The American political scientist Vladimir Orlando Key, Jr. (1908-1963), played an extremely influential role in the development of the now predominant behavioral, or empirical, approach to the study of politics.
After spending his early life in Texas and receiving much of his education there, V. O. Key attended McMurray College in Abilene for 2 years and then the University of Texas, where he received a bachelor of arts degree in 1929 and a master of arts degree in 1930. He went to the University of Chicago for his doctoral work. There he came under the influence of Charles E. Merriam, the leading figure in the "Chicago school" of political science. The intention of the Chicago school was to explore and develop new methods of studying political and administrative behavior. It pioneered in the use of statistics, the use of filed methods, the study of the role of psychology in politics, and especially the realistic approach that focused on power and power relations. In this atmosphere Key wrote his doctoral dissertation, The Techniques of Political Graft in the United States. His approach was not to moralize about graft but to analyze it from the standpoint of the function it played in the political system.
After teaching for a short time at the University of California at Los Angeles, Key went to Washington in 1936, where he was first associated with the Social Science Research Council, and he later served as a staff member of the National Resources Planning Board. In 1938 he was appointed to the faculty of Johns Hopkins University. At the outset of World War II, however, he returned to Washington, where he served several years with the U.S. Bureau of the Budget.
Key's pioneering approach to the study of politics was evident in 1942 in the first of many editions of his extremely influential text Politics, Parties, and Pressure Groups. Unlike earlier studies which were merely party histories, Key focused on the interest groups that contend for power and on their functions in the party system and the whole political process. Following World War II, he published his landmark work Southern Politics in State and Nation (1949). The work received the Woodrow Wilson Foundation Award for 1949 and inspired a number of other regional studies. Innovative in its approach, it analyzed local election returns and extensive in-depth interviews.
Following the publication of Southern Politics, Key was appointed Alfred Cowles professor of government and chairman of the department at Yale University. Preferring research to such administrative duties, he moved to Harvard in 1951 as Jonathan Trumbull professor of history and government. In 1954 he published A Primer of Statistics for Political Scientists, a general introduction to statistics with advice on research strategy. The work accomplished its purpose, giving considerable impetus to the study of statistics and the use of quantitative methods in political science.
In 1956 Key published American State Politics, a pioneering study of the functioning of two-party and one-party states in which he utilized aggregate election returns. While troubled by ill health during much of this period, Key nevertheless managed to accomplish a prodigious amount of work and in 1958 was elected to the presidency of the American Political Science Association. In 1959 he coauthored with Frank Munger "Social Determinism and Electoral Decision," a paper critical of the early sociological approach to the study of voting which maintained that social characteristics determined political preference.
In 1961 Key published Public Opinion and American Democracy, a massive study on American political culture, in which he attempted to explore the patterns and distribution of opinions, the ways in which they are formed, and the links between mass opinions and the operations of the structural machinery of government.
Although his health had become much worse, Key continued working to the very end. His last work was The Responsible Electorate, published posthumously with the assistance of his former student Milton Cummings, Jr., in 1966. This work challenged the conclusions of many leading works on the study of voting behavior by arguing that there was a greater degree of rationality involved in voting than had been commonly inferred.
Further Reading on Vladimir Orlando Key Jr
No biographical work on Key exists. Useful background works for the problems with which he was concerned are David Easton, The Political System: An Inquiry into the State of Political Science (1953), and William T. Bluhm, Theories of the Political System (1965).