Norman Schofield, 1944-2019

Tributes paid to an expert on the theory and practice of democratic politics whose ‘intellectual brilliance’ was matched by a strong ‘sense of scholarly camaraderie’

November 7, 2019
Norman Schofield

A scholar who pioneered the application of mathematics to the study of voter behaviour in elections has died.

Norman Schofield was born on the Isle of Bute, Scotland in 1944 and studied mathematics and physics at the University of Liverpool. He began his career as a fellow in the department of mathematics at the University of Essex (1969-70) and then became a lecturer in the department of government (1970-76). His years at Essex included a visiting lectureship at Yale University and concluded with a PhD on “Mathematical Theories of Collective Behaviour” (1976), which secured him a position as associate professor of government at the University of Texas at Austin (1976-79).

After working in Texas, Professor Schofield returned to Essex as reader in economics (1979-86) but then moved for the rest of his life to Washington University in St Louis, Missouri, eventually as William Taussig professor of political economy as well as professor of political science and of economics.

A strong advocate of social choice theory, which explores how individual preferences come together to yield often unstable and dysfunctional collective results, Professor Schofield travelled everywhere from Azerbaijan to Mexico, from Israel to Italy, to witness elections. As a result, he was able to transform our understanding of how democratic politics works, and particularly how institutional factors affect outcomes, in books such as Multiparty Government: The Politics of Coalition in Europe (with Michael Laver, 1990), The Spatial Model of Politics (2008), The Political Economy of Democracy and Tyranny (2009) and Leadership or Chaos: The Heart and Soul of Politics (with Maria Gallego, 2011). He also won the William H. Riker Prize in political science in 2002. The citation referred to “his fundamental work in ‘pure’ theory” which “demonstrated the generic instability of political processes” and was later developed “through extremely imaginative use of his theoretical insights in sustained empirical analyses of political coalitions and constitutional politics”.

When she arrived at Washington University in 1997, recalled Sunita Parikh, now associate professor of political science, she was already aware of Professor Schofield’s “towering reputation in political science and was intimidated by both his intellectual brilliance and his tendency not to suffer fools, gladly or otherwise. But he couldn’t have been more welcoming…The sense of community and scholarly camaraderie Norman created was almost unique in my academic experience. And most of all, it was enormous fun.”

Professor Schofield died on 12 October and is survived by his wife Liz, three children and three grandchildren.

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