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Ph.D, 1961

A 92 year old sociologist’s letter to colleagues

I am a Jewish child survivor of the Holocaust and a sociologist. My parents and my older brother were murdered in the Sobibor extermination camp.  I had a career as a sociology professor – having taught at Texas Tech, the University of Missouri, and (as a full professor) at SUNY Buffalo and Tel Aviv University.  Within sociology I began in the subfield of medical sociology, but eventually focused on addressing the Auschwitz phenomenon sociologically, and finally, responding to the very real possibility that our human species may be lurching toward extinction.   In a way, mine is a story of survivor guilt in action – of having to justify one’s survival by one’s ongoing efforts.  In my case, through my professional efforts as a sociologist.

My work in medical sociology – based on studying medical pathologists in different hospital settings – resulted in the book “Autonomy and Organization: The limits of social control” (Random House, 1968).  Its emphasis was on Autonomy – or discretionary behavior – individuals have within large organizational contexts. Some of it focused on pathologists’ very different autonomy to respond to unnecessary surgery when they worked under different contractual relationships to a hospital.  In various later writings I identified zones of behavior autonomy among factory workers doing routine, repetitive work, but finding ways to be creative and entertaining; zones of behavior autonomy among prison inmates using their autonomy to create lively cultures of alienation; zones of behavior autonomy among followers of charismatic leaders – such as Hitler – used to create a multitude of ways to venerate the leader,  up to celebrating the sacrifice of their sons to Hitler’s military adventures.  And identifying zones of behavior autonomy of the charismatic leaders themselves that seemingly oblige them to perform miracles.

My Holocaust related work took the form of four books.  These books do not focus on remembering and describing the horrors. They thereby run counter to the prevailing scholarship and commemorations about the Holocaust and other genocides –  that were  expected to so shock people that it would keep them from, again, doing horrible things. This has been tried, and turns out to be pursuing a sorrowful myth.  We need different ways to address just how such horrors as the Holocaust could, and actually did, happen.

My four related books are, “Ordinary People and Extraordinary Evil: A report on the Beguiling of Evil,” “Confronting Evil: Two Journeys,” “Immediacy: Our Ways of Coping in Everyday Life,” and “We Live in Social Space: A Window to a New Science.”

The first of these books – “Ordinary People and  Extraordinary Evil” — demonstrates how the Auschwitz phenomenon of systematic, organized  mass murder does so by harnessing some existing, benign social practices and transforming them into vehicles of mass murder.  I show how this actually worked at Auschwitz – using some existing social science data and my own research about how people make decisions.

The second book –“Confronting Evil: Two Journeys” — continues this effort,  but puts   more of my personal face to it.  It does so by including my fearful return visit, after forty years, to the village of my birth. This is the most personal – and perhaps most readable – of my books.  One of the two “journeys” was finding myself among individuals — our neighbors — who had been conspicuously silent when we were systematically persecuted during the Hitler years. At that time they said: “What could we do? We are just little people.”  During my return, forty years later, they made the identical statement!  Also during that visit, I had to confront some of my own psychic numbing about my history   such as not remembering the names of our neighbors and my classmates and, most unsettlingly, suddenly re-living the desecration of our synagogue.


Now, onto the last two books, and the reason I have undertaken them:

During the past century we killed over 100 million of our fellow human beings – in the various wars, genocides and other social horrors.  And we are developing – and making available – ever-more lethal weapons.  And we ignore global warming. Is our human species lurching toward extinction?  Where are the social sciences that might give us the tools to curb our ghastly ways and safeguard our lives on this planet?  Such science is nowhere in sight.

My response is to help jump-start new basic science – about Social Psychology and about Social Space.  They do not directly and immediately claim to stop social horrors.  In the past earnest, well-meaning individuals and entire social movements have indeed tried to directly address such profound issues as “Ending Wars” and “Ending Hatred.”  Time and again, they failed.  I am thinking of The League of Nations, after the First World War and The United Nations, after the Second World War.  I am convinced that we need more control over our lives in the Social Space in which we actually live.  And that new basic social science can lay the groundwork for achieving it.  We have before us the example of basic physical science — begun by Newton and  others – developing into the powerful science about Physical Space we  have now. But it took a few centuries to reach its present level of success. I hope my effort won’t require a few centuries to bear fruit.  We don’t have that much time.

The book “Immediacy: Our Ways of Coping in Everyday Life” proceeds from recognizing that from the moment we take our first breath to the moment we take our last breath, each one of us has to Cope with the immediate world. This is an ongoing, personal imperative. Yet our coping  tends to follow a number of distinctive modes –  which I try to identify and clarify. This book, more than the others, bears the imprint of my exposure to Harvey Smith, a 1940’s Chicago trained Symbolic Interaction sociologist (while I was in graduate school at UNC, Chapel Hill).

Finally, here is an excerpt from the beginning of my most recent book, “We live in Social Space”:

“We live in a whirlwind of connectivity:  There is seemingly no limit to who can connect with whom. Distance is no longer a word that has meaning.  And place seems a quaintly irrelevant term.  When we are within reach beyond the here, there seems to be no here.  There is only connectivity. Only fleeting, ephemeral connectedness without duration seems real.  Indeed ‘duration’ is another term that has vanished from our life.

“Taking a step back from this picture of modern woe, what are we missing in our disgruntled despair?  Is there a location, amid the connectedness, where we are we? Where we are here? Do we have any kind of grounding?  Is there, after all, something real that underlies human social living no matter how ephemeral and fleeting are its manifestations in our daily life?

“I suggest that one can conceive of Social Space as the base camp from which we actually do live our lives, regardless of the seemingly fleeting character of that daily life.  The nature and content – the actual functioning — of that Social Space can be discovered.

“We may not be aware of it, but we live in, and through, and by the actions of social space.  The book examines four attributes of that Social Space…They give new illumination to many facets of our life  – from our sexuality to willingness to believe in false messiahs, and much more.”

I hope that some current students might take up the challenges inherent in my efforts.

Finally I must point out that in these past years Sociology has been a haven, and a family for me.  It has given identity and focus to my life — as both a survivor of horrors and a human being.  I am grateful.  Not only for the “field” of sociology but to individual practitioners who speak my language.  I can still hear my mentor, Harvey Smith, speaking of – and himself living – the joy of “doing sociology.” I am thankful.  To him and to so many of my colleagues.