Obituary: Professor Kenneth Boulding

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The Independent Online
Kenneth Ewart Boulding, economist, social scientist, poet, artist, peace activist: born Liverpool 18 January 1910; associate professor, Iowa State College 1943-46; Angus Professor of Political Economy and Chairman of Department, McGill University 1946-47; professor, Iowa State College 1947-49; Professor of Economics, University of Michigan 1949-68; Professor of Economics, and programme director, Institute of Behavioral Science, University of Colorado 1968-81, Distinguished Professor of Economics 1977-80 (Emeritus 1980-93), Research Associate and Project Director, Institute of Behavioral Science 1981-93; married 1941 Elise Biorn-Hansen (four sons; one daughter); died Boulder, Colorado 18 March 1993.

KENNETH BOULDING's death has brought to an end one of the most remarkable lives of this century.

During the course of his 83 years Boulding was both prodigious in his achievement and unforgettably vivid in personal style. Even as he aged, he remained a child prodigy, always open to innovative ways of conceiving reality, consistently seeking to use knowledge to improve the human condition, and absolutely convinced that the brain properly deployed could produce a better world. Such a combination produced a rare man: a passionate moralist alive and well within the restless consciousness of a dedicated social scientist.

Perhaps Boulding's greatest fear was that his thoughts would be regarded as banal or ordinary. Despite a pronounced stutter, he was a brilliant lecturer, finding fresh images that put deep social problems as elusive as war and capital markets in a new light, using his wicked wit to expose the dangerous illusions and hypocrisies of those in power, but always sustaining a civil discourse that allowed opponents the space to respond. As an activist, Boulding will probably be best remembered for his role during the mid-1960s at the University of Michigan of initiating 'teach-ins' on the Vietnam war, a distinctive format of critical and one-sided commentary by academic specialists and concerned citizens on the most urgent foreign policy issue of the day, at once an innovative use of university talents, an expression of oppositional fervour that was no longer in the mood to consider Vietnam with the detachment of a debate, and the beginning of the anti-war movement. The Michigan teach-ins inspired more radical directions of response, such as the formation of Students for a Democratic Society, that took a more militant tack than Boulding favoured.

Boulding himself often attributed his preoccupations with peace and what he called 'human betterment' to a strict Methodist upbringing in Liverpool. It must have been too strict, as he switched to the Quaker faith, undoubtedly feeling more comfortable with both its permissive theology and its emphasis on non-violent social action.

In many respects, Boulding's idiosyncratic resistance to categorisation was his special signature. Although trained in economics and a significant enough economist to be nominated for a Nobel Prize, his work was always at or beyond the boundaries of the discipline. Despite being a child of the Enlightenment, enraptured by reason, his sensibility gravitated to poetry and art, resulting in an impressive secondary persona as poet and artist. He was intrigued by the precision of science and mathematics, but his work and life were animated by a personal renunciation of violence (including even a controversial opposition to the Second World War) and the conviction that war as an institution was nothing more or less than social pathology of the most demented sort. Although sufficiently dedicated to peace to be nominated on several occasions for the Nobel Peace Prize, he approached issues on a conceptual level that transcended the left-right divide, resisting the crude reductionism of Marxism without buying into the callousness of unconditional capitalism. He was an individualist par excellence, yet served as president of no less than six professional associations, including such leading ones as the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Economics Association.

After being raised and educated in England, Boulding migrated to the United States at the age of 21, but never lost his unmistakably British approach to life, including a Shavian compulsion to squeeze the stone of grief until it yielded humour. He possessed an irresistible magnetism, an awesome and freefall intellect that never failed to provoke, instruct, and above all, amuse.

Kenneth Boulding's achievements were both so diverse and technical as to be impossible to summarise. His work in economics helped considerably to provide compassionate or welfare capitalism with an intellectually credible foundation during a period when it was under sustained attack by a variety of Marxist schools of thought. Boulding was instrumental in bringing serious academic attention to conflict as a distinct subject, founding the Center for Conflict Resolution while on the faculty of the University of Michigan. His book Conflict and Defense (1962) developed a sophisticated and rigorous theory of security and conflict in international relations that linked, in an original manner, a concern with the viability of sovereign states with the distance separating them from their perceived enemies. The appreciation of Boulding's contributions is expressed by his receiving no less than 31 honorary degrees, a number so large that only a handful of political luminaries could compete.

In the foreground of Kenneth Boulding's multi-faceted life was his equally amazing and still very active wife, Elise, a world-renowned sociologist and feminist scholar.