U.S. Intellectual History Blog

A Reading List for the Social Sciences in the Cold War (Guest Post by Audra J. Wolfe)

[Note to readers: the following is a guest post by Audra J. Wolfe (@ColdWarScience), a writer, editor, and historian based in Philadelphia. Her research centers on the role of science in the Cold War, whether in the form of weapons or cultural diplomacy. Her first book, Competing with the Soviets: Science, Technology, and the State in Cold War America,was published in 2012, and was recently awarded the Forum for the History of Science in America’s Philip Pauly Prize.]

A Reading List for the Social Sciences in the Cold War

By Audra J. Wolfe

A piece by sociologist Orlando Patterson published earlier this week, “How Sociologists Made Themselves Irrelevant,” predictably sparked discussions on Twitter about the role of sociologists in public policy. The resulting exchanges about whether, and to what extent, sociologists have ever influenced U.S. policy inspired me to pull together an informal bibliography of works on the social sciences during the Cold War—the one period in U.S. history when sociologists, psychologists, anthropologists, linguists, and scholars of mass communication consistently commanded respect in state and federal policymaking circles.

Even a decade ago, the history of the social sciences in the Cold War was a bit of a historiographical backwater, primarily produced either by practitioner-historians or New Left commentators with an axe to grind about the military-industrial complex. Since then, it’s become one of the most vibrant areas in the history of the science in the Cold War, to the point that some scholars (most notably David Engerman) have objected that the Cold War storyline has been overplayed. I’ve wondered the same thing myself, at least in regard to the “follow-the-money” approach, but just when I start to lose patience with the topic, another fantastic and innovative book rolls off the presses.

This list is not meant to be comprehensive. Given my own interest in the role of the sciences, including the social sciences, in maintaining and projecting state power during the Cold War, it’s undoubtedly biased toward the policy sciences. These are the works I return to over and over again, look forward to reading, or aspire to emulate. Thanks go to Dan Hirschman (@asociologist), Nils Gilman (@nils_gilman), Thomas Reinstein (@treinstein), and Will Thomas (@GWilliamThomas), all of whom contributed their own suggestions on Twitter. Please add your own favorites in the comments!

Historiographical Starting Points

David Engerman, “Social Science in the Cold War,” Isis 101 (2010): 393-400.

Joel Issac, “The Human Sciences in Cold War America,” The Historical Journal 50 (2007): 725–46.

Joel Isaac and Duncan Bell, “Introduction,” in Uncertain Empire: American History and the Idea of the Cold War, ed. Isaac and Duncan (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 3-16.

Audra J. Wolfe, “Defending Cold War Science,” Berfrois, August 28, 2013.

On the Social Sciences, Generally

Hunter Crowther-Heyck, “Patrons of the Revolution: Ideas and Institutions in Postwar Behavioral Sciences,” Isis 97 (2006): 420–446.

Mark Solovey and Hamilton Craven, eds., Cold War Social Science: Knowledge Production, Liberal Democracy, and Human Nature (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).

Mark Solovey, The Politics-Patronage-Social Science Nexus in Cold War America (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2013).

Defense Intellectuals (Broadly Defined)

David C. Engerman, Know Your Enemy: The Rise and Fall of America’s Soviet Experts (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009).

Nils Gilman, Mandarins of the Future: Modernization Theory in Cold War America(Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003)

Michael E. Latham, Modernization as Ideology: American Social Science and ‘Nation Building’ in the Kennedy Era (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2000)

Jennifer S. Light, From Warfare to Welfare: Defense Intellectuals and Urban Problems in Cold War America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003)

David Milne, America’s Rasputin: Walt Rostow and the Vietnam War(New York: Hill and Wang, 2008)

David H. Price, Anthropological Intelligence: The Deployment and Neglect of American Anthropology in the Second World War (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008).

Joy Rohde, Armed with Expertise: The Militarization of American Social Research during the Cold War(Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2013).

Rethinking How Humans Think

Jamie Cohen-Cole, Cold War Politics and the Sciences of Human Nature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014).

Paul Erickson, The World the Game Theorists Made: Game Theory and Cold War Culture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015).

Paul Erickson, Judy L. Klein, Lorraine Daston, Rebecca Lemov, Thomas Sturm, and Michael D. Gordin, How Reason Almost Lost Its Mind: The Strange Career of Cold War Rationality (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013).

Sharon Ghamari-Tabrizi, The Worlds of Herman Kahn: The Intuitive Science of Thermonuclear War (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005).

Joel Isaac, Working Knowledge: Making the Human Sciences from Parsons to Kuhn(Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012).

William Thomas, Rational Action: The Sciences of Policy in Britain and America, 1940-1960(Cambridge: MIT Press, 2015).

Histories of Economics

S. M. Amadae, Rationalizing Capitalist Democracy: The Cold War Origins of Rational Choice Liberalism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003).

Angus Burgin, The Great Persuasion: Reinventing Free Markets since the Depression (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012).

Till Düppe and E. Roy Weintraub, Finding Equilibrium: Arrow, Debreu, McKenzie, and the Problem of Scientific Credit (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014).

Philip Mirowski, Machine Dreams: Economics Becomes a Cyborg Science (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001).

Social Scientists and the Great Society

Michael A. Bernstein, A Perilous Progress: Economists and Public Purpose in Twentieth-Century America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001).

Ellen Herman, The Romance of American Psychology: Political Culture in the Age of Experts (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995). [out of print]

John P. Jackson, Jr., Social Scientists for Social Justice: Making the Case Against Segregation (New York: New York University Press, 2001).

Alice O’Conner, Poverty Knowledge: Social Science, Social Policy, and the Poor in Twentieth-Century U.S. History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001).

The Curious Cold War Roots of Science Studies

Elena Aronova, “The Congress for Cultural Freedom, Minerva, and the Quest for Instituting ‘Science Studies’ in the Age of Cold War,” Minerva 50 (2012): 307-337.

Mary Jo Nye, Michael Polanyi and His Generation: Origins of the Social Construction of Science (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011).

Steven Fuller, Thomas Kuhn: A Philosophical History for Our Times (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000).

3 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. I would add:
    Simpson, Christopher, ed. Universities and Empires: Money and Politics in the Social Sciences during the Cold War (The New Press, 1998)
    Chomsky, Noam, et al. The Cold War and the University: Toward an Intellectual History of the Postwar Years (The New Press, 1997)

    Should one want to assess the philosophical cogency of methods in the social sciences (if only to avoid the genetic fallacy and perhaps the post hoc ergo propter hoc and cum hoc ergo propter hoc fallacies as well) that arose or prevailed in this period (and continue in some way or another into our own time) one should read works by Jon Elster, Richard W. Miller, Jerome Kagan, Ian Shapiro, Harold Kincaid, Deirdre (in earlier works, Donald) McCloskey, and John Dupre.

    • Thanks for this. The Simpson and Chomsky volumes are indeed classics, but I’ve increasingly found their insistence on distinguishing between military and non-military science to be less than helpful in understanding the role of science in the Cold War.

      I explore this issue in greater depth in my Berfrois piece, linked above.

  2. This is off-topic, sorry, but I’m just watching a C-SPAN show where some historian is telling me all kinds of things about Navajos and energy (they were paid 25 cents per something for coal that was sold for three dollars) that I never knew.

    A good historian is a wonderful thing. Thanks to the discipline.

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