In Memoriam: Susanne Hoeber Rudolph

SUSANNE HOEBER RUDOLPH, past President of both the Association for Asian Studies and the American Political Science Association, a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the William Benton Distinguished Service Professor Emerita of Political Science at the University of Chicago, died in Oakland, California on December 23, 2015.  She completed her Ph.D. in 1955 at Harvard and taught there before moving to the University of Chicago in 1964.  In 1976, she was elected the first woman Chair of the Department of Political Science, one of her path-breaking accomplishments in an era of limited opportunities for women in academia.

Few scholars approach the breadth of Susanne Rudolph’s accomplishments and influence.  Often working in close collaboration with her husband and colleague Lloyd I. Rudolph, Professor Emeritus of Political Science, University of Chicago, Rudolph’s deep engagement with India’s politics and society informed her contributions to the study of institutional and social change, state formation, identity politics, political economy, Weberian theory, and U.S. foreign policy.  This remarkable lifelong journey began in 1956 when she and Lloyd embarked on their first trip to India, driving from London to New Delhi in a Land Rover.

Susanne Rudolph, in addition to wide-ranging journal publications, authored or co-authored eight books including; The Modernity of Tradition: Political Development in India; Education and Politics in India; The Regional Imperative: The Conduct of U.S. Foreign Policy Toward South Asia Under Presidents Johnson and Nixon; In Pursuit of Lakshmi: The Political Economy of the Indian State; and Postmodern Gandhi and Other Essays: Gandhi in the World at Home.  In recognition of her contributions, the Government of India awarded Rudolph a Padma Bhushan for ‘distinguished service to the nation of a high order’ in 2014.  

At a time when “area studies” as a mode of inquiry became increasingly marginalized in the social sciences, Susanne Rudolph insisted on grounded knowledge as essential for robust social science, as well as for broader public discourse.  Indeed, she viewed area studies as a “counter-movement” that addressed the limits of conventional social science.  An early expression of this approach was the seminal book with Lloyd Rudolph, The Modernity of Tradition, which charged conventional modernization theory with imposing an “imperialism of categories” that limited understanding of traditional societies, imposed a misleading dichotomy between tradition and modernity, and underestimated the potential of traditional institutions and values to serve ‘modern’ functions.  Critiquing the uni-linear vision of development in which Western values and institutions replaced tradition, the Rudolph’s study of caste, Gandhi, and colonial law demonstrated  how components of traditional society provided pathways to a pluralistic modernity.  This vision anticipated endogenous and path-dependent models of social change that later became prominent in the social sciences. Rudolph’s comparative study of state formation in Asia with Europe underscored the importance of ritual sovereignty and cosmology in Asia while pointing out that the demystified, rationalist worldview of the West was itself a distinctive cosmology.

Susanne Rudolph’s extraordinary reach extended far beyond the politics of category and culture. For example, she shepherded through the Social Science Research Council and American Council of Learned Societies a novel multi-year project that resulted in a volume she edited with economists Megnad Desai and Ashok Rudra: Agrarian Power and Agricultural Productivity in South Asia. A characteristically grounded perspective on political economy informed the Rudolph’s influential chapter on the politics of ‘bullock capitalists.’

Later in her career, Rudolph advocated an interpretive mode of inquiry focused on “situated knowledge” — understandings embedded in time, place, and circumstance.  By contrasting her interpretive mode of inquiry with a scientific one, Rudolph argued for the primacy of problem-driven research over method-driven research, thick description over parsimony; meaning over causality; local, subjective, and multiple knowledges as opposed to universal, singular, and objective knowledge.  

Susanne Rudolph played a central role in making the University of Chicago a vital community of South Asian scholars. She engaged a wide range of students and colleagues across disciplines through stimulating courses, provocative seminars, and gracious social events in her home.  Her sheer joy in scholarship was contagious.  Her intellectual and personal partnership with her husband Lloyd inspired many across continents and generations.

Susanne Rudolph’s lifetime of accomplishments demonstrated the power of intellectual breadth and depth as well as creative approaches to knotty problems that still exercise social scientists and area scholars alike. There is no one quite like her, and she will be deeply missed.


Written by John Echeverri-Gent, University of Virginia, and Ronald Herring, Cornell University

Dr. Rudolph has been an AAS member since 1958.