4 January 1929
|Alma mater||Hebrew University of Jerusalem|
University of California, Berkeley
|Doctoral advisor||Seymour Martin Lipset|
|Institutions||George Washington University|
Harvard Business School
|Notable ideas||Socioeconomics, communitarianism|
|Part of the Politics series on|
Amitai Etzioni (/ /; born Werner Falk, January 4, 1929) is a German-born Israeli and American sociologist, best known for his work on socioeconomics and communitarianism. He founded the Communitarian Network, a non-profit, non-partisan organization dedicated to supporting the moral, social, and political foundations of society.
He was called the “guru” of the communitarian movement in the early 1990s, and he established the Communitarian Network to disseminate the movement's ideas. His writings argue for a carefully crafted balance between individual rights and social responsibilities, and between autonomy and order, in social structure. In 2001, Etzioni was named among the top 100 American intellectuals, as measured by academic citations, in Richard Posner's book, Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline. Etzioni is currently the Director of the Institute for Communitarian Policy Studies at The George Washington University, where he also serves as a University Professor and professor of International Affairs. His most recent book, Reclaiming Patriotism, was published by University of Virginia Press in September 2019.
Amitai Etzioni was born Werner Falk in Cologne, Germany in 1929 to a Jewish family. In January 1933, Etzioni was only four years old when the car he was riding in made a sharp turn and, in response, he grabbed a handle that opened the door. Etzioni was pulled back into the car at the last moment by his father, but, as noted in his memoir, My Brother’s Keeper, this memory foreshadowed the upcoming doom that would overtake his homeland during the Nazi rule. Later in 1933, Etzioni and his grandparents were walking through the forest next to Frankfurt when they came upon a forest fire. Suddenly, Hitler Youth ventured into the forest, riding in two trucks. Etzioni's grandparents reacted by grabbing Amitai and rushing down the hill, without explaining what happened in this close encounter with the Nazis — feeding into his sense of fear and foreboding.
By the time he turned five, both of his parents had escaped to London, which left Etzioni in the care of his grandparents. Etzioni was smuggled out of Germany soon afterwards, arriving at a train station in Italy with a non-Jewish relative, who soon reunited Etzioni with his parents. Etzioni was stuck with his parents in Athens, Greece for a whole year, unable to enter Palestine since his family was awarded a bachelor permit instead of a family permit. When the paperwork was finally resolved, Etzioni found himself learning Hebrew in Haifa, Palestine in the winter of 1937.
At this time, he began to go by the first name Amitai instead of Werner, since the principal of Etzioni's new school strongly encouraged Etzioni to introduce himself by a Hebrew name. He was given the name Amitai based on the Hebrew word for truth (emet) and the name of Jonah's father in the Old Testament (Amittai). Etzioni moved with his family to a small village, Herzliya Gimmel, which served as a base for an emerging community called Kfar Shmaryahu. When Etzioni was eight, he moved to the new village, where his family was assigned to a small, boxlike new house and a small farming lot. In the spring of 1941, Etzioni's father left to join the Jewish Brigade, which was a Jewish unit formed within the British army. Etzioni, at the age of thirteen, was struggling at school, which then caused his mother to send him to a boarding school in Ben Shemen.
In the spring of 1946, at the age of seventeen, Etzioni dropped out of high school to join the Palmach, the elite commando force of the Haganah, the underground army of the Jewish community of Palestine, and was sent to Tel Yosef for military training. When the Palmach learned that the British police had captured a list of the Palmach members, they were issued new, fake ID cards and had to choose new last names. Amitai Falk chose Etzioni, a pen name he had used when he started writing in Ben Shemen at age 15.
During Etzioni's time in the Palmach, it carried out a campaign of blowing up bridges and police stations to drive out the British, who were blocking Jews escaping post-Holocaust Europe from immigrating to Palestine and standing in the way of the establishment of a Jewish state. In contrast to the Irgun, the Palmach largely sought to affect British and global public opinion rather than cause casualties. Etzioni describes his early life and decision to join the Palmach in the video “The Making of a Peacenik.” Etzioni's Palmach unit participated in the defense of Jerusalem, which was under siege by the Arab Legion. His unit sneaked through Arab lines to fight to defend Jerusalem and to open a corridor to Tel Aviv, participating in the Battles of Latrun and the establishment of the Burma Road.
Following the war, Etzioni spent a year studying at an institute established by Martin Buber. In 1951, he enrolled in the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he completed both BA (1954) and MA (1956) degrees in sociology. In 1957, he went to the United States to study at the University of California, Berkeley, and was a research assistant to Seymour Martin Lipset. He received his PhD in sociology in 1958, completing the degree in the record time of 18 months.
After graduating with his Ph.D., Etzioni then remained in the United States to pursue a career as an academic and public intellectual. He became an American citizen in 1963, shortly after he was elected to the board of Americans for Democratic Action. Etzioni met a fellow student named Hava while studying sociology in Israel. They married in 1953. Etzioni and Hava relocated to the United States in 1957. They had two sons together, Ethan, born in 1958 and Oren, born in 1962. In 1964, Hava and Etzioni divorced and Hava moved back to Israel. In his autobiography, Etzioni writes that the divorce was one of his "gravest personal failures. We should have found a way."
In 1966, Etzioni married Mexican scholar Minerva Morales. They had three sons: Michael, David, and Benjamin. Morales was raised Catholic, but converted to Judaism, Etzioni's religion. On December 20, 1985, Minerva was killed in a car crash. Etzioni has written of his considerable grief over her death and his son Michael. His son, Michael, died of a heart attack in 2006, leaving behind a pregnant wife and a son.
Etzioni provided a personal account of his work and life in a memoir called My Brother's Keeper. He has augmented this account with an essay about losing his voice called "My Kingdom for a Wave." He revealed his early childhood experiences to be the source of his feelings against war and aggression in a short video, called "The Making of a Peacenik." 
Etzioni is the author of over 30 books. About half are academic tomes, the most important of which is The Active Society, and about half are written for the public, especially The Spirit of Community. His early academic work focused on organizational theory, resulting in the often-cited A Comparative Analysis of Complex Organizations, published in 1961. The theory advanced in this book is that variations in two key factors, present in all organizations, determine much about how they function. The two factors are the way the organization uses power to control its people (whether through incentives, sanctions, force, and/or appeals to values) and the ways people approach the organization (which can vary widely, from outright hostility to deep involvement). Thus, organizations that have antagonistic members, who are controlled with force, such as maximum-security prisons, are less likely to rehabilitate than organizations that employ less force and have less resentful members, such as minimum-security prisons. Organizations that pay their members produce work of higher quantity and quality when they also appeal to the values of their members and when their members approve of them than when their members are more ambivalent, which bodes better for professions than factories. The book's implicit normative message is that organizations that appeal to their members’ values are better than those that employ incentives and much better than those that rely on force.
The book was well received in academic circles. A book review in Political Science Quarterly by Peter Fricke called it “a principal text for students of organizations.” The book established Etzioni's academic credentials and led to many studies, which Etzioni reviewed and included in a revised edition of the same title, published in 1975. He expressed the same basic ideas in a much shorter book, Modern Organizations, which was translated into a large number of languages.
Much of Etzioni's best-known work is about communitarianism. According to Etzioni, communitarianism is centered on the communal definition of good. It thus stresses the role of community in social and political life and institutions. It rose in response to libertarianism and some forms of contemporary liberalism, both of which are centered on liberty and individual rights. Modern communitarian thinking was formed in the 1980s and early 1990s, but Etzioni points out that communitarianism can be found in many earlier belief systems and texts, including the Bible, the Koran, Confucianism, and Fabianism. Communitarian ideas were adopted by Western political leaders of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, including British Prime Minister Tony Blair, U.S. Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende, and a German group Die Neue Mitte.
Etzioni often acknowledged that the term communitarian was coined in 1841 by John Goodwyn Barmby, a leader of the British Chartist movement, who used it to refer to utopian socialist ideas. However, in the 1980s, the term gained its current meaning through the work of a small group of mostly American political philosophers, which included Shlomo Avineri, Seyla Benhabib, Avner de-Shalit, Jean Bethke Elshtain, William Galston, Alasdair MacIntyre, Michael J. Sandel, Philip Selznick, Charles Taylor, and Amitai Etzioni.
Etzioni contrasts his version of what he calls “liberal communitarianism” with that championed by some East Asian public intellectuals, who extolled social obligations and accorded much less weight to liberty and individual rights.
Liberal communitarianism, as developed by Etzioni, formulated criteria for developing public policies that enable societies to deal with conflicts between the common good and individual rights. These include: (1) no major change in governing public policies and norms is justified unless society encounters serious challenges, (2) limitations on rights can be considered only if there are significant gains to the common good, and (3) adverse side effects that result from policy changes must be treated by introducing strong measures of accountability and oversight. Etzioni worked this out in two of his books, The Limits of Privacy (1999) and The New Normal (2015).
Etzioni stresses that preferences are, to a significant extent, socially constructed and hence reflect the values of the communities people are members of. Therefore, one should not treat preferences as unadulterated expressions of individual freedom and should allow for public education to improve these preferences when they turn asocial and surely when they turn anti-social in dogmatic liberal societies.
His main communitarian books are The New Golden Rule (1996), The New Normal (2015), Law and Society in a Populist Age (2018), and How Patriotic is the Patriot Act (2005). His communitarian treatment of privacy is spelled out in The Limits of Privacy (1999) and Privacy in a Cyber Age (2015).
Etzioni's contributions to socioeconomics are found in The Moral Dimension (1988) and Happiness is the Wrong Metric (2018). His main argument is that, in neoclassical economics (the governing form of economics), predictions are poor, the theory about human nature is wrong-headed, and the normative implications are negative. He holds that, rather than assuming that people are seeking to maximize their own utility, one should assume that people are conflicted between (1) their commitments to moral values and the common good and (2) their self-interest. He hence characterized people as “moral wrestlers.” He showed that people act mainly as members of social groups, rather than as free-standing agents. Typically, the main issue is not that the government interferes unduly in the market, but that concentrations of economic power in the private sector unduly affect the government and social life.
Etzioni considers The Active Society his most important work. The book was published in 1968. It starts by discussing philosophical questions about the extent to which people have free will and the extent to which human fate is predetermined, beyond our understanding and control. It dives into theories related to steering mechanisms that put people in control of inanimate systems, like factory machines, and then demonstrates that democratic processes must be involved in expanding this type of theory to societies and affecting history. Democracy is crucial, because people must participate in creating the signals to which they will respond.
Later, the book describes the four key parts of a social steering system: decision-making strategies, consensus-building, knowledge, and power. The last part of the book examines human needs and seeks to determine whether they can be altered or whether they remain static. If it is the latter (that human needs are constant), Etzioni looks for ways to guarantee that we restructure society to meet these fixed needs, instead of getting roped into a restructuring scheme that satisfies the needs that society is willing and able to meet, without regard for whether those are the needs that truly need to be met. The Active Society received positive feedback from reviewers, with one reviewer writing that:
I consider this to be one of the most important books in its field in the last twenty years. Apart from its substantive contribution to the strategy of societal activation, it offers a whole focus of immensely valuable perspectives for detailed empirical investigation in the future.
Betty Friedan wrote that The Active Society provided a “philosophical grounding” to her work as a leader of the women's movement. However, not all reviews were positive, which can partially be attributed to a shift in sociology that took place in the 1960s, making the discipline less interested in overarching theories.
Etzioni contributes to bioethics in Genetic Fix. His last book, Reclaiming Patriotism, which he considers his swan song, was published by University of Virginia Press in 2019.
Etzioni was active in the peace movement, the campaign against nuclear weapons, and the protests against the war in Vietnam. This led to two popular books, The Hard Way to Peace (1962) and Winning without War (1964), and, in later years, to From Empire to Community, Security First, Hot Spots, and Foreign Policy: Thinking Outside the Box. He spelled out ways to make China a partner in world order in Avoiding War with China (2017). His main argument in these books is that the world needs a global community and worldwide forms of governance; however, because people are strongly invested in nations, the world is not ready to transition to a global community. Hence, transnational arrangements must continue to be based on national representations. He shows that democracy must be largely homegrown and cannot be introduced by foreign powers through the use of force.
Etzioni has published many scores of academic articles, including law reviews, many of which can be found on SSRN, as well as hundreds of popular articles in the press and online. His papers are deposited with the Library of Congress.
The following books review Etzioni's work: Communitarian Foreign Policy: Amitai Etzioni's Vision, by Nikolas K. Gvosdev; The Active Society Revisited, edited by Wilson Carey McWillaims; Amitai Etzioni zur Einführung, written by Walter Reese-Schafer; and Etzioni's Critical Functionalism Communitarian Origins and Principles, by David Sciulli. See also a short documentary by Kevin Hudson, “The Making of a Peacenik.”
In 2019, Etzioni celebrated his 90th birthday at Arena Stage, where he launched, curated, and moderated a series of civil dialogues, bringing together public intellectuals with differing points of view on various topics. The videos of these dialogues, as well as many of Etzioni's appearances on television, can be found on YouTube.
In Simon Prideaux's "From Organisational Theory to the New Communitarium of Amitai Etzioni", he argues that Etzioni's communitarian methods are archaic, and based upon earlier functionalist definitions of organizations. This is because his methodology fails to address any possible contradictions within the socioeconomic foundations of society. Prideaux states that Etzioni's vision of a communitarian society is "heavily predicated upon what he sees as having gone wrong with present-day social relations"(Prideaux 70). Also, Etzioni's communitarian analysis uses a methodology which existed before the development of an organizational theory. According to Prideaux, Etzioni has taken the methodological influence of structural-functionalism beyond the realms of its organizational branch and fabricated it into a solution to solve the problems of modern society. Etzioni's arguments on the creation of a new communitarian society are restricted to the strengths and weaknesses he witnesses in the American society in which he has lived since the 1950s. This bias "neglects and denies the importance of differences within communities and among communities in different countries." Thus, Etzioni makes the assumption in suggesting that only single identities or homogeneous communities exist. Prideaux calls Etzioni guilty of imposing his Americanized version of community on the rest of the western world.
Elizabeth Frazer, in her book The Problems of Communitarian Politics: Unity and Conflict, argues that Etzioni's concept of the "nature of community" is too vague and elusive, in regards to the idea that the community is involved with every stage of government policies. She also mentions Etzioni's thought that the community has a moral standing equal to that of the individual when she firmly believes it is just the opposite. Warren Breed's The Self-Guiding Society provides a critical overview of The Active Society. David Sciulli's Etzioni's Critical Functionalism: Communitarian Origins and Principles evaluates Etzioni's functionalism.
Etzioni was criticized in 2016 for publishing an article titled "Should Israel Flatten Beirut to Destroy Hezbollah's Missiles?" Lebanese journalist and human rights researcher Kareen Chehayeb called it "ludicrous" that a prominent American professor "can just calmly say the solution is to flatten this entire city of 1 million people." 
Books edited and/or co-authored by Etzioni are not included in this list