Haven in a Heartless World: The Family Besieged
by Christopher Lasch
Basic Books, 230 pp., $12.95
Academic entrepreneurs, who are becoming more desperate these days, refer to family as a “buzz word.” They mean that the word, when hooked to any project, is promising bait for fellowships, jobs, participation in symposia, and competitive advances from publishers. A note buried toward the end of Haven in a Heartless World indicates that Christopher Lasch was so prescient in 1963 as to take class notes, as an auditing assistant professor, in a course on the sociology of the family. Because Lasch is a serious scholar who has long been studying American responses to the family, he is probably embarrassed by the sudden fashionability of the topic.
But whatever his original intentions, Lasch has not written another historical or sociological analysis of the family, although his book helps to explain the current national obsession. Lasch’s subject is the “tradition of sociological study, which still defines the issues that inform most of the current commentary on the family.” More specifically, his book is a commentary on the ways in which academic and clinical social theory has reinforced and interacted with the institutional structures of corporate capitalism.
Many readers will be familiar with Lasch’s provocative independence and disturbing honesty of mind (parts of three chapters have appeared earlier in this journal or elsewhere). When Lasch describes Talcott Parsons as having a “conciliatory rather than a combative temperament,” he is really giving us a reverse self-portrait. If Parson’s “refusal to engage in argumentation…has had the unfortunate effect—perhaps not entirely unintentional—of seeming to place his own work above controversy and to give it a quality of scientific detachment,” this is not a risk that Lasch runs. His book will provoke howls of common anger from many otherwise opposing camps, since he boldly takes on Marxians and anti-Marxians, neo-Freudians and feminist anti-Freudians, Parsonians and anti-Parsonians, Moynihanians and anti-Moynihanians, and he directs his fire at most of the major American anthropologists, sociologists, and neo-Freudian analysts of the past sixty years.
Above all, Lasch is critical of Talcott Parsons, who was central in providing the theoretical justification for what Philip Rieff has called the “triumph of the therapeutic.” If Parsons is less familiar to the general public than such fellow sociologists as David Riesman and C. Wright Mills, he has been widely acknowledged as virtually the St. Thomas Aquinas of American social science. His elaborate theory of social equilibrium, together with his emphasis on “socialization” as enabling society to withstand moral and cultural crises, has had an influence extending far beyond the disciplines of history and the behavioral sciences. Concerned with the full sweep of “social relations,” Parsons and his followers have had a deep impact on the therapeutic professions and, through them, on public agencies and policies. By the 1960s, Parsons had become a figure of such towering authority that any challenge to official social thought was forced to define itself as anti-Parsonian. Yet as Lasch convincingly argues, the anti-Parsonians tended to accept their enemies’ most questionable premises concerning the …