Shmuel Noah Eisenstadt

1988 Balzan Prize for Sociology

Shmuel Eisenstadt has done more than any other sociologist of our time to combine sociological theory with historical and empirical research and to promote our knowledge of the uniqueness, affinities and interpenetration of ancient and modern societies in Africa, Asia, Europe and North and Latin America.

As a pupil and assistant of the illustrious Martin Buber, Shmuel N. Eisenstadt (1923 – 2010) completed in his post-doctoral studies at the London School of Economics the triangle of the three main approaches to sociology, adding to the philosophical and historical comparative studies into which he was introduced at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem the more advanced methods of empirical research into the working of contemporary society.

He earned his spurs as all empirical sociologist with his first book on The Absorption of Immigrants (1955) and in the meantime launched himself with great daring into the field of comparative sociological studies. The first product of this orientation was a work entitled From Generation to Generation (1956). It made him famous amongst Anthropologists, Sociologists and Educationalists. In this book he combined the framework of the new sociological theory promulgated by Parsons and Shils, his anthropological studies and his observations of young persons in contemporary societies with an erudite exploration of the training and the incorporation of young persons into adult roles in ancient western societies stressing the importance of peergroups in this process.

His next work marked a breakthrough in comparative sociological studies but also in Eisenstadt’s position in the academic world: Scholars in the history, the religions and literatures of different cultures began to appreciate him as a unique sociologist who had gained sufficient intimacy in their own subject matter to open new possibilities in their investigations. The Political Systems of Empires (1963) has been characterized as the most important book in comparative sociological research since Max Weber. Like Weber, Eisenstadt revealed a titanic mastery of the literature of many epochs and societies. But he went beyond Weber in the explicitness and substantive content of his main hypotheses, especially in the clarity with which the polymathy of historical learning about ancient Occidental and Mesopotamian societies, Chinese society and the development of European states in the transition from the Middle Ages to modem times was systematically ordered.

Eisenstadt’s capacious perspectives provided a place for his work on the “modernization” of the societies of Asia, Africa and Latin America which emerged from the withdrawal of the European powers from those continents. He has been a pioneer in this field of study setting it in a far wider and richer perspective than any other worker specialized on economic or political development. He published numerous works on this topic of which most were translated and published in countries all over the world: Tradition, Change and Modernity (1973), Revolution and the Transformation of Societies (1978), Patrons, Clients and Friends (1984).

From his comparative work he drew some conclusions for the construction of a macrosociological theory in The Forms of Sociology (1973), Patterns of Modernity (1987), Centre Formation-Protest Movements and Class Structure in Europe and the United States (1987). He also applied his multidimensional approach to the analysis of his own country in Transformation of Israeli Society (1985) as it has been formed through the adaptation and transformation of Biblical, medieval religion and modem secular Jewish traditions.

It is not, however, only by the breadth of his learning that Eisenstadt’s work stands out. He has been driving unrestingly into the center of the deepest problems of human existence. From his understanding of the charismatic phenomenon, inspired by his translations of Max Weber’s writings (1968) he has gone forward into a profound analysis of the multifarious relationships between conceptions of transcendental orders and earthly regimes. Most recently he has organized a series of international conferences on Karl Jaspers’ concept of “The Axial Ages” but going further than Jaspers in bringing together scholars from different civilizations in order to analyze the relationship between the cosmic and the mundane center as a fundamental condition for the development of humanity.

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