Ian Shapiro

American political theorist

Ian Shapiro (born September 28, 1956) is an American political scientist, working as Sterling Professor of Political Science and Henry R. Luce Director of the MacMillan Center at Yale University. He is known primarily for interventions in debates on democracy and on methods of conducting social science research.


  • A principled commitment to democracy offers a way out of this bind which protagonists on both sides of the debate appear not to have noticed.
    • "Three ways to Be a democrat" (1994), reprinted in Democracy's Place (1996).
  • An enduring embarrassment of democratic theory is that it seems impotent when faced with questions about its own scope.
    • Ian Shapiro and Casiano Hacker-Cordon, "Outer edges and inner edges" in Democracy's Edges (1999) edited by Ian Shapiro and Casiano Hacker-Cordon.
  • The principles and practices of democracy continue to spread ever more widely, and it is hard to imagine that there is a corner of the globe into which they will not eventually penetrate. But the euphoria of democratic revolutions is typically short-lived, and its attainment seems typically to be followed by disgruntlement and even cynicism about the actual operation of democratic institutions. It might be widely accepted that democracy is a good thing, yet it is equally apparent that democrats have much work to do in improving the performance of democratic institutions. Of course, it is far easier to perceive the need for reform than to prescribe specific proposals.
    • Ian Shapiro and Stephen Macedo, "Introduction" in Designing democratic institutions (2000) edited by Ian Shapiro and Stephen Macedo.
  • The further institutional designers try to move along the continuum toward explicit proactive systems that force integration in exclusionary and racist societies, the more they will learn about how much redesign of ethnic antipathy is feasible in them.
    • "The State of Democratic Theory" in The Democracy Sourcebook (2003) edited by Robert Dahl, Ian Shapiro, and José Antonio Cheibub.
  • Although this is less often commented on in the academic literature, democracy is as much about opposition to the arbitrary exercise of power as it is about collective self-government....
    • "Democratic Justice" in The Democracy Sourcebook (2003) edited by Robert Dahl, Ian Shapiro, and José Antonio Cheibub.
  • No conception of democracy as geared toward reducing domination can ignore the relations between the political system and the distribution of income and wealth.
    • The State of Democratic Theory (2003), Chapter 5. Democracy and Distribution.
  • Political theorists often fail to appreciate that arguments about how politics ought to be organized typically depend on relational claims involving agents, actions, legitimacy, and ends.
    • The Flight from Realityin the Human Science (2005), Chapter 4. Gross Concepts in Political Argument.
  • Wealthy people used to find democracy frightening. The reason was simple: the poor, once enfranchised, should be expected to soak the rich. This fear bred elite resistance to expanding the franchise, particularly beyond the propertied classes. Nor did this fear, and the reasoning behind it, go unnoticed on the political left.
    • Ian Shapiro, Peter A. Swenson, and Daniela Donno, "Introduction" in Divide and deal : the politics of distribution in democracies (2008) edited by Ian Shapiro, Peter A. Swenson, and Daniela Donno.
  • First let me persuade you of my metaphysics and epistemology, then my theory of science, then my ethics and social theory, and then having done all that, I will convince you of my political theory. Over the past two decades, I have become convinced that this is a mug’s game... The reason Plato, Hobbes, Marx, Mill, and Rawls (many others could be named) garner widespread attention as political theorists has much more to do with their destinations than with their starting points.
  • So Sen is right that democracy can be pressed into the service of reducing injustice. Indeed this can happen against expectations. Had there been neoclassical economists around in the late eighteenth century, they would have scoffed at the possibility of abolishing the slave trade. In the absence of a system of multilateral enforcement, Britain had to bear the enormous expense unilaterally—over several decades—without any obvious prospect of a return. whether democracy fosters or hinders economic growth.
    • Review of The Idea of Justice by Amartya Sen, Journal of Economic Literature (December 2011).

Quotes about ShapiroEdit

  • It is hard not to sympathize with Shapiro's "show me the beef" approach to political theory. Rational choice theory has not revolutionized political science in the same way it has revolutionized economics. By and large, rational choice theorists have taken hold of the "high theory" segment of political science departments, but their methods are honored mostly in the breach when students go on to study real political problems. However, it is also hard (at least for this writer) not to sympathize with the intention of political theorists to ground their subject analytically, as has been done in economics and biology. The rational choice theorists in political science may not yet have succeeded, but they cannot be faulted for attempting to build an analytical political theory. Shapiro comes off as the alchemist who doesn't mind dirtying his hands in chemical soups, but who criticizes the chemists because they haven't yet solve the problem of the transmutation of the elements.
    Why has rational choice theory failed? Shapiro's answer is that all "reductivist" theory must fail. However, all science is reductivist, and tolerates emergent properties of complex systems only after sustained failure to model them analytically. Thus, Shapiro is really an anti-science realist. The correct answer, I believe is that rational choice theorists learned the wrong lesson from Mancur Olson. Clearly large-scale collective action exists in the world, and without such action, human society as we know it could not exist. Voting itself is an example that violates Mancur Olson's theory, as are the collective actions that gave rise to representative institutions, political democracy, striking down of racially discriminatory institutions, and some measure of gender equality. What we must give up in Mancur Olson's argument is not his postulate of rationality, but rather his postulate that rationality implies self-interest. This, the rational choice school in political science has not done.

External linksEdit

Wikipedia has an article about: