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Remembering a Giant of Sociology

Seymour Martin Lipset (1922–2006)

by Claude S. Fischer and Ann Swidler, University of California-Berkeley

Seymour Martin Lipset, one of the giants of sociology in the 20th century, died on December 31, 2006, in Arlington, VA.

Marty Lipset shaped modern sociology by writing a string of classic works, nurturing a legion of eminent students, and radiating a kindness that warmed all those around him.

Lipset, the son of Russian- Jewish immigrants, grew up immersed in the intense, Marxist debates of his Bronx neighborhood, an atmosphere which he later credited with sparking his intellectual concerns and political commitments. Lipset, along with other memorable student activists at the City College of New York in the 1930s, such as Daniel Bell, Nathan Glazer, Irving Howe, and Philip Selznick, remade American social science and intellectual life in the middle of the century.

Lipset’s formal positions—professorships at Toronto, Columbia, Berkeley, Harvard, Stanford, and George Mason; presidencies of the American Sociological Association, the American Political Science Association, the United States Institute of Peace; membership in the National Academy of Sciences; and other roles—hardly describe how consequential he was. By one study, Lipset was the most cited social scientist in the world.

Lipset established many of the theories and research agendas in political sociology, stratification, modernization, and other fields. Much of his work arose from questions about the social bases of democracy and the absence of socialism in America. They led him to study Canada, comparative development, American history, the nature of democratic and anti-democratic politics, the labor movement, social class, and much more.

Socialism and Democracy

His dissertation book, Agrarian Socialism (1950), was the first in a series that used the American-Canadian comparison to address systematically the “why no socialism?” question. Union Democracy (1956), with Martin Trow and James Coleman, examined why the democratically run printers’ union managed to escape Michels’ “iron law of oligarchy.” Through intensive, multimethod, team research, the authors discovered the importance of small, mediating groups—what would later be labeled “civil society”—for democracy. Union Democracy alone would be the crowning achievement of most academic careers. Lipset’s most widely read book, Political Man (1960), set the groundwork for decades of research in both sociology and political science, particularly in emphasizing the social and economic foundations of liberal democracy.

Two of Lipset’s most influential articles, “Some Social Requisites of Democracy” (1959) and, with Stein Rokkan, “Cleavage Structures, Party Systems, and Voter Alignments” (1967) illustrate the complexity and range of his thinking. Lipset begins with the correlation of stable democracy with wealth, industrialization, and education. But he adds important refinements. For example, the survival in some nations of traditional symbols like monarchies curbed reaction from the conservative classes. He also shows that when major cleavages attendant on modernization, such as between religion and secularism or between capital and labor, came in stages rather than all together, the timing enabled emerging democratic institutions to gain legitimacy by resolving each crisis in sequence. Both essays, like so much of Lipset’s oeuvre, bear rereading; they are much more nuanced and interesting than the boiled-down versions most sociologists encounter today, and their arguments remain relevant.

With his colleague at Berkeley, Reinhard Bendix, Lipset produced Social Mobility in Industrial Society (1959) and the canonical edited collection, Class, Status, and Power (1965), works that brought cross-national and historical comparison to the emerging field of stratification research. In The First New Nation (1963), an important work for historians as well as sociologists, Lipset further developed his ideas about what made America different, focusing on cultural and institutional patterns set at the country’s founding. He continued exploring ideas and data on the question through American Exceptionalism (1996) and, with Gary Marks, in It Didn’t Happen Here (2001).

Letting the Evidence Speak

Lipset was a major intellectual force, often a foundational figure, in other fields as well, such as the study of higher education, the politics of academics and intellectuals, Latin American development, and American Jewry. He wrote prolifically, not to bolster his reputation or to press a theoretical claim, but to contribute ideas and findings to the vital intellectual debates of his times. He paid serious attention to evidence, often using an eclectic mix of data and theory, whatever would work empirically. For example, observing that social mobility was no greater in the United States than in Europe convinced him that America’s exceptionalism was due to its distinctive historical experiences and the values they shaped, rather than its unique social structure. Ross Perot’s 1992 third-party presidential bid made him realize that he had overestimated the influence of America’s electoral system in inhibiting socialism; the United States could have successful third parties, but not social-democratic, labor, or socialist ones. Lipset’s memoir, “Steady Work,” in the 1996 Annual Review of Sociology, gives a rich account of his intellectual development.

As a teacher, Marty worked with and sponsored a diverse range of eminent students, including James Coleman, Maurice Zeitlin, Gary T. Marx, Gary Marks, Immanuel Wallerstein, Bill Schneider, Juan Linz, Theda Skocpol, Larry Diamond, and many, many others.

Marty was overflowing with ideas and fascinated by all sorts of information. He had a voracious mind, and, having overcome dyslexia, became a speed reader. He could be spotted in Harvard’s William James Hall, walking from his office to the men’s room and back, flipping through the pages of a book, having absorbed much of it by the time he returned to his office. And he enthusiastically shared what he learned with all comers, from eminent scholar to graduate student.

Large in Size and Spirit

None of the accolades and honors that Lipset received over the years or since his death capture what those who knew him recognized as most important of all: Marty was a wonderful person. He had a fulfilling personal life. He married the former Elsie Braun, with whom he had three children—David, Daniel, and Cici—and six grandchildren. Elsie, who helped Marty remain the same boy from the Bronx and rooted in his Jewish tradition, died in 1987. In 1990 he married the former Sydnee Guyer and embarked on a second happy marriage. Together with Sydnee, he continued to be active in the Jewish community and in Democratic Party politics.

Marty was, in every respect, a mensch—a decent, honorable person. He was also always down-to-earth, warm, unpretentious, artless, and for one of such accomplishment, remarkably modest. He was, as his wife Sydnee has said, just “a very sweet man.” Person after person told her that it was thanks to Marty that they finished their dissertations, got their books published, landed jobs, or gained tenure. Theda Skocpol has pointed out that Marty treated women with professional respect and supported them even before the women’s movement. Others have noted that, despite tensions resulting from Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement (Marty was an advocate of debate rather than direct action), he generously mentored students of all political stripes. Physically large, Marty Lipset was even larger in spirit.

He is tremendously missed.