Social Sciences

“There seems to be a widespread belief that we are all social scientists, all of us are economists; and in this egalitarian democracy of ours any man’s ideas on any problem in sociology are as good as any other man’s. We need to realize that what is true of physics and biology is true in this area also. The same degree of special knowledge is required.”

Raymond Fosdick

Persons at the Massachusetts Institute Of Technology working at analysis by analog computer

Persons at the Massachusetts Institute Of Technology working at analysis
by analog computer

The technological advances of the twentieth century enabled the natural sciences to pursue, as Rockefeller Foundation (RF) President Raymond B. Fosdick put it, “the progressive discovery of smaller and yet smaller units of nature.”[1] The social sciences, on the other hand, were increasingly called to address larger and larger questions. The RF did not have a social sciences program until 1928, when it absorbed a related Rockefeller philanthropy, the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial (LSRM). In the mid-1930s it launched its own research agenda in the fields of economics, social organization, and international relations.

The real heyday for RF social sciences arrived postwar, when the Foundation sought solutions to the social dilemmas exacerbated by a new global politics and rapid advances in science and technology. From 1946 to 1951, the Division of Social Sciences (DSS) received more funding than any other division, and the questions it faced were daunting: how to ensure peace among nations, how to encourage and protect free inquiry, how to predict and control economic fluctuations, and how to foster shared moral values while respecting cultural diversity. As the RF shifted its focus to developing nations in the 1950s and to problems of population and food supply from the 1960s onward, the social sciences were central to the interdisciplinary approaches such complex problems demanded.

Early Decisions

Although the RF’s founding mission was to improve human welfare, for years it avoided working directly in the social arena. In part, this decision was made because the nascent social sciences remained entangled with social work, and the Foundation believed attacking the “root causes” of problems would be more useful and lasting than relief programs. As early as 1913, RF trustees identified public health and medical education as the “surest prospect of such usefulness.”[2] Even basic research in the natural sciences promised clearer methods and more measurable results than the vaguely-defined social sciences.

The RF’s preference for science and health, however, was also born of negative experience. A short-lived program in industrial relations, headed by Rockefeller associate W. L. Mackenzie King, aimed to study “industrial unrest and maladjustment.” While conceived as a constructive response to the 1914 Ludlow Massacre of striking coal miners and their families at the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company (a company in which John D. Rockefeller (JDR) held substantial shares), the program drew the attention of the United States Commission on Industrial Relations, also known as the Walsh Commission. The testimony of John D. Rockefeller, Jr. (JDR Jr.) before that commission garnered publicity that hinted at ties between RF funds and family interests, even though the RF played no part in the massacre or the mines. The Industrial Relations Program was terminated in 1918; the limited results of its research were, by trustee request, published under King’s name only. Later that year, JDR established the LSRM as a tribute to his late wife.

Building an Institutional Framework

For the next ten years, the LSRM rather than the RF fostered the development of the social sciences, which lagged behind the natural sciences in both definition and funding. Beardsley Ruml’s 1922 appointment as Director of LSRM began to close this gap. Ruml aimed to professionalize the social sciences by situating them within the academy, separating them from social work, and encouraging empirical research. While his assumption was that increasing knowledge would inevitably contribute to greater “social control,”[3] Ruml was careful to assert that the LSRM would not attempt directly “to secure any social, economic, or political reform.”[4] For Ruml, scientific objectivity offered protection from the moral and political pitfalls of controversial subjects. 

The LSRM spread its support across a range of universities in the United States and Europe to avoid biases, thereby creating a network of institutions engaged in common approaches. This new network was also cultivated through the 1923 establishment of the Social Science Research Council (SSRC), heavily supported (and influenced) by the LSRM. Comprised of the professional associations of seven social science disciplines, the SSRC served as an intellectual center and as a proxy for addressing issues the LSRM could not afford to tackle directly. It gathered social scientists across disciplines to engage in research that was both topical (“Consumption and Leisure”) and methodological (“Appraisal of Research”). Its annual summer conference in Hanover, NH, brought foundation officers, university administrators, SSRC staff, and well-known scholars together to discuss selected topics, offering perhaps the earliest example of intentional interdisciplinary engagement.

Scientific Understanding of Social Issues

The RF continued the LSRM’S financial support for several universities following the merger of the two entities in 1928. By the mid-1930’s, social science inquiry within the academy had blossomed. Institutions that had received unrestricted support, including the University of Chicago and the London School of Economics and Political Science, were now able to stand on their own. In a 1934 program reappraisal, the trustees urged then-Director Edmund E. Day to channel funding toward knowledge for problem solving. The DSS phased out its fluid grants and identified three practical areas of concentration: economic stabilization, international relations, and public administration, reflecting concerns raised by the Depression and by increasingly volatile politics abroad.

Statistical production on IBM equipment, National Bureau of Economic Research, New York (N.Y.) 1963

Statistical production on IBM equipment, National Bureau of Economic Research,
New York (N.Y.) 1963

The economy became the latest iteration of “root causes” of social problems. As Day explained, “much physical suffering, illness, metal disorder, family disintegration, crime, and political and social instability trace their origin to economic causes.”[5] International relations aimed to give specialists and technical advisers the “factual materials” they required to create “the appropriate machinery for continuous conference among nations.”[6] All three areas attempted to foster the rational, scientific management of human affairs.

Yet these early programs ultimately failed to convince the trustees that RF dollars were having sufficient impact. In 1939 Day was replaced by Joseph Willits, an economist from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. When he accepted the position, Willits insisted on being able to “play with deuces wild.” His tenure marked the most vibrant period of the DSS.

Telescopes Are Not Enough

In the 1920s and 1930s RF funds helped build almost miraculous machines: the 200-inch cyclotron, differential analyzers, and the Mt. Palomar telescope. But the same science also fueled wartime destruction. Two months after the United States released the atomic bomb, the DSS responded by convening the world’s top physicists to assess the implications of atomic power. The division also sought to explain rapidly shifting global politics, sponsoring conferences including “Nationalism and Mankind;” “Economics of Modernization;” and “Income and Wealth in Underdeveloped Areas.” Other conferences examined specific aspects of Latin American and Asian economics, law and history. In the United States, the DSS spent over $1 million to incubate the interdisciplinary field of American Studies, noting that “no nation can manage its future which does not understand its past.”[7]

As the RF surveyed the possibilities for work in “underdeveloped areas” and devised agriculture programs that would spread worldwide, the DSS funded complementary programs in academic institutions. It supported the social sciences at the Colegio de Mexico when the Mexican Agriculture Program began, funding U.S. anthropologists to train Mexican graduate students to conduct fieldwork in their own cultures. The division’s commitment to empirical research prompted it to seek contained environments as a “laboratory” in which social data might be analyzed scientifically. Key examples of this type of work include the Harvard University “Five Cultures” study in the U.S. Southwest, Julian Steward’s Puerto Rico project, and the RF-operated Crete study. In all three cases, the DSS sought to understand processes of acculturation in societies transitioning from an agrarian to an industrial model.


The DSS had long supported interdisciplinary scholarship in universities. During the 1950s and 1960s the Foundation began to integrate its own divisions as well. Work in developing nations called for collaboration as the RF strove to address community planning, education, and scientific agriculture in non-Western societies. The transition to collaborative work began under Dean Rusk (RF President 1952-61). As RF President John Knowles noted in his 1973 retrospective, “[H]ealth, education, increased productivity and cultural enrichment move together…understanding the interdependence of all knowledge and the need for interdisciplinary approaches was reaffirmed and reinforced by Rusk.”[8]

A key example of this new work was the Foundation’s shaping of area studies programs in universities beginning in the late 1940s. Although area studies began as a humanities initiative within the RF, the social sciences quickly became its partner. The two divisions jointly reviewed applications and combined institutional contacts to locate “the most competent persons…not only competent in some discipline but in some region.”[9] Area studies, along with community studies and human ecology, prefigured the Foundation’s own adoption of an overtly interdisciplinary structure. In the 1963 reorganization, it launched thematic programs that utilized the social sciences on every front, from hunger to population to equal opportunity.

The legacy of the social sciences persisted throughout the 1970s and 1980s, particularly when the Foundation reintroduced work in international relations in 1973. That program evolved into a concentration on International Security from the late 1980s through the mid-1990s. In recent years, social science research has contributed to RF efforts to improve the quality of urban life, both in the United States and developing countries. The Foundation has relied on the social sciences as it has examined poverty and economic growth, built models of education-finance reform, launched community development initiatives, and re-envisioned housing and transportation infrastructure.

[3] Beardsley Ruml, “Memorandum to the Executive Committee and Director to the Board of Trustees of the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial for the year 1 October 1924 through 30 September 1925,” Dockets November 1925,  Rockefeller Archive Center (RAC), Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial (LSRM) Collection, Series I, Box 2, Folder 16.

[4] Beardsley Ruml, Memorandum, “Conditions Affecting the Memorial’s Participation in Projects in Social Science,” July 10, 1924, RAC, LSRM Collection, Series I, Box I, Folder 9.

[8] John Knowles, Trustee Program Review, December 3, 1973, RAC, RG 3.2, Series 900, Box 30, Folder 163.