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Former CASBS Associate Director Bob Scott Remembers Neil Smelser

Black and white photos of men involved in CASBS’s history on the wall in their offices

The numbers of people who were privileged to have known Neil Smelser during their academic careers are legion, but I consider myself especially honored because I worked with him directly and on a daily basis throughout his entire seven-year tenure as CASBS director.

The Center provided Neil with the ideal environment for pursuing his multi-faceted intellectual and scholarly interests. The range of his knowledge and expertise was breath-taking. He was completely at home when talking with humanists, biological scientists, social and behavioral scientists of every sort, and even the occasional physical scientist. He invariably left those with whom he conversed both richer and wiser because of their exchanges with him. He was never happier than when attending fellows’ seminars, always asking penetrating questions and pointing-out connections between their work and lines of work from other fields with which they were previously unfamiliar.

It is not possible to capture the full extent of the myriad contributions he made to CASBS, but to my mind three things stand out. First, throughout his entire scholarly career, Neil was an active, contributing member of the international social and behavioral science community, a community in which he was universally respected and admired as a key leader. From the very beginning of his tenure as CASBS director he made a deliberate effort to leverage his connections within the international community and make them available to the CASBS community. His ties were evident in innumerable ways, from the endless list of visitors he brought to the Center, to the cross-national collaborations he helped foster and, perhaps most importantly, to the distinguished scholars – especially from Western and Central Europe – he attracted as fellows, drawn to the Center in large part to spend sustained time in his company. Historically the Center has always aspired to be an international institution; because of his standing in the international community Neil was able to help fulfill this aspiration.

Second, Neil was also a staunch champion of scholarship that was interdisciplinary. Traditional disciplinary siloes meant little to him. He allowed his intellectual curiosity to lead him wherever it might, extracting from other fields the very best ideas, theories and methods they had to offer and incorporating them into his own understanding of the wide range of social and behavioral science phenomena that interested him. Because of his gifts for gentle and affable urgings, scholars of every sort found themselves introduced to wholly new strands of scholarly work. During his tenure, I can recall countless examples of historians exposed to the work of social and behavioral scientists; “hard science” researchers invited to think about work by psychoanalytic scholars and humanists; and economists encouraged to take account of the powerful role of social institutions, social movements, and social forces when modeling economic markets.

Neil also brought a third gift to the Center, one that as associate director I particularly valued. It was his wife, Sharin. Over time I came to think of her as akin to the Center’s co-director (alas, albeit non-stipendiary), who brought grace, style, and energy to the social and artistic life of the Center, very much to the benefit of successive fellows classes and their families. Her presence at the Center made my own role and that of other staff members much easier.

For more than six decades, CASBS has benefitted from a series of highly gifted and devoted directors. Neil rightly deserves a place of prominence among them. Because of his talents as a leader, he made invaluable contributions that helped make the Center the strong, vibrant, and stimulating institution it remains today.


Bob Scott served as CASBS associate director from 1983-2001, and returned as acting associate director from 2009-2010.

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