Swans Commentary » swans.com July 12, 2010  



Foundations and Cultural Imperialism
An Interview with Peter Seybold


by Michael Barker





(Swans - July 12, 2010)   In 1980 Peter Seybold contributed a chapter to the important yet still largely unknown book Philanthropy and Cultural Imperialism: The Foundations at Home and Abroad (Boston: G.K. Hall, 1980), which was brought together and edited by Robert Arnove. Seybold's chapter, "The Ford Foundation and the Triumph of Behavioralism in American Political Science," was based upon research from his then recently completed Ph.D., The Development of American Political Sociology: A Case Study of the Ford Foundation's Role in the Production of Knowledge. Seybold is presently Associate Professor of Sociology at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. (1) The following interview was undertaken by e-mail in May/June 2010.

Michael Barker: Your work on philanthropy was based on your Ph.D. dissertation completed at the Stony Brook University in 1978: how did your examination committee react to your thesis?

Peter Seybold: The exam committee was pretty supportive of my project. My thesis chair was Lewis Coser and my dissertation fitted into his interests in the sociology of intellectual life. Michael Schwartz, a radical political sociologist, had a great influence on my thesis. I believe that without Coser's prestige and approval it might have been difficult to pursue this dissertation topic -- he gave the work legitimacy. (2)

I selected SUNY Stony Brook for graduate study because I wanted to remain on the east coast and at the time Stony Brook was developing a reputation as having some radical scholars. It supposedly was trying to become "the Berkeley of the east." It was far from that and the sociology department had one token Marxist who was tenured and that was Michael Schwartz who really played a critical role in my intellectual development.

I think my experience there as a graduate student in sociology was pretty typical because the department was trying to build its reputation and thus it devoted more time and resources to cultivating its graduate students. In addition, when I started graduate school in 1972 many successive cohorts of sociology graduate students were influenced by the social movements of the 1960s. For instance, the graduate students ran their own Marxist study group which lasted for several years and was completely their own creation.

As far as deciding to study the impact of philanthropy on social science this was largely a product of my interest in the sociology of knowledge and my admiration for C. Wright Mills's work. It was his book, The Sociological Imagination, that got me thinking about sociology as a discipline and how some ideas get promoted and others are marginalized. Mills has been a constant source of inspiration throughout my academic career.

Since I considered myself a political sociologist from the beginning of graduate school it was not unexpected that I turned my attention to social, political, and economic influences on the literature in the field. It was also the case that a sociology of sociology was around in these days, which encouraged sociology students to take a reflexive approach.

MB: Why did you choose to undertake your doctoral studies, and how did you become interested in studying philanthropy?

PS: I was always interested in political sociology, theory and the sociology of knowledge. These interests were also sparked by Lewis Coser's graduate course on the Sociology of Intellectual Life and Michael Schwartz's graduate course on political sociology. As I became more familiar with the literature in political sociology and political science I found that many of the key books were supported by the Social Science Research Council and either the Ford or Rockefeller Foundations. When I read Robert Dahl's article "Epitaph for a Successful Revolution," which is about the coup by behavioral political scientists in replacing political philosophy with survey research, it made me curious about how this revolution was orchestrated and who funded it.

After some searching I decided to focus on the Ford Foundation's role in constructing the field of behavioral political sociology and its use of the Social Science Research Council as its intermediary. I then approached the Ford Foundation about doing research in their archives.

Ford's response to my request was a lesson in bureaucratic organization. At the lower levels, especially with respect to the archives, I was granted considerable access to their grant files and the files containing rejected grant applications. However, it was like playing twenty questions, in that you needed to understand a great deal about the organization in order to ask the right questions to get at the relevant information. This was a real challenge and I spent approximately two years doing archival work there. In some respects there was a dynamic in which the foundation was not really sure of what I was doing and they thought by giving me access to some information they felt I might be documenting how important they were to this field -- so in some ways it worked to my advantage because they thought I was acknowledging their good work.

As I understood more about where the sensitive information was located I did encounter some barriers to access, but most of the barriers I encountered had to do with when I wanted to supplement my archival work with interviews with officials at the foundation who had been involved in the grant programs I was investigating. I was never given the opportunity to interview the people I wanted to interview. As I made requests to talk to people much higher in the foundation's hierarchy, they were routinely denied.

While examining the foundation's files of rejected grant applications I did encounter C. Wright Mills's grant application for a project he called "The Cultural Apparatus," which he submitted after the publication of his book, The Power Elite. It was interesting to read the reviews of his application and especially the overt comments by some regarding never providing funding for a project that could yield another Power Elite-type book. I think that Mills had really touched a nerve with this project and it threatened to unmask the foundation's role in intellectual life; so it was summarily rejected.

MB: Could you please tell me a little about any people and/or groups who helped you propagate the ideas presented in your work? (Here I am thinking of your contribution to Robert Arnove's book Philanthropy and Cultural Imperialism.)

PS: Robert Arnove approached me about writing a chapter for his book when I started my first full time academic job at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside. He gave me a lot of encouragement about my approach and helped me learn of others who were doing similar research. I later joined Arnove at Indiana University when I went there to work for the Division of Labor Studies. Additionally, Bill Domhoff's work was an inspiration for me and he was supportive of my work in graduate school. Michael Schwartz was also very influential as my Ph.D. committee member and as a friend in encouraging my work. (3)

MB: As a result of publishing your work did you come across any opposition from the academic and/or philanthropic community? Could you please explain how you dealt with such resistance?

PS: Doing critical work on foundations is not a particularly good way to advance your academic career. When I first started interviewing for academic positions after finishing my Ph.D. I found that there were very few academics who knew anything about what I was doing, and when I used terms like knowledge-producing sector and framed the problem by talking about ideological hegemony, there were few people who really understood why this was really in the mainstream of sociological thought. In addition, some scholars clearly did not think it was a good idea to antagonize funding sources by writing critically about them.

An additional problem that I faced is that my work necessarily took much more time to publish and required chapter-length pieces because there were so many connections to be explained. Therefore, it was not easily chopped into discrete articles. Furthermore, I faced hegemony within the field in that my work on foundations was seen as outside the mainstream.

When I did not get my contract renewed at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, I was told that even if I published a book on this topic it would not get me tenure. In a sense my own work was confronting "the natural order of things" in the field and I left sociology for 15 years and worked as an administrator and faculty member for the Division of Labor Studies at Indiana University.

I want to emphasize that while this experience certainly limited my opportunities to do research and follow up on my work on foundations, it also was very positive for me in that worker education is extremely important and very rewarding. Worker education made me a much better teacher and grounded my understanding of hegemony in the experiences of the American working class. It helped me to understand contradictory consciousness in a much more concrete way. Since I was a first generation college student from the working class, I felt like working in labor education was an important piece in my intellectual development and in the understanding of my own experience in academe. In labor studies, I didn't have to hide which side I was on.

My opportunity to extend my work on foundations was in effect limited by not being able to secure another faculty position in sociology as well as not having the research time to publish much while in labor studies. In 2001, I returned to the sociology department at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.

MB: How do you now feel about your earlier work on foundations? Do you have any regrets, and if so what do you think you might have changed if you were given the chance?

PS: I am very proud of the contributions I made in this field, especially in doing a path-breaking study of the Ford Foundation and providing the theoretical framework for understanding foundations and their role in academic life. I am also heartened by some who have contacted me over the years to say that they have read my work and have been influenced by it.

I regret that I had to leave sociology for an extended period of time and so my opportunities to develop this line of thought were limited. I probably was a little naïve as to the extent of the barriers I would face in academe pursuing this line of inquiry and in retrospect, might have worked harder to get a book out on my dissertation research, but this was difficult because of my job situation at the time and not ever having the luxury of a lot of time to write because of teaching loads and changing fields. In addition, another problem I faced was that in my entire academic career I have never had a sabbatical and while in labor studies we were on 12-month contracts with little time to do research or writing.

When I came to Indiana University, I applied for a faculty position in the philanthropic studies program at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis but it was very apparent that the program had no room for critical studies of philanthropy in their curriculum and considered such work as very marginal to the department. Presently, I have taught some graduate students in philanthropic studies who wander over to take courses in our graduate program and they seem desperate for an alternative perspective to what they are learning in their course work for philanthropic studies.

MB: How would you define the concept of power? What images and/or metaphors does it evoke for you?

PS: For the work that I have done I have been greatly influenced by Antonio Gramsci's concept of hegemony, Steven Luke's book called Power: A Radical View, and Henry Giroux's work in critical pedagogy and the structure of higher education.

I have been very interested in the most subtle aspects of the exercise of power captured by the concept of hegemony in that the current institutional arrangements present themselves as "the natural order of things" and thus structure the choices available to individuals or organizations. These dominant ideas even shape the opposition to their perspective and make it difficult to articulate anything other than fragmented opposition. In this area, I have been influenced by Elmer Schattschneider's concept of the "mobilization of bias" and Michael Schwalbe's notion of "arresting the imagination."

I believe that a dynamic, class-based understanding of hegemony is crucial to understanding the way power is exercised in late capitalism and critical to understanding the nature of academe.

MB: Why do you think that written criticisms of liberal foundations are so few and far between?

PS: The critique of the liberal foundations being few and far between is a product of hegemony in academe and the fact that funding is so crucial to the structure of academic work now. For the most part the days of independent public intellectuals is long gone and the ability to secure foundation funding is now built into the hiring criteria for many academic jobs. This places very definite limits on what is considered mainstream academic work and with the cuts in federal funding and the general difficulty that universities are experiencing with budget cuts and attacks by state governments, it makes doing critical work on liberal foundations even more hazardous.

In addition, academic jobs are even more bureaucratized and research is even more institutionally dependent. As Russell Jacoby has written about, there are definite costs associated with the decline of independent, public intellectuals. Furthermore, most of the critical work on foundations was influenced at the time by social movements of the 1960s and 1970s and the concrete experience that movement organizations had in struggling against being co-opted by Ford, Rockefeller, and the other liberal foundations. This added urgency to the project of understanding what the liberal foundations were doing. Finally, more work needs to be done in the current era on the rise of conservative foundations and the institutions they have constructed since the Lewis Powell memo came out in the mid 1970s. However, as I have emphasized it is difficult to build an academic career by being a critic of funding institutions.

MB: Following on from the last question, I was wondering what you thought about Professor Joan Roelofs's criticisms of liberal philanthropy?

PS: What I have read of Roelofs has been very astute and carefully argued. I have not devoted enough time to digest her work but I think she has made a significant contribution to the field. I know that her work is considered pretty marginal and is often not assigned in philanthropic studies programs. But I find this true of critical work on foundations in general. I think there is much to be learned from Roelofs's work.

MB: Finally, could you comment on your thoughts on the difference between the structure of academic work now as opposed to 20 or 30 years ago?

PS: Starting with Thorstein Veblen's Higher Learning in America and C. Wright Mills's warning on the bureaucratization of knowledge in The Sociological Imagination, the social control of knowledge has been extended in last 30 years in the American academy. Back in 1984, I gave a talk at a university called "Toward a Corporate Service Station" that detailed my fears about the increased corporate control of universities in the United States. I think in many ways my fears have been realized and while there has been some resistance to these trends and the university has become an arena of struggle, corporate hegemony has been extended over time. I trace a lot of this back to a memo written by Lewis Powell urging the right to engage in a cultural struggle to take back institutions and to create an infrastructure of foundations, think tanks, and policy planning institutes to challenge what he perceived as liberal domination of the policy agenda. In many ways this orchestrated campaign has been successful given the influence of this constellation of right-wing institutions in the last twenty-five years. It has tended to bend the discussion clearly to the right and to marginalize views that are only slightly left of center.

I think this also explains the reluctance of many scholars to challenge the so-called liberal foundations like Ford because they are seen as important promoters of corporate liberal policy options that in a conservative era look progressive. This confluence of right-wing policy institutes, funding sources, and political influence along with overt corporate efforts to co-opt and define the acceptable limits of university research has had as chilling effect on academe. Combined with an attempt by corporations to vocationalize university education and discourage schools and departments that teach critical thinking, the intellectual climate at American universities has been altered dramatically. The recent economic crash has added to this situation as students desperately seek training that will lead to a secure job. The emphasis these days seems to be on training, not the value of a liberal arts education.

Due to lack of federal support for universities, higher education has been chasing corporate dollars and these dollars come with many strings attached and help define the research environment. Moreover, professors are hired and promoted these days based on their ability to generate grant money and, therefore, independent research and writing becomes a victim of the prevailing mobilization of bias. Finally, as one of my colleagues pointed out, there are very few outlets to publish what in the past was critical to the field of sociology -- that is, critical essays that seek to interpret and understand the larger political economy and social trends. Such theoretical and conceptual work is not considered "research" so that there are fewer social scientists trying to make the connection between issues and writing for the general public.

Due to the paucity of publications that will consider critical essays, some social critics have turned to blogs and on-line publications because they can reach many more people than trying to publish in academic journals. I think that blogs and on-line journals offer an opportunity to democratize the intellectual arena and to be much more accessible than academic journals.

The problem is that there is a lag in the way that academe has adapted to the new media. Michael Schwartz, for instance, has written extensively on the Iraq war on the Web and has reached a wide audience. However, at this point, on-line journals are not regarded as highly as other publications in the process of building an academic career; so those starting out in academe face a dilemma. This dilemma is compounded by the organization of the academy and its resistance to change and with a few notable exceptions like Barbara Ehrenreich, France Fox Piven, Chomsky, Zinn, and others, the difficult terrain faced by critical thinkers in finding a way to do serious work outside the confines of academe. Left-wing think tanks might be an option but they historically have been underfunded in comparison to right-wing efforts in America.

I see the Web and specifically on-line publications as arenas for struggle and an opportunity to build a counter hegemony following Gramsci. But the Web is also increasingly being privatized and corporatized, so the process is a contradictory one.

In sum, from my perspective, corporate hegemony has permeated all aspects of American universities, which makes these institutions important arenas for struggle in the larger cultural and political effort to create a counter hegemony.


Peter Seybold can be reached at pseybold@iupui.edu.


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Michael Barker is an independent researcher who currently resides in the UK. In addition to his work for Swans, which can be found in the 2008, 2009, and 2010 archives, his other articles can be accessed at michaeljamesbarker.wordpress.com. Please help fund his work.   (back)


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1.  For a theoretical statement of Peter Seybold's arguments see: "Behind the Veil of Neutrality: Hegemony in the Academic Marketplace," in Recapturing Marxism -- An Appraisal of Recent Trends in Sociological Theory edited by Rhonda Levine and Jerry Lembcke (Praeger Publishers, 1987). For a more recent discussion of the corporatization of the university see: Peter Seybold, "The Struggle Against Corporate Takeover of the University," Socialism and Democracy, Vol. 22, No. 1, March 2008.  (back)

2.  Lewis Coser (1913-2003) was an American sociologist who is perhaps most famous for working with Irving Howe to create Dissent magazine in 1954. Michael Schwartz is currently a professor of sociology at State University of New York at Stony Brook and his most recent book is War Without End: The Iraq War in Context (Haymarket Books, 2008). Seybold published his criticisms of the Ford Foundation in Schwartz's edited book The Structure of Power in America: The Corporate Elite as a Ruling Class (Holmes & Meier, 1987).  (back)

3.  G. William Domhoff is a research professor in psychology and sociology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who is best known for his seminal contribution to power structure research, and in 1967 he published his first major contribution to this field of research, Who Rules America: Power, Politics, and Social Change.  (back)


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Published July 12, 2010