Sociologist Donald Levine Receives Lifetime Achievement Award for Interpretation of Simmel

William Harms for the Division of the Social Sciences
Photo Credit: 
Heather Eidson

   George Simmel, a German philosopher of the early 20th Century, continues to guide the world of scholarship worldwide, thanks in good part to the work of sociologist Donald Levine.

In recognition of his efforts, the History of Sociology Section of the American Sociological Association gave Levine its Lifetime Achievement Award for translating and interpreting the work of Simmel, who exerted considerable influence in the early history of the Sociology Department at the University of Chicago.

Levine, the Peter B. Ritzma Professor Emeritus in Sociology, will speak in December in Paris at a conference honoring Simmel, who has been re-discovered in recent decades after being eclipsed by other classic social theorists like Emile Durkheim and Max Weber.

Simmel directed sociologists to look for explanations beyond two common perspectives in the field: viewing societies as real entities versus regarding only individuals and their actions as real.

Instead, Simmel urged sociologists to investigate what goes on between people.  That notion has generated many fruitful research pathways, including work on the dynamics of conflict, long since developed by the late Chicago Professor James S. Coleman, and social network theory, an area developed by Edward Laumann, the George Herbert Mead Distinguished Service Professor in Sociology, Levine said.

Although Simmel was highly influential in Europe, he received little attention there for his seminal work in sociology. In the U.S., however, his sociology became known early on thanks to the efforts of Albion Small, founder of the University’s Department of Sociology, the first of its kind in the country.   He became a hero among American sociologists and a respected influence at Chicago.

“Small undertook publishing papers by Simmel in the newly established American Journal of Sociology, beginning in 1896,” Levine said.  “Robert E. Park, the pivotal figure of what came to be known as the famous ‘Chicago School of Sociology’ studied with Simmel in Berlin in 1899 and absorbed Simmel’s approach to the discipline with enthusiasm.”

Park and colleague Ernest Burgess included ten selections from Simmel in a widely influential textbook they edited.  Other legendary UChicago figures such as Louis Wirth and Edward Shils drew heavily on his work as did Everett Hughes, who was a professor of Levine.  Levine received his Ph.D. in 1957 upon the completion of his dissertation, a comparison of the work of Simmel and Talcott Parsons.

His 1971 University of Chicago Press edition, Georg Simmel on Individuality and Social Forms, contributed to an international resurgence of interest in Simmel.  Levine continued intermittent work on the German philosopher in subsequent decades.  Most recently, the Press published his co-translation of one of Simmel testamentary masterpiece, The View of Life, in 2011.

Levine’s own career as a scholar has been remarkable, the ASA noted in giving him the Lifetime Achievement Award.  Besides his work on Simmel, he published a widely acclaimed work in social theory, Visions of the Sociological Tradition, in 1995; and a decade later, Powers of the Mind: The Reinvention of Liberal Learning in America, which celebrated the genius of figures like John Dewey, Robert Hutchins, Richard McKeon, Robert Redfield, and Joseph J. Schwab in creating brilliant breakthroughs in thinking about undergraduate education at Chicago.  In other major works Levine produced path-breaking work on Ethiopia, including the important Chicago Press books Wax and Gold: Traditions and Innovation in Ethiopian Culture (1965, 1972, 1986, and 2006) and Greater Ethiopia: The Evolution of a Multiethnic Society (1974, 2000, 2001).

His research on Ethiopia established Levine as one of the world’s leading figures in the field.  He received a major honor from the other ASA, the African Studies Association, for that work as well.  Last year, that ASA held a symposium in Philadelphia to discuss the continuing significance of Wax and Gold.

Throughout his career, like Simmel who was interested in the connections between people, Levine has been interested in ways to transform combative relations among people into dialogue. That is manifest in another of Levine’s longtime interests, aikido, often known as the “martial art of peace.” To promote the use of aikido ideas in resolving social conflicts of many sorts, Levine founded an NGO, Aiki Extensions.

The American Sociological Association recognized the importance of Levine's effort to connect the mutually distrusting schools within sociology  in its citation giving Levine the honor.  The Award Statement hailed the promotion of dialogue as Levine’s central contribution to social theory. It mentioned The Dialogical Turn as the title chosen appropriately for the Festschrift for him edited by Charles Camic and Hans Joas (2004), and concluded that “the author’s own voice is worth hearing:

The mission of a dialogical narrative is to display connections.  It may thereby encourage members of a community who share that narrative to forge and enjoy connections among themselves.  Yet dialogue connects without enforcing uniformity.  It promotes, as (Martin) Buber held true for ‘genuine conversation’ – and therefore for every actual fulfillment of interhuman relationship – the ‘acceptance of otherness.’ 

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