Raymond Wolfinger, a former UC Berkeley professor emeritus and widely recognized figure in political science, died Feb. 6. He was 83 years old.
Remembered by family and colleagues for his intellectual vibrancy, Wolfinger authored several seminal works in his field — on topics ranging from analyzing patterns of voter turnout to exploring the ways political machines were not responsive to certain groups of voters. His works were considered classics by many, including Goldman School of Public Policy dean Henry Brady, who felt that Wolfinger’s passing marked the “end of an era in UC Berkeley political science.”
Described as “the centerpiece” in the study of American politics for decades, Wolfinger “kept the tradition of valuing analytical thinking and engagement with real world policy alive,” said UC Berkeley political science department chair Eric Schickler.
Before settling into academia as a professor at Stanford University and later UC Berkeley, Wolfinger, alongside former senator Hubert Humphrey, laid the groundwork for the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a landmark piece of civil rights legislation that formally outlawed discrimination against race, sex or religion.
As a “tough and supportive” teacher, Wolfinger pushed his students to lift themselves out of theory and quantify and contextualize their arguments, recalled Kathryn Pearson, one of Wolfinger’s former graduate students.
“We both disdain speculation and theorizing — we always want to know what the evidence is,” said Nick Wolfinger, his son who teaches sociology at the University of Utah. The two collaborated on a paper that explored the connection between family structure and voter turnout.
Wolfinger was not only a political scientist but also a wine taster and gardener, his wife Barbara Wolfinger said. Though they ventured around the world together to places such as Japan and South America, the Bay Area was “heaven” to Wolfinger, where he and his family vacationed in Napa and Pope Valley to retreat into nature and drink wine.
When Pearson celebrated her 30th birthday, Wolfinger arrived to the party with 30 wine glasses, ensuring she was well-stocked for a good time.
Yet Wolfinger is remembered even more for his sharp wit, and especially for his fondness for empirical arguments in the social sciences.
When a student once categorized one of Wolfinger’s claims as “just anecdotal,” he paused for an expectant second, dropping a copy of Robert Dahl’s “Who Governs” onto his seminar table as he replied, “The plural of anecdote is data.”
His quip, emphasizing that statistics represent human stories, would become a well-known aphorism throughout the field.
“A lot of people come up with a clever retort 10 minutes after leaving the party,” explained Jonathan Krasno, a former graduate student of Wolfinger’s. “Ray usually had it in mind before you finished talking — he was whip smart.”