Q&A with Frances Fox Piven

Frances Fox Piven, Winner of the 2019 Distinguished Career Award

Photo source: https://www.asanet.org/frances-fox-piven

What major political events have influenced your research agenda over the years?

As an undergraduate, I was attracted to the ideals of the planned community associated with the New Deal, although as I explored the practices associated with those ideals, I became skeptical, influenced at first by conservative critics like von Hayek who argued that the rationally planned community was impossible, and later, when I worked as a junior planner on the rezoning of New York City, for the more grounded reason that these ideals were corrupted in practice by the pervasive influence of the real estate industry, especially in New York City. However, it was the 1960s! And very soon the spectacular eruption, first of the anti-war movement, and then of the Black Freedom Movement, overshadowed for me at least these preoccupations. Indeed, I think it is not an exaggeration to say that the anti-poverty wing of the Black Freedom Movement has been the most important influence on my work.

How has political sociology changed throughout the course of your career, and where do you see it heading in the future?

It has become bolder and broader. I began my work as an academic in the 1960s, and political sociology was still crippled by the constraints of cold war fears. The movement of the 1960s changed that, people began to read Marx and Gramsci and the English social historians. But it took a while for these influences to transform the field.

How would you describe your research process? How has it changed over the years?

I study politics, especially the politics of the lower strata in American society, and the politics that affects lower strata groups. When I want to understand a political development, I try to find out as much as I can about the historical events in which that development was embedded. I also search for historical parallels that might cast light on those events. And although I am not a quantitative methodologist, I eagerly use quantitative data produced by others in this process of searching. I don’t think my approach has changed much over the years, but the data available has improved!

What is your favorite obscure sociological work?

My favorite obscure work is a public administration tract by Chester Barnard entitled The Functions of the Executive. Very informative, especially for organizers!

If you had one piece of advice for graduate students/early junior faculty what would it be?

Shorten your time horizons, not only because we don’t any of us know the future, but because life is better if you worry less and do more!

Back in 2011 Glen Beck went after you. Do you have any further thoughts on the experience or Beck in general?

It was bracing, and interesting. And I learned I had lots of friends!

Frances Fox Piven is Distinguished Professor Emerita at The Graduate Center, City University of New York. She is an internationally renowned social scientist, scholar, and activist.