- Cold War Social Science: Knowledge Production, Liberal Democracy, and Human Nature ed. by Mark Solovey and Hamilton Cravens
Is there such a thing as “cold war social science”? The question has been debated for some years now. Certainly the phrase refers to a period of history, a time when some social sciences, like any other sciences, were produced. But was the cold war determinant of or simply influential on the kind of social science produced? Was there a specific kind of social science produced during this period?
Yes, according to Mark Solovey, Hamilton Cravens, and their colleagues. Scientists claimed their work was vital to national security and well-being in a cold war context; they contracted with military organizations and produced the right sort of knowledge for the related cold war tasks, research useful to policymakers, among others. Yet could cold war themes be rhetorical devices to attract attention and funding only? Did social scientists really comply with the cold war expectations and demands of their patrons? More generally, what is the role of context in the production of knowledge?
This book offers a qualified yes to the question “Was there cold war social science?” In the introductory essay, Solovey offers three points “to make us cautious about using this notion in a cavalier fashion” (pp. 14–19). First, the cold war “did not reshape the social science landscape in a comprehensive and consistent manner.” Not all scholars participated and some “advanced oppositional stances.” Second, a variety of factors—social, political, and others—worked at the same time. Third, cold war concerns at one point took on “a life of their own, as they acquired momentum, attracted interest, and flourished.” The thesis is thus a difficult one to document.
The twelve chapters are organized in three groups or themes: knowledge production—the conceptual, epistemological, technical, and institutional aspects of social science production; liberal democracy (and the threat of communism); and human nature, especially rationality and creativity. The book offers a diversity of topics often missing in the study of cold war social science. Rationality (decision sciences, epistemic design, or ways of displaying data) and computers (linguistics) are only some of the topics discussed; the book also looks at anthropology, racial differences, and gender roles. It includes one chapter on future studies, another on creativity. The latter is quite original, for, as Michael Bycroft accurately states, “few historians have focused on the creativity movement” (p. 198). The volume also looks at supporting agencies and early research centers.
I recommend this book to students of science, particularly for chapters like those on decision science and creativity. Unfortunately, it is less relevant to historians of technology. Although there is a variety of analyses worth reading, the twelve essays are very short, too short I would say, in two senses. First, each topic is discussed in an extremely summarized way. The reader is given a little food for thought, but then has to look elsewhere to go deeper into the subjects. Second, because of this limitation, no essay convincingly makes a case for cold war social science. Certainly, the influence [End Page 285] of context is a difficult case to “prove.” A bit more on the discourses of the social scientists of the time, rather than exclusive reliance on an author’s interpretation, would have been a welcome addition, though it would have lengthened the book. As it stands, cold war social science remains a speculative idea.
Benoît Godin is professor at the INRS, Montreal, Canada. He specializes in the intellectual history of innovation and in the history of statistics on science and technology.