Harvard College, 1952, B.A., Social Relations
University of Oxford, B.A. 1954; M.A. 1959, Philosophy, Politics & Economics
Harvard University, 1958, Ph.D.
San Francisco Psychoanalytic Institute, 1971
Neil Smelser is a Professor Emeritus of Sociology at the University of California, Berkeley. He grew up in Phoenix, Arizona, during the 1930s and 1940s as the middle child in a family of three boys. After his time at Oxford, at the age of 26 he co-authored Economy and Society with Talcott Parsons, a renowned American sociologist. He is a former president of the American Sociological Association. He was also the Director of the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford from 1994 to 2001. Professor Smelser is the author of over a dozen books, including The Theory of Collective Behavior. His most current publication is The Odyssey Experience: Physical, Social, Psychological, and Spiritual Journeys. It is a “very general study of taking leave from your daily circumstances and getting involved in something special.” Travel continues to remain an important aspect of his life ever since he hitchhiked all over Europe in his youth.
In which town in Missouri were you born?
Kahoka. A small town in Clark County in the northeastern corner, very close to Iowa, Illinois, and the Mississippi River.
How would you describe your parents’ parenting style?
Background. They were both children of farm families in Missouri. They were the only ones in each of their families that went away and received a college education. They were people who were on their own ambitious. They met at college, got married, and moved to Phoenix about the time I was born.
My mother was a kindly, patient, very independent woman who was very dedicated to her sons. I would have to call her a very attentive mother, even though in our younger years she worked part-time as a substitute teacher. When we were in adolescence, she resumed her interest in teaching and became a full-time teacher first at the elementary school level and then at the high school level teaching Latin and English. I wouldn’t call her an effusive person. She was very self-sufficient and she wasn’t highly emotional. Even though I’ve always felt her to be a warm, supportive, and loving person, her style was not in any way out of control, or extra-emotional.
My father was in many respects a more emotional man. He was prone to expressing emotions, both positive and negative. He was more the final authority in the family when it came to discipline. He was the law. He wasn’t the exclusive disciplinarian, but more inclined than my mother. I always remember my father as having a stern side to his life. At the same time, I never doubted how much he loved his sons. He was always supportive of us in anything we did. I once told him when I was in fourth grade of a question that the homeroom teacher had asked of the class. She asked what is it about your parents that you like most of all. I remember giving the answer that I appreciated most of all the independence my parents extended to me and I felt I had the freedom to become what I wanted to be. I came home from school on that very day and told my parents what I had said. They were obviously very moved and very positive. This rang a really wonderful bell with them.
How did they encourage your independence?
I’ll give you a couple of examples. When I was a child from ages five until 10 or 12, we lived in a neighborhood in Phoenix which by accident had mostly boys. We formed a kind of a gang, not the kind of gang we think of nowadays as defending our turf and engaging in violence. This was a more innocent gang. We did all kinds of things, including digging caves in nearby vacant lots, having potato roasts at night, and playing children’s outdoor games. My parents let us roam the neighborhood, not that they neglected us. They did insist that we came home on time. There was a tremendous feeling I got with my brothers from this outdoor life that we were permitted to lead in our leisure time.
Also, when I wanted to do something like join a football team with my brother in grade school, they were happy to encourage that. When my dad thought it would be a good idea for me to go the Boy Scouts when I was about ten years old, I went to a couple of meetings, but it just didn’t take at all. I came home and said I didn’t really care for the Boy Scouts as a way of spending my evenings or weekends. My parents were very cool about it. They didn’t insist that I go. Those are examples of how I felt that I didn’t have a coercive atmosphere in the family.
My family was musical in orientation, particularly my mother. She had me taking piano lessons when I was seven years old. Several years later after my older brother left home to go into the military and he was pursuing the violin, I decided I had been bored playing the piano and wanted to switch to the violin. And they just encouraged me. There wasn’t any idea that you’ve wasted your time all those years on the piano. They were always supportive.
What kind of wisdom or advice did you get from your parents that you still carry with you today?
A key influence that my parents had on me was that they were from very ordinary origins. They didn’t have any social pretensions, or social climbing aspirations. In fact, my father particularly was very antagonistic to people who were privileged in society. He was prejudiced against doctors, lawyers, businessmen and others who were more privileged, wealthier, or more powerful in society. He was an egalitarian. He was a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat. This was the 1930s. He was an avid supporter of Franklin D. Roosevelt. He was at that time what was called an agrarian radical.
I wouldn’t say that I inherited his politics. In particular, I didn’t inherit his dislike of the categories of people that I mentioned. I kept the egalitarian plain speaking, not having an interest in pulling rank on other people. When I went to Harvard at age 18, I was mildly alienated from the elitist culture that was very evident there at that time. Harvard was such a special place and more special than any other place. I just didn’t feel at home in that kind of elitist atmosphere. It was the only thing about Harvard that alienated me at all, because otherwise I was treated extremely well there. I was very successful academically. I made friends there. I have a loyalty to Harvard as an institution. But the emphasis on equality, plain speaking, and openness seemed to be strong and admirable features in my family. I’m not exactly sure that is wisdom, but it’s something that I’ve always found to be a virtue on my part and I’m very proud of having that outlook on life.
If your father emphasized egalitarianism, how come you chose Harvard despite its obvious accolades?
My parents were extremely proud of their sons. We were all very accomplished academically. My parents being both teachers were obviously pleased, because their values were academic ones. They’d chosen the academic line of life and they loved the fact that we excelled in our own studies. All of us went to college. My parents were extremely proud of me for winning the scholarship to Harvard when I was 18 years old. At the same time, I sensed in my father right away that he was very worried that I might become another kind of person. He was ambivalent about my going to Harvard, because of his own ambivalence towards the culture and pretensions of the East Coast elite. He never lectured me on this topic. But I could tell by his behavior that he was concerned that I might leave the family culture, because I was going almost into a foreign land. Both of his reactions–extreme pride and support of his son on one side and fear of losing him on the other–were very strong. He held them both, but at the same time I was sensitive to the apprehensions he had about my being transformed as a person into a kind of person that he didn’t like. He was mixed about my going to Harvard. To a lesser extent he didn’t know that much about going to Oxford, but he did know it was an elite institution. We never had any fights about this. We never had any open tension. It was just an underlying motif about what my father’s feelings were.
What other values do you think they tried to instill in you while growing up?
They instilled in me a certain ambition to succeed in what I was doing. I was an extremely good student, but I wasn’t especially motivated. I did well, but I was more interested in being with my friends. One time I came home from school in fifth grade and I had as usual a very strong report card, but in one subject, Manual Training, which was a kind of shop course where you learned a little bit of practical stuff, carpentry, metal work, I got a C. I got A’s in practically all the academic subjects, arithmetic and everything else, but my father took me aside. He said, “You know, son, you really are not a C student in any subject.” He expressed open disappointment and encouraged me to do better in it. I was very much moved by what he had to say and thereafter I just shaped up and began to get A’s in Manual Training and everything else. In seventh grade, I underwent a transformation. I decided to really devote myself to being an academic success. ”Alright,” I said, “I’m going to get straight A’s. I’m going to go to college.”
I have to tell you an anecdote. When I was in seventh grade or eighth grade, I was fooling around reading an encyclopedia or source book and I discovered a reference to Cecil Rhodes and the Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford. I made up my mind that I was going to get one. Actually, I was so fixed on it that I came home and announced to my mother what I was going to do. I think she thought I was a little crazy. I noticed her reaction was supportive of this young boy making up his mind to go for this academic plum of the whole world, but she didn’t discourage me at all. She was quiet and supportive, though not really demonstrative. When I said I was going to do this, I don’t think she believed me, but she didn’t tell me she didn’t believe me. Despite the complexity of any parent-child relationship, they very strongly encouraged my need to be ambitious and to do the best I could do in life.
What do you think was the trigger for that transformation?
I have pretty much figured it out. At one time in my career, I had full training as a psychoanalyst. This was in my 30s. I’m a licensed practitioner of psychoanalysis in the state of California, even though I do not now practice. Going into psychoanalysis means one underwent regular psychotherapy with the nearly five years of training. Under these circumstances, you can figure out almost anything in your life. I focused on age 12 about the time I had this transformation. It was the time my brother went into the service. He was 18. This was World War II. 1942. He volunteered to go into the service and spent several years in the military as a meteorologist in the Army. This meant that he left home. I did not have an openly competitive relationship with my older brother. In fact, we were extremely close. Being six years older, he was more like an uncle than a brother. He was very supportive of me when I was growing up. We had a beautiful relationship. We really didn’t fight. I was sort of his lieutenant or slave, because I was so much younger. But he was always encouraging me in everything I did more than my parents were. We didn’t have a very competitive relationship, but underneath the surface I know we did. I discovered this in my own psychotherapeutic process and it was his leaving that gave me the feeling that I was freed. This was unconscious at the time. My brother wasn’t there. I could spread my wings. That’s when I decided to play the violin, which was his instrument. I was going to move into his world. He had been an extremely strong student and I was going to, if anything, be as strong if not a stronger student than he. My brother’s departure from the family scene was decisive in this regard.
What were you like as a child. How would you describe yourself?
I was a pretty good child. I didn’t get into too much trouble. In my association with the gang, we did some things that got us into trouble. We knew of a new housing construction project in my neighborhood. We went out one night, threw clods and rocks at the new houses and got caught. I got really punished by my father, but that was a rarity. By in large, all three of us boys were quite well-behaved. We were not nearly as defiant as almost everybody else in our neighborhood group.
I describe our family as being pretty serene in our family life. I regarded my older brother as being a much better behaved and a better person than I. He was very much a kind of saint and self-sacrificing. I didn’t feel that I had those virtues, even though I wasn’t a bad boy. My younger brother was actually more rebellious than either of us. All that was relative to a pretty smooth childhood, so I would have to say that I was well-behaved. I didn’t disrupt family life. At the same time, I did not see myself as a submissive boy. I felt I had a real personality and I wasn’t totally subordinated by either my parents or my brothers. It was a mix between being a civilized young man with some inner turbulence and ambition. I have to describe my childhood as being a quite happy one, even though some of the themes suggest tension and the dissatisfaction from time to time.
What activities did you enjoy as a child? Did you read a lot?
My parents were very literate. My father taught public speaking and drama at a community college. Whenever I was bored and wandering around the house wondering what to do, my parents would always hand me a book, often a play. In my adolescence and high school years, I read a lot of drama because my father directed plays where he was teaching. He always recruited me to help him build the sets and I went to all the plays. I got really interested in drama through him. I did quite a lot of reading.
I also developed at a very early age a passion for working jigsaw puzzles and putting them together. That passion has stayed with me my whole life. It was a big part of my leisure time.
I was also a very athletic boy. We played all kinds of sports all the time with my neighborhood group. At school I was highly involved in football, basketball, and baseball. I was extremely active athletically. However, I made no effort to become varsity in high school, but I participated for a time on the high school track team and I played intramural basketball at Harvard. When I went to Oxford, I was an oarsman for a year. This athletic interest was a deep one on my part. I have been interested in all varieties of sports during my entire life.
What other things peaked your interest as a teenager?
In high school I was very active in public speaking. I took many courses in debate. I participated in all the speech contests from my freshman year forward. I was on the debate team. I was involved in drama and acted in high school. I was in the journalistic enterprises in high school. I was sports editor of the high school newspaper when I was a junior. Then I was editor- in-chief. I was also senior editor of the yearbook.
Beginning in seventh grade, I worked in a grocery store, first as a boy who put merchandise in packages for customers as they were checking out. Then I became a stock clerk and also a vegetable and fruit handler. I worked part-time. I actually broke the child labor laws of Arizona by working twelve hours a day on Saturday when I was thirteen years old. All through high school I worked and I earned quite a bit of money for a boy of that generation—and saved it. You can tell by this whole summary of my teenage years that I was extremely active and I was making absolutely top grades. I graduated as valedictorian in a class of 725 students from a huge urban high school in Phoenix.
Did you have any role models either fictional or real?
I worshiped a lot of athletes who were playing in professional sports, but I would have to say my main role model was my older brother. I was really quite dedicated to him.
What qualities did he have?
He was kind and supportive. We had common interests. When I was in high school, for example, I went to summer school to take science and math courses. My brother, who as I mentioned was a meteorologist in the service, had to take a lot of mathematics in connection with his own training as a weather forecaster. When he was back home from the service before he went to college, I was already in high school taking geometry and trigonometry. He and I would sit around working problems together. He took an interest in me, even though I was that much younger than he and that much less accomplished. He was extremely supportive. I always thought of him as being an extremely positive influence in my life.
I looked up to some student leaders in high school, but I wouldn’t say that was an extreme kind of hero worship or anything like that. I just noticed them and their success. I don’t think I modeled myself after them, but I admired them.
I got on quite well with my teachers. I didn’t like them all, because some of them were boring, but I had a lot of positive relations with a number of teachers in high school. I felt at home with them, because they knew my parents were teachers. It wasn’t exactly a large community in Phoenix at that time. It was a small town. Only 30,000 people. People knew each other. My teachers had known my brother who had gone through the same schools as I went through later. I was always an excellent student no matter what the subject. I certainly was anything but a rebellious student. I did my work and performed well.
While growing up did your family travel a lot?
Yes. Not so much in the adolescent years, because that was wartime. There was a rationing of gasoline. But when I was younger, every other summer my parents would drive back to the Midwest to the farm on which my mother’s parents still lived and worked. We would also go to my father’s parents, who by that time were living in town rather than on a farm. I am forever sentimental about the kind of adventures this driving across the country would constitute. I have traveled a great deal in my life not only in this country, but in Europe. My wife and I still to this very day take three or four camping trips a year into the Southwest or Northwest. Traveling became a big part of the family culture. While it was on hold in the war years, we did take one last trip back to the Midwest at the end of the war when I was 15 years old. I didn’t travel too much otherwise, nor did I leave home until I went away to college at age 18.
For your road trips to Missouri, did you stop along the way?
Oh, yes. You didn’t drive very fast. In those days, 35 miles per hour was the speed and we stopped a lot. I remember we stopped on Indian reservations as we were leaving Arizona. We’d stay in tourist cabins. We would drive back to the Midwest in five or six days, so we didn’t waste time. It was a romance I developed with U.S. Highway 66. When we would go back, we would stay at my grandparents at the beginning and end of the summer. My parents would take summer school at different university cities, so we would go for six weeks or a couple of months to Columbia, Missouri; Iowa City, Iowa; Minneapolis, Minnesota; or Madison, Wisconsin. The biggest part of the summer was spent in these towns in the Midwest with my parents going to school.
So from the time of seventh grade, you never forgot about your goal about being a Rhodes Scholar, is that correct?
It didn’t prey on my mind, but I kept it alive. Above all, I really wanted to excel academically. I wasn’t focused on the Rhodes Scholarship. I wasn’t focused on Harvard either. I didn’t know where I was going to go to college. I was much influenced in my choice of Harvard by my older brother. When he was in training to become a meteorologist in the military, he was stationed for four or five months at Harvard where he took courses. Harvard had been turned over to the war effort and there was a lot of education of military personnel right on the campus. He got me interested in Harvard as a place. He wrote a lot of letters to me. He was quite romantically affected by it and that’s what brought Harvard to my mind. When I applied for college, I applied to Harvard and the University of Arizona. At the very last minute, I applied to Yale, but that was all. It wasn’t exactly what you’d call systematic evaluation and application of a whole wide range of institutions that a lot of students do nowadays. In a way, it was a fluke. I didn’t really know if I expected to get admitted to Harvard or not. Harvard didn’t prey on my mind as a place I wanted to go during my high school years. That only came up when I was a senior and was thinking of what to do next.
Once you got to Harvard, what prompted you to focus on and study sociology?
By way of background, when I got admitted to Harvard a number of my teachers were extremely proud of me, because they were supportive. But one in particular called me aside. He said, “Okay, Neil, you’ve done really super in high school, but you’re going to the big city now. You’re going to be in the big pond. You should adjust your expectations. You’re going to be a B student at best.” That was his prediction for me. I didn’t quite know what to make of it when he said it. I both believed him and didn’t believe him, if you know what I mean.
I was very strong in mathematics and the physical sciences, but I wanted to study something in the social sciences or humanities. I made up my mind in a general way about that fairly early. I was also very much influenced by my father. He shifted his teaching mid-career from drama and speech to philosophy. He did this by virtue of the summer work he did at all the institutions in the Midwest when we were on vacation.
During my years in high school, he influenced me very much by having me read. I was precocious. I was reading extremely sophisticated novels when I was in high school. War and Peace, for example. Russian novels. I was reading some philosophy and he talked a lot about philosophy to me at home.
My older brother had originally gone into philosophy at Berkeley and he actually got an M.A. in it. Both my father and brother had influenced me a lot in the direction of studying philosophy. So I took introductory philosophy at Harvard in the first year. Then I took an introductory course in an experimental department at Harvard called Social Relations which was a mix of sociology, psychology, and anthropology. During my first year philosophy class, I was interested in the philosophers that we read going all the way back to the Greek philosophers. I got fascinated by every one of them, but I didn’t develop a love for the field. It was a moving away from my father’s academic domination. My older brother, Bill, decided about the same time not to stay in philosophy but to go into psychology. He became a clinical psychologist and a psychotherapist in his life career, so I wasn’t sure I wanted to be just like my brother, either.
All this was worked out unconsciously not as a way of calculating. I got very much interested in anthropology and sociology as parts of the Social Relations department. In my freshman year, I decided I wanted to be one or the other. I chose sociology, because I took a course from a very eminent anthropologist who was extremely boring and bored with teaching the course. [Chuckles] He did a horrible job of introducing me to the field of anthropology. I got turned off by a negative academic experience and got very inspired by a lot of the work in sociology. I decided in the course of the first couple of years of college that the field of sociology was for me. I went ahead and majored in it.
When I went to Oxford, there wasn’t any sociology. The field wasn’t even developed there. They didn’t have any faculty, so I decided to do something that was still in the social sciences and relative in a general way to my intended career in sociology. I read a second undergraduate degree in Philosophy, Politics and Economics.
What stands out for you during your time at Oxford? Did you enjoy your time at Oxford?
By and large, yes, I did. My tutors all assumed at an early stage that I was a bright young man and I was a candidate for competing to get a first class degree (that’s like summa cum laude). The colleges competed with one another all the time as to how many first class degrees they could produce among their students. They would decide fairly early who were the great candidates. My tutors took an interest in me and of course I reciprocated by taking an interest in them. I liked the tutorial system very much. I excelled in it.
I also took up rowing in a very big way my first year. It was a very demanding sport there. You had to practice four hours a day in the afternoons, six days a week . Even though I was very successful and was invited to compete for the Oxford varsity team, I gave it up at the end of the first year because I found it eating up my study time. I knew it would damage my academic chances.
I’d have to say that my relations with English students weren’t very highly developed. I was four years older than almost all the English students. I already had an undergraduate degree. At the time, English students were all boys in my college. There weren’t coeds. The English boys matured very slowly, so in effect it was more than a four-year difference. I regarded most of my classmates as somewhat childish. I was considerably more mature, so I hung out with the older students. I had a lot of decent and good relations with other Rhodes Scholars who were there at the time. It was a mixed experience. Academically, very successful, very engaging, but from a social standpoint, I didn’t engaged myself as closely socially as I had done at Harvard.
Once you were a Rhodes Scholar, did you feel any pressure to be even more successful or to be even greater?
It added to that. Yes. It’s true that the name “Rhodes Scholar” has a certain magic and it shows up in the popular media. People are always saying that person should be a Rhodes Scholar or was a Rhodes Scholar. Whenever I was introduced and people mentioned that I was a past Rhodes Scholar, you always get a positive register. It’s got a special cultural connotation. Being a Rhodes Scholar added to the very positive and ambitious feeling I had about myself. It just reinforced and strengthened my ambition rather than made it.
How did you handle failure as a teenager versus now as an adult? What’s your perspective on it?
This is an odd answer to your question, but I have almost never failed.
You may be the first Rhodes Scholar to say that to me.
There were some trivial failures. When I was second year Rhodes Scholar, I was nominated to compete for a prestigious group at Harvard called the Society of Fellows which is three years of total freedom to do what you wanted in scholarship and with your Ph.D. It was what you may call the elite of the elite of the elite at Harvard. I was interviewed for becoming a Junior Fellow. One of the senior fellows who interviewed me for the position was a visiting faculty member at Harvard at Oxford at the time. I didn’t make it. There was a failure, right? I didn’t burst into tears. I was disappointed. I applied to study to the graduate school of Harvard anyway. Then I was renominated the second year and I got it.
From an academic point of view, I’ve achieved what I wanted. I’m regarded at the top of my field professionally. All the honorary societies to which I could named I have been named–American Philosophical Society, National Academy of Sciences, American Academy of Arts and Sciences. I have been elected to presidency of the American Sociological Association. They are just things that one might see as being a culmination of a significant, successful career. So I have not experienced major disappointments in my life. The main failure in my life was the ending of my first marriage in divorce. That was a profound and very destructive event of my life. It was a bitter ending of a marriage after about seven or eight years. It was an emotional and personal failure. I remarried three or four years later. Now I believe I have had 42 years of a very happy marriage with my current wife and so even that ship, which was blown at that time, has righted. And I have close relations with all four of my children and my grandchildren. I’m sorry if I stand out in your mind as someone who can’t confess more failures, but that’s the way it is.
When was the first time you traveled abroad and what was the impact on you?
At the end of my junior year at Harvard, I was selected to be a participant in the Salzburg Seminar in American Studies. It was a summer program started by a number of Harvard students a few years before and meant to bring American faculty and students in limited numbers. It was held in a eighteenth century castle in Salzburg, Austria with courses in American literature, history and social science taught by an American faculty to approximately 40 or 50 young European academics and four graduate students and four undergraduates from Harvard were chosen to be among the American participants.
So I went to England early that summer in 1951 and bought a bicycle in London, I bicycled to Oxford, because I knew I wanted to apply for the Rhodes Scholarship. It was a romantic little journey for me to just look at Oxford. I went on my own. Then I bicycled to a port in southern England and took a boat to France. I bicycled alone for almost an entire month all the way across France before going on to Salzburg.
The seminar was an absolutely glorious experience. My eyes were opened to European culture and intellectuals. I just swam in that atmosphere. It was one of the most romantic things that ever happened to me, so that introduced me to Europe. It was a tremendously successful and engaging experience for me.
You mentioned in passing how today’s students emphasize the school they go to and I was wondering what do you think about that. You were saying you didn’t think too hard about Harvard, but now students are so geared towards picking the right school.
I obviously had a strong interest in my own career, but I don’t recall this high pressure. I went to a public school. There really weren’t any private schools around to speak of that would have given you an advantage into getting into good colleges. My parents didn’t harp on what was going to happen to me after I got out of high school. While they instilled a great deal of ambition, it wasn’t a careerist type–making the right move at the right time. There has been a big growth in careerism at all levels of our society and in some sense it takes a cost. It orients students and parents in a kind of stylized ambition and puts an awful lot of pressure on young people. As they compete with one another, they compare themselves with other students as to where they are going to apply. I always tell everybody to make the best they can of themselves, but this gets tied up to making the right move, what will help you most, preparing always for this and putting pressure on children, children putting pressure on themselves, and children putting pressure on one another. It has increased the uneasiness, the anxiety, and probably the unhappiness of a generation in high school and college.
So what would you recommend to someone no matter what age they are about leading a meaningful and useful life?
My parents encouraging me to be the best, but giving me a great deal of independence is what I have developed into a personal philosophy. And I have behaved that way as a parent. When you give a great deal of independence, this means there is not a fixed trajectory, or a fixed pressure on you. I never had a fixed program for my own children. I never really put my pressure on my children to become academics like me, even though insofar as one is a role model for your own children it’s going to have an influence. But I always felt that it’s extremely important for people to feel their own way in life. There are many types of realization in this world. They are not always along one little path of your own that you’re superimposing on someone else. I have a philosophy of the importance of self-realization, but it is not tied up to a specific line of self-realization. It is my hope that I have been able to communicate this as best as one can to my own children.
Can you name three things you love about your work?
I love coming across and developing what I consider to be an original idea. I really get propelled forward when I’m engaged in what I believe is some kind of creative work. That’s extremely important to me and very engaging. Keeps me vital. Keeps me alive. I enjoy the recognition I get from my work, particularly from former students who I’ve taught and know and read my work. That is very gratifying (can’t deny it). I like almost every aspect of the academic world. I love the scholarly work most. I love teaching second most. I don’t particularly love the administration and the committee work. Now that I’m retired, I don’t have to do those, but I continue to be very active as a scholar and I still teach on a limited basis at Berkeley, which I continue to find enjoyable.