Robert Nisbet Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.