The great political sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset has passed away. His research questions and methods were similar to the comparative traditions of Max Weber and Neil Smelser. What I found most inspiring about his work was its dual focus on empiricism and significant questions. Today, so much of sociology seems like mindless empirical exercises in search of a question. As one obituary described:
Combining a clear writing style with an often unfashionable empiricism, Lipset mined the great veins of American social science that ran from Richard Hofstadter back to eminences such as Alexis de Tocqueville — with themes including individualism and the immigrant experience. Lipset's questions were big ones: Why don't Americans vote? Why have American Jews tended to assimilate in the absence of anti-Semitism?
There are many sociologists who described Lipset as a "conservative" sociologist. I disagree. Lipset was neither conservative or liberal, he was part of a tradition of pragmatists, who were skeptical of all grand, utopian theories and ideas. Like the late Edward Shils or Robert Nisbet, Lipset deeply believed in the social ordering capacity of foundational institutions, like family, religion, and community. He was skeptical of big government as a solution to micro-level problems. A perspective that has recently been articulated by sociologists who are interested in issues like educational attainment and its links to culture.