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Knowledge for What?
The Place of Social Science in American Culture
By Robert S. Lynd
PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 1967 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
SOCIAL SCIENCE IN CRISIS
CONTEMPORARY social science contains within itself two types of orientation that divide it into two blocs of workers: the scholars and the technicians. Both work within the protective tradition of free intellectual inquiry; and both assume continuity and relevance between their respective realms in the common task of exploring the unknown. Actually they tend to pull apart, the scholar becoming remote from and even disregarding immediate relevancies, and the technician too often accepting the definition of his problems too narrowly in terms of the emphases of the institutional environment of the moment. The gap between the two, while not sharp or even commonly recognized, is significant for two reasons: important problems tend to fall into oblivion between the two groups of workers; and the strains generated by current institutional breakdowns are prompting sharp and peremptory scrutiny of the roles and adequacy of the social sciences. Nazi power-politics has stripped the social sciences in Germany of their intellectual freedom, while professors-in-uniform in Italy have been forced to betray their heritage by solemnly declaring the Italian population to be of Aryan origin. This is a critical time for social science.
The scholarly bloc among social scientists is placed in jeopardy precisely by that leisurely urbanity upon which it prides itself as it looks out upon the confusions in the midst of which we live. The time outlooks of the scholar-scientist and of the practical men of affairs who surround the world of science tend to be different. The former works in a long, leisurely world in which the hands of the clock crawl slowly over a vast dial; to him, the precise penetration of the unknown seems too grand an enterprise to be hurried, and one simply works ahead within study walls relatively sound-proofed against the clamorous urgencies of the world outside. In this time-universe of the scholar-scientist certain supporting assumptions have grown up, such as "impersonal objectivity," "aloofness from the strife of rival values," and the self-justifying goodness of "new knowledge" about anything, big or little. Such a setting has tended to impart a quality of independent validity and self-sufficiency to the scholar-scientist's work. The practical man of affairs, on the other hand, works by a small time-dial over which the second-hand of immediacy hurries incessantly. "Never mind the long past and the infinite future," insists the clattering little monitor, "but do this, fix this — now, before tomorrow morning." It has been taken for granted, in general, that there is no need to synchronize the two time-worlds of the scholar-scientist and of the practical man. Immediate relevance has not been regarded as so important as ultimate relevance; and, in the burgeoning nineteenth century world which viewed all time as moving within the Master System of Progress, there was seemingly large justification for this optimistic tolerance.
Our contemporary world is losing its confidence in the inevitability of Progress. Men's ways of ordering their common lives have broken down so disastrously as to make hope precarious. So headlong and pervasive is change today that the scholar's historical parallels are decreasingly relevant as present guides, because so many of the variables in the situation have altered radically. The scholar-scientist is in acute danger of being caught, in the words of one of Auden's poems,
"Lecturing on navigation while the ship is going down."
Both scholar and technician are placed in a new and exposed position by the recent sharp shift in the relative importance of the social sciences. Until the great depression that began in 1929, they were poor relations of the natural sciences. In a world whose "progress" and "manifest destiny" were so generally accepted as dependent upon the production of goods, natural science and its technologies seemed to be the primary antecedents to general welfare. Edison, Ford, the Wright brothers — men like these, aided of course by American business enterprise, were the great creators, and American boys have placed such men with the traditional political giants, Washington and Lincoln, as the "great Americans." An increasing stream of able young scientists flowed into the private laboratories of General Electric, United States Steel, du Pont, and other corporations, there to develop new alloys and plastics. A world of enterprising businessmen which bought invention and efficiency by giving subsidies to science appeared to be the latest and happiest formula in that succession of lucky circumstances known as "the American way."
In this world, which had hitched its dreams to material progress, the social sciences moved less confidently. They were newer, afraid of being thought unscientific by their rich relations, and generally less venturesome. Dealing as they do with the familiar fabric of institutionalized behavior, they were especially exposed when they ventured upon novel hypothesis or prediction. If they erred, popular familiarity with their subject-matters, and their consequent lack of mystery, brought swifter ridicule from the man on the street than is generally meted out to the worker within the sheltered walls of a natural-science laboratory. Then, too, the monistic theory of progress through business prosperity rendered divergence from the customary suspect and extra-hazardous ab initio. "Radical" means one thing in a natural-science laboratory and something vastly different in the social sciences. So the social sciences were prone to content themselves with the retrospective look, or with describing and analyzing current trends, like a retailer taking inventory of the stock on his shelves. Such an astute critic as Parrington pointed out near the close of the 1920's that political science and economics have "largely joined the Swiss guards" protecting the inner sanctuary of the vested system. This over-ready acceptance of the main assumptions of the going system has been a source of confusion and embarrassment to the social sciences as that system has become highly unmanageable since the World War, and particularly since 1929.
The depression has reversed the relative emphases upon the natural and the social sciences. The poor relation finds itself wealthy and important — or at least supposed to act as if it were — while the former rich relative finds itself in the unaccustomed position of being less important. For it is the intractability of the human factor, and not our technologies, that has spoiled the American dream; and the social sciences deal with that human factor. The depression has made us acutely aware of the fact that our brilliant technological skills are shackled to the shambling gait of an institutional Caliban. As a result —
"... While man's effort to control the forces of Nature is accompanied by increasing success and mounting optimism, his efforts to regenerate society lead only to confusion and despair.
"... We see no lack of fertile farms, of elaborate and fully equipped factories, no lack of engineers and technicians and mechanics to operate the factories and cultivate the farms. ... Yet we note that the factories are running intermittently or not at all, that the farms are cultivated only in part. It is not that all have enough; for we see millions of men and women, lacking the necessities of life. ... We see ... other men, in obedience to governmental decree, refrain from planting wheat and plow growing cotton under ground. A survey of human history will often enough disclose millions of men starving in time of famine: what we see now is something unprecedented — millions of men destitute in the midst of potential abundance....
"... Mankind has entered a new phase of human progress- — a time in which the acquisition of new implements of power too swiftly outruns the necessary adjustment of habits and ideas to the novel conditions created by their use."
Some people have even clamored for a moratorium on inventions until the rest of our living can catch up; while NRA codes have struggled to slow down the introduction of more efficient machinery, and relief work has been done in many cases by hand in order to thwart the labor-efficiency of the machine. Were Thorstein Veblen alive, he would smile sardonically at this evidence that our institutional sabotaging of machine efficiency has at last come of age as an officially sanctioned public practice.
The spotlight has turned with painful directness upon the social sciences. And it has found them, in the main, unprepared to assume the required responsibility. We social scientists have great arrays of data:
— data on production and distribution, but not the data that will enable us to say with assurance, as the experts dealing with such matters, how our economy can get into use all of the needed goods we are physically capable of producing;
— data on past business cycles, but not data that enabled us to foresee the great depression of 1929 even six months before it occurred;
— data on labor problems, but not the data to provide an effective program for solving the central problems of unemployment and of the widening class-cleavage between capital and labor;
— legal data, but not the data to implement us to curb admittedly increasing lawlessness;
— data on public administration, non-voting, and politics, but not data for a well-coordinated program with which to attack such central problems of American democracy as the fading meaning of "citizenship" to the urban dweller and what Secretary Wallace has called the "private ownership of government" by business;
— data on the irrationality of human behavior and on the wide inequalities in intelligence, but not the data on how a culture can be made to operate democratically by and for such human components.
Is the difficulty, as the social sciences maintain, that they do not have "enough data"? Or do we have data on the wrong problems? Or are too many of our data simply descriptive and too infrequently projective and predictive in the sense of being aimed at deliberate planning and control? Or are they too atomistic, relying upon the "unseen hand" of circumstances and upon common sense to tie bits of knowledge together and to make them work? All of these are involved. The net result is none the less decidedly uncomfortable — for the social sciences and for our American culture which supports them.
A world floundering disastrously because of its inability to make its institutions work is asking the social sciences: "What do you know? What do you propose?" And, unfortunately for the peace of mind of the social scientist, these questions are not asked with complete dispassion; not infrequently they are loaded in the sense of, "Tell us what we want to hear, or else —!" For the social sciences are parts of culture, and it so happens that they are carried forward predominantly by college and university professors, who in turn are hired by businessmen trustees. The stake of these last in the status quo is great. That is why they are trustees. The social scientist finds himself caught, therefore, between the rival demands for straight, incisive, and, if need be, radically divergent thinking, and the growingly insistent demand that his thinking shall not be subversive. The solution of problems that beset the culture requires the utmost use of intelligence. And, as P. W. Bridgman of Harvard University has remarked, "The utmost exercise of intelligence means the free use of intelligence; [the scientist] must be willing to follow any lead that he can see, undeterred by any inhibition, whether it arises from laziness or other unfortunate personal characteristics, or intellectual tradition or the social conventions of his epoch. In fact, intelligence and free intelligence come to be synonymous to him. It becomes inconceivable that anyone should consent to conduct his thinking under demonstrable restrictions, once these restrictions had been recognized, any more than as an experimenter he would consent to use only a restricted experimental technique." But in a world rapidly being forced to abandon the sunny tolerance of individual trial and error under laissez-faire, "the utmost exercise of free intelligence" will be continually in jeopardy. And nowhere will the strain be so great as in the social sciences, for they deal with the white-hot core of current controversy, where passions are most aggravated and counsel most darkened.
Under these circumstances our university administrators — those who control the fates of working social scientists — are in some important cases wavering. They are concerned in their enforced daily decisions with the short-run "welfare of an institution," and this may be viewed as not synonymous with the long-run welfare of our American culture. To go ahead frankly into the enlarged opportunity confronting the social sciences invites trouble. Putting one's head into the lion's mouth to operate on a sore tooth has its manifest disadvantages. So we are witnessing today an active administrative espousal of the humanities, and controversies over the wisdom of the "liberal arts" emphasis as over against the "over-practical" emphasis of the social sciences. "After all," runs the administrator's comment, in effect, "education should make rounded men. The university's job is not to solve problems but to turn out men with a liberal education, possessed of the great wisdoms of the past, ripe in judgment, and having the ability to meet the varied problems of life."
And so it is. It is not the intention in the pages which follow to deprecate the humanities or education in the liberal arts. The fact that most social science research must go forward in our culture within colleges and universities, however, makes the policies of educational administrators of direct relevance to the problems on which this research engages. Insistent public dilemmas clamor for solution. Decisions will be made and public policies established — because no delaying or turning back is possible in this hurrying climactic era. If the social scientist is too bent upon "waiting until all the data are in," or if university policies warn him off controversial issues, the decisions will be made anyway — without him. They will be made by the "practical" man and by the "hard-headed" politician chivvied by interested pressure-blocs.
The chapters that follow seek to appraise the present state of our American culture and of the social sciences as instruments for the analysis of its more critical problems and for the devising of indicated concrete programs of action.
A final word as to the social researcher as teacher: Most social science research is done by men who gain their main livelihood as teachers. The problems they select for research determine to a considerable extent what they teach. And what they teach determines to an important degree the outlook of their students upon technical problems and related policies; and, in the case of those students who will go on to make a career of research, the teaching they receive will influence heavily the kind and acuteness of the problems they will eventually elect to investigate. Like everyone else, the teacher has given heavy hostages to fortune: he has a family to rear, usually on a not too ample salary; his income depends upon the academic advancements he can win, and these in turn depend upon "productive research"; he has been sensitized to research by his training, his head is full of projects he wants to get at, and yet research increasingly demands in these days that the golden sun of outside funds shine upon the would-be investigator. He lives in a world which, by and large, is not asking, "Is Smith trying to get at the facts? Is he trying to be fair and constructive at the same time that he is unwilling to pull his punch?" but which asks, "Are you for us, or against us?" Just because the need for acute, candid, fearless thinking is so great, the teacher-researcher of our generation carries perforce a heavy, inescapable responsibility. If he fails this oncoming generation at this critical moment — for reasons other than his sheer inability to comprehend, even as a so-called expert, the rush and complexity of the problems our culture confronts — his will be a desperate betrayal indeed. Upon those teachers who are on what is called, probably increasingly optimistically, "permanent tenure," there would appear to rest the special obligation to carry for their less-secure junior colleagues the main brunt of hard-hitting, constructive thought that spares no one, least of all themselves.
Excerpted from Knowledge for What? by Robert S. Lynd. Copyright © 1967 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents
- Frontmatter, pg. i
- Contents, pg. vii
- Foreword, pg. ix
- I. Social Science in Crisis, pg. 1
- II. The Concept of "Culture", pg. 11
- III. The Pattern of American Culture, pg. 54
- IV. The Social Sciences as Tools, pg. 114
- V. Values and the Social Sciences, pg. 180
- VI. Some Outrageous Hypotheses, pg. 202
- Index, pg. 251