Neil Smelser

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Neil Smelser
Neil Joseph Smelser

(1930-07-22)July 22, 1930
DiedOctober 2, 2017(2017-10-02) (aged 87)[1]
Academic background
Alma mater
Academic advisorsTalcott Parsons
Academic work
InstitutionsUniversity of California, Berkeley

Neil Joseph Smelser (1930–2017) was an American sociologist who served as professor of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley. He was an active researcher from 1958 to 1994. His research was on collective behavior, sociological theory, economic sociology, sociology of education, social change, and comparative methods.[3] Among many lifetime achievements, Smelser "laid the foundations for economic sociology."[4]

Life career[edit]

Smelser was born in Kahoka, Missouri, on July 22, 1930. He received his undergraduate degree from Harvard University in 1952 in the Department of Social Relations.[5] From 1952 to 1954, he was a Rhodes scholar at Magdalen College, Oxford, where he studied economics, philosophy, and politics and was awarded a Bachelor of Arts degree. During his first year of graduate school at the age of 24, he co-authored Economy and Society with Talcott Parsons, first published in 1956. He earned his Doctor of Philosophy degree in sociology from Harvard in 1958, and was a junior fellow of the Society of Fellows. He was given tenure a year after graduating from Harvard and joining Berkeley.[4] and, at the age of 31, he was the youngest editor of the American Sociological Review in 1961, just three years after coming to Berkeley.

He was the fifth director of the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences from 1994 to 2001. He retired in 1994 when he became an emeritus professor and died in Berkeley on October 2, 2017.[1][6]


Smelser's value added theory (or strain theory) argued that six elements were necessary for a particular kind of collective behaviour to emerge:

  • Structural conduciveness - things that make or allow certain behaviors possible (e.g. spatial proximity)
  • Structural strain - something (inequality, injustice) must strain society
  • Generalized belief - explanation; participants have to come to an understanding of what the problem is
  • Precipitating factors - spark to ignite the flame
  • Mobilization for action - people need to become organized
  • Failure of social control - how the authorities react (or don't)


  • Economy and Society: A Study in the Integration of Economic and Social Theory. (with Talcott Parsons) (1956)
  • Theory of Collective Behavior. (1962)
  • The Sociology of Economic Life. (1963)
  • Comparative Methods in the Social Sciences. (1976)
  • Social Paralysis and Social Change: British Working-Class Education in the Nineteenth Century. (1991)
  • The Social Edges of Psychoanalysis. (1998)
  • Dynamics of the Contemporary University: Growth, Accretion, and Conflict. (2013)
  • Getting Sociology Right: A Half-Century of Reflections. (2014)


  1. ^ a b "In Memoriam: Neil Smelser passed away on October 2, 2017". UC Berkeley Sociology Department. University of California - Berkeley. Retrieved 23 August 2020.
  2. ^ a b Wuthnow, Robert (2004). "Trust as an Aspect of Social Structure". In Alexander, Jeffrey C.; Marx, Gary T.; Williams, Christine L. (eds.). Self, Social Structure, and Beliefs: Explorations in Sociology. Berkeley, California: University of California Press. pp. 145–146. ISBN 978-0-520-24137-4.
  3. ^
  4. ^ a b
  5. ^ "Smelser's CV". Retrieved 28 July 2014.[permanent dead link]
  6. ^ "Sociologist Neil Smelser, campus leader and Free Speech Movement diplomat, dies at 87". 2017-10-12.
  • Swedberg, Richard, Economics and Sociology: Redefining Their Boundaries: Conversations with Economists and Sociologists, Princeton University Press 1990.
  • Sullivan, T.J., Thompson, K.S. (1986), "Collective Behaviour and Social Change" in Sociology: Concepts, Issues and Applications, Chapter 12. MacMillan, New York.

External links[edit]