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In Memoriam: Ole R. Holsti

Obituary by Peter D. Feaver, Duke University, and Robert O. Keohane, Princeton University

Ole R. Holsti, George V. Allen Professor of Political Science Emeritus at Duke University, died on July 2, 2020, at the age of 86 from complications of lymphoma.  He was a noted authority on public opinion and American foreign policy, belief systems and foreign policy, and decision-making, as well as having been a pioneer of content analysis in the early part of his career. Much of his work was at the interface of psychology and political science.  He held both a B.A. (1954) and PhD (1962) from Stanford University. He was on the Duke faculty on a full-time basis from 1974 to 1998, after teaching at Stanford, the University of British Columbia, and the University of California, Davis. He remained active while an emeritus member of the Duke faculty, publishing Public Opinion and American Foreign Policy in 2004.

Professor Holsti was a fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences (Stanford) and a Guggenheim Fellow in 1981-82. He was President of the International Studies Association in 1979-80 and of ISA West in 1969-70. He received distinguished lifetime achievement awards from both the American Political Science Association and the International Society for Political Psychology. He received the Nevitt Sanford Award from the International Society for Political Psychology, the Howard Johnson Award for Distinguished Teaching, and the Alumni Distinguished Undergraduate Teaching Award. In 2014 ISA West honored him with a Distinguished Scholar Award, which is now awarded annually and named in his honor.

Professor Holsti was part of the first wave of scholars who brought the methods of behavioralism to bear on questions of foreign policy, particularly crisis management and foreign policy world views -- topics that had hitherto been the province principally of historians and political philosophers. His path-breaking work on content analysis was among his most influential scholarship, shaping the field for decades. Building on this work, he developed a long-term collaboration with James Rosenau studying the foreign policy attitudes of both elites and the general public. He was a key figure arguing against the so-called Almond-Lippmann consensus that dismissed American public opinion as hopelessly inchoate and ill-informed; Holsti argued that public attitudes, at both the elite and mass level, moved in rational ways in response to changing circumstances. Though a sharp critics of American foreign policy mistakes, Holsti’s scholarship reflected an underlying optimism that the democratic process could prove resilient and restorative even after costly errors.

To his professional associates, students, and personal acquaintances, Professor Holsti was an exemplary colleague, mentor, and friend. He read others’ works carefully, offering perceptive suggestions, always in a positive vein. In department meetings, he could be counted on to bring thoughtful values, not personal interest or bias, to the discussions at hand. It was hard for others to act up when Ole was in the room. He was relentlessly determined and independent to the end of his life.

Those of us who knew Ole Holsti personally also admired him for other qualities. He was a dedicated road and trail runner, later taking up competitive race-walking only after most people give up walking quickly at all. He was outspoken on issues of foreign policy where he had a strong view. He was personally generous. He was a dedicated father and grandfather. He was relentlessly determined and independent to the end of his life.

After Professor Holsti had retired from Duke and his wife had died, he moved to Salt Lake City to be near his daughter, Maija, her husband, and his two beloved grandchildren. Even during his last illness, he had the determination, although weak, successfully to walk across the stage with his family for his grandson’s high school graduation. As his daughter has written, the appropriate word for Ole in Finnish is Sisu, which means extraordinary determination in the face of extreme adversity, and courage that is presented typically in situations where success is unlikely. It expresses itself in taking action against the odds, and displaying courage and resoluteness in the face of adversity.

Professor Holsti’s colleagues at Duke, his friends in the profession, and his friends in the world of runners, will miss him enormously.

Posted in: Headquarters


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