PLAN 62: Article
Richard Sennett Comes To Mit

Balzan Prize Finalist Will Relinquish Post at NYU

Richard Sennett, widely regarded as one of the major intellects in urban sociology and urban social theory, has been appointed Bemis Adjunct Professor of Sociology and Urban Studies in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning.

Sennett has relinquished his post as University Professor of the Humanities at NYU in order to take on the five-year, half-time appointment here, but will retain his position at the London School of Economics, as Centennial Professor of Sociology, during their winter terms.

Recently named a finalist for the 2005 Balzan Prize, described as something of a Nobel prize in non-Nobel fields, Sennett has written extensively on urban family patterns, the work careers of city-dwellers, class relations in the city, the urban welfare system and the relation of these social experiences to architecture, urban design and planning. He has also analyzed the history of public culture, and traced the intertwined history of medical knowledge about the human body and the design of buildings.

His earliest book, Families Against the City, was a study of the relation between family structure and social mobility in 19th Century Chicago. A subsequent quartet of books explored urban culture more largely: The Uses of Disorder, a study of identity formation in cities; The Fall of Public Man, a history of public culture and public space, particularly in London, Paris and New York in the 18th and 19th Centuries; The Conscience of the Eye, a study of urban design focusing on the relation between perspectivism and movement; and Flesh and Stone, a history of how beliefs about the human body have shaped the design of cities from ancient Athens up to the present.

Another trilogy of books addresses work, welfare and class in the city: The Hidden Injuries of Class, a study of class consciousness among working-class families in Boston: The Corrosion of Character, an exploration of the changing meanings of work in flexible capitalism, particularly in leading edge forms of labor like high-tech design, financial services and automated manufacturing; and Respect, a study of welfare reforms.

Currently, Sennett is working on writing a set of books on the material practices of culture, focused on craftsmanship, performance and narration in everyday life. When he completes that research, he intends to write a larger book on The City in History; the title comes from Lewis Mumford, who worked on his own version of the topic when he was a Bemis Professor at MIT.

In the public realm, Sennett founded (and directed for a decade) the New York Institute of the Humanities at New York University. The Humanities Institute seeks to bring together ‘town’ and ‘gown’ in New York City, and to serve as a port of call for international scholars in the city. He also chaired a United Nations commission on urban development and design, seeking to bring social scientists together with urban designers to consider the problems of planning specifically in cities lacking economic resources.

Most recently, Sennett helped create (and has chaired for two terms) the Cities Programme at the London School of Economics. The program aims to bridge the divide between training, research and consultancy in urban design and to marry the social science resources of the LSE to the work of architects and planners, drawing on a base of students and faculty from around the world.

At MIT, he will be teaching both undergraduate and graduate students. To undergraduates he is offering a course on urban space and society, focused on how the spaces of the modern city relate to its social life; the class will combine lectures on social theory with fieldwork in which students illustrate a spatial-social issue photographically and discuss the result.

With graduate students, he is exploring how social theories of urban life can be related to the city's architecture and spaces, using Boston as a visual laboratory; the course will aim to generate new ideas about the city by connecting the social and the physical.

Sennett studied at the Julliard School of Music from 1956-1962. He earned his BA from the University of Chicago in 1964 and his PhD from Harvard in 1969.