Nisbet, Robert (1913-96)

Paul Gottfried, Elizabethtown College


Among well-known sociologists, Robert Nisbet was almost unique in considering himself a 'conservative.' He defined this orientation not in terms of conventional American partisan affiliation but as a sociological and anthropological perspective. Nisbet viewed human relations as requiring organic relations, which he assumed to be hierarchical and communally determined. Such relations seemed to Nisbet, natural and even beneficial; and his lifelong interest in nineteenth-century social theory and his efforts to locate organicist positions among social thinkers of the left, especially Emile Durkheim, can be attributed to an attempt to substantiate his understanding of basic human relations. Nisbet also significantly viewed contemporary America as departing rapidly and perhaps irreversibly from what he considered to be a good society. This concern pervades his studies of social theory; and it is possible to interpret his emphasis on the 'conservative' origins of sociology and his attack on leveling public administration from the 1950s onward as related reference points. Against the social disintegration and social engineering he already criticizes in his early work The Quest for Community, Nisbet poses his vision of personal authority and communal hierarchy. This vision is present in Nisbet's writings, from his early studies of French counterrevolutionary thinkers through his final assaults on America in the present age.