Peter M. Blau, the son of nonpracticing Jews, was born on February 7, 1918, the year that the Austro-Hungarian Empire fell. While in high school, Blau wrote articles for the underground socialist worker’s newspaper. Arrested at age 17, he was convicted of high treason and incarcerated by the Austrian fascist government. Meanwhile, Hitler was attempting to build the Nazi Party in Austria. That same year, 1936, the Austrian chancellor Kurt Schuschnigg conceded to Hitler that he would lift the ban on political activity, and so freed all political dissidents. Blau was allowed to finish high school.
Hitler and his troops officially took over power of Austria on March 13, 1938. Blau, having applied for a visa to emigrate, attempted to cross the Czech border. There the Nazi border patrol captured him and tortured and detained him for two months.
He lived in Prague until the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia. Peter returned to visit his family for one night. He managed to go by the last train to France, where he was arrested and detained in a labor camp as an "enemy alien." When his visa number came up, he waited in Le Havre for passage and had the good fortune to meet theologians who, to his great surprise and exceeding pleasure, gave him a refugee scholarship to attend Elmhurst College.
Blau attended Elmhurst College in Illinois, majoring in sociology. After completing his BA, Blau volunteered for the U.S. Army and served in the Normandy Invasion. He later learned that his family had been murdered in Auschwitz in May 1942, the same year he graduated from college.
His sociological writings amplify his conviction that democracy and human reason will prevail and his belief that one can judge a society by the extent that it fosters fairness and equality. He was profoundly skeptical of claims to personal authority, as distinct from ethical imperatives that emanated from widely shared norms. For his achievements, Blau received notable distinctions: election to the National Academy of Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the presidency of the American Sociological Society. He taught at the University of Chicago, Columbia University, the State University of New York at Albany, Tianjin University, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Blau continued to enjoy teaching into his eighties.
Blau did pioneering work in four areas of sociology: organizations, social exchange, stratification, and inter-group relations. While his empirical work on organizations of many kinds was central to the development of organizational sociology, and Exchange and Power in Social Life (1964) continues to influence research on interpersonal interaction, here only the latter two areas are highlighted.
With his coauthor Otis Dudley Duncan, Blau, in The American Occupational Structure (1967), developed a radical new way of studying intergenerational social mobility. This work examined how social stratification occurs across generations and how factors such as education, occupation, and income determine an individual’s status to a lesser or greater degree than the parents’ status. This work stimulated an entire field of substantive research on occupation and mobility while developing new methods of structural equation modeling and processes of analyzing multidimensional data that remain in use.
Inequality and Heterogeneity (1977) and Crosscutting Social Circles, coauthored with Joseph Schwartz (1984), deal thematically with the sorts of social conditions in metropolitan communities that best bridge group differences. In Inequality and Heterogeneity, Blau lays out three parameters of communities: the extent to which communities are diverse along multiple dimensions; the extent to which there are prevailing inequalities; and the extent to which inequalities cut across group differences or are confounded with group differences. In Crosscutting Social Circles, Blau and Schwartz examine variation within 125 metropolitan communities, focusing on the extent to which inequalities are random or vary systematically across and within groups. Next they ask how such variation affects intergroup relations, as measured by intermarriage, and how heterogeneity promotes social equality.
In a career of more than fifty years, Blau played an important role in shaping the field of modern sociology. Many of the inquiries upon which he embarked became the basis for new fields and methodologies of mainstream sociology. His theories of social exchange, social structure, wealth distribution, diversity, and social reproduction are still widely used.
Blau conveyed in his writings a confidence that American institutions are inherently reasonable and that American educational institutions are open. He was optimistic that American society would be increasingly inclusive. As a private citizen, he was a socialist, supported dissenters and activists, and was impatient with the United States for being less than what he dreamed it to be in his early years. His political and social convictions are veiled in his work, as perhaps was the case with other social scientists of his generation.
Except in Exchange and Power in Social Life, which advances a number of sensitizing concepts, Blau used statistical techniques to answer the questions he posed. Heavily influenced by Karl Popper’s approach to scientific reasoning and falsification of hypotheses, much of Blau’s work illustrates how rigorous social science can be, while it masks his understanding of the important role that an author’s passion for truth and justice plays in scholarly pursuits.