Guillermo O'Donnell

Guillermo O'Donnell
Born (1936-02-24)February 24, 1936
Buenos Aires, Argentina
Died November 29, 2011(2011-11-29) (aged 75)
Buenos Aires, Argentina
Occupation Professor, Political Science

Guillermo A. O'Donnell (19362011) was a prominent Argentine political scientist, who spent most of his career working in Argentina and the United States, and who made lasting contributions to theorizing on authoritarianism and democratization, democracy and the state, and the politics of Latin America.[1] His brother, Pacho O'Donnell, is a well-known politician and writer.

Biography [2]

O'Donnell was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina. He studied law at the University of Buenos Aires and became a lawyer in 1958, aged 22. He was involved in student politics, and was Secretary and Acting President of the Buenos Aires University Federation (FUBA), part of the Argentine University Federation, in 1954–1955. Later he served as national Vice-Minister of Interior (Political Affairs), in Argentina, in 1963. But he focused mainly on making a living by working as a lawyer and teaching. During these years he taught in the School of Law at the University of Buenos Aires (1958–66) and at the Pontifical Catholic University of Argentina (1966–68)

In 1968 O'Donnell left Argentina to pursue graduate studies in political science at Yale University. He earned his master's degree in political science in 1971, but rather than complete his dissertation and take a job offer from Harvard University, he returned to Buenos Aires. The text he started to work on at Yale was published as Modernization and Bureaucratic-Authoritarianism (1973),[3] a book that immediately drew a lot of attention and led to a seminal debate about Latin American politics in David Collier's edited volume, The New Authoritarianism in Latin America (1979).[4] But since this text was published, it could not be presented as a dissertation. And thus O'Donnell would not receive his Ph.D in political science from Yale University until he presented a new dissertation and thus was awarded his Ph.D. belatedly, once he was an established scholar and professor, in 1987.[5]

In Argentina, O'Donnell initially taught at the Universidad del Salvador (1972–75) and was a researcher at the Centro de Investigaciones en Administración Pública (CIAP), at the Torcuato di Tella Institute, between 1971 and 1975. Subsequently, O'Donnell was a founding member of CEDES (Centro de Estudios de Estado y Sociedad), where he worked from 1975 until 1979. During this period, Argentina was increasingly swept by violence, as guerrilla organizations such as the Montoneros sought to undermine the government and eventually the military rulers came to power in 1976 and launched a dirty war. In this climate, CEDES was one of the few research centers where critical thinking about politics thrived. Indeed, in 1978, O'Donnell launched a major research project on democratic transitions in Southern Europe and Latin America that he co-directed with Philippe C. Schmitter and that was sponsored by the Latin American Program of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, in Washington, D.C. The project began with three conferences, in 1979, 1980, and 1981, that gathered many of the world’s most distinguished scholars of democracy, including Robert A. Dahl, Juan Linz, Adam Przeworski, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, and Albert Otto Hirschman. It would result in a landmark publication: Transitions from Authoritarian Rule. Prospects for Democracy (1986).[6]

In late 1979, O'Donnell left Argentina again, this time for Brazil. He worked as a researcher at IUPERJ (Instituto Universitário de Pesquisas do Río de Janeiro) (1980–82) and then moved to the research center CEBRAP (Centro Brasileiro de Análise e Planejamento) in São Paulo in 1982, replacing the sociologist Fernando Henrique Cardoso, who had become a national Senator. But O'Donnell moved again, now from Brazil to the United States, in 1983. Thereafter, though he maintained his affiliation with CEBRAP until 1991, he taught at the University of Notre Dame from 1983 until 2009, where he was Helen Kellogg Professor of Government and International Studies. He was also academic director of the Helen Kellogg Institute for International Studies of the University of Notre Dame from 1983 until 1997. His twenty-six year association with Notre Dame made this university the most important institutional home of O'Donnell's career.

During his career, O'Donnell played a leadership role in many professional associations. He served as president of the International Political Science Association (IPSA) from 1988 to 1991, and was vice-president of the American Political Science Association (APSA) in 1999–2000. He also held many short term appointment at universities around the world. He was a visiting professor at the University of Michigan in 1973-74; the Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales (FLASCO), in Buenos Aires, in 1978-79; the University of California, Berkeley, in 1982; the Centro de Estudios Avanzados en Ciencias Sociales, at the Instituto Juan March, in Madrid, in 1997; the University of Cambridge, where he was the Simon Bolivar Distinguished Visiting Professor in 2002-03; and the University of Oxford, where he was Senior Visiting Fellow in Politics at Nuffield College in 2003-04 and John G. Winant Visiting Professorship of American Government in 2007-08. He also was a Fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, in Stanford, California, in 2002.

O'Donnell also bridged the worlds of academia and politics. He worked with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) during the 2000s, collaborating with Dante Caputo in the preparation of the United Nations Development Programme’s (UNDP) report Democracy in Latin America. Toward a Citizens’ Democracy (2004),[7] and a follow-up text, Democracia/Estado/Ciudadanía. Hacia un Estado de y para la democracia en América Latina (2008).[8] O'Donnell also was a member of the Advisory Board of the United Nations Democracy Fund and a member of the scientific committee of Fundación IDEAS, Spain's Socialist Party's think-tank.[9]

O'Donnell returned to his native Buenos Aires in 2009. There he continued to be active on the local academic scene. He joined the Escuela de Política y Gobierno, at the National University of General San Martín (Universidad Nacional de San Martín [UNSAM[), his last professional affiliation. At UNSAM O'Donnell founded the Centro de Investigaciones sobre el Estado y la Democracia en América Latina (CIEDAL), in 2010.[10] In 2011 O'Donnell was struck by cancer and, after a four month battle, he died on November 29, 2011, at the age of 75.[11] A public wake was held in the legislative building of the City of Buenos Aires,[12] and his remains were buried in the Recoleta Cemetery.

Academic research

O’Donnell was a leading theorist of authoritarianism and democratization and one of the most distinguished Latin American political scientists.

O’Donnell’s Modernization and Bureaucratic Authoritarianism (1973) offered a pioneering analysis of the breakdown of democracies in South America in the 1960s. He argued that the form of authoritarianism experienced by South America starting in the 1960s was novel because it was based on modern technocrats and a professionalized military organization, instead of populist politicians or traditional military strongmen. To capture this distinctiveness, he coined the term 'bureaucratic authoritarianism'. O’Donnell argued that this new form of authoritarianism emerged as the result of political conflict generated by an import-substitution model of industrialization. He cast his argument as an alternative to the thesis, advanced most notably by Seymour Martin Lipset,[13] that industrialization produced democracy. In South America, O’Donnell argued, industrialization generated not democracy, but bureaucratic authoritarianism. This work, along with a series of subsequent articles, triggered an important debate in comparative politics and Latin American Studies about the political consequences of economic development. The central contributions to this debate were published in a volume edited by David Collier, The New Authoritarianism in Latin America (1979),[14] which assessed and critiqued O’Donnell’s thesis.

The next phase of O’Donnell’s research focused on the demise of authoritarianism and transitions to democracy. His coauthored book with Philippe C. Schmitter, Transitions from Authoritarian Rule: Tentative Conclusions about Uncertain Democracies (1986), was one of the most widely read and influential works in comparative politics during the 1980s and 1990s. O’Donnell and Schmitter proposed a strategic choice approach to transitions to democracy that highlighted how they were driven by the decisions of different actors in response to a core set of dilemmas. The analysis centered on the interaction among four actors: the hard-liners and soft-liners who belonged to the incumbent authoritarian regime, and the moderate and radical oppositions against the regime. This book not only became the point of reference for a burgeoning academic literature on democratic transitions, it was also read widely by political activists engaged in actual struggles to achieve democracy.[15]

O’Donnell’s research since the early 1990s explored the question of the quality of democracy. His work warns against teleological thinking, that is, the tendency to see countries that democratized in the 1970s and 1980s as following in the tracks, though several steps behind, of the longstanding democratic countries of the West. To highlight the specificity of contemporary Latin American countries and the deficiencies of their democracies, he proposed the concept of delegative democracy, by which he meant a form of democratic rule that concentrated power in the hands of elected presidents, and the associated concept of horizontal accountability. Later work centered on the problems faced by most Latin American democracies as a result of deficiencies in the rule of law and the social capabilities of citizens. His key works on the quality of democracy have been published in Counterpoints (1999), The Quality of Democracy (2004), Dissonances (2007), and in his final book, Democracy, Agency, and the State (2010), which makes a case for addressing the importance of the state in conceptualizations of democracy.

Summing up his contributions, one observer states that "O’Donnell decisively shaped the intellectual agenda for the study of the rise of military dictatorships in the Southern Cone in the early 1970s; pioneered the analysis of authoritarian breakdowns and democratic transitions throughout the 1980s; and broke new conceptual ground for efforts to understand the problems of life after transition (including the issue of institutional quality) during the 1990s."[16] Another observer put it more briefly: "Guillermo O’Donnell was the argentine Max Weber."[17]

Selected publications


Articles and chapters

Works on O'Donnell and his research

Honors and awards


  1. Helen Delpar, Looking South: The Evolution of Latin Americanist Scholarship in the United States. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press 2008, 181.
  2. For information about O'Donnell's biography, see the autobiographical references in Guillermo O’Donnell, “Preface,” pp. ix-xxi, in O’Donnell, Counterpoints: Selected Essays on Authoritarianism and Democratization (Notre Dame, In.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1999); the interview with Guillermo O'Donnell, "Democratization, Political Engagement and Agenda Setting Research," in Gerardo L. Munck and Richard Snyder, Passion, Craft, and Method in Comparative Politics (Johns Hopkins, 2007); and Gerardo L. Munck, “Guillermo O’Donnell,” pp. 878-79, in Jay Kinsbruner (editor in chief), Encyclopedia of Latin American History and Culture Vol. 4, 2nd. ed. (New York: C. Scribner’s Sons, 2008).
  3. Guillermo O’Donnell, Modernization and Bureaucratic-Authoritarianism: Studies in South American Politics (Institute of International Studies/University of California, 1973).
  4. David Collier (ed.), The New Authoritarianism in Latin America (Princeton University Press, 1979).
  5. The work that earned O'Donnell his Ph.D. was 1966-1973. El Estado burocrático autoritario. Triunfos, derrotas y crisis (Editorial Belgrano, 1982); later published in English as Bureaucratic Authoritarianism. Argentina, 1966-1973, in Comparative Perspective (University of California Press, 1988).
  6. Guillermo O’Donnell, Philippe Schmitter and Laurence Whitehead (eds.), Transitions from Authoritarian Rule. Prospects for Democracy 4 Vols. (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986).
  7. United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Democracy in Latin America. Toward a Citizens’ Democracy (New York and Buenos Aires: UNDP and Aguilar, Altea, Taurus, Alfaguara, 2004).
  8. Programa de Naciones Unidas para el Desarrollo (PNUD), Democracia/Estado/Ciudadanía. Hacia un Estado de y para la democracia en América Latina (New York: PNUD, 2008).
  9. Fundacion Ideas
  10. Historia de la UNSAM
  11. "Notre Dame Political Scientist Guillermo O’Donnell Dies"
  12. "Murió Guillermo O'Donnell"
  13. Seymour Martin Lipset, "Some Social Requisites of Democracy: Economic Development and Political Legitimacy," American Political Science Review Vol. 53, Nº 1 (1959): 69–105.
  14. David Collier (ed.), The New Authoritarianism in Latin America (Princeton University Press, 1979).
  15. Gerardo L. Munck, “Democratic Theory After Transitions From Authoritarian Rule,” Perspectives on Politics Vol. 9, Nº 2 (2011): 333-43.
  16. Sebastián L. Mazzuca, “The Rise of Rentier Populism,” Journal of Democracy Vol. 24, Nº 4 (2013): 108-22, p. 108.
  17. "Entrevista al prestigioso politólogo Philippe Schmitter: Guillermo O’Donnell fue el Max Weber argentino,” Veintitres, August 5, 2013.
  18. Guillermo O´Donnell, ciudadano ilustre de la Ciudad
  19. O'Donnell receives IPSA Lifetime Achievement Prize
  20. O'Donnell awarded the Kalman Silvert Award for lifetime contribution to the study of Latin America
  21. Fundación Konex: Guillermo O´Donnell
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