Interview with Harvey Molotch, Career of Distinguished Scholarship Award Winner (2019)
The CUSS newsletter team reached out to the 2019 Career of Distinguished Scholarship Award Winner, Harvey Molotch, to reflect on his career and his trajectory as an urban sociologist. Dr. Molotch is Professor Emeritus at NYU and UC Santa Barbara and is a prominent figure in urban sociology and our section. We’re including his responses below:
What initially brought you to urban sociology?
I’ve always had a thing for land and buildings. Children play with blocks; I kept at it. When growing up in Baltimore I liked watching things go up, including houses and especially movie theaters. From family scuttlebutt I learned that a part of making things happen was connections – that’s what gets zoning, building permits, and even permission to have a neon sign. Don’t be shocked, dear reader, but there were bribes.
When I got to urban social science, my Baltimore was not in it. Crime was certainly there but largely sequestered as criminology. Urban science was about concentric circles, demography, and exotic street corner life. I yearned for the developers, the fixers, and the crooks – and their linkages with the more ordinary folks trying to make their way through the thicket. A lot of my life has been to follow up on that.
What has been the most exciting moment of your career?
I was giving a paper at the ASA, circa 1970, in a session called “Radical Sociology.” We were plenty hyped up. It was a full-house in the “Imperial Ballroom” of the Hilton. My paper was called “Oil in Santa Barbara and Power in America” and my big line, which the journal was to edit out: “When the oil hit the water, the shit hit the fan.” It went over big, including with the august Talcott Parsons, rollicking in his seat at my insolence. I doubt he could foresee the demise of his structural functionalism and the rise of the intellectual left that was blowing in the (air conditioned) wind. I got it.
I always taught Sociology One, exciting again and again. It was great to teach our greatest hits, which also included, in my version, wonderful stuff from anthropology, history, political science and even economics. I was a heavy user of slides, video, and music; I loved being there as the students saw the light.
What do you think are the most pressing issues for urban scholars to study today?
Changes in land use, whether through growth or contraction, have specific impacts on wealth distribution, social lives, and the natural environment. We need to understand and publicize these effects – this is a special role for urban studies as opposed to sociology more generally.
I don’t think we fully resolved the problem of the “urban object” – what is distinctive to the urban as opposed to the social and economic more generally. Too often, in my view, urban sociology means whatever goes on in cities. But since cities are the commonplace of life, this delimits very little. The urban matters, not by declaration but by clear display of how taking it up clarifies larger realms of thought and politics.
The danger is that without meaningful framing, the urban aspect can be a sloganeering substitute for confronting larger social issues of inequality, health, and racism. High-rise public housing filled a need for sure, but it was hardly a panacea; the switch to low-rise is equally misguided as general solution. We need intellectual tactics to prevent our beloved “urban” from being misapplied.
For me, a good point of entry is to ask, in effect, “how did that get there and that way or through what process did it cease to be.” The concrete of the city, its shape and form, can be our entry point for the recursive loop between the social, the artifactual, and the natural. In short, the city, in this sense, can be method. It is a way into culture, political economy and comparative analyses.
One critical obsolescence of our prior paradigms is the collective effect of climate change. In grappling with this wicked problem, we need to think about how our urbanism as a way of life is a destroyer. We need to learn the ways particular settlement configuration exacerbate earth impact. We need to figure out how to repudiate the value-free development doctrines, world-wide, that lead to catastrophe. Going green needs some red – with approaches that are positive, practical, and that leverage potential for human solidarity. The downside of recycling is its ineffectiveness; the upside is its display of mass participation for a common cause. How can that “instinct” be bottled but made significant rather than trivial.
What advice would you give to new researchers?
Coming into sociology at a time of plentiful jobs, my own pleasurable enthusiasm was likely historically exceptional. That said, I can declare that I really did follow my fascinations and try to make myself useful. I did see some less fortunate colleagues stuck in the rut of strategizing; it made their work less interesting for themselves and probably didn’t help their careers much either. What to do? Curiosity is really all we have that has at least the potential to pay off both on and off the job. It is a reason to get up in the morning.
Cities face a lot of challenges today. What advice would you give to residents and activists who are concerned about issues in their neighborhoods?
It is discouraging to witness how much urban activism goes not to progressive agendas but to those based in fear of those agendas. Ironically, change is made horrible because there’s such a weak safety net, even for the middle-class. Some of the resulting anxiety clutters public discourse with resentment against newcomers and hostility toward those driven, like the homeless and the ill, to repugnant life strategies. We all know that miseries at the level of appearances — even public elimination at the extreme — come from the deeper realms. Urbanists have a direct line to those appearances as well as means to know their source. We have the job, as a consistent matter, to convincingly explain these extreme local troubles as traceable to policies and politics that do people in.