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UC Berkeley professor emeritus William Kornhauser dies at age 79

– William Kornhauser, a University of California, Berkeley, emeritus professor of sociology and author of a landmark book on mass society and extremism, died of a heart attack in his Berkeley home on July 3. He was 79.

In "The Politics of Mass Society" (The Free Press, 1959), Kornhauser explored the social conditions necessary for democracy and the vulnerabilities of large-scale society to totalitarianism. Kornhauser, who became a recognized social movement theorist, distinguished between dangerous mass movements and more democratic types of social and political organizations that characterize a diverse society.

"Mass movements mobilize people who are alienated from the going system, who do not believe in the legitimacy of the established order, and who therefore are ready to engage in efforts to destroy it," he wrote in the book, which was published in several languages. "The greatest number of people available to mass movements will be found in those sections of society that have the fewest ties to the social order."

Neil Smelser, a professor emeritus and a 30-year colleague of Kornhauser's in UC Berkeley's Sociology Department in the College of Letters & Science, said "The Politics of Mass Society" became an influential, widely cited book. He called Kornhauser a recognized leader in the development of the field of political sociology in the 1950s and '60s.

Anne Kornhauser, who will join the History Department at Princeton University as a lecturer this fall, said her father was always keenly interested in current events and was involved in numerous political causes.

During the 1960s, William Kornhauser was part of a group of UC Berkeley faculty who actively supported the Free Speech Movement. The group drafted proposals designed to resolve the chaos on campus and to help students win their demands. Kornhauser also was a vocal opponent of the Vietnam War.

Locally, he participated in a grassroots organization called Berkeley Citizens' Action; on the national level, he worked on the George McGovern presidential bid in 1970 and with the nuclear freeze movement.

E. Richard Brown, a professor of public health at UCLA and director of the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research, recalled meeting Kornhauser when Brown was a graduate student at UC Berkeley in the late '60s.

"He was my close mentor," said Brown, noting that Kornhauser served on his dissertation committee. He said the sociologist also was "very accessible and very engaged with students and with the momentous issues of the day - the Free Speech Movement and the war in Vietnam and a variety of issues with students on campus."

Brown said Kornhauser valued and respected the academic values of scholarly debate in contributing to public dialogue, and exhibited a "real humanity in how he viewed issues and the application of sociology to real social problems."

Kornhauser was born in Chicago, and attended Antioch College in Ohio. As part of an Antioch off-campus work requirement, he worked at Highlander Folk School in Tennessee, which focused on interracial and labor politics. There, he was trained as a civil rights activist.

From Highlander, Kornhauser joined the U.S. Army in 1943 and served in Italy as a navigator with the 20th Bomb Squadron before his discharge in 1946.

He earned a bachelor's degree in economics in 1948, a master's degree in sociology in 1950, and a Ph.D. in sociology in 1953 - all from the University of Chicago. Kornhauser became an instructor in sociology at Columbia University in 1952, and joined UC Berkeley's fledgling sociology department in 1953.

Over the years, he wrote dozens of scholarly articles and published another book, "Scientists in Industry: Conflict and Accommodation," (UC Press, 1962).

Kornhauser's survivors include his daughter, Anne, of New York City; and his sister, Ruth Zubrensky of Milwaukee, Wis. His former wife, sociologist Ruth Rosner Kornhauser, died in 1995.

The family plans a private memorial service. For more information about contributions or the service, contact Anne Kornhauser at amk23@columbia.edu.