Alumni Author Book Talk: Patrick Schmidt, SAIS '03

Patrick Schmidt Alumni Book Talk

Sponsored by the Office of Alumni Relations Lifelong Learning

Join us for an alumni book talk of Harvard’s Quixotic Pursuit of a New Science with Patrick Schmidt, SAIS '03. This engaging conversation will be moderated by Dr. Andrew Jewett as they explore the rise and fall of Harvard's Department of Social Relations, a bold mid-century venture to remake the social sciences by combining social and clinical psychology, cultural anthropology, and sociology in a single interdisciplinary department.

ABOUT Harvard's Quixotic Pursuit of a New Science: The Rise and Fall of the Department of Social Relations

In Harvard’s Quixotic Pursuit of a New Science: The Rise and Fall of the Department of Social Relations, Patrick L. Schmidt tells the little-known story of how some of the most renowned social scientists of the twentieth century struggled to elevate their emerging disciplines of cultural anthropology, sociology, and social and clinical psychology. Scorned and marginalized in their respective departments in the 1930s for pursuing the controversial theories of Freud and Jung, they persuaded Harvard to establish a new department, promising to create an interdisciplinary science that would surpass in importance Harvard’s “big three” disciplines of economics, government, and history. Although the Department of Social Relations failed to achieve this audacious goal, it nonetheless attracted an outstanding faculty, produced important scholarly work, and trained many notable graduates. At times, it was a wild ride. Some faculty became notorious for their questionable research: Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert (reborn as Ram Dass) gave the psychedelic drug psilocybin to students, while Henry Murray traumatized undergraduate Theodore Kaczynski (later the Unabomber) in a three-year-long experiment. Central to the story is the obsessive quest of legendary sociologist Talcott Parsons for a single theory unifying the social sciences– the white whale to his Captain Ahab. All in all, Schmidt’s lively narrative is an instructive tale of academic infighting, hubris, and scandal.

For more information about the book, visit Rowman & LittlefieldAmazonBarnes & Noble, and other book sellers.

Reviews of this Book

Present on the scene shortly after the demise of Harvard’s Department of Social Relations in the 1970s, Patrick Schmidt got the inside view of that remarkable three-decade effort to re-boot American social thought for the postwar world. The nervy founders of "Social Relations" imagined that their multidimensional new science could eclipse the hegemony of Economics and explain the workings of welfare-state modernity. Whether deemed noble or delusionary, Social Relations represented one of the great episodes of "institution-building" (as Talcott Parsons put it) in the history of mid-20th century US social science. Schmidt’s long-awaited book gives us, with insight and verve, the essential narrative of that ambition and its unraveling. Howard Brick, Louis Evans Professor of History, University of Michigan

The story of a controversial academic department at an elite university might seem cut off from broader societal concerns, but Patrick Schmidt's excellent book reveals precisely the opposite: how the history of Harvard's Department of Social Relations offers a broad and deep vision of mid-20th century debates over education and knowledge, identity and community, power and progress. A must read for anyone interested in how educational and social systems make and remake our understandings of the world and ourselves. Benjamin Railton, Director of American Studies, Fitchburg State University

Harvard's Department of Social Relations made history in the 1950s and 1960s as the most ambitious program in social science in the United States. Dedicated to a synthesis of sociology, anthropology, psychology, and other disciplines, the scope of its ambitions were matched only by the scope of its failures. Patrick Schmidt's new volume Harvard's Quixotic Pursuit of a New Science: The Rise and Fall of the Department of Social Relations (Rowman and Littlefield, 2022) documents the history of SocRel, as it was called, in intimate detail. It paints a colourful and carefully researched picture of the personalities and events that are central to the department's story, ranging from the austere theoretician Talcott Parsons to the hallucinogen-ingesting Ram Dass. New Books Network

ABOUT Patrick Schmidt
Attorney and Author

Patrick L. Schmidt SAIS '03 is an attorney in Washington D.C., focusing primarily on matters relating to Latin America and the Caribbean. He received a BA, magna cum laude, from Harvard College, a JD from Georgetown University, and an MIPP from Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. Schmidt also completed graduate studies in the PhD program of the University of Madrid (Complutense) Faculty of Law. He first examined the history of the Department of Social Relations in his undergraduate honors thesis at Harvard, interviewing 28 of its faculty and other key players. 

ABOUT Dr. Andrew Jewett
Professor, Researcher and Author

Andrew Jewett is in the Medicine, Science, and Humanities program at Johns Hopkins. He is currently serving as the lead author on an institutional history of Hopkins that will appear in conjunction with its 150th anniversary in 2026. Prof. Jewett received his PhD from the University of California, Berkeley in 2002 and is the author of two previous books: Science, Democracy, and the American University: From the Civil War to the Cold War (Cambridge University Press, 2012), and Science under Fire: Challenges to Scientific Authority in Modern America (Harvard University Press, 2020). Before coming to Hopkins last July, Prof. Jewett taught at Harvard for ten years and held a variety of other teaching positions and fellowships.

 Event Date
Thursday, September 21, 2023
Start Time: 6:00pm EDT
End Time: 7:00pm EDT

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Office of Alumni Relations
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Lifelong Learning

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