Easton, David 1917-
David Easton has been one of the most prominent and influential political scientists in the post–World War II (1939–1945) period. He was one of the leading scholars at the heart of the behavioral revolution that sought to develop a unified empirical theory of political science to replace the traditional study of politics. Easton has also been the leading proponent of the application of systems theory to the study of politics.
Easton received his B.A. and M.A. from the University of Toronto, and his PhD from Harvard University in 1947. From 1947 to 1984, he taught at the University of Chicago, being named the Andrew MacLeish distinguished service professor in 1955. In 1984 he moved to the University of California at Irvine, where he is distinguished research professor of political science. He has served as vice president of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1985–1986) and as president of the American Political Science Association (APSA) from 1968 to 1969. His 1969 presidential address is perhaps the single most influential such address delivered by an APSA president. He has also been a fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University (1957–1958), and from 1971 to 1980 Easton was the Sir Edward Peacock professor of political science at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario.
Easton’s first major work was The Political System: An Inquiry into the State of Political Science (1953). There he analyzed the state of political science, which he argued had become dominated by a combination of constitutional legalism and the history of ideas that tended to lapse into antiquarian historicism. As such, in comparison to other sciences, political science was theoretically moribund. Easton argued that in order for political science to become scientifically mature, it needed to internalize scientific principles and methods and focus on the empirically observable behavior of political actors. Toward that end he proposed the adoption of systems theory as the foundation for the behavioral paradigm, and much of his subsequent work (Easton 1965a, 1965b) was directed at developing systems theory in detail. By the late 1960s, the behavioral paradigm, if not systems theory per se, had become the hegemonic paradigm in American political science. Easton went on to develop a version of structural theory to augment the framework provided by systems analysis. During that same period, another dimension of his work, one that too often goes unnoticed, is his extensive empirical research on the political socialization of children (Easton and Dennis 1969).
In his 1969 APSA presidential address, Easton called for a “post-behavioral revolution,” a term misunderstood by some critics and proponents of behavioralism alike. Easton’s vision was that the scientific procedures of social science should be brought to bear on the social and political problems facing the United States, problems whose severity could not be ignored. More recently, Easton (1997) has argued that political science has become increasingly fragmented, in part because of misunderstandings surrounding postbehavioralism that have led to an abandonment of scientific principles. Despite this fragmentation, Easton claims that the resilience of the scientific foundations of political science can provide the basis for what he calls neobehavioralism, a union of behavioralism and rational choice theory. Neobehavioralism would provide the unified science of politics to which both empiricists and rational choice theorists aspire.
Whether David Easton’s recent neobehavioralist vision will have the same impact on political science as his earlier work is yet to be determined. But his contributions to and impact on the discipline of political science since the mid-twentieth century continue to be substantial and widely recognized.
SEE ALSO American Political Science Association; Democracy; Political Science
Easton, David. 1965a. A Framework for Political Analysis. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Easton, David, ed. 1966. Varieties of Political Theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Easton, David. 1969. The New Revolution in Political Science. American Political Science Review 63: 1051–1061.
Easton, David. 1990. The Analysis of Political Structure. New York: Routledge.
Easton, David. 1997. The Future of the Postbehavioral Phase in Political Science. In Contemporary Empirical Political Theory, ed. Kristen Renwick Monroe, 13–46. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Easton, David, and Jack Dennis. 1969. Children in the Political System: Origins of Political Legitimacy. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Easton, David, John G. Gunnell, and Luigi Graziano, eds. 1991. The Development of Political Science: A Comparative Survey. New York: Routledge.
Easton, David, and Corinne S. Schelling, eds. 1991. Divided Knowledge: Across Disciplines, Across Cultures. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
Monroe, Kristen Renwick, ed. 1997. Contemporary Empirical Political Theory. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Michael T. Gibbons