Monday Jun 27

IN MEMORIAM: Ideas for Action— Ideas from Action


I received this piece from Mike Miller in August of 2008. Looking at issues from that period, I’m not sure that we ever published this piece. I don’t think I knew what to do with it at the time. I didn’t understand then how it fit with the vision we had for Social Policy under our stewardship, nor did I understand Mike’s role in the history and inspiration of the journal. Mike passed away October 25, 2021 at 99 years of age. His sons contacted me with the news. In the 13 years from when Mike sent me this piece to his death, I had come to appreciate more fully, what I had missed at the time.

Several times, out of the blue, he would send me some money, $100 here or there, to make sure his subscription was current, or in his works, “to use however it works best.” Looking at old emails, which is where I found this piece, these themes continue to emerge. He supported a group in France, would I publish something about them. I did. He was enraged by the Trump administration and there was a flurry of emails to various people, where I was one of those copied, and he was writing to the Letters section of the New York Times.

I promised his sons that I would note Mike’s passing in some way. I can’t think of a better way than to do so, finally, in his own words.

The shaping of my professional life and to a large extent my personal life occurred in my days as a graduate student in economics at Columbia. I was invited to join Frank Riessman and Alvin Gouldner, graduate sociology students, in what they grandiosely called the Citizens Social Research Council. It was to rival the establishment Social Science Research Council by making social science useful to people working in labor unions, community groups, political organizations.

This endeavor was at the end of World War, an especially exciting time in New York City with the return of veterans, the explosion of interest in psychoanalysis and social behavior, the resurgent cultural and political character of the city. We started a magazine that we called “Ideas for Action,” believing that the social sciences, particularly psychology and Columbia sociology, had perspectives and findings that could be useful for activists. Standard leftism and Marxism were inadequate. The target audience were activists in social change organizations like labor unions, political organizations, community groups.

Over the late 40’s and early 50’s we were joined by other graduate students, some of whom became well- known social science figures (some examples: Sol Levine in the sociology of health; Morris (Manny) Rosenberg in identity research, Elliot Mishler, who developed the field of narrative analysis. Many other gifted people were involved at various times.

Frank, Sol and I developed very close, deep and significant personal and intellectual ties that we nurtured for 50 years until their deaths.

We were largely New York City-born Jews of working- class, immigrant families, probably the first in our families to go to college (usually one of the New York City public colleges). We thought of ourselves as of the left and two or three identified themselves as members of the Communist Party. Most thought of themselves as “liberals” or “progressives.”

Weak efforts to get some women grad students to join us failed, perhaps because they correctly saw us as a “men’s club,” perhaps because they recognized that as women, they would have a hard enough time in gaining professional acceptance. We should have tried harder.

We distributed our 4-to-8-page magazine mostly free to a variety of action organizations. We were Kropotkin’s “organic intellectuals,” not only writing and editing its articles but involved in its layout, printing, sorting for mailing, delivery to the post-office and those other details of publishing.

We raised money for printing and postage by giving parties with door and drink charges, frequently at the Gramercy Park apartment of Herter Norton, translator of Rilke and widow of W.W. Norton, the publisher. Sol had met her daughter Anne in California just before he was discharged from the army. We provided entertainment at our parties; the young Harry Belafonte was one of our entertainers. (We didn’t think that he was as good as some of our other singers.) Bob DeCormier, a wartime buddy of Sol’s and later a leading choral leader, was our conduit to Broadway. We mixed social science with popular culture and our parties were well-known.

We were on course to change the world while enjoying the ride—at least that is how it felt for a time!

Unfortunately, I do not have copies of Ideas for Action. One theme that I recall came from a publication of Paul Lazarsfeld and, I think, Elihu Katz, on the importance of informal neighborhood leaders in affecting opinion. We used that idea in an issue and again in “Participation, Culture and Personality,” an issue of the SPSSI journal “Journal of Social Issues,” that Frank and I edited and had articles by others of our group. We outlined a four-fold typology of leadership that Al Gouldner used in his edited volume, “Studies in Leadership.”


I believe so for we were invited to talk to organizations, spoke informally with some union and community leaders, did some critical analysis and useful writing for the 1948 Progressive Party of Henry Wallace (that didn’t well use them). An unexpected result was that we were invited to speak to students at colleges. Certainly, we did not change the world nor social science; perhaps we gave them a nudge.


Frank pursued the Ideas for Action experience in his founding and long editorship of Social Policy Magazine.

It may have led Al Gouldner to start Transaction, now called Society. Many years after Ideas for Action perished under other leadership, Al asked me what I thought about that experience.

I replied that I thought that we neglected to develop Ideas from Action. I like to think that my remark encouraged Al to develop the periodical Theory and Society.

Now, I will make a much belated attempt to think about the “from” part, drawing on my action experiences since the days of our youth.

Ideas from action do not gain the attention that they should have in public sociology. A methodological inference is that socially useful theory and direction may arise often from connections to activists rather than deductions from social theory traditions. Here are some examples from my experiences.


Working with Hispanic and African American women and some men in a tenants’ council in Manhattan and with union members in a number of different settings made me aware of how smart they were though they lacked “book larning.” They would have been able to handle jobs for which they were disqualified because they had not graduated from high school or not gone beyond that diploma.

Those experiences led me to rethink my family: my older sister just managed to gain a high school diploma but was obviously very, very smart.

My mother, illiterate in the three languages that she could speak, was extraordinarily intelligent and disturbingly perspicacious.

These and other experiences, like working with African American school dropouts in Syracuse, led me to initiate the terms: “credential society” and “credentialism” to point to the excess emphasis on educational qualifications for jobs that barred many who could have performed well at those tasks. This framework was later taken up by Ivar Berg and then Randall Collins.


As a tenants’ council organizer, I spoke with a Hispanic woman who told me of her experience in applying for public welfare. The welfare officer behind the cage that separated the staff from applicants told her “Why don’t you just get a man to support you?” She was outraged by this disrespect but kept her tongue.

Visiting welfare and unemployment insurance offices and an employment retraining operation that was 30 years behind the times made me acutely aware of how poor people were treated.

Workers telling me that they had to live paycheck to paycheck and had nothing to fall back on in case they were sick and lost a week’s pay highlighted the importance of having savings, assets. Low pay didn’t permit the accumulation of a financial safety net. Poverty extended beyond income. It was about respect and wealth as well.

Experiences like these plus my personal experiences of poverty led Pam Roby and me to write The Future of Inequality (1970). That book and earlier articles sought to show the multi-dimensions of poverty and inequality, moving beyond income and the poverty line to the importance of assets and wealth, status and satisfaction, civic participation, the quality of services. I like to think that this work was one of the influences that led the European Union to adopt the concept of “social inclusion.” I have been trying to promote that concept in the USA. In 2003 I took up again one of those themes in Respect And Rights for things had not improved.

Social scientists are developing the theme of wealth, particularly since Melvin Oliver and Tom Shapiro’s book Black Wealth/White Wealth.

United for a Fair Economy (I am a co-founder and longest serving board member) has adopted highlighting racial wealth inequality as its main issue.


Over the years I have been an advisor, consultant, board member, friend of many poverty, community, union and employment organizations and activities, not only in the US but also in Ireland, Britain, France. Those experiences led me to rethink Michels’ Iron Law of Oligarchy of left-wing organizations.

For many of these organizations flourished mainly because they had a charismatic leader who dominated their thinking and action.

While I am all for democracy, I have realized from my many involvements that the quality of organizational leadership is crucial.

Unfortunately, too few studies of social movements adequately explore the on-going life of organizations that seek to change a neighborhood, company, the nation or the world. Nor has that literature well explored how some social movements achieve important transformations: how did the gay-lesbian efforts so change the USA that homosexual marriage, not the once-disgrace and crime of homosexuality, became the big issue?

I have been particularly intrigued by what happens after the charismatic leader leaves. Two experiences, one in the US, the other in Europe, have led me to draft an article on it. Seldom do organizations prepare for the change; they are surprised by the emergence of perspectives and directions that were buried as the leader pursued his or her interpretation of the organizational mission. They flounder and sometimes make it difficult to come to decisions and to accept new directions and leadership.

More broadly, the effectiveness of change-oriented activities depends on the way it comes to decisions. The way it carries out those decisions are heavily influenced by its internal dynamics.

These are obvious points but social science is not providing leads for organizations in developing appropriate ways of their adapting and changing. The contrast is with the business literature that every week or so reveals the next new way of structuring and leading corporate organizations.


I was on the staff of the Ford Foundation, two years fulltime and four years part-time in the ‘60’s and early ‘70’s. I learned a great deal about the USA and organizational life from my successful efforts to initiate programs for Hispanics, Native Americans, the rural poor and to move the foundation to support civil rights organizations that were more activist than the National Urban League. My strategic assumption was that if the poverty programs were regarded as exclusively or mainly benefiting poor African Americans, they would not gain popular and political support.

Surprisingly, my most significant learning at the foundation came from a brief conversation with its president, McGeorge Bundy. I asked him why he had made a particular decision (that I privately thought was dumb). His reply surprised me: the foundation’s board made me do it.

As I thought about it in other contexts, I concluded that no one feels completely free in making decisions. Politicians vote for policies and spending that they think will win them support or reduce opposition. Corporate chiefs make decisions in anticipation of how security analysts— those over-rated “experts”—and the stock market will respond. Too often, change organizations make decisions by anticipating the number of “media hits,” the current way of judging success. The media has become our boss.

This range of bosses suggests that some American left analyses that dote on the concentration of power in a few big business concentrations overstate their sway. There are a lot of bosses in the USA and they don’t always hang out together.


Working with many organizations over the years I have discovered that good questioning can be an important tool. It is also a useful way of avoiding the guru status of dispensing standard bromides.

Out of these contacts and experiences, I have developed my favorite question: If I knew how this organization spent its money and time, could I figure out what is the purpose of the organization? I have yet to get a yes. And it sometimes moves organizations to begin to reexamine their ways.

Asking useful questions is an art, in research as well as in organizations. It requires some knowledge and experience to think just beyond the on-going discussion.

My favorite example: I was asked to meet with the board of an Irish organization that was providing food for people without a home. I wanted to ask a standard question of how they would define success and yet get them to think about the future of the organization and the problem that they dealt with. I asked: If you expanded your activities as you are planning, and the problem of homelessness in Ireland increased, how would you feel? The ensuing discussion led them to a new track; to build low-income, subsidized housing. Some years later when I was again in Dublin, Sister Stan, the wonderfully effective leader of the mostly-male organization, proudly introduced me to the housing units that the organization had been able to build.

The art of the research question, I think, is to wonder about processes more than structures. How do results, effects, come about, avoiding fastening exclusively on what are possible so-called structural influences, independent variables if you wish. How do these influences come to have the effects that they do? That question may lead to other independent variables or to a different way of seeing the problem and setting up the research goal and design.


In the 1950’s Seymour Martin Lipset published an article in the American Sociological Review on the authoritarianism of the American worker. Frank Riessman and I wrote a reply that the ASR didn’t take but the British Journal of Sociology did.

My expanding experiences with American workers led me to the conclusion that Marty (whom I knew from graduate school days) and we critics were both wrong. Also misled were those who regarded worker concern for their economic interests as class awareness, perhaps even class consciousness.

As I talked with more and more workers from my variety of activities, I came to the conclusion that what was particularly important for them was tradition. They were patriotic, religiously-oriented even if not active church-goers, believers in the American dream of onward and upward. They defended their economic interests from a traditional perspective. In a sense when they saw a company trying to weaken a benefit, they regarded it as an insult to the tradition that had been achieved.

I think that research on class attitudes would benefit from attention to the role of tradition.

And activists would also benefit from understanding how tradition operates in the lives of those they seek to influence.

I think too that a lot of our research findings should have attached to them something like a milk bottle warning: USE BEFORE THIS DATE! For events and circumstances undermine the durability of research findings, especially from polling and interviewing.


I had many involvements with civil rights organizations. They include core, the congress of racial inequality, which led to the meeting of george wiley and richard cloward that eventuated in the welfare rights movement that frances fox piven was a major player in. My most significant involvement was with martin luther king whose capacity to weave together a story line was extraordinary.

One of my efforts was to influence king to testify on broad economic issues, particularly at the hearings of the joint economic committee of congress.

In a couple of conversations, I failed to convince king that it was a worthy expenditure of his time. I regarded my efforts as a failure.

Then, one Saturday morning I received a call: “Martin wants you to write a chapter on economics for his book. He needs it by Monday!” I readily agreed and knocked out a chapter on deadline. The publisher didn’t want to include it but King insisted and it appears as the appendix to his “where do we go from here.” I haven't had the courage to reread it!

For years, I didn’t recognize the request for the chapter as king’s acceptance of my point that general economic conditions and policies affected the situations of African Americans. But it was an acceptance and illustrates that people, even those who have been treated as very special people, can change.

Implication – don’t give up!


To the oft-cited saying of the greed in taking without giving, I would add that there is a greed in giving without taking. Giving is a two-way encounter. I don’t want to end without stressing how much I have benefited as a social scientist and as a person from my wide range of involvements in trying to aid outsiders.

These experiences enriched my professional life by forcing me to view many issues in ways that were not my professional or natural bent. For example, I learned that many decisions, especially in organizations, are not the result of planning or careful consideration of alternatives and possibilities, but of hopes, enthusiasms, presumed opportunities, personal preferences, last minute pressures. Sociology often has a hidden presumption of the rational social actor operating with or against economists’ rational market actor.

At the personal level, I have had the benefit of feeling useful, meeting many interesting people and places that would not have occurred if I had stuck to a narrow professional track. I learned a good deal about myself, including an understanding of my early life that I had buried. (My article, “NO PERMANENT ABODE” in Tikkun describes the uncovering of my homeless experiences when working with Sister Stan’s organization Ireland.). I also had the great benefit of a long marriage to feminist psychiatrist Jean Baker Miller who lived her values more than most of us do.

In short, I have also been a taker.

Giving and taking—ideas for and from action—that two-way process enriches professional and personal lives. 

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