Modern Intellectual History

Essays

TANGLED LOOPS: THEORY, HISTORY, AND THE HUMAN SCIENCES IN MODERN AMERICA*

JOEL ISAACa1

a1 Department of History, Queen Mary, University of London E-mail: j.t.isaac@qmul.ac.uk

During the first two decades of the Cold War, a new kind of academic figure became prominent in American public life: the credentialed social scientist or expert in the sciences of administration who was also, to use the parlance of the time, a “man of affairs.” Some were academic high-fliers conscripted into government roles in which their intellectual and organizational talents could be exploited. McGeorge Bundy, Walt Rostow, and Robert McNamara are the archetypes of such persons. An overlapping group of scholars became policymakers and political advisers on issues ranging from social welfare provision to nation-building in emerging postcolonial states. Many of these men—and almost without exception they were men—were also consummate operators within the patronage system that grew up around American universities after World War II. Postwar leaders of the social and administrative sciences such as Talcott Parsons and Herbert Simon were skilled scientific brokers of just this sort: good “committee men,” grant-getters, proponents of interdisciplinary inquiry, and institution-builders. This hard-nosed, suit-wearing, business-like persona was connected to new, technologically refined forms of social science. No longer sage-like social philosophers or hardscrabble, number-crunching empiricists, academic human scientists portrayed themselves as possessors of tools and programs designed for precision social engineering. Antediluvian “social science” was eschewed in favour of mathematical, behavioural, and systems-based approaches to “human relations” such as operations research, behavioral science, game theory, systems theory, and cognitive science.

Footnotes

* For their invaluable comments on earlier drafts of this essay, my thanks to Howard Brick, Angus Burgin, Charles Capper, John Carson, Jamie Cohen-Cole, Daniel Geary, Ian Hunter, James Kloppenberg, Peter Mandler, Dan Stone, and the anonymous referees for MIH. I am especially indebted to Duncan Bell and Andrew Jewett for criticisms and suggestions concerning the issues covered in this essay.