As he waged his fight for civil rights for Black Americans in the US South, Martin Luther King Jr. paid attention to American social science work on race. King was critical of this work, especially the notions of “social pathology” used to describe and explain the social conditions of African Americans. Many liberals, particularly in the US North, while critical of Southern racism, used this theory to justify their own neglect and discriminatory actions. Building on her presentation at the SSRC’s event on Gunnar Myrdal’s An American Dilemma, Jeanne Theoharis draws attention to Myrdal’s blind spot for Northern liberals and how the broader social sciences’ language of pathology and culture were employed by Northern elites. King, she explains, challenged these concepts and argued that Black precarity was rooted in inequality and racism.
Early Cold War Research and the Enduring Relevance Question: Area Studies, Behavioralism, and the SSRCby Michael C. Desch
The postwar Behavioral Revolution, Michael Desch argues, aimed to infuse social science with “scientific” approaches while preserving its applicability in the policy world. Focusing on two of the Behavioral Revolution’s leading figures, Talcott Parsons and Gabriel Almond (and their ties to the SSRC), he contends that, in fact, the goal of relevance was sacrificed through the pursuit of behavioralist theories and approaches. With a focus on comparative politics, Desch claims that the marginalizing of area studies, by focusing on more universal models of politics, took attention away from the contextual knowledge that was more needed by, and thus relevant to, policymaking.
Johanna Crane examines the devastating health effects of incarceration in US prisons, which dramatically deteriorate rates of physical and mental well-being, constituting what she calls a “slow death” by imprisonment. Crane’s research finds that imprisoned people refer to themselves as “being institutionalized”—“a biopsychosocial state” of anxiety that has long-term bodily and mental impact. Crane concludes by arguing that looking at prison through a public health lens is important but must not detract attention from the structural reasons for mass incarceration and how to address them.
Should life insurance be better imagined as “death insurance”? Graham Denyer Willis examines how the large number of people across the globe who lack access to formal insurance markets prepare for the impact that the death of a family member will have on their lives. In particular, Willis looks at how the PCC, a powerful criminal organization in Brazil, provides a form of insurance when its members are killed or incarcerated. In doing so, he reflects on how contemporary forms of capitalism, racial discrimination, and state violence create radically different relationships to “insurance.”
Jean Beaman presents some of her research into race and police violence, and the response to such violence, in France. Explicitly putting recent French incidents and patterns in comparative perspective with those involving law enforcement and African Americans in the United States, Beaman finds some similarities and many differences in how social mobilization against police violence is framed and carried out. In particular, she focuses on how French republicanism makes it more difficult to organize around claims based on the status of marginalized social identities (black, Muslim) as compared to the role played by BlackLivesMatter in the United States.
Aliza Luft tackles a question essential for social science and for human rights work—how, and how much, does dehumanizing propaganda spread by planners of genocide affect the “foot soldiers” of mass killings? Drawing on her own research on Rwanda as well as the Holocaust and other cases, Luft argues that the effects of pronouncements that describe potential victims as nonhuman or animals needs to be considered alongside other potential factors that motivate ordinary people to kill, and that the impact of such language is rarely straightforward. Luft concludes that “dehumanizing discourse can pave the way for violence to occur, but violence does not require it.”
Dimitris Xygalatas engages the problems of the generalizability and comparability of research results and their “ecological validity.” Xygalatas argues for the “methodological interaction between forms of participant-observation and experimentation,” combining the insights of approaches often seen as at odds with each other, to produce a collaborative and strong version of interdisciplinary research. Drawing from his own work on extreme religious rituals such as fire-walking and body piercing, the author demonstrates the benefits of research designs that include perspectives from the “field” and the “lab.”
Juan Acosta and Erich Pinzón-Fuchs recount the history of the creation of a deeply complex macroeconomic model of the US economy developed by the SSRC’s Committee on Economic Stability in the early 1960s. The work was led by future Nobel winner Lawrence Klein and sought to take advantage of emergent computing technology and a range of databases to simulate the potential impacts of various economic policy options. Based in part on research in the SSRC archives, the authors argue that the model was a pioneering effort in large-scale collaboration among economists with a long-lasting influence.
Soon after its founding, the SSRC engaged the study of race and race relations in the United States with the support of its main funder, the Rockefeller philanthropies. However, by 1930, Rockefeller and the Council shifted focus, shuttering the four committees tasked with studying these issues. Here, Maribel Morey critically examines the early history of the SSRC’s approach to race in the 1920s and 1930s, focusing on its relationship with the shifting priorities of the philanthropies that supported it. This includes major projects of the era such as W. E. B. Du Bois’s ambitious Encyclopedia of the Negro and the massive research undertaking that launched Gunnar Myrdal’s An American Dilemma.
In this essay, Angelique Haugerud provides an insightful analysis of what we now, sometimes uncritically, refer to as “fake news.” She then goes on to argue that our current obsession with “fake news” obscures something more fundamental—the financialization of the news industry in which profit eclipses the media’s role in contributing to the public good. In Haugerud’s view, this debilitates the mainstream media’s capacity to combat fake news and opens a space for the latter to enter the mainstream.