Theda Skocpol

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Theda Skocpol
Theda Skocpol 2012 01.jpg
Born (1947-05-04) May 4, 1947 (age 68)
Detroit, Michigan
Nationality American
Fields Civic engagement,
Comparative sociology,
Historical institutionalism
Institutions Harvard University
Alma mater Michigan State University (B.A.)
Harvard University (Ph.D.)
Academic advisors Barrington Moore, Jr.
Known for  • States and Social Revolutions,
 • Diminished Democracy
Notable awards Johan Skytte Prize

Theda Skocpol (born May 4, 1947) is an American sociologist and political scientist at Harvard University. She served from 2005 to 2007 as Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. She is influential in sociology as an advocate of the historical-institutional and comparative approaches, and well known in political science for her "state autonomy theory". Skocpol has written widely for both popular and academic audiences.

In 2007, Skocpol was awarded the Johan Skytte Prize in Political Science, one of the world's most prestigious prizes in political science.[1] In 2002-3, Skocpol was president of the American Political Science Association.


Skocpol was born in Detroit, Michigan and completed her undergraduate education at Michigan State University (B.A., 1969). She went on to Harvard (Ph.D., 1975), where she studied with Barrington Moore Jr. She married Bill Skocpol in 1967, a physicist who taught at Boston University, and has one son, Michael Skocpol, born in 1988 and a graduate of Brown University.

In 1979, she published States and Social Revolutions, a comparative analysis of social revolutions in Russia, France, and China. Some of her subsequent work focused on methodology and theory, including the co-edited volume Bringing the State Back In, which heralded a new focus by social scientists on the state as an agent of social and political change.

In the early 1980s, she publicly alleged that Harvard had denied her tenure (1980) because she was a woman, a charge which was found to be justified by an internal review committee in 1981, by which point she was teaching at the University of Chicago.[2] In 1985, Harvard offered her a tenured position (its first ever for a female sociologist), which she accepted.

In more recent years, her work has focused specifically on the United States, including the award-winning Protecting Soldiers and Mothers, a historical analysis of the American welfare state. She has also focused on civic engagement, spearheading research charting the history of voluntary associations over the last two centuries. Her 2003 work, Diminished Democracy, seeks to explain the decline of American civic participation in recent decades. In this area, she has differed strongly with her Harvard colleague Robert Putnam and other social capital theorists, in highlighting the role of institutional changes (include state policies) in shaping civic life.

Skocpol works at Harvard as a Professor of Government and Sociology, studying social policy and civic engagement in the U.S. She acted as Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences from 2005–2007 and as Director of the Center for American Political Studies from 2000-2006. She served as President of both the Social Science History Association and the American Political Science Association, and was recognized in 2007 for her "visionary analysis of the significance of the state for revolutions, welfare, and political trust, pursued with theoretical depth and empirical evidence" with the Johan Skytte Prize. She was given the Woodrow Wilson Award in 1993 for the best book in political science. Today, according to her profile on the Harvard Kennedy School website, she studies “inequality in American society, women and public policy, and the development of voluntary associations in U.S. history to elucidate recent transformations within the American polity.”[3]

Skocpol's works and opinions have been associated with the structuralist school. As one example, she argues that social revolutions can best be explained given their relation with specific structures of agricultural societies and their respective states. She gives equal importance to the role of international forces, especially their influence on state and social structures of a given society. Such an approach differs greatly from more "behaviorist" ones, which tend to emphasize the role of "revolutionary populations" "revolutionary psychology" and/or "revolutionary consciousness" as determinant factors of revolutionary processes.

State Autonomy Theory[edit]

Before she wrote Protecting Soldiers and Mothers, Skocpol first devised what she termed State Autonomy Theory, the idea that state bureaucracies could have potential for autonomous operations and that this potential was ignored by scientists focused on society-centric studies. She considers the idea that parties are more important in America than the government, and that class dominance plays heavily into American politics.

States and Social Revolutions[edit]

Skocpol’s most famous book, States and Social Revolutions (1979), discusses how most theories account only for direct action in bringing about revolutions. Social Revolutions are fast-paced foundational transformations of society's state and class structures. She includes the structure involved in creating a revolutionary situation that can lead to a social revolution - one that changes civic institutions and government once the administration and military branches collapse. According to Skocpol, there are two stages to social revolutions: a crisis of state and the emergence of a dominant class to take advantage of a revolutionary situation. The crisis of state emerges from poor economy, natural disaster, food shortage, or security concerns. Leaders of the revolution also have to face these constraints, and their handling of them affects how well they re-establish the state. Skocpol uses Marxism’s class struggle to assert that the main causes of social unrest are state social structures, international competitive pressures, international demonstrations, and class relations. Critics suggest that Skocpol ignores the role of individuals and ideology[4] and uses varied comparative methodological strategies.

Diminished Democracy[edit]

Diminished Democracy discusses the changes in US public involvement and its recent concerning decline. Skocpol talks about how to reverse it in explaining how the US became a civic nation, the organizers of that movement, management of civic organizations, changes in them, the harmful effects of that change, and how to recreate a sense of citizenship. Since fewer and fewer Americans join voluntary groups that meet frequently, there have been a proliferation of nonprofit groups led by elites who can interact with the government, but not the people. Skocpol provokes the reader with the idea that civic involvement will one day become another job rather than a civilian responsibility.

Protecting Soldiers and Mothers[edit]

In this book, Skocpol considers increased benefits for Civil War veterans and their families resulting from competitive party politics, as well as greater actions taken in women's movements. Soldiers and mothers benefited from social spending, labor regulations, and health education through reformative women's clubs across the nation. Simultaneously, Skocpol refutes her claim that theorists had ignored states' independent power in her state autonomy theory, explaining "my state-centered theoretical frame of reference had evolved into a fully 'polity-centered approach,' meaning that social movements, coalitions of pressure groups, and political parties must be given their due in understanding power in America." She explains how clubs and associations fill the vacuum left by fewer bureaucracies and an official church throughout the country, offering a case study in how women succeeded in gaining labor rights, pensions, minimum wage, and subsidized natal health clinics. Further, Skocpol points out that women were able to overcome class disparity to achieve these goals, working at a national level, influencing representatives with books, TV, magazines, and meetings.[5]

See also[edit]

New institutionalism

Historical institutionalism

Historical sociology

Published works[edit]

  • A Critical Review of Barrington Moore’s Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy. Politics and Society, 4(1), pp. 1–34
  • States and Social Revolutions: A Comparative Analysis of France, Russia, and China, Cambridge University Press (New York), 1979.
  • Review article: "Cultural Idioms and Political Ideologies in the Revolutionary Reconstruction of State Power: A Rejoinder to Sewell," The Journal of Modern History Vol. 57, No. 1, March 1985
  • Protecting Soldiers and Mothers: The Political Origins of Social Policy in the United States, Belknap Press of Harvard University Press (Cambridge), 1992.
  • Social Revolutions in the Modern World, Cambridge University Press (New York), 1994.
  • State and Party in America's New Deal (with Kenneth Finegold), University of Wisconsin Press (Madison), 1995.
  • Social Policy in the United States: Future Possibilities in Historical Perspective, Princeton University Press (Princeton), 1995.
  • Boomerang: Clinton's Health Security Effort and the Turn Against Government in U.S. Politics, Norton (New York), 1996, new edition with new afterword published as Boomerang: Health Care Reform and the Turn against Government, 1997.
  • The Missing Middle: Working Families and the Future of American Social Policy, Norton, 2000.
  • Diminished Democracy: From Membership to Management in American Civic Life, University of Oklahoma Press, 2003.
  • What a Mighty Power We Can Be: African American Fraternal Groups and the Struggle for Racial Equality, (with Ariane Liazos & Marshall Ganz) Princeton University Press, 2006.
  • The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism, (with Vanessa Williamson) Oxford University Press, 2011.[6]


  • Marxist Inquiries: Studies of Labor, Class, and States (with Michael Burawoy), University of Chicago Press (Chicago, IL), 1982.
  • Vision and Method in Historical Sociology, Cambridge University Press, 1984.
  • Bringing the State Back In (with Peter B. Evans and Dietrich Rueschemeyer), Cambridge University Press, 1985.
  • The Politics of Social Policy in the United States (with Margaret Weir and Ann Shola Orloff), Princeton University Press, 1988.
  • American Society and Politics: Institutional, Historical, and Theoretical Perspectives (with John L. Campbell), McGraw-Hill (New York), 1995.
  • States, Social Knowledge, and the Origins of Modern Social Policies (with Dietrich Rueschemeyer), Princeton University Press, 1996.
  • The New Majority: Toward a Popular Progressive Politics (with Stan Greenberg), Yale University Press (New Haven, CT), 1997.
  • Democracy, Revolution, and History (with George Ross, Tony Smith, and Judith Eisenberg Vichniac), Cornell University Press (Ithaca, NY), 1998.
  • Civic Engagement in American Democracy (with Morris P. Fiorina), Brookings Institution Press (Washington, DC)/Russell Sage Foundation (New York City), 1999.
  • The Transformation of American Politics. Activist Government and the Rise of Conservatism (with Paul Pierson), Princeton University Press, 2007.


  • Contemporary Authors Online, Gale, 2005. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Thomson Gale. 2005. [1]
  • The Crimson. "Denied Tenure" 6/5/2005
  1. ^
  2. ^ "A QUESTION OF SEX BIAS AT HARVARD". The New York Times. Retrieved 17 July 2014.  External link in |website= (help)
  3. ^ "Harvard Bio". 
  4. ^ Wikisum. "States and Social Revolutions". 
  5. ^ Domhoff, G. "Who Rules America". 
  6. ^ The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism

External links[edit]