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August 29, 1996

Jiri Nehnevajsa

A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. on Sept. 13 in Heinz Chapel for sociology professor Jiri Nehnevajsa, who died on July 31, 1996, of cancer, a few days before his 71st birthday.

He had been a professor at the University since 1961 and was chairperson of sociology from 1962 to 1966 and again from 1994 to 1995. His was a far-ranging and exciting career.

He was a man whose principles and values were formed at a time of bitter conflicts and great danger. In June 1944, under the Nazi occupation, he graduated from high school in Brno, Czechoslovakia. Being deeply opposed to the Nazis, he somehow managed to cross Europe amidst the raging war to join the Royal Air Force, Czechoslovak Section in England for training in the United Kingdom until the end of the war. Even as a student at Masaryk University, he was engaged in both analysis and action, working as a journalist while pursuing his studies. He was committed to democratic values and the idea of freedom: He passionately opposed the imposition of Communism on Czechoslovakia just as he had opposed Nazism.

In 1948 he escaped from Czechoslovakia to Switzerland. He then arranged to spirit his fiance, Vera Jelinkova, out of Czechoslovakia. They were married on Jan. 13, 1949, in Innsbruck, Austria.

There was a streak of swashbuckling heroism in Jiri Nehnevajsa. But there was also high intelligence and a rock hard commitment to sociological science and its necessary service to enhance democratic debate and to provide a factual base for policy choices.

He studied sociology at the Universities of Lausanne and Zürich in Switzerland and completed his doctorate in Zürich under Rene König. In January 1951 he came to the United States under the Displaced Persons Act of 1948. In 1956, he became an American citizen.

His sociological work was strongly grounded in empirical research. He was a very skillful survey researcher, but used a broad array of other methodologies as well. In large part his work was devoted to understanding the dynamics of social change as they are affected by people's perceptions of the future and their interactions with the ensuing actual outcomes. His approach lent itself especially well to the study of perceptions of risks and their effects on actions. Over three decades he built data banks on disaster and emergency research literature and surveys. He studied carefully the credibility and acceptance of emergency management programs.

He saw the role of professional social research as providing decision makers — be they the electorate at large, agencies, governments or others — with factual knowledge about the contexts of their actions and the options open to them. His vision of sociology was that of an applied science, a necessary tool of democratic society. His grand ideal was that sociology ultimately could enable open societies to improve their ability in directing their own fate. Its contributions would reduce the power of un-understood forces buffeting society blindly. This is a conception that sees sociology as a science in the service of social progress.

The sponsors of his studies included the National Science Foundation (where he resided for several years as program associate and senior policy analyst in the Technology and Risk Analysis Program), the U.S. Air Force Office of Scientific Research, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, several other government agencies and many private foundations and local agencies in Pittsburgh as well as in other countries.

At Pitt he helped to establish an applied sociology program and the University Center for Social and Urban Research. This institution had been initially inspired by Paul Lazarsfeld, who was University Professor of Sociology at Pitt after his distinguished service at Columbia University, where he created the Bureau of Applied Social Research. Jiri Nehnevajsa served with Lazarsfeld at Columbia from 1956 to 1961.

For Nehnevajsa the role of sociology was necessarily of international scope. He spoke Czech, English, German, French and could read Spanish and Russian. His involvement in and contributions to the rebirth of sociology in the People's Republic of China could be the most significant illustration of his international work.

When our distinguished Pittsburgh colleague C. K. Yang, the Chinese American sociologist, was invited in 1964 to help build a sociology department at the fledgling Chinese University of Hong Kong, he asked Jiri Nehnevajsa and me to join him in this ambitious effort. C. K. Yang then estimated that about 15 years later China would begin to open its doors and he hoped that the three of us would be the first Western sociologists in China at that time. His prediction was uncannily correct. A strong relationship between sociology at The Chinese University of Hong Kong and Pittsburgh has emerged since the 1960s. Jiri Nehnevajsa served for a time as professor of sociology and director of the Social Research Centre there. A powerful focus of scholarly work on China developed at Pitt as well. In December 1979, Jiri Nehnevajsa, C. K. Yang, Pitt Chancellor Wesley W. Posvar, and I were the first four American social scientists in many years to lecture at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences on the role of social science in public policy in the United States.

In direct connection with these lectures, Deputy Prime Minister Yao Yi Lin declared the re-establishment of sociology at that time a priority of the government. There ensued a program of providing education and training in empirical sociology to Chinese students and professionals over more than a decade in which Jiri Nehnevajsa and we participated.

After 1989 Jiri Nehnevajsa renewed his ties with his homeland Czechoslovakia, later mostly with the Czech Republic. In 1990 he received an honorary doctorate from Masaryk University. He continued to be active in the Czechoslovak Society of Arts and Sciences, serving as its president from 1984 to 1988.

In fact, his international service spanned the globe. He served as professor of sociology in Germany, Hong Kong, China and the Czech Republic. Committed to his principles and vision of sociology with a passion, Jiri Nehnevajsa was not always easy. He could be harsh in debate. Yet he was a deeply loyal colleague, friend and teacher. He will be missed by his fellow sociologists, his friends and by his former students around the world.

He is survived by his wife Vera; three sons, Peter Bruce, David Jan and Michael George, and nine grandchildren.

Memorial contributions can be made to the American Cancer Society.

–Burkart Holzner (Burkart Holzner is director of the University Center for International Studies.)

Filed under: Feature,Volume 29 Issue 1

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