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Theda Skocpol

Theda Skocpol

American sociologist
The basics
Occupations Historian Political scientist Educator Sociologist
Countries United States of America
Gender female
Birth May 4, 1947 (Detroit, Wayne County, Michigan, U.S.A.)
Education Harvard University, Michigan State University
Authority BIBSYS id ISNI id Library of congress id NNDB id Openlibrary id VIAF id
Theda Skocpol
The details

Theda Skocpol (born 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. An influential figure in both disciplines, Skocpol 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.

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.

According to her profile on the Harvard Department of Sociology website, her current research agenda focuses on “U.S. social policy and civic engagement in American democracy, including changes since the 1960s. She has recently launched new projects on the development of U.S. higher education and on the transformations of U.S. federal policies in the Obama era.”


Theda Skocpol was born in Detroit, Michigan on May 4, 1947. She earned her B.A. at Michigan State University in 1969. She then went on to earn her M.A. (1972), and Ph.D. at Harvard University (1975). While attending Harvard University, Skocpol studied with Barrington Moore Jr.

From 1975-1981, Skocpol served as an Assistant and Associate Professor of Sociology, at Harvard University. 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.

In the early 1980s, Prof. 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. In 1984, Harvard University offered Dr. 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 to include: Professor of Sociology; Director for the Center for American Political Studies; Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences; and presently is the Professor of Government and of Sociology, Victor S. Thomas Professor of Government and Sociology.

Honors and Titles

Throughout her career, Dr. 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 (1991–96). 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.

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."

Major works and contributions

States and Social Revolutions (1979)

Dr. 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 and uses varied comparative methodological strategies.

State Autonomy Theory

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.

Protecting Soldiers and Mothers (1992)

In this 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."

Dr. 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, 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.

Diminished Democracy (2003)

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. Dr. Skocpol provokes the reader with the idea that civic involvement will one day become another job rather than a civilian responsibility.

Personal life

In 1967, while studying at Michigan State University, Skocpol married Bill Skocpol, a physicist who taught at Boston University.

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