Richard P. Taub, esteemed sociologist who studied Chicago neighborhoods, 1937–2020

UChicago scholar, policy expert on community development beloved by students, colleagues

Editor’s note: The campus community is invited to a virtual memorial for Prof. Richard Taub at 4 p.m. CST Jan. 21. RSVP to attend via the Zoom registration link.

Richard P. Taub, a prolific and wide-ranging University of Chicago sociologist who dedicated his career to studying urban economic development and public policy, especially in Chicago neighborhoods, died Aug. 19. He was 83.

The Paul Klapper Professor Emeritus in the Social Sciences, the Department of Comparative Human Development and the Department of Sociology, Taub studied economic development, entrepreneurship, community development, poverty and public policy for five decades at UChicago. He also founded the undergraduate public policy major in the 1970s and chaired it for 35 years.

“Some people are born to be leaders, and Richard Taub was one of them,” said Richard Shweder, the Harold H. Swift Distinguished Service Professor of Comparative Human Development and Taub’s friend of more than 50 years. “His candor, compassion, decency, commitment to students, dedication to interdisciplinary scholarship, entrepreneurial talents and ability to transcend factional differences made him beloved to his colleagues and the department’s natural leader.”

Born in Brooklyn, New York on April 16, 1937, Taub earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan in 1959, then went on to Harvard University, where he earned his MA in 1962 and PhD in 1966. At Harvard, he was mentored by sociologist Alex Inkeles and anthropologist Cora Du Bois, who encouraged him to go to India, where he did his first field research. Taub focused his dissertation on the challenges faced by the Indian Administrative Service during the modernization of the Indian state of Orissa (now Odisha)—research that became the foundation of his first book, Bureaucrats Under Stress: Administrators and Administration in an Indian State. This work also laid the groundwork for his later book Entrepreneurship in India's Small-Scale Industries: An Exploration of Social Contexts (with Doris L. Taub), which explored the potentials and limits of government intervention in supporting small business development.

After beginning his academic career at Brown University, Taub joined the UChicago faculty in 1969, and expanded his field research to include Chicago-based urban sociology. He eventually became a leading proponent of immersive sociology fieldwork in the city in which he worked. Taub required his graduate students not only to observe community spaces, like bars and laundromats, but also to befriend people in the neighborhoods where they were conducting research.

“People who don’t do field research sometimes assume that it’s easy. But it isn’t. It requires that you build trust,” Taub told The University of Chicago Chronicle in 2004. “It’s not like an experiment where you’re paying people to participate. You depend on your ability to create good will in order to make successful fieldwork happen. And you have to make sense of the rich and diverse activity bombarding your senses.”

In Chicago, Taub focused on demographic turnover and the problems caused by practices like redlining, which lead to disinvestment and the decline of local communities. He also studied how local solidarity could keep communities strong and reinvestment could make weakened communities strong again. His major works in this area include Paths of Neighborhood Change (with D. Garth Taylor and Jan D. Dunham); Community Capitalism: Banking Strategies and Economic Development; and There Goes the Neighborhood: Racial, Ethnic, and Class Tensions in Four Chicago Neighborhoods and their Meaning for America (with William Julius Wilson).

Taub’s research in Community Capitalism focused on the role of the South Shore Bank in the local community. When the bank was asked by then-Gov. Bill Clinton and the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation to create the country’s first rural community development bank in Arkansas, Taub extended his research to that state, eventually writing the research monograph Doing Development in Arkansas: Using Credit to Create Opportunity for Entrepreneurs Outside the Mainstream.

Taub was also noted for his teaching and mentoring, inspiring generations of UChicago students. He received the Llewelyn John and Harriet Manchester Quantrell Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching in 1976, and the Faculty Award for Excellence in Graduate Teaching in 2004.

“Richard Taub was a fierce critic with a great heart,” said Elisabeth Clemens, the William Rainey Harper Distinguished Service Professor of Sociology and the College at UChicago. “Those traits made him a determined builder. He had an eye for projects with potential that others did not always see; with his combination of intellectual enthusiasm, constant challenge, and friendship, that potential was often realized.”

In a message to faculty in the Division of the Social Sciences, Dean Amanda Woodward described Taub as a “master and aficionado” of undergraduate teaching. In honor of his 35 years overseeing the public policy major, the College established the annual Richard P. Taub Lecture and BA Thesis Prize, which is awarded by the Harris School of Public Policy to three undergraduates with outstanding senior theses.

“The academic framework of public policy, along with its spirit, continues to reflect his contributions and care,” said Sr. Lect. Jim Leitzel, co-chair of public policy studies in the College. “The ongoing attempt to merge academic rigor with policy relevance and the special attention to social inequality—these are among Richard Taub’s legacies to the public policy major. … We are all Taubians, even if we don’t know it.”

Taub also loved graduate teaching and was a dedicated and effective advisor, serving on more than 100 dissertation committees across several departments and schools.

“He was witty, eclectic and kind to everyone he met and was a colossal figure on campus and integral to its history,” said Brian Tuohy, PhD’18, now a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. “Anytime we would go for a walk from his office to the sociology department, we would be stopped by dozens of people who wanted to talk to him—from students to administrators to full professors. He was loved and admired by so many.”

Taub also held many prestigious administrative appointments over his tenure at the University, including director of the Program for Urban Neighborhoods, associate dean of the College and chair of the Department of Comparative Human Development, which he led for 12 years.

“Richard cared deeply about the welfare of the University as a collegial institution and as a mutually supporting community of friends,” said John W. Boyer, dean of the College. “In his roles as associate dean of the College, and as the very successful director of our public policy program, Richard was a wise counselor and effective administrator, and someone who understood that to protect the mission and identity of the College one needed to be open to structural innovation and intellectual risk-taking.”

He was preceded in death by his first wife Doris Leventhal Taub, and his brother David S. Taub. He is survived by his wife Betty Farrell; his children with Doris, daughter Neela and partner Vanessa S.C. Prell, son Zach and wife Nachi Iijima-Taub; grandsons Noah and Elijah; and sister-in-law Linda Lewin Taub.

“Richard was a force of nature in all aspects of his life,” Taub’s wife, Betty Farrell said. “He was known to be a person of unflinching honesty, but was always compassionate, generous, and fully and passionately engaged. He was deeply committed to building and nurturing community, and his presence filled a huge space in my life, in the lives of his children Neela and Zach, and of our extended family.”

Taub’s legacy lives on in family, friends, colleagues, former students, and communities in both Chicago and Santa Fe (his second home). In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be sent to Crossroads Fund in Chicago; Santa Fe Community Foundation; or the American Civil Liberties Union.

A memorial honoring his work and life will be announced at a future date.