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Renowned social scientist Albert O. Hirschman, whose highly influential work in economics and politics in developing countries has had a profound impact on economic thought and practice in the United States and beyond, died at the age of 97 on December 10 at Greenwood House in Ewing Township, N.J. Hirschman was Professor Emeritus in the School of Social Science at the Institute for Advanced Study, where he had served on the Faculty since 1974.
“Albert Hirschman developed innovative methods for promoting economic and social growth through his study of the intellectual underpinnings of economic policies and political democracy,” said Robbert Dijkgraaf, Director and Leon Levy Professor at the Institute. “An impassioned observer who sought to understand the world as well as change it, Albert will be sorely missed by the Institute community and by the international community at large where his voice has influenced and guided advancement for more than half a century.”
Over the course of his long and extraordinarily productive career, Hirschman earned a reputation for progressive, lucid and brilliantly argued contributions to economics, the history of ideas and the social sciences. He explored a vast range of topics, inspired by the complexity of human behavior and social reality rather than by traditional economic models. He applied a subtle and iconoclastic perspective to reappraising conventional wisdom, resulting in original work that was a constant stimulus to critical thought in the social sciences. In a 1993 interview with Carmine Donzelli, Hirschman noted, “The idea of trespassing is basic to my thinking. Attempts to confine me to a specific area make me unhappy. When it seems that an idea can be verified in another field, then I am happy to venture in this direction. I believe this is a simple and useful way of discovering ‘related’ topics.”
Born in Berlin on April 7, 1915, Hirschman left Germany in 1933 for France, where he studied economics, finance and accounting. In 1935, he received a one-year fellowship at the London School of Economics. From London he went to Barcelona to fight in the Spanish Civil War, saying, “I could not just sit and look on without doing anything.”
He completed his studies in Italy at the University of Trieste, where he received a doctorate in economics in 1938. Racial laws enacted by Mussolini compelled Hirschman to return to Paris, where he produced his first economic writings and reports, marking the beginning of a prolific publication record. In his numerous books and articles since that time, he continued to explore the complex relationships between economics, politics, social structures, values and behavior.
Hirschman volunteered for service in the French Army and was enlisted in 1939. With the collapse of the French Army in 1940, he fled to the south of France. There he met Varian Fry, an American who had come to Marseille to organize a rescue operation to try to save the lives of endangered refugees, including Marc Chagall, Max Ernst, André Breton and Marcel Duchamp. Fry needed a close assistant, and he found one in Hirschman, whom Fry dubbed “Beamish” for his unfailing optimism during this especially dark and dangerous time. Hirschman traded currency on the black market, obtained forged documents and passports, devised ways to transmit messages by concealing strips of paper in toothpaste tubes and arranged for ships to transport—often illegally—many of the refugees. He personally explored escape routes over the Pyrenees into Spain. Eventually, the police found Beamish’s trail, so Hirschman joined the refugee flow across the mountains. By the time the operation closed down in September 1941, when the French expelled Varian Fry, his group had helped some 2,000 people escape from France. The United States government recognized the Varian Fry group in 1991 for its heroic accomplishments.
Hirschman immigrated to the United States in 1941 with the help of a Rockefeller Foundation fellowship at the University of California, Berkeley. At Berkeley, he met and married Sarah Chapro, a fellow European émigré who was earning her master’s degree in French literature. In March 1943, Hirschman enlisted in the U.S. Army and was sent to North Africa and Italy as part of the Office of Strategic Services and served as an interpreter for a German general in one of the earliest World War II criminal trials. With the war’s end, the Hirschmans settled in Washington, where Albert worked for the Federal Reserve Board on European reconstruction, focusing on new initiatives within the Marshall Plan agency.
In 1952, they moved to South America, where Hirschman worked as an economic adviser to the country of Colombia. The subsequent four years there inspired his vision of economic development as a sequential and unbalanced process. In Colombia, he encountered a major intellectual challenge: not so much the problem of poverty itself, but questions about the reasons for poverty and the search for strategies to diminish its effects. This led to Hirschman’s growing realization that economics needed to draw on moral imperatives and goals as well as on a complex and ever-changing reality. Hirschman returned to the United States in 1956 and began his academic career, which included positions at Yale, Columbia and Harvard Universities. In 1974, he became a Professor at the Institute, where he joined Clifford Geertz in creating the School of Social Science. He became Professor Emeritus in 1985. Among his pioneering books are The Strategy of Economic Development (1958); Journeys Toward Progress: Studies of Economic Policy-Making in Latin America (1963); Exit, Voice and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations and States (1970); The Passions and the Interests: Political Arguments for Capitalism before Its Triumph (1977); and The Rhetoric of Reaction: Perversity, Futility, Jeopardy (1991). Throughout his career, he authored dozens of illuminating essays, which provided critical commentary on economic change and growth in Latin America as well as on the shifting landscape of the social sciences.
It was at the Institute that he and Professor Geertz created a unique forum for the social sciences. In seeking to bridge the divides between increasingly professionalized disciplines, they favored a more “interpretive style,” a term which eventually acquired multiple meanings—not all of them consistent with Hirschman and Geertz’s original purpose to explore the interaction between culture, politics and economics. “There is no doubt,” says Jeremy Adelman, Princeton University historian and author of a forthcoming biography of Hirschman, “that Hirschman’s time at the Institute allowed him to become one of the great sages of our times. His unusual background, combination of intellectual traditions and ironic disposition were combined to yield some of the classic works of the social sciences.”
Joan Wallach Scott, Harold F. Linder Professor in the School of Social Science, added, “Albert’s time at the Institute not only advanced his own work, but had a remarkable effect on the scholars who came into contact with him. His generosity, his wry humor and vivid intelligence, his gift for sociability and his genuine interest in the thoughts of others inspired generations of social scientists to think outside the boundaries of the received wisdom in their fields.”
Hirschman was widely recognized for his work and was the recipient of many prizes and honors, including the Talcott Parsons Prize for Social Science, presented by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1983; the Kalman H. Silvert Award of the Latin American Studies Association in 1986; the Toynbee Prize in 1997; the Thomas Jefferson Medal of the American Philosophical Society in 1998; and the Benjamin E. Lippincott Award of the American Political Science Association in 2003. In 2007, the Social Science Research Council established an annual prize in Hirschman’s honor. The Global Development and Environment Institute at Tufts University selected Hirschman as a recipient of the 2013 Leontief Prize for Advancing the Frontiers of Economic Thought for his critical role in crossing disciplines to forge new theories and policies to promote international development. In honor of Hirschman’s exceptional contributions to economic thought, the Institute created the Albert O. Hirschman Professorship in the School of Social Science in 1998.
Hirschman was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Philosophical Society and the National Academy of Sciences and was named a Distinguished Fellow of the American Economic Association. He was a foreign member of the Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei and a Corresponding Fellow of the British Academy. He received the Order of San Carlos from Colombia in 1995, the National Order of the Southern Cross from Brazil in 2000, conferred by his long-time friend and collaborator, President Fernando Henrique Cardoso and the Order of Bernardo O’Higgins from Chile in 2005.
Hirschman is survived by his daughter, Katia Salomon of Paris; two sons-in-law, Alain Salomon and Peter Gourevitch; four grandchildren, Lara Salomon Pawlicz, Grégoire Salomon and Alex and Nick Hirschman Gourevitch; nine great grandchildren, Hannah, Rebecca, Isaac, Eva, Rachel, Olivia, Ezra, Theodore and Zackary; and a sister, Eva Monteforte of Rome. He was predeceased by a daughter, Lisa Hirschman Gourevitch, in 1999, and by his wife of 70 years, Sarah Hirschman, founder of People & Stories/Gente y Cuentos, in January of 2012.