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.
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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