Norman Hugh Nie, a Stanford political scientist and entrepreneur, died April 2 of complications from lung cancer at his Sun Valley, Idaho, home with family and friends at his side. He had turned 72 the day prior.

Norman H. Nie / L.A. Cicero

Norman Nie’s academic pursuits sculpted more nuanced views of the American voter, while his technological and business endeavors revolutionized how social scientists analyze data. (Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

Nie’s academic pursuits sculpted more nuanced views of the American voter, while his technological and business endeavors revolutionized how social scientists analyze data. He began and ended his academic career at Stanford, bookending decades of research into how and why voters and consumers make the choices they make.

“Norman had a rare combination of a keen scientific mind, business savvy and innovative spirit,” said Irena Stepanikova, who was one of Nie’s doctoral students at Stanford and is now an associate professor of sociology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

Influential and controversial

That savvy and innovative spirit was evident when Nie was a graduate student in political science at Stanford in the 1960s. He and two colleagues, fellow Stanford graduate student Dale Bent and Stanford alumnus C. Hadlai “Tex” Hull, developed a software package to perform the complex statistical analyses often required for social science research. Their software, Statistical Package for the Social Sciences, or SPSS, automated, standardized and streamlined the often cumbersome data analysis process for researchers.

From Stanford, Nie launched two careers, one academic and one business. He moved to the University of Chicago in 1968. That same year, he, Bent and Hull released the inaugural version of SPSS and continued to develop their software. They incorporated it as a company in 1975, with Nie as chief executive officer until 1992.

“His scholarly work was enormously influential and controversial. But Norman had another life that was, at the time, quite unusual for an academic,” said Douglas Rivers, Stanford professor of political science. “He had built a large and successful company, SPSS, that developed statistical software.”

After stepping down as CEO, Nie continued as chair of the board of SPSS until 2008. Not long after, IBM purchased SPSS for $1.2 billion. In addition to SPSS, Nie was CEO of Revolution Analytics, a software firm. He was also co-founder and chair of the Internet research and survey firm Knowledge Networks.

‘Quite a character’

Born in St. Louis in 1943, Nie earned a bachelor’s degree in 1964 from Washington University in St. Louis. He completed work for his doctoral degree from Stanford in 1970, two years after he became a faculty member at the University of Chicago. He earned tenure in Chicago in 1972, became a full professor in 1977 and twice served as chair of the political science department. After 30 years at the University of Chicago, Nie returned to his graduate alma mater in 1998 to form the Stanford Institute for the Quantitative Study of Society, where he mentored many graduate students.

Rivers, his colleague in political science, said, “He was quite a character: always bold and aggressive in anything he attempted, yet generous and loyal to those he encountered. He quickly attracted a set of graduate students at Stanford, and continued to produce first-rate scholarship until he died.”

Former student Stepanikova noted, “He loved research and motivated his students by his boundless enthusiasm for science. He wanted a lot from us but also knew how to support us and provide mentorship.”

Nie was an expert on voting behavior. He researched how education levels impact political engagement and whether changing political climates influence beliefs among the general public. His more recent research at Stanford also explored topics such as the role of the Internet in social isolation, political polarization and voter engagement.

Prolific writer

Nie published dozens of articles and co-authored four books on 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. One frequent collaborator was Sidney Verba, Nie’s doctoral advisor at Stanford and later faculty colleague at the University of Chicago.

Nie received numerous professional awards. Twice, he received the Woodrow Wilson Award from the Wilson Center for his books; his scholarly work also received the Gladys Kammerer Award from the American Political Science Association. In 2006, the American Association for Public Opinion Research honored him with a lifetime achievement award. In 2009, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences elected him as a fellow.

To his colleagues, those achievements are the legacy of a life lived in constant pursuit of answers and explanations.

David Brady, a political science professor at Stanford, said: “Norman was an extraordinary colleague who never settled for answers to smaller questions. He always wanted to know the answer to the important questions in social science and in life. He and his wife, Carol, exemplified Tom Stoppard’s line in Arcadia, ‘It’s the wanting to know that makes us matter.'”

Nie met Carol in college at Washington University. They were married for 51 years until his death. His survivors include daughters Anne Nie and Lara Slotwiner-Nie, son-in-law Peter Slotwiner-Nie, and granddaughters Sophia and Helena Slotwiner-Nie. He was buried in St. Louis.

James Urton is an intern at Stanford News Service.