Skocpol, Theda

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Skocpol, Theda 1947


Victor S. Thomas Professor of Government and Sociology and director of the Center for American Political Studies at Harvard University, Theda Skocpol was president of the American Political Science Association (2001-2003) and of the Social Science History Association (1996). She has made major contributions to historical and comparative sociology and to political science in her work on revolutions. Her theory of revolutions and the state has been influenced by the approach of sociologist and political scientist Barrington Moore (1913-2005) in his Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy (1966).

In Vision and Method in Historical Sociology (1984), Skocpol advocated the use of secondary data and sources to undertake macrohistorical and comparative workan approach that she pioneered in her major work, States and Social Revolutions: A Comparative Analysis of France, Russia, and China (1979), which received the C. Wright Mills Award of the Society for the Study of Social Problems, as well as the American Sociological Association Award for a Distinguished Contribution to Scholarship. With this work, Skocpol produced a distinctive theory of revolution through the study of three anciens régimes. Skocpol argued that revolutions occur because states are exposed to endogenous socioeconomic processes, particularly class conflict. Her theory rejects any significant role for human agency in such revolutions. They are not produced by the revolutionary will of revolutionaries themselves, but they are the unintended consequence of the decomposition of the state system and its agrarian bureaucracy. Skocpol examined the causal constraintsclass relations, the repressive character of the state, and the external militaryon state activities resulting from objective historical circumstances. The distinctive aspect of her initial theory was to reject any attempt to absorb the state into society, since the repressive actions of the state have independent causal consequences for revolutions.

Skocpol conducted research on the historical origins of American social policy in Social Policy in the United States: Future Possibilities in Historical Perspective (1995), Protecting Soldiers and Mothers: The Political Origins of Social Policy in the United States (1992), and The Missing Middle: Working Families and the Future of American Social Policy (2000). In Diminished Democracy: From Membership to Management in American Civic Life (2003), Skocpol criticized liberal theories that claim that the vigor of civic life depends on the absence of the state. By contrast, her study of voluntary associations demonstrates that vigorous democratic politics nourish a participatory civil society. She contributed to the study of contemporary political life in Boomerang: Clintons Health Security Effort and the Turn Against Government in U.S. Politics (1996) and (with Morris P. Fiorina) Civic Engagement in American Democracy (1999).

Skocpols state autonomy theory was severely criticized by G. William Domhoff (1996), who claims that she abandoned her original position, increasingly putting emphasis on social movements, womens lobby groups, and voluntary associations in civil society. By contrast, Domhoff argues that support for disability pensions for Civil War veterans is explained by the interests of the corporate community (or capitalists). The differences between welfare provision in the United States and Europe is explained by the strength of the American capitalist class and the racial and ethnic divisions in the American working class.

SEE ALSO Capitalism; Civil Society; Democracy; Mills, C. Wright; Power Elite; Volunteer Programs; Volunteerism


Domhoff, G. William. 1996. State Autonomy or Class Dominance? Case Studies on Policy Making in America. Hawthorne, NY: de Gruyter.

Moore, Barrington, Jr. 1966. Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Lord and Peasant in the Making of the Modern World. Boston: Beacon.

Bryan S. Turner