Norman H. Nie, leading scholar of American political behavior and public opinion, 1943–2015

Norman H. Nie, a political scientist and inventor of the Statistical Package for the Social Sciences, or SPSS, computer software technology that changed the way social scientists analyze data, died April 2, one day after his 72nd birthday. Nie had lung cancer.

Working with two computer scientist friends in 1968, Nie created SPSS to automate the analysis of quantitative data for his own dissertation.

“SPSS was a pioneer in the development of software for statistical analysis in the social sciences, and the program was widely used in academia, the media and business,” said John Mark Hansen, the Charles L. Hutchinson Distinguished Service Professor in political science. “At one time, Norman was the most cited political scientist by an order of magnitude because of references to SPSS.”

“SPSS was a real game-changer because of its ability to handle large data sets and to track a lot of variables,” said Norman Bradburn, the Tiffany and Margaret Blake Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in psychology, senior fellow at NORC at the University of Chicago and the former director of NORC when Nie started his academic career there.

Nie served as CEO of SPSS from 1975 to 1992, and continued as chairman of the board until 2008. SPSS was sold to IBM for $1.2 billion after Nie left the board. “As long as Norman was involved in SPSS, it continued to address developments for social science research,” Bradburn said, but after the sale, “SPSS became more commercial and not as focused on academic research.”

Nie was elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2009 in recognition of his scholarship on U.S. political behavior and public opinion and his role in the creation of infrastructures for social scientific research. At Chicago, he co-authored four major books in political science, Participation in America: Political Democracy and Social Equality, The Changing American Voter, Participation and Political Equality and Education and Democratic Citizenship in America, along with dozens of articles.

Considered a landmark study, Participation in America introduced the idea of “modes” of political involvement, uncovered the role of education in promoting participation and explored the way group solidarity and political institutions support political activism. The Changing American Voter opened an important debate about the impact of political change on the beliefs of the American electorate. In much of his work, Nie collaborated with Sidney Verba, his thesis adviser at Stanford and faculty colleague at Chicago.

Nie joined the University of Chicago faculty in 1968, at age 25, and advanced rapidly up the ranks, earning promotion to tenure in 1972 and to professor in 1977. He served twice as department chair and retired in 1998. He then took an appointment at Stanford University, where he had earned his PhD in 1970. A native of St. Louis, Nie received his bachelor’s degree from Washington University in 1964.

Bradburn described Nie as being very energetic and a man who enjoyed life. The family’s obituary for Nie offered this description: “Nie mentored hundreds of students throughout his career and was often described by colleagues as a force of nature; a man of vast energy and ambition; omnivorous curiosity, deep intellect, immense creativity and everyday humanity.”

One student who calls Nie a mentor, colleague and friend is Jane Junn, AM’87, PhD’94, who is now a professor of political science at the University of Southern California. Junn said she started working with Nie in 1985 as a research assistant. She co-authored a book with him in 1996 that won the prestigious Woodrow Wilson Award, and they remained colleagues and friends. “Norman was fun to be with, hilarious...a very loyal friend and always in your corner, even beyond the academic setting,” said Junn. “He was a great listener and always open to new ideas.”

Nie was also the recipient of the lifetime achievement award from the American Association of Public Opinion Research in recognition of his contributions to the use and methodology of opinion surveys.

In 1998, Nie co-founded Knowledge Networks, an Internet survey research firm where he was chairman of the board. He was also the CEO of Revolution Analytics, a commercial software company, and served on the boards of numerous technology firms.

“Norman really had two careers,” said Hansen. “His scholarship on political participation was one of the foundational contributions to the field. It won awards and is a staple of course syllabi and research bibliographies. His activities as a business entrepreneur at SPSS and then Knowledge Networks were also enormously influential.” Hansen added, “Either career would be recognized as significant; that Norman had both is just incredible.”

Nie is survived by his wife of 51 years, Carol, daughters Anne Nie, Lara Slotwiner-Nie, son-in-law Peter Slotwiner-Nie, and granddaughters Sophia Slotwiner-Nie and Helena Slotwiner-Nie.

A private burial was held in St. Louis and a public memorial will be held at a later date.