Peter Blau

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Peter Michael Blau
Born February 7, 1918
Vienna, Austria
Died March 12, 2002(2002-03-12) (aged 84)
Carrboro, North Carolina
Alma mater Elmhurst College, Columbia University
Era 20th-century
Main interests
Macrosociology, Organizational Sociology, Social Structure, Stratification, Bureaucracy, Exchange Theory
Notable ideas
Co-founder of Organizational Sociology (with James Samuel Coleman, Alvin Ward Gouldner, Seymour Martin Lipset, Philip Selznick)

Peter Michael Blau (February 7, 1918 – March 12, 2002) was an American sociologist and theorist. Born in Vienna, Austria, he immigrated to the United States in 1939. He received his PhD at Columbia University in 1952, and was an instructor at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan from 1949–1951, before moving on to teach at the University of Chicago from 1953 to 1970. In 1970 he returned to Columbia University, where he continued to teach until 1988. From 1988 to 2000 he taught as an emeritus professor at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill in the same department as his wife, Judith Blau.

His sociological specialty was in organizational and social structures, in particular bureaucracy. He produced theories relating to many aspects of social phenomena, including upward mobility, occupational opportunity, and heterogeneity. He also produced theories on how population structures[disambiguation needed] can influence human behavior.

One of Blau's most important contributions to social theory is his work regarding exchange theory, which explains how small-scale social exchange directly relates to social structures at a societal level.

He also was the first to map out the wide variety of social forces, dubbed “Blau Space” by Miller McPherson. This idea was one of the first to take individuals and distribute them along a multidimensional space.Blau-space is still used as a guide by sociologists and has been expanded to include areas of sociology never specifically covered by Blau himself.

In 1974 Blau served as president of the American Sociological Association.

Early life[edit]

Peter Blau was born in 1918 in Vienna shortly before the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He was born into a Jewish family as fascist power within Europe grew and Hitler’s influence within Austria became increasingly evident. Hitler’s rise to power and WWII would impact Blau’s life tremendously, claiming family, culture, and nearly his own life. At the age of seventeen, Blau was convicted of high treason for speaking out against government repression in articles he wrote for an underground newspaper of the Socialist Worker’s Party. He was released shortly after his imprisonment when the ban on political activity was lifted due to the National Socialists’ rise to power. When Hitler arrived in Austria in 1938, Blau attempted to escape to Czechoslovakia. Both Blau and his sister—who was sent to England—managed to escape. The rest of his family, however, decided to stay Austria. Blau’s original attempt to flee proved unsuccessful as he was captured by Nazi forces and subjected to torture. Yet, he was once again released and made his way to Prague. With the help of his high school teacher, Blau obtained a travel permit to America in order to study, though he briefly had to occupy a French labor camp due to complications with his visa. He finally arrived in Le Havre, France where he received a refugee scholarship to Elmhurst College in Illinois through an American G.I. Blau emigrated to America in 1939 where he attended Elmhurst College, earning his degree in sociology in 1942, and becoming a United States citizen in 1943. Blau returned to Europe 1942 as a member of the United States Army, acting as an interrogator given his skills in the German language. He was awarded the bronze star for his duties, but it was during this time Blau also received word that his family had been killed at Auschwitz.

Later life[edit]

After receiving his bachelor’s degree from Elmhurst College, Blau continued his education at Columbia University, where he received his Ph.D in 1952. One of Blau’s most memorable and significant contributions to the field of sociology came in 1967. Working together with Otis Dudley Duncan and Andrea Tyree, he co-authored The American Occupational Structure, which provided a meaningful sociological contribution to the study of social stratification, and won the highly touted Sorokin Award from the American Sociological Association in 1968. Blau is also known for his contributions to sociological theory. Exchange and Power in Social Life (1964) was an important contribution to contemporary exchange theory, one of Blau's distinguished theoretical orientations. The aim of this work was, "(to analyze) the processes that govern the associations among men as a prolegomenon of a theory of social structure."[1] In it, Blau makes the effort to take micro-level exchange theory and apply it to social structures at a macro-level. Blau was also very active in the study of structural theory. Blau's 1977 book, "Inequality and Homogeneity," presents, "A macrosociological theory of social structure"[2] where the foundation of his theory "is a quantitative conception of social structure in terms of the distributions of people among social positions that affect their social relations."[2]

Blau served as the president of the American Sociological Association from 1973–1974 and through this window was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1980. He died on March 12, 2002 of acute respiratory distress syndrome.


For Blau, sociological theories were produced through logical deduction. Blau began theoretical studies by making a broad statement or basic assumption regarding the social world, which was then proven by the logical predictions it produced.[3] Blau claimed these statements could not be validated or refuted based on one empirical test. Instead, it was a theory's "logical implications" that could be trusted, more so than an empirical test.[3] Only if continued empirical tests contradicted the theory could the theory be modified, or dropped entirely if a new theory was proposed in its place.[3] Blau's trust in logic and his deductive approach to social theory aligns him closely with the philosophy of positivism and traditional French sociologists, Auguste Comte and Émile Durkheim.

Exchange Theory[edit]

One of Blau's main areas of interest within the complexity of social structures was social interaction. He expressed this interest in the statement, "The main sociological purpose of studying processes of face-to-face interaction is to lay the foundation for an understanding of the social structures that evolve and the emergent social forces that characterize their development."[4] Blau directed his attention to the process of social exchange, which he believed was an enormous influence on human behavior and a governing factor among individual and group relationships.[5] However, rather than deal with exchange theory at its typical small-scale level, Blau attempted to apply it to the societal level. Blau explains that social attraction is what leads to the establishment of social relations, and thus the process of social exchange. The process of exchange can be an equal one, with equal rewards moving from one side to the other, however, when there is an inequality in exchange power differentials are created. A person who is depended upon by others to gain what they need in the process of social exchange holds power over them. If the individual in power adheres by the norms and values of society, such as fairness and reciprocity, those whom depend on him/her can legitimate his/her power with loyalty and compliance. This is where Blau takes his theory to the macro level. From the legitimation of power and compliance of the group, the organization becomes an institutionalized system of exchange values. It is independent of any individual and becomes part of the social structure. Thus, Blau argues that the institutions that make up social structures on a macro-level are spawned from a series of social exchanges at a micro-level that abide by the norms and values of society.

Population Structures[edit]

Population structures and their relationship with social interaction was another primary interest within Blau's work. Blau believed that population structure created guidelines for specific human behaviors, especially intergroup relations.[6] Blau created a number of theories explaining aspects of population structure that increased chances of intergroup relations. Blau viewed social structure as being somewhat stable, but he did identify two phenomena that he believed contributed to structural change within a population: social mobility and conflict. Blau thought social mobility, which he described as "any movement within a population by an individual," was beneficial to intergroup relations within a population structure, and theorized various scenarios involving social relations and mobility.[6] Blau also theorized explanations for structural causes of conflict, focusing on population distribution as a cause of conflict separate from individual or political issues.[7] According to Blau, structural conflict is linked to the inequality of status of groups, size of group, social mobility between groups, and the probability of social contact between groups. Blau determined that prevention of conflict within a population structure can be achieved through "multigroup affiliations and intersection in complex societies."[7]

Organizational Theory[edit]

Organizational research consisted in exploring to what extent the received image of the Weberian bureaucracy—an efficient, mechanical system of roles—held up under close scrutiny in the empirical study of social interaction within organizations. Some of Blau’s first major contributions to sociology were in the field of organizations. His first publication, Dynamics of Bureaucracy (1955), prompted a wave of post-Weberian organizational studies. He contributed to this strand of research in many ways. Blau, in his research and study, highlighted the ways in which the real life of the organization was structured along informal channels of interaction and socio-emotional exchange. He also discussed how the incipient status systems formed were important to the continued functioning of these organizations as the formal status structure. Hence, much of Blau’s work involving organizations centered on the interplay between formal structure, informal practices, and bureaucratic pressures and how these processes affect organizational change. Aside from his work on organizational change, Blau’s second major contribution to organizational analysis revolved around the study of determinates of the “bureaucratic components” of organizations. He collected data on 53 Employment Security Agencies in the US and 1,201 local offices. The result of this research was Blau’s (1970) general theory of differentiation in organizations. This piece had an immediate impact in the field of organizations and more importantly American sociology. It made many useful generalizations that sociologists support and acknowledge today. This specific work, however, had a brief influence as organization sociology moved away from nomothetic generalizations about determinants of intra-organizational structure and to the study of organizational environments.

Macrostructural Theory[edit]

Probably one of the biggest contributions Blau gave to sociology was his work in Macrostructural Theory. For him, social structure consisted of the networks of social relations that organize patterns of interaction across different social positions. During this time, many people had different definitions for social structure. Blau's definition, however, set him apart from the rest. For Blau, social structure did not consist of natural persons, but instead their social positions. This essentially meant that the parts of social structure were classes of people instead of individual people. Such classes or categories would include being a man or a woman, or being rich or poor. Blau believed that the root of social structure can be found whenever an undifferentiated group begins to separate itself along some socially relevant distinction. In Blau’s eyes, one could not speak of social structure without speaking of the differentiation of people. He believes that it is these socially relevant distinctions—distinctions based on race, age, gender, etc.—that determines who interacts with whom. Blau coined the term “parameter of social structure” to refer to socially relevant positions that people could be classified as. Something could not be considered a parameter if it did not actually affect the social relations of individuals “on the ground.” In his 1974 Presidential Address: Parameters of Social Structure, Blau discussed two categories of parameters: graduated and nominal. For Blau, modern society was characterized by the fact that they were composed of a multiplicity of socially relevant positions and that these positions were interconnected in sometimes contradictory ways. Two positions are contradictory if one interaction increase leads to interaction of another decreasing.


One of his most famous quotations is: 'One cannot marry an eskimo, if no eskimo is around,' by which he meant that flourishing societies are pluralistic, egalitarian, and diverse, providing their members with cosmopolitan opportunities. [1][8]

"An understanding of social structure on the basis of an analysis of the social processes that govern the relations between individuals and groups. The basic question... is how social life becomes organized into increasingly complex structures of associations among men" - the stated "goal" of Peter Blau's work[9]


Peter Blau is one of the most influential post-war American sociologists. His expansive career covers topics from small groups, and social exchange theory to organizational theory and status attainment. While Blau’s work in the differentiation of organizations was short-lived, his style of research was not. He provided an exemplar of how to do research and how to build theory. He proved that general and valuable deductive theory was possible in sociology. Blau eventually paved the way for many young sociologists that then used similar styles of research and deductive theory. In addition to that, he, along with the help of Otis Dudley Duncan, introduced multiple regression and path analysis to the sociological audience. These two methods currently are the go-to methods of quantitative sociology.


  • Dynamics of Bureaucracy (1955)
  • Bureaucracy in Modern Society (1956)
  • A Theory of Social Integration, "The American Journal of Sociology", Vol. LXV, No. 6, p. 545, (May 1960)
  • A Theory of Social Integration (1960)
  • with Richard Scott: Formal organizations, San Francisco, (1962)
  • Exchange and Power in Social Life, (1964)
  • The Flow of Occupational Supply and Recruitment "American Sociology Review" (1965)
  • The American Occupational Structure, (1967)
  • A Formal Theory of Differentiation in Organizations, (1970)
  • Presidential Address: Parameters of Social Structure "American Sociology Review" (1974)
  • On the Nature of Organizations (1974)
  • Approaches to the Study of Social Structure, (editor). New York: The Free Press A Division of Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc. (1975)
  • Inequality and Heterogeneity : a primitive theory of social structure , (1977)
  • Crosscutting Social Circles: Testing a Macrostructural Theory of Intergroup Relations, with Joseph E. Schwartz (1984)
  • Structural Contexts of Opportunity (1994)
  • A Circuitous Path to Macrostructural Theory (1995)


  • Ritzer, George. Sociological Theory. Seventh Edition. 1. New York: The Mc-Graw Hill Companies, Inc., 2008. Print.
  • Ritzer, George. "Sociological Theory". Eighth Edition. 1. New York: The McGraw Hill Companies, Inc., 2011. Print.
  • Blau, Peter. "Exchange and Power in Social Life". 1st edition. 1. New York: John Wiley and Sons, Inc, 1964. Print.
  • Blau, Peter. Inequality and Heterogeneity. 1st edition. 1. New York: The Free Press, 1977. Print.
  • Scott, Richard and Calhoun, Craig. "Peter Michael Blau." Bibliographic Memoirs. The National Academies Press, Web. 16 Oct 2009.
  • Allan, Kenneth. "Contemporary Social and Sociological Theory: Visualizing Social Worlds." 1st edition. 1. Thousand Oaks: Pine Forge Press. 2006. Print.
  • Farganis, James. "Readings in Social Theory: The Classic Tradition to Post-Modernism." 7th edition. 1. New York: McGraw Hill Companies, Inc., 2014. Print
  • [10]
  • Blau, Peter. The Dynamics of Bureaucracy. Chicago: Syllabus Division, University of Chicago Press. 1961. Print
  • Blau Peter. On the Nature of Organizations. New York: Wiley, 1974. Print
  • Blau, Peter. Inequality and Heterogeneity: A Primitive Theory of Social Structure. New York: Free, 1977. Print.
  • Blau, Peter Michael. Presidential Address: Parameters of Social Structure. American Sociological Review 39. 1970. JSTOR. Web 16 Oct 2014.
  • Blau, Peter. “A Circuitous Path to Macrostructural Theory.” Annual Review of Sociology. August 1995. Web. 18 Oct. 2014


  1. ^ Peter Blau Exchange and Power in Social Life (1964)
  2. ^ a b Peter Blau,"Inequality and Homogeneity" (1977)
  3. ^ a b c Allan, Kenneth (2006). Contemporary Social and Sociological Theory: Visualizing Social Worlds. Thousand Oaks: Pine Forge Press. p. 127. 
  4. ^ Ritzer, George (2008). Sociological Theory, Eighth Edition. New York: McGraw Hill. p. 427. 
  5. ^ Ritzer, George (2011). Sociological Theory. New York: McGraw Hill. p. 426. 
  6. ^ a b Allan, Kenneth (2006). Contemporary Social and Sociological Theory: Visualizing Social Worlds. Thousand Oaks: Pine Forge Press. p. 139. 
  7. ^ a b Allan, Kenneth (2006). Contemporary Social and Sociological Theory: Visualizing Social Worlds. Thousand Oaks: Pine Forge Press. p. 141. 
  8. ^ Volker, Beate. "The Comrades' Belief: Intended and Unintended Consequences of Communism for Neighbourhood Relations in the Former GDR" (PDF). Oxford Journals. Oxford University Press. Retrieved 29 September 2012. 
  9. ^ Ritzer, George (2011). Sociological Theory. New York: McGraw Hill Companies, Inc. p. 427. 
  10. ^ "Peter M Blau death record"., Inc. Retrieved 26 February 2014. 

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