Herbert Gans

(Illustration by Allan Burch)

Urban legend

Herbert Gans’s (PhB’47, AM’50) sociology is for and of the people.

In Herbert Gans’s mind, there are two types of sociologists. “Solos,” who devote their entire careers to one subfield, make up the majority. The “multis,” like Gans, “don’t know as much as people who are specialists, so in some ways that’s a disadvantage. In other ways it’s an advantage, because sometimes you see things differently or more broadly.”

The things Gans, PhB’47, AM’50, has seen differently over his 65-year career include cities, suburbs, poverty, race, class, and the American media landscape. An emeritus professor at Columbia University, he has written classic ethnographies, film criticism, and even a work of utopian fiction. As an urban planner, Gans helped design the influential suburban community of Columbia, Maryland, among other projects.

But connecting threads run through Gans’s diverse body of work. In 2011 several of his former students put together a Festschrift, a collection of essays in his honor. The subtitle they chose—“American Democracy and the Pursuit of Equality”—had him figured out, Gans reflects. “I think those are the two themes that go through much of my work.” He has pushed to bring his field closer to the lives of ordinary people; as president of the American Sociological Association in 1988, he argued that his colleagues should not neglect “an old, recently forgotten question: what is a good society, and how can sociology help bring it about?” He is at once pragmatic and idealistic, interested in what is and what could be.

Gans has been fascinated by American democracy since his family arrived in the United States in 1940, having fled Nazi persecution in Germany. They eventually settled in a rooming house in Chicago’s Woodlawn neighborhood. His father took a job as a door-to-door salesman, his mother as a maid, and Gans as a newspaper seller. He liked reading the papers too; American comics “offered me a means for satisfying my immigrant curiosity,” he said later. Many of the essays Gans wrote for his English classes in high school also sought to explore and understand his new country—a kind of writing he later discovered was called sociology.

It was partly of necessity that Gans enrolled at the University of Chicago, what he’d always thought of as “the neighborhood university”: money was tight, and he needed to live at home. Between savings, a scholarship, the GI Bill, and a job at the library, he put together enough for both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree. It was pure serendipity that he arrived after the launch of a master’s program in the social sciences, now called MAPSS, and at a time when the field of sociology was flourishing.

He picked up a bit of everything—sociological theory, public policy, field work—from some of the most important social scientists of the day. They included The Lonely Crowd (Yale University Press, 1950) author David Riesman; Martin Meyerson, who sparked his interest in urban planning; and Everett C. Hughes, PhD’28, from whom he learned field methods. “Field work, or participant observation, as taught by Hughes and others, was just hanging out with people and listening to them,” Gans says. That part he found fun. “Then you’ve got to go home and analyze the data, which is somewhat less enjoyable.”

For his master’s thesis, Gans studied the politics of Park Forest, Illinois, a recently built suburb near Flossmoor. “I got there about a year after it started,” he says. “I said to myself, ‘Someday, I’m going to be one of the first people in a new town to study how it begins when a bunch of strangers get together and make it a community.’”

In 1958, after working in urban planning for a few years and getting his PhD at the University of Pennsylvania, Gans did just that, becoming buyer number 25 in the newly created suburb of Levittown, New Jersey. He spent 16 hours a day for two years observing the residents of the inchoate community and tracking the emergence of new organizations, institutions, and social bonds. He decided not to reveal to his neighbors that he was studying them.

In the resulting book, The Levittowners: Ways of Life and Politics in a New Suburban Community (Pantheon, 1967), Gans broke with conventional wisdom, arguing that the suburbs were not the soulless dystopias critics imagined, but instead were characterized by social compatibility and shared goals. (He was, however, troubled by the community’s racial homogeneity and recommended the use of federal legislation and executive orders to integrate suburbs such as Levittown.)In the end Gans believed moving to the suburbs from the city changed people’s lives less than was commonly imagined—for good and ill, residents recreated “old life styles and institutions on new soil,” he wrote. As one Levittown resident told him, “People are people, no matter where you live.”

That idea was important to Gans’s earlier and best-known work, The Urban Villagers: Group and Class in the Life of Italian-Americans (Free Press of Glencoe, 1962). A year before moving to Levittown, Gans and his then wife lived in a fifth-floor apartment in Boston’s West End, where he observed the social relationships and subcultures that knit together the majority Italian-American community. It was a precarious moment for their neighbors: in 1950 the Boston Housing Authority began exploring the idea of demolishing the neighborhood under the banner of urban renewal. By 1956 they had local and federal approval. The West End had been deemed a slum, but Gans disagreed and denounced the plan. (Despite the efforts of neighborhood residents, Gans, and many others, the West End was razed by 1960.)

To Gans’s great surprise, The Urban Villagers was a blockbuster by sociology standards, selling around 180,000 copies. It earned raves—the New York Review of Books praised it for “eloquence that makes this book more than a work of journalism or American sociology”—and secured for its author a prominent place among the critics of urban renewal. It’s still considered a classic.

At 90, Gans continues to write. His new collection of essays, Sociology and Social Policy: Essays on Community, Economy, and Society (Columbia University Press, 2017), returns to many of the themes that have preoccupied him for more than six decades: immigration, race, cities and how they change, and urban displacement and its effects on the vulnerable.

He also continues to educate a new generation of scholars on the dangers he believes accompany urban development. Derek Hyra, AM’00, PhD’05, studied under Gans while working on his dissertation, which later became The New Urban Renewal: The Economic Transformation of Harlem and Bronzeville (University of Chicago Press, 2008). He remembers Gans urging him “to be realistic and maybe more pragmatic in thinking about the ways that urban renewal could impact people and their lives.” Urban transformation nearly always results in displacement of the poor and marginalized, Gans cautioned, and “the city may benefit, developers may benefit, but low-income people won’t,” Hyra says.

And Gans is still pondering the media’s effect on democracy, a subject that has interested him since the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, during which “the news media appeared to egg on those calling for war,” he wrote later. “I decided that if they and I survived, that I would undertake an ethnographic study of some newsrooms to satisfy my curiosity.” So in 1966 he shifted gears and began field work for Deciding What’s News: A Study of “CBS Evening News,” “NBC Nightly News,” “Newsweek,” and “Time” (Pantheon, 1979).

For monthslong stretches in the ’60s and ’70s, he hung around newsrooms trying to understand how stories were selected. Journalists’ autonomy was bounded, he found; their perceptions of newsworthiness were shaped by the profession’s reformist bent and the demand for efficiency, as well as by internal politics and competitive pressures. (During this time, he also picked up a fondness for newsroom argot, especially MEGO: my eyes glaze over. “Journalists often see academics and other scholars as writing MEGO stuff,” Gans says.)

In the book’s final chapters, he proposed, among other reforms, that journalists focus less on the actions of the political elite and more on how government policies affect citizens. He even suggested a government-funded Endowment for News to support the media’s efforts to produce more diverse and democratic journalism. In a 2011 interview about Deciding What’s News with the Nieman Journalism Lab, Gans said he still believed in the idea—despite its impracticality.

As ever, Gans walked the line between pragmatism and idealism. “I didn’t try to be realistic or practical then, nor am I trying now,” he said, “though I hope some of my ideas and proposals catch on.”


1938: At age 11, flees Nazi Germany

1950–53: Works as an urban planner

1957: Receives PhD in sociology and planning from the University of Pennsylvania, and begins field work for The Urban Villagers

1958: After buying a home in Levittown, New Jersey, starts research for The Levittowners

1971: Joins the faculty of Columbia University

1982: Elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences

1988: Named president of the American Sociological Association

2004: Northwestern University Press issues Deciding What’s News in a 25th anniversary edition

2017: Publishes Sociology and Social Policy