Harold Wilensky Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Comparing Rich Democracies: Conversation with Harold L. Wilensky, Professor Emeritus of Political Science; October 29, 2002, by Harry Kreisler
Photo by Jane Scherr

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Being a Social Scientist

When you went to the University of Chicago and entered graduate school, you thought you wanted to be initally an economist, but you found out that that wasn't what you wanted. Tell us that story.

I think it's very funny. It's an illustration of the accidental in career development. I went to Chicago, not for a degree. I went there for a union leadership training project, which was funded by Carnegie. The job involved preparing teaching materials and then going on the road with twenty different unions. I did that; I prepared the materials -- "Labor and the Community," "Labor and Politics," "Union Administration," "Collective Bargaining," etc. -- and then I went on the road, and had institutes for a week long in each of the twenty different unions. That's another case where I stopped talking about "the" labor movement, because there were so many different unions. My God, did I encounter a variety of union organizations, ideologies, everything! That was instructive, to say the least.

The fellow who preceded me in this job -- I went there for a full-time job -- said to me, "Hal, you were majoring in economics and political science at Antioch, why don't you go over to the Econ Department here and get a degree in your spare time?" And I said, "I'm not interested in degrees. You know, I love ideas and all that, but degrees don't appeal to me." He said, "You've got to do that, Hal, because you never know, the labor movement may give out, something may happen. So go!"

So I went over to the Econ Department in Chicago and there were two young professors there, one of whom was an assistant professor named Milton Friedman. And he said, "What have you been reading at Antioch as an economics and political science major?" I said, "Well, Karl Marx, Max Weber, Harold Laski." (Boy, that got him.) And then, "Schumpeter, Veblen, and J.S. Mill." I threw in Adam Smith, because I knew he'd like that. And in the end he said, "You're not an economist, you're a sociologist. You should go upstairs and see the sociologists."

And you did.

That's how I became a sociologist.

So Milton Friedman was right.

Right in the sense that I gave the same list of what I had read to the guys upstairs and they greeted me with open arms.

That's great.

Anyway, that was accidental. I ended up in the Sociology departments at Michigan and here at Berkeley, and later transferred to Political Science, book coverwhere my interests really lie -- comparative political economy, comparative politics, and political sociology.

Before we talk about your new work, I'd like to talk briefly about what you see are the skills and temperament required to do social science.

Skills and temperament.... Study in a good place like Chicago, or Berkeley, or even Harvard; try to get into a good place -- you'll get plenty of skills that way. The education should be built on a liberal arts education, where you read the classics. I don't know that most liberal arts college still do this, but I felt that to know the history of social thought and of political thought was an essential feature of my life. I recommend that for all undergraduates. If you haven't done it by the time you get to graduate school, you should do it, so you won't breathlessly rediscover what has already been lodged in the literature of a hundred years ago -- and better said a hundred or two hundred years ago.

What about temperament?

The temperament has to be one of scholarship. It means, in social sciences particularly, but in other disciplines as well, that you're willing to so frame the propositions that interest you and that you're going to study in ways that they can be disconfirmed, so you can disconfirm your own favorite notions. That is not natural.

So you're different from a journalist or a lawyer, or any of these people who get a case made. My book considers a lot of alternative explanations that are popular, and that are, maybe, accepted, and where I say something different, I have to take account of them. That's something that doesn't come easily to almost anybody. So I think the temperament is one of scholarly detachment, enough so you don't let your prejudices and your ideology infect too much of your work.

There's some ideology in all social science in the choice of problems. I'm interested in equality, so you'll find the treatments of equality all over my books; but I'm also interested in freedom and democracy, and you'll find that all over the place. But when I come down to studying things, it's systematic in the sense that I can disconfirm my favorite notions. That is not natural, and it takes the temperament of a scholar.

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