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Robert A. Dahl

Robert A. Dahl
Born (1915-12-17)December 17, 1915
Inwood, Iowa, U.S.
Died February 5, 2014(2014-02-05) (aged 98)
Hamden, Connecticut, U.S.
Fields Political science, Democratic theory
Alma mater University of Washington
Yale University, Ph.D.
Thesis Socialist Programs and Democratic Politics: An Analysis
Academic advisors Francis Coker, Harvey Mansfield, Sr.
Notable students Catherine MacKinnon • Guillermo O'Donnell • Nelson Polsby • Ian Shapiro • Edward Tufte • Ray Wolfinger • James Fishkin
Known for Polyarchy, pluralism
Influences Elite theory • Kenneth Arrow • Léon Duguit • James Coleman • Carl Hempel
Influenced Charles Lindblom, Tom Malleson
Spouse Mary Louise Bartlett (1940–1970)
Ann Sale (1973–2014)
Children 4

Robert Alan Dahl (; December 17, 1915 – February 5, 2014) was a political theorist and Sterling Professor of Political Science at Yale University. He established the pluralist theory of democracy—in which political outcomes are enacted through competitive, if unequal, interest groups—and introduced "polyarchy" as a descriptor of actual democratic governance. An originator of "empirical theory" and known for advancing behavioralist characterizations of political power, Dahl's research focused on the nature of decisionmaking in actual institutions, such as American cities. Dahl is considered one of the most influential political social scientists of the twentieth century, and has been described as "the dean of American political scientists."[1][2]

Dahl received his Ph.D. at Yale in 1940 and served on its political science faculty from 1946 to 1986. His influential early books include A Preface to Democratic Theory (1956), Who Governs? (1961), and Pluralist Democracy in the United States (1967), which presented pluralistic explanations for political rule in the United States.[3][4] He was elected president of the American Political Science Association in 1966.


  • Writings 1
  • Influence terms 2
  • Democracy and polyarchies 3
  • Prizes 4
  • Criticism 5
  • Bibliography 6
  • References 7
  • Sources 8
  • Further reading 9
  • External links 10


Robert A. Dahl teaching a political science class at Yale University

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, he was involved in an academic disagreement with C. Wright Mills over the nature of politics in the United States. Mills held that America's governments are in the grasp of a unitary and demographically narrow power elite. Dahl responded that there are many different elites involved, who have to work both in contention and in compromise with one another. If this is not democracy in a populist sense, Dahl contended, it is at least polyarchy (or pluralism). In perhaps his best known work, Who Governs? (1961), he examines the power structures (both formal and informal) in the city of New Haven, Connecticut, as a case study, and finds that it supports this view.[5]

From the late 1960s onwards, his conclusions were challenged by scholars such as G. William Domhoff and Charles E. Lindblom (a friend and colleague of Dahl).[6][7]

In How Democratic Is the American Constitution? (2001) Dahl argued that the US Constitution is much less democratic than it ought to be, given that its authors were operating from a position of "profound ignorance" about the future. However, he adds that there is little or nothing that can be done about this "short of some constitutional breakdown, which I neither foresee nor, certainly, wish for." [8]

Influence terms

One of Robert Dahl’s many contributions is his explication of the varieties of power, which he defines as “A” getting “B” to do what “A” wants. Dahl prefers the more neutral “influence terms,” (Michael G. Roskin) which he arrayed on a scale from best to worst:

  1. Rational Persuasion, the nicest form of influence, means telling the truth and explaining why someone should do something, like your doctor convincing you to stop smoking.
  2. Manipulative persuasion, a notch lower, means lying or misleading to get someone to do something.
  3. Inducement still lower, means offering rewards or punishments to get someone to do something, i.e. like bribery.
  4. Power threatens severe punishment, such as jail or loss of job.
  5. Coercion is power with no way out; you have to do it.
  6. Physical force – is backing up coercion with use or threat of bodily harm.

Thus, we can tell which governments are best; the ones that use influence at the higher end of the scale. The worst use the unpleasant forms of influence at the lower end.

Democracy and polyarchies

In his book, Democracy and Its Critics (1989), Dahl clarifies his view about democracy. No modern country meets the ideal of democracy, which is as a theoretical utopia. To reach the ideal requires meeting five criteria:[9]

  1. Effective participation
    Citizens must have adequate and equal opportunities to form their preference and place questions on the public agenda and express reasons for one outcome over the other.
  2. Voting equality at the decisive stage
    Each citizen must be assured his or her judgments will be counted as equal in weights to the judgments of others.
  3. Enlightened understanding
    Citizens must enjoy ample and equal opportunities for discovering and affirming what choice would best serve their interests.
  4. Control of the agenda
    Demos or people must have the opportunity to decide what political matters actually are and what should be brought up for deliberation.
  5. Inclusiveness
    Equality must extend to all citizens within the state. Everyone has legitimate stake within the political process.

Instead, he calls politically advanced countries "polyarchies". Polyarchies have elected officials, free and fair elections, inclusive suffrage, rights to run for office, freedom of expression, alternative information and associational autonomy. Those institutions are a major advance in that they create multiple centers of political power.[10]


Dahl was awarded the Johan Skytte Prize in Political Science in 1995.[4]


  • Sociologist G. William Domhoff strongly disagrees with Dahl's view of power in New Haven, CT in the 1960s: "Who Really Ruled in Dahl's New Haven?"
  • Political philosopher Charles Blattberg has criticized Dahl's attempt to define democracy with a set of necessary and sufficient conditions.


The best known of Dahl's works include:

  • 1953 - Politics, Economics, and Welfare (with Charles E. Lindblom)
  • 1956 - A Preface to Democratic Theory (new edition in 2006)
  • 1957 - The Concept of Power
  • 1957 - Decision-Making in a Democracy: The Supreme Court as a National Policy-Maker
  • 1960 - Social science research on business: product and potential
  • 1961 - Who Governs?: Democracy and Power in an American City
  • 1963 - Modern Political Analysis
  • 1966 - Political oppositions in Western Democracies
  • 1968 - Pluralist democracy in the United States : conflict and consent
  • 1970 - After the Revolution? : Authority in a good society
  • 1971 - Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition
  • 1973 - Size and Democracy (with Edward R. Tufte)
  • 1983 - Dilemmas of Pluralist Democracy: Autonomy vs. Control
  • "Polyarchy, Pluralism, and Scale," Scandinavian Political Studies (1984) 7#4 pp 225–240.
  • 1985 - A Preface to Economic Democracy
  • 1985 - Controlling Nuclear Weapons: Democracy versus Guardianship
  • 1989 - Democracy and Its Critics
  • 1997 - Toward Democracy - a Journey: Reflections, 1940-1997
  • 1998 - On Democracy
  • 2002 - How Democratic Is the American Constitution?
  • 2003 - The Democracy Sourcebook. (An anthology edited by Robert A. Dahl, Ian Shapiro and José Antonio Cheibub)
  • 2005 - After The Gold Rush
  • 2006 - On Political Equality


  1. ^ Rodrigues, Adrien; Lloyd-Thomas, Matthew (7 February 2014). "Dahl’s Legacy Remembered".  
  2. ^ Campbell, John C. (Fall 1985). "Controlling Nuclear Weapons: Democracy Versus Guardianship".  
  3. ^ "Robert Dahl, Sterling Professor Emeritus in Political Science, passes away". Yale University Department of Political Science. 7 February 2014. Retrieved 11 February 2015. 
  4. ^ a b Martin, Douglas (February 8, 2014). "Robert A. Dahl, defined politics and power; at 98". The New York Times. 
  5. ^ Eulau, Heinz (1962). "Who Governs? Democracy and Power in an American City. By Robert A. Dahl".  
  6. ^ G. William Domhoff, Who really rules?: New Haven and community power reexamined (Transaction Books, 1978).
  7. ^ David Vogel, Fluctuating fortunes: The political power of business in America (2003)
  8. ^ Robert Alan Dahl (2003). How Democratic is the American Constitution?. Yale UP. p. 144. 
  9. ^ R.A. Dahl, Democracy and Its Critics, Yale University Press, p. 221
  10. ^ R.A. Dahl, Democracy and Its Critics, Yale University Press, p. 222


  • Roskin, Cord, Medeiros, Jones. (2008). Political Science: An Introduction, (10th Edition). New Jersey. ISBN 0-13-242576-9
  • Jeong Chun Hai @Ibrahim, & Nor Fadzlina Nawi. (2007). Principles of Public Administration: An Introduction. Kuala Lumpur: Karisma Publications. ISBN 978-983-195-253-5

Further reading

  • Morriss, Peter. "Power in New Haven: A Reassessment of ‘Who Governs?’," British Journal of Political Science (1972) 2#4 pp 457-465.
  • Shapiro, Ian, and Grant Reeher, eds Power, Inequality, and Democratic Politics: Essays in Honor of Robert A. Dahl (Westview Press, 1988)
  • Interview by Richard Snyder: "Robert A. Dahl: Normative Theory, Empirical Research and Democracy," pp. 113–49, in Gerardo L. Munck and Richard Snyder, Passion, Craft, and Method in Comparative Politics (Baltimore, Md.: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007).

External links

  • Robert A. Dahl in the Yale University website.
  • Robert A. Dahl in the Encyclopædia Britannica.
  • Annual Reviews Conversations Interview with Robert A. Dahl (video)
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