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Robert A. Nisbet

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Robert A. Nisbet

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Robert Alexander Nisbet (September 30, 1913 – September 9, 1996) was an American sociologist, professor at the University of California, Berkeley, Vice-Chancellor at the University of California, Riverside and Albert Schweitzer Professor at Columbia University.


Nisbet was born in Los Angeles in 1913. He was raised with his three brothers and one sister[1] in the small California community of Maricopa,[2] where his father managed a lumber yard. His studies at Berkeley culminated in a Ph.D. in sociology in 1939. His thesis was supervised by Frederick J. Teggart. At Berkeley, "Nisbet found a powerful defense of intermediate institutions in the conservative thought of 19th-century Europe. Nisbet saw in thinkers like Edmund Burke and Alexis de Tocqueville—then all but unknown in American scholarship—an argument on behalf of what he called 'conservative pluralism.'"[2] He joined the faculty there in 1939.[1]

After serving in the US Army during World War II, when he was stationed on Saipan in the Pacific theatre, Nisbet founded the Department of Sociology at Berkeley, and was briefly Chairman. Nisbet left an embroiled Berkeley in 1953 to become a dean at the University of California, Riverside, and later a Vice-Chancellor. Nisbet remained in the University of California system until 1972, when he left for the University of Arizona at Tucson. Soon thereafter, he was appointed to the prestigious Albert Schweitzer Chair at Columbia.

On retiring from Columbia in 1978, Nisbet continued his scholarly work for eight years at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington D.C. In 1988, President Reagan asked him to deliver the Jefferson Lecture in Humanities, sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities. He died, aged 82, in Washington D.C..


Nisbet's first important work, The Quest for Community (New York: Oxford University Press, [1953] 1969) contended that modern social science's individualism denied an important human drive toward community as it left people without the aid of their fellows in combating the centralizing power of the national state.

Nisbet is seen as follower of Emile Durkheim in the understanding of modern sociocultural systems and their drift.[3] Often identified with the political right, Nisbet began his career as a political liberal but later confessed a conversion to a kind of philosophical Conservatism [4]

Brad Lowell Stone has written an intellectual biography of Robert Nisbet, published by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute.[5][6]

Nisbet was a contributor to Chronicles.

He was especially concerned with tracing the history and impact of the Idea of Progress.[7] He was involved in many different charities and even founded some himself.


Books by Nisbet

  • 1953. The Quest for Community: A Study in the Ethics of Order and Freedom
  • 1966. The Sociological Tradition
  • 1968. Tradition and Revolt: Historical and Sociological Essays
  • 1969. Social Change and History: Aspects of the Western Theory of Development
  • 1970. The Social Bond: An Introduction to the Study of Society
  • 1971. The Degradation of the Academic Dogma: The University in America, 1945–1970
  • 1976. Sociology as an Art Form
  • 1973. The Social Philosophers: Community and Conflict in Western Thought
  • 1974. The Sociology of Emile Durkheim
  • 1975. The Twilight of Authority
  • 1980. History of the Idea of Progress
  • 1983. Prejudices: A Philosophical Dictionary
  • 1986. The Making of Modern Society
  • 1986. Conservatism: Dream and Reality
  • 1988. Roosevelt and Stalin: The Failed Courtship
  • 1988.
  • 1992. Teachers and Scholars: A Memoir of Berkeley in Depression and War

Articles by Nisbet

  • "Foreign Policy and the American Mind". Commentary (September 1961, pp. 194–203).
  • "The New Despotism". Commentary (July 1976).
  • "Was There an American Revolution?," The American Conservative, August 3, 2012.

Articles about Nisbet

  • Carey, George W., 2010, blog).
  • Church, Mike, 2012, "Robert Nisbet and the Rise of the Machines," The Imaginative Conservative.
  • Elliott, Winston, III, 2010, "War, Crisis and Centralization of Power", The Imaginative Conservative (blog).
  • Hill, Fred Donovan, 1978, "Robert Nisbet and the Idea of Community," The University Bookman, Volume 18, Number 3.
  • Mancini, Matthew J. "Too Many Tocquevilles: The Fable of Tocqueville’s American Reception", Journal of the History of Ideas, Volume 69, Number 2, April 2008, pp. 245–268.
  • McWilliams, Susan, The American Conservative (Feb. 1, 2010)
  • Nagel, Robert F., 2004, "States and Localities: A Comment on Robert Nisbet's Communitarianism," Publius, Vol. 34, No. 4.
  • —, 2005,
  • Stone, Brad Lowell, 1998 (Spring), : 38–42.
  • Thomas, Robert McG., The New York Times, September 12, 1996.
  • Wolfe, Alan, 2010, "Remembering Alienation," New Republic.

Further reading

  • Gordon, Daniel. "The Voice of History within Sociology: Robert Nisbet on Structure, Change, and Autonomy," Historical Reflections (2012) 38#1 pp. 43-63
  • Stone, Brad Lowell (2000). Robert Nisbet: Communitarian Traditionalist, ISI Books.

External links

  • Works by Robert Nisbet at
  • Works by Robert Nisbet at JSTOR
  • Robert Nisbet and Our Continuing Quest for Community

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