Remembering Richard Lachmann

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A.K.M. Skarpelis, Berlin Social Science Center (WZB)

Obituaries are micro-narratives that set out to do several things at once: they revere, they mourn, they reminisce. Befitting to Richard Lachmann’s standing in the field and his importance in his home department at the University at Albany, SUNY, obituaries about Richard’s life and work have appeared in several venues. In many of these, his doctoral students – often international students, with few family networks in the United States – mentioned how exceptionally kind and welcoming he was to them, how he made them feel at home in a foreign country and advocated for them freely and generously. Within comparative historical sociology more generally, my peers andsenpai have related how they would meet with him around the big conferences; how he would take hours out of his time to read and discuss their papers, from first draft to full book manuscript. This magnanimity of spirit and time and attention is rare in the field.

A first stab at posthumous biography, obituaries are a public expression of grief that is usually written by family, close colleagues, or famous scholars in the field. As an ordinary junior sociologist, I fall into none of these three categories. Why then contribute to this memorialization of Richard Lachmann? What I found striking alongside testimonies of his own students and the looser networks within comparative historical sociology, and the reason why I felt compelled to write, is that in many ways, Richard’s influence extends far beyond these immediate circles in ways unusual for the field: His presence was calming and generative all at once. I remember the first time I gave an ASA talk in front of an actual and large audience– almost a hundred people – and how I scanned the room, nervously, looking for something, a reference point, a calming landmark. At some point I spotted Richard Lachmann, just sitting there with that permanently smiling expression and friendly face we all recall so well. Immediately, my mind stopped racing and I felt ready to speak.

Richard was an exceptional person in this ability to inspire and motivate by his mere presence. When I somewhat embarrassedly related this memory to my writing group and other colleagues, several in the group – none of whom were advised by Richard, or even knew him very well – shared almost identical feelings. Of a calming presence, of the courage to talk, unbothered by the constant swirl of questions and doubts facing especially scholars working on non-US cases (how is this sociological?,” “How does it matter to the US?”). Richard’s existence in the field has made countless of us feel at ease, confident and – dare I even put it this way – joyous in our pursuit of knowledge, in our taking apart of power relations and analogical reasoning beyond the West. Obituaries as genre are ephemeral; Richard’s influence is not. We will miss you, Richard, but you left us with the greatest gift: With a manual on how to proceed as mentor, colleague and friend, with kindness, impeccable reasoning, and generosity.

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