My Life: Jerome Himmelstein, Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Sociology

Asking the right questions

Jerry Himmelstein

Interview by Katherine Duke ’05

Jerome Himmelstein earned his Ph.D. in sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1979 and joined the Amherst faculty in 1982. He is the author of The Strange Career of Marihuana: Politics and Ideology of Drug Control in America (1983), To the Right: The Transformation of American Conservatism (1990) and Looking Good and Doing Good: Corporate Philanthropy and Corporate Power (1997). Last year, in addition to teaching, he chaired Amherst’s Committee on Educational Policy. This year, he is teaching courses on sociological theory, the American right, social research and drugs and society.

On truth in numbers

I’m now the Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Sociology, which means I’m supposed to develop a new and innovative course. I’m going to do something on quantitative literacy. Quantitative literacy is a broader term than quantitative skills: it means being able to understand and evaluate numbers and other expert claims in the media. My course is not just going to be about how you evaluate statistics; it’s going to be about how those numbers get constructed to begin with. What kind of studies get done or don’t get done? How do those studies get interpreted and brought into the media?

On marijuana

In the original research for my book, I looked at a sample of magazine articles over a very long period and at all the Congressional hearings that were ever held about marijuana. I was tracing changes in the way people thought about the drug. Now, I want to bring that up to date, paying more attention to TV news, because there’s a good archive. I want to look at important turning points. In the 1970s, marijuana seemed to be headed toward normalization: More and more people were saying, “This is not a dangerous drug. You shouldn’t be arresting large numbers of people for possessing it.” That ended around 1980, with the shift to the right in America. So what we have now is this paradox: Marijuana is part of mainstream American life; it’s consistently used by many more people than heroin or cocaine or any other illegal drug. At the same time, every year we arrest more and more people for marijuana possession. If a drug is mainstream, one theory says, it should become in some way legal or not totally criminalized. So, why is this happening?

On politics in the classroom
Jerome Himmelstein
In class, Jerome Himmelstein (at the
War Memorial in 1990), compares the
United States to other Western societies.
"We have more people going to church
and more in prison," he says. "We have
higher levels of drug use even though
we take a more punitive approach to
drug control." 

There are good and bad ways that politics can affect your work. It’s bad if it makes you focus on only certain things and disqualify other ideas offhand. It’s good if having some kind of political commitment, however general, motivates you to do a lot of work. I hope that my political commitments have pushed me to study things and ask interesting questions without putting blinders on. My politics are really about an intellectual commitment to look at societies critically—to take what is taken for granted about the society and ask, “How did we get to be that way? What are the possible alternatives?” One way to do this is historically. In my sociological theory class, for example, we read Marx, Tocqueville, Durkheim and Weber, who try to identify what makes modern Western societies distinctive. Another way is through comparisons. In my American Right and Drugs and Society courses, we discuss how the United States is actually quite different from other Western societies. We have more people going to church and more in prison. We have higher levels of drug use even though we take a more punitive approach to drug control.

My course on the American right looks at the Christian right and white Evangelical Protestant politics, and I require my students to take the ideas of those groups seriously. Understanding different perspectives is part of what a liberal arts education is about. We read about people who are gay but whose religious beliefs say this is wrong. They work very hard at creating an “ex-gay” Christian identity. I want my students to come to terms with this. 

On teaching what he reads

It’s nice when something I read connects to this course or that course. Debby Applegate [’89] won the Pulitzer Prize for The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher [Class of 1834]. [Read an excerpt of the book and an interview with Applegate in the Fall/Winter 2006 issue of Amherst]. It’s a wonderful book that I used in my theory course. We were reading Tocqueville, who says that America will never get beyond race, even after slavery ends (he’s writing in 1830), because of the stigma attached to the slaves’ external appearance. He visited the States for nine months, and he said, Look at what’s happening in the states that don’t have slavery: free blacks are totally excluded. So I bring in this biography of Beecher. Part of the story takes place in Cincinnati in 1830. Applegate describes how the anti-slavery movement is developing. She gives whole lists of the ways in which blacks are excluded from white society in this nominally free town.

On keeping a promise

In August of 2000, one of our two sons suddenly died at the age of 12. Some time after that, after a lot of discussion, we decided to adopt from China. Our daughter was a year and a half old when we adopted her; she is five and a half now. She’s going to a new Chinese-immersion charter school in South Amherst. It’s a formal promise we made to the people of China: to keep her connected to her heritage. But also, people who are racially different inevitably are expected to be a certain way or to know certain things. Somewhere down the line, someone with perfectly good motivation is going to ask her to represent Chinese culture—to be, in some way, Chinese-American—and I want her to be able to do that with ease and grace and comfort.

On domination

There are a lot of sports here that are really good; men’s basketball is just the one I happen to follow. Coach Dave Hixon [’75] is a neighbor. I watched both of the Final Four games [of the 2006 NCAA Division III National Championships] on the big screen, on campus. Amherst played against two of the very best teams in the United States and dominated. It wasn’t because they were so much better than these teams. They simply worked harder, creating scoring opportunities where there shouldn’t have been any, and worked together better as a team. It was just amazing. You could see excellence at work.

Photos by Samuel Masinter '04 and Frank Ward