Remembering Sidney Verba

March 21, 2019
Gary King and Sid Verba
Forthcoming in PS
by Kay Lehman Schlozman (Boston College)
and Henry E. Brady (University of California, Berkeley)
 

Political science lost one of its most respected—and beloved—colleagues on March 4, 2019. Sidney Verba of Harvard University made lasting contributions to several fields within political science at the same time that, as head of the Harvard’s library system, he pioneered the application of emerging digital technologies to the way information is accessed, stored, and used by libraries. Verba is remembered for his foundational contributions to political science; for his generous good citizenship in each of the many venues in which he operated; and for his warmth, humor, generosity, decency, fairness, and inclusivity to all who had the good fortune to encounter him.

Sidney Verba was born on May 26, 1932, in Brooklyn to Morris and Recci Verba, immigrants from an area of Imperial Russia that is now part of Moldova, who ran a small curtain and drapery shop. He was educated in the local public schools. At James Madison High School, a neighborhood high school that counts among its graduates multiple Nobel Prize winners, a Supreme Court justice, three US senators, and Neil Diamond, he was named valedictorian of his class. (His immediate successor in that role was Ruth Bader.) While at James Madison, a counselor called him in and told him that, since he had a good academic record, he should think about applying to a good college like Harvard, Yale, or Princeton. Knowing nothing about these places, he repaired to the school library and looked them up in the encyclopedia.

A first-gen student at Harvard College, he majored in History and Literature before matriculating in the graduate program at the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University, with the goal of entering the foreign service. After receiving his MA, he stayed on at Princeton in the Department of Politics, first in the PhD program and then as a faculty member, achieving tenure at 28. He subsequently taught at Stanford and the University of Chicago before moving in 1973 to Harvard, where he enjoyed a long career.

Note: You can read stories and remembrances of Sidney Verba—and are invited to submit your own—at this remembrance page.

Research

Verba used to tell graduate students, “I don’t do research. I write books.” Of course, he did both—conducting research that resulted in more than 20 books and dozens of other publications. With wide-ranging substantive interests, he made contributions to a number of subfields within political science—most notably comparative politics and American politics but also international relations and political methodology. As varied as his subject matter, the core characteristic of Verba’s scholarship was a capacity to train empirical evidence—usually drawn from surveys of citizens—on essential questions of democratic governance and the role of citizens within it, making a major contribution to what is known as empirical democratic theory. He was a master of seeing complex patterns within data and then crafting the analytic narrative that not only explicated those patterns but reminded the reader why we care about the matter under scrutiny. (Extended and illuminating discussions of Verba’s research can be found in Paul Sniderman’s “Sidney Verba: An Intellectual Biography” in PS 27(3) and an interview with Verba conducted by Nancy Rosenblum in 2010 which can be found by searching “Sidney Verba Nancy Rosenblum interview” on Google.)

For the first in a long series of investigations based on surveys of citizens, The Civic Culture (1963), Verba teamed up with his mentor, Gabriel Almond. The Civic Culture, a cross-national study that asked what is required of citizens and elites for stable and functioning democracy, more or less invented the field of comparative political behavior. Written at a time when World War II still cast a shadow and new nations were emerging from colonial empires, Almond and Verba announced their intention in their first sentence: “This is a study of the political culture of democracy and of the social structures and processes that sustain it (p. 3).” What they aptly named the “civic culture” is “the mixture of attitudes that support a democratic system (p. 505).” Almond and Verba explored the role of such social institutions as the family and the workplace and the significance of education in nurturing and sustaining the norms that foster democracy. Based on interviews with 1,000 citizens each in five countries (the United States, Great Britain, Germany, Italy, and Mexico), The Civic Culture—which was groundbreaking in comparative politics for its use of survey data to study five democracies—was informed by self-conscious methodological concern with the difficulties of making systematic cross-national comparisons when nations differ from one another so fundamentally.

Verba followed up with another multi-nation study, this time moving away from the emphasis on democratic norms to focus on a more concrete dependent variable, citizen political participation. Anxious to overcome academic imperialism, in each of the seven countries he worked with collaborators who then were free to use the data in their own scholarship. Many also became coauthors with Verba.

Before the major comparative book appeared, Verba and Norman Nie published a book based on the American data from the cross-national survey. Participation in America (1972) probed a question to which Verba returned over and over in ensuing decades: the consequences for democratic equality among citizens when the voices of the well-educated and affluent are more likely to be heard through citizen participation. With a broad understanding of political participation that goes well beyond voting, Verba and Nie investigated the social class roots of disparities in participation and demonstrated how such disparities vary across particular participatory acts and how they are modified by affiliations with voluntary associations and political parties. A notable aspect of the study was the analysis of interviews with seven community leaders—for example, the head of the school board and the president of the local chamber of commerce—in each of 64 communities where ordinary citizens had also been interviewed. As measured by “concurrence,” or agreement between community leaders and citizens on the agenda for community action, “where citizens are participant, leaders are responsive” (p. 335). But the level of concurrence in high-activity communities is higher for those who take part, who are more likely to be upper status, than for those who are inactive. Even among the very active, concurrence is higher for upper-SES (socioeconomic status) activists than for the small number of lower-SES activists with the result that participation is especially helpful to those who are already better off.

Focusing on national as well as individual differences in Participation and Political Equality (1978), Verba and Nie, joined by Jae-on Kim, returned to the question of the way that inequalities with respect to social and economic matters have consequences for political inequalities. The seven countries in the cross-national study—Austria, India, Japan, the Netherlands, Nigeria, the United States, and Yugoslavia—included established liberal democracies, fledging new democracies, and one socialist system, touted for its “participatory democracy.” With varying strength, the relationship between SES and political activity holds for all seven, but it is especially strong in the United States in comparison with the other rich countries on the list. An important factor in explaining the differences among nations in the representativeness of participant publics is the operation of linkage institutions: the extent to which there are parties and voluntary associations tied to social class and other prominent political cleavages and the way that they mobilize or depress political activity among those of differing SES levels.

A decade later, Verba revisited the question of the roots of participatory inequalities in the United States, this time with Kay Lehman Schlozman and Henry Brady. A new survey, administered in Spanish as well as in English, oversampled African Americans and Latinos as well as those who have engaged in such relatively rare acts as making a large campaign donation or attending a protest. The investigation sought to go “beyond SES” and to understand the causal mechanisms linking the components of socioeconomic status to political participation. Their volume, Voice and Equality (1995), put forth the Civic Voluntarism Model which anchored political participation in three sets of factors: resources such as time, money, and skills that make it possible to take part; psychological engagement with politics; and location in networks through which citizens are mobilized to take part. Different configurations of these factors—all of which are fostered by educational attainment and all of which are developed in the nonpolitical domains of adult life—are germane for different participatory acts. For example, a variety of factors have a substantial effect on such time-based forms of participation as contacting a public official—among them education, interest in politics, requests to take part, and civic skills. In contrast, only one factor, family income, has a substantial impact on making campaign contributions, especially big ones.

Soon thereafter, Nancy Burns joined Verba and Schlozman in a work, The Private Roots of Public Action: Gender, Equality, and Political Participation (2001) that investigated the small but persistent gender difference in political activity and elaborated the Civic Voluntarism Model. Private Roots further specified the way that experiences at home, in school, at work, at church, and in non-political organizations shape adult political participation and demonstrated that the gender gap in political activity result from the fact that men are, on average, able to accumulate a larger stockpile of participatory factors, rather than from gender differences in the way that these participatory factors are converted into political activity. This finding also applies to intersectional groups defined by gender and race or ethnicity: female and male non-Hispanic whites, African Americans, and Latinos. Private Roots brought politics into the analysis, showing that women (but not men) who are in an environment in which there are women contesting for or holding visible elected office such a senator or governor are more likely to be psychologically engaged with politics, which in turn enhances political participation. Verba’s last published paper, for which the team was joined by Ashley Jardina and Shauna Shames, demonstrated that—with the very significant exception of campaign giving, especially giving large sums—the gender gap in political participation has more or less disappeared, largely as the result of women’s gains in educational attainment in recent decades. Furthermore, with the substantial rise in the fraction of women citizens exposed to women in visible public office, such exposure no longer seems to have an impact on psychological engagement with politics.

Although his work became increasingly sophisticated in making causal connections, Verba never forgot that we care about participatory inequalities because they have consequences for the democratic promise of political equality. A direct outgrowth of his concern with the underrepresentation of the political voices of the disadvantaged was a concern with groups. Even when disparities in activity among groups could be explained by deficits in education, income, or civic skills, he emphasized the descriptive finding: a relative reduction in political input from African Americans, Latinos, or people who live in substandard housing or rely on means-tested benefits. Moreover, he made clear that the group-based resource disadvantages that operate so powerfully in explaining group differences in political voice are not merely coincidental but are organically related to shared group experiences.

Meanwhile, Verba returned to the concern with political methodology that had emerged earlier in the context of the cross-national surveys. Together with Gary King and Robert Keohane, Verba produced the highly influential Designing Social Inquiry: Scientific Inference in Qualitative Research (1994), known familiarly as “KKV.” KKV originated in a jointly taught course in which several cohorts of Harvard PhD students were exposed to these three versatile scholars as they sought to build bridges between quantitative and qualitative research. KKV functions as a handbook for those seeking to improve research standards for both quantitative and qualitative work and those seeking to increase communication between practitioners of the two kinds of research. The lessons from KKV continue to be staples of political methodology courses, and the dialogue it stimulated between qualitative and quantitative scholars has greatly enriched political science.

Service

As befits someone whose intellectual life focused on the political life of citizens, Verba was a good citizen in every endeavor in which he was involved. He was called upon frequently to serve the profession including as President of APSA (1994-1995). He chaired the Social and Political Science Section of the National Academy of Sciences before becoming chair of its Committee on Human Rights, which advocates on behalf of scientists, engineers, and health professionals around the world who have been subject to serious human rights abuses, especially those whose professional activities or exercise of free speech have led to reprisal.

Meanwhile, Harvard administrators recognized him as a Stakhanovite worker with a talent for bringing people together and installed him as chair of a series of what became known eponymously as “Verba Committees.” When a knotty problem arose, Verba would be asked to lead a committee of faculty drawn from across Harvard’s famously autonomous schools. With his formidable patience, facility for understanding where each stakeholder was coming from, desire to ensure that everyone’s voice was heard, and gift for pulling out the perfect Shakespeare quote that would elucidate the source of tension or the perfect joke that would defuse it, he would shepherd the committee to an acceptable compromise. These skills were prominently on display in his service chairing the faculty committee advising on the presidential search in 2007, which led to the appointment of Drew Gilpin Faust.

He also served the university in multiple formal administrative positions, among them, Chair of the Department of Government and Associate Dean for Undergraduate Education. In 1984, he was named Carl H. Pforzheimer University Professor. Appointment as a University Professor is the highest academic honor that Harvard bestows upon members of its faculty. The Pforzheimer University Professor was also Director of the Harvard University Library, which happens to be the largest private library in the world. Working with a team of dedicated and expert professionals, Verba added his library responsibilities to an already full portfolio, learning about library management and identifying the possibilities for libraries to take advantage of rapidly developing digital technologies. Among the initiatives he advanced were the development of the integrated online catalogue; planning the Harvard Depository; overseeing the creation of the renowned Library Preservation Program; and conceiving and implementing the Library Digital Initiative. Verba considered the Digital Initiative as bridging his two worlds, conceiving the opening of access to the Harvard collection to scholars worldwide as a form of democratization. His disciplinary colleagues in political science often had no idea of Verba’s other day job as a librarian and the formidable reputation he enjoyed as a library administrator and innovator. Reciprocally, people in the library world were frequently astonished to learn that Verba had a simultaneous career as a distinguished political scientist.

While serving as University Librarian, Verba never gave up teaching and continued to engage in academic research, producing at least seven books. When asked how he could possibly accomplish everything he did, he would deadpan, “There is nothing in life that is worth doing that’s not worth doing superficially.”

Recognition

When asked about awards and honors, Verba would refer self-effacingly to having earned the General Excellence Medal in elementary school at P.S. 235. In fact, however, he was honored in just about every way possible. In 2002, he was awarded the Johan Skytte Prize. As described on its website, the Skytte Prize, “often considered to be the political science equivalent of the Nobel Prizes, is the most prestigious award within the field of political science.” He won several other career awards, including the James Madison Award from APSA; the Helen Dinerman Prize from the World Association of Public Opinion Research; and Warren Miller Prize from the Inter-University Consortium for Political and Social Research. He was a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Philosophical Society as well as a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. A number of his books have been recognized with book prizes: Participation in America (APSA’s Gladys Kammerer Award); The Changing American Voter (APSA’s Woodrow Wilson Prize); Participation and Political Equality (APSA’s George H. Hallet Award); Voice and Equality (APSA’s Philip E. Converse Prize and the AAPOR Book Award from the American Association for Public Opinion Research); The Private Roots of Public Action (co-winner of APSA’s Victoria Schuck Award); and The Unheavenly Chorus: Unequal Political Voice and the Broken Promise of American Democracy (PROSE Awards from the American Association of Publishers). In 1999, he delivered the Tanner Lectures on Human Values at Brasenose College, Oxford. Among his honorary degrees was one from Harvard University.

Sid

While Verba’s CV attests to his pioneering contributions both as a political scientist and as a library director, it cannot convey the human qualities—his wisdom, good judgment, decency, empathy, approachability, warmth, and legendary sense of humor—that made him both respected and loved by everyone whose lives he touched.

Quoting the line from “As Time Goes By,” he would occasionally observe, “The fundamental things apply.” In his scholarship as well as his professional comportment more generally, the fundamental things blended the values that form the underpinnings of American democracy with the principles upon which the American academy rests: freedom of expression, commitment to the truth, equality, nondiscrimination, tolerance, standards of professional excellence, procedural fairness, responsibilities to students, colleagues, and institutions. Understanding that these fundamentals do not always fit together comfortably, he had a knack for achieving balance.

As befits someone who put equality at the center of his research on the role of citizens in democracy, he did not pull rank. Members of his collaborative research teams—from coauthors to undergraduate research assistants—were treated not simply with respect but with the expectation that their input would be taken seriously. Undergraduate team members were incredulous when the big-shot senior professor walked into the project meeting carrying paper bags full of sandwiches for lunch and, then, took detailed notes as they discussed the problems they were encountering in coding the data. The staff in the Library Director’s office never quite got used to the fact that he kept his own calendar, did his own Xeroxing, or, because he was usually the first one in the office in the morning, got the coffee going.

He used to tout the benefits of collaboration by pointing out that “you do a fraction of the work and get all the credit and none of the blame.” In fact, he did the opposite of what he said. Understanding that his own contributions would not go unrecognized if he shared authorship with younger scholars, he was liberal with credit. A quick, and incomplete, enumeration across his publications shows that that he had at least three dozen coauthors, nearly half of whom began collaborating as graduate students, all of whom deemed it a privilege to have joined in intellectual inquiry with him.

But, of all the fundamentals, the most fundamental of all was his devotion to his family. A feminist before the Second Wave women’s movement put the word back into our vocabularies, he was the adoring and proud husband to Cynthia (Winston), his wife of 65 years and a musicologist and university administrator; father to Margaret of Mono City, California, Ericka of Santa Monica, California, and Martina of Hastings-on-Hudson, New York; father-in-law to Jack Shipley, the late Cesar Torres, and Thomas Beaudoin; and grandpa to David Cesar Verba and Amelia Verba-Beaudoin.