Sunday, April 5, 2015

In memoriam: Donald Nathan Levine

Alemayehu Weldemariam

Scholar, activist, aikido sensei. Born Jun 16, 1931, in New Castle, PA; died Apr 04, 2015, in Chicago, IL, of prostate cancer, aged 83.

Donald N. Levine was the Peter B. Ritzma Professor Emeritus of Sociology at the University of Chicago and former dean of the College. He graduated with BA in 1950 from the "Hutchins College", MA in 1954, and PhD in 1957 from the University of Chicago under the mentorship of Robert Redfield and Richard McKeon

Levine had a brilliant career as the world’s most eminent social theorist and Ethiopianist. He published over a hundred papers and five books and his corpus includes critical interpretations of Auguste Comte, Emile Durkheim, Max Weber, Talcott Parsons, Robert Merton, S.N. Eisenstadt, and above all Georg Simmel. In the realm of social theory, his work focused on reunifying the sociological traditions and imaginations in a book venture that he titles “Visions of the Sociological Tradition” (1995). One evening during my visit at the University of Chicago in 2011, as we were walking to his home where he generously hosted me for the first week, he started telling me "how sociology used to be as big as Humpty Dumpty and how it had a terribly great fall. And after Humpty Dumpty had that fall, it broke into pieces, and all sociologists and social theorists that came “couldn't put Humpty Dumpty in his place again.” That is exactly what I wanted to do with my book Visions of the Sociological Tradition."

In Ethiopian studies, he is most famous for his two books Wax and Gold (1965) and Greater Ethiopia (1974). He managed to put together and publish a collection of essays on Ethiopia which came to be his last book, Interpreting Ethiopia, with which my name is associated for which I feel proud and ashamed at the same time. Ashamed because I could not help as much as he wanted me to and proud because I was involved in the project from its inception to its completion, albeit an unfortunate hiatus in between. 

Levine served as Chair of the Theory Section of the American Sociological Association in 1997,as editor of the University of Chicago Press's Heritage of Sociology series for two decades, and as member of the editorial boards of the American Journal of Sociology, Journal of Classical Sociology, Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, and Theory Culture and Society. For his expertise as an Ethiopianist he served as consultant to public and governmental organizations, include the U.S. Department of State, the United States Senate, and the Peace Corps. 

Levine received a Doctor of Letters honoris causa in 2004 from Addis Ababa University, where President Andreas Eshete lauded him in a citation speech as: "Ethiopianist, sociological theorist, educator: you have succeeded in all three vocations. Your pioneering work, Wax and Gold, has become an Ethiopian classic. As manifested in its title, yours is an exceptionally imaginative quest to reach an understanding of Amhara society from the internal point of view. The very concept of "Wax and Gold" has taken a life of its own: it figures at once in our understanding of Ethiopia's pre-modern culture and in our coming to grips with Ethiopia's reception of modernity. Greater Ethiopia draws attention to the deep fact that Ethiopian life is rooted in multicultural identities, and it also demonstrates the salient bonds that hold them together.”

Levine is a towering figure in Chicago sociology and social thought in the same league as Robert Park, George Mead, Albion Small and John Dewey, Edward Shils, and Arnaldo Momigliano. 

Mr. Levine is survived by his wife Ruth, daughter Rachel, and sons Ted and Bill. His memorial service will be held on Thursday, April 9, 1 pm, at KAM Isaiah Israel Congregation, 1100 E Hyde Park Blvd, Chicago, IL 60615.