Social Science for What?: Philanthropy and the Social Question in a World Turned Rightside Up
by Alice O'Connor
Russell Sage Foundation, 2007
179 pp., $22.50
The Russell Sage Foundation (RSF), dedicated to “the improvement of social and living conditions in the United States,” recently celebrated its centennial by commissioning three volumes intended to “reflect upon the use of social science to deepen our understanding of American life,” according to Eric Wanner, the foundation’s president. One of these volumes is Social Science for What?: Philanthropy and the Social Question in a World Turned Rightside Up, a work by Alice O’Connor, an American historian at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
O’Connor’s thesis is that RSF—along with other mainstream or liberal foundations—has lost its way by departing from the approach adopted at its inception. Founded in “an era of vast economic and social inequalities and a deepening ideological and political divide,” the foundation initially attempted to address what O’Connor calls “the social question”—a question that was “very much tied to the exploited condition of labor.” It did so by regarding “social research as an essential instrument in the work of ameliorative social reform.”
In the early 1900s, O’Connor contends, social research was “heavily empirical, but its framing of the issues [was] ideological as well as practical.” This research emphasized how the social question could be resolved by focusing on “social and economic conditions that were themselves amenable to reform.” In short, social research was intended to point to social and economic inequities that government programs could help overcome.
O’Connor contends, though, that RSF subsequently changed its focus, supporting research that was more abstract and academic, less interested in social reform. In the late 1940s, RSF “reinvented itself as a social science foundation,” aiming to support research that prized “neutral objectivity” rather than social reform. The social science now in vogue placed a “growing emphasis on technical and methodological proficiency,” employing “such scientific methods as hypothesis testing, experimentation, case study, and mathematical analysis.” This new social science tended to frame “issues in terms of impersonal processes and inevitable forces rather than struggles over power and control,” and to refrain from “fundamentally challenging the status quo.”
O’Connor laments the fact that this “ideologically . . . neutralized” social science has been unable to respond effectively to the research supported by conservative foundations and undertaken at conservative think tanks. This research has been used, she asserts, to advocate a reform program devoted to “extreme economic deregulation and heightened moral regulation.” It “desocializ[es] as well as moraliz[es] the social question [by] holding individuals personally responsible for their disadvantages,” and it asserts “the superiority of free market capitalism [and] the two-parent patriarchal family.”
Hoping to rebut these conservative views, O’Connor concludes her brief volume by calling upon liberal foundations like RSF to “frame a public conversation about inequality” and to reestablish “the legitimacy . . . of the intertwined ideas of acting in the public interest and for collective public social purposes that have been so thoroughly denigrated in the antigovernment rhetoric of the recent past.”
O’Connor is on strongest ground when she criticizes the abstract and highly mathematical social science that came into fashion after World War II. It is indeed puzzling and depressing to read of an esteemed social scientist (a president of the American Sociological Society) who maintained that “sociology as a science is not interested in making the world a better place to live.” She rightly notes that important works of social science go beyond “the confines of narrow empiricism and abstract theory” and pose—in the words of the sociologist Robert Lynd, to whose volume Knowledge for What? O’Connor alludes in the title of her own book—“long-range and, if need be, abruptly irreverent questions of our democratic institutions.” O’Connor and Lynd correctly point to “the futility of [the attempt by social scientists to] achiev[e] the objective certainty of the natural sciences,” and to the need “for more candor about how values and unexamined assumptions” shape social science research.
O’Connor is also right to praise the social research that characterized RSF in its early days. But to some extent she misconceives it, in that she sets up an overly strict dichotomy between structural and moral reforms. She lauds early social science for advocating structural reforms in which government regulated the economy to benefit the poor: e.g., minimum-wage laws and workers’ compensation. She criticizes it, though, for also calling for moral reforms: attempts to discourage and improve the sometimes self-defeating behavior of the poor.
But this divide between structural and moral reforms is too absolute. In reality, it’s almost always a case of “both and” rather than “either or.” O’Connor presents the Pittsburgh Survey—a massive 1907-08 investigation of life and labor in urban, immigrant, industrial Pittsburgh, whose findings were used to support regulation of laborers’ work hours and wages—as model social science, but she also takes it to task “for its middle-class prejudices, its tone of condescension, and its hints of disapproval in even sympathetic depictions of the predominantly Slavic immigrant working class.”
A moment’s reflection indicates, though, that “hints of disapproval” of self-defeating behavior are both warranted and by no means incompatible with support for structural reform. A maximum-hours and minimum-wage law may well benefit impoverished workers, but such legislation will do no good for poor people whose intemperance keeps them out of the labor market. Encouraging temperance among the poor was therefore not a “middle-class prejudice.” Instead it was every bit as much an antipoverty measure as regulating wages.
The compatibility of structural and moral reforms is also evident in the thought of one of the leading reformers of the early RSF: Mary Richmond, who became head of its Department of Charity Organization in 1909 and founded the discipline of social work. In Richmond’s view, “The personal and social causes of poverty act and react upon each other, changing places as cause and as effect, until they form a tangle that no hasty, impatient jerking can unravel.”
Richmond therefore insisted on “that safe middle ground which recognizes that character is at the very centre of this complicated problem; character in the rich, who owe the poor justice as well as mercy, and character in the poor, who are masters of their fate to a greater degree than they will recognize or than we will recognize for them.” Like the authors of the Pittsburgh Survey, Richmond clearly understood the need for both structural and moral reforms.
Turning now to the contemporary philanthropic world, O’Connor’s analysis of the philanthropic approach of today’s mainstream liberal foundations is badly off the mark. In her view, the mainstream foundations are basically apolitical, tending to support highly mathematical, overly theoretical social science research that has little relevance to contemporary social problems. Alas, if only that were true. In truth, liberal foundations began to be politicized and influenced by left-wing ideology in the 1960s.
Alan Pifer, president of the Carnegie Corporation, called on the foundation world in 1968 to help shake up “sterile institutional forms . . . and procedures left over from the past” by supporting “aggressive new community organizations which . . . the comfortable stratum of American life would consider disturbing and perhaps even dangerous.” In 1989, Ford Foundation staffer Francis X. Sutton reminisced that “as the Sixties wore on, the values of the New Left spread through American society and an activistic spirit entered the [Ford] foundation that pulled it away from its original vision of solving the world’s problems through scientific knowledge.”
O’Connor’s portrait of the liberal foundation world can account for neither of these statements. Her claim that it was aggressive conservative foundations—foundations that, as she herself concedes, have far fewer funds at their disposal than their liberal counterparts—that introduced politicization and ideology into a previously apolitical and unideological philanthropic world is dubious, at best. This assertion is the philanthropic equivalent of the wrongheaded contention that Fox News purveys conservative propaganda, whereas outlets like CNN and NPR present the news with total objectivity.
Ultimately, O’Connor misunderstands both the early RSF and contemporary philanthropy. She praises the early RSF for supporting structural reforms, and she blames contemporary conservative philanthropy for supporting moral reforms. In fact, the early RSF advocated—and contemporary conservative philanthropy advocates—both moral and structural reforms.
O’Connor portrays contemporary conservatives as thoroughgoing advocates of laissez faire, but she is wrong to do so. Many conservatives endorse the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), a massive government transfer program that boosts the income of low-wage earners. (They support EITC because, unlike welfare before its 1996 reform, EITC encourages poor people to advance themselves by working.) Even a libertarian like Charles Murray has endorsed a plan that would replace existing transfer programs with an annual $10,000 grant given to each citizen, beginning at age 21.
O’Connor is right to point to the dangers of overly abstract, theoretical and quantitative social science. But she errs in demonizing conservative efforts to promote moral reforms. Structural reforms designed to benefit the poor are likely to be enacted only if they are seen as complements—rather than alternatives—to efforts to promote the self-advancing behavior of the poor.
Joel Schwartz is an adjunct senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, DC. He is the author of Fighting Poverty with Virtue: Moral Reform and America’s Urban Poor, 1825-2000.