Social scientist Philip Converse dies at 86

Philip Converse

Phil Converse in 1985

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Philip E. Converse, an authority on public opinion and electoral behavior and a professor emeritus of sociology and political science at the University of Michigan, died on December 30, 2014, in Ann Arbor, Mich. He was 86.

Converse’s wide-ranging contributions to the field of political science changed how the world understood political behavior, according to political scientist Donald R. Kinder, a research professor at the U-M Institute for Social Research.

“By brilliant example, in paper after paper, Converse demonstrated the value of a quantitative approach to understanding politics,” said Kinder. “His influence is profound. He is surely one of the most important social scientists of the 20th century.”

“Phil’s work moved the study of political behavior from an emphasis on the group basis of support and preferences to an emphasis on the role of attitudes in shaping them,” said U-M political scientist Michael Traugott. “While citizens did not often hold ideologically consistent views on issues, they made assessments of political actors and policies based upon attitudes related to ideology and partisanship.”

“Phil’s work really created the architecture of our understanding of public opinion,” said U-M political scientist Nancy Burns. “His work was thick with ideas, offering blue prints to be taken up or challenged by later scholars in every paragraph. Even his earliest work is very much alive in the field today.”

As a young research scientist at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research (ISR), Converse collaborated with fellow researchers Angus Campbell, Warren E. Miller, and Donald Stokes in 1960 to write The American Voter, a groundbreaking book using data from the National Election Studies that asserted that most voters were surprisingly unsophisticated in their thinking.

Converse honed that idea further in his legendary 1964 article, “The Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics.” In it, Converse concluded that less than four percent of the voting public had a well-formed political belief system and the ability to think abstractly. Instead, he wrote, most voters based decisions at the poll on how they felt a political party treated certain groups, on whether they associated a party with a good or bad event, or on “no shred of policy significance whatever.”

Converse’s theories about voters’ lack of sophistication stirred up ongoing debate across the academy. Indeed, ISR’s Center for Political Studies celebrated the 50th anniversary of the article earlier this year with a lecture at which his ideas were revisited and debated again.

“It testifies to the importance of Converse’s work that, 50 years later, we are still building on and arguing over his ideas about the capacities of citizens and the workings of democracy,” said Kinder.

Converse was born in Concord, New Hampshire, in 1928. He completed a B.A in English from Denison University in Ohio in 1949, and a master’s in English literature from the University of Iowa in 1950. After study in France, Converse enrolled at the University of Michigan (U-M), earning a master’s in sociology in 1956 and a Ph.D. in social psychology in 1958.

In 1951, he married Jean G. McDonnell, a social scientist specializing in survey research and interviewing techniques who served as Associate Director of the Detroit Area Study. She is the author of Survey Research in the United States: Roots & Emergence 1890 – 1960, as well as Conversations at Random: Survey Research as Interviewers See It and Survey Questions: Handcrafting the Standardized Questionnaire.

Converse became a study director of the Survey Research Center at ISR in 1958. He soon began working with other political scientists and sociologists at ISR, and he went on to head the Institute’s Center for Political Studies in 1982. Four years later he became the fourth director of ISR.

“Phil became ISR Director at a difficult time,” said ISR Director James S. Jackson. “Social sciences research was under political attack and federal funding for social research was being cut. He was able to broaden ISR’s research portfolio to include new funding sources. He strengthened ties between the institute and the university by developing ISR appointments for researchers from a wide range of departments and schools. Finally, he mounted a vigorous and effective presentation of ISR’s intellectual and academic contributions to the history of the social and behavioral sciences.”

During this same period, Converse served on the faculties of U-M’s sociology and political science departments, becoming professor of sociology and political science in 1965. Converse was named the Robert C. Angell Professor of Political Science and Sociology in 1975 and the Robert Cooley Angell Distinguished University Professor of Sociology and Political Science in 1982. He also received an honorary degree from Harvard University.

During his almost 30 years as a U-M faculty member, Converse was known for his work on a range of political and sociological topics. In addition to The American Voter, Converse’s books included Vietnam and the Silent Majority (coauthored with Milton Rosenberg and Sidney Verba), The Human Meaning of Social Change (with Angus Campbell), The Quality of American Life (coauthored with Campbell), and the award-winning Political Representation in France (coauthored with Roy Pierce).

In 1989, Converse left Michigan to become director of the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences (CASBS) at Stanford University. But after retiring from CASBS in 1994, he returned to U-M where, as a professor emeritus, he continued his close ties to ISR and the university. In 2012, he provided support for the Philip Converse and Warren Miller Fellowship in American Political Behavior to support graduate students in making further breakthroughs in American voting behavior.

Converse received honorary doctorate degrees from Denison University and the University of Chicago, and was awarded numerous fellowships, including the Fulbright, Guggenheim, and Russell Sage. He was an elected member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, and the National Academy of Sciences. He also was selected as the 1987 Henry Russel Lecturer, U-M’s highest honor given to a senior faculty member.

Converse is survived by his wife Jean, of Ann Arbor, MI, and his sons, Peter, of Park Ridge, IL, and Timothy, of San Francisco, CA.

A memorial service will be held later this year. The family requests that memorial contributions be made to the Philip Converse and Warren Miller Fellowship Fund in American Political Behavior.

For more information, contact Patrick Shields, peshield@umich.edu.

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