Gans, Herbert J. 1927-

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GANS, Herbert J. 1927-


Born May 7, 1927, in Cologne, Germany; emigrated to the United States in 1940, naturalized in 1945; son of Carl M. (a businessman) and Elise (Plaut) Gans; married Louise Gruner (a lawyer), March 19, 1967; children: David. Education: University of Chicago, Ph.B., 1947, M.A., 1950; University of Pennsylvania, Ph.D., 1957.


Home—435 Riverside Dr., Apt. 112, New York, NY 10025. Office—Department of Sociology, 404 Fayerweather Hall, Columbia University, New York, NY 10027.


American Society of Planning Officials, Chicago, IL, research assistant, 1950; Chicago Housing Authority, Chicago, assistant planner, 1950-51; P.A.C.E. Associates (planners), Chicago, chief research planner, 1951-52; U.S. Housing and Home Finance Agency, Division of Slum Clearance, Washington, DC, field representative, 1952-53; University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Institute for Urban Studies and department of city planning, research associate, 1953-57, assistant professor, 1958-61, research associate, professor of city planning and urban studies, 1961-64, department of sociology, lecturer, 1958-59; Columbia University, New York, NY, Teachers College, associate professor of sociology and education, 1964-66, adjunct professor of sociology and education, 1966-69, Institute for Urban Studies, research associate, 1964-65; Center for Urban Education, New York, NY, research associate, 1965-66, senior staff sociologist, 1966-69; Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, professor of sociology and planning, 1969-71, Massachusetts Institute of Technology-Harvard University Joint Center for Urban Studies, faculty associate, 1969-71; Center for Policy Research, New York, NY, senior research associate, 1971-80; Columbia University, professor of sociology and Ford Foundation urban chair, 1971-85, Robert S. Lynd Professor of Sociology, 1985—. Visiting professor, Columbia University, spring, 1969. Consultant to numerous planning agencies, including the Ford Foundation, U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, and U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Military service: U.S. Army, 1945-46.


American Sociological Association (member of council, 1968-71; president, 1988), American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Society for the Study of Social Problems (member of executive committee, 1968-71), Sociological Research Association, Eastern Sociological Society (president, 1972-73).


Research grants from Center for the Study of Leisure, University of Chicago, 1957, National Institute of Mental Health, 1959-60, 1973-76, Annenberg School of Communication, University of Pennsylvania, 1960, American Philosophical Society, 1961, Social Science Research Council, 1962, Pennsylvania-New Jersey-Delaware Metropolitan Project, 1962-63, Urban Studies Center, Rutgers University, 1963, Bullitt Foundation, 1964-68, Ford Foundation, 1969-73, and National Endowment for the Humanities, 1973; Guggenheim fellow, 1977-78; Theatre Library Association Award, 1979, and National Association of Educational Broadcasters Book Award, 1980, both for Deciding What's News: A Study of CBS Evening News, NBC Nightly News, Newsweek, and Time; Honorary Doctorate of Science, University of Pennsylvania, 2003.


The Urban Villagers: Groups and Class in the Life of Italian-Americans, Free Press (New York, NY), 1962, revised edition, 1982.

The Levittowners: Ways of Life and Politics in a New Suburban Community, Pantheon (New York, NY), 1967, published with a new preface, Columbia University Press (New York, NY), 1982.

People and Plans: Essays on Urban Problems and Solutions, Basic Books (New York, NY), 1968, revised edition published as People, Plans, and Policies: Essays on Poverty, Racism, and Other National Urban Problems, Columbia University Press (New York, NY), 1991.

The Uses of Television and Their Educational Implications, Center for Urban Education, 1968.

More Equality, Pantheon (New York, NY), 1973.

Popular Culture and High Culture: An Analysis and Evaluation of Taste, Basic Books (New York, NY), 1974, revised and updated edition, 1999.

Deciding What's News: A Study of CBS Evening News, NBC Nightly News, Newsweek, and Time, Pantheon (New York, NY), 1979, 25th Anniversary Edition, Northwestern University Press (Evanston, IL), 2004.

(Editor, with Nathan Glazer, Joseph R. Gusfield, and Christopher Jencks) On the Making of Americans: Essays in Honor of David Riesman, University of Pennsylvania Press (Philadelphia, PA), 1979.

Middle American Individualism: The Future of Liberal Democracy, Free Press (New York, NY), 1988.

(Editor) Sociology in America, Sage Publications (Newbury Park, CA), 1990.

The War against the Poor: The Underclass and Antipoverty Policy, Basic Books (New York, NY), 1995.

Making Sense of America: Sociological Analyses and Essays, Rowman & Littlefield (Lanham, MD), 1999.

Democracy and the News, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 2003.

Contributor of chapters to more than fifty books, including Howard S. Becker, editor, Social Problems: A Modern Approach, Wiley, 1966; P. Lazarsfeld, W. Sewell, and H. Wilensky, editors, Uses of Sociology, Basic Books, 1966; S. Withey and T. Abeles, Television and Social Behavior, Erlbaum, 1980; and Barry Glassner and Rosanna Hertz, editors, Our Studies, Ourselves: Sociologists' Lives and Work, Oxford University Press, 2003. Contributor to the "Kerner Report," 1968. Author of monographs and of column, "Gans on Films," Social Policy, 1971-78. Contributor of articles to magazines and scholarly journals, including Commonweal, Nation, New York Times Magazine, Saturday Review, and American Sociological Review. Advisory editor, Journal of the American Institute of Planners, 1965-75, Urban Life, 1971—, Society, 1971-76, Social Policy, 1971—(film critic, 1971-78), Public Opinion Quarterly, 1972—, American Journal of Sociology, 1972-73, Journal of Communications, 1974—, Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, and Ethnic and Racial Studies.


Herbert J. Gans is known for his participant-observer sociological studies, in which he immerses himself in the life of the community under consideration. Commentator John Goldthorpe found that Gans's studies often expose social myths. The Urban Villagers: Groups and Class in the Life of Italian-Americans, Gans's study of Boston's West End, is, Goldthorpe felt, "in effect an excellent piece debunking the whole idea of the happy urban peasant." The Levittowners: Ways of Life and Politics in a New Suburban Community, attacks the myth of the suburb, which holds, according to Goldthorpe's summary, that suburbanites are anxious, bored, cultureless social climbers without communal roots. Gans discovers, as Goldthorpe summarized it, that "most of the charges made against suburbia simply do not stick.… There are no good reasons for believing that the residents of Levittown are any more conformist, insecure, anxious, status-conscious, bored, etc. than otherwise comparable Americans who are not suburbanites."

On the other hand, Richard Kluger commented that "Mr. Gans is so zealous a champion of the Levittown brand of suburb that one suggests… he has overstated its virtues and understated its drawbacks to about the same extent that suburbia's critics have overstated the drawbacks and understated the virtues." Kluger argued that Gans ignores the fact that "Levittown lacked a number of features that would seem to be universally desirable in a community,… [such as] 'visual interest, cultural diversity, entertainment, esthetic pleasure, variety, and emotional stimulation.'"

Gans continues to contradict common social beliefs in Popular Culture and High Culture: An Analysis and Evaluation of Taste, in which, remarked Richard Todd in Atlantic, the author argues that "American culture includes several levels of taste—Gans calls them 'taste cultures'—and that any one of them is as good as any other, because each serves the needs and wants of a particular public." Gans also opposes policies which would urge that these "taste cultures" be improved and, as Christopher Lehmann-Haupt summarized, "instead encourages 'more cultural pluralism' by means of 'subcultural programming' (or cultural programs that would appeal to groups that are now excluded by mass culture, like the poor, the old, and the ethnic)." Lehmann-Haupt found merit in the latter position, noting that "anyone who has ever tried to force 'high art' down the throats of intelligent people whose tastes run to what Professor Gans identifies as the 'lower-middle' cultural range will recognize all too well what he means when he argues that 'high art' isn't necessarily 'better' and that exposure to such levels of culture doesn't automatically 'improve.'"

In writing Deciding What's News: A Study of CBS Evening News, NBC Nightly News, Newsweek, and Time, Gans returned to a participant-observer role, spending a few months observing each of these news organizations. Deirdre Carmody, who saw the study as suffering a few serious limitations, considered Gans "at his best when he analyzes the relationship between the journalists he has observed and their sources," for Gans found that journalists contact a limited number of people who are mostly like themselves. Frank Mankiewicz made a similar point and concluded: " Deciding What's News is a good study. It tells us that our colleagues who set much of the nation's agenda have solid, bourgeois, mildly reformist views, respect authority, want to be liked and probably see the unfamiliar as vaguely threatening. The result is that tomorrow's news is going to look very much like today's, even if the world does not."

In Middle American Individualism: The Future of Liberal Democracy, Gans looks at the political and social viewpoints of the middle and working classes. He finds that these people are more interested in the well-being of their immediate circles—which Gans dubs "microsocieties"—than of society as a whole, but contends that this does not mean they are selfish. They want "an egalitarian, humane welfare state that takes care of their needs—low taxes, full employment—as well as the needs of the poor," as Alex Raksin summarized it in the Los Angeles Times Book Review. Middle Americans' lack of interest in politics, Gans asserts, is the fault of politicians; he recommends that elected officials add staff members to reach out to disinterested or under-represented constituencies.

"Gans' portrait of middle Americans as ideologically conservative but programmatically liberal is hardly novel," Gregory B. Markus observed in the Washington Post Book World. Still, he says, the book is "thoughtful, lucid and, often, persuasive." New York Times Book Review contributor Steven Kelman argued that Gans overstates the case for middle-American individualism: "It is one thing to point out that most people have only limited interest in politics; this does not necessarily imply that the nature of the interest they do have is centered exclusively on themselves.… Gans seems too willing to abandon the ethical demand, which government at its best helps sustain, that people show concern for the welfare of others." At the same time, both Kelman and Markus complain that some of Gans's policy recommendations—for instance, his endorsement of income-redistribution programs—are at odds with his theme of individualism.

Gans turns his attention to the people at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder in The War against the Poor: The Underclass and Antipoverty Policy. He asserts that many of the terms used to describe the poor—including the term "underclass"—help the rest of society maintain its detachment from the poor. These labels, according to Gans, also facilitate blaming the poor for their condition and interfere with antipoverty efforts. "Labels may only be words," Gans writes, "but they are judgmental or normative words, which can steer institutions and individuals to punitive action." He calls not only for an end to such labeling, but also for numerous economic reforms aimed at combating poverty. Among the latter is a shorter work week, designed to increase the number of available jobs.

New York Times Book Review contributor Robert Pear termed the book "a prescient, clear-eyed analysis of American social policy," but thought that Gans "pushes his thesis a bit beyond his evidence." Labeling, Pear pointed out, is "one of the most basic functions of sociology"; data gathered by sociologists "can be used for odious or immoral purposes, but it can also be used to arouse the concern and compassion needed to cure misery." Washington Post Book World reviewer Jonathan Freedman, though, deemed Gans's work "a compelling case study of how the 'undeserving under-class of undesirables' was created." He pointed out Gans's stance that "the poor are not undeserving, but rather underserved" and endorsed the author's conclusion that "the underclass label distracts us from the real problems facing America."

Similar sentiments came from Thomas J. Sugrue, writing in Tikkun. He described The War against the Poor as "passionate and enlightening" and praised Gans's call for "the creation of a humane society that offers genuine opportunities for its most disadvantaged population." Allan Carlson, critiquing the book for the National Review, offered a far different perspective. He disparaged Gans as "a stereotypical liberal" and contended that the author's suggested cures for poverty are either socialistic or confused. He found some value in the book, though, noting that Gans "identifies the perverse social utilities of the concept of 'the undeserving poor,' some of which ring true."

Gans explores recent trends in the media and their effects on American society in his 2003 work Democracy and the News. He looks at the "disempowerment spiral" that is leading average citizens to withdraw from political participation, and "finds a convenient villain in a press that has grown corporate and corpulent, seeking excessive rates of profit, replacing hard news with soft features and blurring the once inviolable division between church (the editorial side) and state (the business side)," as Ted Widmer summarized in the New York Times Book Review. The author's solution is to advocate for a news media that better informs citizens about key issues by presenting more viewpoints and opinions, as well as emphasizing the "Why" behind news stories rather than just the "Who," "What," "When," and "Where."

Several critics have praised the author's analysis of the U.S. media, although they were less enthused about his proposed solutions. Houston Chronicle writer Steven E. Alford, for instance, called Democracy and the News "a sober, researched and valuable contribution to the current discussion of the media. But while Gans' idealism is admirable," the critic explained, "his solutions in no way stand up to the enormity of the problems in the media." Reason contributor Joli Jensen believed that Gans's hope for a more informative news media is "surprising," given his "deep understanding of people's lived experiences and [how he] has long been an articulate champion of cultural pluralism." Jensen suggested that the news can also be viewed as a method of "dramatic, ritual participation in common experience," and thus when Gans "comes to thinking about news and democracy, he maintains a definition of news as information that almost completely misses its role as culture." Despite what he called some "seemingly naive" suggestions and a dearth of documentation, American Journalism Review contributor Carl Sessions Stepp found Gans's analysis of the widening gap between the media and the public "perceptive and pertinent," and concluded: "Gans is still an informed, keen observer. In a time of journalistic uncertainty, his kind of thinking is stimulating and needed."



Gans, Herbert J., The War against the Poor: The Underclass and Antipoverty Policy, Basic Books (New York, NY), 1995.


American Journalism Review, January-February, 2003, Carl Sessions Stepp, "Provocative Thoughts from an Outsider," p. 51.

Atlantic, March, 1975, Richard Todd, review of Popular Culture and High Culture.

Contemporary Sociology, May, 1996, Joan Moore, review of The War against the Poor: The Under-class and Antipoverty Policy, pp. 335-336.

Houston Chronicle, June 15, 2003, Steven E. Alford, "Treatise on Media Failings Falls Short of a Fix," p. 21.

Los Angeles Times Book Review, May 27, 1988, Alex Raksin, review of Middle American Individualism: The Future of Liberal Democracy, p. 4.

National Review, June 3, 1996, Allan Carlson, review of The War against the Poor, pp. 53-54.

New York Review of Books, May 23, 1968, Edgar Z. Friedenberg, "The Way We Live Now."

New York Times Book Review, August 7, 1988, Steven Kelman, review of Middle American Individualism, p. 14; December 10, 1995, Robert Pear, review of The War against the Poor, p. 46; March 16, 2003, Ted Widmer, "The Wayward Media: Two Analysts Discern a Right-Wing Press in America and an Undemocratic One," p. 10.

New York Times Magazine, October 22, 1995, Max Frankel, "What the Poor Deserve," p. 46.

Reason, August-September, 2003, Joli Jensen, review of Democracy and the News, p. 66.

Tikkun, September, 1995, Thomas J. Sugrue, review of The War against the Poor, pp. 87-90.

Washington Post Book World, June 26, 1988, Gregory B. Markus, "In Search of the Political Heartland," pp. 1, 8; October 22, 1995, Jonathan Freedman, "Cruel and Unusual Punishment," pp. 1, 10.

Wilson Quarterly, summer, 2003, Matt Welch, review of Democracy and the News, p. 119.