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Useful Portraits in the Mid-Century Social Sciences December 30, 2012

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Book Club, History of the Human Sciences.
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cwssMy meditation on whether there is a “whig” narrative permeating the historiography of the social sciences may give the impression that I have a fundamental objection to the Cold War Social Science (CWSS) volume. In fact, I like the book a great deal. Rather, as someone who is probably among the top 20 people worldwide with practical use for the book, thinking about a “whig” narrative helps me articulate what aspects of it are the most useful.

Having worked for some time in the history of the related subjects of operations research, systems analysis, and decision theory, I have become intimately familiar with the argumentative tropes that permeate their historiography, and which overlap with the ones surrounding the social sciences of the Cold War era. These include the supposed historical existence of: a faith in science, a particular authority attributed to formalized knowledge, and a systematic discounting of tradition and cultural peculiarity.

Even if I didn’t think these tropes were seriously misleading (though I do), the simple repetition of them in different contexts would not be very helpful to me. Locating the tropes within a general narrative allows me to identify what those tropes would look like in a different segment of the narrative (say, a post-1970 history, or the history of a different field), and thus what things I “already know,” even if the precise details are foreign to me. For example, I am not especially well versed in the history of psychology, but if the stories historians tell me about it conform to the general narrative I already know, then they are not really telling me much that is useful beyond making me aware of perhaps a new proper name or two, which I will probably promptly forget. By this criterion, a good portion of CWSS is not especially useful.

But much of it is. Here I will briefly discuss what I personally found to be the most useful pieces in the volume.

David Engerman and Joel Isaac can be considered key figures in a school of thought, which questions the standard tropes of Cold War social science, but, more importantly, looks for deeper understanding of specific subject matters and more “middle range” contexts. Isaac’s 2007 article, “The Human Sciences in Cold War America” is something of a manifesto for this viewpoint. In his introduction to CWSS, Mark Solovey also points to Peter Mandler’s chapter, “Deconstructing ‘Cold War Anthropology'” in the new Uncertain Empire volume, as representative of this school of thought. I would consider myself a card-carrying member as well. Here I will forgo further discussion of Engerman’s and Isaac’s respective chapters on Harvard’s Refugee Interview Project, and sociology at Harvard’s Department of Social Relations. I will, however, refer readers to their recent books, which discuss these (and other) subjects in more depth.

Janet Martin-Nielsen and I were recently collaborators on a grant application, so I am, of course, predisposed to praise her work. Still, I would say that her chapter, “‘It Was All Connected’: Computers and Linguistics in Early Cold War America,” packs an extraordinary amount of information and analysis into a mere dozen pages. It clearly delineates an important shift from a behaviorism-based concentration on phonology and morphology and the principle of “no-level-mixing” (i.e., the construction of language from “minimally-sized meaning-bearing units of sound” to larger units), represented by Leonard Bloomfield and Zellig Harris, to Sydney Lamb’s “stratificational grammar” and a sentence-level concentration on syntax.

Martin-Nielsen makes a convincing case that the computer and the problem of machine translation—mass-translating scientific papers from Eastern Bloc countries was a major Cold War problem—were at the center of this transformation in the scientific project of linguistics to the formal definition of rules of grammar. She also neatly parses why computers were important to the project of stratificational grammar, while being comparatively marginal to Noam Chomsky’s “transformational grammar”.

Martin Nielsen deftly avoids being pulled into the notion that her history is about a contested ontology of language. What “everybody already knows” about the history of linguistics is the division of ontologies of language between the formalized conception of Chomsky and the culture-centered conception often associated with Benjamin Lee Whorf—which, of course, is a formulation of history that conforms to the aforementioned whig narrative.* Refreshingly, Martin-Nielsen doesn’t worry about this question at all in her chapter (though I reckon she addresses the subject in her other work on linguistics). Her historiographical discussion concentrates instead on the need, within the more specific historiography of linguistics, to address the place of the computer, and to escape the historiographical gravity-well of the charismatic Chomsky.

Michael Bycroft’s chapter, “Psychology, Psychologists, and the Creativity Movement: The Lives of Method Inside and Outside the Cold War,” discusses a concerted effort within American psychology in the 1950s to study creativity. (More conflict-of-interest: Bycroft has extensively and generously analyzed and systematized my historiographical ideas at his blog.) Creativity, of course, was also the subject of Jamie Cohen-Cole’s 2009 Isis article, “The Creative American: Cold War Salons, Social Science, and the Cure for Modern Society”.

Cohen-Cole’s article was largely an intellectual history, with some reference to the results of psychological studies, but focusing on sociologists’ and psychologists’ prioritization of creativity as a subject of study, in accord with their identification of it as a source of national strength, as a foundation of liberal society, as a bulwark against authoritarianism, and, essentially, as a quality they saw in themselves. Bycroft identifies this intellectual current by the term “creative liberalism”.

Bycroft’s chapter, by contrast, is more of an “internal”** history of social science, which also helps readers to orient themselves within a vast intellectual terrain. Where Cohen-Cole concentrated mainly on high-profile intellectuals, Bycroft concentrates on less-well-known research teams at the University of Southern California, at the University of California, Berkeley, and at the University of Utah. Remote from the formalized approach of Martin-Nielsen’s linguists, Bycroft tells us that creativity researchers’ methods “were based either on psychoanalytic theories of the mind, or on reports by creative people about the states of feeling or attitudes … that they experienced while creating; or they were … models of how mental traits might be distinguished and classified” (201). In Part III of his chapter, he specifically traces the pedigree of two specific assessments, the “live-in assessment” and “factor analysis” and certain criteria of assessment. According to Bycroft, “it is difficult to read Cold War cultural narratives into” these criteria, and, in some cases, the ideas informing them can even be traced to Carl Jung.

Nadine Weidman’s chapter, “An Anthropologist on TV: Ashley Montagu and the Biological Basis of Human Nature, 1945-1960,” and Marga Vicedo’s chapter, “Cold War Emotions: Mother Love and the War over Human Nature,” deal less with research, and, like Cohen-Cole’s piece, more with public ideas. All three authors, I would say, are interested in the capacity of science to inform the politics of the right-thinking individual, what Cohen-Cole refers to as the “Cold War American self” (221).

Generally speaking, I am not enamored with this sort of analysis. I tend to view science as a secondary force within the complex of ideas that define people’s conceptions of right behavior or abstract ontologies like “human nature”, and I am suspicious of arguments that claim that certain points of view were dominant or that public ideas were homogenized by a certain conception.

That said, I found Weidman’s chapter illuminating from the standpoint of intellectual history, simply because it provides a useful contextualization of Montagu as not only an important, but a deeply peculiar figure in twentieth-century intellectual history. The chapter also provides a useful presentation of arguments over the biological status of race and gender as taking place in extremely public channels as early as the 1950s.

It is well known that Montagu rose to prominence in 1942 with the publication of his book, Man’s Most Dangerous Myth: The Fallacy of Race, and particularly with his association with UNESCO’s 1950 Statement on Race. Weidman relates how Montagu, with Harvard sociologist Pitirim Sorokin, was interested in altruism, cooperation, and “love” as a foundational principle in understanding biology and human behavior. He took up a post at Rutgers University in 1949 with the intent of developing his own department of anthropology. But the department never materialized, and by 1955 Montagu had lost his position in academia. Thereafter, he became a media personality, and became a proponent of the idea that there were innate biological differences between the sexes, which suggested that women should be given a much greater role in society in accord with their superiority over men in many areas.

The rhetoric of biology, culture, intellectual rupture, and social justice seems to me to be an important, and under-analyzed discourse in intellectual history, and I’d like to take a look at some recent literature (including Howard Brick’s piece in this volume) on this topic in the near future. Additionally, it is clear that the postwar period represents a point of emergence of the idea that science might provide an increasingly accessible public audiences with virtuous and dangerous conceptions of themselves and the world around them.

On this note, Vicedo discusses the views aired by psychologists and others—including John Bowlby, David Levy, Philip Wylie, and Erik Erikson (and, yes, with an appearance by Benjamin Spock)—concerning the role of mothers in rearing well-adjusted children, emphasizing both the need for motherly love, but also the dangers of overprotection. I find the chapter useful less for its discussion of this or that idea, than as a quick primer on the key personalities at the origins of a prominent and longstanding history of the blizzard of available “expert” ideas relating to proper childrearing. I should say, though, that as a parent of a five-month-old, I am unusually sensitive to the number of contradictory and seemingly authoritative opinions—medical, lay, and in-between—on proper methods to which parents are subjected. So the topic piques my interest for that reason, too!

Readers may note that all the pieces I’ve picked out as useful address a motley array of topics. Their utility is mainly exhibited, then, with respect to a grander, but largely tacit portrait of the postwar social sciences, which the historiography is beginning to reveal, but which is not really discussed in CWSS. In my next post on this book, I will try and sketch out what I think this picture is starting to look like.

*On this blog, I have already suggested (but still not elaborated on) the point that the cultural analysis of Clifford Geertz and the more formalized approaches were not opposed to each other.

**To use his formulation of the term: it is certainly not a declaration of the intellectual independence of science, but an examination of its operation within the defined bounds of its projects.


1. Shaky Foundations | The Bubble Chamber - January 6, 2013

[…] edited volume about social science during the Cold War. Will Thomas of Etherwave Propaganda has a good review as well as some interesting thoughts on the “definition of social and political […]

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