Community Studies and Research for Change: An Oral History with William Friedland

1511For the complete text [PDF] of Community Studies and Research for Change: An Oral History with William Friedland [e-scholarship version], Full audio is available through this link. Due to editing by the narrator, there may be small differences between the transcript and the audio. Please quote from the transcript, rather than transcribing the audio.

Interviewed by Sarah Rabkin

Edited by Irene Reti and Sarah Rabkin


177 pages

After working in the Detroit auto industry and union organizing for twelve years, William Friedland turned to a research and teaching career in sociology, ultimately becoming one of the founders of the sociology of agriculture movement. Friedland came to the University of California, Santa Cruz, in 1969 from Cornell University, where he had created the Cornell Migrant Health Project, a field study program in which he and his research associate, Dorothy Nelkin, sent Cornell undergraduates to work undercover as laborers in the agricultural fields of upstate New York and assist with research on the sociology of migrant labor.

Friedland built on his Cornell experience when he was hired by UC Santa Cruz to establish the Board of Community Studies, an innovative, interdisciplinary academic program that integrated scholarship and community engagement in both research and teaching and that graduated over 2000 majors until it was suspended in 2010, a decision that was greeted with much political controversy.

The centerpiece of community studies was its field program, which offered undergraduate students six-month field placements in community organizations, training them to be community organizers and preparing them for what often became careers in public service. Michael Rotkin directed the field program for many years; an oral history with him is forthcoming in late 2013. Unlike other college-based field-study programs, the community studies curriculum—emulating the model that Friedland had innovated at Cornell—required preparatory training before the field study as well as synthetic and analytical work following completion of fieldwork. As Friedland’s colleague, Michael Cowan, remarks in the introduction published in the appendix to this volume: “The impact of such educational experiences have often been profound and lasting . . . many community studies graduates currently serve as directors and key staff of social service non-profits and governmental agencies throughout and beyond the borders of California.” In this oral history conducted by Sarah Rabkin, Bill Friedland describes the evolution both of the community studies program and of his sociological research.