Robert Nisbet Essay - Critical Essays

Nisbet, Robert


Robert Nisbet 1913-1996

(Born Robert Alexander Nisbet) American social scientist and journalist.

Nisbet was trained as a sociologist and spent the bulk of his career as a university professor, scholar, and administrator, teaching, among other places, at the University of California at Berkeley and as the Albert Schweitzer Professor at Columbia University. Often identified with the political right, Nisbet began his career as a political liberal and never fully became a part of any conservative movement. However, his first book, The Quest for Community (1953), played a significant role in launching the post-World War II revival of conservatism in America. In it, Nisbet argued that human beings should not be studied as individuals, but rather as parts of social groups, and that modern social science's individualism denied an important human drive toward community as it left people without the aid of their fellows in combating the centralizing power of the national state. In works on the history of sociology and the nature of contemporary social life, Nisbet consistently decried the growth of centralized political and economic power, the effects of this power on the more local, primary social associations such as family and church, and the role played by optimistic ideas concerning the human capacity for rational judgment in fostering the breakdown of community life. Nisbet's willingness to attack institutions valued by those from all parts of the political spectrum won him plaudits from both the left and the right, but his scholarship was often faulted for its polemical style and sometimes idiosyncratic interpretations of historical texts.

Biographical Information

Nisbet was born on September 30, 1913, in Los Angeles, California, the oldest of three children of lower-middle-class parents. After spending two years in Macon, Georgia, where Nisbet first attended school, the family returned to California, where Nisbet grew up. Nisbet's parents were dependent on New Deal programs during the Great Depression, and for years afterward Nisbet continued to describe himself as a kind of liberal. More critical to his intellectual development, however, was his experience as a student at the University of California under cultural historian Frederick Teggart. Teggart, a champion of comparative history, would be Nisbet's mentor through both his undergraduate and graduate studies. From him Nisbet developed his deep concern with broad ideas of social analysis such as the growth of the idea of progress. On receiving his Ph.D. Nisbet immediately was asked to teach at Berkeley where he stayed until 1953, his work only interrupted by military service. In 1953 Nisbet both published his first book, The Quest for Community, and accepted a post as dean at the new University of California at Riverside. He spent the next nineteen years at Riverside, much of it as an administrator. He received a Guggenheim fellowship, and published several books. Nisbet left Riverside in 1972 and spent two years at the University of Arizona, and then accepted the Albert Schweitzer Chair at Columbia University. In 1978 he retired from Columbia and accepted a position as resident scholar with the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C. Two years later he retired from the Institute, but continued writing, publishing six more books before his death in 1996.

Major Works

Nisbet's first book, The Quest for Community, received only polite notice on its first appearance. With the advent of student protests during the 1960s, however, the book's apparently conservative methodology of studying individuals primarily as parts of social groups, combined with its seemingly liberal message proclaiming the individual's need for community, made it the center of popular and scholarly debate. During the 1960s Nisbet published several broad studies on society and how it should be examined, including The Sociological Tradition, (1966), Tradition and Revolt (1968), and Social Change and History (1969). His emphasis on the role of general ideas in bringing about significant changes in a society's structure placed him in a small minority within his mathematically inclined profession; it also gained him a wider general readership than that generally enjoyed by sociologists, as did his frequent contributions to journals of opinion. Yet, in The Degradation of the Academic Dogma (1971), Nisbet criticized universities for failing to adhere to their purpose of conducting unbiased, scholarly research, blaming politicization on student radicalism and the intrusions of government demands for politically beneficial research. In 1975, with publication of Twilight of Authority, Nisbet became generally recognized as a specifically conservative writer. In this work he decried the loss of traditional sources of belief and habits of social deference, receiving praise from conservatives and criticism from liberal commentators. In 1976 Nisbet published Sociology as an Art Form, a book on the aesthetics of sociology, which helped him maintain his reputation as a scholar of wide-ranging interests. With his History of the Idea of Progress (1980) Nisbet returned to the study of sociological ideas, this time focusing on the influence of optimistic ideas of human perfectibility. Late in his life Nisbet's books took on the character of personal reflections, including his Prejudices (1982), in which he defined key philosophical terms, and Conservatism (1986), in which he wrestled with the question of what role faith must play in the conservative quest for traditional community and pluralist freedom. He also published The Present Age (1988), a polemic in which he criticized centralized political and economic power in America and charged that a military industrial complex had destroyed the bases of social cohesion and freedom.

Critical Reception

Nisbet's writings have been received on three levels: cultural criticism of a high order, bordering on prophetic statements of deep human needs; intelligent analysis of broad social topics verging on the popularization of scholarship; and political polemic. His The Quest for Community has been accepted as an important work, helping move social scientists and the public toward greater awareness of the individual's inherently social nature. His other studies of broad topics in the history of societies and civilization have received less lasting critical acceptance and are sometimes faulted for idiosyncrasies of interpretation. His polemical writings, aiming strong barbs at both the centralized political state criticized so often on the right and the combination of military and economic powers criticized so often on the left, secure him a certain recognition for his willingness to attack all institutions threatening the social communities he so valued. It is to Nisbet's first book that critics continue to look for assessing his contribution to the literature of social science and cultural criticism.

Principal Works

The Quest for Community: A Study in the Ethics of Freedom and Order (philosophy) 1953

Émile Durkheim (biography) 1965

The Sociological Tradition (history) 1966

Tradition and Revolt (history) 1968

Social Change and History (history) 1969

The Social Bond (philosophy) 1970

The Degradation of the Academic Dogma: The University in America 1945-1970 (journalism) 1971

The Social Philosophers (history) 1973

Twilight of Authority (journalism) 1975

Sociology as an Art Form (philosophy) 1976

History of the Idea of Progress (history) 1980

Prejudices: A Philosophical Dictionary (philosophy) 1982

Conservatism: Dream and Reality (philosophy) 1986

The Making of Modern Society (history) 1986

The Present Age: Progress and Anarchy in Modern America (journalism) 1988


Arthur K. Davis (review date August 1953)

SOURCE: A review of The Quest for Community: A Study in the Ethics of Freedom and Order, in American Sociological Review, Vol. 18, No. 4, August, 1953, pp. 443-44.

[In the following review of Quest for Community, Davis argues that Nisbet should build on his understanding of the conflict between local associations and large, centralized organizations like the state by examining the need for political action to protect communities from economic dislocation.]

The argument of [The Quest for Community] is stated in Part I.

Modern society is characterized by social disorganization and personal insecurity, if we may judge by selected...

(The entire section is 828 words.)

Paul W. Kurtz (review date 3 December 1953)

SOURCE: A review of The Quest for Community: A Study in the Ethics of Freedom and Order, in The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. L, No. 25, December 3, 1953, pp. 788-92.

[In the following review of Quest for Community, Kurtz argues that Nisbet's work is part of a useful trend in social science toward examining people as part of social units or communities rather than as isolated individuals.]

Even a perfunctory acquaintance with recent social and political science will reveal that the basic theoretical concepts have been gradually undergoing revision. Theories of society or the state based upon the “psychic,” biological, or instinctive properties of the...

(The entire section is 1876 words.)

Bruce Mazlish (review date 5 September 1969)

SOURCE: A review of Social Change and History, in Commonweal, Vol. XC, No. 20, September 5, 1969, pp. 546-47.

[In the following review of Social Change and History, Mazlish praises Nisbet for revealing the notion that universal laws of economic and political development is culturally biased.]

Our age, among other things, is an age of “undeveloped” nations that, hopefully, are also “developing” nations. A synonym for the development process through which they are expected to pass is “modernization.” Modernization theorists tend to assume that there are stages through which all nations both must and should pass; thus they...

(The entire section is 1120 words.)

Dennis Wrong (review date November 1969)

SOURCE: “The Anatomy of History,” in Commentary, Vol. 48, No. 5, November, 1969, pp. 85-9.

[In the following review of Social Change and History, Wrong favorably compares the work to Nisbet's earlier The Sociological Tradition since Social Change and History foregoes broad characterizations of individual thinkers in favor of close examination of the metaphor of growth as it developed throughout Western history.]

Robert Nisbet adopts in this book the same approach to intellectual history that he employed in his previous book, The Sociological Tradition. Instead of concentrating on individual thinkers or on recognized schools of thought,...

(The entire section is 3223 words.)

Richard Ohmann (essay date 17 July 1971)

SOURCE: “To Reform the Academy,” in Saturday Review, Vol. 54, July 17, 1971, pp. 54-55.

[In the following essay, Ohmann faults Degradation of the Academic Dogma for blaming the politicization of American universities on post-World War II political developments rather than late-nineteenth-century educational reforms.]

How should colleges and universities deal with student unrest and the other stresses that afflict them?

A: “They must restore legitimate authority, mainly that of the faculty, and enforce traditional, and proper, standards of intellectual achievement.”

B: “Nonsense. That's what got us in trouble...

(The entire section is 2003 words.)

Robert Nisbet with Robert W. Glasgow (interview date December 1973)

SOURCE: An interview in Psychology Today, Vol. 7, No. 7, December, 1973, pp. 43-52, 57-64.

[In the following interview, Glasgow asks Nisbet his views on the growth of centralized bureaucratic and military power and the role each has played in fostering individual alienation.]

My first meeting with Robert Nisbet was one morning last July in a Del Mar motel overlooking the Pacific. The first impression was of a leanly handsome sharp-featured man with just a touch of elegance—even in his casual beachwear of sports shirt and slacks. Nisbet's remarks, as I set up the tape-recording machine for our conversation, concerned, of all things, Betty Grable, whose obituary he had...

(The entire section is 11760 words.)

Haven Bradford Gow (essay date fall 1974)

SOURCE: “The Political Animal,” in Modern Age, Vol. 18, No. 4, fall, 1974, pp. 424-26.

[In the following essay, Gow compares Nisbet's Social Philosophers with Wilson Carey McWilliams' The Idea of Fraternity.]

What is community? What impells men to enter into society? Is society natural or artificial? Such questions have agitated the interest of men ever since they began pondering the riddles of life and the universe; but these questions are of especial and urgent interest today. When we speak of “community,” observes Robert Nisbet [in The Social Philosophers], we usually use the word in its oldest sense of “relationships among individuals that...

(The entire section is 1087 words.)

James R. Kelly (review date 1 November 1975)

SOURCE: “Finding a Usable Past, Building a Livable Future,” in America, Vol. 133, No. 13, November 1, 1975, pp. 286-87.

[In the following review of Twilight of Authority, Kelly criticizes Nisbet's book as a simple-minded attack on the pursuit of equality through political means.]

“Things fall apart; the center cannot hold.” Certainly, this is a sentiment no longer limited to the poetically sensitive but increasingly common among ordinary men and women. Nor can this confusion of spirit be attributed solely to such specifics as Vietnam, Watergate, inflation and recession, for the cognitive and moral models necessary for reconstructing personal and social...

(The entire section is 944 words.)

American Scholar (essay date summer 1976)

SOURCE: “Social Science: The Public Disenchantment,” in American Scholar, summer, 1976.

[In the following symposium, written by James S. Coleman, Morris Janowitz, Harry G. Johnson, Robert Lekachman, Martin Mayer, Daniel P. Moynihan, Harold Orlans, Thomas Sowell, and James Q. Wilson, the writers debate the merits of Nisbet's characterization of social scientists as discredited, inept meddlers in public policy.]

In a most interesting and too-little-commented-upon article in the New York Times Magazine last year entitled “Knowledge Dethroned,” Robert Nisbet remarked upon the disenchantment that has of late set in with the public in its view of scholars in...

(The entire section is 10488 words.)

Haven Bradford Gow (review date spring 1977)

SOURCE: “The Deepening Darkness,” in Modern Age, Vol. 21, No. 2, spring, 1977, pp. 211-12.

[In the following eview of Twilight of Authority, Gow outlines Nisbet's argument that centralized government is sapping vitality from social institutions such as the family, which are crucial to protecting liberty and forming full social lives.]

Decadence, according to the philosopher, C. M. Joad, is the loss of an object. For Russell Kirk, one of the finest social critics of our times, decadence is pervasive moral and political disorder in society, which results from disorder in the soul. Robert Nisbet, Albert Schweitzer Professor in the Humanities at Columbia...

(The entire section is 791 words.)

Ernest Gellner (review date 1977)

SOURCE: “Marx Upended,” in Partisan Review, Vol. XLIV, No. 1, 1977, pp. 139-43.

[In the following review of Twilight of Authority, Gellner criticizes Nisbet for overemphasizing the role ideas play in fostering social trends.]

The author of this likeable but slightly crotchety book [Twilight of Authority] is a distinguished historian of social thought. It is a book clearly inspired by an acutely, sincerely felt sense of malaise concerning our shared social and political condition. But it is very much argued at the level of social ideas rather than of realities; or at least, that is where the stress seems to be. The ills are described concretely enough,...

(The entire section is 1733 words.)

William R. Burch, Jr. (review date fall 1979)

SOURCE: A review of Sociology As an Art Form, in Philosophy and Rhetoric, Vol. 12, No. 4, fall, 1979, pp. 274-77.

[In the following review of Sociology as an Art Form, Burch finds value in Nisbet's insights and analogies, which give a new perspective to old issues.]

Sociology is an art form. Indeed, in combination with television, pop sociology may be the principal rhetorical art of our times. For example, the mass media commission public opinion polls so that Walter Cronkite can explain to us how our membership in certain regions, age classes, gender, income groups and ethnic groups affect the reasons why we like or dislike Presidents or other political...

(The entire section is 1170 words.)

Robert C. Solomon (review date autumn 1980)

SOURCE: A review of The History of the Idea of Progress, in Chicago Review, Vol. 32, No. 2, autumn, 1980, pp. 120-23.

[In the following review of History of the Idea of Progress, Solomon praises Nisbet for undermining a unitary theory of progress that has no tolerance for cultural differences.]

In Aristotle's Greece, to be Greek (and preferably male, an aristocrat, and an amateur philosopher) entitled one to be considered “human.” In Java, according to the anthropologist Clifford Geertz at Princeton, the word “human” means “to be Javanese.” No doubt we all find this objectionable, but at least it is honest. We, on the other hand, are more...

(The entire section is 1400 words.)

Robert V. Andelson (review date winter 1981)

SOURCE: “Progress or Providence,” in Modern Age, Vol. 25, No. 1, winter, 1981, pp. 80-83.

[In the following review of History of the Idea of Progress, Andelson criticizes Nisbet for including too many divergent ideas under the title “progress,” thereby failing to give a coherent criticism of any particular idea of importance in contemporary debate.]

Robert Nisbet is a scholar and thinker of deserved distinction, but this ambitious work [History of the Idea of Progress], despite much that merits commendation, does not qualify as one of his more impressive efforts. J. M. Cameron calls it “a scissors-and-paste job, and dull one,”1 but...

(The entire section is 2044 words.)

Walter Goodman (essay date 27 September 1982)

SOURCE: “A Friend of the Family,” in Newsweek, September 27, 1982, p. 78.

[In the following essay, Goodman reviews Nisbet's changes in political ideology, noting the consistency of Nisbet's defense of the family and other social institutions.]

Robert Nisbet is by all odds the jolliest Jeremiah now practicing. In person, as in his books, he dwells on the dire condition of our society with unfailing zest, brightening with his style the gloomy landscape he portrays. One is apt to leave the company of this tall, ruddy, 69-year-old remembering that he favors jogging shoes and feeling that things just cannot be as bad as he says.

Since 1978, when...

(The entire section is 1044 words.)

Gorman Beauchamp (review date fall 1982)

SOURCE: “The Politics of Progress,” in Michigan Quarterly Review, Vol. XXI, No. 4, fall, 1982, pp. 658-73.

[In the following review of History of the Idea of Progress, Beauchamp dismisses Nisbet as a dishonest scholar and apologist for American business interests.]

One Sunday evening in the course of his hapless presidency, Jimmy Carter took to our television screens to announce the dire news that we were losing our national faith—the faith in progress. “We've always believed,” he declared, “in something called progress. We've always had a faith that the days of our children would be better than our own. Our people are losing that faith.” Carter's...

(The entire section is 7357 words.)

Paul Gottfried (review date fall 1986)

SOURCE: “A Dream Denied,” in Policy Review, No. 38, fall, 1986, pp. 88-89.

[In the following review of Conservatism, Gottfried argues that Nisbet's rejection of both egalitarianism and religious enthusiasm renders his conservatism interesting but largely irrelevant to contemporary political debates.]

Conservatism: Dream and Reality is the latest book in a string of distinguished works by Robert Nisbet, going back to The Quest for Community (1952) and The Sociological Tradition (1967). Although Nisbet's post-1960 books have been generally leaner than his voluminous early studies of social theory and social crisis, certain...

(The entire section is 1451 words.)

Mary Tedeschi Eberstadt (essay date August 1988)

SOURCE: “Robert Nisbet's America,” in Commentary, Vol. 86, No. 2, August, 1988, pp. 55-59.

[In the following essay, Eberstadt considers Nisbet's increasing alarm at the increase of centralized political power in the United States and its effects on primary social institutions.]

When a conservative thinker of Robert Nisbet's stature surveys the American scene only to find “a deeply flawed giant; not yet moribund but ill-gaited, shambling, and spastic of limb, often aberrant of mind,” his claims to our attention are several. As a preeminent scholar, sociologist, and historian of ideas, Nisbet has been a mainstay of American intellectual life for decades. From his...

(The entire section is 4315 words.)

Nicholas Lemann (essay date April 1991)

SOURCE: “Paradigm Lost,” in Washington Monthly, Vol. 23, No. 4, April, 1991, pp. 46-50.

[In the following essay, Lemann assesses the continuing influence of Nisbet's Quest for Community, arguing that Nisbet powerfully captured Americans' nostalgia for small-town life, but that this nostalgia interferes with state actions needed to protect the nation and its values.]

Every time a president of the United States proclaims himself to be in favor of returning power to states, cities, and neighborhoods, and opposed to our trying to solve national problems from Washington, he is echoing, probably unconsciously, a little book published in 1953 called The Quest...

(The entire section is 2731 words.)

J. David Hoeveler, Jr. (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: “Robert Nisbet: Resisting Leviathan,” in Watch on the Right: Conservative Intellectuals in the Reagan Era, University of Wisconsin Press, 1991, pp. 177-205.

[In the following excerpt, Hoeveler argues that Nisbet combined belief in the power of social science with an attachment to traditional social institutions, which allowed him to formulate a powerful critique of centralized political and economic power.]

In 1986 Robert Nisbet published a book with the title Conservatism: Dream and Reality. It was a short work that attempted to trace conservative thought from its origins in the late eighteenth century, and like other works of similar subject it...

(The entire section is 12966 words.)

American Enterprise (essay date November-December 1996)

SOURCE: “Robert Nisbet vs. the Nanny State,” in American Enterprise, Vol. 7, No. 6, November-December, 1996, pp. 17-18.

[In the following essay, the editors of the American Enterprise argue that Nisbet's focus on the need for strong social institutions has become a dominant theme in American conservatism.]

Just as “big government” has become anathema and “community” and “civil society” all the trend, America has lost one of her pioneering thinkers on the connection between the two: former AEI scholar and academic advisor Robert Nisbet.

The state grows not primarily because of conniving special interests, or ideologues, or...

(The entire section is 575 words.)

David Brooks (essay date September 1996)

SOURCE: “Robert Nisbet's Quest,” in Weekly Standard, Vol. 2, No. 3, September 30, 1996, pp. 14-15.

[In the following essay, Brooks praises Nisbet's analysis of the sources of increased political centralization and the inevitable effects of this centralization on social institutions.]

Robert Nisbet was ailing when Hillary Clinton uttered the most remarkable line of the presidential campaign—“it takes a president” to raise a child. Nisbet died on Sept. 9 of prostate cancer at the age of 82, ending a distinguished career as a sociologist and public intellectual. But his life's work is a refutation of Mrs. Clinton's declaration. Nisbet was a devastating critic of...

(The entire section is 1524 words.)

Russell Kirk (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: “A Humane Sociologist: Remembering Robert Nisbet,” in University Bookman, 1996, pp. 29-39.

[In the following essay, Kirk praises Nisbet's Quest for Community for showing the individual's natural desire to form strong social attachments and the ways in which this drive persists in an era of centralized political and economic power.]

The Quest for Community suffers from none of the usual vices of sociological writing: it is not equivocal, or marred by pedantic empiricism, or afflicted by meliorism, or afraid of metaphor, or dominated by a caste spirit. On the contrary, it is a readable and manly book, almost wholly emancipated from the...

(The entire section is 3851 words.)

Irving Louis Horowitz (essay date March-April 1997)

SOURCE: “Losing Giants,” in Society, Vol. 34, No. 3, March-April, 1997, pp. 56-63.

[In the following essay, Horowitz laments the deaths of Nisbet, E. Digby Baltzell, and Anselm L. Strauss, highlighting their common dislike of the entrenched elites of the late twentieth century.]

Recently Society published notices of the passing of three intellectual giants of sociology: E. Digby Baltzell, Robert A. Nisbet, and Anselm L. Strauss. These men were personal friends as well as academic figures of the highest quality. They were also part of the soul of Transaction and of social science writ large. To lose one of these figures would be painful at any time. To...

(The entire section is 6384 words.)

Robert G. Perrin (essay date winter 1997)

SOURCE: “Robert Nisbet and the Modern State,” in Modern Age, Vol. 39, No. 1, winter, 1997, pp. 39-47.

[In the following essay, Perrin reviews Nisbet's life's work, focusing on Nisbet's developing theories concerning the cause of growth of the centralized territorial state and how that state has affected more local, social institutions.]

Sociologist and historian Robert Alexander Nisbet (b. 1913) has been writing for more than half a century. Two overarching themes characterize his lifetime work. First, he attempts to reorient the formal study of social change in the social sciences so that the hoary metaphor of growth and development, a mainstay in conceptualizing...

(The entire section is 5390 words.)

Brad Lowell Stone (essay date spring 1998)

SOURCE: “A True Sociologist,” in The Intercollegiate Review, Vol. 33, No. 2, spring, 1998, pp. 38-42.

[In the following essay, Stone briefly reviews Nisbet's life and work, emphasizing Nisbet's criticisms of centralized power and the romantic individualism of Jean Jacques Rousseau.]

Henri Bergson once observed that a true great thinker says but one thing in his life because he has but one point of contact with the real. By this Bergson meant that although a great thinker may have a variety of interests, he typically embraces one great truth that animates each of his pursuits and serves as a guide to lesser truths. Whether or not this holds generally, it is true of...

(The entire section is 2445 words.)

Henry Regnery (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: “Robert Nisbet and the Blight in the Olive Grove,” in Perfect Sowing: Reflections of a Bookman, edited by Jeffrey O. Nelson, ISI Books, 1999, pp. 156-62.

[In the following excerpt, Regnery emphasizes Nisbet's criticisms of Enlightenment ideas and their tendency to overestimate the individual's capacity for reason and virtue.]

The university, in Professor Robert Nisbet's view of the matter, is in its basic structure a medieval institution to survive into the modern world. All the others, the universal church, chivalry, the fief, the craft guild, were swept away by the reformation and the political and social upheavals that followed; the university alone...

(The entire section is 1492 words.)

Further Reading


Stone, Brad Lowell. “Life.” In Robert Nisbet. Wilmington: Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000.

Provides a brief overview of Nisbet's life and career.


Dunn, Charles W. and J. David Woodward. “The Ten Most Important Beliefs of Conservatism.” In The Conservative Tradition in America, pp. 45-64. Lanham, MD.: Rowman & Littlefield, 1996.

Discusses Nisbet's role in formulating the precepts of post-World War II American conservatism.

Gans, Herbert J. “The Costs of Inequality.” In Small Comforts for Hard Times: Humanists on Public...

(The entire section is 203 words.)