Cambridge, Mass. — To some of his peers, he is America's star sociologist - a highly regarded writer on social issues whose work has profoundly influenced the nation's public-policy debate.
To others, he is an improviser - generalizing so broadly, and covering so much ground so fast, that he has to rely more on blarney than scholarship.
But on one thing most agree: Amitai Etzioni belongs to the old school of grand theorists who, instead of specializing, take sweeping perspectives on humanity.
And when he focuses his wide-angle lens on America's social fabric, he sees optimism.
''We are not at the end of Rome and collapsing,'' said the German-born, Israeli-raised professor during a late-afternoon chat here recently. He sees reservoirs of ''inner strength and resources'' in the nation. And he contrasts contemporary America with Berlin in the 1930s - where ''all you had was black humor'' and fatalism, and where ''everybody got drunk.'' Here, he says, ''I don't see that atmosphere at all.''
Yet Etzioni does not underestimate the scope of the challenges facing the nation. His 13th and latest book, subtitled ''Rebuilding America Before the 21st Century,'' is exactly what its title suggests: ''An Immodest Agenda'' (New York, McGraw-Hill Book Company).
''I don't believe what we need in the next years is only to worry about the economy,'' says the former Columbia professor who now holds a chair at George Washington University. ''The economic reconstruction must be accompanied by an ethical and institutional reconstruction.''
If those sound like big words, they are. ''The fact is,'' he writes, ''that major societal building stones other than the economy have deteriorated: the family, the schools, the community, and the members of society themselves, the individuals. Hence, the 'recovery' must encompass these institutions and persons.''
If there is a single villain in Etzioni's pantheon, it is what he describes as ''me-ism'' - an ''ego-centered mentality'' that has been promoted in recent decades by pop psychology and ultimates in selfishness and a withdrawal from community concerns.
The answer, he says, is not an increase in government services. Instead, he writes, ''The attribute we Americans need most for the next generation is an enhanced commitment to others and to shared concerns.''
Out of this sense of sharing - which Etzioni defines as ''mutuality'' and ''civility'' - flow the book's major arguments, which center on the following issues:
* Family. Citing sober statistics on the dissolution of the ''nuclear'' family (two spouses, with or without children), he notes that if the proportion of married people in the population continues to decline as it has in recent years, there will be no American families left by the year 2008.
Obviously, he thinks that unlikely. Instead, he says he expects ''some major social force to change the present course of the American nuclear family, if only because no complex society has ever survived without a nuclear family.''
What will spur that reconstruction of the family? A first step is to ''face up to the anti-family themes'' - like the unbridled quest for ''ego fulfillment'' and the frequent relocation of employees - which tend to legitimize the taking apart of the family.
* Schools. America's schools, although struggling, are not a total write-off. But, like families, they have been plagued by an excess of ''me-ism'' - which, as practiced by the followers of educational theorist Jean Piaget, produce passive, unstructured classrooms.
There, children are encouraged to listen to their inner feelings rather than develop self-discipline. The result, he says, has been ''a rudderless pursuit of unproven fashions.''
What matters in schools, he explains, is not only ''cognitive learning.'' Needed as well is the kind of self-discipline that teaches students to ''mobilize and commit psychic energy to a task'' - and that encourages students toward greater ''mutuality'' and sense of community.
He sees promising straws in the wind as ''me-ism'' evaporates. More is needed, however. Etzioni calls for a shifting of funding downward from higher education to primary and secondary schools, greater work-study opportunities, and (if the nation could afford the $21 billion-a-year bill) a year of national service for everyone.
* Regionalism. Professor Etzioni also sees the effect of ''me-ism'' on a national scale - a ''pulling apart'' of states and regions, with each one increasingly asking what it paid into the federal government and how much it got back from it. ''I think it's one of the unreported problems of the country, because we're so preoccupied with the others,'' he said in the interview.
Needed, he writes, is ''a change in mentality that would enhance individuals' commitment to the commonweal at the national level - citizenship - to countervail excessive regionalism.''
One manifestation of the problem: the heightened recognition of the disparity between Sunbelt and frost-belt areas, with oil-rich states imposing severance taxes on their energy-poor neighbors.
He deplores what he calls the ''continued undiscrim-inating attacks on the legitimacy of the national government,'' and points to the need for federal (not merely state-by-state) leadership in regulating interstate business, maintaining national security, setting economic policy, and promoting such social goals as ending racism. And he sees in television great potential for spreading a shared set of basic values. He recognizes, however, that, at present, network television views ''consensus-building'' as only a third priority behind promoting consumer products and providing diversion and entertainment.
* Reindustrialization. The heart of the Etzioni book is devoted to arguing the case for a rebuilding of America's industrial capacity. Like most writers on the subject, he documents the erosion of the nation's infrastructure, discusses problems with communications, energy, and manpower, and bemoans the ''disinvestment process'' of progressive underinvestment in productive capacity.
But unlike most writers, he searches for root causes of industrial deterioration in national attitudes. An industrial society, he says, requires ''a rational mentality,'' which he defines as ''a mentality that seeks to open the world's resources and use them to make stronger instruments and increase output.'' He adds that ''the outlook on the world that is central to industrialization is hardly a passive orientation, accepting of fate, nor one indifferent to wealth, preoccupied with inner values or inner self.''
But as industrialization became an accepted phenomenon, he argues, the nation turned its attention elsewhere - and began tolerating attitudes that run counter to those needed for reindustrialization. Specifically, he names three: the desire for equality (which he feels has been perverted away from equality of opportunity and into a desire for guaranteeing equal futures for everyone); the counterculture (which ''elevated to the level of virtue the psychic satisfaction derived from little work, low consumption, and direct relation to others, nature , and self''); and the environmental movement, which blamed the destruction of the natural world on high production and consumption.
These three, taken together, have produced a vision of America as a society in which ''quality of life'' matters more than productivity. The result is ''ambivalence and retreat,'' a ''hodgepodge'' in which the nation has committed itself neither to ''quality of life'' nor to reindustrialization. Can't we have both? ''In the short term, no,'' Etzioni writes. What is needed, for the next decade at least, is a commitment to economic growth and industrialization. That , he concludes, is the only course that will keep the costs of maintaining society within acceptable levels, that will provide the nation with a unified sense of direction, and that will allow us to survive in the international arena.
Etzioni's book, then, is about attitudes - which, as any humanist knows, are harder to describe than demonstrated behaviors. ''My main thesis,'' he said in the interview, ''is that the situation is complicated and that we are cursed by simple fears.''
His viewpoint, he admits, is that of the ''secular humanist'' - a term often used scornfully by the Moral Majority (an organization he condemns as ''boastful , strongheaded, and incompetent'') and by others in the New Right.
His ''Immodest Agenda,'' at bottom, is founded on what he sees as a need for wholesale changes in attitude. It is the kind of book bound to draw fire from many sides: some religious groups (for its secular thrust), the quality-of-life proponents (for its emphasis on recommitment to economic growth), and from sociologists and economists (who may fault him, for example, for footnoting his material not to primary sources, but to newspaper accounts). Harvard sociologist David Riesman, describing Professor Etzioni's work as ''able'' and ''nonideological,'' sees both sides. ''He is a quick study,'' he notes, adding, ''That is his hazard.''
A courageous book? Many will see it that way, as it dares to probe the attitudes that underlie and shape the statistics. The American poet Wallace Stevens once noted that ''it is necessary to any originality to have the courage to be an amateur.'' Professor Etzioni, who some accuse of venturing widely beyond the bounds of his formal sociological training, may be faulted for amateurism. But in Stevens's words, that may be necessary for this kind of comprehensive originality.