Nathan Glazer was recognized as one of America’s most important sociologists, social science researchers, and social commentators. He taught for several decades at Harvard University and, before that, at the University of California at Berkeley.
Glazer was born in 1923 and was raised in Harlem and in the Bronx, New York. He grew up in a lower- middle-class Jewish immigrant family. While at New York’s City College he became part of a group of radicals who ate together at the school cafeteria in an enclosed upstairs spot called Alcove 1. Others in his set were the political intellectual Irving Kristol, literary critic Irving Howe, and Glazer’s future Harvard faculty colleague, the sociologist Daniel Bell. The group was sympathetic to Marxism, but antagonistic toward Stalinism and aware of the enormity of the crimes committed by the Soviet government.
Glazer attended graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia University, where he received his doctorate in sociology. At Columbia, Glazer assisted David Riesman, then a law school student, on his controversial but immediately celebrated book The Lonely Crowd.
The Lonely Crowd suggests that a personality type that it terms “outer-directed” is becoming increasingly prevalent. This personality is more concerned with social acceptance and popularity than the alternative, “inner-directed” personality. The book argues that inner-directedness had been predominant in America, but that new approaches in education and urbanization were altering the nation’s character.
Working on his own during the 1950s, Glazer shifted his focus toward the differences among New York ethnic groups, but continued to employ many of the methods that had characterized his work with Riesman.
Thus, Glazer’s writing employs first-hand observation and extensive field research, which he combines with significant statistical data, often taken from official sources. He does not use experimentation, but relies on reasoned analysis and interpretation. His writing is pithy and direct and meant to be read both by professionals and by educated laymen.
After the Second World War, Glazer became increasingly convinced of the necessity of a vibrant defense of the nation against its Communist enemies abroad. Yet Glazer was still very much on the political Left, and was thus asked by the socialist New Leader magazine to investigate the Rosenberg atomic spy case, which most leftists believed to have been fraudulent. In his article and the book that grew out of his research, A New Look at The Rosenberg-Sobell Case, Glazer marshals the evidence to show the overwhelming argument for the Rosenbergs’ guilt. Glazer further concludes that the couple must have been part of a much larger conspiracy, stating, “The story that has not been told is of espionage more extensive than we know.” That opinion has since been affirmed by further research.
Glazer remained deeply concerned with the cause of civil rights and with the marked distinctions he observed among various ethnic populations in New York. Of special interest to him were the problems faced by two new groups coming into the city, blacks arriving from the segregated South and Puerto Ricans emigrating from their native island commonwealth.
The widely held view during the 1950s was that the country was homogenizing—people of different backgrounds and ethnicities were becoming more and more alike. The notion was that all ethnic and religious identities were being subsumed into a common “melting pot.”
Glazer’s research instead showed that while the different ethnic groups were all moving ahead in education and income, they were—even after many generations of living together—markedly dissimilar in their attitudes, interests, beliefs, and modes of behavior. As his collaborator Daniel Patrick Moynihan observed at a New York Public Library luncheon honoring him, within the halls of the library Glazer had done the research that disproved Karl Marx and his philosophy of economic determinism.
The book that resulted from their research, Beyond the Melting Pot (1963), shows that economics is but one factor affecting the actions of groups and individuals over long periods of time. Culture is another, and possibly equally strong, determinant. The preferences groups show for certain occupations, the frequency with which they are confronted by particular social pathologies, their levels of income and education, their attitudes toward religion, and their political identification: all persist over generations. Even within a racial group—as with African-Americans—there are significant differences in levels of education and values between those who had emigrated from the West Indies and those who had arrived from the American South. The book’s influence should not be underestimated. As journalist James Traub has said, the book is “one of the most popular, and most influential, works of sociology of its time.”
Coincident with Beyond the Melting Pot, Glazer was working on a history of Jews in the United States. This book, American Judaism, appeared in 1957. Later Glazer would produce one of the first critical studies of the plight of Jews living in the Soviet Union and of the prejudice and harassment they faced.
Glazer’s interest in the groups making up the bulk of the populations of the country’s major cities was matched by an interest in architecture and urban design, and during the Kennedy administration he assisted with the work of the federal government’s Department of Housing and Home Finance.
Following the failure in 1963 of a campaign to save New York’s old Pennsylvania Station, Glazer supported the creation of the New York Landmarks Preservation Commission and the cause of historical preservation. He would prove sympathetic to Jane Jacobs’ idea that the city requires styles of architecture and design that encourage social contact and interaction, and public edifices marked by elegance and distinction.
Thus, when the Johnson administration began financing the construction of enormous public housing projects across the country, Glazer questioned the merits of these programs, along with the enormous growth in social spending connected with Johnson’s Great Society and his War on Poverty. Along with Moynihan, Glazer argued that unless a growing pattern of social decline among the poor—increasing rates of family break-up, drug use, and crime—was reversed, the spending would offer modest benefits. These ideas were developed in his The Limits of Social Policy (1988), which amasses a vast amount of data to show that government poverty programs were working to increase family dissolution and thereby increasing the very problems that they were meant to solve.
As a professor at the University of California at Berkeley in 1964, Glazer showed little tolerance for the violence and lawlessness of the Berkeley student radicals. When the “Free Speech” protestors refused to allow other students to attend classes and held a police officer hostage, and the University President Clark Kerr wished to deal with the problem through acquiescence rather than punishment, Glazer spoke on behalf of a rival response proposed by his colleague Lewis Feuer that called for the University to permit speech only when it was “directed to[wards] no immediate act of force and violence.” Glazer and Feuer noted that the rise of Nazism had been aided by the tolerance and permissiveness shown by administrators in response to persistent campaigns of harassment engaged in by students on German college campuses during the 1930s.
In the following year, Glazer’s college classmates Irving Kristol and Daniel Bell founded the influential scholarly quarterly The Public Interest, and Glazer’s writing appeared in the first issue. Glazer contributed to the magazine for the next forty years, and in 1973 he replaced Bell as one of its two main editors. He served in this position until 2003. Glazer also worked on the editorial staff of the magazine Commentary.
Glazer’s first article for The Public Interest, “Paradoxes of American Poverty” (Fall 1965), examines the possible means by which to deal with the problem of poverty in the United States. Glazer makes a case for the idea of the federal government’s providing a guaranteed minimum income in place of its great number of welfare programs. His reasoning is that a guaranteed minimum income would offer assistance to those who were working but indigent as well as to those who were without jobs. By contrast, many welfare programs encourage people to remain on public assistance and reward the idle poor above the working poor.
Although the White House and Congress would consider the idea of a guaranteed minimum income during the Nixon administration, such a plan has never been implemented. However, this idea would eventually lead to adoption of the Earned Income Tax Credit.
Glazer’s Winter 1971 Public Interest article “Paradoxes of Health Care” was one of the first considerations of health care policies to argue that the differences in health care outcomes in the United States, compared with those in European countries with socialized medicine such as Sweden and England, might not reflect a differing quality of care. Glazer shows that variance in rate of infant mortality and accidents might instead reflect differences among the patient groups themselves.
A 1987 essay in the magazine by Glazer, “The Constitution and American Diversity,” highlights the potential for conflicts between individual rights (as outlined in the U.S. Constitution) and the new concept of “group rights.” Glazer observes that this issue was bound to be a cause of growing tension because of increased immigration. Among the sources of disputes just beginning to garner notice, he focuses on those arising from laws barring discrimination in employment against homosexuals versus the stance of the Catholic Church, and the wishes of immigrant Muslims versus “the rights of women and female children.”
In 1969 Glazer joined Daniel Bell on the faculty of Harvard’s Department of Sociology, and six years later Harvard University Press published his Affirmative Discrimination: Ethnic Inequality and Public Policy. The book deals with the conflict between individual rights and group rights and between equality of treatment and equality of outcome.
Glazer points out that however valuable equality is as a goal, the government cannot re-make society wholesale; in a free society there must be Constitutional limits on its power. Moreover, differences in outcomes do not prove discrimination. Thus, however noble the aims of “affirmative action” policies may be, they must be implemented with considerable prudence and restraint.
Glazer’s 1997 book We Are All Multiculturalists Now details the contents of new American history textbooks and ruefully notes the much greater emphasis placed upon wrongs in the country’s past and the limited praise for its achievements and accomplishments. But Glazer sees this trend in light of the value of inclusion of the “narratives” given over to African-Americans and other, once-disenfranchised people. Indeed, although Glazer was often described in the press as a neo-conservative, he did not use the label to describe himself; he was a determined, if unorthodox, supporter of an assortment of traditional liberal causes and beliefs.
At the time of his death, on January 19, 2019, Glazer was emeritus Professor of Sociology and Education at Harvard University.