Ronald Inglehart, 1934-2021: Founder of the World Values Survey

Ronald Inglehart

Ron Inglehart, a political scientist whose work on surveying values around the world set new and higher bars on what such studies could achieve, has died at age 86. After a log illness, he passed away on May 8 in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Inglehart helped found the Euro-Barometer surveys and served as a co-investigator on that opinion-measuring project for 20 years starting in 1970. He founded the World Values Survey, or WSV, in 1981 as a more global version of the existing European Values Survey.

The WSV, now operating in more than 120 countries, evolved into one of the most durable and useful longitudinal social science research tools “devoted to the scientific and academic study of social, political, economic, religious and cultural values of people in the world.” As such, its products have gained enormous credence in both the academic and public spheres – the Washington Post once described it as “the world’s greatest cross-national social science collaboration.”

Inglehart was also a prolific writer, authoring more than 400 peer-reviewed articles and writing or co-writing 14 books. In 2018, he was named as the most-cited scholar in political science.

His theoretical contributions include the concept of “postmaterialism,” a theory presented in his very first book and drawn from his years of survey research which suggested that industrialized society was evolving from purely material ideas of wellbeing to more non-material markers. In 2011, when he and longtime collaborator Pippa Norris shared the Johan Skytte Prize (sometimes referred to as the Nobel of political science”), the citation celebrated them for “contributing innovative ideas about the relevance and roots of political culture in a global context, transcending previous mainstream approaches of research.”

Ronald Franklin Inglehart was born on September 5, 1934 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and raised in the Chicago suburb of Glencoe, Illinois. His education stayed true to those Midwestern U.S. roots – a bachelor’s degree from Chicago’s Northwestern University, a master’s and a PhD at the University of Chicago. In 1963 and 1964, he was a Fulbright Scholar at Leiden University in The Netherlands.

Two years later, he took a position teaching political science at the University of Michigan, where he remained on the faculty until his death. Inglehart was the Amy and Alan Loewenstein Professor of Democracy, Democratization and Human Rights at Michigan, and research professor emeritus at the Institute for Social Research.

In 2010 he and Eduard Ponarin founded the Ronald F. Inglehart Laboratory for Comparative Social Research at the Higher School of Economics in St. Petersburg, Russia. The lab aims to enhance quantitative comparative studies and instrumental analytical methods of large data sets in Russia and the post-Soviet space as well as consult on social policy. 

An obituary on lab’s website helps contextualize Inglehart’s contributions:

He was the first scholar to recognize the inadequacy of the traditional model of democracy. His voice opposing the interpretation of mass actions against the elite as anti-democratic was, perhaps, the most powerful in the field of political culture research. In his landmark work The Silent Revolution (Princeton University Press, 1977), Inglehart put forward an empirically based theory of motivations promoting mass anti-elite movements: the theory was focused on the idea of the development of postmaterialist values. … Through this theory, Inglehart enriched political and social theory with ideas and concepts that greatly expanded our understanding of social, cultural and political change.

That obituary also noted how his pioneering work on social surveys, in particular the World Values Survey, helped put empirical meat on those theoretical bones. That survey captured the public imagination, its data a staple of understanding global attitudes, and the “Inglehart-Welzel Cultural Map” its data creates routinely appears in various incarnations. With the co-creator of that map, Christian Wenzel, chair in political culture research at the Center for the Study of Democracy at Leuphana University, and currently vice president of World Values Survey Association, Inglehart developed evolutionary modernization theory.

“He was truly a pioneer in using survey data to measure and compare culture across countries,” Mark Tessler, Samuel J. Eldersveld Collegiate Professor of Political Science at the University of Michigan, was quoted in an obituary on university’s website. “Thousands of researchers have used data from the World Values Survey, which he founded and directed until recently. Widely referenced and very influential, too, are his conceptual contributions, including the value dimensions he identified and used to situate each country in a two-dimensional cultural map.”

Example of Inglehart-Welzel Cultural Map

“This is a great loss to tens of thousands around the globe,” tweeted Harvard’s Yilmaz Esmer in response to Inglehart’s death, “but the monumental gift he left behind, the WVS, will continue to serve academics, policymakers, students and others for many, many decades to come.”

In addition to The Silent Revolution: Changing Values and Political Styles among Western Publics from 1977, some of his most celebrated books include 2003’s Rising Tide: Gender Equality in Global Perspective and 2004’s Sacred and Secular: The Secularization Thesis Revisited, both written with Norris; Modernization, Cultural Change and Democracy: The Human Development Sequence, written in 2005 with WelzelCulture Shift in Advanced Industrial Society (1990); and Modernization and Postmodernization: Cultural, Economic and Political Change in 43 Societies (1997).

Inglehart’s contributions were increasingly honored in the last two decades. He was named a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (2009) and of the American Academy of Political and Social Science (2006). He received honorary degrees from Uppsala University in Sweden (2006), the Free University of Brussels (2010), and Leuphana University in Lueneburg, Germany (2012). In addition to the Skytte Prize, Inglehart received the Mattei Dogan Prize from International Political Science Association and the Helen Dinerman Prize from World Association of Public Opinion Research, both in 2014, and the Virginia A. Hodkinson Research Prize in 2005.

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