Lucian W. Pye

By Verba, Sidney; Vogel, Ezra F. | Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, March 2011 | Go to article overview

Lucian W. Pye


Verba, Sidney, Vogel, Ezra F., Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society


21 OCTOBER 1921 * 5 SEPTEMBER 2008

LUCIAN PYE, longtime political science professor at MIT, past president of the American Political Science Association, passed away at age eighty-six on 5 September 2008. Pye was born in Shanxi, China, where his father, Watts O. Pye, was a Congregational missionary. His father died in 1926 at age forty-eight when Lucian was only five,1 but Lucian remained in Shanxi with his mother, Gertrude Chaney Pye, who had joined the Fenzhou Mission before her marriage. After some years in Oberlin, Ohio, schools, Lucian returned to China with his mother, attending high school at the North American School in Beijing.

As an undergraduate at Carleton College, Lucian met Mary Toombs Waddill. They married in 1945 and became lifelong partners. She is listed as a co-author of the book Asian Power and Politics: Cultural Dimensions of Authority, but she played a key role as editor, typist, and sounding board for all his works, as Lucian gratefully acknowledged at the beginning of each book. Combining dedication and intellectual vitality with Southern graciousness and generosity, Mary was Lucian's inseparable companion.

As with a number of offspring of missionaries, the experience in China helped shape Lucian's interests and career. Throughout his scholarly career, he remained deeply involved in the study of China. He was one of the leading scholars of Chinese society, culture, and politics. But Lucian was much more.

Political science is a broad discipline, studied in many ways. Which method is the best? Some argue the need for close analysis of one society, so that analysis can be based on rich cultural and historical understanding. Others argue for a broader, comparative approach across many countries; indeed, sometimes for a global scope. Some scholars prefer solid foot-on-the-ground description and analysis; others call for broader theoretical schemes. Lucian solved these dilemmas by doing it all. He was a close analyst of China throughout his career and the author of fifteen books on China. But he also did significant work on other Asian nations, in particular Malaysia and Burma. And he wrote generally about politics in the developing world. He was not dogmatically committed to any particular intellectual theory or framework, in an age when a number of rival theories were passionately held by one school or another. He was open to ideas from psychology, political science, sociology, and anthropology. He was a leading figure in the development of work on the cultural roots of politics and on the application of psychological analysis to political and social phenomena. Lucian was broadly and deeply curious. He was always wrestling with some intellectual puzzle, trying to understand why political leaders behaved as they did and why Chinese politics worked as it did, how politics elsewhere was similar to, or different from, that in China.

After returning from the war, as a graduate student at Yale University from 1947 to 1952, Lucían had the good fortune to be part of a creative new generation of comparative political scientists. Before World War II, political science had been dominated by the study of political structures, political leaders, legislatures, executive branches, and how they worked. After the war, Talcott Parsons and other social scientists began looking not only at the structures of politics, but at the functions as well. They looked not just at how a president and legislature operated, but at how authority operated. Instead of merely examining how laws were made, they asked broader questions about how societies established rules, informal as well as formal. This led to a fresh look at comparative politics, in which Gabriel Almond, one of Lucian's teachers, played a key role, not only at Yale, but through conferences and papers at universities around the world. As the Cold War took shape, another teacher of Lucian's, Nathan Leites, was asking questions about the underlying assumptions of Communists. …

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