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Harry Gene Levine: Joseph R. Gusfield and the Multiple Perspectives of Cubist Sociology

Updated: Aug 29, 2023

Note from Ron:  Here is another tribute to the late Joe Gusfield, authored by Harry Gene Levine.  It circulated via email among some of us old-guard alcohol and drug history types a few days ago.  And, when I asked him, Harry was kind enough grant permission it be published at Points. The italicized first paragraph, below the Picasso image, offers Harry’s suggested introductory words for the piece.  I’m also going to take the liberty of adding, as a comment, below, my response to it when it was sent around by email.  I really like this piece.  Thank you, Harry!

Picasso's Guernica

Picasso’s Guernica

In 2000 I was invited to join a panel at the meetings of the Law and Society Association devoted to Joe Gusfield and his book Symbolic Crusade.  I wrote a four page presentation, only slightly tongue-in-cheek.  Since hearing of his death I have been thinking about him a lot and dug up the paper. It’s kind of sweet.    — H.G.L.

Joseph R. Gusfield’s book, Symbolic Crusade, discusses the temperance movement in America history. I too have studied the American temperance movement and would like to begin with a brief description of the temperance and prohibition crusade that I didn’t write but wish I could have: the first paragraph of Symbolic Crusade.

For many observers of American life, the temperance movement is evidence for an excessive moral perfectionism and an overly legalistic bent to American culture. It seems the action of devoted sectarians who are unable to compromise with human impulse. The legal measures taken to enforce abstinence display the reputed American faith in the power of Law to correct all evils. This moralism and utopianism bring smiles to the cynical and fear to the sinner. Such a movement seems at once naive, intolerant, saintly and silly.

One of the difficulties of writing like that is that it involves discussing so many things at one time. Every sentence in that paragraph talks about the American temperance movement, and about topics other than the temperance movement. I propose that double or triple focus is part of Gusfield’s intellectual genius. For many years I could not even recognize that Joe was focusing on several things at once. I myself am often unable to see even one thing at a time. At first I usually only see part of one thing. Then, like Columbo, the rumpled detective played by Peter Falk, I return scratching my head, thumbing through my notes, and asking again about something that still confuses me.

I’ve been reading Gusfield’s books and articles for twenty-five years trying to understand how he produces his distinctive intellectual, emotional and perceptual effects on the page and in the reader. I would like to report a few things I have figured out about Joseph R. Gusfield’s sociology.    

First, Gusfield’s work is filled with images of seeing, of perception, of vision, of looking. Consider the paragraph I just read. The manifest topic is a group of people Joe calls “many observers” — a term that makes seeing or observing central to their identity. Joe discusses what many observers see and think, what they observe. In only the first sentence, we learn that many observers see the temperance movement, and they see the traits of excessive moral perfectionism and excessive legalism in the temperance movement. The observers also see American culture, and they regard the temperance movement’s traits as evidence for the same traits in American culture. In other words, we meet or see an author who sees many observers; they in turn see the temperance movement and they see specific traits in the temperance movement. In addition, the observers see an entity (called “American culture”) beyond and larger than the temperance movement, and they see the temperance crusade as evidence that American culture also possesses excessive moral perfectionism and legalism. I remind you that all this seeing goes on in the first sentence.



Second, like many top-notch sociologists, anthropologists, and historians, Joe’s writings are rich in concepts. In his many books and articles, concepts are imbedded in all sorts of descriptions, making sharp and useful distinctions. But the prominent concepts in Gusfield’s work are not the ones we would ordinarily expect to find in such a central position. In contemporary terminology, Joe sometimes privileges unexpected concepts over more familiar ones. Gusfield himself makes this point in Symbolic Crusade. In the introduction and first chapter, he discusses the position or status of the concept of “status” in the writing of American history, and much of the book makes the case for the usefulness of the concept of status in understanding American social and political movements. In short, Joe explicitly sought to increase the status of status in scholarly writing about American history. We are here today in part because Symbolic Crusade has taught us to pay attention to the concepts that all people (including sociologists) emphasize or minimize in their efforts to make sense of the world. It seems to me that calling attention to the comparative status of concepts in anybody’s writings — including Joe’s — is a very Gusfieldian thing to do.

In the other four sentences of the first paragraph of Symbolic Crusade, Gusfield introduces other concepts and social forms for us to see. We are asked to see “a reputed American faith in the power of Law to correct all evils,” to see “moralism and utopianism,” to see cynics and sinners, fear and smiles, to see people “unable to compromise with human impulse,” and we are asked to see a movement that is “at once naive and intolerant, saintly and silly.”  Even as Gusfield urges us to see these things, and to see that many observers see these things, and to see that he sees them, he also gently tells us that these statements are alleged, supposed, reputed. In short, in this first paragraph we are introduced to the art of focusing on several things at the same time.

The early works of many writers are often useful in understanding their later works. With Gusfield the reverse is also true. Indeed, in my explicit focus on the language that Joe uses in Symbolic Crusade, I’ve already been making a sort of later-Gusfieldian reading of the earlier Gusfield. I’d like to continue that a bit using his own unusual concepts to highlight his own unusual forms of analysis.

For example, the later Gusfield created the concept of the “ownership” of social problems and of ideas about them.  But the notion of the ownership of ideas is inherent in the early Gusfield. In the very beginning of Symbolic Crusade, Gusfield in effect tells us that many observers own the perceptions outlined in the first paragraph and believe the perceptions are true or accurate representations of the world. And although most readers will properly conclude that Joe agrees with these observations, in Symbolic Crusade Gusfield himself never owns them. That is, he does not confirm the empirical validity of those concepts and observations, and he does not give them a high status or central position in his account of the temperance crusade. Rather, the whole mission of Symbolic Crusade is to talk about seeing more than that — more than excessive moralism, more than inabilities to compromise, more than an American faith in the power of law to correct all evils, more than naiveness and saintliness and silliness.

I believe that Joe’s writings have this multiple focus on multiple topics because, like all truly talented and original people, he actually sees things in a different way from most of the rest of us. Some years ago I came up with my own term to describe this multiple-focus character of Joe’s work: I call it cubist sociology.

In reading and rereading The Culture of Public Problems, his book about drinking and driving, I realized that Joe Gusfield could properly be termed a cubist sociologist because, in his writings, the foreground and the background keep switching, or just sit easily along side each other — like the various sides of the women’s faces and bodies in Picasso’s famous painting “Les Demoiselles d’ Avignon.” Gusfield is always writing about the thing he is writing about, and so that subject is in the foreground. And he is always writing about the other things he is writing about at the same time — and they too are in the foreground.

The Culture of Public Problems looked at drinking driving as a phenomenon in American society. It also looked at the discourse about drinking driving, and it looked at the position or status of the drinking-driving issue in American culture. I challenge anyone to tell me definitively which of those topics in that book was the foreground and which was the background. All three topics at different times in the book stand in different positions vis-a-vis each other.

Consider, for example, his classic, landmark Symbolic Crusade: Status Politics and the American Temperance Movement.  The book devotes more pages to the temperance movement than to status politics, and for many years I wrongly believed the book was primarily about temperance.  And in fact it is often read that way, as a social and sociological history of the temperance movement.  But that is not how Joe introduced the book, or even how he titled it. Symbolic Crusade’s own title and subtitle put status politics first and temperance second. This multi-focus, multi-foreground scholarship, I suggest again, is legitimately conceptualized  as cubist sociology

In the book A Concise History of Modern Painting, the art historian Sir Herbert Read points out that cubist painters stayed within the boundaries of painting as it had always been practiced, but that cubists painted their subjects emphasizing different things. Read quoted Picasso explaining that “we have introduced into painting, objects and forms that were formerly ignored.” In much the same way, Gusfield intentionally introduced into American history objects and forms, such as status, that were also formerly ignored. Sir Herbert quoted Picasso’s own definition of cubism as”an art dealing primarily with forms, and when a form is realized it is there to live its own life.” Ditto, I would say, for status politics, and all the rest of the forms, concepts, and ideas that Gusfield allows to live their own life in his work. The Encyclopedia Britannica says that cubism “depicted radically fragmented objects whose several sides were seen simultaneously.” It seems to me that is the essence of Gusfield’s style of sociology — it is cubist sociology because it sees several sides simultaneously.

Now Joseph R. Gusfield, as it so happens, is also an artist. He is a painter and he is an enormous fan and student of modern art. To move with Joe through the Museum of Modern Art, or the Whitney Museum in New York City, is a wonderful, eye-opening experience. If time is limited and he is trying to catch an exhibition, he will race through other galleries taking in everything in the room, and talking, mostly to himself, about the old friends he sees on the walls. He turns a corner and says: “Ah, Kandisky, an amazing picture.” He turns another corner and says: “Harry, look over there, Miro, remarkable.” He may pause for a moment to take in, seemingly in one glance, some major piece of art, and then on, say, to the Red Grooms exhibit he took me to some years ago. Red Grooms makes immense, ten-foot or taller, wildly-colored, funny, ironic, imaginative sculptures, with people and objects and swooping forms and god knows what else all stuck together. I found Groom’s work dazzling, overwhelming, and too much to take in at one time. But Joe, in the presence of this enormous, complicated stuff, became remarkably calm and focused. He stood very still, looking. He seemed to see it all.

I am a not a cubist sociologist. I love modern art, but painting, vision and seeing are not my primary metaphors for understanding the world. Rather, I am much more musically oriented, and sound, including the human voice, shapes my experience of the world. I don’t see so much as I hear. Like Gusfield, I am concerned with culture as a symbolic creation. However, my sociology, history and anthropology are a lot about what people say. As I’ve shown in discussing Gusfield’s writings, I listen closely to what people say and often take their words quite literally.

Joe Gusfield, on the other hand, is a painter and student of modern art, and that, I suggest, provides a key to understanding his scholarship. Joe also loves music, is an opera buff, and words and language are very important in his work. But I do think that vision and seeing are even more important. Joseph Gusfield simply sees things that others do not see. He sees several things simultaneously, and is able to talk about them at the same time. He pays close attention to the position or status of different forms in his own work, and in the work of others. Like the cubist painters, he knows that he makes surprising forms important, forms that other observers do not emphasize. In his later works he explains how some other writers and scientists apply their verbal and visual magic. And in everything he does, he shows ways to improve our own work.

Harry G. Levine, Department of Sociology, Queens College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York



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