Neil Smelser (1958)


Neil Smelser passed away on Monday, October 2, at the age of 87. He was one of the most distinguished sociologists to have walked the earth. Educated at Harvard and Oxford, he came to Berkeley in 1958 and retired in 1994. During that time he occupied that very rare and prestigious position of University Professor. He was the author of many classic treatments in comparative history, collective behavior, economic sociology, higher education and psychoanalysis. Legions of students will remember his wise teaching and solicitous mentoring and will mourn his passing.

Contributions to the Neil J. Smelser Graduate Student Support Fund can be sent to Michael Schneider, Department of Sociology, 410 Barrows Hall, UC Berkeley, CA 94720. Or you can contribute online via this link:


From Alessandro Ferrara. Deeply saddened by the news of Neil Smelser's passing, memories of my hours spent in conversation with him in Barrows Hall come to my mind. The enfant-prodige who already in his twenties co-authored a classic with Parsons and later left a mark on so many fields of sociology, the prominent academic, the explorer of cross-disciplinary boundaries deep down was a marvelous, warm and supportive mentor. I was a teaching assistant for his “methods” class in the early 1980's and later had him as chair of my dissertation committee in 1984. My topic – Rousseau as the inventor of the idea that self-identity can be a source of moral and political normativity and that an identity's potential for playing such a role rests on its capacity for being authentic – was not exactly his cup of tea. Yet he perfectly grasped what I was trying to do, in response to a wave of then dominant neoconservative cultural criticism. Neil promptly read and generously commented on the chapters that I would submit to him,  always offered encouragement, recognition of my efforts, constructive criticism, animated by an exemplary “generativity” – the disinterested interest for the unfolding of the creative effort of someone else. Neil's genuine supportiveness, broadness of interests and unpretentious style of supervision struck a deep chord in me. Over the years, my career developed in Europe and, after a while, in political philosophy. Our contacts became more sporadic, but the legacy of his way of inhabiting the intellectual and academic world remained an unequalled  role-model for me. I'm forever grateful to him and trust he will be missed by everyone as one of the greatest sociologists of his generation.

From Gary T. Marx. When learning of the unexpected death of a mentor, words of sorrow can never adequately communicate the sense of loss. But written memories can offer trace elements of the specialness and love the person inspired. These remarks are offered in that spirit and in the good fortune to have had Neil as a teacher and friend for 57 years.

If we are among the very fortunate, sometime in life we are inspired and gently guided by a person of extraordinary insight, character, competence and kindness. Neil Smelser was such a person for legions of students and colleagues in higher education. His unselfish dedication to individuals and hallowed institutions set the bar as high, and at times it seemed even higher, than was humanely possible.

Such persons by their deeds and the simple act of being, help others find their own path, uplift the human spirit and create and sustain our highest civilizational ideals. While I profited intellectually from other mentors, their lessons were largely practical, professional and impersonal. Not so with Neil, who was a role model both personally and professionally.

Neil was the engineer on a very long train whose antecedents are deep in Greek history. The train continually evolves with each new crop of engineers. Georg Simmel has written of the "irredeemable gratitude" felt toward the gift giver. This applies to what one feels toward the mentor who offers his or her intellectually and morally powerful sensibilities and insights to guide a career and a life.

Awareness that such gifts cannot be directly reciprocated, deepens the indebtedness. Yet reciprocation is possible by doing for our students (whether those in the class room or those reached through writing) what Neil did with such skill and grace --passing on the values, sentiments, style, method, substance and even love of what he was given, enhanced by his own experiences and creativity. The giver is paid back in knowing that what he or she offers is a gift that keeps on giving, as links are added to the chain.

Wordsworth tells us that we should not grieve for the splendor in the grass, nor for the glory of the flower, but rather seek strength in what remains behind. Yet we can also gain strength in what lies ahead that we will never know.

We pay back those who have given us so much by passing it on. As teachers we are rewarded in knowing that through our students and their students ad infinitum some of what we give seeps into the culture and geometrically trickles across generations --whether in direct interaction or to those we don’t know who encounter our work.

From J. Herman Blake. Although he was my professor and also chaired my dissertation committee, my most compelling memories of Neil Smelser are as a friend and unequivocal supporter of my administrative career.  My first encounter with him was in a graduate course in contemporary sociological theory in 1961. To increase my understanding I visited with him during office hours to discuss every aspect of the course—his lectures, the readings and the small group discussions he led. The academic and intellectual perspectives opened me to a world beyond my imagination.  They continue to guide me—more than 5 decades later.

In 1966 I was appointed to the faculty of the new University of California campus in Santa Cruz.  As a friend and mentor Neil helped me critically analyze the multiple opportunities that quickly opened. The University presented me with a unique opportunity—create a new academic institution with the monumental challenge of infusing new content and a broader range of students into the traditional academic values and goals of liberal education.

Neil’s piercing questions and astute observations were clarifying because of their intuitive insights.  His comments led me to accept the offer to lead Oakes College at the Santa Cruz campus of the University. 

Neil was the first social scientist appointed University Professor.  This extraordinary position meant he could teach on any of the nine campuses of the University of California with full support from the Office of the President.  In one of our conversations he made an amazing offer. He proposed to spend a term at Oakes College with a dual responsibility.  Primarily he would counsel and advise individual faculty of the College—regardless of their discipline—critiquing their scholarship and research.  Secondly he would join me in co-teaching an undergraduate course on social change and collective behavior.  We would combine social theories with my research in grassroots communities and inner cities in California.  It was an exceptional statement of confidence and respect for the new college.

Faculty were inspired by his individual consultations with them—his advice on their research and scholarship, as well as recommendations about publishing.  Students became engaged in our course realizing the approach placed significant emphasis on their active involvement in the learning process.  Neil Smelser exemplified how a great university can substantively change without compromising its intellectual and academic values.

In my current research in isolated and rural communities of Gullah and Geechee people in the islands along the coast of South Carolina and Georgia I still sense the presence of Neil Smelser. In a recent conference presentation on social organization and sustainability of Gullah Geechee communities in post-Reconstruction years, I found my observations guided by intuitive understandings of the “pattern variables.” 

“Neil was one of the most distinguished sociologists to have walked the earth” (Michael Burawoy).  It cannot be said any better.

From Jeffrey Alexander. My respect for Neil as a thinker was enormous, my gratitude to him as a teacher and mentor great, and my personal affection real and strong. He was a model for me throughout my career -- how an academic should comport himself, and, at some distance, a father figure and friend. As I watched him grow older, I got a lot of satisfaction from knowing that he had lived a wonderful life, the one he wanted, filled with personal achievements and untold contributions to people he nurtured and institutions he loved.
From Tina Smelser (originally written for Neil's retirement from Berkeley in 1994)
As we honor the distinguished career of my dad,                                                                              
I feel very proud, but I also feel sad
In my mind, he and Berkeley have been one and the same;
University of California was like his middle name!
His career here and my life cover the same exact span-
Nine months after he started was when my life began!
Indeed an era is approaching a close,
so I pay this brief tribute to him as he goes
His success in the world of his work is quite clear,
I’d rather speak of some things that to me are more dear
As I started composing the memories came flowing,
of different stages of life from when up I was growing
Like Sundays in Golden Gate Park when we rented old bikes,
or summers in the Grand Canyon taking long, dusty hikes
Night games at Candlestick could get mighty cold,
and I didn’t much appreciate them when I wasn’t that old
He’d laugh when I’d say, “Dad, I hope they don’t tie”,
but I’m a Giants fan now ‘til the day that I die!
I remember sitting in the living room, following the librettos,
Of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas
He liked the word games-French and English- that I liked to play
On Wednesdays and Sundays as we drove ‘cross the bay
He once gave me a T-shirt which made me feel I was bright,
it said on it, “Punsters of the World Unite!”
Country music wasn’t “cool” among peers that I had,
but I loved it, and still do, ‘cause it’s part of my dad
His culinary talents are not to be missed,
with mashed potatoes at Christmas on top of the list
He gave me roots in America, and at the same time the chance,
to spend some vacations in England and France
Vicarious fame I sometimes can feel,      
when someone says, “Smelser? Are you related to Neil”?
Of course it’s not always easy having a father so great
That sense of “having to live up to” can be a burdensome weight
Still, with him and Sharin in Berkeley, it’s like everything’s OK,
And like something is missing when they go away…
Life just isn’t the same with Dad being gone
But through his family and students, his spirit lives on


From Claude Fischer. I will add another angle to Neil Smelser, the scholar, teacher, and leader of the discipline. He was a consummate political actor--in the best sense of the term. In the midst of conflict and tension, Neil would sense the common ground and direct the the deliberations, gently, calmly, and thoughtfully, to that common ground. He was a masterful diplomat and negotiator who used his skills for the common good. Would that the world had more such like him.

From Mark Peterson. Neil was indeed a great friend of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Scholars in Health Policy Research Program, a scholarly superstar who simply reveled in spending time and working with Scholars from all three disciplines.  And he just kept on working, writing, and publishing with a sense of intellectual passion that rivaled anyone in the academy.  Neil was also a close personal friend of my in-laws (my late father-in-law, Julius Margolis, had been a colleague at Berkeley many years ago)--I am thankful to the Scholars program for giving me the opportunity to get to know him as well, and the opportunity to rekindle stories from those times.

From Ben Handel. I interacted with Neil as an RWJF Scholar at Berkeley during my two years in the program. Neil was always so much fun to interact with, and really gave the seminar series we had together a lot of enthusiasm. Neil had an amazingly broad perspective on issues related to health care, and helped me understand many important concepts, which was not simple, since he was a sociologist and I am an economist. He was such an incredible scholar and person, and really lit up any room he was in. It was a great privilege to get to know Neil and spend so much time with him.

From William Dow. I had the privilege of co-teaching with Neil the Health and Social Science Research seminar for the last several years of the RWJF postdoc program.  I learned more and more every year that we taught it together.  He turned it into that unicorn seminar that many of us thought we would have in graduate school but rarely happens -- deep, interdisciplinary discussions about research, policy, and life.  What a contribution to so many cohorts of scholars.

From Mary Waters: I have known Neil for 38 years and he was a wonderful teacher, advisor and friend.  I took a class from him, worked as his RA, and he was a terrific advisor on my dissertation committee.  I think he was most pleased with me in grad school when he found out that one of my summer jobs was teaching computer programming to little kids at the Lawrence Hall of Science, and his daughter Sarah was in my class.  He always went back to that experience as a special bond between us. It was in the years after Berkeley that I got to know Neil as a good friend.  We overlapped on many committees at various institutions, especially at Russell Sage and Guggenheim.  I watched him lead scholars across many disciplines with his characteristic low key, kind, yet firm style. I learned so much from him.  Neil was a true intellectual, with a quick and wide ranging mind.  I enjoyed spending time with him and Sharin over the years and enjoyed his sense of humor and warm good cheer.  I will miss him very much.

From Alberto Martinelli. I was deeply moved by the news of Neil Smelser’s death. I knew him well. He was the chair of my Ph.D. Committee in 1975 and later on a wise colleague and a gentle friend. We collaborated on various grounds, the Economy and Society reader, the International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, the Handbook of Economic Sociology and in the activities of the International Sociological Association.

Neil has been a great intellectual figure, with a broad spectrum of research interests, truly innovative ideas, keen sociological imagination. He was also a special educator and as mentor for many, an active institution builder and defender of sociology as a science and of the sociological community of scholars, a sincere liberal in his staunch defense of the freedom of thought and speech. His contribution to sociology, social science and contemporary culture in general will last for long time.

From Lyn Spillman. From our first casual conversation about my dissertation, in the Stephens Hall courtyard, to our last face-to-face meeting in the lobby of a San Francisco ASA, with professional chat and news of his travels and grandchildren,  Neil’s stalwart and kind presence in my life over thirty years was a happy gift.  He was a lovely man, and I’ll miss him.

Thirty years of support and friendship leaves a lot of memories. Amazingly, there’s not one upsetting memory among them. As a dissertation advisor, Neil may not have realized how much it meant to find his long letters of careful reflections in my mail so promptly after I’d given him something to read.  He was balanced, undogmatic, open, interested, and supportive. Never unduly directive, he didn’t create “Smelser students,” but rather helped us become scholars in ourselves. Yet years later I would be surprised to realize– sometimes embarrassingly late–  that Neil had pioneered the scholarship generating some new idea of mine.

But that was the least of it. I also remember the years of advice and reassurance about early-career insecurities, when I could always turn to him with my latest worry about navigating the system, or my latest request for letters. (Now, it looks to me like a lot of hand-holding; but back then, it was sustaining, and I know it might well have made the difference between swimming and sinking).  And later, as he plunged into his active retirement, I always enjoyed hearing the latest enthusiastic accounts of his next book, his keen travels, and the grandchildren who delighted him.

To me, Neil seemed amazingly unpretentious. If it had been left to him, I would never have known what a significant figure he is in twentieth century sociology.  Yet, looking back at all he did, he must have been a professional virtuoso. Occasionally, he might mention some obligation to travel– on the program committee for ISA, or to Berlin to give the Georg Simmel Lectures,  or to a National Academy of Sciences meeting. Or he might mention an acquaintance from his long tenure in the rarefied circles of Guggenheim or SSRI, or directorship of CASBS. Or he might mention a project he was particularly engaged in– like a national report on terrorism, or a plan for the UC system in the coming century. The Toronto meeting concluding his presidency of the ASA was a high point for both of us. Yet all this was a tiny fraction of all he contributed to the academy, mostly behind the scenes.

He was similarly unpretentious about his scholarship. But ultimately, it is his scholarship we should remember most;  the fact that he treated his retirement as a happy opportunity to write more books reminds us how important it was to him.  His contributions covered a vast terrain, because he was always pleased to puzzle over a new problem, or rethink an earlier position. We could talk about favorites for a long time, and we all have our particular interests. But Neil wrote a lot that any sociologist can profit from, whatever their interests. I remember his particular delight in The Odyssey Experience, about transformation in daily life. I think every sociologist should read “The Rational and the Ambivalent in the Social Sciences” (ASR 1998). I think every student should read Problematics of Sociology, for a lucid and balanced map of our field. Neil’s wise reflections on the scope and inherent tensions of the discipline, and the forces that shape it, are explored in more depth in  Getting Sociology Right: A Half-Century of Reflections, which includes the classic “Sociology as Science, Humanism and Art”– another required reading. I’m grateful, not only for his support and friendship through the years, but also for the distinctive voice he offers sociology.

From Lois West. Thank you, Dr. Smelser.  I never called him by his first name nor would I have.  He was the quintessential mentor and professional who genuinely liked and encouraged women students (too rare a quality in academia I found).  For my Reagan-era cohort he was our first research methods professor.  I have always been grateful to him for having us read and critique a breadth of classical sociologists, Emile Durkheim, Max Weber, Sigmund Freud, as well as sharing his struggles and blocks with his own higher education work.  His comments on our analyses were trenchant, thorough and always typewritten which I appreciated over others frequent brevity of handwritten marginalia.  After my orals exam, he awarded me a white Styrofoam cup that he had decorated with ink drawings he created while we all spoke.  I wish I had kept it.  He gave me more typewritten pages for my dissertation and advised me on navigating university politics—“Raise your voice. Yell and slam your fist to get their attention.”  That surprised me but I got the message.  He wrote me positive, supportive and much needed letters of recommendation for a sociology professor job and for tenure, and I followed his work as ASA president and always appreciated it.  He was irreplaceable and I will miss him.  Thank you, Dr. Smelser.

From Jeffrey Prager. I am saddened to learn of the death of Neil Smelser, an important mentor and significant influence on my life and career.  Learning this news has prompted many memories of my time with Neil that I would like to share.

Neil was my first instructor, offering the Introductory Sociological Theory to in-coming graduate students.  This was in 1969.  Many of us were drawn to Sociology largely because of its close intellectual connections with the contemporary politics of the time.  Few, I believe, entered graduate school to become professional Sociologists; in fact, as hard as the idea may now sound, most of us had not even considered the professional consequences of graduate training.  It was not surprising, then, when Neil introduced us to sociological theory, he being a student of Talcott Parsons and his action theory, not only were Neil’s presentations nearly impossible to understand but most of us were convinced of their irrelevance.  I think I really understood almost nothing of the class because I was so preoccupied with the political struggles at the time. [I date my arrival at Berkeley as post-People's Park and pre-Cambodia]  One distinct memory was when one of my classmates prefaced his question to Neil with “As a Marxist revolutionary.....,” and many of us took great pleasure in our comrade’s audacity.  That year, Neil decided to require oral examinations with each of us rather than to have a written assessment.  Not only was I at a loss at how to study for such an exam but, though I passed the class respectably, I think my oral performance left much to be desired.  Neil asked me about my understanding of the dialectic.  Even on my own terms, I probably should have understood it better but he was searching for the idea of an ever-changing dynamic in which as one side of the dialectic becomes stronger, the other becomes weaker.  Almost 50 years after being confronted with his question, I still find myself often pondering it.  It is certainly ironic or, in psychoanalytic terms, perhaps over-determined that, as an instructor myself, sociological theory has been my deepest professional commitment for the past thirty years or so.  I routinely teach Sociological Theory and Contemporary Theory to both undergraduates and graduate students.

Partly because of that confidence-shattering experience of the first year, I kept my distance from Neil as a graduate student. Some years later, I finally screwed up my courage to invite him to be a member of my dissertation committee to which he readily agreed.  William Kornhauser was my Chair because the dissertation fell squarely under the purview of political sociology, though Neil’s work on historical sociology also made him an appropriate choice.  My progress on the thesis was slow, as I think nearly everybody else’s was as well, but during the course of that time, I met with Neil only a few times.  His obligations were intensifying both in terms of his professional visibility and also because of his administrative acumen.  He was the only person I have met who used his time as Chair of the Department to collect data on the Departmental search for an Assistant Professor and use it to publish a book on Affirmative Action at the University.  Instead of regular meetings with him, I would submit to him a completed chapter.  He told me he preferred not to meet to discuss the chapter but he would provide me with written comments.  Before too much time passed, I would receive back from him a paragraph or two of comments on his thoughts on the chapter.  Though more impersonal than I would have liked, it was a model both of impressive efficiency on his part and also an extremely useful teaching technique.  I was able to read over and over his comments and, in time, absorb their import.  They were always extremely useful.

The most memorable moment, however, was when, after several years of my teaching at UCLA, I returned to the Department to meet with him.  I told him then that I had decided to enter into a full psychoanalytic training program in Los Angeles to better learn the field for my academic research.  In a genuinely spontaneous outburst of support, Neil said “Finally!, I am a role model for someone.”  He was genuinely pleased by my decision and extremely supportive. From then on, when talking to me, or talking of me to others, he would say he was the Chair of my dissertation committee.  I never had the courage to correct him on his misimpression.  He read my Ph.D. Thesis from the Southern California Psychoanalytic Institute with great enthusiasm.  When I published a version of that as my second book, Presenting the Past, Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Misremembering, he provided a blurb for its publication which was wonderful if not excessive in its praise.  I felt I was rewarded both by letters he would write on my behalf and also his invitation to contribute to his Handbook of the Social and Behavioral Sciences an entry on The Psychology of Collective Memory.  I think I rightly concluded that the category itself was created with me in mind as its author.

Still, Neil forever remains my teacher.  One article in particular, written with his own San Francisco analyst Robert Wallerstein, a leading intellectual light in the field of psychoanalysis and an important figure in the psychoanalytic movement, has continued to haunt me.  It is a brilliant article—whose title right now escapes me but for which I am committed now to re-read—written as a cautionary theoretical tale of the dangers of using psychoanalytic theory and ideas for sociological analysis.  They carefully dissect the basic epistemological presumptions of each to show only the narrowest of possibilities for integration between the two fields.  The essay illustrated, first, how different Neil’s way of thinking was from mine—he was far more dispassionate and analytical than me in a philosophy of social science kind of way—and how muchit constrained me from trying to achieve the kind of integration I aspired to.  There came a point, many years after reading it, that I almost consciously decided to defy the article's warnings and to begin to develop a kind of psychoanalytic sociology that, to this day, I’m not sure he would approve of.  My article “Healing from History,” I think marks my rebellion, however limited it was, against my teacher.  But I continue often to be reminded of his importance in shaping my thought and career when, with nearly every new publication of mine and with every comment of praise for my work, Neil and this article comes to mind.  He now has been firmly lodged within me in the form of my own self-criticism, a super-egoist warning not to be too pleased because the flaws in my own research are known to me and could easily be discovered by others. 

So, with his death, the question I now ask is whether I will be personally emancipated from his constant authoritative presence.  Will I experience his death as a kind of an Oedipal victory? Will my inchoate albeit unfounded concerns about retaliation lessen?  Of course, I would like to think so.  But, in fact, I think he will always remain firmly lodged within me as an example of an extraordinarily powerful intellect who sets a standard for my own scholarship that I will never achieve.  I will miss knowing of Neil’s presence on this earth.  However, I don’t worry about the memory of his example disappearing because, since I began teaching, I have passed that on to my students.  It is impossible to imagine that changing now.  

From Gail Kligman. Neil chaired my dissertation committee. As a graduate student, his support was steadfast, even when he pushed me in unanticipated directions. I am indebted to him for his consistent encouragement to be receptive to new ideas as well as interdisciplinary perspectives, and to embrace the challenges that so often accompany them. He urged me to approach research with an open mind, but with an equally open critical eye. His influence on my own approach to pedagogy in general,  to mentoring undergraduate and graduate students, has been unparalleled. Neil has left a towering legacy not only to the department to which he dedicated most of his academic career, but to the University of California more broadly, to sociology across the globe, and to the promotion of scholarship as well as the practice of psychoanalysis.

From Victoria Bonnell. Neil Smelser was a much admired colleague and friend. He had a brilliant mind and a big heart. Watch Harry Kreisler's interview with Neil in 2005 to grasp his intellectual range and depth as well as his humanity (

Neil’s modesty and unpretentiousness belied his prodigious accomplishments.  A Harvard undergraduate and Rhodes scholar (1952-1954), he returned to Harvard for graduate school and by 1956 had coauthored Economy and Society with Talcott Parsons.  He came to the Berkeley sociology department in 1958 where he remained for thirty-six years until he left to direct the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford, a position he held until 2001.

The author of a vast number of books and articles, Neil had at his command multiple fields of inquiry.  His erudition brought him preeminence in many different subfields of sociology, and he made original contributions to a great many subjects, ranging from economic sociology to social theory and a lot in between.  It would be fair to say that most trained sociologists over the past sixty years have at some point encountered and engaged with his ideas.  And to add to the miracle of it all, Neil had a dual career as both a sociologist and a psychoanalyst.

Neil formed deep and lasting personal relationships with colleagues, students, and staff.  I know because he took me under his wing when I came to Berkeley.  He was chairing the department when I was hired, and after I joined the faculty, he brought me into his inner circle.  We were not an obvious match. In the politically charged atmosphere of the Berkeley sociology department in the mid and late 1970s, Neil and I had found ourselves at odds over a number of scholarly and other issues. Yet he invited me to be part of his intellectual world and he opened doors for me that changed my life.

Not long after my arrival at Berkeley in 1976, he invited me to join an inter-departmental faculty group designed to explore new theoretical perspectives.  The group, which assembled monthly for dinner at the Faculty Club, was established by Neil in the 1960s under the auspices of the Institute of International Studies.  When I first joined, all the participants were tenured and the anthropologist Elizabeth Colson was the sole female member of the group.  The composition grew more diverse in the years to come but the departments of history and anthropology continued to supply most of the participants.  Discussions were exuberant, sometimes passionate but always cordial and without rancor. (I recall a thrilling and contentious conversation about Pierre Bourdieu’s Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste.)  This was academia as I had never experienced it before and haven’t since.  Neil was the catalyst for the group and its inspiration—he selected the participants, the menus, and the topics, and he presided over the meetings.  At some point in the late 1980s, he invited me to co-chair and when he retired, I took over.  But the seminar survived only for a few more years.  Neil’s departure and changing academic agendas dispersed the group.

Neil believed in the mission of the university and its inclusiveness. In the Berkeley sociology department, Arlie Hochschild, Nancy Chodorow, Ann Swidler, and I—among others—were beneficiaries of his tremendous support for women scholars at a time when there were relatively few of us on the faculty.  Many honors and distinctions flowed to Neil over his long career. He richly deserved the recognition and carried it with grace.  He will be remembered as much for his kindness and generosity of spirit as for his stunning intellect and devotion to the academy.  A great man has passed away.

From Arlie Hochschild. Neil Smelser died October 2, 2017, at 87, leaving behind an extraordinary legacy.  He created an astonishing career in sociology, became a major pillar of sociology, and great contributor to sociology, and a truly great mentor, as I came to know.  A Harvard and Oxford-trained wunderkind, Neil was ultimately the author of twenty books and  thirty edited volumes.   At his death, he was about to be awarded the 38th Constantine Panunzio Distinguished Emeriti Award, offered by the U.C. system.  Neil left “active UC employment in 1994, ” Marjorie Caserio writes: "But after he retired, he  went on to write seven more books, all on vastly different topics—the odyssey, terrorism, the use of sociology to private enterprise, for example -- and twenty major research articles.  Throughout his life, Neil also held many administrative  roles—including Chair of the Sociology Department, Assistant to the President of UC, and Director of the Center for Advanced Studies in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford.

Until a person like Neil Smelser has passed from life, it is hard to appreciate the enormity of the intellectual and emotional space a person inhabits in a discipline, an institution, and  the lives of many students. For all these other great accomplishments, I know I am one of many graduate students whom he took time to mentor.  This he did through his even-tempered positive attitude, his ecumenicalism and his reassuring sense of forward motion.   “Helped” is too weak a word for what Neil did for me as a mentor. Without his support, I would have dropped out of sociology.   What  I felt was “rescued.”   Neil read my feeble papers with lightning speed and  helpful, encouraging comments.  I would disappear, not see him for months and reappear with another paper.  Again, he responded within the week and with many comments. Had he actually read so quickly something I’d struggled months to write? I wondered. Yes. He’d written two single-spaced pages of comments adding an encouraging final remark.    I remember bringing in yet another research paper on a rather minor topic — the invisible work done by the wives of foreign service officers, who represented their husbands and country in whom they saw, what they could say, how they should seem to feel and nearly everything they did.  I had shown the paper to another male professor, now deceased, who had written me “Fine, if you want to write for the Ladies Home Journal…”    Neil, on the other hand, suggested I revise the paper and send it to the Journal of Marriage and the Family which he said “had improved in recent years.”  He made this latter remark in such an off-hand way, as if he were on the journal’s side as it was improving, and as if I, like the journal, might  also be  improving, might one day have an opinion, and join the tribe.  At least I took the remark that way.  My topic didn’t fall within Neil’s areas of interest. It didn’t reflect  his conceptual approach. But Neil was far bigger than that; he never asked similarity of his students; he cared about helping us grow in the ways we seemed to need to grow.  That paper became the first I ever published. I think of it as my Neil Smelser paper, the one that got me going.  Neil had legions of students and mentees whom I’m sure have the same kind of story to tell.   So I know I speak for many former students and colleagues, when I say, “Thank you so much, Neil.  We will miss you very much and remember you always."  

From Ann Swidler. From my first days in graduate school, where Neil taught the introductory theory course, to long after I had left Berkeley and then returned, Neil was a generous, inspiring, steadying presence. I still remember much of what he taught us about theory--the difference between a strong theory that took the risk of being wrong and a weak theory that aspired to account for everything, for example. His great intellectual contributions as well as his many kindnesses have stayed with me. I remain grateful for all he gave to the discipline, the Department, and the University he loved.

From Earl Babbie.  I was saddened to learn of Neil’s passing. I had him as a professor during my graduate schooling at Berkeley. Then, I was on ASA’s EOB during Neil’s term as president. I held him in the very highest regard in both situations. He was a great sociologist and a great human being.

Here’s something I bet few people knew. Sitting around with coffee in stereofoam cups, Neil would decorate his cup with a ballpoint, turning it into a true work of art.  At one EOB (Executive Office and Budget) meeting, we auctioned off his cup with the winning bid going to ASA. Anyone who crossed paths with Neil was blessed by that and will miss him deeply now.

From Magali Sarfatti-Larson. So many will praise Neil Smelser for his work as a sociologist, unparalleled in its diversity and its breadth that I don’t know what I could write. From the first masterpiece, Social Change in the Industrial Revolution to the classic works on the sociology of economic life and the sociology of culture, to the Simmel lectures and The Faces of Terrorism and Getting Sociology Right and the amazing Odyssey Experience, I can repeat, as others undoubtedly will say, that everything Neil wrote was fundamental in any of the various fields he approached –incontournable, as the French say, which means unavoidable and indispensable.  His works were like his teaching: clear, lucid, critical, removing and resetting boundaries, daring us to go where we thought we needed to go, but with rigor, with discipline, with reason and humility, guided by painstaking research.

In times of turmoil, Neil was always the voice of reason, and he was listened to and heard. He was a great teacher and a necessary mentor, one who asked the right questions and helped us see where we were wrong, or just superficial, which is something he was not. I think of him, above all, as one of the kindest, gentlest and calmest men I have ever met. His integrity and depth as a human being and as an intellectual always reminded us of what universities are or should be, starting with Berkeley which we all loved and to which he gave so much. We all owe him so much that there is no goodbye to say, only living love and gratitude.

From Richard Weisman. Neil was Professor Smelser to me when I was a graduate student in the 1960’s. It wasn’t until some forty years later when I wrote him a note acknowledging his impact on me in my own career as an academic that he became Neil to me. I was not surprised when he wrote back that he was “still at it” seven years after his retirement.  What I said then I still believe even now that I too am retired. As a teaching assistant in his introductory course in sociology, I learned what it meant to prepare lectures that were rigorous, challenging, and yet totally captivating for their engagement with core sociological issues.  As a student in his seminar on Talcott Parsons, I learned what it was to be a committed scholar who was nevertheless open to perspectives that might challenge those commitments. Neil was someone who had much to give to his students but was never too proud to learn from them as well. When I look back at the intellectual ferment of the 1960’s, I think of Neil as one of the few scholars during that period whose vision of scholarship and embrace of teaching as a vocation never faltered.  Neil inspired me as I know he inspired others to try to live up to his high ideals in their own careers.

From Simon Frith.  When I joined the graduate school in the Sociology Department at Berkeley in 1967, fresh from doing PPE at Oxford, I knew little about sociology and nothing about the US university system.  Neil Smelser became my mentor by default.  One of the requirements of my scholarship was to be someone’s research assistant, and because of my interest in historical sociology, I chose to be Neil’s.  Not knowing any better I began by thinking I was doing him a favour and ended up, under his guidance (and inspired by Social Change in the Industrial Revolution), choosing as my PhD topic the history of working class education in 19th century Leeds.

Neil was my supervisor, initially in regular meetings, later, when I was doing the archive research, by letter (this was long before the digital age).  It’s only in retrospect that I realise his exceptional patience, grace and generosity in dealing with a student who took for granted so much of what actually made him an exceptional teacher.  My thesis was written from a Marxist perspective, and although I was influenced by Neil’s work I also wanted to challenge it.  He never showed anything but enthusiasm for this project and, indeed, always seemed to enjoy being challenged.  In teaching terms, what I learnt from him, what I have tried to apply in my own career, is the pedagogical importance of tolerance, argument and the ability to change one’s mind. 

Neil was never what is labelled a ‘charismatic’ teacher but he was an exceptionally good one.  For me he was always both genial and demanding, calm and passionate.  I was extremely lucky that he was my teacher when I was deciding what sociological scholarship could and should be.  

From Michael Kimmel. Neil chaired my dissertation committee.  (My dissertation was on tax policies in 17th century France and England.)  He actually read it and found ways to support my archival research in Paris and London.  Over beers in London, he told me that he now understood what etatisme meant in practice.  But I was never able to convince him that popular uprisings and revolutions were more rational than spasmodic emotional collective outbursts.  

From Christine Williams. I was a socialist feminist interested in psychoanalytic theory when I asked Neil to be my advisor.  People are often surprised by this.  But more than any other person, Neil taught me how to be a sociologist.  He was open-minded and fair and never dogmatic.  He encouraged me to be adventurous in my thinking.  Knowing he had my back, I developed confidence in my abilities.  My career owes everything to him.  I miss him very much.

From Miki Kashtan. I was perhaps the last student that Neil accepted as a dissertation chair, after he already retired, and I experience my years of working with him until I produced the final version of my thesis an extraordinary privilege I will never forget.

In my work, I ventured into the holy of holies: social theory. I pursued a path of critique and challenge of the foundations of sociological theory. Neil demonstrated his big spirit every step of the way. He never once asked me to say anything different from what I was trying to say, nor did he have any agenda for me about my ideas. His entire focus was on supporting me to say what I wanted to say in the best possible way. His reading of my work was generous, thorough, and affirming. His suggestions for further reading and his questions for deeper reflection exactly on target to get the most out of me that anyone could. We had extensive conversations about our similarities and differences in terms of social theory. He always engaged with care and grace, challenging me and supporting me without ever making it too clear what his own political and existential commitments were. And he also made himself open to learning from my explorations such that I was surprised one day to see one of the core ideas I engaged with and about which we had many discussions informing his annual address of the American Sociological Association, as he so openly acknowledged.

A few years ago, quite some time after I graduated, Neil and I had one final meeting in a coffee shop in Berkeley, where we shared with each other as two caring, aware, committed individuals. I sensed then that this was my last time with him, and I took in deeply his lingering sense of humor and exquisite capacity to focus on being with another person. I feel blessed with every moment of knowing him, from my first social theory class in 1990 to that very last smile and hug we shared as we parted.

From Nicolas Vaca. In 1963 I took Sociology 101, Introduction to Sociology, a class then taught by Neil Smelser.  During the final class  of the semester, two days before our final examination, Neil told the following story:  A student was preparing for a final examination and as he reviewed his extensive notes he concluded that if he worked hard enough he could reduce the voluminous notes to ten pages.  After more thought he concluded that even harder work would allow him to reduce his notes to five pages.  After more arduous work he was convinced that he could reduce them to one page.  And even more dedicated work he thought he could reduce them further to one paragraph.  The night before the final examination, he was knew he could reduce it to one word.  The following morning he walked into class, opened his blue book and began to write; but he forgot the word. For all the wonderful and positive things that Neil did for sociology, for the Department itself, for his colleagues and for his innumerable students, including me, it is not that I cannot remember the word to express it all, it is that I cannot find it.