Tuesday Sep 18

Ideas For Action/ Ideas From Action



The shaping of my professional life, and to a large extent my personal life, occurred in my days as a graduate student in economics at Columbia University. I was invited to join Frank Riessman and Alvin Gouldner, graduate sociology students, in what they grandiosely called the Citizens Social Research Council. It was to rival the establishment Social Science Research Council by making social science useful to people working in labor unions, community groups, and political organizations.

This was at the end of World War II, an especially exciting time in New York City with the return of veterans, the explosion of interest in psychoanalysis and social behavior, and the resurgent cultural and political character of the city. We started a magazine that we called “Ideas for Action,” believing that the social sciences, particularly psychology and Columbia sociology, had perspectives and findings that could be useful for activists. During the late forties and early fifties, we were joined by other graduate students, some who became well-known social science figures such as Sol Levine in the sociology of health, Morris (Manny) Rosenberg in identity research, and Elliot Mishler who developed the field of narrative analysis. Many other gifted people were involved at various times. Frank, Sol and I developed very close, deep and significant personal and intellectual friendships that we nurtured for 50 years until their deaths.

We were largely New York City-born Jews of working-class, immigrant families, probably the first in our families to go to college (usually one of the New York City public colleges). We thought of ourselves as of the left and two or three identified themselves as members or ex-members of the Communist Party. Most thought of themselves as liberals or progressives.

Weak efforts to get some women graduate students to join us failed, perhaps because they correctly saw us as a “men’s club,” perhaps because they recognized that as women they would have a hard enough time in gaining professional acceptance. We should have tried harder.

We distributed our 4-page, letter-size magazine free to a variety of action organizations. We were Kropotkin’s “organic intellectuals,” not only writing and editing its articles but involved in its layout, printing, sorting for mailing, delivery to the post-office and those other myriad details of publishing. We raised money for printing and postage by giving parties with door and drink charges, frequently at the Gramercy Park apartment of Herter Norton, translator of Rilke, and widow of W. W. Norton, the publisher. Sol had met her daughter Anne in California just before he was discharged from the Army. We provided entertainment at our parties; the young Harry Belafonte was one of our entertainers. (We didn’t think he was as good as some of our other singers.) Bob DeCormier, a wartime buddy of Sol’s and later a leading choral leader, was our conduit to Broadway. We mixed social science with popular culture and our parties were well known social events. We were on course to change the world while enjoying the ride — at least that is how it felt for a time.

Unfortunately, I do not have copies of Ideas for Action. One theme that I recall was from a publication of Columbia sociologist Paul Lazarsfeld and, I think, Elihu Katz, on the importance of informal neighborhood leaders in affecting opinion. We used that idea in an issue and again in Participation, Culture and Personality, an issue of the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues (SPSSI) Journal of Social Issues that Frank and I edited and which also published articles by others in our Ideas for Action group. We outlined a four-fold typology of
leadership that Al Gouldner used in his edited volume, Studies in Leadership.

Our magazine had followup. Frank pursued the Ideas for Action experience in his founding and long editorship of Social Policy Magazine. It may have led Al Gouldner to start Transaction. Many years after Ideas for Action perished under other leadership, Al asked me what I thought about that experience. I replied that I thought that we neglected to develop Ideas from Action. I like to think that my remark encouraged Al to develop Theory and Society.

I now make a much belated attempt to think about the “from" part, drawing on my action experiences since the days of our youth. Ideas from Action does not gain the attention that it should have in public sociology.



Working with Hispanic and African American women and some men in a tenants’ council in Manhattan, and with union members in a number of different settings made me aware of how smart they were though they lacked “book learning.” They would have been able to handle jobs for which they were disqualified because they had not graduated from high school or had not gone beyond a high school diploma.

Those experiences led me to rethink my own family. My older sister just managed to gain a high school diploma but was obviously very, very smart. My mother, illiterate in the three languages that she could speak, was extraordinarily intelligent and disturbingly perspicacious.

These and other experiences like working with African American school dropouts in Syracuse led me to initiate the terms: “credential society” and credentialism to point to the excess emphasis on educational qualifications for jobs that barred many who could have performed well at those tasks.

Poverty and Inequality as More Than Income Deficiency

As a tenants’ council organizer, a Hispanic woman who I tried to interest in the organization told me of her experience in applying for public welfare. The welfare officer behind the cage that separated the staff from applicants told her, “Why don’t you just get a man to support you?” She was outraged by this disrespect but kept her tongue.

Visiting welfare and unemployment insurance offices and an employment retraining operation that was 30 years behind the times made me acutely aware of how poor people were treated. Workers telling me that they had to live paycheck to paycheck and had nothing to fall back on in case they were sick and lost a week’s pay highlighted the importance of having savings and other assets. Low pay didn’t permit the accumulation of a financial safety net.

Experiences like these, plus my personal experiences of poverty, led Pam Roby and me to write The Future of Inequality (1970). That book, along with earlier articles, sought to show the multi-dimensions of poverty and inequality; moving beyond income and the poverty line to the importance of assets and wealth, status and satisfaction, civic participation, and the quality of services. I like to think that this work was one of the major influences that led the European Union to adopt the concept of “social inclusion.” In 2003, I again took up a similar theme in Respect and Rights, for things had not improved.

United for a Fair Economy (of which I am a co-founder and longest serving board member) has adopted highlighting racial wealth inequality as its main theme.

Organizing for Change

Over the years I have been an active advisor, consultant, board member, friend of many poverty, community, union and employment organizations and activities, not only in the US but also in Ireland, Britain, and France. Those experiences led me to rethink Michels’ Iron Law of Oligarchy of left-wing organizations. Many of these organizations flourished mainly because they had a charismatic leader who dominated their thinking and activities.

While I am all for democracy, I have realized from my many activities and involvements that the quality of organizational leadership is crucial. Unfortunately, too few studies of social movements adequately explore the ongoing life of organizations that seek to change a neighborhood, company, the nation or the world. Nor has that literature explored how some social movements achieved important transformations for instance, how did gay-lesbian efforts so change the USA that homosexual marriage become the big issue, not the one-time disgrace and crime of homosexuality?

I have been particularly intrigued by what happens after the charismatic leader leaves. Two experiences, one in the US, the other in Europe, have led me to draft an article on it. Seldom do organizations prepare for the change; they are surprised by the emergence of perspectives and directions that were buried as the leader pursued his or her interpretation of the organizational mission. They flounder and sometimes make it difficult to come to decisions and accept new directions and leadership. More broadly, the effectiveness of change-oriented activities depends on the way an organization comes to decisions. The way it carries out those decisions is heavily influenced by its internal dynamics.

These are obvious points but social science is not providing leads for organizations in developing appropriate ways of adapting and changing. The contrast is with the business literature that every week or so reveals the next new way of structuring and leading corporate organizations.

Everyone Has a Boss

I was on the staff of the Ford Foundation for two years full-time and four years part-time. I learned a great deal about the USA and organizational life from my successful efforts to initiate programs for Hispanics, Native Americans, and the rural poor and to move the foundation to support civil rights organizations that were more activist than the National Urban League. Surprisingly, my most significant learning came from a brief conversation with the foundation president, McGeorge Bundy. I asked him why he had made a particular decision (that I privately thought was dumb.) His response surprised me, “The foundation’s board made me do it.”

As I thought about it, I concluded that no one feels completely free in making decisions. Politicians vote for policies and spending that they think will win them support or reduce opposition. Corporate bosses make decisions in anticipation of how security analysts — those over-rated “experts” — and the stock market will respond. Too often, change organizations make decisions by anticipating the number of media hits, the current way of judging success. The media has become our boss.

This range of bosses suggests that some American left analyses that dote on the concentration of power in a few corporate hands overstate the case and understate the left’s inadequacies. There are a lot of bosses in the USA and they don’t always hang out together.

The Art of the Question

Working with many organizations over the years, I have discovered that good questioning can be an important tool. It is also a useful way of avoiding the guru status of dispensing standard bromides. Out of these contacts I have developed my favorite question: If I knew how this organization spent its money and time, could I figure out what is the purpose of the organization? I have yet to get a yes although it sometimes moves organizations to begin to reexamine their ways.

Asking useful questions is an art, in research as well as in organizations. It requires some knowledge and experience to think just beyond the ongoing discussion. My favorite example: I was asked to meet with the board of an Irish organization that was providing food for people without a home. I wanted to ask a standard question regarding how they would define success and yet get them to think about the future of the organization and the problem that they were dealing with. So, I asked, “If you expanded your activities as you are planning and the problem of homelessness in Ireland increased, how would you feel?” The ensuing discussion led them to a new track — to build low-income, subsidized housing. Some years later when I was again in Dublin, Sister Stan, the wonderfully effective leader of the mostly-male organization, proudly introduced me to the housing units that the organization had built.

The art of the research question, I think, is to wonder about processes more than structures. How do results and effects come about — avoiding fastening exclusively on what are possible structural influences or independent variables if you wish. How do these influences come to have the effects that they do? That question may lead to other independent variables or to a different way of seeing the problem and setting up the research goal and design.

Rethinking Class Outlooks

In the 1950’s, Seymour Martin Lipset published an article in the American Socialist Review (ASR) on the authoritarianism of the American worker. Frank Riessman and I wrote a reply that the ASR didn’t take but the British Journal of Sociology did.

My expanding experiences with American workers led me to the conclusion that Marty (whom I knew from graduate school days) and we critics were both wrong. Also misled were those who regarded workers’ concern for their economic interests as class awareness, perhaps even class-consciousness. As I talked with more and more workers from my variety of activities, I came to the conclusion that what was particularly important for them was tradition. They were patriotic, religiously-oriented (even if not active church-goers) believers in the American dream of onward and upward. They defended their economic interests from a traditional perspective. In a sense, when they saw a company trying to weaken a benefit, they regarded it as an insult to the tradition that had been achieved.

I think that research on class attitudes would benefit from attention to the role of tradition. And activists would also benefit from understanding how tradition operates in the lives of those they seek to influence. I think too that a lot of our research findings should have attached to them something like a milk bottle warning — USE BEFORE THIS DATE — for events and circumstances undermine the durability of research findings, especially from polling and interviewing.

Learning About Self from Action

To the oft-cited saying of the greed in taking without giving I would add that there is a greed in giving without taking. Giving is a two-way encounter, so I don’t want to end without stressing how much I have benefited as a social scientist and as a person from my wide range of involvements in trying to aid outsiders.

My many involvements have enriched my professional life by forcing me to view many issues in ways that were not my professional or natural bent. For example, I learned that many decisions, especially in organizations, are not the result of planning or careful consideration of alternatives and possibilities, but of hopes, enthusiasms, presumed opportunities, personal preferences, last minute pressures. Sociology often has a hidden presumption of the rational social actor operating with or against economists’ rational market actor.

At the personal level, I have had the benefit of feeling useful, meeting many interesting people and discovering places that would not have occurred if I had stuck to a narrow professional track. I learned a good deal about myself, including an understanding of my early life that I had buried. My article, “No Permanent Abode” in Tikkun describes the uncovering of my homeless experiences when working with Sister Stan’s organization. I also had the great benefit of a long marriage to psychiatrist and author Jean Baker Miller who lived her values more than most of us do.

In short, I have also been a taker.

Giving and taking — ideas for and from action — that two-way process enriches professional and personal lives in ways that cannot be measured yet are so rewarding.

S.M. (Mike) Miller is co-founder and long-time board member of United for a Fair Economy. He is a senior fellow at the Commonwealth Institute and a board member of Poverty and Race Research Action Council. He is emeritus professor of sociology at Boston University and in 2009 received the American Sociological Association’s award for the Practice of Sociology.

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