Scholarship, Activism, and Expertise: The Social Sciences in the United States in the Twentieth Century

AHA Session 262
Society for Historians of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era 7
Monday, January 5, 2015: 8:30 AM-10:30 AM
Murray Hill Suite B (New York Hilton, Second Floor)
John Louis Recchiuti, University of Mount Union
John Louis Recchiuti, University of Mount Union

Session Abstract

This panel examines the history of the social sciences in the United States in the early- to mid-twentieth century, with a particular focus on the concept of expertise and the public role of social science research.  It considers both ideological and institutional aspects of these two issues, exploring the relationships of social scientists to civic organizations, reform groups, philanthropic foundations, and educational institutions. It also investigates the influence of social science research on the formation of public policy, from the local to the national levels.  In addressing these topics, the papers investigate how social scientists have sought to balance their commitment to producing objective scholarship with a desire to be actively engaged in society and politics. In short, the papers delve into essential questions regarding how social scientists and their associates envisioned the role of scholarship in a democratic society. 

At the same time, each of the papers addresses the issue of disciplinarity in terms of how scholars approach the history of the social sciences.  The panelists include historians and sociologists who write about the history of the social sciences, co-author pieces with scholars in other disciplines, and teach in a variety of departments in the humanities and social sciences.  As such, they also discuss the cross-disciplinary nature of their work and what we can learn about our own work from our encounters with the social sciences, both historical and contemporary.

The three papers focus on specific examples of social scientific scholarship and activism in these contexts.  Ariane Liazos explores the role of political scientists in the urban reform movements of the early-twentieth century in order to explore broader questions regarding the influence of social scientists in the organization of the state and civil society.  She examines debates about the appropriate role of political scientists and other professional experts in decisions regarding the scope and purpose of city government. Stephen Turner addresses some problematic “experts,” discussing several progressive social scientists who simultaneously expressed views that we might admire today and views that we now find troubling.  He applies a variety of different disciplinary perspectives – feminist studies, science studies, and intellectual history - in order to help us better understand these complicated figures.  Maribel Morey investigates the influence of the Carnegie Corporation in the funding and creation of Swedish sociologist Gunnar Myrdal’s landmark study of American race relations, An American Dilemma (1944).  She focuses on the elite foundation’s role in defining social scientific expertise and the subsequent influence of the resulting scholarship on federal policymakers. John Recchiuti, author of Civic Engagement: Social Science and Progressive-Era Reform in New York City, will serve as commentator.

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