In This Story
Over the past year, Jack A. Goldstone, the Virginia E. and John T. Hazel, Jr. Professor of Public Policy at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University, became one of the most decorated sociologists in the nation.
In August 2022, he received the Distinguished Career in Political Sociology Award. In August 2023, he received the Ibn Khaldun Distinguished Career Award for a lifetime of outstanding contributions to comparative historical sociology. These are his second and third career achievement awards. He had previously received the Myron Weiner Award for his contributions to the field of political demography from the International Studies Association.
He also received his ninth recognition for best article, winning the Distinguished Contribution to Scholarship Article Award for the outstanding new article on Collective Behavior and Social Movements.
Over his career Goldstone has made pioneering contributions to understanding how population trends affect the politics of states, developing the “Structural-Demographic Theory” of social change. Goldstone demonstrated how population changes—by simultaneously affecting social mobility, elite competition, popular living standards, and state revenues—produce pressures for social protest and even revolutions.
The theory has been applied to understanding events ranging from the English Revolution of 1640 and the French Revolution of 1789 View) to the collapse of China’s Qing dynasty in 1910. More recently, with Peter Turchin of the Complexity Science Hub in Vienna, Austria, Goldstone applied the model to the United States, publishing a paper in November 2020 demonstrating that the pressures for political violence in the United States had become higher than at any time since the Civil War (view the report, “Welcome To The ‘Turbulent Twenties,’” in Noēma) When the U.S. Capitol was attacked the following January, Goldstone became known as someone who had predicted the turmoil on January 6th.
In addition, Goldstone is known for the argument that pre-industrial societies were not persistently poor, but that instead both European and non-European societies enjoyed periods of “efflorescence” marked by relatively high incomes, technological advances, and concentrations of achievements in arts, architecture, libraries, and science. These included not only Classical Greece and the early Roman Empire but also the Caliphates of Baghdad and Cordoba, high points in China’s Song and Qing empires, and the Dutch “Golden Age” of the 16th century.
Goldstone was an early contributor to the “California School” of historians, which reshaped the understanding of the “Great Divergence” in economic development between Europe and the rest of the world, by showing that the world’s major societies remained on a fairly even standing up through the early 18th century. It was only through a relatively late and contingent development of scientific mechanics in Great Britain that modern economic growth was able to emerge.
Goldstone came to Mason in 2003 from the University of California and promptly won several best article awards that year. During his time at Mason he has won a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship, an Andrew Carnegie Foundation Fellowship, and a Woodrow Wilson Center Fellowship. He has also been a Phi Beta Kappa Visiting Scholar, the Richard C. Holbrooke Distinguished Visitor at the American Academy in Berlin, and a visiting scholar at Chuo University in Tokyo, the University of Paris, and the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.
Goldstone’s prize-winning article on social movements (co-authored with Bert Useem of Purdue University) lays out what they call the “paradox of victory.” Through detailed case studies of protests for racial justice at Yale University and the University of Missouri, they demonstrate a principle with wide applications, namely that whether or not a social protest movement attains its goals, in terms of changes in policies or personnel, is not sufficient for success. Rather, what matters is how that victory is attained. If the protest movement is able to win over a wider public and create a consensus on the value of its goals, then its victory is likely to last.
However, if the protest movement’s actions instead alienate the wider public and provoke the hostility of important political actors, leaving a polarized political field in its wake, then it is likely to see a backlash that not only undoes its victory but leaves it worse off than before.
This happens whenever a political goal is attained not by building consensus but by one group pushing through an extreme policy as a result of a narrow victory. Two examples of the latter would be President Obama’s narrow enactment of national health insurance (“Obamacare”), which was so controversial it aided Republican victories in 2014 and 2016, and the Republican victory in overturning Roe v. Wade, which subsequently led to repeated election defeats for the Republican party.
This year Oxford University Press will bring out the second edition of Goldstone’s short guidebook: Revolutions: A Very Short Introduction. Next year, Oxford will publish Goldstone’s latest work: 12 Billion—How Population will Change the World in the 21st Century and What We Must Do to Secure Our Prosperity, Democracy, and the Environment.