Riker, William Harrison

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(b. Des Moines, Iowa, 22 September 1920; d. Rochester, New York, 26 June 1993)

political science, rational choice, positive political theory, federalism.

Riker did nothing less than revolutionize the study of political science. He introduced the study of game theory and decision theory into the study of politics, moving it away from purely normative and ad hoc descriptions. He coined the term positive political theory to describe the effort to develop individual-level, descriptive generalizations about political behavior, often based on axiomatic propositions and always on the supposition that people behave rationally. The term, and the approach, are now accepted parts of political science. A brilliant teacher and a clever administrator, he oversaw the development of the first graduate program in political science devoted to high-level training in quantitative methods, including game theory, decision theory, and econometrics, at the University of Rochester.

Riker’s father Ben, a book seller, and his mother Alice, moved his family to Battle Creek and Detroit, Michigan, before settling in Indianapolis, where Riker graduated from high school in 1938. Four years later he graduated from DePauw University and, after a brief hiatus, went to graduate school at Harvard University, where he received a PhD in government 1948.

Research Riker began his teaching career at Lawrence College (now University) in Wisconsin in 1948. He taught courses in American politics, but he was also called upon to teach other subjects, including an extraordinary course on political philosophy. His early work was traditional. He authored a textbook on American politics that was well received but hardly pathbreaking. He also wrote a book on the National Guard, presaging another topic— federalism—that he studied throughout his career.

In the mid-1950s his thinking and writing changed dramatically. He read Duncan Black’s Theory of Committees and Elections and was impressed with the insights that the so-called median voter theorem might yield for understanding political behavior. He devoured John von Neumann and Oskar Morgenstern’s The Theory of Games and Economic Behavior, also thinking that it could provide insights into political behavior. He began thinking of applications of a logical approach to the study of politics. In 1958 he published a paper on the “paradox of voting” (a “cyclical” result, in which voters who have individually transitive preferences over three alternatives, a, b, and c, might nonetheless vote by majority rule for alternative a over alternative b, for b over c, and yet for c over a) in the U.S. Congress. His first major work was The Theory of Political Coalitions (1962). In it he developed what he called the size principle, the idea that political entrepreneurs tend to build support coalitions that are only as large as needed to win (typically a bare majority). To attract a larger coalition is “wasteful” in that the leadership has to make policy or other concessions when they already have enough support to win.

Another signal work was a paper published in 1968 on voter turnout. He and his then-student, Peter Ordeshook, inquired how it was that rational individuals would go to the polls, knowing that the likelihood of their making a difference (being the decisive vote between two candidates) was infinitesimally small. Their formulation—adding consideration of another factor, generally called “citizen duty”—did not solve the problem, but it led to numerous subsequent papers and is still used today to frame the question. A few years later, and also with Ordeshook, he published a text that explained the positive approach to the study of politics and amply demonstrated the kinds of individual and collective behavior to which it could be applied.

Another of Riker’s lifelong interests was the role of institutions in politics. This was manifested early on in his work on federalism and in his fascination with “Duverger’s law” (the idea that plurality elections in single-member districts promulgate a political system with only two parties). Institutions were at the heart of much of his later work, especially in Liberalism against Populism, which dealt with the difficult subject of how to justify democracy in light of the numerous problems and paradoxes associated with the making of social choices. In his later works, he was intrigued with agenda setting broadly conceived, coining the term heresthetics to refer to the art of manipulating issue agendas for political advantage and applying it to a study of the campaign to ratify the U.S. Constitution.

Teaching: Building a Graduate Program On the strength of his new approach, which he called positive political theory, Riker was hired by the University of Rochester to begin a graduate program to complement its newly developed strength in economics. His department-building skills were on par with his teaching skills. He sought out faculty who were sympathetic with his view of political science—sometimes practitioners themselves, but always willing to work with students who would push the bounds of the rational-choice perspective as far as they could take

it. Students trained at Rochester were initially outliers, and for a time it was difficult for those using a positive approach to get their work published in the discipline’s top journals. Gradually, however, the appeal of this new approach, along with the high quality training his students received, combined to make Rochester PhDs much sought after. In time, the approach he initiated constituted an accepted subfield in political science. More significantly, the game-theoretic and other tools he incorporated into his work, and the assumption of rational actors, infused the study of comparative politics and international relations as well as American politics.

Riker was a charismatic teacher. At times he was a showman, letting his voice rise to a thundering pitch and his face redden as he reached the conclusion of an argument, and at other times speaking so softly one had to strain to hear him. But his showmanship was never a mask for shoddy thinking, illogical arguments, or a dearth of evidence. His knowledge of American political history was legendary. It was this knowledge that led him always to try to apply the abstract theories that he developed to the real world of politics. His undergraduate course on Strategy in Politics was valued for the sometimes surprising but always fruitful perspectives he brought to bear on both historical and contemporary politics. His graduate courses were valued for that same creativity and insight but also for the infusion of a rational-choice approach into all manner of political situations.

Honors Riker was honored in 1974 by being among the first political scientists to be inducted into the National Academy of Sciences. In 1983 he was elected president of the American Political Science Association. He was awarded honorary degrees by Lawrence University, DePauw University, State University of New York at Stony Brook, and, in 1977, by Uppsala University in Sweden. He died in 1993, leaving behind a vibrant graduate program and a legion of grateful current and former graduate students who knew they had studied with a giant in their chosen profession.



Soldiers of the States: The Role of the National Guard in American Democracy. Washington, DC: Public Affairs Press, 1957.

“The Paradox of Voting and Congressional Rules for Voting on Amendments.” American Political Science Review 52 (1958): 349–366.

The Theory of Political Coalitions. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1962.

Federalism: Origin, Operation, Significance. Boston: Little Brown, 1964.

With Peter C. Ordeshook. “A Theory of the Calculus of Voting.” American Political Science Review 62 (1968): 25–42.

———. An Introduction to Positive Political Theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1973.

Liberalism against Populism: A Confrontation between the Theory of Democracy and the Theory of Social Choice. San Francisco: Freeman, 1982.

“The Heresthetics of Constitution-Making: The Presidency in 1787, with Comments on Determinism and Rational Choice.” American Political Science Review 78 (1984): 1–16.


Amadae, Sonja M., and Bruce Bueno De Mesquita. “The Rochester School: The Origins of Positive Political Theory.” Annual Review of Political Science 2 (1999): 269–295.

Black, Duncan. The Theory of Committees and Elections. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1958.

Bueno De Mesquita, Bruce, and Kenneth Shepsle. “William Harrison Riker, September 22, 1920–June 26, 1993.” In Biographical Memoirs, vol. 79. Washington, DC: National Academy of Sciences, 2001.

Richard G. Niemi