Social Science in the Crucible: The American Debate over Objectivity and Purpose, 1918-1941

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The 1920s and 30s were key decades for the history of American social science. The success of such quantitative disciplines as economics and psychology during World War I forced social scientists to reexamine their methods and practices and to consider recasting their field as a more objective science separated from its historical foundation in social reform. The debate that ensued, fiercely conducted in books, articles, correspondence, and even presidential addresses, made its way into every aspect of social science thought of the period and is the subject of this book.
Mark C. Smith first provides a historical overview of the controversy over the nature and future of the social sciences in early twentieth-century America and, then through a series of intellectual biographies, offers an intensive study of the work and lives of major figures who participated in this debate. Using an extensive range of materials, from published sources to manuscript collections, Smith examines "objectivists"—economist Wesley Mitchell and political scientist Charles Merriam—and the more "purposive thinkers"—historian Charles Beard, sociologist Robert Lynd, and political scientist and neo-Freudian Harold Lasswell. He shows how the debate over objectivity and social purpose was central to their professional and personal lives as well as to an understanding of American social science between the two world wars. These biographies bring to vivid life a contentious moment in American intellectual history and reveal its significance in the shaping of social science in this country.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"As a collective intellectual biography of some of the foremost social science thinkers of the early to mid-century, this book provides perhaps the clearest picture yet of the dilemmas facing the scholar-as-democratic reformer. Smith manages a judicious blend of the personal biography and individual career path with a penetrating account of the subject's main writings and intellectual contributions. His book should be read by a large, interdisciplinary audience."—Leon Fink, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

"This is a superb piece of work. There is nothing quite like this book in the available literature and it will nicely supplement the best of previously published accounts of the history of social science in the United States. It is also an important intervention in the current debate about the decline of the public intellectual."—Robert Westbrook, University of Rochester

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822314974
  • Publisher: Duke University Press Books
  • Publication date: 9/28/1994
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 360
  • Lexile: 1510L (what's this?)
  • Product dimensions: 6.02 (w) x 8.97 (h) x 1.03 (d)

Meet the Author

Mark C. Smith is Assistant Professor of American Studies and History at the University of Texas, Austin.

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Read an Excerpt

Social Science in the Crucible

The American Debate Over Objectivity and Purpose, 1918â"1941

By Mark C. Smith

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1994 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-9808-0


American Social Science: Moralism and the Scientific Method

* * *

American social science has always suffered from an ambivalence found in its very name. As science it represents the amoral, empirical, antitheo-retical approach of the technical method that Daniel Boorstin among others has championed as the characteristic nature of American thought and action. Scientific method deals with how to do things and do them most efficiently; it is unconcerned with the issue of what to do. Yet social science is also social thought and thus contains, especially in America, a traditional consistent concern for social welfare and the directing of society toward preconceived moral ends. Since the time of the Mayflower Compact and John Winthrop's "A Modell of Christian Charitie," American thinking on society has possessed this normative concern for the welfare of individuals within society. As heir to both traditions, American social scientists have attempted to integrate the two. Yet from the time social science was founded in the late nineteenth century, the elements of social advocacy and scientific neutrality have conflicted with each other.

Puritans' thinking about society was by definition concern for moral issues. Their goal in establishing a new "commonwealth" was to protect the one true church in its Babylonian exile, and they consciously attempted to create a moral and virtuous society in which the church could flourish. John Winthrop reminded his fellow settlers that "wee ought to account our selves knitt together by this bond of love, and live in the exercise of it.... Wee must beare one anothers burthens, wee must not looke onely on our owne things, but allsoe on the things of our brethren." After all, the goal was to be a model "citie on a hill" which other nations could emulate and copy.

Although Puritan thinking differed from that of the Enlightenment in almost every imaginable way, they did share this emphasis on the absolute need for a moral society. Enlightenment thinkers maintained that mankind, especially uneducated natural man, possessed a moral sense which caused him to choose and do the ethical thing. One of the chief reasons the American revolutionaries wanted to separate themselves from the mother country was their belief that England had become corrupt and that a conspiracy was under way to make colonial society over in that corrupt image. Since it was possible to mold individuals through social control, the only protection for the virtuous American people was a separation from corrupt Europe and the creation of social and political institutions that would protect and even help create virtue.

Nineteenth-century American social thought retained this conscious moralism and engaged in cyclical periods of social and religious revivalism when citizens perceived materialism and industrialism threatening their visions of a moral society. Many of the followers of the Jacksonian movement were attracted by the movement's attempts to regain the moral simplicity and virtues of the Founding Fathers. Moral and social reformers of the 1830s and 1840s advanced the theory of perfectionism, which would produce sinless individuals through the creation of a perfect society. Its most prominent spokesman, Charles Finney, exhorted his listeners to "be ye perfect even as your Father in Heaven is perfect." Utopian thinkers were less optimistic about the possibility of reforming current American society, but they believed that perfect individuals could be created through the establishment of new communities totally separated from ongoing society. The British industrialist and philosopher Robert Owen found great support in the United States for his attempt to create a "new moral world" in his community of New Harmony.

Owen's communitarian plans are useful for understanding the interaction between this moral strain and the technological perspective. Owen believed his new moral order would succeed because of its rational and scientific basis. He maintained that he had developed his plans through twelve years of scientific testing in his mill community of New Lanarck, Scotland, and he believed he could simply apply these proven methods of social control to the American environment. Owen, like other Enlightenment figures, believed strongly in the power of the environment. Indeed, he matched the later behavioral psychologist B. F. Skinner in the extremity of his views: "Any general character, from the best to the worst, from the most ignorant to the most enlightened, may be given to any community, even to the world at large, by the application of proper means; which means are to a great extent at the command and under the control of those who have influence in the world of men." A truly moral society could be achieved only through the discovery of the scientific laws governing society and their subsequent use by political leaders. Although many of Owen's contemporaries may have opposed the extremity of his environmentalism or the validity of his "laws," few would have disagreed with his search for these laws and the need for a moral society. Enlightenment figures pointed to science and the scientific method as the major liberating forces for the times, and few doubted that society was any less amenable to understanding and control than the physical universe. Even earlier critics of rationalism such as the Puritan ministers Increase and Cotton Mather honored science as positive support in their goal of the good society. Morality and science were inextricably linked.

The immediate precursors to professionalized social science in the antebellum United States were threefold: university courses in moral philosophy, pre-Civil War southern followers of Auguste Comte, and inventors and users of statistics for social research purposes. Each retained the connection between moralism and science found in earlier American social thought.

Foremost among these precursors were the first purely social thinkers in American institutions, the teachers of moral philosophy in the colleges during the early nineteenth century. Every college, whether or not it was church supported, had a senior course in moral philosophy, often taught by the president, which interpreted social life in the context of the reigning moral philosophy of Scottish commonsense realism. This final course demonstrated the alleged interconnections of metaphysics, ethics, logic, natural law, rhetoric, politics, and political economy through man's innate moral sense. Moreover, since commonsense realism relied completely on the senses, all of these fields were necessarily composed of facts. This alliance of theology and Baconian science led to the creation of natural laws that were, in the words of historian of philosophy Daniel Wilson, "both descriptive and prescriptive." Francis Wayland, president of Brown University, declared in 1837 that "the principles of political economy are so completely analogous to those of Moral philosophy that almost every question in the one may be argued on grounds belonging to the other."

The first Americans to use "social science" to describe their work were a group of pre-Civil War apologists for southern society and slavery. George Frederick Holmes, George Fitzhugh, and especially Henry Hughes found in the positivism of Auguste Comte a justification of southern culture through a science based on facts and scientific verification. Hughes and Fitzhugh compared the stable social structure of the South with the chaotic and haphazard North and argued that the former was exactly the type of normative ethical society advocated by Comte. Each individual in southern society had a necessary role in its operation, drawing all into a functioning, interdependent moral community. Hughes in particular then set out to prove the reality of this perspective through facts.

Clearly, social facts, including facts arranged in a quantitative manner, existed in pre-Civil War America, even in the unbookish South. Moreover, despite the common belief that all early American social thought was theoretical and nonempirical, significant statistical work also existed. James Madison championed a thorough national census from the time of the Constitutional Convention, and each decennial census included more data and was methodologically more sophisticated. As early as 1811, the Mies Weekly Register devoted itself to accumulating and publishing economic and social statistics. It soon had numerous competitors, including several, such as the highly respected DeBow's Review, that concentrated on the South. The medical and life insurance professions collected and published vital statistics on births, deaths, and the like. Finally, a great demand existed for what the Belgian mathematician Adolphe Quetelet termed "moral statistics"; figures on such social problems as poverty, crime, and insanity. A group of well-to-do New England reformers were the primary movers behind the 1839 establishment of the American Statistical Association, whose constitution stated succinctly that "every rational reform must be founded on thorough knowledge." Reform could not be achieved without scientifically derived information, and the purpose of these data was clearly to bring about such reforms.

The social survey movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries grew out of this empirically derived social research and followed the examples set by British surveys, especially those of Charles Booth. The well-to-do Booth, disbelieving available statistics on the number of the London poor, pioneered in developing methods of enumerating them and describing their lives in quantitative terms. Finally, he identified the social factors that had caused their poverty. The American social survey movement concentrated on this latter aspect. Surveys gathered empirical information on social problems to discover the reasons behind abnormal social disorder. The social survey was, more than everything else, "a social diagnosis" concerned with locating and noting the extent of the problems and then, hopefully, bringing about solutions. Beginning with the Pittsburgh survey of 1908, this mixture of empiricism and moralism became omnipresent in American life. In the twenty years between 1908 and 1927, practitioners of the method completed at least 2,775 surveys of American communities.

As even this short survey shows, American social thought reacted quickly in both moral and scientific terms to the threat of social disorganization. The Civil War followed this pattern. Responding to the suffering of northern soldiers and the breakdown of the authority of traditional social institutions, a few members of the traditional northeastern social elite founded the United States Sanitary Commission to handle the coordination of medical and personal relief for the Union Army. Although a concern for the soldiers' problems certainly influenced the commission's actions, a deeper motivation lay in their belief in the need for discipline and strengthening of traditional moral beliefs and institutions in this time of crisis. In 1865, several leaders of this organization, including the reformer Samuel Gridley Howe, met under the auspices of the Massachusetts Board of State Charities to establish a society modeled on the melioristic British Social Science Association to study and correct the social abuses of the day. This became the American Social Science Association (ASSA), the first official American social science society and "the mother" of all modern social science organizations.

In the years after the Civil War the ASSA became part of an attempt by the established northeastern gentry to retain their position of social authority over increasingly visible and powerful parvenu industrialists and robber barons. Seventy-three percent of the officers and primary members of the ASSA had been born in New England, and nearly that percentage actually lived there. Thirty-five percent of the leaders were professionals, and another 32.5 percent were prominent businessmen. This did not, however, detract from the social reformism of the organization. In contrast with the emerging national leaders, the ASSA represented local elites who saw increasing economic inequality as a serious threat to social stability and a moral society. Members of the society universally condemned Herbert Spencer's social Darwinism and laissez-faire. The constitution of the association proclaimed its activist purpose "to aid the development of social science and to guide the public mind to the best practical means of promoting the Amendment of Laws, the Advancement of Education, ... the Reformation of Criminals and the Progress of Public Morality." Members favored the scientific study of society and collection of data because they felt that scientifically derived true facts would necessarily lead to social reform. Science and humanitarian sentiment were synonymous. Should a conflict arise between the two, however, United States Commissioner of Education and prominent ASSA member John Eaton made clear what the stance of the organization would be in a declaration to the 1886 annual meeting: "Let the warning cry fill the air of scientific associations, from meeting to meeting, that science is our means, not our end."

The career of the ASSA'S perennial executive secretary and national spokesman, Franklin Sanborn, demonstrates the normative goals of the association. A Harvard graduate, Sanborn had founded a school in Concord before the war with the aid of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Bronson Alcott and played prominent roles in several reform and abolitionist organizations, including the secret group that provided funding for John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry. After the war he turned to social science as the best hope for social reformation. Sanborn clearly combined ethical goals and the scientific gathering of facts in his vision of social science: "To learn patiently what is–to promote diligently what should be–that is the double duty of all the social sciences." Sanborn became an expert on social problems and charities and one of the first professors of social science in America. At Cornell, Sanborn gave an activist course on social problems and their solutions and led frequent field trips to prisons, insane asylums, and urban slums. Sanborn declared that "social science ... by its very nature rushes to an application.... We are pupils in such a school as that of Mr. Squiers, where the first class in hydraulics daily took a turn at the pump."

The ASSA is called the mother of social science organizations because it was the source of many groups that formed around specialized subjects, such as the study of governments, and then broke away. Members of these splinter organizations had come to reject many of the ASSA'S core beliefs. First of all, they rejected the possibility of an all-encompassing unity of knowledge. The only way to achieve true knowledge, they believed, was to concentrate on a limited area and study it intensively. The ASSA, on the other hand, like the moral philosophers of the early colleges, held that all knowledge was one and could be understood only as a unified whole. Second, and related to the first, the splinter groups had come to believe that the ASSA would never gain the social prestige and authority they desired. They had reluctantly concluded that the organization could claim no special expertise or reason why the public should automatically accept or even consider its views. Even worse, radicals such as Daniel DeLeon, Henry George, and Stephen Pearl Andrews called themselves social scientists and based their various forms of socialism on many of the same American traditions of evangelicalism, civic duty, community, and brotherhood as the academic social scientists. Social scientists feared that such shared identification with the radicals would bring the entire movement into disrepute. In 1878 the ASSA sought to merge with the newly formed Johns Hopkins University in an attempt to share in its prestige, but Johns Hopkins President Daniel Coit Gilman rejected the plan, even though he was a past president of the ASSA, because of the organization's reformist reputation.

Social scientists' desire to achieve community respect and acceptance reflected the nineteenth-century breakdown in local authority. Communities no longer accepted the opinions of local elites without question, and national bodies of expertise were still developing. Scientists, lawyers, and doctors were turning to a culture of professionalization as part of a strategy to win societal acceptance of their authority in limited areas of expertise. Certainly the culture of professionalization possessed attractive qualities for the emerging social sciences. The most commonly accepted list of attributes of professional work is the presence of research-based systematic theory, community acceptance of professional authority, community sanction through certification or other institutional means, the existence of a regulative code of ethics, the development of a professional culture through requirements for professional training and membership in professional organizations, and the creation of a tight community through shared social and educational experiences. Social scientists sought the goal of community acceptance of their authority most, but they also recognized the advantages gained by separating themselves from the political radicals and "benevolent amateurs" of the ASSA. The absolutely objective use of the scientific method could simultaneously serve as a code of ethics and create a research-based theory with far greater claims on validity and public trust.


Excerpted from Social Science in the Crucible by Mark C. Smith. Copyright © 1994 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Introduction 3
1 American Social Science: Moralism and the Scientific Method 13
2 Wesley Mitchell and the Quantitative Approach 49
3 Charles Merriam and Technical Expertise 84
4 Robert Lynd and Knowledge for What? 120
5 Charles Beard and Activist Social Science 159
6 Harold D. Lasswell and the Lost Opportunity of the Purposive School 212
Conclusion 253
Notes 271
Index 336
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