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The Fool of Sociology

A Professional Biography of John R. Seeley

by Michael Rossman


[A belated introduction (2007)]

          In 1976, I was invited to contribute to a special double-issue of Sociological Inquiry [Vol. 46, No. 3-4], honoring the life-work of the eminent, aberrant sociologist John R. Seeley. By then, Seeley was 63, and I was 36, having known him eleven years. Though never his student in a formal sense, nor trained in sociology as such,  I had come to admire and adore him while working as a younger colleague in the broader field of educational reform. So I drove to Los Angeles and spent a week taping thirty hours of intense interview and discussion about his life, his work, and themes of mutual interest. To make coherent sense of this took three months of writing; I couldn’t quite bring it up to date before publication deadline.

          In a sense, this essay is more nearly Seeley’s autobiography “as told to” than his biography – for though I had some background knowledge, and perspectives of my own, I made no use of other sources, either friendly or critical.  In this light, my account is neither objective nor balanced. Careful reading will recognize the ways in which I maintained critical distance; but even so, this may be regarded mainly as Seeley’s presentation of himself in most favorable light to a credulous junior. Though hostile minds may well dismiss it on this basis, even such work may serve worthy purposes, and I would be content with this.

         Yet reading it at my age now, what strikes me instead is how much I made Seeley’s story my own. To some extent this was inevitable: for despite his explicit emphases in innumerable stories, I of course selected mainly what struck me as significant; and could draw him out further by only the questions I knew to ask. But such personal biasing was hardly automatic and unconscious. Instead, it was sharply purposeful. In effect, I used Seeley’s life, used his professional career as material for an essay on active social practice, elaborating themes that had occupied me for half my adult life. For my purposes, his life was ideal; for his purposes, my take on it was nearly so. In this sense, this document is an intimate collaboration, a soft missile couched in biographic form.

Seeley talking with Rossman, 1976


         It is every boy's dream to have fathers worthy of honor, or to make them so in legend. How then can l know how "realistic" my assessment is of a man who has been fatherly to me, being one of my two mentors, the men whose special welcome of me as a younger peer marked my ritual of entrance into a deviant intellectual community? Others in this issue have testified to the remarkable warm force of Jack Seeley's personality and the character of his moral influence, to the breadth of his learning and influence, and to the importance of his work and the conceptual and methodological issues it has raised. If this were all, Seeley would be simply a remarkable man or, as some see him, a remarkable nuisance. But I think there is more.

         Each man's life is a gesture of meaning in the social cosmos, and Seeley's life provides one definition of sociology -- a definition in the flesh rather than the word, as true definitions are, grown in the day's circumstance rather than inherited. Above all, a definition radically at odds with the customary definition of sociology. If this be so, then there could be no more important task for a festschrift essay than to make a case for this -- not so much to justify Seeley, as to illuminate a profession in a painfully changing time.

         A basic theme of Seeley's work is to recognize the integrity of the way the personal and the social nestle together, in intimate conjugation, in each human circumstance. A proper study of Seeley's sociology as a lived practice would be sympathetic in a precise sense: it would honor the terms of that sociology, attempting to understand integrally the full spectrum of personal and social meanings encoded in his life and the dimensions of purpose and tragedy; it would be fully critical and advocative, an agency of loving justice. There is no short way to do this which does not reduce the organic sense of Seeley's work to a summary resume of his many complex engagements. Yet his is a sociology of engagement; and there is no better way to portray it intelligibly in operation than through the detail of the issues at stake in each instance.

         Here then is a broken-field run through the terrains of Seeley, not to adequately survey them but to indicate a path. And if I myself appear in the later footprints, as a minor influence in the development of his sociology as well as an influencee, this is again in sympathy with one of its tenets: that the observer irrevocably perturbs what he observes by the act of observing, and therefore has no moral choice but to act in consciousness of this, entering into a loving and purposeful intercourse.


         John Ronald Seeley was born in London in 1913 to an upper-class family, and schooled erratically in England and Germany until 1928. His childhood was a Gothic tragedy whose main characters included an absent father, a too-present and –abusive mother, a grandmother who fed him emotionally and physically on the sly, and a forbidding school­master who introduced him to Euclid.

         It showed him the world as a mad disaster, against all reason and justice, save for certain precious and quite precarious supports. It left him with a permanent passion to champion justice and the oppressed, and a keen sensitivity to the double message and the contradiction between social facade and reality, exercised not only in his rather schizophrenic family but in the social field as he watched the early stages of Fascism's rise. From his childhood deprivation came a life-long charge: to be the kind of father and create the kind of family he had not had. From its nourishment came the personal mythologies, born of his grandmother's tales of David, Joseph and Moses, which were to guide the gesture of his life; and an image, rooted in his own explosive growth after Euclid, of what the demeaned human spirit could be if freed.


         At sixteen, by choice, Seeley found himself in Canada, a penniless immigrant, and worked as a farmhand for two years. His reaction to the farm­boys' exploitation became his first experience at meliorative social organizing, and set a bipolar pattern of style that was to develop throughout his life. One pole was to work among the oppressed, raising consciousness by leading them to share information, feelings and ideas, his inter­ests one with theirs. The other pole was to function as an ancillary of conscience among the managers, informing those (in this case, the local Presbyterian Minister) with moral or functional authority to undo wrong.

         The successful influence of the Minister whom Seeley advised may have given him unrealistic expectations about how readily wrong would yield to reason in the world, but Seeley gained strength and purpose from associating with this surrogate father, who took him as son and fed him philosophy. If Seeley did not formally accept the invitation to inherit the clerical mantle, neither did he reject it.

         From the minister, Seeley drew his first validation that the task of struggle against injustice was more than personal -- that the human task is to make a better world through perceiving moral issues and taking a stand, and that life derives its deepest meaning in service. The same sense of task and meanings informs Seeley's sociology. It does not reduce his writings to remark that most of them are sermons of one sort or another. In an age of spiritual crisis, for Seeley sociology was not simply a detached intellectual pursuit or a tool for the managers, but a ministry.

         During this period, Seeley struggled with the question of how to make use of the rich insights into cruelty and domination which his childhood had provided. In seeing his choice as between becoming a master of criminality in society or making sure that his experience never happened to even one other child, Seeley committed himself to a task of redemption on a scale whose impossibility he did not fully face until he was forty. His early infection by the image of Christ as the suffering servant was reinforced by the writers he now explored, who spoke of turning suffering to good account; though he later came to see this as sometimes literary trickery, its influence persisted through his life, inhibiting his willingness to deal adequately with his own needs. Yet to account Seeley's career as a neurotic product of early experiences and compensations is inviting, but too easy; what matters is rather how he chose to modify them in himself, and to engage and articulate them in the world.

         Still, his choice to be an educator, and the reasonable thrust of his teachings, were influenced in part by his failure to fully grasp his personal rage against the horrors of his upbringing. It left him trying to believe his victimization had been simply the product of ignorance, which led him to imagine that justice would be served if only a new generation of parents were brought up to understand what children were about, and what was good and bad for them. This worthy imagination guided his approach to the social family as well, long after he had realized the truth of his private case. As a teacher, Seeley remained the apostle of Reason, sensitive to the faintest consequence of human bestiality, yet always somehow surprised by its presence, and perhaps never fully grasping its dimensions.

         Struggling with these concerns, Seeley stumbled one night upon a campfire of preadolescents, an idyll of the life he had not had. Their circle drew him in and invited him night after night to tell his grandmother's stories and invent his own. This liaison, continuing, became for him a living demonstration of how the young might be moved in the realms of delight and ecstasy; it was also his first indication that anything he had to offer might matter deeply to another's growth, and sealed his fate to be a teacher. Jack was intoxicated by the children's love, and by the Minister's, and returned it. Suspended between them, he was redeemed by his new roles in a community which ministered to his own deepest needs. If in later life Seeley became so indefatigable a source of validation for others, young and old, it was perhaps from realizing fully what validation had meant to him -- a metabolic, rather than ideological, awareness.


         At 18, the conditions of his passage fulfilled, Seeley came to Toronto where he worked in a printing factory. During his nine years there, he became assistant to the sales manager, and then export manager, and might well have risen further. He came away with practical knowledge of the world of work and administrative systems, and with Margaret, whom he came to love on the job in 1935 and married the classic seven years later when he returned from Chicago.

         In 1937, Seeley joined the Society of Friends on a non-creedal basis. The Clerk of the Meet­ing took a shine to him, and invited his participa­tion in an "ecumenical council" of leading priests, rabbis and ministers, which met weekly to discuss the social problems of the day and town. Their subsequent delivery of major sermons in parallel was a major force for change. This was Seeley's first experience in what became one favorite modality of work -- the convening of small, high-level groups to organize approaches to psycho­social problems. Earlier, he had taken on the Toronto YMCA, inciting the reorganization of its governance with the novel idea that, since it was a young men's association, young men should sit on the Board. In this milieu, he was arguing from Christian presuppositions for the justice they implied; and such early successes confirmed his perhaps naive ideal, that one could reliably appeal from men's low behavior to their higher professions, and win adherence to the latter.

         But Seeley's richest work in Toronto was familial. He organized a Wolf Cub pack of two dozen boys, and led the same group for eight years, through scouting and into manhood. In addition to the chance to fulfill himself as pater­familias, it gave him a rare opportunity to study (pre)-adolescent development. In character with his later work, his study was subordinate to purpose -- which, in the bleak Protestant setting of then-provincial Toronto, was to awaken the youths to the full potentials of their own lives and abilities, as he had been awakened by the Euclidean schoolmaster, So as not to tear the scouts between loyalties, he worked intensively with their parents, engaging for the first time the task of helping them learn new ways of relating to their children. The entire venture was an amalgam of education and therapy, permanently defining this aspect of his working style.

         During this period, Seeley read a great deal of Freud, and the library's books on child development -- and then went on to Marx, knowing that that what the parents did was a function not only of their fears but of how they had to live. Ever since the farm, he had been studying for Canadian university matriculation and trying to save money for this, When his surrogate children turned 18 and left to lead their lives, a cycle more familiar now was completed as Seeley himself went back to school, with $2,000 saved to supplement his scholarship from the University of Chicago.

[The University; the Army]

         At 27, Seeley found himself a college undergraduate, free at last to enjoy full-time the love of learning and the luxury of letting his curiosity roam, It took him as well into the rich underlife of Chicago, to run with juvenile gangs and hang out with the lower echelons of the Mafia, enlarging his perceptions of youth and criminality, and perhaps preparing his own career as adult delinquent. Campus itself was golden, for the university was still in the early flush of its Hutchins era, which made the school a legend of the day in American higher education. In its attempt at a comprehensive and synthetic curriculum, Seeley found his eyes opened to the full circle of human knowledge, as sport and glory. He found also, in the relative autonomy granted students there, his first model for an educational institution that would treat students as they deserved, at least in this respect.

         Perhaps no school of that time could better have prepared Seeley for one main thrust of his work: to dissolve the barriers which artificially divide the many branches of learning and knowledge. But if the University was thus undermining its Aristotelian heritage, in other ways it reinforced this with a vengeance. Through his studies in its general scholasticism and in the Chicago School of sociology, Seeley's mind became partially a prisoner of conventional academicism, of the most morally crippling kind, which he was not fully to recognize or escape for a decade, until his Forest Hills Village experience led him to turn his critique to the tools of knowledge, and then to the Academy itself.

         Too new yet to be voiced with its later precision and subtlety, Seeley's reaction to imprisonment took the form of a simpler moral statement, a sermon of action addressed to his fellow intellectuals as men, rather than (yet) to their very professions. Since his boyhood in Germany, he had watched the rise of Fascism with a concern that the war's outbreak ripened to anguish. He delayed barely, to finish his B.A., and then left what seemed a greased-skids career towards faculty appointment at Chicago to enlist in the Canadian Army in 1942. His behavior was an earnest of the later irritation he would provoke in many schools when he said, in effect and explicitly, “How can you manage to stay at your customary work while all this is going on around you, and not raise heads and hands to do something in response? How can you know a society in whose agonies you refuse to take part?”

         Seeley believed that for those who cared about and understood what they claimed they did, there was a special task for the intellect -- not only to assist in the struggle against Fascism, but to keep from becoming totally infected by the same disease in the process of opposing it. For him, this program took first the shape of an attempt to humanize the Canadian, and later the British and American armed services, by minimizing the damage to the human potential and spirit of the soldiers, and making their experience maximally useful to themselves and to the war effort. As an Officer Selection Specialist, Staff Captain and finally scientific advisor to the Director of Personnel Selection, he worked with a small, tight group to individuate and humanize selection procedures, and to some extent to reform the service job-lines themselves, as well as such military sub-institutions as training camps, brigs, courts martial, and recreational and medical services.    

[The Forest Hills Village Project]

         Demobilized in 1945, Seeley refused high office in the Canadian government, and returned to graduate work at Chicago, where he served as research assistant to Ernest Burgess and Louis Wirth, taught Social Science in the University College, and worked at his theory and thesis. Despite the brilliance of the university surround and his welcome into association, it was a strained time, due both to the miserable life forced on him and Margaret by their poverty, and to the continuing serious illness of their first son, John Jr. Put aside when he went to work for the Canadian Mental Health Association in 1947, his thesis was never finished.

         As executive director of CMHA, Seeley came together with his colleagues in the attempt to humanize the military, to try to continue into civilian life the program they had envisioned: to use the insights of psychology and the social sciences and common decency, to transform society. Thinking to focus on the children and to begin via the schools, they had the outline of a project, and soon found a medium in which to execute it. In 1948 Seeley moved his base to the University of Toronto to be a clinical teacher in psychiatry and an associate professor of sociology. His main work, however, was as director of the Forest Hills Village Project, a five-year “community study.”

          The fraction of the Forest Hills work reported out in Crestwood Heights (*) was Seeley's first major publication, and established his professional presence. Crestwood Heights was the first full-scale sociological study of a suburban community, and the first psychologically-oriented anthropological study of a community as such. Its political novelty, in bringing the tools of social science to bear upon the home lives of the managers of society rather than the managed, escaped notice at the time. But many professionals were disturbed by the study's departure from a structural-functional perspective and by its methodology, and felt it to be unduly psychological.

         A deeper professional perturbation is reflected in the book's introduction:

“So intertwined, in fact, is the research with the community that this book gives the impression that its authors are still stuck in the tar-baby; their moral intensity about their task and their responsibilities both as researchers and as reporters is, in all its humorlessness and intensity, rare and admirable ... though the authors have a keener eye for moral impasse and arabesque than for the material culture or for the merely sociable ...”

Twenty years later, the concerns of conscience which prompted this mixed praise from David Riesman have become central issues for social research: they were always the most important ones.

         For the Forest Hills Village Project was not a detached academic study of the established sort, but a major educational and therapeutic venture, begun by a staff of nine and in time taken up by those it affected, which aimed at transforming the life of the community. As such it was a distinct style of socio-logos, active, practical and self-conscious, whose epistemological foundations Seeley was later to write about at length. Conceived precisely in a moral spirit, this way of knowing could not escape accounting for the moral dimensions of its intervention and consequence.

         Into this upper-middle-class “bedroom” suburb came Seeley and his staff, contracting with the School Board to study the schools to improve them. It was characteristic of Seeley's later approach to education, as well as to social research, that they did not commit themselves to the project until they had appeared before each of the schools' 5,000 students to explain the faint prospect of its future usefulness, and to ask the students' agreement to participate.

         The schools were indeed the community's central institution, connecting the researchers with the intimate life of each family and with their formal associations, and enabling the scope and depth of their academic study. Beyond its specifics, this reflected Seeley's early-formed analytic bite in the social world, in being a stripping-off of the polite mask of the family, to reveal the contradictions beneath, the complexity of motives and unmet needs and the precarious balance of it all.

         The several dimensions of their practical study and intervention went largely unreported. The first dimension included a series of “human relations” classes given weekly in each of the seven schools for five years. The classes were open spaces, to which the children came voluntarily, free to talk about the things that mattered to them -- a gift as much to them as to the researchers. The teachers observed, and were surprised and instructed by the complete absence of “discipline problems.” This second dimension of work, bringing teachers and parents to new understandings of the children and their potentials, proceeded as the researchers were invited to raise questions with teachers in their classrooms and at meetings, and to offer seminars in the village. Changing the perspectives of the agencies that dealt with children entailed, for Seeley's crew, the dual responsibility of helping staff create and adjust to their own changed roles. This principle was not confined to institutions, and they pursued the parents' eventual requests for “human relations” classes as well as they could.

         The third dimension involved making of Forest Hills Village a demonstration of how simple humane methods might be used to work radical transformation in education and ultimately the full community. Each year, twelve eminent teachers from all over Canada were invited to intern there, to observe and absorb all they could of the new human sciences which bore upon education. The intent was to initiate a new sub-profession of teachers committed to transforming their own schools through new approaches in the classroom. Instead, nearly all of the 60 interns went on immediately to become principals, superintendents of school systems, Provincial directors of mental health, and the like -- if lost to the classroom, then amplifying tremendously in society the ideas they had gathered. Fifteen years later, Seeley found in widespread practice in Toronto open classrooms, mobile education centers and other ideas the project had helped introduce -- more developed there than in Berkeley, which was just starting to move out of the classroom lockstep.

         There was a fourth dimension to this project of intervention, a thrust to redefine the profession and practice of community mental health in preventive and positive terms. It merged, I think, with the broader task of reconstructing the practices of psychological and social sciences to which Seeley was led inexorably by the Forest Hills Village experience.      

         In the goals and methods of the entire Forest Hills Village project may be seen the influence of Seeley's earliest years and dedications blown large. But society is conjugate to persons, and the social meaning of the project was to provide a model of socio-logos, a model for the way that knowledge of society might be brought to exist in society. If the model was yet incomplete in a crucial way -- in its belief that the tools of knowledge being passed on and used were themselves “objective” -- in its several dimensions it was still much more coherent than the single dimension of professional publication which it incorporated.

          Facing the fact that the existence of knowledge is inherently an active intervention in human life, and recognizing and accepting the implied potentials for action and responsibility, Seeley and his co-workers generated a remarkably full-fleshed example of sociological practice. If it might equally be considered an essay in educational, therapeutic or political practice (as any effort to find a lever to change society must be), that is in the nature of the human world -- and of knowledge, as Seeley had learned. From any of these perspectives, one integrity of the project is striking: it took care to deal equally with discrete individuals and with higher systems of organization and thought, and managed this in an integrated format.

[Digestion and reformulation]

         For Seeley, Forest Hills Village was a shattering experience. Between the deeper questionings of sociology's nature to which it led him, and his own concurrent psychoanalysis whose implications deepened them, his world was stood on its head. For the next three years he worked, for economic reasons, as executive director of Community Surveys, Inc. in Indianapolis, on a study of Community Chests which led him to studies of giving, and of slum redevelopment and services. He recalls it as a barren time; I think it was more a latent period, or digestive. After this came the long series of ethical, epistemological and methodological papers, addressed equally to the social and psychological sciences, that tore away at the myth-structure of their professions in the course of asking what might be the foundations of a sociology, a psychology, a social psychology, that made sense, conceptually as well as morally.

         His literature was a thorn in the side of the sociological establishment. It was received, in general, or neglected, with irritation for the elegant and bewildering complexities it uncovered. Beneath the irritation was anger, and beneath this, I believe, fear, for these complexities implied the destruction of the known roles of sociology -- and perhaps a birth, for Seeley's essays constituted a political attack and prospectus which in time intrigued and influenced an eclectic group of students.

         Beyond its manifest outer uses, the inner process of producing this literature was an act of re-integration for Seeley, commingled with his psychoanalysis and extending it to the full reaches of his social person and then into the world. It was his most intimate instantiation of the therapeutic task which figures in all his work: to make integral, to heal the division of the personal-psychological and the social. The rich details would make a remarkable case study in meta-psychiatry, and themselves suggest a radical reconception of therapy, but that is another long story.

         The full constructive and reconstructive process, the reintegration of the sociologist and the man, took as long to unfold as did the writing. Standing back from it, Seeley's life sorts into periods. In the thirteen years from Chicago on, he had been preparing a particular perspective of sociology which surfaced its incompleteness even in the success of its Forest Hills Village employment. Recovering and reconstructing, he turned his work to reformulation of the tool of social knowledge itself, and from working on communities to working in them, and creating them. It took a decade for these two lines of his work to merge fully, for it took as long for Seeley to grow to be able fully to accept the commitments of self that his deepened vision of sociology implied, and to enter the next phase of attempting to redeem his profession, When he finally did, in the turbulent politics of mid-sixties America, it made him in some ways a pariah of his profession with heavy personal costs, but it put him in the heart of a larger family, as a whole man.


         Seeley had come to Forest Hills Village to put the tool of “objective” knowledge in people's hands to enable them to change their lives. He came away questioning the tool itself, the moral dimensions of how we come to know and what it means to know, and the role of the knower. For to understand, say, juvenile delinquency as the product of familial psycho-pathology, or of institutional dysfunction, is to assign to one set of people a responsibility and shift it from another set, and in time to restructure society to reflect this assessment. Social research then is a judicial process, assessing and assigning responsibilities; and a species of political practice, whose effect, if not intent, is always to transform society.

         This argument brought Seeley full circle back to Marx, who held that the object of understanding is to recreate the world; and brought him to face fully the human contradiction of the intellectual perspective in which he had been schooled at Chicago. The dominant myth held that sociological theory and practice were objective processes performed from some higher vantage, that the student of society stood outside the struggle to describe it. Yet the tool of “value-free” sociology could be applied to itself, through the meta-sociology of knowledge, to reveal this sociology itself as the product of social particulars, inexorably partisan in its provenance and consequences. Likewise with the notion that there exists a “scientific,” disengaged viewpoint from which to carry on psychological investigation: as Seeley learned through his own experience, psychology turned on itself into meta-psychology revealed even the abstract concepts which psychologists (and sociologists) use to be choices complexly motivated by practitioners' most private histories, and their employment of these concepts to be an integral function of their private dramas.

          Where then was that detached vantage point from which a meliorative sociologist or therapist might still choose to descend, with objective tools forged there, to treat society or the person? Rather, there was no philosophical basis for the separation of the sociologist and the person: one was wholly ensnared in the human and social condition, fully the subject and creator of what one studied. In the absence of detached vantage, there was left only moral purpose to inform one's professional action. The whole enterprise was political, its ethical problems inescapable; one was either totally confused about its nature, or in it for a purpose. From this time on, Seeley strove to convince his sociological fellows, against all fashion, that the “value-free” foundation of their profession was either nonsense or deception, and either way ruinous: and to lead them to take responsibility for what they studied, how they studied it, and how and whom their studies served.

         This did not make him popular.    

         By the terms of his own analysis, Seeley's attack on the foundations was not from a detached position, though he was not to realize the depth of his commitments for a decade. Involved in an arena of men and women in struggle, aware that his every action and inaction was a matter not separate from his sociology, Seeley took sides constantly in increasing consciousness -- if still rather within the Christian framework of Good and Evil, yet with a deepening appreciation of how these were entwined in every human circumstance.   

         No longer a neutral tool, in the political world sociology was a weapon. In whose service should it be employed, and how? In the next twenty years, Seeley made his choices increasingly clear, casting his lot with the managed of society rather than the managers, and for democratic freedom as the ground of justice. He chose also to try to assume responsibility for the deepest consequences of the existence of sociology itself in society, in terms that define the immense human stakes involved.

         For the dry proposition that the practice of socio-logos works to recreate society in its image had a disquieting corollary for the sociology of the day, divorced from the psychological dimensions of personhood, conceiving functionality with no moral dimensions, and evading the personal responsibility of its own actors. “The direction I see events taking,” Seeley wrote,

“is toward a much-diminished notion of individual responsibility for personal acts -- the notion in turn then altering the facts -- [which demands] a much increased individual responsibility for the collective acts [e.g., segregation] which furnish the conditions and limits (or causes) of personal acts. If, as seems entirely possible, such individual responsibility for collective acts cannot be borne or adequately responded to by individuals, the likeliest outcome seems to be highly increased centralization, no doubt benign in intent, going toward an autocratic sort of society, with still further consequences for the idea and possibility of personal potency and responsibility.


         This was in 1963. Seeley was not quite able yet, or perhaps not yet despairing enough of his profession, to say outright what he was later to maintain: that, by its nature, mainline sociology had become an agency of totalitarianism, a tool of a creeping “Velvet Fascism” which furthered itself through the consequences of such uses of knowledge.

          The young who would voice such crude sentiments were to appear the next year, in the Berkeley Free Speech Movement. In embracing them, Seeley embraced the directness of their vision, which brought to light an ugly, explicit catalogue of the ways in which social research was being put to totalitarian service in the suppression of rebellion and social change among colonized peoples, foreign and domestic. If Seeley saw more subtly into the consequences of the very nature of this research, he saw its uses as starkly from 1964 on when he was anguished to watch the orthodox tools of social psychology used to dismiss and contain the “student rebellion,” with which Seeley had identified as the proximate agency of hope for American society; and to avoid the immense questions of justice and purpose it raised, in favor of contributing to the mechanization of social control.

         In response to this betrayal, Seeley cast himself at last fully against the dehumanizing character of the science he had grown beyond, identifying the betrayal in a spate of papers and interactions that revealed him increasingly to many as a traitor to the profession. But a social juggernaut was indeed in motion, and Seeley's quoted foreboding was being rapidly realized as the social climate heated up and unrest increased. By 1973, this line of Seeley's work came to one climax as he found himself fighting a desperate rear-guard action, orchestrating a complex attempt to abort the proposed UCLA Center for the Study and Reduction of Violence – which, more clearly than any institution before it, had been designed virtually to serve as an advance base for the employment of behavioral science as a tool of authoritarian social control, an agency of Velvet Fascism indeed.

         In this engagement of socio-logos against the Violence Center's version of it, Seeley came full circle, reaffirming and deepening the continuities of his life. The boy had watched Fascism's rise; the young man had enlisted to oppose it, mobilizing the hopeful weapons of knowledge. Even then, under Goebbel's direction, the social and psychological scientists of the Third Reich were harnessing their ingenuity in vilest service. It took a decade for the middle-aged man to recognize that his tools and the effects of their use by the roles of their employment were not different in kind from theirs, and a decade more to forge the tools and their user anew. Now, at sixty years of age, he found himself again a soldier against Fascism, in a covert war that permeated society most subtly, engaged in a vanguard action.

          But how the terms of battle that he recognized had changed since he witnessed in Heidelberg the street-fights of a people hurt, lost and seeking an authoritarian salvation! Confronting this new salient of benign social engineering, fresh from his late 1960's experience of being at one with the children in the street, for Seeley it was as if his mother, who had taught him the meaning of authoritarian domination, had bought, from a child psychologist who would serve her intents, the knowledge of how to control him in new and subtle ways, which afforded the same power and even the same satisfactions as the whip without the problem of its public display, Or so I imagine, believing with Seeley that the events of family and of society are writ large and deep within each other, within each person and beyond, Whatever the truth of the metaphor, Seeley had, as in childhood, only the tool of sweet reason to use with the power of his rage, and he used it strategically, despite the growth of the perception he had refused to recognize fully as a child: that there were madmen in charge.


         The upheaval of thought about social science that Seeley experienced and chronicled did not spring like an abstract Minerva from a Jovian brow of intellect, merely the product of a keen observer pondering a scene. Rather, it was born from his involvement with and commitment to the people he “studied” at Forest Hills Village. Accepting the dimensions of his intervention in their lives, he found himself an intimate member of the community, struggling with the contradictions of his professional role brought thus home among his own kind.

         Seeley detailed some of the functional and moral complexities of this conflict in the portions of Crestwood Heights that deal with the interaction of social researchers and researched. The questions continued to brood in him, and animate his later papers, which reflect his understanding of his own experience.

         This understanding was in part enabled and furthered by Seeley's psychoanalytic experiences, first as analysand, later as practitioner and teacher. He had wanted analysis since reading Freud and had decided upon it in discussion with Bettelheim at Chicago, regarding it as an essential educational experience. The occasion came not by academic schedule but in response to live need. By 1951, in Forest Hills Village, Seeley was in a quandary. As it seemed to him, he had in effect become the father of some thousands of children, and at least the paterfamilias of all their mothers, who had become actively dependent on him for sagacious counsel. If the “objective” problems of this relationship could be written up as meta-sociology, the subjective ones could not be so dryly handled.

         For Seeley now found himself face to face with the image of himself as his missing, nutritive father which he had pursued since the campfire and scout pack -- but here blown all out of human proportion, casting him back in the role of Wiseman/Messiah, involving him in a messianic feedback of contradiction which he would spend the rest of his social working life trying to undo. In Jung's terms, he had gone the night journey to reach a strange place where all was reversed, end in beginning: he had become the wise one teaching mothers how to mother, and fathers how to father or at least how to refrain from brutalizing and corrupting the children.

         All the defenses re-organized by Seeley in adolescence into a career of socially useful activity were all but overwhelmed by the demands they had created. As much as his prior intellectual decision, this decided the timing of his long-sought analysis which he pursued during the years at Toronto, dismantling the dynamic which used the energy of rage to do good deeds that protected against the consequences of rage's expression.

         Analysis gave Seeley a much richer sense of the complexity of motives which underlie the practices of scholarship, and an integral sense of the relation between private and public drama, which came increasingly to be reflected in his work. A decade later in Boston, he undertook a second round of analysis primarily for didactic purposes, to acquire analytic skills and to deepen his understanding of psychoanalytic approaches to education. But also it came right after he had attempted at York to stand as a father to the world again, to students and faculty alike, for the first time since Forest Hills Village and in a new way, and during the very time when he was making, through his response to the FSM, the final full commitment of himself as man and sociologist in the human community.

         Analysis made Seeley aware of his feelings in an undulled way, enabling him to experience the largest dimensions of his anger and love. It left him able to express face-to-face his rage at the betrayal he felt at York, and free to respond in depth to the surprising events at Berkeley, which brought him to attack at last directly the accredited representatives of the dominant order and to realize and declare another allegiance.

         For Seeley as man, as socio-logist facing the mystery of the actions of men amongst each other, psychoanalysis was a tool, an education, a therapy, an integral influence in his life's work of tending to society. If a crucial therapy of our age is to heal the division between the person and society, in the academy phrased as the division of psychology and sociology, then Seeley has been an exemplary agent of this therapy, beginning in his own person. The customary practices of psychotherapy work to bind people's conceptions and energy to the private domain, away from their true integration with society in history. In contrast, despite and because of his Freudian and later Jungian grounding, Seeley found himself refuting those who used Freudian reductionism to explain away the meaning of the thrust of the young on the campuses; and after his second didactic analysis did not turn away from political expression, but instead stood for the first time fully as a political actor in the full arena of society, empowered by his awareness of underlying motives.

[Educational community]

         For the decade after the Forest Hills Village Project, Seeley turned his critical energy to speaking to his colleagues, in behalf of their profession's redemption; for the decade after this, begun by Berkeley, to speaking to the world out of the lived profession. But the heart of his work went to the building of family and community, no longer from some detached vantage, but as a committed actor within, his own being staked on the effort. Each of the five major engagements that followed in the next fifteen years may be seen as an essay in this task, in the general medium of education, as may his work with his own family and the community engendered around it. In this, I believe, he was attending to the most important task of sociology, of loving socio-Iogos, today: not to describe the breakdown of the most intimate glue binding persons together in society, but to inspire and guide its re-creation. And if many of his institutional ventures came to ill fate and what seemed painful failure, taken together, 1 think, they were admirable.

         Gathering his conclusions about him, Seeley turned to act with such companions as he could find. Beginning in 1953, he participated in a unique collegium funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, which brought together two dozen remarkable people from a wide range of disciplines (the “Space Cadets” as they called themselves) to consider the question of mental health as involving everything that affected human well-being in society. Meeting bi-annually for a decade, it was an “invisible college” of unusual duration -- an example, and perhaps an accelerating factor, in the breakdown of the artificial fragmentation of human studies. For its participants it was an experience which enlarged both the vision and ambit of their action.

         For Seeley, in addition, it served a vital need: it was a nurturing forum, a place where he could bring the questions he then was raising and the ideas with which he struggled, and find them greeted, if not necessarily with agreement, always with interest and respect. It was an ideal teaching/learning situation, a community of peers opening each other's horizons; and in it also Seeley could play what was always a favorite role -- the universal translator making the various tongues coherent to one another. For six years more, at the Center for Advanced Study and the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions, he had such a forum for his base; and when in 1969 he was left without one in the Center's moral collapse, he was indeed bereft of an important support.

         In 1957, Seeley returned to Toronto as Research Director of the Alcoholism Research Foundation of Ontario, a post he held for three years. He found in this a fairly new field, open perhaps to fundamental interventions in its conceptualization, a place to ground the notions he had been developing. The papers he wrote on this are interleaved with others concerned with the reconceptualization of a dozen fields, from social work and mental retardation to legal philosophy, stemming from his re-examination of the foundations of social science. As his concerns led him to urge, for the treatment of alcoholic addiction, the diversification of interventions, so in response to the other addictions of society Seeley was led to diversify his own interventions, working to organize against the insanity of the bomb-shelter boom, and against the persistence of corporal punishment and the inculcation of religion in the public schools.

         The most important product of these years was the research staff which Seeley brought together at A.R.F. A non-hierarchical ensemble with uniquely open mechanisms for sharing thought, which were reflected in many joint papers, it was another venture in educational community, compact and focused, with Seeley as the catalytic agent. More nearly then the Space Cadets, it was a mode of family in which Seeley stood again as paterfamilias, more modestly and integrally than at Forest Hills Village, sharing with his mind his warmth. And surely the brotherly quality of its interaction transcended Seeley's part in it and survived his departure, for many of the staff still work together in this way to this day.

[York University]

         Meanwhile, a new venture was brooding, a next step in the attempt to build educational community. Since his YMCA days, Seeley had been close friends with Murray Ross with whom he shared the development of educational ideas and ideals, and who currently was a Vice-President of the University of Toronto. Canada was just then waking to the higher education boom, and Toronto had only one public university. Together, Ross and Seeley secured a charter for a second, York University, with guarantees for a free hand in its development from both the provincial and federal governments.

         There was always, in Seeley's working dreams, a tension: simultaneously, they represented reasonable responses to historical social circumstances and unreasonable idealism. York was Seeley's first chance to play with the task of starting a new educational institution from scratch and it unbound his imagination. He hoped to bring to bear on higher education all that had been learned about human beings since the Middle Ages, to produce an exemplary model for a different age with different problems.

         More realistically, York was to be a tutorial college, emphasizing one-to-one relationships. It was also to provide for students a place and power in the processes of institutional decision-making, though the details of this remained to be worked out. Opening in 1960 with about ten faculty and 75 students, its growth was to be gradual, towards an eventual limit of 2,000,

         The first year at York was idyllic for Seeley, his energy fully invested in building a dream. But already the seed of its promise was deteriorating, as the larger and meaner forces which shape institutions came into play in conflicting visions of empire, The chairman of the trustees' board, a truly big businessman, was also a leading figure in the Liberal Party, with Prime Ministerial ambitions; York was a political staging area for him, in which slow processes of building worked against his immediate interests. Ross himself had recently been passed over for the Presidency of the University of Toronto and had his own ambitions. Under their lead, the tutorial relationship of York was redefined to include dealing with several students at once, and then to all sorts of classes. In the month that U.T. set a limit of 24,000 to its own growth, President Ross declared York's intention to absorb 27,000 students in the next decade.

         To build a big university was easier than to grow a great one. York's fate was determined by the fourteenth month when crucial decisions about size, planning, curriculum and the distribution of power came down from above, and when Ross came to student meetings to persuade them, in what Seeley saw as a fundamental corruption of the original agreements about the democratic place of students in governance, to accept what was happening. Tensions mounted during this second year and flared into open conflict in the third. York's original students and faculty felt strongly that the President had betrayed the dream that had brought them there, and at one point 19 of the 25 faculty considered petitioning the Board to fire him.

         It was too late. When it came to a showdown, no real powers at all had been delegated to the students, despite the initial vision. Within the campus itself, the realities of power were dictated not by legislation but by social process. For rapid growth was not simply pernicious to the spirit of York's original aim; it destroyed even the power to defend that spirit. Disrupting the promised slow growth of shared values and commitments that bond community, it diluted any possibility of resistance and left no obstacle to the absolute power of the Administration.

         The strategy is standard in the control of populations; its benign intention easily evades the moral scrutiny of its consequence. For Seeley, though he had chronicled such matters as a “sociologist” before, it was his first real introduction to how power actually works in a university. What struck him was the utter functional contempt for persons, the merely instrumental way in which parties “of good will” saw and used each other and those they had power over, free of the moral dimensions of mutual commitment.

         There was also another problem, at once functional and moral, that dizzied Seeley as he sought to understand why the original contracts with students and faculty were not being honored. No one, no person, could be found to take responsibility for what was happening -- not even Ross, who claimed to be only transmitting, through the bottleneck of his role, the multiple pressures bearing upon him. If Seeley felt distressed by this, it was not only because he had sought to incarnate a piece of dream but because of his friendship with Ross. This gave him what he had already had with himself -- a rich opportunity to observe the complex of forces acting upon the social actor from without and from within: he was privy to Ross's dreams, watched him return from his first meeting with the Board transformed, like an English boy first blooded with the fox. But to explain was not to explain away, nor to excuse, and Seeley's personal grief at the betrayal he felt was inseparable from the objective situation. For persons, not sociological or psychodynamical constructs, are the substances of social life and the referents of meaning within it, and the “diminished notion of individual responsibility for personal acts ... [and failure to bear adequately] responsibility for collective acts” of which Seeley wrote in a different context as underwriting the growth of a soft totalitarianism, had here a most personal face.

         Again and again during his major engagements of the next decade, Seeley was to be devastated by this sense of personal betrayal by specific persons -- betrayal not of abstract ideas, but of specific substantive and procedural contracts and of the moral purposes incarnated in them. He took such matters so seriously, so personally that his reactions brought him a reputation as quixotic, A more “realistic” man might well have grown used to the process or insulated himself from it emotionally, but Seeley had gone a long journey to dissolve the division between his private self and his social persona, and was no longer desirous or capable of reversing it. For the rest of his life, Seeley was to continue to find such betrayals unforgivable, for they struck at the foundation of the chance to create an order of humane justice in the world, and rendered the community he sought for himself and others impossible because unbelievable.

         Still they kept happening to him, as if he went looking [or them. His work alone was bound to set them up, but so perhaps was the way he went about it. Despite his socio-analytic grounding, he often misjudged the complexities of motive and the strength of the binding forces which constrain human decision; and assumed too readily that others shared his understanding of the understandings they professed, and were committed to the action implications. Still he persisted in taking people at their best word. This was often a means either of provoking them to act on their high pretensions or to reveal their difference from their word, in ways which left him feeling abused and righteous, as if to justify a childhood script. It was equally a consistent style of public pedagogy, as much an attempt to create a civilizing truth as to reveal its betrayal.

[Brandeis, M.I.T.]

         A battle had been lost. In contrast with Seeley's later experience there was yet no active purging of the losers; but like others, Seeley had lost the heart to invest himself further in that particular arena, and at the end of the third year he took a leave of absence, and subsequently resigned after many of the faculty, also formally protesting, had done so.

         It was 1963. Seeley went with his family to Brandeis as a visiting professor in the sociology department. He enjoyed a simultaneous appointment as sociologist in the Medical Department of M.I.T. Here his main work was with Ben Snyder, pursuing the ideas they had developed together in the Space Cadets. They undertook a psychoanalytic-oriented study of the “hidden curriculum” of M.LT., attempting to recognize afresh what and how students actually learned there. They discovered, in every influence of architecture and each professor's gesture, a world of meaning with significant implications for educational policy and practice; but Seeley's written output dealt less with this richness than with critique of the inadequate perspectives on ego development that had been revealed by the depth-interview processes of their study.

          At M.l.T., Seeley found himself again the consultant who could bridge the gaps between the domains of sociology, psychology and the statistical or “positive” sciences. Indeed, he had become reasonably skilled in this latter domain since encountering Euclid. Perhaps his sharpest accomplishment was his use of logical algebra and attribute analysis to demonstrate that the “Jellinek formula” upon which all contemporary estimations of alcoholism were based was not simply unreliable, but demonstrably logically false. Here again, with customary perversity, Seeley was troubling the justification of orthodox socio-therapeutic strategies, and it drew the customary reaction. He found it hard even to get the results published, and ever after watched the papers of the field refer to it in dutiful footnotes, but persist in using the disproven methods of estimation anyway.              

         Seeley's main engagement in Boston was with Brandeis, where he found himself welcomed by the faculty of both his fields. The pressure to keep him there grew to match his liking of the place, and led President Sacher to secure the funds for a perpetually endowed chair in Seeley's name. When an invitation came to spend time as a Fellow at the Center for the Advanced Study of the Behavioral Sciences, he was torn. Sacher bade him go, assuring him that the chair was assured -- as indeed it was, for he returned to Brandeis as the Philip Klutznick Distinguished Professor of Sociology. Reassured, Seeley moved across the country to California in 1964, where he meant to spend a year writing meta-sociology.

Continue to Part II

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(*) Crestwood Heights: A Study of the Culture of Suburban Life. by John R. Seeley, R. Alexander Sim and E. W. Loosley; Toronto: University Toronto Press, and New York: Basic Books, 1956    Back