Theda Skocpol

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Theda Skocpol
Skocpol in 2011
Born (1947-05-04) May 4, 1947 (age 76)
Known for
AwardsJohan Skytte Prize
Academic background
Alma mater
Doctoral advisorGeorge Homans
Other advisors
Academic work
InstitutionsHarvard University
Doctoral students
Main interests

Theda Skocpol (née Barron; May 4, 1947) is an American sociologist and political scientist, who is currently the Victor S. Thomas Professor of Government and Sociology at Harvard University. She is best known as an advocate of the historical-institutional and comparative approaches, as well as her "state autonomy theory". She has written widely for both popular and academic audiences. She has been President of the American Political Science Association and the Social Science History Association.[5]

In historical sociology, Skocpol's works and opinions have been associated with the structuralist school. As an example, she argues that social revolutions can best be explained given their relation with specific structures of agricultural societies and their respective states. Such an approach differs greatly from more "behaviorist" ones, which tend to emphasize the role of "revolutionary populations", "revolutionary psychology", and/or "revolutionary consciousness", as determinant factors of revolutionary processes.

Her 1979 book States and Social Revolutions was influential in research on revolutions.[6]


Theda Skocpol was born in Detroit, Michigan on May 4, 1947.[7] Both of her parents, Jennie Mae Becker Barron and Allan Barron, were teachers. Her mother wanted her to study home economics at a small liberal arts college, while her father was concerned about the cost of college education.[5] She earned her BA in sociology at Michigan State University in 1969. While she attended Michigan State, she participated in the antiwar movement in response to the Vietnam War. Through the Methodist student association, she went to Rust College, a historically black college in Holly Springs, Mississippi, to teach English and math to incoming freshman. Many of the students were from sharecropper families, and were first-generation college students. She called her time in Mississippi observing racism and segregation "life-changing".[5] She then went on to earn both her MA (1972) and PhD at Harvard University (1975). While attending Harvard, Skocpol studied with Barrington Moore Jr. Her first published article, in 1973, was a critique of Moore's Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy.[8]

From 1975 to 1981, Skocpol served as an assistant and associate professor of sociology, at Harvard. During this time, Skocpol published her first of many books, States and Social Revolutions: A Comparative Analysis of Social Revolutions in Russia, France and China (1979). Some of her subsequent work focused on methodology and theory, including the co-edited volume Bringing the State Back In, which heralded a new focus by social scientists on the state as an agent of social and political change.

In 1981, Skocpol moved on to work at the University of Chicago. For the next five years, Skocpol would serve as an Associate Professor of Sociology and Political Science, and of Social Science, Professor of Sociology and Political Science, and Director for the Center for the Study of Industrial Societies.[9]

In the early 1980s, Skocpol publicly alleged that Harvard University had denied her tenure (1980) because she was a woman. This charge was found to be justified by an internal review committee in 1981.[10] In 1984, Harvard University offered Skocpol a tenured position (its first ever for a female sociologist), which she accepted.

From 1986 to the present, Skocpol has held various positions at Harvard University including: Professor of Sociology; Director for the Center for American Political Studies; Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences; and presently[when?] is the Professor of Government and of Sociology, Victor S. Thomas Professor of Government and Sociology.

Honors and titles[edit]

Throughout her career, Skocpol has held many positions at various academic, and professional organizations, some of which include: president of Politics and History Section, chairperson, and later Council member of the American Political Science Association (1991–1996). Out of over one hundred past presidents, since 1903, only about ten women have held that office. Skocpol is also Founder and Co-Editor, Princeton Studies in American Politics: Historical, Comparative, and International Perspectives (1993 – present); and Senior Advisor in the Social Sciences, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study (2006–2008).

According to her Curriculum Vitae Skocpol has been distinguished by over twenty awards and honors, some of which are: C. Wright Mills Award of The Society for the Study of Social Problems in 1979; elected to the American Philosophical Society in 2006; and she was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 2008. Her book Protecting Soldiers and Mothers (1992) was awarded the 1993 Woodrow Wilson Award for best book in political science by the American Political Science Association.[11] She is also an elected member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Philosophical Society.[5]

In 2007, she was awarded the Johan Skytte Prize in Political Science, one of the world's most prestigious prizes in political science for her "visionary analysis of the significance of the state for revolutions, welfare, and political trust, pursued with theoretical depth and empirical evidence."[12][13]

In 2015, she was named an Andrew Dickson White Professor-at-Large at Cornell University (term: 2015–2021).

In October 2019 Skocpol was awarded with an honorary doctorate from Radboud University Nijmegen.

Major works and contributions[edit]

States and Social Revolutions (1979)[edit]

Skocpol's most famous book, States and Social Revolutions: A Comparative Analysis of Social Revolutions in Russia, France and China (1979), discusses how most theories account only for direct action in bringing about revolutions. Social Revolutions are fast-paced foundational transformations of society's state and class structures. She includes the structure involved in creating a revolutionary situation that can lead to a social revolution - one that changes civic institutions and government once the administration and military branches collapse.

In her text, Skocpol "offers a framework of reference for analyzing social-revolutionary transformations in modern world history" and discusses and compares the causes of the French Revolution of 1787–1800, the Russian Revolution of 1917–1921, and the Chinese Revolution of 1911–1949.

According to Skocpol, there are two stages to social revolutions: a crisis of state and the emergence of a dominant class to take advantage of a revolutionary situation. The crisis of state emerges from poor economy, natural disaster, food shortage, or security concerns. Leaders of the revolution also have to face these constraints, and their handling of them affects how well they re-establish the state.

Skocpol uses Marxism's class struggle to assert that the main causes of social unrest are state social structures, international competitive pressures, international demonstrations, and class relations. Critics suggest that Skocpol ignores the role of individuals and ideology[14] and uses varied comparative methodological strategies.

State autonomy theory[edit]

Before she wrote Protecting Soldiers and Mothers, Skocpol first devised what she termed state autonomy theory. This theory underlined the idea that state bureaucracies could have the potential for autonomous operations, and that this potential was ignored by scientists who were focused on society-centric studies. Skocpol considers the idea that parties are more important in America than the government, and that class dominance plays heavily into American politics.[15]

Protecting Soldiers and Mothers (1992)[edit]

In this book, Skocpol shows, contrary to the conventional wisdom, that the United States was a precocious welfare state in the early 20th century and that it did not lag behind European states at that point in time.[16]

In the book, Skocpol considers increased benefits for Civil War veterans and their families resulting from competitive party politics, as well as greater actions taken in women's movements. Soldiers and mothers benefited from social spending, labor regulations, and health education through reformative women's clubs across the nation. Simultaneously, Skocpol refutes her claim that theorists had ignored states' independent power in her state autonomy theory, explaining "my state-centered theoretical frame of reference had evolved into a fully 'polity-centered approach,' meaning that social movements, coalitions of pressure groups, and political parties must be given their due in understanding power in America."

Skocpol explains how clubs and associations fill the vacuum left by fewer bureaucracies and an official church throughout the country, offering a case study in how women succeeded in gaining labor rights, mothers' pensions, minimum wage, and subsidized natal health clinics. Further, Skocpol points out that women were able to overcome class disparity to achieve these goals, working at a national level, influencing representatives with books, TV, magazines, and meetings.[17]

Diminished Democracy (2003)[edit]

Diminished Democracy discusses the changes in US public involvement and its recent concerning decline. Skocpol talks about how to reverse it in explaining how the U.S. became a civic nation, the organizers of that movement, management of civic organizations, changes in them, the harmful effects of that change, and how to recreate a sense of citizenship.

Since fewer and fewer Americans join voluntary groups that meet frequently, there has been a proliferation of nonprofit groups led by elites who can interact with the government, but not the people. Skocpol provokes the reader with the idea that civic involvement will one day become another job rather than a civilian responsibility.

Scholars Strategy Network[edit]

In 2009, Skocpol conceived of and co-founded the Scholars Strategy Network, an association of academics and researchers who coordinate to address public challenges while increasing the accessibility of their findings to those outside of academia.[18][19] As of 2018, she serves as the network's Director.[20]

Personal life[edit]

In 1967, while studying at Michigan State University, she married Bill Skocpol. They were both students at Michigan State, with Bill a physics major from Texas. They had met through a Methodist organization for students.[5] Her last name is sometimes quoted as Skočpol. She has one son, Michael Skocpol, an attorney and former law clerk for Sonia Sotomayor.

She is also an avid American football fan.[21] In 2023, she helped rescue a postal carrier being attacked by a pair of turkeys.[22]



Edited volumes[edit]

Select articles[edit]

  • A Critical Review of Barrington Moore’s Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy. Politics and Society, 4(1), pp. 1–34
  • Review article: "Cultural Idioms and Political Ideologies in the Revolutionary Reconstruction of State Power: A Rejoinder to Sewell," The Journal of Modern History Vol. 57, No. 1, March 1985

Further reading[edit]

  • Interview by Richard Snyder: "Theda Skocpol: states, revolutions, and the comparative historical imagination," pp. 649–708, in Gerardo L. Munck and Richard Snyder, Passion, Craft, and Method in Comparative Politics (Baltimore, Md.: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007).
  • Utter, Glenn H. and Charles Lockhart, eds. American Political Scientists: A Dictionary (2nd ed. 2002) pp 373–75, online.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Skocpol, Theda (1979). States and Social Revolutions: A Comparative Analysis of France, Russia, and China. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press. p. xvi. ISBN 978-0-521-29499-7.
  2. ^ Amenta, Edwin Louis (1989). Lost ground: American social spending and taxation policies in depression and war (PhD). University of Chicago. p. ii. OCLC 22176348.
  3. ^ Ganz, Marshall Louis (2000). Five smooth stones: Strategic capacity in the unionization of California agriculture (PhD). Harvard University. OCLC 77071181.
  4. ^ Goodwin, Jeffrey Roger (1988). States and revolutions in the Third World: A comparative analysis (PhD). Harvard University. p. iii. OCLC 435388161.
  5. ^ a b c d e Skocpol, Theda; Schickler, Eric (2019-05-11). "A Conversation with Theda Skocpol". Annual Review of Political Science. 22 (1): 1–16. doi:10.1146/annurev-polisci-030816-105449. ISSN 1094-2939.
  6. ^ Beck, Colin J. (2018). "The Structure of Comparison in the Study of Revolution". Sociological Theory. 36 (2): 134–161. doi:10.1177/0735275118777004. ISSN 0735-2751. S2CID 53669466.
  7. ^ Bisesi, Michael (2010). "Skocpol, Theda". International Encyclopedia of Civil Society. p. 1373. doi:10.1007/978-0-387-93996-4_669. ISBN 978-0-387-93994-0.
  8. ^ Munck, Gerardo L.; Snyder, Richard (2007). Passion, Craft, and Method in Comparative Politics. Johns Hopkins University Press. p. 15. ISBN 978-0-8018-8464-1.
  9. ^ Skocpol, Theda. "Theda Skocpol" (PDF). Harvard University. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2015-09-10. Retrieved 2016-07-10.
  10. ^ "A QUESTION OF SEX BIAS AT HARVARD". The New York Times. October 18, 1981. Retrieved 17 July 2014.
  11. ^ "Theda Skocpol". Retrieved 2017-04-15.
  12. ^ "Theda Skocpol". Theda Skocpol. Harvard University. Retrieved June 26, 2016.
  13. ^ "SvD: Skocpol går till botten med staten". Svenska Dagbladet. 2007-09-29. Archived from the original on 2007-09-29. Retrieved 2017-12-01.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: bot: original URL status unknown (link)
  14. ^ Wikisum. "States and Social Revolutions". Archived from the original on 2007-10-27. Retrieved 2011-06-30.
  15. ^ Skocpol, Theda, Peter Evans, and Dietrich Rueschemeyer. "Bringing the state back in." Cambridge (1999).
  16. ^ Munck, Gerardo L.; Snyder, Richard (2007). Passion, Craft, and Method in Comparative Politics. Johns Hopkins University Press. p. 23. ISBN 978-0-8018-8464-1.
  17. ^ Domhoff, G. William (September 2005). "The Death of State Autonomy Theory: A Critique of Skocpol's Protecting Soldiers And Mothers". Who Rules America.
  18. ^ "The Politics of Climate Change Legislation". Harvard Magazine. 2013-02-15. Retrieved 2018-11-30.
  19. ^ "Citizen Scholars". Harvard Magazine. 2014-08-15. Retrieved 2018-11-30.
  20. ^ "skocpol.theda | Scholars Strategy Network". Retrieved 2018-11-30.
  21. ^ "Talking Patriots with Harvard political scientist and superfan Theda Skocpol". 17 January 2019.
  22. ^ "Turkey Attack Leaves Mail Carrier With Broken Hip". 3 April 2023.

External links[edit]