In This Article American Jewish Sociology

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Critical Histories of the Field
  • Readers
  • Journals and Book Series
  • Research Centers, Archives, and Repositories
  • Demographic Profiles
  • Race and Black-Jewish Relations
  • Antisemitism
  • Holocaust
  • Gender
  • Sexuality
  • Jewish Organizations and Communal Governance
  • Geography, Mobility, and Place
  • Food

Jewish Studies American Jewish Sociology
by
Shaul Kelner
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 June 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 August 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199840731-0073

Introduction

Research on the Jewish population of the United States is often labeled American Jewish “sociology,” even though scholars engaged in the field are based in an array of disciplines, including social psychology, anthropology, social history, folklore, cultural studies, political science, economics, linguistics, and more. The field can be traced to the early 20th century, both to European social science and to research efforts of Progressive-era social workers striving to improve the lot of tenement-dwelling Eastern European Jewish immigrants. By the 1950s, questions of immigrant incorporation and the problems of impoverished city dwellers had given way to questions of group persistence in the wake of acculturation, suburbanization, economic mobility, and assimilation. The question, “Whither the Jews?” still looms large in contemporary public policy–focused research. Concerned about assimilation, Jewish communal agencies look to social science for answers, funding applied social research on the Jewish population. The result is a robust public policy conversation in which social scientists act as public intellectuals, and journalism and scholarship engage in dialogue. Much of this policy conversation centers on research reports which do not undergo formal peer review. Because peer review is the primary quality assurance practice for academic research, this article attempts to keep non-peer-reviewed citations to a minimum. The growth of university-based Jewish Studies in the 1970s significantly broadened research questions and disciplinary approaches. There are now rich literatures on gender, sexuality, subcultural diversity, collective memory, religious innovation, transnational connections, and more. These literatures tend to be more academically and less public policy oriented, although lines are porous. Much research speaks to both. The gamut of approaches is well represented when scholars convene at the annual conference of the Association for Jewish Studies. In this article, some of the references are much-cited classics. Others are less known, but indicative of the diversity of the field. There is a growing interplay between contemporary and historical research, with historically minded social scientists and sociologically minded historians engaging common questions and evincing similar theoretical concerns (e.g., gender, race, place, memory, consumption, etc.). Early- and mid-20th-century sociological research now serves as historical source material for newer work revisiting questions of the Jewish American experience that were formerly thought of as contemporary sociology, but are now also in the domain of social history. These social histories, in turn, inform the contemporary sociology of Jewish Americans in the 21st century.

General Overviews

Broad sociological analyses of Jewish American life were common through the 1980s. Early examples include Glazer 1957 and the chapter “Judaism in America” in Herberg 1983 (cited under Acculturation, Assimilation, and Ethnic Revival). These were narrative-driven, drawing on an eclectic array of data. Sklare and Greenblum 1967 marked the first analysis based on a large-scale, methodologically systematic sociological study. During the 1970s and 1980s, books in the genre focused on descendants of the 1881–1924 wave of Eastern European Jewish immigration, and asked whether they would maintain a distinctive Jewish culture in the face of social mobility, geographic dispersion, acculturation, and lowered social boundaries between Jews and gentiles. For answers, scholars looked to surveys, analyzing the relationships among sociodemographic factors and indicators of Jewish identification and practice. By the 1980s, sociologists were speaking of two camps, divided in their assessment of trends. “Assimilationists” interpreted the data as evidence that Jewish cohesion and cultural distinctiveness were eroding. “Transformationalists” argued that while older patterns were giving way, other sources of cohesion were generating new forms of Jewish engagement. Liebman 1973 and Goldscheider 1986, respectively, represent the assimilationist and transformationalist poles of this debate. Cohen 1983, Waxman 1983, and Cohen 1988 (cited under Ritual and Religious Practice) stake out middle ground. Goldscheider and Zuckerman 1984 moves beyond 20th-century American Jews to present a transformationalist account that encompasses the sweep of modern Jewish history. The assimilationist /transformationalist debate has subsided, in part because the cultural essentialism that undergirded the assimilationist argument no longer holds such sway. Whereas Liebman 1973 had argued that American Jews faced an either/or choice between mutually exclusive value systems, Fishman 2000 worked from the premise that for Jewish Americans at the millennium, the categories of American and Jewish had coalesced into one.

  • Cohen, Steven M. American Modernity and Jewish Identity. New York: Tavistock, 1983.

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    Pursues question of Jewish survival in America. Uses survey data to analyze sociodemographic effects on Jewish engagement. Argues that integration into American society has led to mass erosion of Jewish engagement alongside some innovation. Conclusion is more optimistic than body chapters.

  • Fishman, Sylvia Barack. Jewish Life and American Culture. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2000.

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    Analyzes survey data. Retains interest in patterns of Jewish engagement, but breaks with earlier works’ tendency to conceptualize American and Jewish values as distinct and competing. Sees Jewish American values as American in a Jewish way and Jewish in an American way.

  • Glazer, Nathan. American Judaism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957.

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    Early example of the genre. Revised editions published 1972, 1989. Still used by some as a primer on American Jews, but taught by others as an historical document showing how mid-20th-century sociology approached the analysis of American Jews.

  • Goldscheider, Calvin. Jewish Continuity and Change: Emerging Patterns in America. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986.

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    In the assimilationist vs. transformationalist debates of 1980s, this book argued forcefully for the transformationalist perspective (i.e., continuity and change, not erosion). Presents a survey-based analysis of the persistent social structural bases of Jewish cohesion. Argues that late-20th-century American Jews were not becoming less Jewish, but differently Jewish.

  • Goldscheider, Calvin, and Alan S. Zuckerman. The Transformation of the Jews. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984.

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    Analyzes the structural bases of Jewish cohesion in Europe, America, and Israel from the 1700s to the 1980s. Among the most methodologically self-aware and sophisticated sociologies of Jewish modernity yet written. Elaborates the materialist theoretical underpinnings of the transformationalist argument.

  • Liebman, Charles S. The Ambivalent American Jew. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1973.

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    Argues that American Jews’ commitment to integrating into American society exists in fundamental tension with their commitment to maintaining a Jewish group identity. Explains the cultural patterns of American Jewish life as emerging from the struggle to reconcile this tension. A classic in the sociology of Jewry. Highly influential.

  • Sklare, Marshall, and Joseph Greenblum. Jewish Identity on the Suburban Frontier: A Study of Group Survival in the Open Society. New York: Basic Books, 1967.

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    Based on a decade-long community study combining surveys, interviews, and institutional analysis. The case study method allows the book to incorporate layers of context absent from other broad sociological overviews. Encapsulates themes running throughout the work of Sklare, the founding father of American Jewish sociology.

  • Waxman, Chaim I. America’s Jews in Transition. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1983.

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    Uses the sociology of American Jews to refine theories of assimilation and secularization that were popular at the time in the sociologies of ethnicity and religion. Notable for reintegrating the sociology of religion when other assessments of the state of American Jews were highlighting the sociology of ethnicity.

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