Furner, “Advocacy and Objectivity: A Crisis in the Professionalization of American Social Science, 1865-1905”

Eli asked me to review one of the major books on the history of the social sciences in the United States, Mary Furner’s Advocacy and Objectivity: A Crisis in the Professionalization of American Social Science, 1865-1905. The book was originally published by the University of Kentucky Press in 1975 and a new edition with a long and interesting preface was published by Transaction Publishers in 2011. The current edition was published by Routledge in 2017 and there is a Kindle edition. Since the Kindle edition is what I used, all quotes will be to Kindle locations rather than page numbers.

Why bother with a 43 year-old book by an American historian in a blog on the ethnography of academia? For one thing, the level of ethnographic and behavioral detail Furner is a nuanced tour de force. Despite its compelling qualities, the book completely fails to capture the issues uniquely affecting American anthropology and therefore sets us a task that has yet to be addressed. The book remains, however, the most detailed and sustained treatment of the passage from political economy as a combined analytical/social reform effort to a set of academic disciplines called the social sciences that have mostly abandoned social reform and even abandoned the discussion of social reform issues in anything but veiled terms. The cases of the rebels she so vividly documents, and the controversies they created and how they were settled, rewards a close reading for the clues they provide to the present passive, defensive, and inert postures of most of the non-STEM fields.

The book covers mostly the same period as Dorothy Ross’ comprehensive The Origins of American Social Science (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992) but Furner focuses largely on economics and political science while Ross’ treatment is more encyclopedic but less substantive about the ideas and interactions of the key actors.

Furner states the aim of the book as follows: “This book queried what was gained and what was lost through academic professionalization of the social sciences and through the ascendance of the specifically academic mode of knowing capitalism, society, and state that followed” (loc. 201). The answer is ultimately quite depressing.

She opens by detailing the founding of the American Social Science Association just after the Civil War, an organization of gentleman scholars who aimed to offer policy guidance and who saw studying social issues and being engaged with reform efforts as compatible. As Furner says, “ASSA members recognized no opposition between knowledge and reform. Such a concern was unthinkable: the two were inseparable. In this view, the problem-oriented, empirical, fact-gathering, atheoretical ASSA approach set its inquirers up as reporters to a wide audience concerned with policy questions” (loc. 215). This easy coexistence of knowledge and reform would not survive the creation of American research universities.

By the 1880s, economics and history began to move away from the ASSA umbrella, and the fraught process by which this happened in economics is the main subject of the book. As they moved away, they had to work out a balance between their status as academic professionals and social reformers. This turned out to be quite complex and resulted in purges, blackballing, and nasty public controversies. This is where the epistemology of objectivity makes its appearance, and from these humble beginnings, we have ended up with the objectivism and positivism that assails the social sciences and determines their funding.

Furner points out that objectivity was and remains a disingenuous ideological concept:

“As an attitude on the part of academics most affected by these new epistemologies, objectivity more commonly named ways of behaving that achieved important institutional goals rather than a commitment to the norm of absolutely value-free science proclaimed by positivists” (loc. 259).

Being objective, dispassionate, and not upsetting the oligarchs was necessary but it did not exclude these social scientists from a role in the public arena. The solution the economists adopted was what Furner calls “commissioned” or “authorized” expertise (loc. 273). This meant writing reports for government agencies and otherwise deploying their expertise both for profit and to use it in some way to affect social policy. Of course, the agencies that would contract such expertise were hardly those interested in promoting major social change.

But even these general trends were not linear. The role of economists as expert advisers was questioned and curtailed at various times, although post-World War II, the role of conservative economic advisers to government and other public authorities had become relatively stable, something that never happened in the other disciplines. Furner concludes depressingly that “Academic social scientists, and economists particularly, were indispensable shapers of this shift to the right.” (loc. 387).

To survive professionally, economists had to find ways of repressing partisanship and presenting an appearance of unity and objectivity to the public. Gradually moderates forged a kind of working alliance that sacrificed extremists in both schools to scholarly values that highly self-conscious professionals considered more important: professional security and the orderly development of knowledge in their disciplines (loc. 725). This is a story repeated in the other social sciences in much the same way. As Furner puts it:

“As professionalization proceeded, most academic social scientists stopped asking ethical questions. Instead they turned their attention to carefully controlled, empirical investigations of problems that were normally defined by the state of knowledge in their fields rather than by the state of society. Professional social scientists generally accepted the basic structure of corporate capitalism” (loc. 740).

“Though they dropped their claim to moral authority… when the same economists gave expert testimony at legislative hearings, served on government commissions, or commented on tariff, trade, and money questions in the popular press, they frequently represented special economic interests themselves.” (loc. 1276)

Furner takes up in passing the creation of the American Historical Association, the American Political Science Association, and the American Sociological Association. Implicitly, she argues that the processes in those fields are similar, though less successful in the arena of providing respected expert advice to governments. We are left on our own to decide why, but her argument implies that they could not bring off the “objectivity” argument as successfully as the economists had.

Furner concludes:

“With professionalization, objectivity grew more important as a scientific ideal and also as a practical necessity. The value of objectivity was emphasized constantly in both training and professional practice, until it occupied a very special place in the professional ethos… Ideological considerations were inevitably present, but they were ordinarily unacknowledged.” (loc. 6118)

“The tension between advocacy and objectivity which characterized the professionalization process altered the mission of social science… 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.” (loc. 6118)

Finally, one of her strongest critiques is hidden in the middle of the book and comes from the 1970s and not the present, as it might appear.

“If and when our much abused, sadly degraded polity recovers its traditions of more independent, less tendentious, more empirically-derived and philosophically-justified advocacy, its practice of politics can be nourished by a more balanced and responsible mix of “Advocacy and Objectivity.” (loc. 634)


This is a brilliant book, and rewards a careful reading with a much deeper understanding of the dilemmas faced by contemporary universities in the present extremely hostile environment. But the depth in economics, unsurprisingly, is not matched by deep treatments of history, political science, sociology, and anthropology. (Psychology is not even mentioned.)

In the case of anthropology, Furner misunderstands the complex history of anthropology in US, with its engagement with issues of genocide, immigration, antisemitism, colonialism, and cultural supremacist ideologies, and its lack of organizational fit with the Tayloristic disciplinary model. Her main statement on anthropology is this:

“The case with anthropologists was also different. In their emergent period, which really fell largely in the twentieth century, anthropologists were primarily concerned with establishing a field distinct from physical science by ridding themselves of concepts and generalizations derived from biological models. They attempted to organize inquiries around the idea of culture, to create a unique terminology, and to develop field techniques of research.”

Despite the similarities in issues of censorship and purges, the trajectory of American anthropology is different and the internal problems anthropologists faced in creating the “four field” pseudo-synthesis are quite unlike those faced by the social sciences Furner analyzes. I have written an essay about this, and rather than repeat those arguments here, let me link to to the book chapter available on my ResearchGate site.

Franz Boas’ difficult relationship with the fledgling American Anthropological Association, as well as work like David Price’s Threatening Anthropology: McCarthyism and the FBI’s Surveillance of Activist Anthropologists (Durham, Duke University Press, 2004) show that anthropology came to be singled out for purging and suppression because the very basis of anthropological thinking is critical of jingoist, racist/eugenicist, and cultural supremacist ideologies that were popular in at the outset of the 20th century, in the 50s, and, of course, now once again in an extremely virulent form. The subsequent general silence of academic anthropologists on most social issues and the moving of applied expertise into the Society for Applied Anthropology and the National Association for the Practice of Anthropology is clear. It is only matched by the silence of the rest of the social sciences that are currently busy fighting a losing battle to protect their professional, disciplinary bunkers as funding and tenure evaporate, federal funding dries up, and rightwing politicians do all they can to destroy the lessons of cultural understanding and anti-racism around which anthropology originally coalesced.

The organizational analysis Furner conducts within economics is very subtle and interesting but there are other even broader organizational issues that she does not address. Since I have written so much about universities as organizations, I miss proper attention to the organizational model that led to the current disciplines. This is a serious weakness in the analysis and leaves even the story of economics rather incomplete.

Though the creation of the social sciences out of political economy is documented and placed temporally, it is not linked analytically to the emergence of the PhD programs at Johns Hopkins and elsewhere that created the disciplines and disciplinary departments in a festival of Taylorism units within an intensely hierarchical university structure overseen by external and highly conservative elites from business and politics. The world of taken-for-granted disciplines, professional associations, and professional practices is the product of a process that domesticated the controversial social and social welfare questions that political economy originally raised.

Despite this, most academic social scientists live in these disciplinary worlds as if they were the products of natural law rather than the results of a set of social and political choices the results of which have been anything but successful for the use of the social sciences not just to understand but to improve society. What Furner does show effectively is that we academics ourselves and our ambitions for security and territories to control deserve as much of the blame for this situation as do university administrators and the pressures from business and politicians on university professors.

Read the book. It is a needed stimulus to the kind of work remaining to be done in the rest of the social sciences and humanities, including anthropology.

Furner, Mary. 2011. Advocacy and Objectivity: A Crisis in the Professionalization of American Social Science, 1865-1905. London: Routledge.
Price, David H. 2004. Threatening Anthropology: McCarthyism and the FBI’s Surveillance of Activist Anthropologists. Durham: Duke University Press. https://www.dukeupress.edu/threatening-anthropology.
Ross, Dorothy. 1992. The Origins of American Social Science. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. http://www.cambridge.org/us/academic/subjects/history/history-ideas-and-intellectual-history/origins-american-social-science?format=PB&isbn=9780521428361.

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