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Herbert J. Gans was born in Cologne, Germany, in 1927. He escaped the worst of the Nazi Occupation, moving first to England in 1938 and then to the United States in 1940, becoming an American citizen in 1945. After graduating from the University of Chicago in 1950 with an MA in sociology and social science, Gans worked for three years with public and private agencies as a planner of two new towns. In 1953 he turned to academia, receiving his PhD from the University of Pennsylvania in 1957 and advancing to the position of associate professor of urban studies by 1964. Between 1964 and 1969, Gans worked as a research associate for the Institute for Urban Studies and Planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In 1971 he became a professor of sociology at Columbia University, and in 1985 he became the Robert S. Lynd Professor at Columbia. In 1989 he served as president of the American Sociological Association, and he received the association’s Public Understanding of Sociology Award in 1999.
Gans’s research and teaching activities have been largely concentrated in the area of urban sociology. Committed to the social-scientific method of participant observation, his first book, The Urban Villagers (1962), was a study of an Italian American neighborhood in Boston. Gans noted how economic terms such as underclass had evolved into judgments of moral value attached to the poor in society. From his analysis, Gans concluded that the various forms of social problems associated with poor neighborhoods were not a cultural characteristic of the people who lived there, but rather a direct result of the social and economic circumstances of their poverty. This was to be a recurrent theme in Gans’s writings, emerging powerfully in a later work, The War against the Poor (1995), in which he analyzed the social, psychological, and political reasons that Americans continue to seek to indict millions of poor citizens as “undeserving.”
The Levittowners (1967) focused specifically upon the origin and quality of suburban life, including its effects on human behavior. Gans then moved on to challenge the supposed universality of high cultural standards in Popular Culture and High Culture (1974). An outspoken advocate of cultural pluralism, Gans pointed out that the alleged convergence of high culture and popular culture could not be empirically sustained, because the lifestyle choices of middle-class and working-class social groups remained divergent. This concern with how various social groups make decisions informed his next publication, Deciding What’s News (1979), in which he looked at the impact of news agendas on individual decision-making and the shaping of a nation’s self-image. He returned to this theme in Democracy and the News (2003), arguing that a news media manipulated by private corporations threatens to undermine the basic foundations of American democracy by failing to properly inform its citizenry.
One of Gans’s most influential concepts is “symbolic ethnicity,” which refers to a nostalgic allegiance to an ethnic culture, typically of an immigrant generation, that can be felt without having to be frequently incorporated into everyday life practices. Symbolic ethnicity is thus about feeling ethnic, without necessarily being so.
A second influential idea is the “function of poverty,” and Gans will be remembered for the controversy that this idea created. Gans argues that poverty satisfies a number of positive functions for many nonpoor groups in American society—such as carrying out the essential lowpaid work that others will not undertake. Though he has controversially associated poverty with positive functions in this way, Gans maintains that recognizing this does not mean that poverty should, or must, continue to exist.
- Gans, Herbert J. 1962. The Urban Villagers: Group and Class in the Life of Italian-Americans. New York: Free Press.
- Gans, Herbert J. 1995. The War Against the Poor: The Underclass and Antipoverty Policy. New York: Basic Books.
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