Sociology in Cafe Society

by Kieran Healy on January 9, 2005

Just before Christmas, a new cafe opened up outside the main gates of the “University of Arizona”: The coffee is good and it’s a shorter walk than the alternatives. The people are friendly, too. One of my colleagues was chatting with the owner, Danny, last week — he’s often behind the bar serving customers. Danny asked whether my friend taught at the university, and then in what department. “Sociology,” my friend said, which is usually enough to move the conversation to some other topic. But instead Danny said “Oh, my uncle was a sociologist — he was pretty well known in Europe years ago, but you’ve probably never heard of him. “What was his name?” asked my friend. “Oh, Mannheim,” says the owner. “Karl Mannheim?!” says my friend. “Wow, you know his first name!” says Danny. Small world. Sociologists know that already, but the point of that insight is precisely that you don’t know about every case. There are probably other connections of this sort in my acquaintance network that I’m completely unaware of. Yours, too.



robbo 01.09.05 at 6:29 am

Back in the 80s I played a lot of basketball in Newport Beach, California. Once, between games, I found out that one of the other regulars at this court had been married on Hog Island, Maine, where I’d gone to Audubon Camp in high school. Given the million tiny islands off Maine it seemed a fine coincidence, so we decided to go have a drink after the game. He ended up being the best man at my wedding 20 years later. We still occasionallly marvel at the bizarre Hog Island link that got us to talking after having played countless games together as mere acquaintences. Funny how life’s small, odd connections can seem to blossom in significance.


joel turnipseed 01.09.05 at 7:54 am

“Ideology and Fruitopia” — dunno: it just came into my head. I guess that’s the sort of thing that comes to your head with the neuronal conjunction of double-decaf-skim latte and the orgiastic chiliasm of the Anabaptists.

w/r/t degrees & randomness, my favorite recent one is when my grandmother laid on me that she’d spent a month or so playing den-mother to Lydia Davis (who worked for her at the time) and another pal in a small Irish cottage in the late 60s/early 70s.


bad Jim 01.09.05 at 9:46 am

The three of us, from Laguna Beach, California, had just returned from San Sebastian (Donostia) and were sitting outside a cafe at the entrance to the Sorbonne.

The youngest called out to a passer-by, who proved to be someone she’d known slightly in high school.

We weren’t a particularly cosmopolitan group (it was her first and her mother’s second trip abroad) but certain sets of links are dependably shorter than others.


harry 01.09.05 at 2:08 pm

One of my colleagues is the father of Kautsky’s great grandchildren. That’d be Karl Kautsky. He is NOT impressed that I know the first name.
When they were little one of my other coolleagues referred to them as the ‘little renegades’ which was funny, but about as inapt as possible.


sarah 01.09.05 at 3:30 pm

A friend of my mothers, very old indeed now, used to play piano while Wittgenstein whistled along. That was strange to discover.


sarah 01.09.05 at 3:30 pm

A friend of my mother’s, very old indeed now, used to play piano while Wittgenstein whistled along. That was strange to discover.


rea 01.09.05 at 4:38 pm

No more than 6 degrees of seperation between any two people on the planet? You know me, and my mother knew Enrico Fermi!


pedro 01.09.05 at 4:57 pm

I’m not a social sciences person, but my father is. I had the pleasure of dining at home with one Alain Joxe, and on another occasion with one Alain Touraine. One of them was absolutely delightful company. Two meager (very good friend in between) degrees of separation lie between Claude Levi-Strauss & Maurice Godelier, and my third world family. Pretty cool.


David 01.09.05 at 5:49 pm

I have a rather conservative (and very verbose) friend who went to visit his liberal ex-girlfriend in Wisconsin while she was staying with her aunt and uncle there during Thanksgiving. His ex wanted him to engage in a political debate with her uncle. My friend came back and was desribing it to me, that her uncle was some Marxist professor and his last name was Wright or something like that. ‘Erik Olin Wright?’ I asked. ‘That sound right’ he said. Not quite Mannheim, but still funny that my friend’s ex tried to unknowingly induce him into a political debate with one of the best known living American Marxists.


Sally 01.09.05 at 7:04 pm

I’m pretty sure that my father once mentioned that the obstetrician who delivered him was Karl Kautsky’s son. Maybe we could play “six degrees of Karl Kautsky.”


luci phyrr 01.09.05 at 7:09 pm

I come from a lower middle class family in small town Texas, so I never expected any brushes with celebrity-types. When my mom was ~10 years old (she’s 76 now) she took trips to Mexico with her parents. Apparently, her father knew William Spratling, a silver-smith fairly renowned for his jewelry and such, in Taxco, Mexico. (His pieces are touring museums in the US, and my mom still has a few Spratling originals).

My mom was young then, and doesn’t really remember much of it, and frankly couldn’t care less. She never mentioned it to me in my 34 years. Her sister (my aunt) who’s more interested in genealogy and family history, told me recently about some old letters she had discovered, which describe the family meeting Spratling and his friend Diego Rivera. So, apparently, there’s just a couple degrees of seperation between me, Diego Rivera,Frida Kahlo, Leon Trotsky, and, of course, Stalin.


David Sucher 01.09.05 at 7:42 pm

My father and I (age 3?) were passing the Pierre Hotel in NYC. President Truman and his entourage were just leaving the hotel. The President stopped to politic a bit; my father held me up and President Truman patted me on the head.

I have always assumed that my interest in politics stems from that incident.


jim 01.09.05 at 8:13 pm

The Wisconsin connection sustains us: I know the “little renegades” and Erik. A family friend’s grandfather taught Lenin Marxism in Switzerland…


mikes 01.09.05 at 9:07 pm

He’s got an ology? He’s a scientist! Cheap, I know, but there’s a bit of grist in there for you guys.


harry 01.09.05 at 10:53 pm

I know the current, and most recent, holders of the Chair that Mannheim used to hold, and which is now named after him. I attend Thanksgiving at EOW’s house every year, and he was the first non-family member to see my second daughter after she was born. I knew Max Geldman in the year or so before his death (Max was a secretary of Trotsky’s, supplied by the SWP (US)). Does that wrap things up.

But I never met Lobby Ludd, so I can’t claim the 5 pound prize.


Matt McGrattan 01.10.05 at 1:36 am

I recently started a new job and one of my colleagues — an early modern historian from the US who just moved to Oxford to take up the position & who had never been to Oxford or Glasgow before — and I were talking about language learning and he mentioned a French-Canadian couple he knew [in the context of a discussion of 2nd-language speakers of English].

It swiftly transpired that I had had dinner with the self-same couple 4 years previously when I had made a quick, and unplanned, trip back to Glasgow for the weekend, arranged a meal at short notice with a friend and she brought along a couple of visiting academics from her department.

The fact that two people who’ve lived their lives many thousands of miles apart should discover on meeting that they have acquaintances in common is pretty remarkable — probably surprisingly common-place too…


Steve 01.10.05 at 4:08 pm

I’d be more impressed if you hadn’t just implicitly admitted to being friends with a sociologist…



wood turtle 01.10.05 at 6:54 pm

It’s a big world. It’s the people that are very small.


Xboy 01.11.05 at 7:54 am

Fame is a virus that you can catch from famous people, though most of us are immune. All famous people know each other.
I avoid fame like the plague. I’ve had the misfortune to meet a few famous people, but I’m happy to say I never got to know them.

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