Lucian Pye - Career

Career

Early in his career, Pye worked with other political scientists to free the field from academic constraints placed upon them by the era of Senator Joseph McCarthy. In 1956, Pye joined the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Center for International Studies as a teacher in a new program, which eventually developed into a political science department, partially due to Pye's assistance. He taught political science at the M.I.T. for 35 years, particularly focusing on China and other Asian nations. M.I.T. officials said he was one of only a few scholars who studied Asian politics from a comparative standpoint, and he served as a mentor to several generations of students who went on to prominent positions in academia and government. Pye helped found the Committee on Comparatives Politics for the Social Science Research Council, along with other social scientists seeking alternative explanations for change than those offered by Marxism.

Pye became one of the pioneers in the 1950s and 1960s in developing theories about the political development and modernization of Third World nations. His primary intellectual interest was to explore the cultural differences that help explain why politics differ so greatly from one nation to another. Unlike most political scientists of his day who sought universal and overarching theories, Pye focused on specific cultures, countries and people in order to create more individualized interpretations. Richard Samuels, an M.I.T. political scientist who worked with Pye, said he helped foster a new manner of thinking in post-World War II social science by "redirected political science away from rational models of political behavior and toward things that are harder to measure and understand." Pye's approach was so novel that it often drew opposite reactions and criticism, but he nevertheless came to be considered a peer of the great Chinese experts of his generation, like John K. Fairbank of Harvard.

Pye advised the Department of State and the National Security Council in China-related matters. He also served as an advisor to Democratic presidential candidates, Senators John F. Kennedy and Henry M. Jackson, and urged both men to pursue a muscular foreign policy. He was an early proponent of the Vietnam War. Pye served as a leader, and eventually acting chairman, with the National Committee on United States-China Relations, where he helped lay the groundwork for the American table tennis team that visited China in 1971. Pye served on several private organizations in which scholars, government experts and intellectuals discussed Asia-related research and policy, including the Council on Foreign Relations, the Asia Society and the Asian Foundation.

Pye set up a scholarly center in Hong Kong. He also conducted research in Malaysia, which he used to suggest the appeal of communism in that nation came from insecurity over the pace of change. Pye also worked in Burma, where he concluded psychology was more important than economics in explaining development. (One of his mentors, Harold Lasswell, had studied under Sigmund Freud.) He applied this psychological approach to his 1976 biography of Chairman of the Communist Party of China Mao Zedong, who he imagined as a child and argued Mao Zedong's rebellious attitude stemmed from a desire to recapture his "infantile omnipotence." Later Pye revealed his underlying diagnosis that Mao Zedong was “probably a narcissist with a borderline personality.” Donald L. M. Blackmer, of the journal Political Science and Politics, cited the Mao Zedong biography as an example of Pye's tendency to use leaps of imagination for "Interpretation and generalization abound, often unsupported by the sorts of evidence most of us have been taught to look for." Blackmer said the benefit of this approach was that Pye could "explain the otherwise inexplicable."

In 1985, Pye and his wife wrote "Asian Power and Politics: The Cultural Dimensions of Authority," which discussed commonalities in Asia' disparate political cultures. Critics of the book accused Pye of using flagrant stereotypes; Howard Wriggins, of the scholarly journal Political Science Quarterly, asked, "Who but Lucian Pye would be bold enough" to undertake such a publication. Pye went on to serve as president of the American Political Science Association from 1988 to 1989.

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