Edward Albert Shils

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Edward Albert Shils

Edward Albert Shils (1911-1995), American sociologist, studied the sociology of culture, with special attention to the role of ideology in culture and the part played by intellectuals in the formation and shaping of ideology. He also studied the sociology of science, of higher education, and of literature, plus the sociology of sociology itself.

For whatever reason, Edward Albert Shils chose to keep most of the facts of his life closed to public view. We do know, however, that he was born in 1911 and received a Bachelor's degree in foreign languages from the University of Pennsylvania some 20 years later. He worked as a social worker for several years, including one year in New York.

On September 22, 1932, this young man [as he described himself in one of his articles] without social airs and without social ambitions, poor, rather ignorant, serious, and intellectual, launched on a quest without knowing what he was looking for" and went to the University of Chicago. There he found an atmosphere that permitted him to grope, along with professors who were themselves groping, trying to find answers to questions about human social life. Shils was particularly influenced by the economist Frank H. Knight, the economic historian John U. Nef, and the sociologist Robert E. Park. Each of them opened aspects of behavior to Shils that he had never thought related to one another and that he increasingly felt could only be answered through a sociological framework.

Shils became a research assistant in sociology (and took a decrease in his monthly salary from the $125 he had earned as a social worker to $86.11) but, he says, he never took a course for credit at the university because the requirements were not up to my standards." Consequently, this distinguished sociologist completed not a single course in the field, nor did he receive a Ph.D. Such was the latitude for individual growth and discovery provided at that time by the University of Chicago (from which he retired as a distinguished professor in 1985).

Work at Home and Abroad

His linguistic ability brought him into contact with the writings of the German sociologists Georg Simmel, Max Weber, and Karl Mannheim and the French sociologist Emile Durkheim. During his Chicago years, these writers helped to shape Shils' thinking about the relation between social groups, the shaping of ways of thinking through group membership, and the role played by scholars and scholarship in human affairs. These ideas led him to collaborate in the launching of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists with scientists who had worked in the top-secret Manhattan Project to produce the first atomic bombs during World War II and who, emerging from secrecy after the war, attempted to alert governments to the risks of nuclear weaponry.

Shils joined the staff of the London School of Economics in 1946 and taught sociology. While there, as he watched the British Empire begin to divest itself of its colonies, including the vast subcontinent of India, he raised questions about intellectuals in the new states." In 1947 he delivered a series of lectures in London on primary groups in the social structure, focusing especially on some earlier research he had done (with Morris Janowitz) on the dissolution of the German army during the war. Meanwhile, he continued his close connection with the atomic scientists' movement.

In 1949 the sociologist Talcott Parsons invited Shils to Harvard University to join him in writing what was to become a major sociological document of the mid-20th century—Toward a General Theory of Action (1951)—and in developing what they called action theory." Shils' acceptance renewed a friendship that had begun in 1936, when they first met at the University of Chicago. Together Parsons and Shils attempted to construct an all-inclusive sociological theory that would provide a unified understanding of society, that would find an interconnectedness of all things social. Shils described Parsons as a saint of sociology," and their collaboration persisted until Parsons' death in 1979.

Return to the University of Chicago

From 1952 to 1953 Shils lectured at the University of Manchester, and in late 1953 he returned to the University of Chicago with a joint appointment to its Committee on Social Thought, an interdisciplinary program in the social sciences, and to the Department of Sociology. Here he remained until his retirement in 1985.

New interests now engaged him: the plight of the intellectual in a time of conservative reaction to thought deemed to be radical or unpopular; academic freedom; mass culture; and the proper organization of intellectual institutions which would enable them to meet their intellectual and social obligations." He visited India for an extended period in 1955 and 1956, and returned every year but one until 1967. In 1962 he created the quarterly journal Minerva to deal with matters of science policy and higher education. He was invited by the University of Kent in Canterbury to deliver the T.S. Eliot Memorial Lectures in 1974; his subject was the part played by tradition in modern life. In 1983 he received the International Balzan Prize, awarded by an Italian foundation for fields without Nobel Prizes. In presenting Shils the prize, the foundation cited him for combining the empiricism of American sociology with the theoretical thinking of European sociologists, thus contributing toward a truly universal general sociology." He was the first sociologist, and the second social and moral" scientist after Jean Piaget, to be given that honor.

Although Shils investigated a wide variety of social phenomena, the central concern of his work was his attempt to answer the age-old question: how is society possible? His answer was a sociological one, rooted both in the classic sociological tradition of Georg Simmel, Max Weber, and Emile Durkheim and in the American writings of Robert E. Park, W. I. Thomas, and Charles Cooley. He argued that societies exist through the varieties of ties people form to one another—in small groups, large collectivities, or even social classes or nations—the ideologies or systems of beliefs that make some ties more permanent than others, more important than others. One can understand a particular society or societies in general by looking not at a single moment in time but at a series of connected moments— developing what Park called a natural history" and noting the consistencies or changes from moment to moment.

However, the strength or location of social ties does not yet tell the whole story. Ideology, religion, science, and media culture are all essential to persistence and change in society, and, unless they are understood in all their richness and variety, one cannot possibly understand the social order. It was Shils' sensitivity to the interplay between ideas and action that was at the core of his sociological work and which linked him to the larger tradition of social thought. Perhaps Shils best characterized his efforts (on the opening page of the first issue of Minerva) as the improvement of understanding."

Shils taught every year for 56 years—teaching his last class at the age of eighty-four. In the last fifteen years of his life he concentrated his attention on clarifying the nature of what he called collective self-consciousness. By the term collective self-consciousness, he meant the self-consciousness of a collectivity, in particular a society. He thought that society was a real entity.

Among his good friends were to be found many scientists: the Hungarian physicist Leo Szilard, the German physicist Heinz Maier-Leibniz, and the American physicist Alvin Weinberg. He knew much about governmental policy toward the natural sciences; one of the areas covered by Minerva) was the influence of government on scientific research.

In 1979, he was selected by the National Council on the Humanities to give the Jefferson Lecture, the highest national honor given in the field of the humanities.

Further Reading

One can best learn of Shils as person and sociologist by reading his own work. Collections of his papers include: Selected Essays (1970), whose contents cover the breadth of his concerns and include what has become a sociological classic: "The Calling of Sociology." In addition, there are The Intellectuals and the Powers and Other Essays (1972) and Center and Periphery: Essays in Macrosociology (1975). He is the author of The Present State of American Sociology (1948); Political Development in the New States (1962); The Torment of Secrecy (1974 reprint with new introduction); Tradition (1981); Cambridge Women: Twelve Portraits (1996); and Portraits: A Gallery of Intellectuals (1997). He edited with Talcott Parsons Toward a General Theory of Action (1951); and, with Parsons, Kaspar D. Naegele, and Jesse R. Pitts, Theories of Society (1961). He also was the editor of a selection of articles from Minerva, Criteria for Scientific Development: Public Policy and National Goals (1968). The titles indicate the subjects of the books. A set of essays in honor of Edward Shils," Culture and Its Creators, assembled by two of his students, Joseph Ben-David and Terry Nichols Clark, appeared in 1977; it contains an all-too-brief assessment of the character and contributions of Shils. His obituary appeared in the January 29, 1995, Chicago Tribune and New York Times.

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