Academic journal article Southern Cultures

The Promise of a Sociology of the South

Academic journal article Southern Cultures

The Promise of a Sociology of the South

Article excerpt

Some months ago, I gave a talk on the American South at the University of Mississippi. During the question-and-answer session that followed, a southern historian noted the prominence of the "ubiquitous" (his word) John Shelton Reed in debates about southern distinctiveness. As a sociologist, I was struck, and also unreasonably pleased, by this historian's assessment of the centrality of another sociologist's contribution to a supremely historical question. But I was not particularly surprised: Reed, recently retired Kenan Professor of Sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is beyond doubt the most accomplished and influential living sociologist of the U.S. South, occupying, in the words of Eugene Genovese, "a special place among American social scientists." Few sociologists are so closely associated with their subject matter, and fewer still have been so richly honored for their contributions.(1)

In a large number of books, professional articles, and essays and lectures intended for both specialists and nonspecialists, Reed has wrestled with an interwoven series of questions: What, and where, is the South? Who is a southerner? What do they do down there, and why do they do what they do? Are the South and southerners still distinctive? His approach to these questions is basically social psychological and cultural. Reed certainly knows how southerners vote and how they make their livings, and incorporates these and similar facts about past and present into his interpretations. He is generally, however, less interested in these aspects of southern life, or in class or gender relations, or structural changes in the polity or the economy, than in what and how southerners and nonsoutherners think, in how they express and represent their sense of regional identity and allegiance, and in representations of, and cultural stereotypes from and about, the South.(2)

Not all of Reed's social science has dealt with the region, of course, and not all that he has written about the South is, or pretends to be, sociology. Still, for more than thirty years Reed has applied his very considerable sociological gifts to the enjoyable tasks of unraveling the complexities and contradictions of the modern South, of documenting its continued salience for southerners and nonsoutherners alike, and of plumbing the significance of its place in the broader American experience. And in so doing, he has, almost single-handedly, kept alive the regionalist flame lit by Howard W. Odum, Rupert B. Vance, Katherine Jocher, and the other Chapel Hill sociologists in the 1920s and 1930s. Whatever intellectual respect the sociology of the South has today is due in great measure to John Reed.(3)

THE GOLDEN AGE OF SOCIOLOGY IN AND OF THE SOUTH

To appreciate fully the magnitude--and, to some extent, the mechanics--of Reed's achievement, we must situate it in the context of past and present sociological practice in the United States. Readers of Southern Cultures know that sociologists, social psychologists, and anthropologists in the 1930s and 1940s conducted some of the most illuminating and politically relevant research on the U.S. South. The books and monographs these social scientists--many but certainly not all southern in origin--wrote are today legion: Howard Odum's Southern Regions of the United States, Hortense Powdermaker's After Freedom, Charles Johnson's Shadow of the Plantation, Harriet Herring's Passing of the Mill Village, Rupert Vance's Human Geography of the South. Focused and remarkably fecund, the list goes on and on and on. Academic sociology was also decisive in the production of the most enduring and influential of the era's explorations of the South: Gunnar Myrdal's An American Dilemma, begun in the late 1930s and published in 1944. University of Minnesota sociologist Arnold Rose, along with Richard Sterner, is credited with coauthorship of sorts on the title page, and Myrdal, in his preface to the book, details Rose's voluminous contributions. …

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