Democracy Man

The Life and Work of Robert A. Dahl

Courtesy Reuters

Robert Dahl died on February 5 at the age of 98. He might well have been the most important political scientist of the last century, and he was certainly one of its preeminent social scientists. He received strings of awards and honorary degrees, including the first Johan Skytte Prize, created in 1995 to remedy the lack of a Nobel Prize for Political Science. Citations to Dahl’s work run to the tens of thousands, dwarfing those of his contemporaries. Many leaders of the profession today were his students.

Born in 1915 in Inwood, Iowa, Dahl grew up in Alaska, graduated from the University of Washington in 1936, finished his PhD at Yale in 1940, and then joined the war effort. He served on the War Production Board and as a first lieutenant in the army, winning a Bronze Star with oak cluster for distinguished service. Following a brief stint in the Roosevelt administration he returned to Yale, this time as faculty, in 1946. He taught for 40 years, retiring as Sterling Professor Emeritus in 1986. He remained an active scholar for another two decades.

In many ways, Dahl created the field of modern political science. To be sure, the scholarly study of politics goes back to at least the ancient Greeks. Dahl was no Plato, Aristotle, or Thomas Hobbes, but he added something new to the armchair reflection leavened by illuminating anecdote that had characterized the enterprise for millennia: the systematic use of evidence to evaluate rigorously stated theoretical claims. Generations of Dahl’s successors have developed both theories and empirical methods in multiple directions since he produced his innovative works in the 1950s and 1960s, sometimes in ways that he found less than congenial. Few would deny that they stood on Dahl’s shoulders.

Dahl is often considered the founder of the behavioral school of political science. That is because he emphasized observable conduct in his early theoretical work on power and the behavior of urban elites in Who Governs, his study of decision-making in New Haven. But it misconstrues Dahl

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