Title Reviewed:
Advocacy and Objectivity: A Crisis in the Professionalization of American Social Science, 1865–1905

Author Reviewed:
Mary O. Furner

Walter T. K. Nugent


Indiana Magazine of History, Volume 72, Issue 4, pp 377-379

Article Type:
Book Review

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Advocacy and Objectivity: A Crisis in the Professionalization of American Social Science, 1865–1905. By Mary O. Furner. (Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, for the Organization of American Historians, 1975. Pp. xv, 357. Notes, bibliography, index. $17.50.)

By its cover this book appears to be yet another telling of the now well known story of the development of the social sciences in the late Gilded Age. Like others, however, this book should not be judged only by its cover. Mary O. Turner's main concern is indeed the conflict between reform advocacy and academic objectivity. But beneath these shopworn headings she provides a wealth of useful detail, new interpretation, ‘and even an exciting plot. The book is lucidly written and is based on extensive mining of primary and other sources— most notably the correspondence of academics, administrators, and amateur economists—so revealing as to prove again that universities should require faculty members to donate their papers to their university archives.

Despite its title most of the book deals with 1884–1900 and with the economics profession rather than all of "American social science." Furner excludes history and anthropology and devotes only about two chapters to political science and sociology in 1900–1905. But she finds plenty to say about the economists, treating them as a group seeking their professional identity rather than, as other historians have done, as social theorists, fringe members of the Social Gospel movement, or protoprogressives. She opens with a chapter on the 1870s, focusing on the American Social Science Association with its mixture of amateurs and academics, some of whom were becoming worried about the social problems of modernization. In four fascinating and dramatic chapters she treats the confrontation between Richard T. Ely and other young economists—most of them trained in German historicism and motivated by social ethics—and William Graham Sumner, Simon Newcomb, and other upholders of laissez faire orthodoxy; the resulting creation of the American Economic Association in 1885; and the aftermath of the affair, involving a retreat from ethical problems and from Ely's leadership, through 1892. These events were no tempest in an academic teapot. They were crucial for social science professionalization and for American social history because the widely publicized challenge to laissez faire provided the beginnings of a rationale for reform which was socially and intellectually respectable, and which in the progressive era upheld corporate capitalism and middle class values. Turner's treatment of the AEA struggle is exceptionally clear and detailed. One can argue with parts of it, such as its portrayal of Ely as something of a false prophet; but arguing with Furner is part of the fun of reading her intricately interesting story.

The next five chapters examine the academic freedom cases of Henry Carter Adams at Cornell in 1886, Ely at Wisconsin in 1894, Edward W. Bemis at Chicago and John R. Commons at Syracuse in 1895, Elisha B. Andrews at Brown and J. Allen Smith at Marietta in 1897, and Edward A. Ross at Stanford in 1900. The book's narrative force is less compelling here, but the author convincingly demonstrates how, over those fifteen years, "the limits of acceptable advocacy were gradually defined" (p. 144). Concern with ethical problems such as labor relations and wealth distribution became muted from the Adams' case onward. By the time the Ross case was over professional economics was established in academe, the ASSA and its amateurs were on the way out, and the old laissez faire consensus was shattered. The price was that by 1905, "the academic professionals, having retreated to the security of technical expertise, left to journalists and politicians the original mission—the comprehensive assessment of industrial society—that had fostered the professionalization of social science" (p. 324).

Furner's book is a worthy addition to the list of Frederick Jackson Turner prizewinners. It is a fascinating treatment of an important subject.

Indiana University, Bloomington Walter T. K. Nugent

Published by the Indiana University Department of History.