Robert Dahl GRD ’40, the man considered by many to be the father of modern political science, died yesterday of natural causes in his home in Connecticut. He was 98.
A Sterling professor emeritus of political science at Yale, Dahl was a towering figure in his field and was described by many as the greatest political scientist of the second half of the 20th century. His work, which touched on topics such as pluralism in democracies, citizenship and political power structures, spanned over six decades. Political science professor Seyla Benhabib GRD ’77 said Dahl will be remembered for the depth and reach of his work.
“He really created modern Yale political science, as well as the modern discipline of political science,” said political science professor Ian Shapiro. “If there were a Nobel Prize for political science he would have gotten the first one.”
Dahl was born in 1915 in Inwood, Iowa. At age 11, he moved to Skagway, Alaska with his family, where his experiences eventually led to his book “After the Goldrush.” In 1936, Dahl graduated from the University of Washington and came to Yale as a graduate student. At the time, Yale was a fundamentally different place — all male and largely homogenous. After finishing his doctorate, Dahl fought in World War II and worked in Washington, D.C. before returning to New Haven to find a political department that was nascent and lacking in prominence.
“[It was] not very large or prestigious,” Dahl told The Politic in an interview last year. “It was still an Ivy League university, but its scholarship was falling somewhat behind. The concept of political science was fairly new.”
Over the next two decades, the Yale political science department was transformed into the nation’s foremost — an accomplishment that many professors attribute to Dahl.
Dahl and his colleagues pioneered the use of empirical techniques in examining real political systems, focusing on the motivations and behaviors of voters and politicians. This paradigm shift in political science was later termed the behavioral revolution.
“When Bob Dahl became a leading figure in political science, the Yale political science department was, in large part because of his presence, by far and away the best political science department in the country,” said political science professor Jacob Hacker GRD ’00.
In 1961, Dahl published his book “Who Governs?” which used the city of New Haven as a case study to analyze patterns of power structures in governance. Over the next four decades, Dahl examined democracy, foreign policy, the United States Congress, the Constitution, welfare and other topics. In 1985, the magazine Foreign Affairs called him the “dean of American political scientists.”
“Bob Dahl was arguably the greatest political scientist of his generation,” said political science professor Douglas Rae. “There was an incandescent intellect there which was quite remarkable. I gave up going to law school in order to do political science because I was so impressed with Bob Dahl’s work.”
Dahl’s influence is evident in the rate at which fellow colleagues cited him in their work. Even amongst top scholars, Shapiro said, it is rare to have more than one work with over 1,000 citations on Google Scholar: Several of Dahl’s publications have over 5,000.
Beyond academia, Dahl acted as an informal adviser to numerous University presidents. In the late 1960s, at the height of conflict over the Vietnam War and the place of the Reserve Officer Training Corp at Yale, Dahl presided over a vote on the matter attended by some 3,000 people. He tactfully navigated the tensions of the moment, Yale professor Douglas Rae recalled.
Shortly after, in 1972, Dahl chaired the committee that endorsed admitting an equal number of men and women to the University.
“Over the years, he was a steady and sound adviser to many Yale deans, provosts and presidents,” said former University President Richard Levin. “A man of the highest integrity, he put the University, and its commitment to excellence in scholarship and teaching, above all else.”
But in spite of his University leadership, Dahl never took on an administrative role. Former Yale Corporation Secretary Henry Chauncey said Kingman Brewster, who served as University president from 1963 through 1977, offered Dahl administrative posts multiple times.
But according to Chauncey, Dahl only wanted to be a scholar and a teacher.
“He was a scholar to the core,” Shapiro said. “That’s what made him tick.”
Dahl was also a beloved mentor to graduate students, many of whom became leaders in the political science field.
Jeffrey Isaac GRD ’83, a political science professor at Indiana University, said Dahl served as his teacher, mentor and dissertation supervisor.
“He was a warm, open-minded and wonderfully supportive teacher,” Isaac said. “He was a great man, and it was an honor to know him, to study with him, and to consider him a friend.”
Due to a mandatory age of retirement at the University at the time, Dahl stopped teaching in 1987. Still, he continued to maintain a powerful presence in the political science department. Hacker said Dahl remained engaged in the department until the last few years of his life, and was always willing to offer assistance and mentorship to colleagues. His long-lasting engagement, Hacker said, is a “remarkable testament to what a truly great man he was as well as a great scholar.”
Dahl continued to publish well into the later years of his life, turning his focus from American politics to comparative politics research and democratic theory. His last book, “On Political Equality,” was published in 2006.
Dahl is survived by his wife, Ann, his three children and two grandchildren.
Correction: Feb. 7
A previous version of this story misstated the amount of time Dahl served in World War II.