Guillermo O'DonnellTribute to Guillermo O’Donnell

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Our dear friend and colleague Guillermo O’Donnell died yesterday afternoon in his native Buenos Aires at the age of 75, following a four-month battle against cancer.

O’Donnell was a giant in contemporary social science, known around the world for his unique intellectual creativity, his path-breaking originality, and his passion for democracies that function decently. His scholarly work on authoritarianism and democracy established his international reputation as a brilliant and seminal thinker.

Closer to home, he played a pivotal role in creating and developing the Kellogg Institute for International Studies. As Kellogg’s first academic director, he defined an exciting research agenda for the Institute and built an outstanding program of visiting fellows. At the time of his death he was professor emeritus of political science at Notre Dame and senior fellow at the Kellogg Institute.

O’Donnell’s scholarly contributions can be grouped into three phases. Early in his career, he worked primarily on the origins of authoritarianism in South America, especially in the region’s more developed countries. First published in 1973, Modernization and Bureaucratic Authoritarianism was a seminal work in understanding the origins of modern authoritarianism in Latin America.

Unlike many of his contemporaries, Guillermo recognized that this was a new kind of authoritarian rule. Again unlike his contemporaries, he also understood that this new pattern of authoritarian rule had profound theoretical implications for understanding the relationship between modernization and democracy. He subsequently wrote many important papers about the nature of authoritarianism in Latin America.

In a second phase, O’Donnell was the pioneer in anticipating the wave of transitions to democracy that began in Latin America in 1978. With remarkable prescience, when Latin America was at the zenith of authoritarian rule, he correctly and almost uniquely understood that many of the awful dictatorships then in power were likely to be transient. He studied internal contradictions within authoritarian regimes and then analyzed the wave of transitions to democracy that resulted in part from the tensions within authoritarianism that he had analyzed earlier. Once again, he opened a new research question, hugely important both theoretically and in the “real” world. His 1986 co-edited volume, Transitions From Authoritarian Rule (Johns Hopkins University Press) remains a classic. It is one of the most widely cited works in political science.

Beginning in the late 1980s, O’Donnell’s attention turned to the severe deficiencies of most democratic regimes, again with a primary focus on Latin America. While countless other individuals observed these same deficiencies, nobody matched his acuity in the theoretical analysis of new issues that revolve around these shortcomings. He coined many important concepts that remain at the core of analyses of contemporary democracy. For example, his concept “delegative democracy” refers to democratic regimes in which the president and congress are democratically elected, but in which mechanisms of accountability are fragile. He contributed seminal articles on accountability, the rule of law, and the relationship between the state and democracy. His article, “Democracy, Law and Comparative Politics” (Studies in Comparative International Development, Spring 2001), won the Luebbert Prize for the best article in comparative politics, awarded annually by the Comparative Politics section of the American Political Science Association.

As a scholar, O’Donnell always focused on great normative issues that confront contemporary humanity—how to build better democracies, how to ensure more effective rule of law and more even citizenship. In the last two decades, he achieved a judicious balance between criticizing the deficiencies of Latin American democracies while at the same time not indulging in facile criticisms that could fuel anti-democratic sentiment.

His scholarship won him wide recognition. A member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, O’Donnell won the 2003 Kalman Silvert Award for Lifetime Achievement, given every 18 months by the Latin American Studies Association. He was president of the International Political Science Association from 1988 to 1991, and also served as vice-president of the American Political Science Association from 1999 to 2000. In 2006, he won the inaugural Lifetime Achievement Award of the International Political Science Association. He was the recipient of countless other fellowships and awards, including the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship.

Indicative of the nearly global reach of O’Donnell’s work, it has been translated into Korean, Japanese, Portuguese, Chinese, and of course, English. In recent years, several leading Latin American universities awarded him honorary PhDs and other distinctions.

Throughout his career, O’Donnell posed great new theoretical questions about tremendously important developments in the contemporary world. He was a deeply learned person who always drew upon the antecedent scholarship, yet one of his extraordinary gifts was recognizing new questions and new problems that had not hitherto been addressed. He stands as one of the most important thinkers about democracy and dictatorships in the history of political science.

Scott Mainwaring
Director, Kellogg Institute for International Studies
Eugene and Helen Conley Professor of Political Science
University of Notre Dame

November 30, 2011