Friday, March 02, 2012

James Q. Wilson

James Q. Wilson was a giant among academic political scientists. He died today in Boston. He is most remembered for his "broken windows" theory which postulated that if you let a neighborhood get run down it would feed upon itself.  But his contributions to thinking in social theory were much broader.  He did a superb book on Bureaucracy.  Peter Skerry, a Boston University professor said that he lacked the pretensions of many social theorists "He was just as comfortable having a burger at a joint on the Pacific Coast Highway that bikers would go to as he would be at his favorite steakhouse in New York or his favorite hotel in London," 
From a Commentary Article "I worked with him a bit on an issue relating to the Western Accrediting Association in the late 1980s.  I found him to be diligent about data - looking and rethinking - but a true gentleman.   We had several long conversations about the issue at hand.  In a Commentary article he once wrote - "I wish to argue for an older view of human nature, one that assumes that people are naturally endowed with certain moral sentiments. We have a peculiar, fragile, but persistent disposition to make moral judgments, and we generally regard people who lack this disposition to be less than human. Despite our wars, crimes, envies, snobberies, fanaticisms, and persecutions, there is to be found a desire not only for praise but for praiseworthiness, for fair dealings as well as for good deals, for honor as well as for advantage. These desires become evident when we think disinterestedly about ourselves or others."   

In the late 1980s I had the pleasure of working with him on a project related to the accrediting region in California.  What I enjoyed about the brief collaboration is that he never ceased to try to look at the issue we were working on from a number of vantage points.  He was also a stickler for data.   But as Professor Skerry commented he did not have the over-sized ego of a major figure in academe.

Commentary put all of his articles up in an archive which is well worth browsing.  National Interest put up all his articles from the Public Interest.   If you are interested in reading his most famous article "Broken Windows" - the Atlantic republished it.

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