Recent Trends in Social Science

Beardsley Ruml

The observations which I propose to make this afternoon I make as a layman, as an administrator who in the last few years has had much to do with social scientists, and very little indeed to do with social science. Accordingly, my remarks should be taken merely as the impressions of an observer of the passing show of social science as manifested by its showmen.

I have divided these observations into two parts, the first dealing with the internal situation in social science as it appears to me, and the second with the external situation as it affects and is likely to be affected by the development of social science. I hasten to add that it is not my ambition to exhaust the full possibilities represented by these headings.

One of the more interesting developments in the internal situation is the growing disposition to recognize as irrelevant and obsolete the question of whether the social sciences are really sciences, or whether after all they are not protosciences or even pseudosciences; and, if the latter, whether they may become true sciences, and what methodology and technique and apparatus will bring about most expeditiously this apparently much to be desired result.

As I say, it appears to me that, within the social sciences at any rate, these issues are rapidly becoming obsolete, if they have not already become so. This change may be due, in part, to a new confidence which social scientists feel with respect to the importance and

( 100) possibilities of their subject. In part, it may result from the compelling interest in the realistic social phenomena which are today the subject of investigation, an interest which may have caused purely epistemological dialectics to be returned, practically unharmed, to the epistemologist. At any rate there seems to have developed a matter-of-fact acceptance of genuine curiosity in the investigator searching for an understanding of the happenings called social phenomena, as an entirely legitimate basis for going ahead with social investigation. We reserve, of course, for later judgment a decision as to the merit, usefulness, and relevancy of the inquiry, but we recognize that honest curiosity, coupled with inquiry with a view to understanding, is the basis for those additions to human wisdom which we have called scientific, and we are prepared to let it go at that. To be sure, honest curiosity as a motive for research is rather rare, and even when it presumably exists this honesty is apt to be seriously compromised by a host of extraneous motivating factors, which unfortunately the academic machine does as much to foster as to destroy. Even a superficial examination may reveal the motives of the reformer, or of the individual searching for additional justification for earlier unconsidered statements, or of seekers after promotions acting under administrative pressure, or of jealousy of some colleague at the same or other institution. The latter motives are all too frequently and obviously present, and they are likely to vitiate the character of research, whether in the social field or elsewhere.

With the obsolescence of the issue as to whether social science is science, there seems to be a tendency to deplore excessive preoccupation with so-called quantita-

( 101) -tive methodology. The extremes to which veneration for measurement had gone certainly called for some reaction. I have come across instances in which the selection of the problem itself had been made solely because it lent itself to quantitative treatment. Certainly this is a perversion of one of our most valuable methodological approaches. In so far as this emphasis upon measurement was due to a desire to acquire academic prestige in the eyes of what were considered higher caste scientists, the passing of interest in status is having a wholesome effect in increasing the sincerity of research. The value of descriptive analysis at the present stage of social inquiry seems to be much more generally accepted by those who have seen clearly and who have emphasized the value of quantitative methods when properly applied.

In connection with method one instance seems to me to be particularly illuminating. Today students of human behavior agree as to the tremendous importance of irrational factors in shaping the conduct of an individual. There may be some difference of opinion as to the precise weight which should be given to such factors, but that it is very large there can be no doubt. The wider acceptance of this contribution to the understanding of human behavior is nevertheless relatively recent. It has not been long since the phenomena included in the fields of history, political science, economics, and even psychology were largely interpreted in terms of human beings rationally motivated and acting for their own best interests. The shift in emphasis from rational to irrational motivation is a contribution of the first order to our understanding, and it is affecting profoundly the social sciences. And yet this new insight came

( 102) without a shred of quantitative or experimental evidence. The facts and their implications needed only to be carefully stated to be accepted by all who have studied human behavior closely.

There are several general problems which seem likely to press for solution in the near future and which will call for co-operation of social scientists and university administrators. One of these problems is the provision of a proper range of social experience during the period of training for the student who wishes to enter social science either as teacher or investigator. It is axiomatic, I suppose, that the raw data of scientific research arise from the contact of an observer with his environment. No matter what the subsequent refinements of logical, statistical, or aesthetic presentation, the impingement of the phenomenal world on the observer is the beginning of things scientific. Some progress has been made in recent years in giving to the investigator in social science better facilities for realistic contact with the raw data of his problem, but we still have a long, long way to go. Consider the educational program in chemistry or physics. The early years of training provide in a highly organized way an immediate experience for the student of the range of phenomena with which the subjects deal. A student in a brief period of time will have seen, heard, tasted, smelled, and felt a representative sample of the material world. The main facts of heat, light, sound, mass and motion, electricity, and magnetism become part of his personal life, and the new problems he states to himself and his experiential background, from which explanation and analogy can be drawn, are relatively complete. How rare the student in social science who has had a correspondingly rich

( 103) experience of the phenomenal world relevant to his interests! In social science we have been content, with relatively minor exceptions, to give the student a vicarious and not particularly well-balanced experience through reading and discussion. In order to secure a background comparable with that given in natural science, regardless of later specialization, the student would require contact with the slum, with the Gold Coast, with Bohemia, with the laborer, small merchant, and farmer. He would need direct experiences with foreign offices, with boards of directors of large and small corporations, with political committees, with trade unions. He would require an understanding of personality disorders, of the working of primitive as well as of advanced societies based on personal participation. And until this range of experience becomes his own there can be little confidence that as an investigator he will choose his problems wisely or bring to their solution the full interpretative insight required. It seems entirely probable that the amount of time necessary for such an educational program will be substantially greater than that for the training of a medical practitioner. The administrative and financial problems involved in providing thus properly for a future generation of students of society are very great, but the necessity for some thoroughgoing solution is becoming increasingly clear.

A second large group of problems includes those arising from the shifting in the traditional categories into which social science has been divided for purposes of teaching and administration. It has, of course, long been recognized that these categories represented no fundamental segregations in the world of experience,

( 104) but there was no pressing need for change and vested academic interests were very strong. Now with the new impetus for research based on an immediate and realistic experience of social phenomena, the categories are crumbling or are being pushed aside. I do not mean to imply that we have a new and coherent conception of social science which has superseded the anachronistic categories of history, economics, sociology, psychology, and so forth. Far from it. But investigators are finding the existing divisions sterile, and tendencies toward further subdivision and isolation are looked upon with a new distrust and with profound misgivings. Questions are raised with increasing persistence as to the function and usefulness of the professional societies; to what extent do they stimulate a trade union consciousness; to what extent are they utilized as a vehicle for sectarian politics; to what extent do they really do more harm than good scientifically? The meetings of the societies are defended on the most trivial grounds of sociability, and the activity in publishing journals on the ground that no one else has been found to do it. The societies themselves are aware of their inadequacy individually to meet the demands arising from the new orientation in social science, and many steps have been taken by the societies individually and collectively to facilitate the development of social science as a whole. Unfortunately, the power of inertia is very great, and I think we must recognize that within the societies on the whole the forces tending to make for separation and isolation are stronger than those which are contributing toward the evolution of greater flexibility and interdependence.

There is little difficulty in this disturbance within the traditional categories for the individual scientist. He

( 105) needs merely to carry on his investigations wherever they may lead him, and he may be able to derive some comfort from the fact that he is less likely now than previously to be criticized for getting out of his field. But for the administrators of universities the problems will be both serious and a trifle burlesque. What about courses? What about budgets? What about department heads? And promotions? And titles? Who will certify as to the competence of the proposed new appointee? What will other people think?

A third development of great interest will take place in the relations of the essentially humanistic phases of the social studies to the essentially scientific or objective phases. There exists at the present time a strong and an increasing emphasis on a point of view in social research that seeks to eliminate the motive of social reform and betterment, and that views social phenomena as complex behavior of a naturalistic world. The interest of the investigator is centered simply on an understanding of social events, and he attempts to eliminate judgments of value and as far as possible the presence of any ethical bias. This tendency toward an emphasis on objectivity is no doubt on the whole one of the more hopeful signs in social research today, but we should be under no misapprehension that this scientific attack exhausts the possibilities in the study of social problems. There remains for analysis and discussion the whole range of questions dealing with human values, with what is worth while, with the purposes to which further control of social and physical forces may be directed. It is important that we should understand clearly the ideas that other men in other times and places have had on the persistent problems of human

( 106) values. It is important that these ideas be criticized, compared, sharpened; that new ideas be generated, ideas that grow out of reflective thinking, which utilizes the rapidly accumulating results of science and scholarship.

It is a sound instinct which causes the social scientist to avoid the humanistic approach in the statement and study of problems requiring scientific analysis, and to deplore the presence of the humanistic bias when it creeps in to vitiate what purports to be objective analysis of social behavior. On the other hand, as an educator and as a human being he will recognize the value of humanistic inquiry and will support it in an important place in our educational institutions.

The working out of this situation will necessitate various readjustments in the present organization of academic institutions with respect to social teaching and social research, and many decisions of far-reaching significance must be made. Either the humanistic interests of social studies will have to be developed in close administrative and intellectual association with the social sciences, or these humanistic interests must be segregated to provide a new element and perhaps a new impetus to the general humanistic program of the university. It is far from clear which alternative is to be preferred, but this at least seems evident, that a prompt decision is called for. Neither the scientific nor the humanistic approach can prosper, or can make the contribution which we may hopefully expect, in the air of confused suspicion which characterizes the situation today.

Turning now from the internal to the external relationships of social science, we find a number of trends which give cause for great satisfaction and for a sub

( 107) -stantial feeling of responsibility as well. For whether the social scientist wishes it or not, he is being asked by the world to make the contribution to a better social understanding which the world expects.

In education the increased interest in social science in the last ten years is substantial and is to be found both in the United States and abroad. Important new research institutions have arisen, small and struggling ventures have grown to large proportions, and the already established institutions have been pressed with demands for teaching and research. In a decade of great financial readjustment, educational administrators have responded with sympathy and with effective action to this new interest in social science, even though there were plenty of old problems crying for solution.

At the lower educational levels, in the secondary and even in the elementary schools, the pressure for teaching, and for teaching materials based on social studies, is becoming increasingly insistent. The more progressive schools have altered drastically the pre-war curriculum, and general investigations are under way that are destined to affect the curriculum of the educational system as a whole. These movements are perhaps more violent than they are coherent, and the extent of collaboration between the public school man and the social scientist leaves something to be desired. The development, however, is well under way, and certain consequences can be foreseen. The first is a changed preparation for the study of social problems at the higher educational levels. A second is an improved public understanding and sympathy with fundamental social research. A third is a reenforcement of the trend toward unification of the social sciences.

In the world of affairs there is a sharpening of interest

( 108) in the technological applications of social science. This interest has been widely felt and in many cases deplored. It has taken many men from research to business and to consulting work. It has been a drain on the time of university men who have been made to feel a responsibility for service to the university's supporting constituency. On the other hand, it has opened channels of investigation which had hitherto been closed, and has given a technological outlet for many aspirants to social research who failed to show the spark of a creative scientific mind. And of course it has greatly improved the position of social science within the universities, since it is well recognized that a few conspicuous contributions of a practical character are justification to an indulgent public for supporting generously much research which is to it, perhaps fortunately, obscure.

A word should be said specifically concerning the relations of social science to public administration and to public administrators. The management of public affairs is rapidly becoming definitely technical, and high administrative officers and commissions are coming to depend on studies, and on information and advice from social scientists, just as they depend on the expert services of engineers. The governors of states are beginning to expect enlightenment from the social science departments of their state universities, and although there is understandable hesitancy on the part of some state university presidents in becoming involved in what they conceive to be politics, the movement in this direction is likely to be irresistible. We have had and shall have demonstrations that will point the way; and the obvious mutually helpful relations between social science and public administration will establish relationships of

( 109) great value both for science and for the public welfare.

One external factor of recent importance has been the interest which the various philanthropic foundations have taken in the advancement of social science and social research. The Russell Sage Foundation has been in the field for some time both as a contributor and as an investigator on its own account. The Carnegie Corporation is identified with many important enterprises in social science, among which of great interest to this group are the Food Research Institute at Stanford University and the Brookings Institution in Washington. Although its primary interests lie elsewhere, the Commonwealth Fund participated with the Russell Sage Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation, and the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial in early financing of the administrative budget of the Social Science Research Council. The Rosenwald Fund, more recently in the field, has indicated an interest in social research, and it, too, is co-operating with the Social Science Research Council. The Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial, with which I am most familiar, in the period from 1923 through 1928 appropriated $25,200,000 for the promotion of social science, and the continuance and extension of this interest has been assumed as a major program by the Rockefeller Foundation, with which the Memorial was consolidated at the beginning of 1929. While these sums are perhaps not large in comparison with aggregate world-expenditures for social science, they nevertheless represent a new margin of resources which has had and will have a stimulating effect. It is also encouraging to note that this support has been given and received with continuing good will on both

( 110) sides, and with general public understanding of the disinterested scientific character of this attempt to contribute to the solution of problems fundamental to our social well-being.

In conclusion, a word should be said with reference to the implications for international relations of this increasing interest in social research. This development is by no means a purely American development. In varying degrees it exists the world over. In England, Germany, France, the Scandinavian countries, at the seat of the League of Nations, in the Pacific basin, there has already been a definite quickening in social science, and elsewhere the signs point in the same direction. Again, in varying degrees, the emphasis is on the scientific approach, on objectivity, and this emphasis may be expected to increase. Funds have been made available from many sources to permit students and professors to travel from one country to another. At a few points great research institutions are developing and conscientious efforts are being made to permit frequent and friendly contacts among these national institutions for social research. Investigations have been launched on a world-wide basis utilizing an international personnel.

Inconspicuous as these tendencies have been in comparison with recent dramatic efforts to secure orderliness in world-relationships, it is not improbable that over a period of time this movement in social science will be recognized as of comparable significance. It seems evident that these tendencies portend the development of an internationally minded group of students of social problems. These men will view international society with a new objectivity. They will be dominated by an honest curiosity as to how it works, when it works, and

( 111) as to what makes it break down. And as the results of their researches, as their point of view becomes the intellectual property of greater numbers of men, there will have been created an important antidote for prejudice and irrationality in the relations among the people occupying the various political subdivisions of the world.

The institution which is our host today, and the building for social research which it is dedicating, are obviously important elements in determining the evolution of the social sciences. We offer to the University our heartiest congratulations, and shall watch with keen interest the contribution which it is destined to make to our understanding of social relationships and to the advancement of the public good.


No notes

Valid HTML 4.01 Strict Valid CSS2