In Remembrance of Harold J. Bershady, Ph.D.

In Remembrance of Harold J. Bershady, Ph.D.

Harold Bershady, Ph.D.

Harold J. Bershady


Harold J. Bershady, professor emeritus in the Department of Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, died on February 18, 2023, at the age of 93 after a brief illness.

Bershady joined the faculty at Penn in 1968 and, aside from sabbaticals, served continuously until his retirement in 2005. He was influential in the department principally as a teacher of sociological theory, both the classical works of Marx, Weber, Durkheim, Simmel, Schutz, and Mead and the contemporary works of Parsons, Garfinkel, Goffman, Bellah, Smelser, and others. He once estimated that he had taught more than 10,000 students, both undergraduate and graduate. His popularity as a teacher derived from the warmth, encouraging and supportive manner, and humor with which he related to students. His classes were often interlarded with jokes, anecdotes, and witticisms. Students sometimes came to his office simply to convey new jokes they had heard. In 1993, Bershady received the Lindback Award for Distinguished Teaching from the university.

Bershady conducted his classes in a somewhat unique style. He generally arrived in the classroom with a copy of the assigned book but without notes or a specific plan for just what class discussion should cover. He opened the class with a series of questions for the students. His intent was not to establish a Socratic dialogue, but to “diagnose” what the students had understood and especially what they had not adequately understood from the assigned reading. When he had made a first diagnosis, he would give a ten-minute or so “mini-lecture” addressing the essential matter. He would then return to asking diagnostic questions in order to discern a next topic for a mini-lecture. And so the class would proceed. When he co-taught a class, his colleague might join the questioning and mini-lecturing. But after a mini-lecture, the colleague would sometimes find Bershady asking, “Do you really believe that?”, a probe intended to turn discussion to deeper foundations of the points at issue.

Bershady’s interests in sociological theory included the integration of theory and qualitative methods of research. In this connection, he sponsored, together with Elijah Anderson, a series of public discussions for both faculty and graduate students in the department to examine the works of Georg Simmel and W.E.B. Du Bois. Du Bois had studied in Berlin, where Simmel taught, and accomplished his most important sociological work, The Philadelphia Negro (University of Pennsylvania Press 1899) while an instructor at Penn.

After receiving tenure, Bershady helped to recruit younger colleagues, including Victor Lidz, Charles Bosk, and Elijah Anderson, the first African American sociologist appointed to be a member of the standing faculty at Penn. All three, in various ways, shared his interest in integrating theory and qualitative research. In the following years and decades, Bershady also encouraged and supported their teaching and research.

Bershady’s first major publication was Ideology and Social Knowledge (John Wiley & Sons 1973), a critical assessment of the basic concepts in Talcott Parsons’s theory of social action from the perspective of Kantian philosophy. Its publication nearly blocked Bershady’s promotion to associate professor and tenure when some of the senior faculty doubted the relevance of Kant to Parsons. The situation was resolved when Professor Renee Fox, then Chair of Sociology, sent the book to Parsons, requesting his opinion. When Parsons affirmed the value of Bershady’s work, noting his own intensive studies of Kant as undergraduate and graduate student, the promotion was saved. When Parsons came to Penn as visiting professor in subsequent years, Bershady cotaught courses on American society and on the theory of social action with him. Bershady was also a key participant in the faculty seminar at Penn in which Parsons developed, over several years of discussions, the final elaboration of his theory.

Bershady edited, introduced, and contributed to the volume of essaysSocial Class and Democratic Leadership (University of Pennsylvania Press 1989), collected in honor of his senior colleague and friend, E. Digby Baltzell, with contributions by faculty members and advanced graduate students in the department. He later edited and introduced a volume of essays by the German phenomenologist, Max Scheler, On Feeling, Knowing, and Valuing (University of Chicago Press 1992). The book brought a broader range of Scheler’s thought to English language scholars than previous publications. In 2005, Bershady edited, along with fellow Penn sociology professor Renée Fox and Victor Lidz, After Parsons: A Theory of Social Action for the Twenty-First Century (Russell Sage Foundation 2005). The book published contributions to a conference sponsored by the Russell Sage Foundation to honor the 100th anniversary of Parsons’s birth in 1902 and included essays by nearly every prominent scholar of the time on Parsonian theory.

In retirement, Bershady published an intellectual autobiography entitled When Marx Mattered: An Intellectual Odyssey (Routledge 2014), a highly readable work. The book traces his early years with his family living in rooms in his father’s coat factory in Buffalo, his youth as a Marxist and socialist (including his brief attempt to unionize the workers in his father’s shop), his study of German philosophy in college at the University at Buffalo, his engagement with sociological theory as a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin, and his mature focus on the theory of action. The book is also a study in the sociology of knowledge of how Jews of his generation and those with Eastern European backgrounds were attracted in early adulthood to the prophetic, moralistic, and egalitarian aspects of Marxism, then shifted in their careers to the intellectual and ethical frameworks of their professions, whether in law, medicine, or academia.


Victor Lidz, Drexel University College of Medicine;

Elijah Anderson, Yale University; and

Jerry A. Jacobs, University of Pennsylvania