Paul Pierson Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

The Transformation of American Politics: Conversation with Paul Pierson, Avice Saint Chair in Public Policy, Department of Political Science, U.C. Berkeley; December 1, 2005, by Harry Kreisler

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Paul, thanks for coming to our program.

Thanks for having me on, Harry.

Where were you born and raised?

I was raised in Eugene, Oregon, so, just up the coast a little bit.

Looking back, how do you think your parents shaped your thinking about the world?

Profoundly. I grew up in a university town. Both my parents taught at the University of Oregon. My mother was an English teacher, taught Shakespeare, and my father taught European history. It was also a strongly religious family. My mother eventually became a minister, and so both in terms of the life of the mind, intellectual life, but also a set of values that they thought should carry you through life and be reflected in your work. That was an important part of my growing up.

Was it inevitable that you would get interested in political issues that are in embedded in a historical context which you try to analyze?

I guess if you look from where I am now it's pretty easy to connect the dots, but I don't think it was as obvious coming at it from the other direction. Most of the time when I was growing up, I didn't think that I was going to become an academic. I sort of thought of that as a pointy-headed activity that my father engaged in. To the extent that I thought about things like that, I thought I would probably be a lawyer and maybe be involved in politics, because I've always had an interest in politics. But it wasn't until I was in my collegiate years that I started to think about intellectual life as something other than what my father did.

Where did you do your undergraduate work?

Oberlin College in Ohio.

What did you major in there?

Political science. They call it government.

Any teachers there that influenced your thinking about the world?

One of the reasons I ended up there was because it had such a great reputation for teaching, and I continue to have a real affection and admiration for a school that's as devoted to the teaching of undergraduates as a school like that can be. The teacher I worked with most closely there was a UC Berkeley Ph.D., Harlan Wilson, who taught political philosophy.

And then on to graduate school. Where did you do your graduate work?

At Yale.

And there, any faculty that particularly influenced the directions that your dissertation finally took?

They had an incredible set of faculty there. It was, at that point, still one of the best departments in the country, and actually there's a very strong Berkeley - Yale connection. A number of Berkeley's most renowned political scientists trained at Yale. Robert Dahl and Charles Lindbloom were leading figures in that department when I was there, and they had a big effect on me.

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