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Series I: Writings, 1947-2004
At a Glance
This collection is arranged in 5 series.
Scope and Content
A renowned sociologist, urban planner, and critic who has written or edited 14 books and hundreds of articles, Herbert J. Gans taught in Columbia University's Department of Sociology for three decades. The Herbert J. Gans Papers include research files, field notes, book manuscripts, published and unpublished articles and studies, correspondence, teaching materials, student writings, speaking notes, and news clippings amassed by Gans between the late 1940s and 2004. The bulk of the collection consists of Gans's writings and related materials, including sociological field notes, correspondence, grant applications, drafts, and typescripts. Extensive research and correspondence files related to Gans's three most influential books --The Urban Villagers, The Levittowners, and Deciding What's News-- together comprise about a quarter of the collection; drafts, typescripts, and letters pertaining to six of his other books are also included. Contained, too, is a chronological collection of Gans's articles, along with his M.A and PhD theses, planning documents, film and book reviews, speaking notes, and numerous unpublished articles.
Subject files document Gans's numerous interests and activities undertaken as a scholar, policy expert, activist, and public speaker. Many contain handwritten explanatory notes added by Gans immediately before bequeathing the collection.
By far the most voluminous correspondence is that with the sociologist David Riesman; also making appearances are a who's-who of late-20th century American intellectuals and social scientists: John K. Galbraith, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Nathan Glazer, Robert Merton, Daniel Bell, Seymour Martin Lipset, William J. Wilson, Todd Gitlin, Frances Fox Piven, and Richard Cloward.
Finally, Gans's teaching files include syllabi, lecture outlines, reading lists, and examinations from four decades of teaching at the University of Pennsylvania, M.I.T., and Columbia.
Using the Collection
Rare Book and Manuscript Library
Restrictions on Access
This collection has no restrictions, however, The Park Forest Interviews (Subseries I.2: Box 23, Folder 1, and Box 24, Folders 1-7) are extremely fragile; access to these materials will be determined on a case-by-case basis.
This collection is located off-site. You will need to request this material at least three business days in advance to use the collection in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library reading room.
Terms Governing Use and Reproduction
Single photocopies may be made for research purposes. The RBML approves permission to publish that which it physically owns; the responsibility to secure copyright permission rests with the patron.
Identification of specific item; Date (if known); Herbert J. Gans Papers; Box and Folder; Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University Library.
Selected Related Material
Robert K. Merton Papers, Columbia University Rare Book & Manuscript Library
Ownership and Custodial History
About the Finding Aid / Processing Information
Columbia University Libraries, Rare Book and Manuscript Library
Papers surveyed and sent offsite BL & PL 9/13/2005.
Papers Processed Michael Woodsworth (GSAS 2011) 2010.
Finding Aid Written Michael Woodsworth (GSAS 2011) 05/--/2010.
2010-06-26 File created.
2019-05-20 EAD was imported spring 2019 as part of the ArchivesSpace Phase II migration.
History / Biographical Note
Biographical / Historical
Herbert Gans is a sociologist, urban planner, and critic who has written or edited 14 books and hundreds of articles, and who taught in Columbia University's department of sociology for three decades. Gans was born in 1927 in Cologne, Germany, to middle-class Jewish parents. The family fled Germany in 1939, arriving first in England and then in Chicago's Woodlawn neighborhood. Gans became a U.S. citizen in 1945 and subsequently spent 14 months in the Army. Returning in 1946 to the University of Chicago, he studied under the "Chicago School" of social scientists, among them Earl Johnson and Everett Hughes, who stressed the importance of urban fieldwork. At Chicago, Gans also grew close to the sociologist David Riesman, who in 1950 supervised a Master's dissertation titled "Political Participation and Apathy: A Study of Political Participation in Local Government and Some Recommendations to Increase Participation in the Government of Park Forest, Illinois." Riesman would remain a friend, correspondent, and mentor to Gans for the next 50 years.
Gans considered moving to Israel and joining a kibbutz after completing his M.A. Instead, he went to work as a planner for the Chicago Housing Authority. His planning work later took him to the Minnesota iron range, where he helped plan two new towns; he also briefly worked for the Division of Slum Clearance of the United States Housing and Home Finance Agency. In 1953, he followed another mentor from Chicago, the social scientist and planner Martin Meyerson, to the University of Pennsylvania and embarked on a doctorate in urban planning. Gans finished his dissertation, titled "Recreation Planning for Leisure Behavior: A Goal-Oriented Approach" in 1957. He was subsequently hired as an assistant professor of city planning at the University of Pennsylvania.
By the late 1950s, Gans had published some 20 articles about planning, suburbs, and political participation, as well as numerous book reviews. He had also penned several essays about American Jewry in the influential magazine Commentary, where the sociologist Nathan Glazer was his editor.
Gans and his first wife, Iris, moved in late 1957 to Boston's West End. A predominantly Italian-American community, the neighborhood had recently been designated a slum and was on the verge of being cleared for urban renewal. Gans's work there as a "participant-observer" turned him into one of the country's most forceful critics of the urban-renewal programs then being undertaken with federal funds. As Gans saw it, the West End was no slum, nor had it exhibited the kinds of social pathologies cited by advocates of slum clearance. Instead, he argued in The Urban Villagers: Group and Class in the Life of Italian-Americans (1962), the neighborhood had fostered a vibrant, tight-knit community of working-class families for whom displacement was a life-shattering experience. Though many of the group rituals and institutions described in The Urban Villagers were reminiscent of Italian folkways, Gans insisted that class was a better marker of the West Enders' group identity than ethnicity-- a theme he would return to repeatedly throughout his career. The book went on to sell almost 200,000 copies and became a mainstay on college-level sociology syllabi.
In 1958, Gans moved to Levittown, N.J., a newly minted suburb where he hoped to study the process of town formation. He spent three years there conducting extensive field work, which led to a monumental study published in 1967, The Levittowners: Ways of Life and Politics in a New Suburban Community. The book was most notable for demolishing the then-prevailing view of suburbs as a locus of conformity, isolation, and alienation. As in Boston, Gans found among Levittown's former urbanites strong community institutions, which in many cases had emerged almost overnight. In fact, he argued, there was little evidence to support the conventional wisdom that built environments had a significant effect on people's lives -- another recurring theme in his work.
Gans taught occasional courses in city planning, urban studies, and sociology at Penn and Columbia's Teachers College from the late 1950s to the mid-1960s. He took a professorship in planning at MIT in 1969. Two years later, he moved back to New York to join Columbia's department of Sociology, where became the Robert S. Lynd Professor of Sociology in 1985.
Gans's first marriage ended in divorce. In 1967, he married Louise Gruner, an attorney with the Legal Aid Society.
By the late 1960s, Gans had gained recognition as one of the country's foremost authorities on urban issues. Gans initially supported the federal War on Poverty undertaken in 1964 but later criticized it for stressing the mental and psychological incapacities of the poor themselves rather than the broader political and economic structures that created poverty. To Gans, the urban crisis was in fact a national one. As he testified in 1967 before the National Advisory Commission on National Disorders, also known as the Kerner Commission, the uprisings that wracked American cities in the late 1960s resulted, above all, from segregation and unemployment. Thus only a national jobs program, combined with deliberate desegregation and income-redistribution programs, could solve the urban crisis. (Gans helped draft the Kerner Commission's final report in 1968.) The intersections of race and class in American society would remain a theme in Gans's work for the rest of his career. So, too, would what he dubbed the "positive functions of poverty" which, he argued in a widely reprinted 1972 article in the American Journal of Sociology, allowed elites to benefit from keeping the poor poor. A compilation of Gans's writings about poverty and cities, People and Plans: Essays on Urban Problems and Solutions, appeared in 1968.
Gans firmly believed that sociologists had a duty not only to study social problems but also to advocate for change outside the academy. During the late 1960s and 1970s, his omnivorous interests involved him in an increasingly broad range of activities. Politicians including Hubert Humphrey and Fred Harris solicited his advice. He was active in the influential liberal group Americans for Democratic Action and the social-democratic League for Industrial Democracy. He campaigned in the mid-1970s for the release of imprisoned Hungarian sociologists and helped them emigrate to the U.S. Throughout, he wrote about subjects as varied as suburbanization, the Vietnam War, landmarks preservation, the Beatles, and the New York Yankees in the pages of academic journals and popular publications alike. A series of ruminative essays published in the New York Times Magazine between 1968 and 1974, on subjects including inequality, welfare, housing, and television, delivered his ideas to a readership of millions.
A sharp-tongued and at times iconoclastic cultural critic, Gans also penned numerous film reviews, satires, opinion pieces, and essays on popular culture. In 1959, he produced a monograph on British consumption of American movies and TV shows; ten years later, he carried out extensive research about the educational uses of television among New York City residents. In 1964, he testified as an expert witness at Lenny Bruce's obscenity trial. Gans's brand of cultural theory received its clearest expression in his 1974 book Popular Culture and High Culture: An Analysis and Evaluation of Taste, which he dedicated to Riesman. The book issued a robust defense of popular culture, arguing that the bifurcation between "high" and "low" cultures reflected socioeconomic hierarchies rather than the intrinsic worth of people's aesthetic standards.
Throughout the 1960s and '70s, Gans worked intermittently on a wide-ranging study of American news outlets. In 1963, he carried out a series of interviews with broadcasters and media executives-- including David Brinkley, Chet Huntley, and the president of NBC, Robert Kintner-- in the wake of President Kennedy's assassination. In subsequent years, he spent several months as a participant-observer at CBS Evening News, NBC Nightly News, Newsweek and Time, applying an ethnographer's eye to the sociology of newsrooms. This research led to numerous articles, lectures, and, eventually, a book-length study, Deciding What's News (1979).
Throughout the 1980s and '90s, Gans continued to publish and lecture on a wide variety of topics including ethnicity, television, urban design, suburbia, and labor. He served as president of the American Sociological Association in 1988. An obsessive newspaper reader, he fired off a steady stream of letters to the editor and maintained regular correspondence with a number of prominent reporters and columnists. His books reprised, updated, and expanded on key themes of his earlier work. Middle American Individualism: Political Participation and Liberal Democracy, published in 1988, issued a defense of the working- and middle-class Americans often derided by elites as apathetic, unthinking, or uncultured. Gans portrayed their individualism in Tocquevillian terms, as the reservoir of America's democratic values, and argued that the political system ought to seek ways of better serving such individuals. The War Against the Poor (1995) issued a pointed critique of the labeling, categorization, and marginalization of the so-called "underclass" while calling for greater job creation and income-maintenance programs for the poor. Two essay collections, People, Plans, and Policies (1992) and Making Sense of America (1999) also appeared.
Gans has said that his life's work amounts to an immigrant's quest to understand America. That quest continues into his eighties, as books including Democracy and the News (2003) and Imagining America in 2033 (2009) attest. Now a professor emeritus, he remains a strong advocate of public sociology, encouraging students and professionals alike to take a multidisciplinary approach and tie their work to policy considerations.