s intellectual work.
I forget just when I became technically concerned with ‘stratification,’ but I think it must have been on first reading Veblen. He had always seemed to me very loose, even vague, about his ‘business’ and ‘industrial’ employments, which are a kind of translation of Marx for the academic American public. At any rate, I wrote a book on labor organizations and labor leaders-a politically motivated task; then a book on the middle classes-a task primarily motivated by the desire to articulate my own experience in New York City since 1945.
It was thereupon suggested by friends that I ought to round out a trilogy by writing a book on the upper classes. I think the possibility had been in my mind; I had read Balzac off and on especially during the ‘forties, and had been much taken with his self-appointed task of ‘covering, all the major classes and types in the society of the era he wished to make his own. I had also written a paper on ‘The Business Elite,’ and had collected and arranged statistics about the careers of the topmost men in American politics since the Constitution.
These two tasks were primarily inspired by seminar work in American history. In doing these several articles and books and in preparing courses in stratification, there was of course a residue of ideas and facts about the upper classes. Especially in the study of social stratification is it difficult to avoid going beyond one’s immediate subject, because ‘the reality’ of any one stratum is in large part its relations to the rest. Accordingly, I began to think of a book on the elite.
And yet that is not ‘really’ how ‘the project’ arose; what really happened is (1) that the idea and the plan came out of my files, for all projects with me begin and end with them, and books are simply organized releases from the continuous work that goes into them; (2) that after a while, the whole set of problems involved came to dominate me. After making my crude outline I examined my entire file, not only those parts of it that obviously bore on my topic, but also those which seemed to have no relevance whatsoever.
Imagination is often successfully invited by putting together hitherto isolated items, by finding unsuspected connections. I made new units in the file for this particular range of problems, which of course, led to new arrangements of other parts of the file. As you re-arrange a filing system, you often find that you are, as it were, loosening your imagination. Apparently this occurs by means of your attempt to combine various ideas and notes on different topics. It is a sort of logic of combination, and ‘chance’ sometimes plays a curiously large part in it.
In a relaxed way, you try to engage your intellectual resources, as exemplified in the file, with the new themes. In the present case, I also began to use my observations and daily experiences. I thought first of experiences I had had which bore upon elite problems, and then I went and talked with those who, I thought, might have experienced or considered the issues. As a matter of fact, I now began to alter the character of my routine so as to include in it (1) people who were among, those whom I wanted to study, (2) people in close contact with them, and (3) people interested in them usually in some professional way.
I do not know the full social conditions of the best intellectual workmanship, but certainly surrounding oneself by a circle of people who will listen and talk-and at times they have to be imaginary characters-is one of them. At any rate I try to surround myself with all the relevant environment-social and intellectual-that I think might lead me into thinking well along the lines of my work. That is one meaning of my remarks above about the fusion of personal and intellectual life. Good work in social science today is not, and usually cannot be, made up of one clear-cut empirical ‘research.
‘ It is, rather, composed of a good many studies which at key points anchor general statements about the shape and the trend of the subject. So the decision-what are these anchor points? -cannot be made until existing materials are re-worked and general hypothetical statements constructed. Now, among ‘existing materials,’ I found in the files three types relevant to my study of the elite: several theories having to do with the topic; materials already worked up by others as evidence for those theories; and materials already gathered and in various stages of accessible centralization, but not yet made theoretically relevant.
Only after completing a first draft of a theory with the aid of such existing materials as these can I efficiently locate my own pivotal assertions and hunches and design researches to test them-and maybe I will not have to, although of course I know I will later have to shuttle back and forth between existing materials and my own research. Any final statement must not only ‘cover the data’ so far as the data are available and known to me, but must also in some way, positively or negatively, take into, account the available theories.
Sometimes this ‘taking into account’ of an idea is easily done by a simple confrontation of the idea with overturning or supporting fact; sometimes a detailed analysis or qualification is needed. Sometimes I can arrange the available theories systematically as a range of choices, and so allow their range to organize the problem itself. (1) But sometimes I allow such theories to come up only in my own arrangement, in quite various contexts. At any rate, in the book on the elite I had to take into account the work of such men as Mosca, Schumpeter, Veblen, Marx, Lasswell, Michel, Weber, and Pareto.
In looking over some of the notes on these writers, I find that they offer three types of statement: (a) from some, you learn directly by restating systematically what the man says on given points or as a whole; (b) some you accept or refute, giving reasons and arguments; (c) others you use as a source of suggestions for your own elaborations and projects. This involves grasping a point and then asking: How can I put this into testable shape, and how can I test it? How can I use this as a center from which to elaborate-as a perspective from which descriptive details emerge as relevant?
It is in this handling of existing ideas, of course, that you feel yourself in continuity with previous work. Here are two excerpts from preliminary notes on Mosca, which may illustrate what I have been trying to describe: In addition to his historical anecdotes, Mosca backs up his thesis with this assertion: It’s the power of organization that enables the minority always to rule. There are organized minorities and they run things and men. There are unorganized majorities and they are run. (2) But: why not also consider (1) the organized minority, (2) the organized majority, (3) the unorganized minority, (4) the unorganized majority.
This is worth full-scale exploration. The first thing that has to be straightened out: just what is the meaning of ‘organized’? I think Mosca means: capable of more or less continuous and co-ordinated policies and actions. If so, his thesis is right by definition. He would also say, I believe, that an ‘organized majority’ is impossible because all it would amount to is that new leaders, new elites, would be on top of these majority organizations, and he is quite ready to pick up these leaders in his “The Ruling Class. ” He calls them ‘directing minorities,’ all of which is pretty flimsy stuff alongside his big statement.
One thing that occurs to me (1 think it is the core of the problems of definition that Mosca presents to us) is this: from the nineteenth to the twentieth century, we have witnessed a shift from a society organized as 1 and 4 to a society established more in terms of 3 and 2. We have moved from an elite state to an organization state, in which the elite is no longer so organized nor so unilaterally powerful, and the mass is more organized and more powerful. Some power has been made in the streets, and around it the whole social structures and their ‘elites’ have pivoted.
And what section of the ruling class is more organized than the farm bloc? That’s not a rhetorical question: I can answer it either way at this time; it’s a matter of degree. All I want now is to get it out in the open. Mosca makes one point that seems to me excellent and worth elaborating further: There is often in ‘the ruling class,’ according to him, a top clique and there is this second and larger stratum, with which (a) the top is in continuous and immediate contact, and with which (b) it shares ideas and sentiments and hence, he believes, policies.
(page 430) Cheek and see if anywhere else in the book, he makes other points of connection. Is the clique recruited largely from the second level? Is the top, in some way, responsible for, or at least sensitive to, this second stratum? Now forget Mosca: in another vocabulary, we have, (a) the elite, by which we here mean that top clique, (b) those who count, and (c) all the others. Membership in the second and third, in this scheme, is defined by the first, and the second may be quite varied in its size and composition and relations with the first and the third.
(What, by the way, is the range of variations of the relations of (b) to (a) and to (c)? Examine Mosca for hints and further extend this by considering it systematically. ) This scheme may enable me more neatly to take into account the different elites, which are elites according to the several dimensions of stratification. Also, of course, to pick up in a neat and meaningful way the Paretian distinction of governing and non-governing elites in a way less formal than Pareto. Certainly many top-status people would at least be in the second.
So would the big rich. The Clique or The Elite would refer to power, or to authority, as the case may be. The elite in this vocabulary would always mean the power elite. The other top people would be the upper classes or the upper circles. So in a way, maybe, we can use this in connection with two major problems: the structure of the elite; and the conceptual-later perhaps, the substantive-relations of stratification and elite theories. – (Work this out. ) From the standpoint of power, it is easier to pick out those who count than those who rule.
When we try to do the first we select the top levels as a sort of loose aggregate and we are guided by position. But when we attempt the second, we must indicate in clear detail how they wield power and just how they are related to the social instrumentalities through which power is exercised. Also we deal more with persons than positions, or at least have to take persons into account. Now power in the United States involves more than one elite. How can we judge the relative positions of these several elites? Depends upon the issue and decisions being made.
One elite sees another as among those who count. There is this mutual recognition among the elite, that other elites count; in one way or another they are important people to one another. Project: select 3 or 4 key decisions of last decade-to drop the atom, to cut or raise steel production, the C. M. strike of ’45-and trace in detail the personnel involved in each of them. Might use ‘decisions’ and decision-making as interview pegs when you go out for intensives. 3 There comes a time in the course of your work when you are through with other books.
Whatever you want from them is down in your notes and abstracts; and on the margins of these notes, as well as in a separate file, are ideas for empirical studies. Now I do not like to do empirical work if I can possibly avoid it. If one has no staff it is a great deal of trouble; if one does employ a staff, then the staff is often even more trouble. In the intellectual condition of the social sciences today, there is so much to do by way of initial ‘structuring’ (let the word stand for the kind of work I am describing) that much ’empirical research’ is bound to be thin and uninteresting.
Much of it, in fact, is a formal exercise for beginning students, and sometimes a useful pursuit for those who are not able to handle the more difficult substantive problems of social science. There is no more virtue in empirical inquiry as such than in reading as such. The purpose of empirical inquiry is to settle disagreements and doubts about facts, and thus to make arguments more fruitful by basing all sides more substantively. Facts discipline reason; but reason is the advance guard in any field of learning.
Although you will never be able to get the money with which to do many of the empirical studies you design, it is necessary that you continue designing them. For once you lay out an empirical study, even if you do not follow it through, it leads you to a new search for data, which often turn out to have unsuspected relevance to your problems. Just as it is foolish to design a field study if the answer can be found in a library, it is foolish to think you have exhausted the books before you have translated them into appropriate empirical studies, which merely means into questions of fact.
Empirical projects necessary to my kind of work must promise, first, to have relevance for the first draft, of which I wrote above; they have to confirm it in its original form or they have to cause its modification. Or to put it more pretentiously, they must have implications for theoretical constructions. Second, the projects must be efficient and neat and, if possible, ingenious. By this I mean that they must promise to yield a great deal of material in proportion to the time and effort they involve. But how is this to be done?
The most economical way to state a problem is in such a way as to solve as much of it as possible by reasoning alone. By reasoning we try (a) to isolate each question of fact that remains; (b) to ask these questions of fact in such ways that the answers promise to help us solve further problems by further reasoning. (3) To take hold of problems in this way, you have to pay attention to four stages; but it is usually best to go through all four many times rather than to get stuck in any one of them too long.
The steps are: (1) the elements and definitions that, from your general awareness of the topic, issue, or area of concern, you think you are going to have to take into account; (2) the logical relations between these definitions and elements; building these little preliminary models, by the way, affords the best chance for the play of the sociological imagination; (3) the elimination of false views due to omissions of needed elements, improper or unclear definitions of terms, or undue emphasis on some part of the range and its logical extensions; (4) statement and re-statement of the questions of fact that remain.
The third step, by the way, is a very necessary but often neglected part of any adequate statement of a problem. The popular awareness of the problem-the problem as an issue and as a trouble-must be carefully taken into account: that is part of the problem. Scholarly statements, of course, must be carefully examined and either used up in the re-statement being made, or thrown out. Before deciding upon the empirical studies necessary for the job at hand, I began to sketch a larger design within which various small-scale studies began to arise.
Again, I excerpt from the files: I am not yet in a position to study the upper circles as a whole in a systematic and empirical way. So what I do is set forth some definitions and procedures that form a sort of ideal design for such a study. I can then attempt, first, to gather existing materials that approximate this design; second, to think of convenient ways of gathering materials, given the existing indices, that satisfy it at crucial points; and third, as I proceed, to make more specific the full-scale, empirical researches that would in the end be necessary.
The upper circles must, of course, be defined systematically in terms of specific variables. Formally-and this is more or less Pareto’s way they are the people who ‘have’ the most of whatever is available of any given value or set of values. So I have to make two decisions: What variables shall I take as the criteria, and what do I mean by ‘the most’? After I’ve decided on my variables, I must construct the best indices I can, if possible quantifiable indices, in order to distribute the population in terms of them; only then can I begin to decide what I mean by ‘the most.
For this should, in part, be left for determination by empirical inspection of the various distributions, and their overlaps. My key variables should, at first, be general enough to give me some latitude in the choice of indices, yet specific enough to invite the search for empirical indices. As I go along, I’ll have to shuttle between conceptions and indices, guided by the desire not to lose intended meanings and yet to be quite specific about them. Here are the four Weberian variables with which I will begin: I.
Class refers to sources and amounts of income. So I’ll need property distributions and income distributions. The ideal material here (which is very scarce, and unfortunately dated) is a cross-tabulation of source and amount of annual income. Thus, we know that X per cent of the population received during 1936 Y millions or over, and that Z per cent of all this money was from property, W per cent from entrepreneurial withdrawal, Q per cent from wages and salaries.
Along this class dimension, I can define the upper circles-those who have the most-either as those who receive given amounts of income during a given time-or, as those who make up the upper two per cent of the income pyramid. Look into treasury records and lists of big taxpayers. See if TNEC tables on source and amount of income can be brought up to date. II. Status refers to the amounts of deference received. For this, there are no simple or quantifiable indices. Existing indices require personal interviews for their application, are limited so far to local community studies, and are mostly no good anyway.
There is the further problem that, unlike class, status involves social relations: at least one to receive and one to bestow the deference. It is easy to confuse publicity with deference-or rather, we do not yet know whether or not volume of publicity should be used as an index to status position, although it is the most easily available (For example: On one or two successive days in mid-March 1952, the following categories of people were mentioned by name in the New York Times-or on selected pages-work this out) III.
Power refers to the realization of one’s will even if others resist. Like status, this has not been well indexed. I don’t think I can keep it a single dimension, but will have to talk (a) of formal authority defined by rights and powers of positions in various institutions, especially military, political, and economic. And (b) powers known informally to be exercised but not formally instituted-pressure group leaders, propagandists with extensive media at their disposal, and so on. IV. Occupation refers to activities that are paid for.
Here, again, I must choose just which feature of occupation I should seize upon. (a) If I use the average incomes of various occupations, to rank them, I am of course using occupation as an index, and as the basis of, class. In like manner (b) if I use the status or the power typically attached to different occupations, then I am using occupations as indices, and bases, of power and skill or talent. But this is by no means an easy way to classify people. Skill-no more than status-is not a homogeneous something of which there is more or less.
Attempts to treat it as such have usually been put in terms of the length of time required to acquire various skills, and maybe that will have to do, although I hope I can think of something better. Those are the types of problems I will have to solve in order to define analytically and empirically the upper circles, in terms of these four key variables. For purposes of design, assume I have solved them to my satisfaction, and that I have distributed the population in terms of each of them. I would then have four sets of people: those at the top in class, status, power, and skill.
Suppose further, that I had singled out the top two per cent of each distribution, as an upper circle. I then confront this empirically answerable question: How much, if any, overlap is there among each of these four distributions? One range of possibilities can be located within this simple chart: (+ = top two per cent; – = lower 98 per cent). CLASS ___________________________________________ + __ STATUS STATUS ____________________________________________________________ _____________ + __ + __ + Skill + 1 2 3 4 Power __ 5 6 8 8
– Skill + 9 10 11 12 __ 13 14 15 16 __________________ _______________________________________________________ This diagram, if I had the materials to fill it, would contain major data and many important problems for a study of the upper circles. It would provide keys to many definitional and substantive questions. I don’t have the data, and I shan’t be able to get it-which makes it all the more important that I speculate about it, for in the course of such reflection, if it is guided by the desire to approximate the empirical requirements.
Courtney from Study Moose
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