- Civic Engagement: Social Science and Progressive-Era Reform in New York City
Some history books are pathbreaking. Revising conventional wisdom, they fire scholars' imagination to pursue lines of inquiry virtually unimagined before the monographs were published. Other works fill in gaps. The best of this genre challenges readers to rethink issues that we thought were resolved. More importantly, such books invite historians to grapple with thorny issues because of the way that the author connects the subject matter to broader issues at a particular point in historical time. John Louis Recchuiuti's Civic Engagement: Social Science and Progressive-Era Reform in New York City admirably falls into the second category.
Recchuiuti focuses on the ideas and affiliations of a small group of women and men, mostly well born and all well educated, who envisioned Manhattan, as Charles Beard put it, to be "the greatest social science laboratory in the world" (p. 3). New York was the nation's largest city, as waves of immigrants entered its port, and the center of finance and trade. Columbia University, by the 1910s the world's largest university, was the hub of activity for public intellectuals [End Page 215] well versed in social-science theories and statistical methods in vogue on both sides of the Atlantic. "It was in New York City that the majority of the nation's principal organizations of reform on the most decisive and divisive issues in an industrializing economy were headquartered in the great era of social reform" (ibid.) Through a dazzling array of organizations to assist the unemployed poor, to tackle municipal corruption, to promote social insurance and consumer rights, and to advance civil rights, social-science reformers put a premium on ideas in problem-solving, and sought to create institutions that would remedy social ills in a manner (usually) consonant with Americans' penchant for pragmatism and voluntary associations.
Civic Engagement details the inner bonds and outward connections that these public intellectuals made with presidents, philanthropists, financiers, and clients. Recchiuti underscores the ambiguities in the social science ethos and shortcomings in his subjects' strategies. "At the center of social scientists' reach toward leadership was an unresolved ambiguity in the meaning of social science itself, and of social science's relationship with democracy" (12). Social science at Columbia, and other rising research universities, was an elitist enterprise. Its practitioners hoped to remake the world, to wrest power from the corrupt and the plutocrat alike, and to level the playing field for all Americans. Insofar as Rockfeller underwrote their research, or Professor Edwin R. A. Seligman used his vast fortune to advance inquiries, conflicts of interest (or at least the appearance of such) were inevitable.
The tensions went deeper, however, as Recchuiti's fine case study of the American Association for Labor Legislation (AALL) demonstrates. Intended to study labor conditions at the local, state, federal, and international levels, AALL published pamphlets, drafted legislation, and sought administrative reforms. It was a prototypical Progressive institution. But Civic Engagement documents the opposition it faced over setting a minimum wage from both the American Federation of Labor, which feared the minimum would become a ceiling, and the National Association of Manufacturers, which wanted the market not government to set the standards. Other ambiguities existed. Differences in opinion led some social-scientist reformers to help create the National Association of Colored People, advocating civil and political rights, and others to collaborate with the National Urban League, focusing on the social economy. "Social science principles and methodology attached from moral commitment had not led to agreement among New York's scholar-activists on what public policies to pursue" (p. 209).
Nor did the election of 1912 provide the political opportunity that the public intellectuals might have wanted. Teddy Roosevelt was an obvious choice, but there were a significant number of Socialists in the group who favored Eugene Debs. Woodrow Wilson's platform further split the group. Other factors undercut the power of ideas created by public intellectuals. Race and (surprisingly, given the prominent role of...