Seymour Martin Lipset: Life and Work

By Velasco G., Jesus | Canadian Journal of Sociology, Fall 2004 | Go to article overview

Seymour Martin Lipset: Life and Work


Velasco G., Jesus, Canadian Journal of Sociology


Abstract: The purpose of this paper is to study the nexus between the life and work of Seymour Martin Lipset. My goal is to combine Lipset's life and work, the historical context and his scholarly production. I concentrate my analysis in two basic themes: Lipset's view on Democracy and anti-democracy and American exceptionalism. I conclude my analysis presenting three reflections that have resulted from Lipset's academic career, and that seems to me to be of particular interest for social scientists.

Resume: Le but de cet article est d'etudier la connexion entre la vie et le travail de Seymour Martin Lipset. Mon objectif est de combiner la vie et travail de Lipset, le contexte historique et sa production scolaire. Je concentre mort analyse dans deux themes de base : vue de Lipset sur la democratie et l'anti-democratie et l'exceptionalism americain. Je conclus mon analyse presentant trois reflexions qui ont resulte de la carriere academique de Lipset, et semble dont a moi soyez d'interet particulier pour les scientifiques sociales.

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Neither the life of an individual nor the history of a society can be understood without understanding both. C. Wright Mills, The Sociological Imagination

In 1987, the distinguished American political scientist Michael Rogin stated that "Seymour Martin Lipset is the most eminent living American political sociologist." (2) Rogin's estimation was well-founded. Lipset is not only a prolific writer, having written more than 50 books and about 100 articles; he is also one of the main protagonists in American scholarly debates for the last 50 years. His work in the area of modernization theory, his contributions to the study of democracy and anti-democracy, and his views about American Exceptionalism have all been central to modern social science research agendas. His books have been acclaimed and criticized, but never ignored. Lipset's work has had a profound impact on academics in the U.S. and worldwide. Indeed, he is the most cited social scientist in the world.

This article is a general review of Lipset's academic career. An account of Lipset's intellectual development and published work is a difficult and complex task. I shall therefore concentrate on two themes that have constituted the foundation of his academic writing: his work about democracy and anti-democracy (the radical right), and his analysis of American Exceptionalism, These two topics embraced not only a significant amount of Lipset's work, but also a relevant part of his concern for

Canada. Since his early days as a BA student, Lipset showed a special inclination for the political situation in Canada. During his academic career, Lipset viewed Canada not only as an interesting country in itself, but also as a great mirror to contrast American political development and culture. Lipset's view of American Exceptionalism has a sort of Canadian content. My goal is not to evaluate in detail his scholarly corpus, but rather to blend Lipset's life and work--the historical context of his life with his scholarly production.

Childhood is Destiny

Seymour Martin Lipset is the son of Russian-Jewish immigrants that arrived in the United States at the beginning of the Twentieth Century. His father, Max Lipset, was a typographer in Russia and a member of the Kiev typographer's union. His father's experiences in the Russian labor movement had a great impact on young Martin. Max would often relate anecdotes of his life as a union member in the old country. Lipset recalls, "once he told me that Stalin had appeared before his union's members." I asked, "what do you remember about Stalin?" Lipset replied, "I remember that he was different from the other Bolsheviks. The others would come and talk about Marxist theory and the revolution. Stalin spoke about organization, efficiency and money." (3)

Max Lipset viewed political events in Russia favorably. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, he applied to return to the Soviet Union, an application that was denied. …

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