Objectivity, Race, and Cold War Social Science: Race Relations in World Perspective

Friday, January 5, 2018: 2:30 PM
Blue Room Prefunction (Omni Shoreham)
Sebastián Gil-Riaño, University of Pennsylvania
This paper examines social scientists’ failed attempts to turn race relations research into a global and value-neutral field of inquiry. A pivotal moment in this project was the “Race Relations in World Perspective” conference held in Honolulu, Hawaii, in 1954. The conference was organized by key figures from the Chicago school of sociology who imagined it as a follow-up to the 1911 “Universal Race Congress.” It brought together some forty participants from across the social sciences and lasted for almost a full month. In putting together a conference of this scale, the organizers sought to fashion a “world perspective” on race relations by drawing in experts from as many regional and disciplinary orientations as possible—notably experts from the southern hemisphere—and by observing what kinds of generalizations would emerge. The conference organizers argued that such a conference was necessary due to a rising tide of racial resentment from the Global South. They cited the awakening of nationalist aspirations in the colonial world, the growing appeal of communism in “backwards areas,” and the Soviet Union’s exploitation of anti-Western resentments in Asia and Africa. As a response to this volatile situation, participants in the Honolulu conference agreed to create an international association of race relations research dedicated to the promotion of “objective” inquiry into race and culture contacts. However, internal disagreements among the elected executive committee members meant the proposed association failed to materialize. Here I argue that this unsuccessful attempt to institutionalize race relations research internationally reveals the limits and fault lines of liberal anti-racism in social science during the cold war. Once brought to bear on the decolonizing world, sociologists’ desire for objective racial inquiry quickly unraveled. Faced with a complex terrain where notions of Indigeneity, race, and modernization could not be easily operationalized, Chicago’s race relations paradigm encountered its limits.
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