In Harvard’s Quixotic Pursuit of a New Science, 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.
Patrick L. Schmidt is an attorney in Washington, D.C. He received a BA, magna cum laude, from Harvard College, a JD from Georgetown University, and an MIPP from the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. He first examined the history of the Department of Social Relations in his undergraduate honors thesis at Harvard.
1 Psychoanalytic Thought Arrives at Harvard: Roiling the Disciplines
2 World War II Changes Everything: InterdisciplinaryResearch Emerges
3 The Founding of the Department: A Determined Dean Acts
4 The First Five Years: A Golden Age but Integration Proves Elusive
5 The 1950s: A Decade of Disunity
6 The 1960s: Drugs and Departmental Drift
7 The Final Unraveling: Soc Rel 149 Disrupts and Sociology Departs
8 Conclusion and Summary
About the Author
This is a story of massive personalities as much as it is intellectual hubris, with luminaries such as Talcott Parsons, Clyde Kluckhohn, and Gordon Allport feeling stifled in their original departmental homes and united by a desire to study "man as he functions in society".... Schmidt does not shy away from controversial elements in this intriguing history, and the department had several, especially in the 1960s: from the Students for a Democratic Society launching two classes in the department that covered radical problems with minimal grading, to Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert feeding undergraduates psychedelics as a research project, contentions were the norm... In the midst of all this drama, Schmidt includes photos of key figures, helping to humanize the story. Initially intended as an undergraduate honors thesis, Schmidt’s work maintains something of an academic tone, but that’s balanced out by academic drama. It is deeply researched, drawing from conversations with people who were active members of the department when it was formed, and Schmidt offers an extensive index plus annotations and a bibliography. This text is a rich resource for future study in the history of related disciplines, and anyone interested in academic history will appreciate this dive into how Harvard scholars attempted, and ultimately failed, to unite disparate disciplines for intellectual and personal reasons. The fascinating history of Harvard’s attempts to unify a Department of Social Relations.
An absorbing account of the rise and fall of a notoriously provocative academic division... It gives readers an engaging glimpse into transformations within post–World War II higher education.
An undergraduate thesis, now amplified by correspondence, historical research, and secondary sources, charts the rise and fall of the Department of Social Relations, the revolutionary attempt to create a new interdisciplinary social science. Towering scholars like Talcott Parsons and David Riesman loom large, as do the intellectual stakes—and the personal and institutional factors that brought the department down.
In the popular Netflix documentary series How to Change Your Mind, host Michael Pollan briefly touches on the academic ecosystem in which psychedelic drugs were studied after LSD was synthesized in Switzerland. A much, much closer look at this ecosystem can be found in… Harvard’s Quixotic Pursuit of a New Science[.]
Who knew that interdisciplinary academic politics could be so compelling? In this brisk, amusing and intellectually important book, Patrick Schmidt explores the grand ambitions and severe disappointments of one now-disbanded postwar innovation at Harvard. The Department of Social Relations intersected with everything from Timothy Leary's notorious psychedelic drug experiments, to the Unabomber's involvement with an abusive psychology test, to the training and careers of some of the top professors of the 20th Century, including David Riesman, Erik Erikson, Clifford Geertz, Talcott Parsons, David McClelland, Robert Bellah, and Howard Gardner.
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.
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.
Schmidt’s lively narrative is an instructive tale of academic infighting, hubris, and scandal.
9/29/22, Across the Margin - The Podcast: Patrick L. Schmidt was interviewed about his book.