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.
Starting in the early 1950s, the SSRC cultivated interdisciplinary research into the role of language in culture and thought through its Committees on Psycholinguistics and Sociolinguistics. Here, Monica Heller examines how the latter committee (1963–1979) helped establish sociolinguistics in the United States, investigating the tensions between language, culture, and inequality. In exploring how the committee shifted focus from the developing world to marginalized groups in the United States, Heller addresses how the research agendas of these scholarly structures are influenced by the political dynamics or ideologies of their time, in this case the Cold War and decolonization.
Sixty summers ago, the SSRC’s Committee on the Simulation of Cognitive Processes organized a landmark training institute, in partnership with RAND and codirected by Herbert Simon. The ambitious goal was to push the use of digital computers as key tools in modeling human cognition. Here, Hunter Heyck reflects on the legacy of the institute in advancing the use of computer-assisted “models” in the social sciences and how participants’ future work was shaped by the event. The institute was initially described in a 1958 Items report by Simon and Allan Newell, which we now republish to accompany Heyck’s essay.
A "big data" project for its day, the SSRC's The American Soldier series was deeply influential in shaping the social science of military organization and in developing new research methods. On the occasion of its four volumes and the underlying trove of data becoming openly accessible, Items republishes several archival essays on The American Soldier. Here, Rodrigo Ugarte provides an overview of the project's origins and impact.
A collaboration between Duke University scholars and the Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise (ACRE) has focused on environmental justice questions in rural Alabama. In this essay, the partners describe their research on how sewage and related environmental problems intersect with broader social structural issues, and consider how to address these challenges. The authors also reflect on the process by which scholars and community-based organizations can work together, and what goes into a mutually rewarding partnership.
The United Nations has included higher education as relevant to its new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). In this Items essay, Joan Dassin considers the role that scholarships for underrepresented citizens of developing countries can play in deepening the ways in which universities contribute to the public good. Drawing on the example of the Ford Foundation’s International Fellowships Program (IFP), Dassin argues for both rigorous modes of evaluating the impact of scholarship programs and for an expansive notion of impact that extends beyond technical training and narrow economic goals and addresses inequalities within and across countries.