Experiments in Theory: The Transatlantic Development of Social Science and Critical Theory, 1930-1950
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Clavey, Charles H.
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CitationClavey, Charles H. 2019. Experiments in Theory: The Transatlantic Development of Social Science and Critical Theory, 1930-1950. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard University, Graduate School of Arts & Sciences.
AbstractFrom its foundation in 1923, the Institute for Social Research conducted empirical studies of the social forms, cultural products, and psychological effects of advanced capitalism. Adapting methods from social- and human-scientific fields as diverse as experimental psychology and industrial sociology, Institute affiliates fashioned a research methodology they termed “experiments in theory.” In this dissertation, I recover the history of these experiments. To do so, I reconstruct the debates that led to the creation of the method and document its application in a variety of projects between 1930 and 1950. I argue that the Institute’s empirical social research formed a necessary corollary to its critical social theory.
The Institute is well known for its deep critiques of empirical techniques and paradigms. In the postwar era, its most prominent members identified empirical research as a means of maintaining the “social totality” inimical to human freedom. I complicate this disciplinary memory and the historical narratives it subtends. Between the First and Second World Wars, Institute affiliates subjected existing methods of empirical research to incisive critique, arguing that these approaches simultaneously promoted ideas of “individuality” and effaced subjectivity. At the same time, Institute members forged methods and conducted studies they believed capable of unmasking this ideology and its consequences. Concepts central to the Institute’s critical theory—from alienation to authoritarianism—emerged in and through these empirical projects.
In the first chapters of the dissertation, I trace the origins of the Institute’s method to pioneering social-psychological studies conducted by a cohort of Austrian-Marxist researchers. Through the studies they conducted as Institute consultants, these researchers played an outsized role in shaping the organization’s nascent program of empirical social research. In the middle chapters of the dissertation, I focus on the Institute’s exile in the United States and explore its members’ critical dialogue with American and émigré researchers. I argue that the Institute conceived its experiments-in-theory method through the assertion of a conceptual disjunction between the “European” and “American” approaches to social research. Further, I demonstrate that the Institute refined this method through empirical studies of class consciousness and prejudice in an American context. In the final chapter, I reconstruct the Institute’s study of authoritarianism and argue that this project both brought to its conclusion the development of the experiments-in-theory method and returned the Institute to the problem of “individuality.” Confronted with the realization that empirical research must assume the existence of individuals in order to critique the ideology of individuality, Institute researchers developed the dialectical argument that empirical studies must assume their own impossibility.
Across the dissertation, I call attention to the institutional and political forces that motivated the Institute’s development of its program of empirical research. By tracing the movement of social scientists around Europe and across the Atlantic, I suggest several new contexts in which to understand the Institute’s origins and development. I further reconsider the Institute’s relationship with the social- and human-scientific disciplines its members encountered in the United States: behavioral psychology, cultural anthropology, market research, and public-opinion polling. One result of this reframing is that I call attention to the voices of social scientists whose contributions to the Institute and its critical theory have long been neglected. More broadly, I aim to return attention to the Institute’s experiments in theory. Recovering these studies will enrich both historical understandings and contemporary practices of critical theory.
Citable link to this pagehttp://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:HUL.InstRepos:42029484
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