A tribute by Emeritus Professor Ian Budge, long-term colleague and friend
Mon 16 Jan 23
Professor Jean Blondel, who died unexpectedly but peacefully on Christmas Day was a Napoleonic figure who reshaped European Political Science both structurally and intellectually; and had a general influence on the discipline throughout the world.
Breaking through conventional boundaries, Jean went to Brazil in the mid-fifties to write his thesis. Instead of then pursuing a conventional career in France, he crossed to the new departments springing up in Britain, becoming the founding Professor of the Department of Government in the new and innovative University of Essex which first opened its doors to students in 1964. Under Albert Sloman, a kindred spirit, the university was strongly research-oriented with only ten large departments to concentrate resources and make an intellectual impact quickly.
Building on this Jean quickly took up the national bursaries for taught graduate courses, announced at short notice in 1965. Departments elsewhere procrastinated but only Jean had the necessary flexibility to recruit 12 candidates from all quarters and put on impromptu courses for them. Most failed the year but budgetary inertia ensured that the studentship continued so long as there were applicants for them. At one stroke therefore, Essex acquired the largest graduate school in Britain. Although the initial results were unimpressive, the number and range of courses eventually attracted exceptional candidates.
Jean himself was the Departmental dynamo, poaching rising heavyweights from elsewhere (Anthony King, Ian Budge, Brian Barry), and using Essex’s unique tenure requirements to purge weak performers. Other unusual attributes were his immersion in any project which engaged his attention (usually 3 or 4 at any time); a strategic conception of what the Department should do and where it should go (broadly, a quarter of the way towards the American model); and a determination to exploit every opportunity and resource to achieve these ends, regardless of any hesitations others might have.
His initiatives are best illustrated by the annual Summer School in Quantitative Research Methods (now past its half century). Its start in 1968 was financed by a UNESCO grant for European departments to host a biennial month-long school in social science. Jean lobbied for the grant and followed up Ian Budge’s radical push of a methodological school based on Essex’s own pioneering computer package (ECXP), and went it alone with great success. He also backed its continuance annually with more external funding and a rapidly expanding number of participants.
The Summer School was crucial to Jean’s defining project, the European Consortium for Political Research, now grouping some 350 Institutes and Departments across the continent. It demonstrated to the Ford Foundation, looking to build up social science in Europe, that its political scientists were capable of organising themselves at continental level. This was crucially important because in 1970 there were no real links between departments and individuals across countries or even within them. The large grant Ford made to Jean enabled him to knock heads together and negotiate, cajole and allure individuals and departments to support not only the Summer School (crucially important in socialising younger political scientists to work together across international boundaries), but also conferences, workshops, research groups, journals, grants, Europe-wide directories and course guides, and an ever open and active central office at Essex dedicated to new initiatives. From zero in 1970, European political science emerged as a full-blown entity by 1980. Although he then retired as Director, Jean’s evangelism and activism also spearheaded the rapid expansion of the ECPR across eastern Europe in the 1990s – a real lifeline for free research and democracy at that time.
Jean’s institutional achievements should not overshadow his intellectual ones. They were intertwined. Voters, Parties and Leaders (1963) introduced survey-based research to British readers in an original synthesis of poll data and community studies, drawing on the traditions of French electoral geography and party organisational studies to fill the gaps polls did not cover. It provided an intellectual context for the research and teaching approach pioneered by the Essex Department. Similarly, his Introduction to Comparative Government (1969) innovated with its revolutionary approach to treating each country as one unit in general discussions (and novel statistical analyses) of political processes and institutions across the world, rather than country by country descriptions difficult to compare. Such an approach is now standard but Jean pioneered it.
In the 1980s a new realisation of the limitations of survey-based research based on individuals stimulated new professional interest in the role of institutions and collective processes in governmental policy-making. As a result, Jean’s continuing research into these areas acquired major relevance in the context the ‘New Institutionalism’. Despite a life-threatening accident in later life, he continued his comparative research on the structure and consequences of different governmental institutions, particularly of presidential government in Africa and Latin America, publishing his last book when he was ninety. An example to us all!
Jean’s achievements remain as his monument, continuing to provide a stimulus and point of entry to political analysis for young researchers. They continue to inspire us and to comfort the family who have done so much to support him.
This tribute was written by Emeritus Professor Ian Budge, long-term colleague and friend.
If you would like to submit a tribute to Professor Blondel please email firstname.lastname@example.org and it will be added below this article.
Jean was my mentor. I worked with him on the Appendix to his Introduction to Comparative Government, and co-wrote the Workbook to it with him. He 'adopted' me during my second year in the BA Comparative Government course; secured me a short-term 'stage' with the Inter-Parliamentary Union in Geneva; encouraged me to do an MA in Political Behaviour; and subsequently took me to Carleton University, Otttawa, Canada, as his Research Assistant. I remember him meeting us at Ottawa Airport in the biggest white, shiny American convertible (a Buick Skylark) that I had ever seen. My wife and I often looked after Natalie and Dominique when Jean and Michelle were in the US finalising the ECPR project.
The Blondels, Hermans and the Buick returned to England, where the latter was an awesome sight in the Essex country lanes. Bonfire Nights at his house in Beverley Road, Colchester, were always great fun, even though the baked potatoes usually ended up burnt. I took over Jean's undergraduate Comparative Government course sometime in the early 1970's -- he insisted that I continued it at 09.00 on Monday mornings, even though it was very unpopular with the students (well, those who could bother to drag themselves down to the Lecture Theatre, or even back to Wivenhoe Park, at that time of day), and also his former Comparative Politics course in the MA Political Behaviour Progralme.
Jean gave me his full support when I left Essex and went to Erasmus University, Rotterdam, saying that this example of young academics moving across countries and institutions was what the ECPR was all about.
I last met Jean circa 1995 in Florence when he was very much the 'old' Jean I had always known -- kind, considerate, caring and, still, very, very humble. I will always remember him, his family, and the Department of Government at Essex.
BA Comparative Government (1968), MA Political Behaviour (1969), Lecturer, Department of Government 1971-77, Director MA Molitical Behaviour 1975-77
Without Jean Blondel’s tireless efforts the ECPR would not have seen the light of day. This changed the landscape of our profession. We lost a skilful institution builder and a great scholar. In the 93 years of his life Jean never lost his curiosity and his sharp mind. Jean was called by gracefully falling asleep in his armchair. There is rarely a better way to leave this world. Fare you well and thank you for all you did for us.
On Christmas Day 2022 we received the very sad news that Jean Blondel had passed away. He fell asleep in his armchair peacefully on December 25th aged 93. Jean Blondel was dedicated to political science life-long. The concept of ‘retirement from work‘ did not exist in his thinking. Instead, he remained to be ‘curious‘ about current political development. With his countless publications and his ambition as an institution builder, he had a major impact in the field of comparative politics both as an academic and as a co-founder of the ECPR. As some of you might know, Jean received the ECPR Life Achievement Award last August and celebrated this event together with some colleagues and friends in the ECPR 'Harbour House' in Colchester. He was very happy for having received this award! We remember a highly esteemed scholar, one who opened new fields of research, who promoted lasting academic institutions, who was the indefatigable mentor of so many younger scholars, but first of all a man of great integrity and a generous friend. Our condolences go to his wife, Tess Blondel, his daughters Nathalie and Dominique, as well as his grandchildren. With warm regards
Maurizio Cotta and Ferdinand Müller-Rommel
I was lucky enough fairly recently to meet Jean for the first time since leaving Essex about 50 years earlier. He was a great teacher, and seeing him again reminded me of what a delightful lovely man he was.
Paddy Clark (Essex 1964-67)
I first met Jean Blondel in (I think) May 1965, when together with David Shapiro (about to move to Essex from Nuffield College, Oxford) he interviewed me for a research assistantship in the Department of Government to work on a project related to Soviet politics. I was about to complete my undergraduate studies in Russian at Leeds University, and was apprehensive about this move, particularly when I attained only a lower second. I need not have worried. From my arrival at Wivenhoe Park, Jean treated me more or less as a colleague, and, at his suggestion I completed the one-year MA Political Behaviour over two years, while also serving as one of four research assistants associated with the Department. Jean was a real inspiration in those early years, and later, after I had embarked on an academic career in Trinity College, Dublin, I was delighted to greet him with the news that I had completed my PhD thesis for Essex, when he came to recruit my department to the European Consortium for Political Research. In Gallic fashion, he planted a large kiss on my face! I was not the first PhD awarded to someone in the Department (that honour went to Michael Freeman), but Jean regarded me as the first 'home-grown' PhD; others, too, including Essex undergraduates, received encouragement, and from the University's early years an impressive number of Government graduates went on to pursue successful academic careers. After my conferment, I don't think I ever met Jean again, but I was aware of his powerful organising influence across Europe, and his prolific output. He once told me of his summer schedule: together with his family at Toulon, on the Mediterranean coast of France, he would rise at 5am, write until 8am or so, when his family got up, then felt free to spend the day with them. Alas, I lacked that capacity, so I never dreamed of emulating Jean's scholarship. But I shall always remember his enthusiasm and feel grateful for his encouragement. His legacy will live on. May he rest in peace.
Ron Hill (MA 1968, PhD 1974)
Mrs Blondel taught me French in 1972-73 in my first undergrad year and Jean Blondel Comparative Government in 1977-78 during my MA . Wonderful teachers both of them . Sad to hear of his death . My condolences to the family.
I knew Jean from the early-1970s, when I was a postgraduate in Russian/Soviet politics at Essex and taught his daughters (Dominique and Nathalie) Russian language. Far more recently, I visited him (and his charming wife Tess) in Florence – though I understand they moved out of their gorgeous apartment some years ago. Jean was a real character – and very inspirational. He shall be sorely missed, RIP, Jean.
Professor Emeritus Leslie Holmes, Fellow of the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia
I think I only met Jean Blondel once, some time in the late 1980s at an event in London organised by a joint Nuffield College/SCPR venture, the ESRC Centre for Research into Elections and Social Trends (CREST). I was a (very) junior researcher within CREST, while I think Jean may have been a member of the centre’s advisory board. His book, “Voters, Parties and Leaders” had been an essential part of my preparation for work on CREST. My memory of the day is that each speaker expected Jean to ask the first question, or make the first comment, and he rarely disappointed. It was the first time that I had seen my own mentor, Roger Jowell, visibly in awe of another intellect and clearly influenced by Jean’s opinions. Jean was enthusiastic about the power of survey data (my field) in political science but was also – rightly – vocal about its limitations, sometimes to the frustration of my colleagues. I have no doubt that his legacy will live on in many ways.
Professor Peter Lynn, ISER