In November 1970, the SSRC’s Joint Committee on African Studies convened its second conference on the study of urbanization in African countries. This conference focused primarily on the relationship between marketplaces and other economic centers with urban settlements, both large and small. Here, committee member Walter W. Deshler reports on the papers presented, which looked at a range of approaches to understanding urbanization in multiple settings, including Sierra Leone, Kenya, and southern Africa. After assessing the extant research on this topic, Deshler explains the committee saw a need for more attention to urban questions in eastern and western Africa, as well as research that focused on the social processes and social structures that produce urbanization.
From Our Archives
In the late 1950s the SSRC convened the Committee on Urbanization to assess the state of urban studies, gathering social scientists from a wide range of disciplines. In reviewing literature of that time, the committee focused on four broad topics that required further scholarly attention: the relationship between metropolis and region; urban morphology and functions; the process of urbanization; and the consequences of urbanism. Among the committee’s conclusions were encouraging more comparative historical work on urbanization and the expansion of urbanization studies in the Global South.
In late February 2020 anti-Muslim riots broke out in New Delhi, India, the most recent instance of violence against Muslims in the country. To provide some historical context for this incident, as well as the recent passing of a controversial amendment to India’s citizenship law, Ashutosh Varshney’s 2002 essay on the Gujarat riots provides insight into Hindu-Muslim violence. Written soon after the March–April 2002 violence, Varshney recounts the known facts at the time, arguing that the events should be considered a pogrom. However, Varshney goes on to complicate the narrative surrounding interreligious violence, highlighting research showing that, in communities where Hindus and Muslims live more interconnected lives, violence is less likely to occur.
The SSRC’s Committee on New York City (1985–1991) aimed to study the social, cultural, political, and economic interactions that happen in urban settings, as well as how these intersections then reverberate beyond it. In this 1986 report, Ira Katznelson explains the Committee’s goals and key themes. He discusses how focusing on New York City would provide an ideal place through which to study different urban dynamics through a range of disciplines. Through its three working groups —The Built Environment, The Dual City, and Metropolitan Dominance—the Committee sought to investigate how cultural, economic, and political forces shape New York City and society at large, from the nineteenth through twentieth centuries.
The SSRC’s Committee on Sociolinguistics was committed to furthering attention to language, and linguistic difference, as an “unexploited kind of sociological data” in ethnographic and survey research. The committee convened a conference in 1968 to better understand the intersection of social and linguistic factors, summarized here by Allen D. Grimshaw. The group focused on four topics: the ethnography of asking questions; the meaning of words; the ways in which interviews themselves are “a part of the data” and “don’t know” responses are revealing answers to questions; and improving scholars’ training in framing questions and eliciting answers related to language and communication.
In the early 1950s, the nascent political science subfield of comparative politics wrestled with questions of method and whether to approach comparing nation-states via abstract concepts or a problem-oriented focus. To begin addressing these concerns, the SSRC convened an interuniversity research seminar in which political scientists began to create a framework for the field that ultimately led to the formation of the Committee on Comparative Politics. Roy Macridis, in this report, summarizes the seminar’s discussion, which included the relative merits of area studies approaches to more abstract theorizing. The conversation clearly tilted toward starting with conceptual schemes independent of context, and so exemplifies the impact of behavioralism that Michael Desch illustrates in his Items essay.
As SSRC launches MediaWell—our online platform to track and distill research on disinformation, online politics, election interference, and emerging collisions between media and democracy—Items is revisiting this 1980 report on the SSRC’s Committee on Mass Communication and Political Behavior. Focusing on the impact of news media on the 1976 presidential election, Thomas Patterson highlighted the shift in news coverage from candidates’ policy platforms to candidates’ gaffes and campaign issues and how this has affected voters’ grasp of electoral issues. Patterson concludes that stronger parties are needed to provide voters with policy information.
Sociolinguistic debates around the definitions and significance of “pidgin” and “creole” languages were increasing in the 1960s and the SSRC’s Committee on Sociolinguistics played a role in cultivating these discussions. This 1968 report by Dell Hymes summarizes issues raised at a conference convened by the Council at the University of the West Indies, Jamaica, to better understand the historical development, the grammatical and lexical evolutions, and the social uses of pidgin and creole languages. Though he highlights how social science can better inform research on pidginization and creolization, Hymes identifies knowledge gaps, among them the nature of the relationship between these languages and national identity, and more broadly the lack of historical and social scientific knowledge of this topic.
In 1989 the Social Science Research Council sponsored two panels at the annual meeting of the African Studies Association comparing the political systems and political cultures of African and Caribbean nations, most of them former British colonies. In this brief 1990 report, Tom Lodge summarizes the key points raised during these panels, including the role the politics of patronage play in democracies and how the homogeneity of some Caribbean nations and their history of colonial representative government bolster democracy compared to African nations. However, Lodge also highlights other key issues raised by other scholars, including the importance of slavery in shaping a culture of resistance as well as being aware of the contradictions and limits of pan-African discourse by governments.
As sociolinguistics continued to develop in the 1970s, members of the Council’s Committee on Sociolinguistics (1963–1979) reflected on the direction and intellectual impact of this emergent discipline. In this 1972 article, Dell Hymes, cochairman of the committee, describes several orientations toward the field among its practitioners, and argues for what he regarded as the most ambitious: a “socially constituted linguistics.” By this, Hymes meant a sociolinguistics that challenges linguistics’ core theoretical starting points of linguistic structure and grammar with a focus on the social meaning and functions of language in context. In relation to our “Sociolinguistic Frontiers” series, Hymes presciently argues that ultimately the field must address how inequality and language intersect, going “beyond means of speech and types of speech community to a concern with persons and social structure.”