Robert A. Dahl, the foremost living theorist of democracy, is the emeritus Sterling Professor of Political Science at Yale University, where he received his Ph.D. in 1940 and where he spent virtually his entire academic career. After five years working for the government—as a management analyst at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, then as an economist in the Office of Price Administration and the War Production Board, and finally as a member of the Army—he returned to Yale in 1946. With colleagues Charles Lindblom, Robert Lane, and others, he helped build the first modern department of political science, a department that asked major substantive questions while using the best social science techniques available at the time.

In the interview that follows, which I conducted on March 30, 2008, Dahl grounds his motivation for studying democracy not only in his academic encounters but also in his experiences growing up in Alaska, attending public schools there, and working with longshore workers as a boy. He does not want to replicate the utopian visions of classical philosophers. His commitment is to the development of an empirical model of democracy that guides scholars in their efforts to determine the extent of democratization throughout the world as well as in the United States. Normatively, he is committed to a democracy that recognizes the rights and voice of all who have a legitimate claim to citizenship.

Although he is known for his arguments about the procedures democracy requires, some of his most important work deals with the distribution of power. He engaged in debate with elitist theorists such as C. Wright Mills and Floyd Hunter, who argued that a small elite determined virtually all important policy decisions. Dahl's book ?, winner of the 1962 Woodrow Wilson Prize of the American Political Science Association, makes a very different set of claims. There Dahl analyzes decision making in several policy arenas and finds different key actors influencing the outcomes. The debate did not stop there, of course, but Dahl transformed the style of argument by investigating how decisions were made and who made them.

Dahl continued to study and contemplate democracy, winning a second Woodrow Wilson Prize in 1990 for . By his admission, he concluded his writing career with a second edition of in 2003 and in 2006.

Robert Dahl has received numerous honors. He was a Guggenheim fellow in 1950 and 1978, a fellow of the Center for Advanced Study in Behavioral Sciences in 1955–1956 and 1967, and an elected member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, American Philosophical Society, National Academy of Sciences, and British Academy (as a corresponding fellow). He served as President of the American Political Science Association in 1966–1967. He was the 1995 recipient of the Johan Skytte Prize in Political Science. He holds numerous honorary doctorates in addition to other major awards in recognition of his remarkable standing in the profession. The editorial committee of the was unanimous in its selection of Robert Dahl as the author of this first prefatory article by a distinguished living scholar to be published in our pages.


Keyword(s): autobiography

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  • Article Type: Review Article
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