A Requiem for “Soc Rel”: Here’s to Synthesizing Social Science

As both an undergraduate at Harvard College in the early 1960s, and as a doctoral student at the Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences in the late 1960s, I studied in a field called “Social Relations”—universally shortened to “Soc Rel” (and pronounced “Sock Rell”). Right after I received my degree in 1971, the field was terminated. Almost no one nowadays has even heard of Soc Rel, and accordingly, its demise has not lamented. Yet I believe it was an excellent example of interdisciplinary social science. We should seek to preserve the valuable lessons that it embodied.

First, a brief potted history. In the late 19th century and early 20th century, the social sciences were born. Following loosely on European examples, American scholars began to carry out empirical research in psychology (e.g. experiments); in sociology (e.g. surveys); and in anthropology (e.g. field work in remote cultures). (Comparable work was carried out in other social sciences, such as political science, economics, and linguistics, but that’s another story.) These fields of study often spawned departments in universities; and there were also collective enterprises across fields—as organized, for example, in the New York based Social Science Research Council (SSRC), founded in 1924. (SSRC supported my research in the early 1970s, and I subsequently served on its Board.)

The period before, during, and after the Second World War saw considerable interdisciplinary work in the social sciences (some, indeed, spurred by WWII). In my own field of developmental psychology, there were Bureaus of Child Welfare in several Midwestern universities, and Committees or Departments of Human Development at schools like Yale and the University of Chicago.

The establishment of institutes, committees, and departments is almost always a joint product of history, biography, and funding (chiefly private foundations, in those days). Disciplines develop alone, in tandem, or, more rarely, together, while scholars from these fields also carry out their work alone, in tandem, and, more rarely, together. At Harvard, during the 1940s, there was an unusual collection of distinguished scholars who came to know one another and to be invigorated by one another’s work. Specifically, the major figures were psychologists Gordon Allport and Henry A. Murray; anthropologists Clyde Kluckhohn and Cora DuBois; and sociologists Samuel Stouffer and Talcott Parsons. Among these scholars, Parsons was notably ambitious: he was intellectually ambitious, trying to tie the social sciences together through a conceptual framework (very influential in its time, now largely forgotten); and he was organizationally ambitious as well, thinking/hoping that the heretofore separate disciplines could, if integrated, prove to be far greater than the sum of their parts.

Hence in 1946 the Department of Social Relations was launched, as both an undergraduate major (or concentration) and as a doctoral degree department. (The name is truly awful!) For a while it thrived, because of the leading scholars involved; because of the interesting work that they carried out, sometimes jointly; and, it has to be stated, because Soc Rel was seen as being an easy major, one favored by many athletes.

And now an autobiographical turn. When I entered college in 1961, I had not heard of Soc Rel (probably very few high school students had). I assumed that I would be an history major and that I would go on to law school (adults had often told me that I would become a lawyer some day). But through a combination of circumstances, I became interested in this new field of study (new to me, still new to the academy), and when I was turned off by my sophomore tutorial in history, I decided to switch to Soc Rel—which turned out to be a fine home for my interests and my intellectual style.

When I look back on this experience and wonder why I was attracted to Soc Rel, I can identify two separate reasons. On the one hand, I liked very much several of the major professors—sociologists David Riesman, Daniel Bell, and Charles Tilly, personality psychologist Henry Murray, cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner, psychologist of language Roger Brown, anthropologists David Maybury-Lewis and Lawrence Wylie, and several others (alas, no women scholars). (I also liked the work of social psychologist Stanley Milgram, though we clashed personally.) Above all, there was the eminent psychoanalyst Erik Erikson, and I was fortunate enough to be his tutee as both a junior and senior in college. Though Erikson often told his students “Don’t try to be me,” it’s clear that he was a role model for me throughout college, just as Roger Brown and Jerome Bruner became role models in graduate school.

The other reason had to do with the kind of work that was central to scholarship in this area—and the real reason for this blog!

While the scholars in this field usually had their own specific expertise—ranging from linguistics to psychoanalysis—they moved readily and comfortably across the social scientific terrain. Riesman and Erikson—the individuals who had the greatest influence on me in college and later in life—did not represent a discipline at all. Riesman was trained as a lawyer, not a social scientist; and Erikson had never gone to college! To try to put them into a disciplinary bin was hopeless. Instead, they carried out what I have called “synthesizing social science.”

In this work, they surveyed large bodies of knowledge, did considerable field work, and then put together powerful syntheses. Most famously David Riesman (and his colleagues Nathan Glazer and Reuel Denney) focused on the new social arrangements emerging in the United States. They contrasted the “tradition directed” perspective of the 18th century Americans with the “inner directed” perspective of the frontier-attracted 19th century and the new “other directed” perspective of suburban Americans (white middle class, we would now underscore) of their own period. For his part, Erikson observed widely across several distinctly different societies, probed the life cycle through psychoanalytic sessions with hundreds of patients, and put forth his theory of eight stages of the life cycle—beginning with the conflict between trust and mistrust of the infant; highlighting the crisis of identity versus role diffusion of adolescence and early adulthood; and culminating in the struggle between integrity and despair as one’s powers wane in old age.

It would take many pages to detail how these authorities went about their work and reached their conclusions—and this is a blog, not a door-stopping book. But it may help to point out that the scholarly efforts of these researchers and writers—and others in the “Soc Rel” tradition—fell between two examples. While their work often came up with “easy to summarize” conclusions, it was not “mere” journalism; the authorities spent years observing and reflecting and took their time in reaching and expressing their conclusions. (They also wrote well!) On the other hand, the work was not quantitative science. While there were certainly “data,” they were informed by informal observations rather than large surveys or carefully controlled experiments, complete with tests of statistical significance.

Put differently, they were more informed individual and societal portraits than traditional science: not putting forth claims that could be “tested” in the sense of Karl Popper, but rather sense-make syntheses that sought to capture the world in its complexities. Neither Riesman nor Erikson nor their colleagues would have dreamed of claiming that they had obtained “truths” in the manner of astronomer or a geneticist.

And there, perhaps, lies the major explanation for the decline and demise of Soc Rel. Within universities, individual departments, and especially their doctoral training programs, are powerful entities. With the passage of time (and the passing of the pioneers), up-and-rising scholars wanted to be known as developmental psychologists, or sociologists of religion, or physical anthropologists—and not as experts in “Soc Rel” or even as synthesizing or qualitative social scientists.

But there were also the factors of age and successions. As I was going to graduate school, the founders of Soc Rel were all retired or about to retire—and only rarely had they nurtured successors of equal scholarly eminence and organizational skills. With first rate scholars retreating to their disciplinary trenches and budding Soc Rel scholars (like me!) who were less eminent, the pull toward safe and secure traditional departments was powerful.

Indeed, the demise of Soc Rel in the early 1970s could be well analyzed in terms of its constituent disciplines. There was the psychology of ego on the part of ambitious faculty; the sociology of departmental power; and the ethnography of a particular set of characters who had shared a vision but had not built the infrastructure or recruited the next generation of leaders. RIP Soc Rel.

But not entirely. As I and my colleagues pass the age of the founders, some of us still carry the Soc Rel banner. Among my own classmates, Rick Shweder of the University of Chicago clearly spans the range of disciplines; and among colleagues at other schools, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, long at Chicago and now at Claremont Graduate School, moves easily among the social sciences and also writes in the synthesizing mode of Riesman, Erikson, and their associates—nearly all male, given the university environment of the period. And in recent memory, there were other scholars who clearly carried the Soc Rel banner—for example, sociologists Robert Bellah and Neil Smelser.

I am bold enough to assert that there will long be a need—and perhaps also a hunger—for the kind of synthesizing social science embodied by the leaders of Soc Rel. To be sure, without institutional support (from universities and philanthropists), it will be more difficult to pull off this approach. But I have sufficient optimism that young scholars with the “Soc Rel” gene will be able to learn from the powerful role models of an earlier generation and to continue to compose impressive works in that tradition. How else will we understand the times in which we live, and the people with whom we live?

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9 Comments on “A Requiem for “Soc Rel”: Here’s to Synthesizing Social Science”

  1. Dr. Darrall G Thompson April 14, 2018 at 1:23 am #

    Design Thinking – The new Soc Rel
    As a designer and uni educator (Masters in Design and PhD in Education) I have made many trials and errors (for myself and others) in attempting to change one of the most important inhibitors of change in education (and society)… the obsession with the conflation of contributions to a mark or grade (or rating or ranking in any field, sport or business arena).

    My engagement with 5 began well before encountering 5 Minds for the Future (see https://www.facebook.com/pentagonhouse.australia) but I now need to talk to you about the web-based system I began to develop in 2002 and that by coincidence and Soc Rel Des Think engagements has turned out to effectively operationalise categories that inadvertently match your 5 minds within the context of the criterion-referenced assessment of student works and performances.

    You should probably come to see me in Australia (as you know real change happens at the edges), and stay in our 5 minded home, and discuss the research project that is just beginning in secondary schools… but as flying such distances is ecologically unsound we could do Skype ? dthompso

    warm regards,

    Dr. Darrall G Thompson
    Learning Futures Fellow
    University of Technology Sydney

    • Howard Gardner April 17, 2018 at 10:42 pm #

      very good to learn a bit about your work. We have gained little and lost a good deal from our obsession with tests and grades, rather than learning with just-in-time feedback and sufficient but not excessive scaffolding. At present I am fully occupied with teaching and research obligations but I hope that within the next few years I can make a return trip to Australia. howard

      • darrallthompson May 24, 2018 at 2:18 am #

        Many thanks for your response… I think your work on the 5 Minds is far more significant than its reception in the field of education (not being aware of how your colleagues in the field of psychology received the work).

        If you would be open to casting a mind over my article for the Journal of Learning Analytics, on page 198 I have placed your 5 Minds in conjunction categories from psychometric and educational research that resolved to 5 …
        * https://opus.lib.uts.edu.au/handle/10453/54961

        The harmony between them is very interesting and leads to the thought that if educational assessment could be approached through criteria that were coded to the 5 consistently through all levels of education and even into business performance reviews, then the obsession with single total marks that conflate the 5 could be replaced with a much broader educational profile… and encourage 5-minded development rather than single-minded memory testing.

        I already have 2 secondary schools involved in a research using this approach through assessment software designed to accommodate student self-assessment and the categorising of criteria… and 5 more schools begining in August 2018.

        Dr. Darrall G Thompson
        PhD in Education, Masters in Design

        * Reference: Thompson, D.G. 2016, ‘Marks should not be the focus of assessment— but how can change be achieved?’, Journal of Learning Analytics, vol. 3, no. 2, pp. 193-212.

  2. Jim Gray April 17, 2018 at 1:24 pm #

    Dear Howard, I think it is fitting in our highly social-technical world that a Twitter algorithm flagged this howardgardner.com blog post and alerted me via email with a hotlink to this site. I read it, and want to respond…

    Synthesis is alive and well in Cambridge. Perhaps akin to Soc Rel in its heyday, there is a flourishing center for synthesizing social science and sense making just down the street from you at the MIT Media Lab. Our work is not really about technology, as it might seem; it’s about inventing, designing, and deploying tools to improve the quality of human experience using whatever conceptual approach is effective. That is my impression as a newbie, recently hired Research Scientist and Learning Lead in Deb Roy’s Lab for Social Machines. I know there is institutional support from the top (Joi Ito) for this kind of synthesis (more strongly put forth as “anti-disciplinary”) and I see it across the individual faculty-led Labs under the Media Lab umbrella (no one sits in a single discipline).

    In the early years of the Lab, phrases like “inventing the future” and playing with the dual nature of “atoms and bits” guided creative work in digital media. Now, the paradigm is expanding. One could say we are in the midst of a Thomas Kuhn-style shift in the Media Arts and Sciences. While digital technologies and human-computer interface design are still central to the MIT Media Lab, the definition of “Media” is expanding to include anything that mediates our individual and collective experiences, from the neural connections in our brains, to physical extensions of our bodies, to the social-cultural structures of the Internet. And, whereas the original focus of activity was “demo or die” within the walls of the Lab, attention is now shifting outside, into the flow of everyday life, guided by the goal of “deployment or die.”

    As someone who inherited the “Soc Rel gene” (or more aptly was infected with Soc Rel memes) from you as an author and doctoral advisor, and others like Bruner, Erikson, and Allport (primarily as authors) I feel at home, and most alive, working between disciplines. Like the work at Project Zero, the Media Lab focuses on doing good in the world by creating new tools and techniques that can be used in the everyday worlds of learning and work. It is with that lens that I now see the MIT Media Lab from the inside.

    If anything unites the dizzyingly diverse array of work at the Lab, it seems to be Design… the design of human experience. Specifically, design in the realms of the Physical (Canan Dagdeviren’s Conformable Decoders, Hugh Herr’s Biomechatronics), Biological (Ed Boyden’s Synthetic Neurobiology, Kevin Esvelt’s Sculpting Evolution), Social (Deb Roy’s Social Machines, Mitch Resnick’s Lifelong Kindergarten). There is more humility than before — I don’t hear much about “inventing the future” so much as being participants in the vast complex adaptive system of systems in which we live, and doing our best to design media to improve it for ourselves, our species, and the future of the world. Perhaps it is a bit like Soc Rel, reformulated for a world that includes computational social science, and major corporations that systematically shape people’s view of themselves and the world, across billions of minds.

    So, it seems to me, at the MIT Media Lab the name of the game is now experience design with a palette organized around molecules, genes, and memes. That’s oversimplifying things, but however conceived, the work of the Media Lab does arguably have synthesis at the center, and that heart has a very healthy beat.

  3. Howard Gardner April 17, 2018 at 10:52 pm #

    many thanks, Jim, for your rich and very helpful comment. There are few pleasures in life as meaningful as when a one time student becomes a colleague, and moves from thousands of miles away back to Cambridge MA. You may know that I have been an admirer of the Media Lab for decades and have especially valued friendships with several of the investigators, And recently, I’ve been given the privilege of joining your Advisory Board and so, in a sense, I will be able to say ‘we’ rather than ‘those folks’ further down the Charles River. Your leader Joi gets one to think anew by invoking the phrase ‘anti-disciplinary’ but I prefer to think of high quality work as being multi-disciplinary (involving more than one discipline) or, even better, interdisciplinary (involving the synthesis or integration or multiplicative effects of two or more disciplines). What is different in this era– as opposed to when Veronica Boix-Mansilla and I studied the Media Lab and the nature of scholarly disciplines two decades ago–is that there are ways of hopscotching the usual training of first a discipline, and then a second discipline etc– and instead connecting early on with human or AI interfaces that can apply methods and insights from multiple disciplines. Put differently, one can be more multi-disciplinary at an earlier time.
    Still the disciplines are amazing human inventions and we should not dismiss them lightly.
    I look forward to further exchanges on this epistemological puzzle.. All best Howard

  4. daniel kontowski April 25, 2018 at 10:04 pm #

    I learned so much from that – and many things in my research are now making even more sense. I would like to point out two potentially interesting things proving that idea behind the degree was not so easy to kill as the degree itself.
    David Riesman wrote, with Gerald Grant, “The Perpetual Dream” on changes and experiments in the US colleges, in 1978. Most of those were as unconcerned with disciplinary name-dropping as they could be. And forty years in, the book still is inspiring, both theory-wise and in terms of how one can study outlier institutions.
    Interestingly, Hans Adriaansens, a Dutch sociologist who went to Harvard in mid-1970s, wrote a book on Talcott Parsons (1980), in late 1980s introduced a degree in “General Social Sciences” at Utrecht University, where he was then a dean, largely along the lines of Soc Real – at least according to a 2004 paper by Peter Rose from Smith College. At that time, psychologists were the hardest to convince that not all their classes should be obligatory for this degree! Adriaansens later founded University College Utrecht, 1998, and Roosevelt Academy/University College Roosevelt, 2004.
    I wonder how many other connections to the idea of liberal arts could there be?

  5. Howard Gardner April 30, 2018 at 4:48 pm #

    Thanks Daniel for your apt comment. Certainly interdisciplinary studies are alive and well, especially at small liberal arts colleges in the United States and in professional schools, like the one at which I teach.But now both disciplinary and interdisciplinary studies are under attack in the United States (and perhal elsewhere– you know the European scene better than I do) — because they seen as not directly vocational– that is, don’t lead directly to a job in a specific sector. I think that this view is extremely short sighted. Nonetheless, it may be necessary to disguise both disciplnary and interdisciplinary studies under labels that seem more inviting to parents and students who are only concerned about the first job. Best wishes Howard

  6. Dora Bonnet May 23, 2018 at 4:34 pm #

    Hi Dr. Gardner: Being interested in leader-teachers in formation, your blog has brought to my mind how education is one of those fields in which the social Sciencies come into play as interdependent fields but to which little emphasis is given. What should we start doing about with a minset on the future?

  7. Howard Gardner May 25, 2018 at 12:33 pm #

    There is a big tension, in schools of education, between a focus on good practice–what one needs to be successful in a classroom, or in a leadership position– and relevant research and theory– which of the findings and concepts in the social sciences are helpful across the range of educational roles. Ultimately, of course, any good educator needs both the important findings and the appropriate practices. But whether one should have one first, and then the other, or a constant interchange remains a topic for debate– and I dont have a simple answer to the complex question.
    best wishes hg

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