The policy scientist of democracy: The discipline of Harold D. Lasswell

James Farr*, Jacob S. Hacker, Nicole Kazee

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

47 Scopus citations


The "policy scientist of democracy" was a model for engaged scholarship invented and embodied by Harold D. Lasswell. This disciplinary persona emerged in Lasswell's writings and wartime consultancies during the 1940s, well before he announced in his APS A presidential address, printed in the Review precisely 50 years ago, that political science was "the policy science par excellence." The policy scientist of democracy knew all about the process of elite decision making, and he put his knowledge into practice by advising those in power, sharing in important decisions, and furthering the cause of dignity. Although Lasswell formulated this ambitious vision near the zenith of his influence, the discipline accorded the ideal - and Lasswell - a mixed reception. Some heralded the policy scientist of democracy; others observed a contradictory figure, at once positivist and value-laden, elitist and democratic, heroic and implausible. The conflicted response exemplifies Lasswell's legacy. The policy scientist of democracy was - and is - too demanding and too contradictory a hero. But the vital questions Lasswell grappled with still must be asked a century into the discipline's development: what is the role of the political scientist in a democratic society? Do political scientists have any obligation to inform or shape policy? Are there democratic values that political science should serve, and if so, what are they? Lasswell never satisfactorily answered these questions. But in asking and trying to answer them - in his writings and in his own career - he was guided by a profound and inspiring conviction: Political science has a unique ability, and even perhaps a special obligation, to engage with issues of democratic choice that fundamentally affect the life circumstances of citizens.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)579-587
Number of pages9
JournalAmerican Political Science Review
Issue number4
StatePublished - Nov 1 2006

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Political Science and International Relations


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