Donald T. Campbell Social Psychologist and Scholar (1916-1996)

Donald T. Campbell died on May 6, 1996, in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, of complications following surgery. Known throughout the social sciences for his methodological and epistemological contributions, Don Campbell was a charter fellow of APS, a William James Fellow, and a member of the National Academy of Sciences. His death, just a few months short of his 80th birthday, put a premature close to a distinguished and fruitful scholarly career.

Born in Grass Lake, Michigan, on November 20, 1916, Don Campbell was the son of an agronomist who moved his family first to a cattle ranch in Wyoming and then to California where he became an agricultural extension agent. After completing high school in 1934, Campbell took a year away from scholarly pursuits to work on a turkey ranch in Victorville, California ($40 a month plus room and board). Having satisfied his family’s admonition to get some “life experience,” Don began his higher education at San Bernadino Valley Union Junior College and then transferred to the University of California-Berkeley where he graduated at the top of his class (sharing top honors with his sister, Fayette) in 1939. His doctoral studies in Psychology at Berkeley were interrupted by service in the Naval Reserve during World War II, but he returned to Berkeley and completed his PhD there in 1947.

Campbell’s first faculty positions were at Ohio State University (1947-1950) and the University of Chicago (1950-1953), but he found his academic home when he accepted a tenured position in the Department of Psychology at Northwestern University in 1953. It was during his 26-year tenure at Northwestern that Don Campbell made his mark on the field of psychology, trained several generations of doctoral students in social psychology, and published the most well-known of his 200+ scholarly papers. During most of that period, Donald Campbell was the social psychology program at Northwestern, and working with him there was a heady experience where tenets of behaviorism and phenomenology, logical positivism, cultural relativity, and sociobiology were open for intellectual discussion and debate. His sometimes intimidating intellect was tempered by a self-deprecating sense of humor and a mentoring style that encouraged exploration, dissent, and independent thinking. Because he did not demand conformity, his influence stemmed from the power of ideas themselves.

Although a social psychologist by disciplinary identification, Don Campbell’s field of study was the study of scientific inquiry itself. The scope of his scientific contributions cannot be represented in any single piece of work, but if one were to trace his influence on the conduct of behavioral science, his methodological treatises on field research and quasi-experimental design would certainly figure most prominently. His 1963 chapter with Julian Stanley on experimental and quasi-experimental designs for field research settings is still in print and among the most cited works in psychology, rivaled perhaps by Campbell and Fiske’s (1959) multi-trait-multi-method matrix approach to construct validity. Campbell’s commitment to convergent validity through multiple methodologies was modeled in his own research efforts, which ranged from experimental studies of perceptual contrast effects to cross-cultural studies of ethnocentrism and intergroup relations. His research experiences included a stint at what he called “veranda anthropology” when he accompanied ethnographer Robert A. LeVine in fieldwork among the Gusii of East Africa in 1964. Recognizing that the achievements of the behavioral and social sciences lay as much in their methodology as in substance, Donald Campbell consistently and effectively advocated the application of social science methods to social change. His “Reforms as Experiments” (published in 1969) reflected his philosophy of an experimenting society and helped to launch an entire industry of program evaluation research.

Campbell’s meta-methodological contributions were just one manifestation of a broader intellectual agenda that underscored all of his work. This was the theme of blind-variation-and-selective-retention as a model for knowledge acquisition at all levels of organization, from biological to social evolution. Through this lens, Campbell revealed the parallels among such apparently diverse processes as visual perception, trial-and-error learning, and the transmission of cultural norms. His penchant for philosophy of science culminated in his work on “evolutionary epistemology,” and in most recent years, a focus on the sociology of science. His contributions served to link behavioral science and epistemology so as to enrich both enterprises. On the one side, he taught several generations of social scientists to recognize the epistemological foundations of their methods of inquiry-to understand that empirical research is a way of knowing and not merely a set of procedures. On the other side, he brought the empirical achievements of the behavioral sciences to bear on fundamental philosophical questions, promoting a kind of descriptive epistemology that has gained adherents among philosophers of science worldwide.

Donald Campbell was a master of neologisms. He took impish pride in introducing such awkward concepts and phrases as “entitativity,” “heterogeneity of irrelevancies,” and “the fish-scale model of collective omniscience.” (Some of us suspected that this habit was a form of displaced “punsterism.”) But despite the grumblings of linguistic purists, Campbellian phrases had an elegant simplicity that captured complex ideas more succinctly and memorably than any pedestrian writing style ever could.

Campbell closed a chapter in his academic and personal life when he left Northwestern in 1979 to accept a position as New York State Board of Regents Albert Schweitzer Professor at the Maxwell School of Syracuse University.

A few years later (1982) he moved again to become University Professor of Social Relations, Psychology, and Education at Lehigh University, where his second wife, anthropologist Barbara Frankel, was a member of the faculty. At Lehigh he had the opportunity to indulge his expansive intellectual interests without the constraints of disciplinary boundaries.

On the occasion of his “quasi-retirement” from Lehigh in 1994, at the age of 77, a banquet in his honor included colleagues from psychology, biology, philosophy, sociology, education, anthropology, and law-many of whom had been co-teachers or co-authors in interdisciplinary ventures. The occasion was a fitting tribute to Don Campbell’s intellectual breadth and scope of contribution. In addition to his election to the National Academy and to Fellow status in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1973, Campbell ‘s many honors included APA’s Distinguished

Scientific Contribution Award, the Kurt Lewin Memorial Award of the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues, the Distinguished Scientist Award of the Society of Experimental Social Psychology, and the William James Lectureship at Harvard University. Another measure of the esteem and admiration of his colleagues is those who have dedicated books to him (17 such dedications at last count). Campbell also received honorary doctorates from the University of Michigan, University of Chicago, University of Southern California, Northwestern University, and University of Oslo, among others. Memorial awards and fellowships in Donald Campbell’s honor have been established by the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, the Policy Studies Organization, Lehigh University Department of Sociology and Anthropology, and the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences.

Don Campbell’s awesome intellect was matched by the size of his heart. He inspired both love and respect from students and colleagues throughout the world. His presence will be greatly missed, but his influence will continue for a long time to come.


Nicely done tribute to Don Campbell. His influence on my research has been substantial. My experience as his graduate student during the period of 1962-1966 was however disappointing. This may have been a difficult period for Don. Win Hill and Harold Guetzkow admirably filled mentoring roles for me. I am thankful to them for providing an excellent graduate school experience… and to Don for encouraging an independence of thought that has served me well for more than 50 years.

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