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The Way We Live Now

III-at-Ease in Compton

by Richard M. Elman
Pantheon, 207 pp., $5.95

The Levittowners

by Herbert J. Gans
Pantheon, 474 pp., $7.95

These must be bad days for historians with literary interests. They, alone among social scientists, cannot hope to participate in the situations and events that engage their attention. The most serious writing about social processes today seems to be by persons who took part in them at least as journalists. Academic writing in the social sciences tends, by comparison, to seem more lifeless than ever. The kind of sociology that carries conviction today is really anthropological; to have any impact the sociologist must function as an ethnographer to the group or institution he is studying.

While scholarly writing in the social sciences is still largely abstract, detached, and statistical, the more competent journalists who write about slum life, or our daily operations in Vietnam, and the schoolteachers who discuss what was actually going on in their schools, have begun to make scholarly detachment look, quite literally, sick—like a nervous disorder whose symptoms include compulsive and ritualized avoidance accompanied by a marked decline in perception. Unfortunately, sociology has not developed to the point where methodological rigor can compensate much for the loss of the impressions it excludes. Both its methods and its laws still seem too artificial, compared to those of the physical sciences, to justify an observer’s unwillingness to allow his pattern of observations to be guided by the events themselves rather than by his scheme of collecting data.

Professor Gans’s work on The Levittowners shows in this respect troubling signs of internal conflict. He is, at fortyone, Senior Research Sociologist at the Center for Urban Education—a regional laboratory of the US Office of Education—and Adjunct Professor of Sociology and Education at Teachers College, Columbia. He commands a lucid, casual, unobtrusive prose style. And he chose to study Levittown, New Jersey—the third Levittown to be constructed—as a participant observer from the viewpoint of an ordinary resident.

The Ganses were among the first twenty-five families to move there in 1958. He was thus in a position to supplement his unimpeachable position as a bona-fide charter resident with as much professional procedure as he chose. He chose to use a lot of professional procedure. He told his fellow-residents that he:

was on the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania and…would do a study of the community formation process in Levittown…I did not go into detail about it—I was rarely asked to—and I did not tell people on my block that I was keeping notes on their (and my) activities as homeowners and neighbors. To have done so would have made life unpleasant for them and for me. I disclaimed association with the mail questionnaire or the interviews on behavior change [which he had done by graduate students from the university], fearing (probably unnecessarily) that I might be rejected as a participant-observer. Finally, I did not tell people I had moved to Levittown in order to do the study. Actually, it would not have occurred to them that I was not simply interested in a good low-priced house and the chance to enjoy suburban living.

Aside from these deceptions, being a participant-observer was almost always enjoyable and often exciting. I liked most of the people I met, and had no trouble getting information from them. Identifying myself as a researcher did not inhibit them from talking, but then I asked few personal questions… After a while, I became a fixture in the community; people forgot I was there and went on with their business, even at private political gatherings.

Yet, even if Gans is right—as he probably is—in thinking that his presence as a sociologist did not significantly disturb the social system he was observing the question of impact cannot be dismissed so easily. For his consciousness of his role strongly affected his own behavior:

The main problem in being a participant observer is not to get people to give information, but to live with the role day after day. As a researcher, I could not afford to alienate any present or potential sources, or become identified with any single group or clique in the community. Consequently I had to be neutral, not offering opinions on controversial local issues or on national policies if they were too different from prevailing opinions—as they often were…I also had to restrain the normal temptation to avoid people I did not like, for had I given in, my sample would have been biased and my conclusions inaccurate. The participant observer must talk to a fairly representative cross section of the population. I had to be sure not to act like a professor, for fear of losing access to people who feel threatened by academic degrees or by their own lack of education. This was not too difficult, for I am not entirely comfortable in a professional role anyway.

This passage, I believe, illustrates very clearly the difficulties, for the student of society, of being a sociologist. For comfortable or not, Gans is a professor; and only a professor could have written a passage marked by this particular kind of scrupulosity. He is never more professorial than in his assumption that blandness avoids bias and elicits response. Although he could not have moved in until 1960, when Levittown, driven by court decisions, admitted its first Negro family, Stokely Carmichael might have learned a lot more about the place than Gans did, and learned it faster; though he would have been less likely to comment that he liked most of the people he met. In any case it seems clear that Gans’s professional training and, especially, the habits of mind that went with it made him less effective as a participant observer rather than more: more self-conscious, less spontaneous. Despite his relative candor and genuine good will, it introduced an element of mauvaise foi into his being there that must surely have affected his relationships and thus his observations and conclusions. In return, of course, he got more “hard” data to base his conclusions on than journalists do, in the form of observations and questionnaire responses that can be treated statistically. His book is the only one of the three reviewed here that has tables in it.

His conclusions are important, and probably correct; and it seems unfortunate that they are less convincing than they might have been, because his methodological elaboration makes them so abstract. Gans concludes, on the basis of his study of Levittown, that suburbia in America has been much maligned by writers who have portrayed it as full of anxious, striving, lonely, rootless, and alienated people whose lives, if physically more comfortable, are much emptier than those of city dwellers. Except for adolescents, who have no privacy at all in the predominantly lower-middle-class community where attitudes to youth are fussy and constrictive, and who say “Levittown is Endsville,” most Levittowners like the place, and are contented with their move. Some mind commuting, most don’t; if they work in Philadelphia it takes them, on the average, about as long to get to work as it did when they lived in the city, and the ride is pleasanter. They have more space; and, though there are lots of lonely people, these are mostly, as they would be in the city, people who are very different from their neighbors in religion, education, or social class, and who may be said to have been insufficiently imaginative about what Levittown would be like.

Sociology,” Gans winningly observes, “is a democratic method of inquiry; it assumes that people have some right to be what they are.” On this basis, he suggests, Levittowners are doing pretty well; what they got by moving to Levittown really is, by and large, what they wanted; and who has a right to insist that they should have wanted something nobler?

A STIMULATING LIFE is certainly not what they want. But Gans, while still accepting their right to their own lives, could nevertheless have made that pattern more real to the reader. As Flaubert showed in Madame Bovary, banality may be desperately important and brilliantly portrayed. But the way Gans uses his formally gathered interviews and questionnaires precludes any strongly realized sense of personal participation, on the basis of which his readers might form their own, albeit second-hand, impression of what it might be like to live in Levittown. Gans is generous with details of domestic routines, political meetings, and the like—his account of the handling of the public agenda by frightened, rigid, part-time local officials corroborates and extends Vidich and Bensman’s classic treatment in Small Town in Mass Society. The difficulty is that he continually subordinates his sense of scene to his research. And since the instruments of his research have social norms built into them, they defeat any attempt a reader might wish to make at a qualitative, rather than a comparative, assessment of life in Levittown. He asks questions like, “In a new community, people sometimes feel lonely. How often would you say you feel lonely here: almost every day; a few times a week; a few times a month; about once a month; less often than that?” and “Some people have said that communities like Levittown are pretty dull, without any excitement or interesting things to do. How do you feel about that? Do you agree or disagree?” The result, on the whole, is a clear vindication of Levittown, and a triumph of scholarship over observation. It would be helpful to the student seeking a basis for comparative judgment if Dante had asked such questions as he made his way through Hell; but he had no interview schedule worthy of the name.

Still, even if it isn’t as nice as it looked to Gans, Levittown isn’t Hell. On the basis of Richard Elman’s testimony, I am less certain about Compton. A separately incorporated city of 75,000 people in Los Angeles County, adjacent to Watts and the next place south of it toward Long Beach, it suffers acutely and chronically from the malaise to which an American—indeed, a southern Californian—community, if such it may be called, is subject. Its population has trebled since 1945. In 1961, according to Elman, it was just over 40 percent Negro; now it is more than half. In social and economic level, it is superior to Watts and, like Levittown, predominantly lower-middle class; for many of the Negroes living there it represents a step up to lower-middle class status from the poverty and sporadic violence of Watts. The median family income in both communities would, at the time of writing, have been a little over $7,000 a year. But Levittown is now only about 1 percent Negro, and most of these families, Gans observes, moved in after his study was completed. It is only about a third as big as Compton now, and was less than half its present size during Gans’s study. And it is a young community in every sense, whereas Compton is a trap for old and bitter white people who have lost hope of getting any further. Even for Negroes it isn’t much, though it’s better than Watts; Negroes who have made it in the Los Angeles area live in Baldwin Hills, which is almost like Beverly Hills if you don’t brood about it.

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