Political scientist Philip Converse dies at 86


Philip E. Converse, an authority on public opinion and electoral behavior and a U-M professor emeritus of sociology and political science, died Dec. 30, 2014, in Ann Arbor. He was 86.

Philip E. Converse

“By brilliant example, in paper after paper, Converse demonstrated the value of a quantitative approach to understanding politics,” said U-M political scientist Donald Kinder.  “He is surely one of the most important social scientists of the 20th century.”

“Phil’s work really created the architecture of our understanding of public opinion,” said U-M political scientist Nancy Burns. “Even his earliest work is very much alive in the field today.”

As a young scientist at ISR, Converse collaborated with Angus Campbell, Warren E. Miller and Donald Stokes to write “The American Voter,” a groundbreaking 1960 book asserting that most voters were surprisingly unsophisticated.

Converse honed that idea in his legendary 1964 article, “The Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics.” In it, Converse concluded that less than 4 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.”

Born in Concord, New Hampshire, Converse completed a Bachelor of Arts in English from Denison University in 1949, and a master’s degree in English literature from the University of Iowa in 1950. After study in France, he enrolled at the University of Michigan, earning a master’s degree in sociology in 1956 and a Ph.D. in social psychology in 1958.  

Converse headed ISR’s Center for Political Studies in 1982, and in 1986 he became the fourth director of ISR.

“Phil became ISR director at a difficult time,” said ISR Director James S. Jackson. “Social science 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 … and he mounted a vigorous and effective presentation of ISR’s intellectual and academic contributions to the history of the social and behavioral sciences.”

In 1989, Converse left Michigan to become director of the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University, but returned to U-M as a professor emeritus in 1994. 

Converse received honorary doctorate degrees from Harvard University, 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.

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. He is survived by Jean, of Ann Arbor, and his sons Peter, of Park Ridge, Illinois, and Timothy, of San Francisco.

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, visit http://home.isr.umich.edu/giving/the-philip-converse-and-warren-miller-fellowship-fund-in-american-political-behavior/.

— Submitted by Diane Swanbrow, Michigan News

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