From the Academy: Sociology

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Samuel Heilman serves as a Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Queens College of the City University of New York and as the Harold Proshanky Chair in Jewish Studies at the CCNY’s Graduate Center. He has spoken and lectured as a visiting professor at universities in Israel, China, South Korea, and Australia, as well as throughout North America.

Samuel Heilman

His many books include Sliding to the Right: The Contest for the Future of American Jewish Orthodoxy (2006), When a Jew Dies: The Ethnography of a Bereaved Son (2001) and Portrait of American Jews: The Last Half of the 20th Century (1995). As the editor-in-chief of Contemporary Jewry, the leading journal for social scientific studies of Jewish experience, he helps to set the direction for his field’s development.

How does a sociologist’s approach to studying Jews differ from a historian’s?

The historical approach is interested in mainly what the factors are in the past that led to the present, whereas the sociological approach is more focused on the way things are in the present: what are the ongoing cultural, social, anthropological factors that affect how things are in the present? The focus is different.

We start from what we can see around us, often by surveying the scene, sometimes by interviewing people, doing observations, sometimes even participating. A historian can’t participate in what’s happened in the past, can’t ask questions of participants. In some ways, historians would do well if they had the material that sociologists and anthropologists have collected. If they had those kinds of testimonies and studies from the past, history would be fuller. I don’t think we’re doing competing kinds of things. I think they’re complementary.

Does the sociological study of the Jews differ in any particular ways from the study of other contemporary communities?

In every group, the social and cultural conditions play a part in how you study them. You use some of the same approaches, of learning about people, understanding the values that they have, and the behaviors by which they express them—enough so that you can talk about a discipline of sociology or anthropology—but also differences, so that you can’t assume that somebody who has experience studying the Jews would necessarily have the same facility in studying other groups.

On the other hand, just to add to the complication, if you’re studying German Jews, well, you really can’t study German Jews without having an understanding of German culture and society. German Jews very powerfully reflect German culture and society in ways that are different from Jews in, say, Morocco. All of those things come into play. No group of people is purely one thing or another: they’re a combination of ingredients, and you have to have a certain sense of cultural and social sensitivity when you’re looking at them and trying to learn something about them.

How can sociology affect the practices and choices of contemporary Jews?

There are a whole variety of ways. Starting, first of all, with the quantitative. The community, or people who are interested in organizing and understanding Jewish life, need to know: how many Jews are there? What kind of Jews are there? Are Jews aging more quickly than the rest of the population? What is the nature of Jews’ marital patterns? What is the nature of their fertility, how many kids are they having? Those are important questions, which are in the domain of sociology.

Another kind of question that the sociologists have been able to explore is the nature of Jewish communal life. What constitutes Jewish communal life? How is the community linked together? Those, and many other kinds of questions, can help in understanding the nature of the Jewish population or the trends in the Jewish population, how best to serve the Jewish population.

Even such a basic question as, “Do people care about their Jewish identity at all?” is one of the questions to which Jewish sociology and anthropology can give us an answer. Sometimes it’s taken as a starting point that Jewish continuity is a value in and of itself, that it’s important to continue to have Jews as an identifiable minority.

Well, what if you have a significant number, a proportion of the population of Jews, that doesn’t feel that? What of those people for whom the idea of Jewish identity is something they seek to disattend in their desire to be assimilated by their other national identities? These are all the sorts of questions that Jewish sociologists and anthropologists explore, and have direct bearing on everything from fundraising to social welfare to planning for the future.

What drew you toward this field?

Well, I first of all became interested in sociology, not necessarily of Jews. Because I was Jewish, naturally many of the things I was familiar with, in terms of social life, background, and so on, drew on my understanding of Jewish life. When it came time to write a dissertation, for a variety of reasons that I talk about in one of my books, I did a study of a synagogue, which I didn’t necessarily think was particularly about Jews, but about social and symbolic interaction in a setting that happened to be a synagogue.

But from there, given the kind of things I had said and the people who read my work, and the interest people showed, I found myself being dragged more and more into talking about issues that were relevant to Jewish life and to Jewish society. But I continue to believe that while I write about the Jews, many of the things I write inform sociology in general and the study of human behavior. Franz Boas wrote about the Kwakiutl of the Pacific Northwest, or Margaret Mead wrote about the Samoans; these were not just studies for a particular group of people who were only interested in the Samoans or the Kwakiutl. These were discussions about a particular group of people through which you can learn something about the general condition of humanity.

As someone once put it: “Seeing heaven in a grain of sand is not something only poets can accomplish.”

Are there particular challenges facing students of Jewish sociology?

Yes. One of the great challenges is that you are looking at a community for which the question is: is it actually a community, or is it just an aggregate of people who are defined in a variety of ways? So you’re looking at a moving target.

Secondly, there is an economic problem, which is that the kinds of work that we do is often rewarded more when we’re in economic good times. This is not necessarily a field where people are going to get rich quick.

The third challenge is, of course, where the jobs are going to be. It’s a mad academic hazard whether you get a job or don’t get a job, and who you are going to teach. In the community outside the academy, as well, there is not always sufficient support for the work and insights of social science. Even such a basic thing as a National Jewish Population Survey, which was once a given at least every ten years—the community is increasingly seeing it as a luxury, rather than a necessity.

There are jobs out there. I always argue that if you really have a passion to do something and are really interested in it, and have the skill to do it, then you should go for it, and you’ll find a way to sell what it is you do. But if someone were asking me, “What’s a good field for me to go into because I want to support myself and a family and have a future of honor and good fortune?”, sociology and anthropology might not be on the top of my list.

If a reader wanted to know more about how the sociological study of Jewish communities is developing, what would you recommend he or she read?

First of all, I’d recommend the journal that I edit, Contemporary Jewry. It comes out three times a year and it shows you what people are thinking about, what they’re writing about, and what research they’re pursuing. Reading a journal like Contemporary Jewry would be a very good starter.

If I’m going to give a pitch for a book, I’d say that people should be on the lookout for a new book that I and Menachem Friedman have written called The Rebbe: The Life and the Afterlife of Menachem Mendel Schneerson which will be out from Princeton University Press in the spring; that will give you a sense of how we can study one of the more interesting phenomena in the contemporary Jewish scene, which is the Lubavitch movement.

Posted on October 23, 2009

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