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Amitai Etzioni, 1929-2023: Father of Communitarianism

June 5, 2023 2024

Amitai Etzioni, an Israeli-American sociologist, senior policy adviser, educator and father of the communitarianism philosophy, died May 31. He was 94.

In the 1990s, Etzioni devised a social philosophy, which he coined communitarianism, aimed at creating a happy medium between liberals and conservatives. Etzioni believed the ideology would balance individual liberties with societal responsibilities by prioritizing community, family and society over personal freedom and autonomy.

He described the genesis of his insight in a 2013 essay for The American Scholar (an essay, Etzioni said, written as his “hourglass is almost empty”):

At the end of the Reagan era, I was teaching ethics at the Harvard Business School. Preparing for my classes, I read a report showing that though young Americans felt strongly about their right to be tried by a jury of their peers, they themselves had no interest in serving on a jury. They responded, basically, “Find someone else.” I argued in class and later in my book The Spirit of Community that it is morally obscene to take and not to give, that strong rights presumed strong responsibilities, and that if young people did not serve on juries, then there would obviously be no juries of their peers.

Etzioni’s idea of placing the common good above individual rights drew criticism from liberals and conservatives, who contended it placed too much focus on collective interests at the expense of individual rights. Liberals argued communitarianism reinforced authoritarianism by giving those with power in communities control over others, and conservatives said the philosophy enforced conformity.

Amitai Etzioni and Barack Obama. (Photo: AmitaiEtzioni.org)

Nonetheless, the communitarian emphasis on civic engagement, which promoted participating in jury duty and the military, and shifting educational goals and federal spending along with various other policy ideas, drew the attention of Western leaders. Etzioni was able to share his ideas with Bill Clinton during his presidency, Barack Obama during his candidacy for presidency, Tony Blair during his time as Britain’s prime minister (Etzioni was dubbed “the father” of Blair’s ideas) and other government conduits.

To share his communitarian ideas, Etzioni founded the Communitarian Network, a non-profit organization and group of communitarians. He served as editor and founder of the organization’s publication, The Responsive Community. In addition to serving as president of the American Sociological Association in 1989, he was also the founder and president of the International Society for the Advancement of Socioeconomics, an interdisciplinary organization that emphasizes work in sociology, economics, political science and various other disciplines.

Despite his high profile, Etzioni was not entirely sure at the end of the day whether his message generated more heat than light. As he wrote in that The American Scholar essay:

But this is all mainly in the past. Since then, no matter how fiercely I huff and puff, my sails have been left luffing and my seas are becalmed. I lost the voice for translating social science findings and insights into public appeals for addressing societal problems. Thus, these days, I fume at the news, rush to my computer, and fire off another salvo. And then I fume some more because—despite my confidence that the message I have hammered out would do the world a lot of good—no one seems to be listening.

… One reason for my gradual loss of a megaphone (if you are a public intellectual or have the urge to become one, or wonder about the way ideas sprout and spread, take note) is that I violated cardinal rules of public dialogue. First, as a communitarian, I don’t fit into either the liberal or the conservative category. Hence when the media seek a pair to comment on each issue, one of each kind, there is no room left for a third position.

… More damaging was my failure to stick to my knitting. The media like public intellectuals to be specialized. Race? Henry Louis Gates. Feminism? Gloria Steinem. Congress? Norman Ornstein. Very few intellectuals have much of a voice if they do not specialize, on the academic assumption that to know more about a subject, you must cover less turf. The smaller the field, the deeper you can dig. I failed this test many times over. Time magazine labeled me the “everything expert”—and did not mean it as a compliment.

Etzioni studied many areas of sociology, including socioeconomics, social order, institutions and norms, and was president of the American Sociological Association from 1994 to 1995. He was also dedicated to implementing sociology in the real world through public policy and served as a senior policy adviser to the White House from 1979 to 1980 during Jimmy Carter’s administration.

“Amitai Etzioni does not share the academic sociologist’s typical reticence about taking an active role in the processes of societal change he studies,” Richard M. Coughlin’s 1994 profile of the president for the American Sociological Association reads. Indeed, in a professional career spanning nearly four decades and covering a broad range of topics and research questions, the common thread running through Amitai Etzioni’s life work as a sociologist has been to connect the theories and empirical findings of academic research (of others as well as his own) to policymaking, and to engage the citizenry at large.”

Etzioni was born with the name Warner Falk on January 4, 1929, in Cologne, Germany. When he was 6 years old, he and his family, who were Jewish, fled to Athens during the Holocaust. They then relocated to Palestine, and he changed his name. Etzioni went on to join the Palmach, a Jewish commando fighting force, and fought in the Israeli War of Independence.

Once the war ended, Etzioni attended an institute set up by philosopher Martin Buber before attending the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology in 1954 and a master’s degree in sociology in 1956. Etzioni then relocated to the United States (he became a citizen in 1963) and enrolled at the University of California, Berkeley, where he earned his Ph.D. in 18 months, graduating in 1958.

Beyond his work with communitarianism, Etzioni was an educator. He was a professor of international affairs and sociology at George Washington University beginning in 1980, where he also served as director of the Institute for Communitarian Policy Studies. Prior to his career at George Washington University, he worked as a professor of sociology at Columbia University from 1958 until 1978, and as the Thomas Henry Carroll Ford Foundation professor at the Harvard Business School from 1987 to 1989.

Throughout his career, Etzioni published over 100 academic papers and more than 40 books. Some of his works include his 2001 book The Monochrome Society, his 1968 book The Active Society and his 1968 work The Active Society: A Theory of Societal and Political Processes.

Etzioni earned various awards, including the John P. McGovern Award in Behavioral Sciences  and the Jeffrey Pressman Award, and received various fellowships with organizations including the Social Science Research Council and the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences. In 2001, the Federal Republic of Germany awarded him its Officer’s Cross of the Order of Merit.

Etzioni is survived by his wife, Patricia Kellogg, his sons David, Oren, Ethan and Benjamin, his stepson Cliff, his stepdaughter Tamara, 11 grandchildren and two step-grandchildren.


Read Social Science Space’s 2015 interview with Etzioni on a subject that remains pertinent to this very day: Diplomacy or Destroyers: Uncle Sam’s Freedom of Navigation Choice – Social Science Space.

Emma Richards is a student at the University of Florida studying public relations. She is the social science communications intern at Sage Publishing.

View all posts by Emma Richards

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