Probing the ‘Informed’ Voter: Philip Converse, 1928-2014

(Philip Converse in 1985. (Photo Institute for Social Research)
Philip Converse in 1985. (Photo Institute for Social Research)
In a sense, Philip Ernest Converse is best known for ignorance – not exhibiting it, but uncovering it. Just over a half century ago, in his article “The Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics,” Converse demonstrated that most the public had a poor or even non-existent understanding of their professed ideologies and ultimately were blissful in their ignorance.

That subtly subversive claim still excites strong denials — “Voters are not fools,” we can hear V.O. Key, Jr. thunder — but it remains the starting point for most of the study of voting (and even ideology) that followed. “Belief Systems” is “perhaps the most influential article in the field of public opinion,” wrote John Sides, also a political scientist, at the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog. Sides quotes political scientist Donald Kinder about Converse’s impact:

Over the course of his career, Converse was responsible for an extraordinary number of foundational works in the behavioral study of politics. He wrote on social class, belief systems, voters and elections, the dynamics of partisanship, political representation, the development and stabilization of party systems, and the human meaning of social change. Brilliant analyst and splendid writer, Converse delivered pleasure on nearly every page.

Philip Converse died on December 30, 2014, age 86, in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Ann Arbor is the home of the University of Michigan, a school where Converse’s impact was deepest and most durable.

Born in Concord, New Hampshire in 1928, Converse didn’t start out as a social scientist. His bachelor’s degree (Denison University, 1949) and master’s (State University of Iowa, 1950) were in English and English literature, and he spent time delving into the joys of Shakespeare. By 1956 (perhaps influenced by his 1951 marriage to social scientist and survey expert Jean McDonnell), he wanted to delve into the joys of social science, and so he enrolled at the University of Michigan, earning another master’s, in sociology, that year and a doctorate in social psychology two years later. In his student days he wormed his way (“I felt like a kid in the candy shop”) into Michigan’s Institute for Social Research as assistant study director of the institute’s Survey Research Center.

“I managed to infiltrate the place by hook or by crook, and that’s where it all started,” Converse told an interviewer in 1997, a quote cited in a 2012 article on the ISR website. “I was absolutely thrilled off my feet by this marvelous new tool of survey research which could give one snapshots of what was going on in the minds and behaviors of the American public.”

In 1960 Converse joined the faculty at Michigan and at the ISR, the same year that he and three colleagues at Michigan – Angus Campbell, Warren Miller and Donald Stokes — published the pioneering text The American Voter, which suggested that the title characters weren’t as sophisticated as researchers had thought and policymakers had hoped. While time has chipped away at some of the book’s conclusions, it’s still seen as a “springboard” for the study of voting behavior, as is much of Converse’s work.

Converse himself was every bit as sophisticated as his mentors at Michigan could hope, and he rose in the ranks there, becoming a full professor in sociology and political science in 1965. Much of his acumen was in service of the ISR: In 1962 became associate director of the Inter-university Consortium for Political Research, which was a partnership between the Survey Research Center and other universities; in 1965 he was named program director of the Survey Research Center, in 1982 director of the Center for Political Studies; and in 1986 became the fourth director of the ISR itself.

“Professor Converse made many contributions to the development of the Michigan Program, which 25 years ago revolutionized political science research,” the University of Michigan Research Club wrote in 1987 in Converse’s nomination as the 1987 Henry Russel Lecturer, Michigan’s top honor for a faculty member. “The great innovation of this program was its heavy emphasis on quantitative methods applied to empirical research, in general, and to survey research, in particular. It was unique at that time, but subsequently became the model copied in numerous other departments in this country and in Europe. This ‘movement’ brought political science into much closer intellectual contact with sociology, social psychology and economics.”

Converse retired from Michigan in 1989 and became the fourth director of the Center for Advanced Study in Behavioral Sciences at Stanford, California, a position he held until 1994. He then returned to Michigan, where he served as an emeritus professor until his death. The Center for Political Studies instituted the Philip Converse and Warren Miller Fellowship in American Political Behavior in 2012, handing out their first award to a deserving grad student the following year.

He had been a fellow at CASBS in 1980, and had also been a Fulbright, Guggenheim and Russell Sage fellow and was an elected member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the National Academy of Science and the American Philosophical Society. Converse also served a president of both the International Society of Political Psychology (1980-81) and the American Political Science Association (1983-84).

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