Penn State

Burt L. Monroe, III - Professor of Political Science, Penn State University Park

Book Title: The Theory of Committees and Elections

Author: Duncan Black

Book Description:

My early scholarship was influenced strongly by the work of Scottish economist Duncan Black. Eccentric and reclusive, Black played the academic game poorly, and his work was not fully appreciated in its time. Ignored at first, The Theory of Committees and Elections [TCE] has since accumulated over 4,000 citations.


In TCE, Black established the spatial theory of voting, in which voters have preferences over outcomes arrayed from, say, "far left" to "far right," and derived two core results. The first established the conditions under which majority voting has a stable outcome at the position of the median voter. The second is that majority voting generally has no stable outcome.


Black was obsessive about the history of ideas and scholarly credit, a view justified by his own treatment. It is due to Black's own historical scholarship in Part II of TCE, in which he unearths previous discoveries of the majority cycle by Victorian mathematician Charles Dodgson (a.k.a. Lewis Carroll) and further to French Enlightenment figure Nicolas de Condorcet, that the phenomenon is known today as a "Condorcet cycle" rather than a "Black cycle."


In TCE, Black dismisses Carroll's work on proportional representation as "of less significance." He changed his mind, later calling this "the only work in Politics worthy of being placed no more than a single notch below that of Thomas Hobbes." He spent the last 30 years of his life writing and rewriting a book on Carroll's theories, a book I helped bring to publication posthumously (A Mathematical Approach to Proportional Representation: Duncan Black on Lewis Carroll, 1996). Black and Carroll's work inspired my first major journal publication (Fully Proportional Representation, 1995), which has undergone the delightfully Blackian fate of having been largely ignored for 15 years, only to find a completely unintended audience in another discipline (computer science).

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