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Social Science for What?

Social Science for What?: Philanthropy and the Social Question in a World Turned Rightside Up

Alice O′Connor
Copyright Date: 2007
Published by: Russell Sage Foundation
Pages: 192
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  • Book Info
    Social Science for What?
    Book Description:

    Much like today, the early twentieth century was a period of rising economic inequality and political polarization in America. But it was also an era of progressive reform—a time when the Russell Sage Foundation and other philanthropic organizations were established to promote social science as a way to solve the crises of industrial capitalism. In Social Science for What? Alice O’Connor relates the history of philanthropic social science, exploring its successes and challenges over the years, and asking how these foundations might continue to promote progressive social change in our own politically divided era. The philanthropic foundations established in the early 1900s focused on research which, while intended to be objective, was also politically engaged. In addition to funding social science research, in its early years the Russell Sage Foundation also supported social work and advocated reforms on issues from child welfare to predatory lending. This reformist agenda shaped the foundation’s research priorities and methods. The Foundation’s landmark Pittsburgh Survey of wage labor, conducted in 1907-1908, involved not only social scientists but leaders of charities, social workers, and progressive activists, and was designed not simply to answer empirical questions, but to reframe the public discourse about industrial labor. After World War II, many philanthropic foundations disengaged from political struggles and shifted their funding toward more value-neutral, academic social inquiry, in the belief that disinterested research would yield more effective public policies. Consequently, these foundations were caught off guard in the 1970s and 1980s by the emergence of a network of right-wing foundations, which was successful in promoting an openly ideological agenda. In order to counter the political in-roads made by conservative organizations, O’Connor argues that progressive philanthropic research foundations should look to the example of their founders. While continuing to support the social science research that has contributed so much to American society over the past 100 years, they should be more direct about the values that motivate their research. In this way, they will help foster a more democratic dialogue on important social issues by using empirical knowledge to engage fundamentally ethical concerns about rising inequality. O’Connor’s message is timely: public-interest social science faces unprecedented challenges in this era of cultural warfare, as both liberalism and science itself have come under assault. Social Science for What? is a thought-provoking critique of the role of social science in improving society and an indispensable guide to how progressives can reassert their voice in the national political debate.

    eISBN: 978-1-61044-430-9
    Subjects: Sociology, Political Science

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. About the Author
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Foreword
    (pp. ix-xii)
    Eric Wanner

    On April 19, 2007, the Russell Sage Foundation will celebrate its centennial, 100 years to the day since Margaret Olivia Sage dedicated the foundation, in her husband′s name, ″to the improvement of social and living conditions in the United States of America.″ From the outset, social research played a key role in the foundation′s mission—both by providing vivid descriptions of the social problems that called out for reform in a newly industrialized, urbanized America and by assessing the effectiveness of the foundation′s early programs designed to improve the lot of the disadvantaged. As the foundation′s enterprise matured after World...

  5. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  6. Introduction
    (pp. 1-10)

    During the weeks following its founding in early spring of 1907, the Russell Sage Foundation did something that established it as a kind of unofficial keeper of the larger philanthropic idea. The foundation trustees invited critical comment from various academics and social policy intellectuals, not so much on the particulars of its yet-to-exist program as on the underlying concept of creating knowledge for ″social betterment.″ In the ensuing decades, the foundation would make philanthropy the topic of full-fledged research programs. But it is to that original question, and in that original spirit, that my historical inquiry is cast. Its aim...

  7. Part I Reconnecting to the Progressive Past

    • Chapter 1 Engaging the Social Question at the Early Russell Sage Foundation
      (pp. 13-47)

      The Pittsburgh Survey has been a rapid, close range investigation of living conditions in the Pennsylvania steel district. . . . It has been made practicable by co-operation from two quarters—from a remarkable group of leaders and organizations in social and sanitary movements in different parts of the United States, who entered upon the field work as a piece of national good citizenship; and from men, women and organizations in Pittsburgh who were large-minded enough to regard their local situation as not private and peculiar, but a part of the American problem of city building.

      —Paul U. Kellogg, ″The...

    • Chapter 2 Social Science, the Social Question, and the Value-Neutrality Debate
      (pp. 48-70)

      When RSF reinvented itself as a social science foundation in the late 1940s, it did not simply break with an earlier vision of social scientific reform. Its trustees also embraced an alternative and, in its own way, equally value-laden vision of relevant social science that had been honed and institutionalized with increasing momentum since the 1920s—in research universities, in professional societies, in an expanding nonprofit research sector, and in a philanthropic politics of knowledge that, though by no means wholly absent from the early RSF, was most closely associated with the Carnegie Corporation and the Rockefeller Foundation′s Laura Spelman...

  8. Part II Understanding the Challenge from the Right

    • [Part II Introduction]
      (pp. 71-72)

      To a degree that no doubt would have surprised them, the social scientists at the early Russell Sage Foundation and writing in the broader progressive tradition have a great deal to offer the project of social science and liberal philanthropy today. After all, though the progressives were not as unabashedly optimistic as they are sometimes made out to be, they were secure enough in their assumptions about social progress to imagine that a century later the need to study the labor question would have disappeared. Revisiting the dynamics the Pittsburgh surveyors and their contemporaries had called attention to in exploring...

    • Chapter 3 Unsettling the Social Question: From Consensus to Counterrevolution in the Postwar Politics of Knowledge
      (pp. 73-101)

      Among the central conceits of the modern conservative movement has been to cast itself in counterrevolutionary terms. Nowhere does this play more loudly than from within the self-styled counterintelligentsia (vanguard of the counterrevolution) that for the last three decades has served the movement as a veritable fountainhead of conservative ideas and policy positions, a steady stream of editorial opinion, and—especially important—a keeper of the movement narrative and of its founding myths. As discussed more fully in chapter 5, the circuitry of activist intellectuals, think tanks, law institutes, journals, and foundations that anchors the conservative intelligentsia is itself the...

    • Chapter 4 The Poor Law, the Social Question, and the New Politics of Reform
      (pp. 102-117)

      When conservatives tell the story of counterrevolution, two themes invariably loom large. One is the moral failure of liberalism. The other is the power of conservative ideas. Nowhere do they come together more powerfully than in the story conservative intellectuals tell about the book that brought about the counterrevolution in welfare, Charles Murray′sLosing Ground(1984).¹

      In the now legendary annals of counterrevolutionary triumph, the story begins with Murray as an obscure scholar toiling away at an equally obscure think tank known to only a very few as the Manhattan Institute, both on the verge of a major social policy...

    • Chapter 5 The Counterintelligentsia, the Social Question, and the New Gospel of Wealth
      (pp. 118-139)

      Ultimately, it was a different kind of political mobilization that channeled right-wing issue revolts in such incendiary areas as welfare, taxes, and race into a more sustained ideological counterrevolution, and that took on the liberal social scientific establishment in a full-scale ideological counterattack. Although building on and steeped in the same bundle of values and animosities fueling grassroots opposition to liberal ″welfarism,″ this was very much, and very deliberately, a ″revolt of the elites.″¹ It rested on the activism not so much of populist politicians appealing to the working and middle classes, but instead of conservative intellectuals and business executives....

    • Chapter 6 Conclusion
      (pp. 140-146)

      In the opening chapters of this book, I addressed the enduring relevance of Progressive-era social knowledge by emphasizing its origins in a social question that resonates powerfully with the challenges before liberal democracies today. No challenge links the two eras more directly than the problem that has resumed its dubious honor as the dominant social question of our time. It is a problem that has become the arena for a growing number of multiracial reform coalitions since the early 1990s. It is a problem the Russell Sage Foundation has for the past decade put at the center of its research...

  9. Notes
    (pp. 147-156)
  10. References
    (pp. 157-168)
  11. Index
    (pp. 169-178)