Neil Smelser

Neil Joseph Smelser
Born (1930-07-22)July 22, 1930
Kahoka, Missouri
Died October 2, 2017(2017-10-02) (aged 87)
Berkeley, California
Alma mater Harvard University (B.A.)
Oxford University (B.A.)
Harvard University (Ph.D.)
Known for economic sociology, political sociology
Scientific career
Fields Sociology
Institutions University of California-Berkeley
Academic advisors Talcott Parsons

Neil Joseph Smelser (July 22, 1930 – October 2, 2017) was an emeritus professor of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley. He was an active researcher from 1958 to 1994. His research has been on collective behavior, sociological theory, economic sociology, sociology of education, social change, and comparative methods.[1] Among many lifetime achievements, Smelser " laid the foundations for economic sociology."[2]

Education and career

Smelser received his undergraduate degree from Harvard University in 1952 in the Department of Social Relations.[3] From 1952-54, he was a Rhodes scholar at Oxford University where he studied economics, philosophy, and politics and was awarded a B.A.. During his first year of graduate school at the age of 24, he co-authored Economy and Society with Talcott Parsons, first published in 1956. He earned his Ph.D in sociology from Harvard in 1958, and was a junior fellow of the Society of Fellows. He was given tenure a year after graduating from Harvard and joining Berkeley.[2] and, at the age of 31, he was the youngest editor of the American Sociological Review in 1961, just 3 years after coming to Berkeley.

He was the fifth director of the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences from 1994-2001. He retired in 1994 when he became an emeritus professor, and died in Berkeley on October 2, 2017.[4]


Smelser's value added theory (or strain theory) argued that six elements were necessary for a particular kind of collective behaviour to emerge:

  • Structural conduciveness - things that make or allow certain behaviors possible (e.g. spatial proximity)
  • Structural strain - something (inequality, injustice) must strain society
  • Generalized belief - explanation; participants have to come to an understanding of what the problem is
  • Precipitating factors - spark to ignite the flame
  • Mobilization for action - people need to become organized
  • Failure of social control - how the authorities react (or don't)


  • Economy and Society: A Study in the Integration of Economic and Social Theory. (with Talcott Parsons) (1956)
  • Theory of Collective Behavior. (1962)
  • The Sociology of Economic Life. (1963)
  • Social Paralysis and Social Change: British Working-Class Education in the Nineteenth Century. (1991)
  • The Social Edges of Psychoanalysis. (1998)
  • Dynamics of the Contemporary University: Growth, Accretion, and Conflict. (2013)


  • Swedberg, Richard, Economics and Sociology: Redefining Their Boundaries: Conversations with Economists and Sociologists, Princeton University Press 1990.
  • Sullivan, T.J., Thompson, K.S. (1986), "Collective Behaviour and Social Change" in Sociology: Concepts, Issues and Applications, Chapter 12. MacMillan, New York.
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