Neil Smelser, in full Neil Joseph Smelser, (born July 22, 1930, Kahoka, Missouri, U.S.—died October 2, 2017, Berkeley, California), American sociologist noted for his work on the application of sociological theory to the study of economic institutions, collective behaviour, social change, and personality and social structure.
Smelser was a Rhodes scholar at the University of Oxford from 1952 to 1954 and received his Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1958. He also studied at the San Francisco Psychoanalytic Institute and joined the University of California at Berkeley faculty, becoming a full professor of sociology in 1962 and a professor emeritus in 1994. He was made associate director of the Institute for International Relations (1969–73, 1980–81).
Besides serving on numerous national sociological-research boards and associations, he published his sociological theories in such works as Economy and Society (1956; with Talcott Parsons), Theory of Collective Behavior (1962), Sociological Theory: A Contemporary View (1971), The Changing Academic Market (1980; with Robin Content), and the International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences (2001; with Paul B. Baltes).
Smelser served as the director of the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, an international organization promoting social-science research and education, from 1994 to 2001. In 2002 he was the recipient of the International Sociological Association Mattei Dogan Prize for Distinguished Career Achievement.
Neil Joseph Smelser (July 22, 1930 – October 2, 2017) was an emeritus professor of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley. He was an active researcher from 1958 to 1994. His research has been on collective behavior, sociological theory, economic sociology, sociology of education, social change, and comparative methods. Among many lifetime achievements, Smelser " laid the foundations for economic sociology."
Education and career
Smelser received his undergraduate degree from Harvard University in 1952 in the Department of Social Relations. From 1952-54, he was a Rhodes scholar at Oxford University where he studied economics, philosophy, and politics and was awarded a B.A.. 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 Ph.D 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. and, at the age of 31, he was the youngest editor of the American Sociological Review in 1961, just 3 years after coming to Berkeley.
He was the fifth director of the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences from 1994-2001. He retired in 1994 when he became an emeritus professor, and died in Berkeley on October 2, 2017.
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)
- 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)
- 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.