A Reflection on an Early Contributor and Friend of Riessman: On Becoming Who I Am: The Influence of Frank Riessman

EDITOR’S NOTE: S.M “Mike” Miller has been a consistent contributor and supporter of Social Policy over the last fifty years. We were fortunate that recently he and his family drew together some of his essays on the influences and shape of his own career as a noted sociologist. One of the pieces in more eloquent on the importance of Frank Riessman’s role in sparking Social Policy than anything we might have been able to say.

It is not often that a 22-year-old learns from a 20-year-old. But that was the situation when Frank Riessman and I met in a graduate economics class at Columbia University. I had the vague idea that eventually I wanted my social science to be useful, but in the second year of graduate studies that was in the distant future. Frank, who was in his first year of graduate sociology work—economics was a side interest—had joined with another sociology student, Alvin Gouldner, to try to develop an organization and a magazine that would make social science useful for people involved in unions and community action. This was at the end of World War II when an air of possibility and excitement pervaded the New York scene.

With a number of people who later became social science luminaries, I helped develop what was grandly called the Citizens’ Social Research Council, offering a more action-relevant view of the mission of social science than the important established and establishment Social Science Research Council. At the same time, the assumption was that social science, as it was developing, had much to offer to people in action.

Under Frank’s leadership, we published a magazine called Ideas for Action that tried to make social science immediately useful. Frank had a great knack for seeing the action implications of social science data and ideas.

The experience of working with Frank on Ideas for Action, which went on for some years, has influenced my work and life for—I am astonished to realize—more than 50 years. As a result of knowing him, I have tried to live in the world of ideas and action. I call myself an activist academic or, depending on what I have done recently, an academic activist.

Frank shaped my life in other ways, for many of his ideas became an important part of my working equipment. The experience of working in a group with him and others on articles for Ideas for Action has been important in the way that I like to work. I have formed similar groups in a variety of settings and like to look at what I do as part of a continuing exchange rather than as a finished piece of writing or action.

Developing What Lies Beneath

A central component of my thinking derives from Frank’s emphasis on the “hidden potential” of people. My attacks on credentialism are based on a person’s possibilities, which educational certificates and performance do not adequately convey. People with limited schooling could do much more than they are thought capable of doing. Credentialism ignores the hidden potentials of those who have not had enough of orthodox training.

At a different level, Frank taught me to recognize defects or difficulties in actions that I favored. For example, he early came to the realization that a major limitation of ordinary workers and union leaders was their tendency toward anti-intellectualism. Granted that criticizing intellectuals and academics is frequently well warranted, a blanket turning away from fresh examination of practices that intellectuals can sometimes provide can be disabling. It can also make people prey to siren calls of a conservative populism. A bigger point was important to me in Frank’s open-mindedness: Don’t let your desires and hopes cloud your understanding. Of course, I have not always lived up to that injunction, but it has made me more aware of things that I would prefer to ignore.

From an early point, Frank led us in Ideas for Action to connect more directly with action groups. That was difficult, but the drive to be part of what was going on at the grassroots level stayed with me. I cannot say that I was a Jimmy Higgins, but I have always striven to have some connection, if mainly as a noncombatant adviser with (somewhat) grassroots groups. I don’t like the notion of the ivory tower where supposedly useful ideas are spun out from books. Rather, I strive to learn from action on the ground and then spin out ideas that mix in my social science work.

Frank had many ideas about strategy and tactics. One that I sometimes have difficulty embracing is “going with the flow”—using and building on where the action is. Often, I have an “against the tide” approach, refusing to enlist in the somewhat orthodox left way of thinking about the world. Critics may regard my outlook as suffering from a “party of one” mentality, though I see myself as attempting to invite others into discussion of what should not be closed issues. But I do recognize the force of his argument to build on what is going on.

Our hope in those early days was to develop social science by involvement with the world of action—learning from attention to action and developing social science theory from our connections to efforts to change the world. I think that we largely failed to do this although I like to believe that we had perspectives that other social scientists lacked because they did not connect to action arenas. But this desire to reshape social science through action involvements—an animating objective of the formation of Ideas for Action—has stayed with me.

If I had not known Frank, I probably would have ended up a bookish academic with a spectator view of efforts to improve the world. His gift to me of connecting theory and action has become an obligation—it obliges me to continue to pass on that vision to the young. I hope that the next 50 years will be as rewarding to them as the past years have been to me because of Frank’s way of understanding and dealing with the world of action and social science. And may these younger people have the intimate, caring, and fun friendships that developed out of that Ideas for Action experience.

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