Sidney Verba: The Pioneer American Political Scientist Passed Away Leaving a Rich Legacy of Academic Excellence

Author : Prasant Kumar | Posted on: 2019-03-14

Sidney Verba, one of the world’s most prominent political scientists, who taught at Harvard for 35 years, holding several important administrative posts and leaving a lasting impact beyond his classrooms, died on March 4, 2019 at the age of 86.


Sidney Verba, born on May 26, 1932 was an American political scientist, librarian and library administrator and many more. His academic interests were mainly American politics and comparative politics. He was the Carl H. Pforzheimer University Professor at Harvard University and also served Harvard as the director of the Harvard University Library from 1984 to 2007.


Verba was educated at Harvard College and Princeton University, and served on the faculty of Princeton, Stanford University, and the University of Chicago. Thereafter he returning to Harvard, where he spent the rest of his teaching career. Finally, he gave notice of his intention to retire in 2006.


Verba, who was the Carl H. Pforzheimer University Professor Emeritus and research professor of government, undertook several pioneering research works on subjects like democratic participation, civic life, and, most importantly, political inequality. He authored more than 20 books that critically examined the issues like citizen engagement and activism in democratic political life not only in the U.S. and but also around the world.


His work, that was undertaken in collaboration with many scholars over the last five decades, succinctly put forward that people with higher income and education levels tended to be more active in civic and political life and that political inequality is deeply embedded in American society.


The central focus of Verba's theoretical work as a political scientist can be summed up in one word -- "participation," or to put it elaborately, "the issues of political participation by different groups." The question that he framed around his work has been, "Whose voice is heard by the government?" Verba earned his Ph.D. at Princeton in 1959; and in 1963, he was named as a co-author with Prof. Gabriel Almond in The Civic Culture: Political Attitudes and Democracy in Five Nations.


After retirement, he continued to explore the issue of "the citizen voice" focusing on the new interest groups in the United States, asking whom these interest groups represent—ethnic groups, or women, or trade associations, or professions. His research objective was to produce "a kind of statistical model of what the interest groups in the U.S. look like."


“He was one of the greatest political scientists of the second half of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century. Sidney Verba had a passion for American democracy. He, along with his chief collaborators Kay Schlozman and Henry Brady, developed over the years the definitive theory and empirical research to understanding civic and political participation in the United States,” said Theda Skocpol, the Victor S. Thomas Professor of Government and Sociology at Harvard.


“Verba’s work was driven by his concern for bringing equality to the American political system to allow all citizens to participate in civic and political life,” said Gary King, the Weatherhead University Professor and director of the Institute for Quantitative Social Science.


“If you had to say one word that Sid was about then it was equality…It’s not only a good thing that we have a democracy, but what really matters is the roles of people in it. He showed very often that the poor, even though they officially have the same number of votes as the rich, they have much less say in what goes on in government,” said Gary King.


Verba retired from teaching in 2007 but continued to work as Chair of the Committee on Human Rights at the National Academy of Sciences until just a few years ago.


“It was a continuum,” said Cynthia Verba, his wife of 65 years. “He was very proud of the work the committee was doing.”


Verba received many awards and honours for his contributions to political science. In 2002, he won the Johan Skytte Prize, which has been described as the Nobel Prize for political science.


As a scholar, Verba pioneered the use of survey research as central to the discipline in the 1963 book “The Civic Culture,” which he co-authored with Gabriel Almond. The ground-breaking work, which compared political attitudes in the U.S. to those in the U.K., Germany, Mexico, and Italy, revolutionized political science.


“The idea of American exceptionalism, that the United States was somehow different from everywhere else and couldn’t be compared, he just kind of blew that out of the water,” said Jennifer Hochschild, the H.L. Jayne Professor of Government, professor of African and African American Studies, and Harvard College professor.


In the 1970s, Verba published his works with several of his co-authors in both analysis and methodology, and also set the agenda for different subfields in the discipline. Those were “Participation in America” with Norman Nie, “The Changing American Voter” with Nie and John Petrocik, and “Participation and Political Equality” with Nie and Jae-on Kim. His book published in 1993, “Designing Social Inquiry,” written with Gary King and Robert Keohane, is still being read by most of the graduate students of political science world over.


In 1995, he published another of his seminal works, “Voice and Equality,” co-authored with Schlozman and Brady. The book examined patterns of political participation in the U.S. and brought the issue of inequality in political participation to the forefront of American political discourse. Schlozman said that Verba, despite his prominence, treated junior faculty, graduate students, and even undergraduates as collaborators.


Verba’s legacy was also felt beyond the classroom. He was widely beloved across the because he made time to mentor graduate students and junior faculty and he also had a special talent for bringing people together. One of Verba’s greatest administrative feats was to unify and align the University’s academic calendar across all Schools and align it with those of most universities in the country. Verba was the longest-serving director of the University Library in Harvard’s history. “He comes from a tradition of scholar librarians who value the tradition of preserving our cultural knowledge and the way in which it is used,” said Sarah Thomas, vice president of the Harvard Library.

Leave A Comment

Abinash Mittal
As a student of political science, I find this news article very useful. Did not know much about the author, except few things from the O.P.Gauba Book on Political Theory. Loved to read it. Kudos to the author.
Jagdish Mathur
Wow...such an informative and impressive piece of writing.
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