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…

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