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Social Science Makes Its Case

The Nationalization of the Social Sciences. Samuel Z. Klausner and Victor M. Lidz, eds. University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 1986. 296 pp. $34.95. Skilled scholarly archaeologists from Philadelphia apparently took a field trip to the canyons of New York City and discovered an important document in the archives of the Social Science Research Council. The document is the heretofore unpublished "Social Science: A Basic National Resource," drafted in 1948 by the late Talcott Parsons to a

By | March 9, 1987

The Nationalization of the Social Sciences. Samuel Z. Klausner and Victor M. Lidz, eds. University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 1986. 296 pp. $34.95.


Skilled scholarly archaeologists from Philadelphia apparently took a field trip to the canyons of New York City and discovered an important document in the archives of the Social Science Research Council. The document is the heretofore unpublished "Social Science: A Basic National Resource," drafted in 1948 by the late Talcott Parsons to assist the SSRC in lobbying for the inclusion of the social sciences among the concerns of the embryonic National Science Foundation.

The report was intended to persuade physical scientists and politicians that social science was important and that it proceeded from the same principles that guided the natural sciences. Parsons posted empirical achievements and proclaimed that such work grows in tandem with sound interdisciplinary social science theory. This argument was intended to remedy the invisibility of social science in Vannevar Bush's landmark Science—The Endless Frontier. But the Parsons report' became invisible, too. And therein lies the drama of The Nationalization of the Social Sciences.

The editors of this volume, which contains 13 essays crafted by distinguished social scientists, resurrect the Parsons report and refurbish it ("reworking some opaque and cryptic sentences") as a centerpiece to capture commentaries that bear on nationalization. This concept is used to show that science has become harnessed to the state, a process presumably leading to money, influence, usefulness and social acceptance.

Over the years, the text argues, the use of social science in the governance of the nation has been relatively meager. But there was impact. The large institutional consequences of the nationalization of social science are assessed in a provocative concluding chapter after the incubation is traced as a tale of three cities—New York (where the campaign for the social sciences was launched); Cambridge (where the special interdisciplinary milieu nurtured the report); and Washington (where the plot unfolded).

The Nationalization of the Social Sciences provides the essential historical explanation of why, after decades of solid research achievements, social science remains as problematic and controversial to-day as it was when the National Science Foundation was founded in 1950. It includes materials acutely relevant for an understanding of the politics of science.

National panels are regularly formed to evaluate social science. The results generally certify quality. Yet, in the arena of science politics, uncertainty persists. To explain this anomaly requires entry to a world where perceptions govern. In that world, social science gets attached to similar sounding terms—social work, socialism, secular humanism, sensitivity training and virtually everything about sex.

The ferment suggests a cultural lag for which there is no simple explanation. Interpretations that scold social science for never yielding anything counterintuitive (and then call it subversive when it does), are part of the problem, not its explanation. A more fundamental approach is required. This book provides it.

Scientists from all fields will be challenged as they examine the linkage of social science to government, and how this shapes the intellectual direction of knowledge-seeking disciplines. Social scientists also will be provoked, or at least sobered, as they reflect on a 40-year history that portrays their ability to obfuscate their own case.

A dead document has truly been brought to life.

Larsen is professor emeritus of sociology, University of Washington, Seattle, 98195
and a fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, Stanford, CA 94305.

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