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The Voice of History within Sociology

Robert Nisbet on Structure, Change, and Autonomy

Daniel Gordon

The conservative sociologist Robert Nisbet developed a theory that history is needed to supplement sociology. According to Nisbet, the chiefagents of historical change are the state and war. Sociologists tend to exaggerate the importance of internal or"endogenous" factors when explaining change. The article highlights the relationships between key topics— such as conservatism, medievalism, community, universities, the state, and war—in Nisbet's thought.

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From Act to Fact

The Transformation of Suicide in Western Thought

Daniel Gordon

Abstract

The article is about the moral debate over suicide, from Augustine to the present. It assesses critically the transformation of a humanistic debate into a scientific one. Among the figures who receive detailed attention are Augustine, Montaigne, Donne, Voltaire, Rousseau, and Durkheim.

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Daniel Gordon

If social science were a sport, Norbert Elias (1897-1990) would receive the award for comeback of the century. He was undistinguished during much of his career: an interminable graduate student in Weimar Germany; a disregarded refugee in Paris in 1933-1935; a prisoner in a British camp for aliens in 1940; an adjunct in adult-education centers during the immediate postwar years in London; a prey to writer’s block with no publications in the 1940s and only a few articles in the 1950s and 1960s. Elias finally got a full-time teaching job at Leicester University in 1954. The extent of his obscurity is evident from an incident at the meeting of the International Sociological Association in 1956. When a Dutch sociologist, Johan Goudsblom, asked to be introduced to him, Elias was astonished: It was the first time anyone had made such a request. In fact, it was the first time Elias had met anyone outside of his personal circle who had read The Civilizing Process.

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Daniel Gordon

“Intellectual life is a kind of combat,” wrote Fernand Braudel. I see no reason why historians, who happen to study early-modern civility, should behave like courtiers toward each other. But in point of fact, I do not describe Professor Chartier as a member of a terrible “sect.” The term “sect” appears only in a quotation from Zygmunt Bauman. And readers will observe that what Bauman and I are both getting at is the need to be critical of the process of canonization that has been at work in Elias’s case.

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Daniel Gordon

Using a comparative method, this article explores the reasons for the absence of a legal ban on Muslim headscarves in the United States. Study of France reveals a culture that values "public space" and "citizenship." The United States places more value on the generic concept of "religion" as the unifying bond among individuals, even of different religious groupings. Cross-religious sympathy is a distinctive feature of American culture and reflected in legal briefs to the Supreme Court. The article suggests that legal concepts are not merely reflections of social institutions but are important social facts in themselves.