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The Origins of American Social Science.

This is a complex and important book. It is at once an intellectual history of the social sciences through the first half-century after the Civil War, a damning critique of the political culture of American exceptionalism, and an elaborate background against which professional mavericks such as Thorstein Veblen achieve new importance. In some respects, Origins of American Social Science echoes Peter Novick's recent dissection of the historical profession, although Ross's argument reaches far beyond mere disciplinary debates. In other respects, Origins gives historical weight to the postwar dissents of Louis Hartz, C. Wright Mills, and Russell Jacoby - all of whom, like Ross, point to the interplay of grand theory, abstracted empiricism, and a dangerously narrow political culture. In short, Ross traces the failure of American social science, as Mills once noted, "to make reason democratically relevant to human affairs in a free society, and so realize the classic values that underlie the promise of our studies."

Simply put, the argument is this: American social science has served as both prisoner and warden in an iron cage of "American exceptionalism." This exceptionalism is a product of antebellum political culture, a loose synthesis of "city on a hill" millenialism and secular republicanism, and postbellum conditions, a somewhat contradictory synthesis of democratic virtue and economic liberalism. Through the gilded age (whose political, cultural, and economic upheaval briefly threatened the older exceptionalist vision) a new exceptionalism, implying democracy without dissent and capitalism without class conflict, emerged. Ross is careful to point out that these ideas rested not only on longstanding cultural myths, but on close ties between the academic professions, political partisanship, and the elitism of the universities. Ironically, the largely false assumption of an exceptional American experience created an exceptional American academy, a canon of social science whose largely positivist concerns were circumscribed by the premises and pretensions of its professional and political culture. Critical scholars not only faced "the power of respectable opinion, and behind it, the power of the capitalist class to enforce its will," but "carried the burden of urging qualitative change on people who were clinging to original perfection." The resulting absorption or marginalization of socialists and ethicists, laments Ross, "deprived American social science of a continuing source of egalitarian values and historicist insight" (pp. 139-40).

Much of this book is devoted to the ongoing tension between the received universalism of exceptionalism, and the rapid economic, political, and intellectual change of the postbellum era. The late nineteenth century crisis of agrarian and labour radicalism, scientific and social Darwinism, and changing race and gender relations, for example, necessitated a new sense of liberal exceptionalism. As Ross suggests, this liberal revision shifted attention from the American past to the American future, and was increasingly infused with the equation of economic and political rights so characteristic of Wilsonian progressivism. In an indirect way, this is one of the best intellectual histories of progressivism I have ever read - although it might have been ever stronger if Ross had cast her net over the internationalist assumptions of the era as well.

The progressive era also marked the emergence of economics, sociology, and political science as discrete disciplines. Ross devotes a chapter to each. Neoclassical economics emerges as both an intellectual description and ideological defence of the modern political economy, increasingly adopting the pretensions of pure science and natural law in the process. A "sociology of social control" emerges, with a boost from well-heeled foundations and liberal capitalists, as a celebration of classlessness. Unable to ignore social conflict altogether, the fledgling discipline drafts Weber, Sombart, and others (often in starkly politicized translations) to the defence of a society of controlled "group" competition. And political science emerges as an innately conservative profession, entertaining only small questions of a political system it otherwise celebrates, or at least takes for granted.

The final two chapters carry the story through 1929. World War I, of course, entrenched both exceptionalist convictions and their academic subculture. Ross tracks the growth, on a "pruned academic field" (p. 326) of scientist pretensions, of the influence of foundations and private research institutions, of the spin-offs of "management studies" and "business science," and of the emphasis on social and political pluralism - arguably the cornerstone of contemporary exceptionalist doctrine. Indeed, while Ross draws the line at 1929, there are many hints at a postwar legacy - reinforced by both the culture of the Cold War and, in peculiar ways, the pattern of American decline after 1970 - which would continue to marginalize critical perspectives. "A more differentiated understanding of our national history," Ross concludes hopefully, "will give us a better chance to discern what liberty, equality, and solidarity in the world could mean" (p. 476).

This is intellectual history at its very best, never failing to connect ideas to a "real world" of economic power, highbrow culture, and professional anxieties. Careful readers will find a dense and disquieting account of not only the origins of a certain set of ideas and assumptions, but of the very disciplines in which many of us are engaged. Those inclined to read with one finger in the index will find compelling capsules of the place (or misplacing) of leading social theorists and theories in the making of the modern social sciences. Perhaps the spirit of this book is best captured in its treatment of Thorstein Veblen. For Ross, Veblen is an "American Gramsci" (p. 207) who recognized that the persistence of American exceptionalism rested on both a debilitating culture of consumption and a fundamental intellectual timidity. It is no accident, as Ross notes drily, that this century's sharpest critic of American political economy and culture is read - then and now - primarily as a satirist.
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Author:Gordon, Colin
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Aug 1, 1993
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