American Sociological Association

Robert M. MacIver

Robert Morrison MacIver

Robert Morrison MacIver

April 17, 1882 - June 15, 1970

“The virtue of democracy is that is has placed limits on the absoluteness of power.” -Robert Morrison MacIver

Robert Morrison MacIver was born in Stornoway, Scotland, on April 17, 1882. He was the son of Donald MacIver, a merchant of Harris Tweed, and Christine Morrison. As a child, MacIver lived with four brothers and a sister on Lewis Island. He married Ethel Marion Peterkin in 1911, and together they raised three children. MacIver was a Scottish-American sociologist, a humanist, a political scientist and an educator. He graduated from the University of Edinburgh in classics, receiving his M.A. in 1903 and his D. Phil. in 1905. MacIver went on to graduate from Oxford in 1907 with a degree in the “greats”, Literae Humaniores.

MacIver went back to Scotland to accept a lecturer position at Aberdeen University, teaching political science from 1907-1915 and sociology from 1911-1915. In 1915 he moved to Canada, where he taught at the University of Toronto until 1917 and served as head of the political science department from 1919-1927. MacIver spent a period of time as the Vice-Chairman of the Canadian War Labor Board (1917-1919). In 1927 he became head of the department of economics and sociology at Barnard College (1927-1929). In 1929 MacIver was named a Lieber Professor of Political Philosophy and Sociology at Columbia University, where he stayed until his retirement in 1950. He spent the next decade serving in a variety of public service positions, including the City of New York Juvenile Delinquency Evaluation Project (1956-1961), President (1963-1965) and Chancellor (1965-1966) of the New School for Social Research, Director of Research for Jewish Defense Agencies, Assault on Academic Freedom, and the United Nations. MacIver was a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, and the British Academy.

MacIver was the author of numerous works on sociology, politics and juvenile delinquency. Some of these include: Community: A Sociological Student (1917), Society: Its Structure and Changes (1931), The Web of Government (1947), The Pursuit of Happiness (1955), Life: Its Dimensions and Its Bounds (1960), The Challenge of the Passing Years (1962), Social Causation (1964), The Prevention and Control of Delinquency (1966), Politics and Society (1969), and On Community, Society, and Power; Selected Writings (1970).

From a young age, MacIver retained a persistent rebellion from the Presbyterian piety of his father. He held a lifelong distrust of orthodoxy, both religious and social. MacIver’s theories tended to be more classical, modeled after scholars like Plato and Aristotle, Durkheim, Simmel, and Levy-Bruhl, than modern. He rejected the growing notions of professionalism, specialization, quantification, behaviorism, and positivism that were characterizing the academic community. MacIver instead focused on human agency, methodological diversity, and ethical issues. He sought to define an integrated social science that could understand people in their economic, political, and social aspects simultaneously. MacIver believed in the compatibility between individualism and social organization. He also studied the interactions between society and political institutions. MacIver’s work made huge strides in creating new theories of democracy and multi-group coexistence.

MacIver served as the 30th President of the American Sociological Society. His Presidential Address, "Some Reflections on Sociology During a Crisis" (html) (pdf), was delivered at the organization's annual meeting in Chicago in December 1940. MacIver passed away at the Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center in New York City on June 15, 1970. Upon his death, an obituary was published in The American Sociologist (Komarovsky 1971:53).

For more information on Robert Morrison MacIver, you may find the following sources useful:

  • Jordan, John M. 2000. “MacIver, Robert Morrison.” American National Biography Online. Retrieved March 17, 2003 (
  • Infoplease. 2005. “MacIver, Robert Morrison.” The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia. Retrieved May 13, 2005 (
  • Komarovsky, Mirra. 1971. “Robert M. MacIver 1882-1970.” The American Sociologist February.
  • Palmisano, Joseph M. ed. 2001. “MacIver, Robert Morrison (1882-1970): Scottish American Sociologist and Educator.” Pp. 409-410 in World of Sociology. Farmington Hills, MI: The Gale Group.

“When you educate a man you educate an individual; when you educate a woman you educate a whole family.” –Robert Morrison MacIver