In Memoriam: David Apter, Expert on the Birth of Developing Nations

David E. Apter, the Henry J. Heinz II Professor Emeritus of Comparative Political and Social Development and a noted scholar on the birth of developing nations, died May 4 at his home in North Haven from complications from cancer. He was 85.

Apter, who taught in both Departments of Political Science and Sociology, conducted extensive field research on development, democratization and political violence in Africa, Latin America, Japan and China. He authored or co-authored more than 20 books that drew on his own visits to impoverished lands and his interviews with tribal chiefs, nationalist leaders, generals, soldiers, farmers, merchants and others. His dissertation on the institutional Gold Coast colony, “The Gold Coast in Transition,” became one of the first works to analyze decolonization in Africa and was a field-forming work of political ethnography. His book “Choice and the Politics of Allocation” (Yale University Press, 1971) received the Woodrow Wilson Award.

Other major works include “The Political Kingdom in Uganda,” “The Politics of Modernization,” “Against the State” (with Nagayo Sawa), and the edited volume “The Legitimization of Violence.” For his book “Revolutionary Discourse in Mao’s Republic,” (co-authored with Tony Saich), Apter spent months in China interviewing survivors of the 1934-1935 Long March, which brought Mao Zedong to power.

“He was a tireless field worker, learning the fine grain of life out of the surfaces of the world where people actually live, and had a remarkable capacity to make broader theory out of it,” Kai T. Erickson, the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor Emeritus of Sociology and American Studies, told The New York Times.

As chair of the Council on African Studies from 1995 to 1999, Apter devoted himself to consolidating the study of Africa at Yale. He also served as chair of the sociology department (1996-1999) and was director of the Social Science Division (1978-1981). He was a founding fellow of the Whitney Humanities Center and a fellow at the Koerner Center, where he supervised the 2009 volume “Intellectual Trajectories.”

Born in Brooklyn on Dec. 18, 1924, Apter was drafted into the Army in 1943 and earned his high school diploma in the service. In 1950, he graduated from Antioch College, where he met his future wife, Eleanor Selwyn. He earned master’s and Ph.D. degrees at Princeton University in 1952 and 1954, respectively.

In 1961-1962, Apter was director of the Peace Corps’ first training program, for volunteers sent to Ghana. He went on to teach at Northwestern University, the University of Chicago and the University of California-Berkeley before joining the Yale faculty in 1969.

“David Apter and I have been close friends since we met at Princeton’s graduate school 60 years ago,” says Joseph LaPalombara, the Arnold Wolfers Professor Emeritus of Political Science and lecturer at the Koerner Center and in political science. “Then, as during the last four decades here at Yale, we found boundless opportunities to agree, or not, about so many different things. But we invariably found harmony about basic democratic values, the pleasures of teaching bright students, the state of political science and, perhaps above all, how to concoct the perfect martini. His presence and scholarship in the social sciences, here and abroad, enriched us all. I will miss him dearly.”

Apter took photographs for his research, which were exhibited at Yale and other galleries over the years.

He was a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, among other scholarly organizations, and was the first recipient of the Dogan Prize for interdisciplinary work in the social sciences given by the International Social Science Council and UNESCO in 2006.

In addition to his wife, Apter is survived by two children, Emily and Andrew, and by four grandsons.

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