One of the most prolific and influential sociologists of his generation, Gans trained in urban planning at the University of Pennsylvania, where he studied with Martin Meyerson and Lewis Mumford, among others. Gans made his reputation as a critic of urban renewal in the early 1960s. His study, The Urban Villagers focused on Boston's diverse West End neighborhood which was demolished for the construction of high rise apartments. Gans contrasted the diverse, lively community of immigrants and their children with the impersonal life in the modernist towers that replaced them.
One of the hallmarks of Gans's work is his willingness to challenge conventional wisdom. His 1967 book The Levittowners was based on several years of participant-observation in New Jersey's Levitt-built suburb in Willingboro. Arguing against the popular depiction of suburbs as anomic, apolitical, and antisocial, Gans focused on the dense web of social and political life and institutional innovation in a place that many considered a prototypical suburb.
Like many sociologists of the mid-twentieth century, Gans did not draw a bright line between advocacy and scholarship. He served as a consultant to the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorder (also known as the Kerner Commission), published widely in popular periodicals and newspapers, and consulted in urban and public policy. Gans also offered rigorous, often scathing criticism of the sociological weaknesses of such concepts as the "urban underclass," most notably in The War Against The Poor (1995). Gans also continued to write critically about what he called the fallacy of "architectural determinism," namely the belief that urban planning and architecture could solve the problems of poverty and declining civic engagement. His collection of essays People, Plans, and Policies (1991) offered his most sustained criticism of city planning as a vehicle for social reform.
In mid-career, Gans developed a third major thread in his scholarship. He became one of the first and most prominent sociologists of the mass media, particularly television. Here Gans was influenced by the Frankfurt School, offering grounded studies of media production and news broadcasting. Gans did not spend as much time as other mid-century sociologists theorizing, but his work often offers pointed critiques of sociological method. In one of his more piquant articles, Gans lamented what he saw as the intellectual cost of social scientists' emphasis on novelty, arguing that cohorts of academics regularly suffered "sociological amnesia," failing to acknowledge their indebtedness to a previous generation of scholars in their field.
Gans is publishing a new book on social policy in the summer of 2008: Imagining America: How the Country Put Itself Together After Bush (University of Michigan Press). "The book describes the policies and political processes by which America overcame the economic, military and other disasters of the century's first decade and began to turn into a more democratic, egalitarian, peaceful and humane society.
Glassner, Barry, and Rosanna Hertz, eds. Our Studies, Ourselves: Sociologists' Lives and Work.(Book Review)
Sep 22, 2004; Glassner, Barry, and Rosanna Hertz, eds. Our Studies, Ourselves: Sociologists' Lives and Work. New York: Oxford University Press,...