OBITUARIES: Professor Edward Shils
Friday 27 January 1995
Edward Shils was one of the most respected and influential sociologists in the United States and indeed the world. A man of the broad, anti-communist Left in his early years, Shils - who was associated with the University of Chicago, with intervals only for wartime service and numerous visits to Britain, Europe and India - made important contributions to the understanding of populism and of the McCarthyism episode in American politics in the 1950s.
In his work as a sociologist, one of his most important contributions was to seek coherence between the University of Chicago's empirical tradition and the theoretical approach of French and German social scientists. His range was immensely broad, from American politics to the plight of Indian intellectuals ``between tradition and modernity'' (to quote the title of one of his books), and from Max Weber and the early Marx to the dangers of nuclear war.
He helped to found two important publications, Minerva, published in England, which is one of the world's leading journals publishing work about the problems of science and scholarship; and the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the influential forum fordiscussion of nuclear deterrence and nuclear war in the 1950s and 1960s.
Perhaps his single greatest quality as a sociologist was his determination to study society as a whole, including its political, economic, intellectual and cultural life. A reviewer for the Times Literary Supplement once wrote of him that he ``takes society as the basic unit of analysis, and he constantly brings all the sub-sectors of inquiry - economy, polity, culture, ideology - within the frame of the social whole.''
His special field of inquiry, however, was his fellow- inquirers. As other sociologists studied religion, poverty, class or caste, Shils studied intellectuals.
So great was his versatility, however, that at different times he taught sociology, social philosophy, English literature and the history of Chinese science as well as other subjects at the University of Chicago. He loved to bring eminent scholars from Europe to teach at Chicago, among them the great Italian classicist Arnaldo Momigliano and the French social scientist, political philosopher and journalist Raymond Aron.
Equally, he loved to travel and to steep himself in the intellectual life of other countries and cultures. For many years he held joint appointments at the University of Chicago and at universities abroad. He was a reader in sociology at the London School of Economics from 1946 to 1950; a fellow of King's College, Cambridge, from 1961 to 1970 and of Peterhouse, Cambridge, from 1970 to 1978, while at the same time an honorary professor of social anthropology at London University. He spent the years 1955 and 1956 in India, and he was a professor at the University of Leiden from 1976 to 1977.
Shils grew up in Philadelphia and it was while he was still in high school there that he discovered the works of Max Weber, which drew him towards the then new study of sociology. He was made a research assistant at Chicago in 1934 and was given his first teaching post there in 1938. During the Second World War he served in the British Army and later in the Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner of the CIA.
After the war he returned to Chicago and climbed the grades of Associate Professor in 1947 and full Professor in 1950. In 1954, in what can be seen in retrospect as an early move away from the traditions of the old Marxist Left, Shils published a devastating critique of the book The Authoritarian Personality, edited by Theodore Adorno and other refugee Marxist intellectuals, which interpreted the American Right in terms of a ``proto-fascist'' populism. Shils did not agree with that. Then in 195
6 he published his analysis of the McCarthy episode, The Torment of Secrecy, in which he analysed the 1950s American concern with ``secrecy'' and ``subversion'' in terms of the American populist tradition. And in the late 1950s Shils contributed to the debate about the ``end of ideology'', a phrase which turned out to be riddled with ambiguities, but which was the keyword of a famous conference, organised by the anti-Communist liberals of the Congress for Cultural Freedom, held in Milan in 1955.
Like his friends in the congress and among his fellow-contributors to Encounter, Shils moved from a position on the anti-Communist Left in the 1930s (he argued to Trotskyite friends in the 1930s, for example, that they should overcome their hostility to the US government in order to fight Hitler) to a ``Cold War liberal'' position in the 1950s and then to a moderate version of the neo-conservative position in the 1970s.
In 1976 he published Center and Periphery, which he subtitled ``essays in macrosociology'', in which he gave an impressive demonstration of the breadth of his knowledge and his speculative power. In the 1980s he wrote a number of studies and collections of essays about the technical as well as the philosophical aspects of sociology in the 1980s, and in 1979 was chosen by the US Nation Council on the Humanities to give the Jefferson Lecture. He chose to call his three lectures ``Render Unto C aesar: Government, Society and their Reciprocal Rights and Duties'', and to devote them to arguing that the government was too much involved in the affairs of universities. His last book was a labour of love, he said. Called Remembering the University of Chicago, it contained 47 essays on great teachers there, four of which Shils wrote himself.
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