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Social Science for What?

Philanthropy and the Social Question in a World Turned Rightside Up

Alice O’Connor

Publication Year: 2007

Much like today, the early twentieth century was a period of rising economic inequality and political polarization in America. But it was also an era of progressive reform—a time when the Russell Sage Foundation and other philanthropic organizations were established to promote social science as a way to solve the crises of industrial capitalism. In Social Science for What? Alice O’Connor relates the history of philanthropic social science, exploring its successes and challenges over the years, and asking how these foundations might continue to promote progressive social change in our own politically divided era. The philanthropic foundations established in the early 1900s focused on research which, while intended to be objective, was also politically engaged. In addition to funding social science research, in its early years the Russell Sage Foundation also supported social work and advocated reforms on issues from child welfare to predatory lending. This reformist agenda shaped the foundation’s research priorities and methods. The Foundation’s landmark Pittsburgh Survey of wage labor, conducted in 1907-1908, involved not only social scientists but leaders of charities, social workers, and progressive activists, and was designed not simply to answer empirical questions, but to reframe the public discourse about industrial labor. After World War II, many philanthropic foundations disengaged from political struggles and shifted their funding toward more value-neutral, academic social inquiry, in the belief that disinterested research would yield more effective public policies. Consequently, these foundations were caught off guard in the 1970s and 1980s by the emergence of a network of right-wing foundations, which was successful in promoting an openly ideological agenda. In order to counter the political in-roads made by conservative organizations, O’Connor argues that progressive philanthropic research foundations should look to the example of their founders. While continuing to support the social science research that has contributed so much to American society over the past 100 years, they should be more direct about the values that motivate their research.  In this way, they will help foster a more democratic dialogue on important social issues by using empirical knowledge to engage fundamentally ethical concerns about rising inequality. O’Connor’s message is timely: public-interest social science faces unprecedented challenges in this era of cultural warfare, as both liberalism and science itself have come under assault. Social Science for What? is a thought-provoking critique of the role of social science in improving society and an indispensable guide to how progressives can reassert their voice in the national political debate.

Published by: Russell Sage Foundation

Title Page, Copyright

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CONTENTS

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pp. v-

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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pp. vii-

Alice O'Connor is associate professor of history at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

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FOREWORD

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pp. ix-xi

On April 19, 2007, the Russell Sage Foundation will celebrate its centennial, 100 years to the day since Margaret Olivia Sage dedicated the foundation, in her husband’s name, “to the improvement of social and living conditions in the United States of America.” From the outset, social research played a key role in the foundation’s ...

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ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

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pp. xiii-

For their invaluable comments and willingness to listen as I worked out the ideas in this book, I owe a great deal of thanks to Nelson Lichtenstein, Mary Furner, and Ira Katznelson. The manuscript also benefited from readings by outside reviewers, and from the research ...

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INTRODUCTION

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pp. 1-10

During the weeks following its founding in early spring of 1907, the Russell Sage Foundation did something that established it as a kind of unofficial keeper of the larger philanthropic idea. The foundation trustees invited critical comment from various academics and social ...

PART I. RECONNECTING TO THE PROGRESSIVE PAST

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pp. 11-

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CHAPTER 1. ENGAGING THE SOCIAL QUESTION AT THE EARLY RUSSELL SAGE FOUNDATION

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pp. 13-47

The Pittsburgh Survey has been a rapid, close range investigation of living conditions in the Pennsylvania steel district. . . . It has been made practicable by co-operation from two quarters—from a remarkable group of leaders and organizations ...

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CHAPTER 2. SOCIAL SCIENCE, THE SOCIAL QUESTION, AND THE VALUE NEUTRALITY DEBATE

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pp. 48-70

When RSF reinvented itself as a social science foundation in the late 1940s, it did not simply break with an earlier vision of social scientific reform. Its trustees also embraced an alternative and, in its own way, equally value-laden vision of relevant social science that had been honed and ...

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PART II. UNDERSTANDING THE CHALLENGE FROM THE RIGHT

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pp. 71-72

To a degree that no doubt would have surprised them, the social scientists at the early Russell Sage Foundation and writing in the broader progressive tradition have a great deal to offer the project of social science and liberal philanthropy today. After all, ...

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CHAPTER 3. UNSETTLING THE SOCIAL QUESTION: FROM CONSENSUS TO COUNTERREVOLUTION IN THE POSTWAR POLITICS OF KNOWLEDGE

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pp. 73-101

Among the central conceits of the modern conservative movement has been to cast itself in counterrevolutionary terms. Nowhere does this play more loudly than from within the self-styled counterintelligentsia (vanguard of the counterrevolution) that for the last ,,,

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CHAPTER 4. THE POOR LAW, THE SOCIAL QUESTION, AND THE NEW POLITICS OF REFORM

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pp. 102-117

When conservatives tell the story of counterrevolution, two themes invariably loom large. One is the moral failure of liberalism. The other is the power of conservative ideas. Nowhere do they come together more powerfully than in the story conservative intellectuals tell about ...

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CHAPTER 5. THE COUNTER INTELLIGENTSIA,THE SOCIAL QUESTION, AND THE NEW GOSPEL OF WEALTH

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pp. 118-139

Ultimately, it was a different kind of political mobilization that channeled right-wing issue revolts in such incendiary areas as welfare, taxes, and race into a more sustained ideological counterrevolution, and that took on the liberal social scientific establishment ...

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CHAPTER 6. CONCLUSION

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pp. 140-146

In the opening chapters of this book, I addressed the enduring relevance of Progressive-era social knowledge by emphasizing its origins in a social question that resonates powerfully with the challenges before liberal democracies today. No challenge links the two

NOTES

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pp. 147-156

REFERENCES

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pp. 157-167

INDEX

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pp. 169-178


E-ISBN-13: 9781610444309
Print-ISBN-13: 9780871546494
Print-ISBN-10: 0871546493

Page Count: 192
Publication Year: 2007

Series Title: Russell Sage Centennial Volume

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Subject Headings

  • Russell Sage Foundation.
  • United States -- Social policy.
  • Liberalism -- United States
  • Conservatism -- United States.
  • Social sciences -- United States.
  • Endowments -- United States.
  • Social problems -- Research -- United States -- History.
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