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Rockefeller Philanthropy and Modern Social Science

Author(s):Seim, David L.
Reviewer(s):Critchlow, Donald T.

Published by EH.Net (December 2014)

David L. Seim, Rockefeller Philanthropy and Modern Social Science. London: Pickering and Chatto, 2013.  ix + 265 pp. $120 (cloth), ISBN: 978-1-84893-391-0.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Donald T. Critchlow, Department of History, Arizona State University.

In this age of excessive wealth, the Rockefellers, John D. and his son John D. Jr., in the early twentieth century provide an example of how great wealth can be used to better the world.  Through the establishment of the Rockefeller Foundation, huge sums of money were given to philanthropic causes.  The Rockefeller Foundation’s greatest contribution arguable lay in the advancement of medicine, but its efforts in education and the social sciences were notable.

Historian David Seim focuses his short book on the Rockefeller philanthropy in the social sciences from 1900 through 1920.  Seim eschews deep analysis for a straight-forward narrative of Rockefeller involvement in a wide-range of projects to support individual social scientists, advance social science research and education, and institutionalize the social sciences within universities and inter-disciplinary research institutions.  His book reads like a lengthy institutional report on a dizzying array of projects, but the wealth of information contained in his study is rewarding for any scholar interested in the history of the social sciences, university education, race relations, and public policy in the twentieth-century.

The period from the late nineteenth century up to the Great Depression starting in 1929 can be described as the “Golden Age” of the American social sciences. The emergence of the modern social sciences in this period, so ably described by historians such as Thomas Haskell, Barry Karl, Lawrence Cremin, Mary Furner, and others, projected an optimism that empirical social science research could better the world. The accumulation of empirically derived knowledge about human behavior and nature, these early social scientists maintained, was critical to reforming society, ensuring progress, and overcoming what they believed was a lag between scientific and technological advancement and traditional culture and customs. The confidence of early social scientists in their role in advancing society manifested hubris, but in the process American higher education was transformed and the social sciences became institutionalized. John D. Rockefeller, his son, and a brilliant staff played a critical role in this transformation.

Having earned a fortune in oil, John D. Rockefeller, a devout Baptist, believed that his wealth should be put to use in bettering the world.  At first he directed his charity toward mostly missionary organizations, educational institutions, and projects. From the outset he gave significant funds to African-American and Native American causes, including black seminaries and Indian schools. Overwhelmed by requests for support — sometimes reaching hundreds of letters each day — Rockefeller hired Dr. Frederick T. Gates, a Minneapolis minister, to organize his philanthropic activities. After retiring in 1896 from business, John D. Rockefeller joined with his son, John D. Junior, to direct his philanthropy. In 1901, they decided to establish the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research. This was followed by the establishment of the General Education Board, which directed much of its money toward the South and black education. In 1913, they established the Rockefeller Foundation. With the specific goal of serving “The Well Being of Mankind throughout the World” (Seim, pp. 58-59). The Rockefeller Foundation collaborated with the Carnegie Institution and the Russell Sage Foundation in promoting the social sciences.

The first efforts of the Rockefeller Foundation were small, providing financial support to the Bureau of Social Hygiene, a Division of Industrial Relations, and an Institute of Economics (1922), which later developed into the Brookings Institution.  The Bureau of Social Hygiene provided support for research into the “prostitution problem,” eugenics, and the establishment of Margaret Sanger’s American Birth Control League.

The turning point in Rockefeller’s involvement in the social sciences came with the establishment of the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial Fund in 1918, named after Rockefeller’s late wife. With an original endowment of $13 million, later extended to $74 million, an extensive program developed providing funds to assist the well-being of women and children and providing major resources to an effort to promote the broad advancement of knowledge, methods and application in the social sciences. The first years of the Spelman Memorial Fund focused on women and children, including support for the East Harlem Health Center, the Maternity Center Association of Manhattan, the YMCA and YWCA, the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, the Salvation Army, and the American Child Health Association. Headed by Beardsley Ruml, a University of Chicago trained Ph.D., who had studied with James R. Angell, the Memorial Fund turned its attention to the advancement of the social sciences in 1923. Key advisers such as Abraham Flexner, Raymond Fosdick, and Henry Embree played important roles in shaping the Memorial Fund program.

Seim details the multiple activities of the Spelman Memorial Fund through specific grants to educational institutions, individual research projects, the creation of research centers, and areas of research.  Seim ably outlines the full extent of these projects, showing how Ruml and his associates carefully developed and directed a program to fund the social sciences in America.  The major focus of this program was to redress what was seen as a cultural lag in American society, and to develop knowledge useful to maintaining what was described at the time as “social control” in human behavior. By social control, as Seim observes, Rockefeller people meant social advancement. This was a reform agenda that sought to distinguish between narrow business and class interests and empirical research by non-partisan expertise.

As these research programs developed, Ruml and his advisers expressed particular concern that funds be targeted toward institutional advancement within the universities and interdisciplinary organizations. Ruml did not limit funding to only American universities. In 1923, the London School of Economics began a long-term relationship with the Rockefeller Foundation.

In America, Ruml targeted funding major institutions, including the University of Chicago, which was founded largely with John D. Rockefeller money in 1892. Spelman Memorial funds provided vital in developing what became known as the Chicago School in Sociology. Much of the Chicago school of sociology focused on studies of ethnic and race relations. This focus on race relations was evident as well in funding to the University of North Carolina, where major research was conducted on the state and the means of bettering race relations in the South. At Columbia University in New York, Rockefeller funded major research on black southern migration to the North. Major Spelman Memorial grants went to Harvard University, especially to support the pioneering work of G. Elton Mayo.  Other funding — also on race relations — went to Western Reserve University in Cleveland, and Charles S. Johnson at Fisk University. A graduate student of Robert E. Park at University of Chicago, Johnson published in 1930 The Negro in American Civilization.

Spelman Memorial funds were directed to China, the Soviet Union, Sweden, and Western Europe, often toward research in what now would be called economic development. Seim notes that one of the black marks on Spelman Memorial funding during this period was support of eugenics research in the United States, as well as in Australia and Germany, where funds were used to support the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Psychiatry and the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Anthropology, Eugenics and Human Heredity. At the same time, Ruml supported research in international relations with a particular goal of aiding the League of Nations. Major funding helped launch the Social Science Research Council, under the direction of University of Chicago political scientist Charles Merriam. Less attention was given to the humanities, although the fund directed some funding toward historians, especially in France.

Seim ends his study with the merging of the Spelman Fund into the Rockefeller Foundation in 1929.  In accomplishing his intent to explain “the creation of the ideal of neutral, public-oriented social scientists (p. 239), Seim does not evaluate more fundamental questions raised by the rise of specialized, empirical social science research. The mindset of Ruml and the Rockefeller Foundation assumed that empirical social science research would improve the world. In many ways, it did and continues to do so today. Yet the mindset of early Rockefeller Foundation officers often precluded larger fundamental questions that had been explored by earlier philosophers and political thinkers: The ancient Greeks, Plato and Aristotle, asked basic questions as to the meaning of truth, justice, and a good society?  Adam Smith and David Hume examined what makes for a well-ordered society?  Alexis de Tocqueville, less than a century before the founding of the Rockefeller Foundation, asked about the relationship of equality and liberty in a democratic society, while warning of a “soft-despotism” that comes with a breakdown in civil society and the rise of a bureaucratic state. Already in the 1920s, political thinkers such as Ludwig von Mises and F.A. Hayek were challenging the hubris of economic planners and regulators. Earlier thinkers may have reached wrong conclusions, but debate over these fundamental issues rests generally outside the realm of narrow empirical social science research, as envisioned by the “new” social science in the early twentieth century.

The new social scientists in this golden age rejected the deductive reasoning of the past –the ancient Greeks and Christian theologians. The new social scientists found such debate maddening and ultimately irresolvable.  Yet, without dismissing the importance of the contributions that empirical modern social science can impart to our understanding of the world — often funded then and today by philanthropic foundations — the question that should have confronted the promoters of the new social sciences was simply: Are we too narrow, too exclusive, and too confident as to the ultimate contribution which we can make to what makes for a just, well-ordered, liberal society in our often facile dismissal of previous thinkers?

Donald T. Critchlow is Director of the Arizona State University Center for Political Thought and Leadership. His most books include The Brookings Institution: Expertise and the Public Interest in a Democratic Society; When Hollywood Was Right: How Movie Moguls, Film Stars, and Big Business Remade American Politics; and A Very Short Introduction to American Political History (forthcoming).

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Subject(s):History of Economic Thought; Methodology
Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII