Rare Book & Manuscript Library

Herbert Gans papers, 1944-2004

Summary Information


This collection contains the papers of Herbert Gans, a sociologist, urban planner, critic, and Columbia University professor. The collection includes research files, field notes, book manuscripts, published and unpublished articles and studies, correspondence, teaching materials, student writings, speaking notes, and news clippings.

At a Glance

Call No.: MS#1489
Bib ID 5419251 View CLIO record
Creator(s) Gans, Herbert J.
Title Herbert Gans papers, 1944-2004
Physical Description 28 linear feet (64 document boxes 1 flat box)
Language(s) English , Hungarian , German , Spanish; Castilian .
Access You will need to make an appointment in advance to use this collection material in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library reading room. You can schedule an appointment once you've submitted your request through your Special Collections Research Account.

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.



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 The Herbert J. Gans Papers include research files, field notes, book manuscripts, published and unpublished articles and studies, correspondence, teaching materials, student writings, speaking notes, and news clippings amassed by Gans between the late 1940s and 2004.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.

  • Series I: Writings, 1947-2004

    This series contains materials related to books, book-length studies, articles, planning documents, and other writings authored by Gans during close to six decades of work. Together, these files comprise more than half the collection. The basic organizational scheme of these materials was established by Gans, although many files were rearranged in alphabetical order during processing. Subject and correspondence files related to a given book or article were grouped with the relevant title.

  • Series II: Subject Files, 1944-2004

    This series contains correspondence, news clippings, research notes, article drafts, policy papers, meeting minutes, and documents related to Gans's six decades a scholar, planner, teacher, writer, and activist. Explanatory notes written by Gans accompany several subject files.

    Some files are arranged chronologically by decade, which reflects their approximate order at the time of accession. Together, these files provide a snapshot of what Gans was doing at any given time at the peak of his activity in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. In 1968, for instance, he was thinking and writing about the interplay of culture and class, about the future of the suburbs, and about equality in America; he was testifying before the Kerner Commission and in an obscenity trial regarding a Swedish film; he was participating in the Society for the Study of Social Problems, the League for Industrial Democracy, Americans for Democratic Action, and the American Sociological Association. Other materials include the 1955 accusations of communist-related activities levied against Private Seymour Smidt, whose friendship with the allegedly leftist Gans was among the pieces of evidence wielded against him; research materials about Yiddish theater from the late 1940s and early 1950s; a 1967 letter signed by Robert F. Kennedy in response to Gans's inquiry about the Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation; and materials pertaining to the infamous 1965 report on the black family authored by Gans's erstwhile friend, Daniel Patrick Moynihan. (Among these subject files, numbers within parentheses denote the article number to which the subject corresponds. For instance, the Series II folder labeled "1960s – City and Poverty (#48), 1965," corresponds to Article 48 on Gans's list, which is titled "The City and the Poor" and which can be found in Box 29, Folder 6.)

    Other material, some of which was labeled by Gans, is arranged alphabetically. Included here are materials related to the American Sociological Association, of which Gans was president in 1988; a draft manuscript of the influential book by Peter Marris (a friend of Gans's) and Martin Rein later titled "Dilemmas of Social Reform"; a transcript of Gans's testimony as an expert witness in the obscenity trial of Lenny Bruce; Gans's resumes and articles about Gans; material documenting Gans's lobbying efforts in behalf of dissident Hungarian sociologists imprisoned by that country's communist regime; drafts and correspondence related to a festschrift Gans edited about his friend and mentor, David Riesman; and notes, course readers, and syllabi from Gans's time as an undergraduate at the University of Chicago.

  • Series III: Correspondence, 1949-2004

    This series contains correspondence arranged both chronologically and by correspondent. The general correspondence is arranged chronologically; correspondents include Gans's fellow scholars and students, admirers and critics of his work, editors and publishers, and journalists and public figures with whom he did not maintain a regular correspondence. Very little personal information appears in these letters and memoranda. Much of this correspondence is of a routine or formal nature.

    Correspondents arranged alphabetically include David Riesman, economist John Kenneth Galbraith, and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Max Frankel, all of whom corresponded regularly with Gans over a long time period. Others, including a number of American sociologists — among them Daniel Bell, Todd Gitlin, Nathan Glazer, Seymour Martin Lipset, Robert Merton, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, William J. Wilson, and Francis Fox Piven — wrote and received letters to and from Gans intermittently over several decades. Similarly, Gans corresponded in spurts, especially in the 1990s, with a number of journalists and critics, among them Russell Baker, Gail Collins, Maureen Dowd, Paul Goldberger, Nicholas Lemann, and Jim Sleeper; as a group they offer a glimpse into Gans's passionate engagement both with the news and with the manner of its reporting.

    The series also contains correspondence touching on Gans's time at Columbia, the bulk of it pertaining to administrative and personnel issues within the Sociology Department. Correspondence related to particular subjects remains interspersed throughout the writing and subject files. For instance, in addition to the correspondence between Gans and Riesman in Series III, Riesman correspondence on the subject of The Levittowners can be found in Subseries I.1.

  • Series IV: Teaching Materials, 1957-2000

    This series contains lecture notes, syllabi, reading lists, and examination questionnaires Gans produced during some four decades as a teacher of urban planning, sociology, public policy, and mass communications at the University of Pennsylvania, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Columbia University.

  • Series V: Mixed Media, Undated

    This small series includes a few photographs of sociologists who taught at Columbia between the late 19th and the 20th century, and four discs of undated Edison Voicewriter Dictaphone recordings. It is unclear what Gans recorded on these discs.

Using the Collection

Rare Book and Manuscript Library

Restrictions on Access

You will need to make an appointment in advance to use this collection material in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library reading room. You can schedule an appointment once you've submitted your request through your Special Collections Research Account.

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.

Preferred Citation

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


Materials may have been added to the collection since this finding aid was prepared. Contact rbml@columbia.edu for more information.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Source of acquisition--Gift of Herbert Gans. Date of acquisition--2005 and 2007.

About the Finding Aid / Processing Information

Columbia University Libraries, Rare Book and Manuscript Library

Processing Information

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.

Revision Description

2010-06-26 File created.

2019-05-20 EAD was imported spring 2019 as part of the ArchivesSpace Phase II migration.

Subject Headings

The subject headings listed below are found in this collection. Links below allow searches at Columbia University through the Archival Collections Portal and through CLIO, the catalog for Columbia University Libraries, as well as ArchiveGRID, a catalog that allows users to search the holdings of multiple research libraries and archives.

All links open new windows.


Heading "CUL Archives:"
"CUL Collections:"
"Nat'l / Int'l Archives:"
American Sociological Association Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Americans for Democratic Action Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Boston (Mass.) -- Social life and customs Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
City planning -- United States Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Columbia University -- Faculty Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Democracy -- United States Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Ethnicity -- United States Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Frankel, Max, 1914- Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Galbraith, John Kenneth, 1908-2006 Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Gans, Herbert J. Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Glazer, Nathan Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Harris, Fred R., 1930- Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Individualism Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Italian Americans -- Massachusetts -- Boston Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Italian Americans -- Social life and customs Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Jews -- United States -- Social life and customs Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Journalism -- United States Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
League for Industrial Democracy Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Levittown (N.J.) Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Mass media and culture -- United States Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Minorities -- United States Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Moynihan, Daniel P (Daniel Patrick), 1927-2003 Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Political participation -- United States Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Popular culture Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Poverty -- United States Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Public welfare -- United States Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Recreation -- United States -- Planning Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Representative government and representation -- United States Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Riesman, David, 1909-2002 Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Social classes -- United States Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Sociology -- Fieldwork Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Sociology -- Research Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Sociology -- Study and teaching Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Sociology -- United States Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Sociology, Urban Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Suburban life -- Case studies Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Suburbs -- United States Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Television broadcasting of news Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
United States -- History -- 1961-1969 Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
United States -- History -- 1969- Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
United States -- Race relations Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
United States -- Social conditions -- 1945- Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
United States -- Social policy Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
United States. National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
University of Chicago. Department of Sociology Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
University of Pennsylvania. Department of City and Regional Planning Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Urban policy -- United States Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Urban renewal -- Case studies Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Urban renewal -- Government policy -- United States Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID

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.