Stanley Lieberson, Harvard sociologist who studied language, race, and first names, dies at 84

Stanley Lieberson.
Stanley Lieberson.(Handout)

Not every sociologist can sense the seeds of a book in something as commonplace as choosing a child’s name, but Stanley Lieberson wasn’t just any sociologist.

He was in graduate school by the age of 18 and held several faculty appointments before finishing his career at Harvard University. His work included studies of how language shapes people and the societies they inhabit, and he examined the patterns of segregation in US cities.

Then one day he noticed that Rebecca, his oldest child, sure seemed to be running into a lot of other Rebeccas – from nursery school onward — and that set Dr. Lieberson’s ever-curious mind to work.


“Neither my wife nor I had had any idea that we were picking such a popular name,” he wrote in his book “A Matter of Taste,” (2000). “We and these other parents, without talking about it, were ‘independently’ reaching the same decision at the same time. Obviously, the choice was not independent — it had to reflect social influences. But it seemed as if something ‘in the air’ was leading different parents to make the same choices. Being a sociologist, of course this fascinated me.”

Dr. Lieberson, who had been working on a final book that examined how to determine the quality of evidence scholars and others use to support their theories, died March 19 in Lasell House in Newton of neurological complications that developed from a bicycling accident nine years earlier. He was 84 and had lived in Arlington.

“One of his main characteristics was that he was curious about everything,” said his wife, Pat. “He always wanted to know how everything worked and why things were they way they were.”

“A Matter of Taste,” subtitled “How Names, Fashions, and Cultures Change,” grew in part from a 1992 paper Dr. Lieberson coauthored with Eleanor Bell, “Children’s First Names: An Empirical Study of Social Taste.”


Before turning his attention to first names and fashion, Dr. Lieberson was a leading sociologist in other areas. His first published paper, in 1958, was “on ethnic groups and the practices of medicine,” Anwar S. Dil wrote in an introduction to “Language Diversity and Language Contact,” a 1981 collection of Dr. Lieberson’s essays.

Having grown up in a multilingual home — his father’s family was from Poland — Dr. Lieberson devoted much of his career to bilingualism, diversity, and language conflict. “Few indeed are the language scientists who can match the sociolinguistic achievements of this gifted sociologist,” Dil wrote to introduce the collection of essays.

Dr. Lieberson’s early work also included the 1963 book “Ethnic Patterns in American Cities,” which evolved from his doctoral dissertation, and a paper on “Language Questions in Censuses” which, Dil wrote, “proposed new ways of evaluating the accuracy of census returns on bilingualism and using them to make sociolinguistic inferences.”

In “Language Diversity and Language Contact,” Dr. Lieberson noted with understatement that “there is usually at least some conflict and dissent within multilingual nations.” Among the solutions available, he added, would be reducing “the handicaps facing speakers of a given language by reforming the societal institutions.”

The subjects he studied in “A Matter of Taste” brought him into a different realm.

“What shapes our tastes? Why do we like what we like? Sometimes we can immediately explain the basis of our response or, at the very least, make a guess if asked,” he wrote. “Something about the color of the sweater, the knit, the pattern, the material, or the shape is appealing.”


Among other things, the book demonstrated his ability to easily switch from the style of academic journals to a more conversational approach.

“The popularity of the name Rebecca did not reflect commercial or organizational interests: There was no advertising campaign sponsored by the NRA — the National Rebecca Association,” he wrote.

He used that affability “to connect with his students, too,” his wife said.

“He was always half-joking . . . but he was very serious about his work, very serious about not only the importance of sociology, but holding it to a higher standard,” she added. “He felt the scholarship part should be more rigorous.”

The older of two brothers, Stanley Lieberson was born in Montreal and was 2 when his family moved to Brooklyn, N.Y.

His father, Jack Lieberson, was a garment maker. His mother, the former Ida Cohen, worked in a dime store.

A bright student, Stanley Lieberson graduated from junior high school early, finished Abraham Lincoln High School in Brooklyn in a couple of years, and spent two years at Brooklyn College before heading to graduate work at the University of Chicago when he was 18.

Skipping a bachelor’s degree, he graduated from the university in 1958 with a master’s and in 1960 with a doctorate, both in sociology.

Dr. Lieberson first taught at the University of Iowa and moved a couple of years later to the University of Wisconsin, where he became a professor of sociology. Switching to the University of Washington, he directed the school’s Center for Studies in Demography and Ecology. Returning to the University of Chicago, he was associate director of the Population Research Center.


In the mid-1970s, he began teaching at the University of Arizona at Tucson. He spent five years in the 1980s at the University of California Berkeley, and in 1988 joined the faculty at Harvard, where he became the Abbott Lawrence Lowell professor of sociology.

“He was always looking for the perfect university,” his wife said. “He still felt that the University of Chicago was as perfect as you could get,” though he thought he was too young, compared to his colleagues, when he returned there as a professor in 1971, at 38.

Dr. Lieberson had married Patricia Beard in 1960. They met when he was teaching at Iowa and she was a graduate student. By the next year, they were living in Wisconsin.

“We took many, many, many walks in woods and forests and mountains — and for years afterward with the whole family,” she said. “He also began to share my curiosity about the natural world, as well as in the social world that he was already interested in.”

A service has been held for Dr. Lieberson, who in addition to his wife and daughter Rebecca, of Cambridge, leaves another daughter Miriam Pollack of New York City; a son, David of Apollo Beach, Fla.; a brother, Melvin of Plantation, Fla.; and four grandchildren.


Dr. Lieberson’s 1980 book “A Piece of the Pie: Blacks and White Immigrants Since 1880,” received the American Sociological Association’s Distinguished Contribution to Scholarship Award. He had served as president of the association and shared the Paul F. Lazarsfeld Award, presented by the organization’s Methodology Section.

Those parents who obsess over naming a newborn, however, might well consider Dr. Lieberson’s “A Matter of Taste” his most memorable work.

He dedicated the book to his wife: “For Patricia (favorite name, according to a scientific random sample of one husband).”

Marquard can be reached at