The Magazine

A Gentleman and a Scholar

James Q. Wilson, 1931-2012

Mar 19, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 26 • By CHRISTOPHER DEMUTH
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I got up my nerve to introduce myself to James Q. Wilson when I was a Harvard junior casting around for a senior thesis topic. I approached his office in Harvard’s Littauer Center daunted and therefore well prepared. Littauer was then (1967) home to a dazzling array of pathbreaking thinkers and celebrity scholars, including Henry Kissinger, John Kenneth Galbraith, Samuel Huntington, Thomas Schelling, and Edward C. Banfield, with the ed school’s Daniel P. Moynihan a frequent visitor from just across the Cambridge Common. Wilson—at 36 the youngest full professor in the Department of Government—was already a standout in that company. He had been director of the MIT-Harvard Joint Center for Urban Studies for several years, and was emerging as a leading light of the Public Interest circle of intellectual revolutionaries. He had recently published, with Banfield, City Politics, recognized as a landmark of political analysis the day it appeared.

Photo of James Wilson

Tyrone Turner

But I was interested in Wilson’s earlier books, Negro Politics and The Amateur Democrat, written when he was a newly minted Ph.D. at the University of Chicago. I had had some involvement in black politics (and, I hereby confess, community organizing) in Chicago, and wanted to use my experience as a “participant-observer” as the basis for my thesis. I would employ Wilson’s methods and typologies and extend his findings to a period when the trend he had identified in Negro Politics—the displacement of patronage politics by racial politics—had proceeded much further.

Jim was crisp and businesslike, hearing me out intently and responding with cordial criticism and several suggestions for further study. No, he could not be my thesis adviser—because he was already overcommitted, and anyway he wanted to be the faculty reader who would grade the thesis when it was done (gulp). As the interview was winding up, I managed to work in a few impressive analogies between his books and the works of earlier political scientists. “That’s right,” he concluded cheerfully as he ushered me to the door. “We don’t know much in this business—but what we do know, we keep repeating.”

That, I would come to learn, was quintessential
James Q. Wilson. It was agreeable (“that’s right” was one of his favorite openings), modest, plainspoken, and witty. But then one realized that he had said something important—in this case, crystallizing his realism about the capacities of social science and his conviction that the growth of knowledge is, at best, incremental and laborious. Even an undergraduate could play the J. K. Galbraith game—a sweeping, radical thesis, supported by a few clips from the New York Times and quips from Thorstein Veblen. The Wilson game was infinitely harder, demanding careful study and actual data from empirical measurement and field research, applied at just the right level of theoretical generalization for the problem at hand, to produce a small but confident improvement over what had been understood before. Wilson himself was engaged in numerous such games simultaneously, on subjects ranging from metropolitan development to party politics, from voting behavior to crime control, aiming to discover new knowledge that could help alleviate (he would never say solve) important social problems. He was a busy man and most of all a serious man. Younger men with serious aspirations wanted to figure out how to be like him, and knew it would not be easy.

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