The Founding of DCSS Part One: The Context

By Patricia Lengermann and Gillian Niebrugge

This paper shares a work-in-progress on the history of sociology in the District of Columbia.  We welcome information and corrections.

The earliest published reference to the District of Columbia Sociological Society that we have located is Morgan Baker’s May 4, 1934 “The Federal Diary,” a daily feature The Washington Post began running on November 29, 1932.  The lead entry in that day’s “Diary” reports on “a conference of sociologists” recently held at 1640 Rhode Island Avenue N.W.  Located near DuPont Circle, it was the address of The Admiral Inn, a preferred meeting place for D.C.-based sociologists; it became the B’nai Brith Museum and is today the site of the Human Rights Campaign.

Attending were two prominent figures in the American Sociological Society (since 1959, “Association”), Ernest Burgess, that year’s President and an eminent member of University of Chicago’s Department of Sociology, and Stuart A. Rice, an active figure on ASS committees, past president of the American Statistical Association, and at that time the Assistant Director of the Census Bureau; both were members of the ASS’s increasingly important Research Planning Committee.  Also present were D. W. Willard, chair of the Department of Sociology at the George Washington University and Earl Bellman of the University of Maryland. Together with then-director of the Community Chest, Elwood Street, they presented a “constitution and plan” for the formation of a local chapter of the ASS.  That presentation was bracketed by Rice’s talk on the need for “a sociological council to reconcile and coordinate the sociological objectives of various government bureaus and offices” and a talk by Burgess on the “National Opportunity for Sociologists.”

Part One of our paper identifies three societal factors shaping that founding:  (1) The Great Depression of the 1930s, (2) the New Deal, and (3) the intensification of conflicts long brewing in American sociology.

The Great Depression

Although as early as 1927 there were signs of weakness in the seemingly boom economy of the 1920s, the Great Depression is popularly taken as beginning with the stock market crash in October-November 1929; by November 13, about $30 billion in the listed value of stocks had been lost—by the middle of 1932, $75 billion, or 89 percent of the listed value before the Crash.  From 1930 to 1933, the Depression worsened despite the efforts of the administration of President Herbert Hoover (elected in 1928). Industrial production reached an all-time low; over 5,000 banks failed; unemployment rose to 35 percent (the figures partly reflect debates over agricultural unemployment caused by “the Dust Bowl” on the one hand and bank foreclosures on the other).

Image of newspaper called the "Brooklyn Daily Eagle" with headline 'Wall St. in Panic as Tocks Crash"

Yet the leadership of the American Sociological Society for the most part failed to confront it—a pattern of avoidance that Charles Camic (2007) traces in the ASS Presidential Addresses from 1929 to 1933. This blindness may have occurred because that leadership was so economically secure they failed to recognize the scale of the disaster.  But this avoidance had long-range deleterious effects on the status of sociology in American life and on job prospects for sociologists down to this present moment.

For sociologists outside of that leadership circle, however, the Depression impacted employment and livelihood.  While there is at present no clear aggregate data on sociology departments in this period, what can be inferred is that sociologists, like other academics, lost employment opportunities as colleges and universities reduced faculty size by approximately 8 percent, and cut salaries (except at the elite schools) by as much as 30 percent  (Camic 2007: 240-241).   Faculty from that period reported the practice of small economies, like using both sides of sheets of paper for student exams, formal letters, and even papers submitted to meetings (Lengermann, personal communication).

The New Deal 

The “First Hundred Days” of Roosevelt’s administration produced a tidal wave of New Deal measures designed to reform economic institutions, create jobs, and provide relief using an enlarged federal bureaucracy, the creation of which gave rise to the famous alphabet soup of New Deal agencies.  These agencies, in turn, came to employ thousands of people—representing enormous opportunities for social scientists for paid work and intellectual challenge.

This moment forever changed Washington, D.C. from what many had regarded as only slightly more than a sleepy Southern town to the center of national power, a rival to New York and Chicago.   In size, the city expanded from 486,000 in 1930 to 663,000 by 1940 (; employment in the federal government in Washington, D.C. grew from 57,000 in 1927 to 117,000 in 1936 (American Liberty League Pamphlet 133, 1936).

Black and white photograph that shows for children sitting on steps and a woman satnding behind them. A sign the righht reads "4 Children for Sale Inquire Within"



Camic (2007: 228-229) challenges the unproved assumption that “federal jobs for ‘social scientists’ mean positions specially for sociologists; and/or . . . that the availability of positions for sociologists in a few federal agencies meant a wider opening up of such avenues of employment.”    He argues that perhaps only a hundred sociologists found full professional level employment in federal agencies, compared with the thousands of such job openings for economists, political scientists, and lawyers.

He notes, however, that a larger number of lower level positions for the implementation of relief projects may have gone to junior sociologists, like those without a Ph.D., and “social workers” (a label that may have included many women who self-identified as “sociologists and social reformers”—see Lengermann and Niebrugge 2007).

Though the number of sociologists hired at New Deal agencies looks small in comparison to the number of economists, lawyers and political scientists, the impact of several dozen newly hired sociologists on the Washington, D.C. sociological landscape may have been the primary force producing DCSS in 1934.

Sociologists found significant employment at agencies like the Census Bureau, where Stuart Rice was Assistant Director, the Department of Agriculture where rural sociologists under Carl Taylor were a dominant force, and the Federal Emergency Relief Administration and the Children’s Bureau.  That employment brought sociologists into contact with other social scientists and would naturally have produced comparisons of orientation and methods.  But that employment also made the more prescient of them, notably Stuart Rice, aware that sociology was losing out, particularly to economists, in the competition to define the situation they and the nation confronted. Rice emerges as a prophetic voice in his call, frequently reiterated, that sociology must make its presence felt in the organization of government agencies and as sociologists not just as statisticians.

Conflict in the Profession

Sociology’s inability to formulate either an analytic or an organizational response to The Depression and the New Deal deepened rifts that pre-dated 1929 but had, prior to that moment, been mitigated by a practice “of organizational control . . . [that] went along with a broad and eclectic definition of what constituted ‘good’ sociology”  (Lengermann 1979: 194).  The deepening and overtly expressed conflicts in the Thirties center around three oppositions:

(1) elites in the profession, most especially Chicago faculty, graduates and other loyalists versus everyone else, (2) centralization of administration and resources—research grants, meeting programs, publication opportunities—at Chicago versus a growing demand for autonomy through decentralization, and (3) most significantly in the 1930s, fights over the appropriate orientation and methodology for sociology.  This last conflict was located in the long-standing debate between positivists who insisted on creating a value-neutral sociology versus activists who embraced sociology as a critical and ameliorative project.

This conflict was now complicated by the growing sophistication of statistical method; positivists saw quantification as a natural extension of empirical rigor, but statisticians were more ambivalent, often deterred by the positivist rejection of an active pursuit of social reform.

In 1927, when William Ogburn moved to Chicago and consolidated his power there, the positivist/quantifier camp assumed a newly radical stance, the extremism of which can be seen in a letter to the membership by Maurice Parmelee and others at the 1931 Annual Meeting: “[T]he scientist qua scientist should not be influenced by the practical significance of his work. . . .   [We] wish to prune the Society of its excrescences and to intensify its scientific activities. . . . [This] means limiting its programs and publications to the problems of our science without including melioristic and propagandistic activities” (Rhoades, 1981).  This stance not only alienated the critical reformers and those using qualitative methodologies, it logically precluded sociology’s engagement with the great state-run reforms of the New Deal and from the rewards and satisfactions of such engagement.

Both Rice and Burgess actively rejected this rigidity, embracing the tolerance and eclecticism of earlier years.

To be continued.

Works Cited

  1. American Liberty League. 1936. No. 133 “Federal Bureaucracy In The Fourth Year Of The New Deal.” August 23. Retrieved December 27, 2013.;idno=kuk59m61
  2. Baker, Morgan. 1934. “The Federal Diary” The Washington Post May 4, p. 5.
  3. Camic, Charles. 2007. “On Edge: Sociology during the Great Depression and the New Deal.”  Pp. 225-280 in Sociology in America: A History edited by C. Calhoun. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  4. Lengermann, Patricia. 1979. “The Founding of the American Sociological Review: The Anatomy of a Rebellion.” American Sociological Review 44:185-198.
  5. Lengermann, Patricia and Gillian Niebrugge. 2007. “Thrice-Told: Narratives of Sociology’s Relation to Social Work.” Pp. 63-114 in Sociology in America: A History edited by C. Calhoun. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  6. Rhoades, Lawrence J. 1981. A History of the American Sociological Association, 1905-1980. Washington, D.C.: American Sociological Association. Retrieved December 24, 2013

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