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Fenno grew up in Boston and served in the U.S. Navy during World War II. After the war, he graduated from Amherst College in 1948 and completed a Ph.D. degree in political science under William Yandell Elliott at Harvard University in 1956. Fenno moved in 1958 to the University of Rochester, where he is now an emeritus professor.
Fenno's books Congressmen in Committees (1973) and Home Style: House Members in Their Districts (1978) (for which he won the first D.B. Hardeman Prize) established him as a leading scholar of American politics. With Bill Riker, Fenno built the reputation of Rochester's political science department. Riker focused positive political science, while Fenno focused on establishing Rochester as a center for congressional studies.
Fenno's trademark style of political science research is sometimes referred to as "Soak and Poke" (see Fenno 1986). Rather than relying primarily on data sets or rational choice theory, Fenno undertakes empirical observation of the movements of political actors on the stage of politics. His most famous book Home Style is written in this fashion.
Fenno won the American Political Science Association's (APSA) Woodrow Wilson Award for the best book in political science in 1978 for Home Style. In 1996, the Association for Budgeting & Financial Management awarded Fenno its Aaron Wildavsky Award for Lifetime Scholarly Achievement in Public Budgeting, for his work on Congress and appropriations. Congress at the Grassroots won the 2001 V.O. Key Award for the best book on southern politics.
Fenno has served as book review editor of the American Political Science Review (1968–1971), as a director of the Social Science Research Council, and as president of APSA (1984–1985). He is also a member of the National Academy of Sciences and a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Since 1986, APSA's Legislative Studies Section has awarded the Richard F. Fenno Jr. Prize for the best book on legislative studies.
Fenno's archival collection is housed at the University of Rochester's River Campus Libraries Department of Rare Books, Special Collections, and Preservation. Research interview and oral history notes are also housed at the National Archives Center for Legislative Activities.
Fenno was elected the president of the American Political Science Association (APSA) in 1984.
- The President’s Cabinet: An Analysis in the Period from Wilson to Eisenhower. 1959. Harvard University Press.
- The Power of the Purse: Appropriations Politics in Congress. 1966. Little, Brown.
- Congressmen in Committees. 1973. Little, Brown.
- Home Style: House Members in their Districts. 1978. Little, Brown.
- "Observation, Context, and Sequence in the Study of Politics." 1986. American Political Science Review 80(1): 3-15.
- "Strategy and Sophisticated Voting in the Senate." 1994. Journal of Politics 56(2): 349-376. (with Randall L. Calvert).
- Senators on the Campaign Trail: The Politics of Representation. 1996. University of Oklahoma Press.
- Congress at the Grassroots: Representational Change in the South, 1970-1998. 2000. University of North Carolina Press.
- Going Home: Black Representatives and their Constituents. 2003. University of Chicago Press.
- Congressional Travels: Places, Connections, and Authenticity. 2007. Pearson/Longman.