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Former Harvard lecturer in sociology Barrington Moore, Jr., whose study of power structures—and particularly totalitarianism—helped shape the field for decades to follow, died on Sunday, Oct. 16, at his home in Cambridge. He was 92.
Moore, who was born and raised in Newport, R.I., first started working at Harvard’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies—informally known as the Russian Research Center—in 1948.
He officially joined the Harvard faculty in 1951 and taught until 1979. Moore published his most influential work, “Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Lord and Peasant in the Making of the Modern World” in 1966.
Moore’s earliest scholarship was in the field of Russian politics and power. It was after publishing his 1950 work, “Soviet Politics: The Dilemma of Power” that Moore joined the Russian Research Center.
Even in his earliest days at the Center, Moore was “a kind of synthesizer, a big picture person,” according to Center Director and Feldberg Professor of Government and Russian Studies Timothy J. Colton ’74.
After 1950, Moore began moving on to other, broader fields of interest.
“While he remained interested in Russia, by 1960, he was already working a wider front,” according to Colton. “His interests took him to more general questions of society and systems of power.”
These interests led to Moore’s landmark 1966 work which, according to Theda Skocpol, dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and a former student of Moore’s, “helped to define a whole field of comparative historical study.”
While Moore remained at Harvard through 1979, he usually taught only one or two classes a year and never received tenure.
One possible reason for this was Moore’s desire to retain his scholarly independence, according to Visiting Professor Andrew G. Walder, a friend who sailed with Moore almost every day.
“He didn’t want to be tied down to all the different duties professors had,” said Walder. “He wanted the freedom to teach what he wanted and write what he wanted. He didn’t want to play the game of University politics.”
He added that Moore, who was independently wealthy and lived largely off his grandfather’s trust fund, did not need the financial incentives tied with tenure.
Another theory as to why Moore never became tenured, according to Walder, was because of his fundamental disagreements with Talcott Parsons, the monumental Harvard sociologist who taught at the University from 1927 to 1973. Moore “just did not see eye to eye with Parsons on intellectual matters. I don’t think they got along very well,” Walder said.
Moore was reclusive, sharp, and demanding in the classroom. According to Skocpol, students had to write a five-page essay to gain admission to his graduate school class. She described him as a “very old-fashioned, rigorous professor, but very inspiring.”
Skocpol recalled that Moore conducted class in a “Socratic-totalitarian” manner, cold-calling students and moving on abruptly if he deemed their answers less than satisfactory.
Moore was an avid sailor and, according to Walder, would spend around six months per year living alone on his sailboat, which was docked in Maine.
Moore was also known to invite his favorite few students to his house to dine with him and his wife, Betty, a few times a year.
“He could be very warm and engaging on those occasions when he invited you to his house,” Skocpol said. “Usually at nine o’clock sharp, he would stand up and say ‘It’s bedtime,’ and the night was over.”
“We both feared and admired him and loved him,” Skocpol added.
Moore is survived by a brother, Peter Van C. Moore, of Bethesda, MD.
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