Robert Dahl

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Robert Dahl
Robert A. Dahl in the Classroom.jpg
Dahl teaching a political science class at Yale University
Robert Alan Dahl

(1915-12-17)December 17, 1915
DiedFebruary 5, 2014(2014-02-05) (aged 98)
Known for
  • Mary Louise Bartlett (1940–1970)
  • Ann Sale (1973–2014)
Scientific career
FieldsPolitical science, Democratic theory
ThesisSocialist Programs and Democratic Politics: An Analysis
Academic advisors
Notable students

Robert Alan Dahl (/dɑːl/; December 17, 1915 – February 5, 2014) was an American political theorist and Sterling Professor of Political Science at Yale University.

He established the pluralist theory of democracy—in which political outcomes are enacted through competitive, if unequal, interest groups—and introduced "polyarchy" as a descriptor of actual democratic governance. An originator of "empirical theory" and known for advancing behavioralist characterizations of political power, Dahl's research focused on the nature of decision making in actual institutions, such as American cities.[1][2] He is the most important scholar associated with the pluralist approach to describing and understanding both city and national power structures.[3]

In addition to his work on the descriptive theory of democracy, he was long occupied with the formulation of the constituent elements of democracy considered as a theoretical but realizable ideal. By virtue of the cogency, clarity, and veracity of his portrayal of some of the key characteristics of realizable-ideal democracy, as well as his descriptive analysis of the dynamics of modern pluralist-democracy, he is considered one of the greatest theorists of democracy in history.[4]


Dahl was born in Inwood, Iowa, on December 17, 1915. He received his undergraduate degree from the University of Washington in 1936[5] and his Ph.D. from Yale in 1940.

During World War II, Dahl enlisted in the army infantry and led a platoon that took part in a major offensive in November 1944.[6]

Dahl served on Yale's political science faculty from 1946 until his retirement in 1986. He was Eugene Meyer Professor of Political Science from 1955 to 1964 and Sterling Professor from 1964 to 1986.

He was elected president of the American Political Science Association in 1966.

Awards and honors[edit]

Over his career, Dahl received many prestigious awards and prizes.[7]

1950 Guggenheim fellow

1955–1956 Fellow of the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences

1960 American Academy of Arts and Sciences [1]

1962 Dahl’s book Who Governs? is awarded the 1962 Woodrow Wilson Foundation Book Award. [2]

1967 Fellow of the Center for Advanced Study in Behavioral Sciences

1972 National Academy of Sciences

1978 Guggenheim fellow

1990 Dahl's work Democracy and Its Critics (1989) won the Woodrow Wilson Foundation Book Award. [3]

1995 Dahl was awarded the Johan Skytte Prize in Political Science in 1995.[8]

2016 Robert A. Dahl Award was established in honor of Dr. Robert Dahl by the American Political Science Association in 2016.[9]

American Philosophical Society

British Academy (as a corresponding fellow).

Academic research[edit]

Early writings and pluralism[edit]

Dahl's influential early books include A Preface to Democratic Theory (1956), Who Governs? (1961), and Pluralist Democracy in the United States (1967), which presented pluralistic explanations for political rule in the United States.[10][8]

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, he was involved in an academic disagreement with C. Wright Mills over the nature of politics in the United States. Mills held that America's governments are in the grasp of a unitary and demographically narrow power elite. Dahl responded that there are many different elites involved, who have to work both in contention and in compromise with one another. If this is not democracy in a populist sense, Dahl contended, it is at least polyarchy (or pluralism). In perhaps his best known work, Who Governs? (1961), he examines the power structures (both formal and informal) in the city of New Haven, Connecticut, as a case study, and finds that it supports this view.[11]

From the late 1960s onwards, his conclusions were challenged by scholars such as G. William Domhoff and Charles E. Lindblom (a friend and colleague of Dahl).[12][13]

Writing on power and influence[edit]

One of his many contributions is his explication of the varieties of power, which he defines as A getting B to do what A wants. Dahl prefers the more neutral "influence terms" (Michael G. Roskin), which he arrayed on a scale from best to worst:

  1. Rational Persuasion, the nicest form of influence, means telling the truth and explaining why someone should do something, like a doctor convincing a patient to stop smoking.
  2. Manipulative persuasion, a notch lower, means lying or misleading to get someone to do something.
  3. Inducement, still lower, means offering rewards or punishments to get someone to do something, like bribery.
  4. Power threatens severe punishment, such as jail or loss of a job.
  5. Coercion is power with no way out.
  6. Physical force is backing up coercion with use or threat of bodily harm.

Thus, the governments that use influence at the higher end of the scale are best. The worst use the unpleasant forms of influence at the lower end.[citation needed]

Writing on democracy and polyarchies[edit]

Dahl wrote many books on democracy throughout his career. The most influential are Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition (1971) and Democracy and Its Critics (1989).

In Polyarchy, Dahl uses the term "polyarchy" to refer to actual cases of democracy and provides a comprehensive discussion of possible causes of polyarchy.[14]

In his book, Democracy and Its Critics, Dahl clarifies his view about democracy. No modern country meets the ideal of democracy, which is as a theoretical utopia.[15] Instead, he calls politically advanced countries "polyarchies". Polyarchies are "distinguished by the presence of seven institutions, all of which must exist for a government to be classified as a polyarchy:[16]

  1. Elected officials
  2. Free and fair elections
  3. Inclusive suffrage
  4. Right to run for office
  5. Freedom of expression
  6. Alternative information
  7. Associational autonomy

Criteria for a Democratic Process[edit]

Dahl specified five criteria for evaluating how democratic a process is:[17]

  1. Effective participation -- All members ought to have equal and effective opportunities to make their views known to other members.
  2. Voting equality -- All members ought to have an equal and effective opportunity to vote, with votes counted as equal.
  3. Enlightened understanding -- All members must have equal and effective opportunities to learn about the consequences and alternatives of a proposal.
  4. Control of the agenda -- All members must have the exclusive opportunity to choose if or how matters will be placed on the agenda.
  5. Inclusion of adults -- All or most of adult permanent residents should be given the full rights of the above four criteria.

Later writings[edit]

In his later writing, Dahl examined democracy, in particular in the United States, with a critical view.

In How Democratic Is the American Constitution? (2001), Dahl argued that the US Constitution is much less democratic than it ought to be, given that its authors were operating from a position of "profound ignorance" about the future. However, he adds that there is little or nothing that can be done about this "short of some constitutional breakdown, which I neither foresee nor, certainly, wish for."[18]

In On Political Equality (2006), Dahl addresses the issue of equality and discusses how and why governments have fallen short of their democratic ideals. He assesses the contemporary political landscape in the United States.[19]

Major works[edit]

The best known of Dahl's works include:

  • Dahl, Robert A.; Lindblom, Charles E. (1953). Politics, Economics, and Welfare.
  • Dahl, Robert (2006) [1956]. A Preface to Democratic Theory. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 978-0-226-13434-5.
  • Dahl, Robert A. (1957). "The Concept of Power." Systems Research and Behavioral Science 2(3), 201–215.
  • Dahl, Robert A. (1957). "Decision-Making in a Democracy: The Supreme Court as a National Policy-Maker." Journal of Public Law 6: 279–295.
  • Dahl, Robert A. (1960). Social science research on business: product and potential.
  • Dahl, Robert A. (1961). Who Governs?: Democracy and Power in an American City.
  • Dahl, Robert A. (1963). Modern Political Analysis.
  • Dahl, Robert A. (1966). Political oppositions in Western Democracies.
  • Dahl, Robert A. (1968). Pluralist democracy in the United States: conflict and consent.
  • Dahl, Robert A. (1970). After the Revolution?: Authority in a good society.
  • Dahl, Robert A. (1971). Polyarchy: participation and opposition. New Haven: Yale University Press. ISBN 978-0-300-01565-2.
  • Dahl, Robert A.; Tufte, Edward R. (1973). Size and Democracy.
  • Dahl, Robert A. (1983). Dilemmas of Pluralist Democracy: Autonomy vs. Control.
  • Dahl, Robert A. (December 1984). "Polyarchy, pluralism, and scale". Scandinavian Political Studies. 7 (4): 225–240. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9477.1984.tb00304.x. Full text.
  • Dahl, Robert A. (1985). A Preface to Economic Democracy.
  • Dahl, Robert A. (1985). Controlling Nuclear Weapons: Democracy versus Guardianship.
  • Dahl, Robert A. (1989). Democracy and Its Critics.
  • Dahl, Robert A. (1997). Toward Democracy - a Journey: Reflections, 1940–1997.
  • Dahl, Robert A. (1998). On Democracy.
  • Dahl, Robert A. (2002). How Democratic Is the American Constitution?.
  • Dahl, Robert A.; Shapiro, Ian; Cheibub, José Antonio, eds. (2003). The Democracy Sourcebook.
  • Dahl, Robert A. (2005). After The Gold Rush.
  • Dahl, Robert A. (2005). What Political Institutions Does Large-Scale Democracy Require?. Political Science Quarterly 120:2, pp. 187–197.
  • Dahl, Robert A. (2006). On Political Equality.

Resources on Dahl and his research[edit]

  • Blokland, Hans Theodorus. 2011. Pluralism Democracy and Political Knowledge. Robert a Dahl and His Critics on Modern Politics. Burlington, VT: Ashgate.
  • Dahl, Robert A. 2005. After the Goldrush: Growing up in Skagway. Xlibris Corporation. [A description by Dahl of his days growing up in Alaska.]
  • Dahl, Robert A., and Margaret Levi. 2009. “A Conversation with Robert A. Dahl". Annual Review of Political Science 12: 1-9
  • Fabbrini, Sergio. 2003. "Bringing Robert A. Dahl's Theory of Democracy to Europe." Annual Review of Political Science 6:1: 119-137
  • Mayhew, David. 2018. "A Biographical Memoir". National Academy of Sciences. [4]
  • Morriss, Peter (October 1972). "Power in New Haven: a reassessment of 'Who Governs?'". British Journal of Political Science. 2 (4): 457–465. doi:10.1017/S0007123407000221. JSTOR 193412. S2CID 45944770.
  • Shapiro, Ian, and Grant Reeher, eds Power, Inequality, and Democratic Politics: Essays in Honor of Robert A. Dahl (Westview Press, 1988)
  • Utter, Glenn H. and Charles Lockhart, eds. American Political Scientists: A Dictionary (2nd ed. 2002) pp 75–78, online.
  • Interview by Richard Snyder: "Robert A. Dahl: Normative Theory, Empirical Research and Democracy," pp. 113–149, in Gerardo L. Munck and Richard Snyder, Passion, Craft, and Method in Comparative Politics (Baltimore, Md.: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007).


  1. ^ Rodrigues, Adrien; Lloyd-Thomas, Matthew (February 7, 2014). "Dahl's Legacy Remembered". Yale Daily News. Retrieved February 11, 2015.
  2. ^ Campbell, John C. (Fall 1985). "Controlling Nuclear Weapons: Democracy Versus Guardianship". Foreign Affairs. No. Fall 1985. Retrieved February 7, 2014.
  3. ^ Caves, R. W. (2004). Encyclopedia of the City. Routledge. p. 164.
  4. ^ Sergio Fabbrini, "Bringing Robert A. Dahl's Theory of Democracy to Europe." Annual Review of Political Science 2003 6:1: 119-137, p. 119.
  5. ^ "Robert Dahl Passing". UW Political Science Department. Retrieved April 30, 2017.
  6. ^ David Mayhew, "A Biographical Memoir". National Academy of Sciences, 2018, p. 3.
  7. ^ Information drawn from Robert A. Dahl and Margaret Levi, “A Conversation with Robert A. Dahl". Annual Review of Political Science 2009 12: 1-9, pp. 1-2.
  8. ^ a b Martin, Douglas (February 8, 2014). "Robert A. Dahl, defined politics and power; at 98". The New York Times.
  9. ^ APSA Inaugurates the Robert A. Dahl Award. (2016). PS: Political Science & Politics, 49(4), 927-927.
  10. ^ "Robert Dahl, Sterling Professor Emeritus in Political Science, passes away". Yale University Department of Political Science. February 7, 2014. Retrieved February 11, 2015.
  11. ^ Eulau, Heinz (March 1962). "Reviewed work: Who Governs? Democracy and Power in an American City by Robert A. Dahl". American Political Science Review. 56 (1): 144–145. doi:10.2307/1953105. JSTOR 1953105.
  12. ^ G. William Domhoff, Who really rules?: New Haven and community power reexamined (Transaction Books, 1978).
  13. ^ David Vogel, Fluctuating fortunes: The political power of business in America (2003)
  14. ^ Dahl, Robert A. (1971). Polyarchy: participation and opposition. New Haven: Yale University Press.
  15. ^ Dahl, Robert A. (1989). Democracy and Its Critics. Yale University Press. pp. 131. ISBN 978-0-300-04938-1.
  16. ^ R.A. Dahl, Democracy and Its Critics, Yale University Press, p. 222
  17. ^ Dahl, Robert A. (1998). On Democracy. Yale University Press. pp. 37–38.
  18. ^ Robert Alan Dahl (2003). How Democratic is the American Constitution?. Yale UP. p. 144. ISBN 978-0-300-09524-1.
  19. ^ Dahl, R. A., On political equality. Yale University Press, 2006.

External links[edit]