Social Relations at Harvard After Seventeen Years: Problems, Successes and a Highly Uncertain Future

Faculty Cannot President Effects of James Center

Towards the end of the 1930's Harvard's told Psychology Department found itself divided four to three on every question. The four were E.G. Boring, S.S. Stevens, John G. Beebe-Center, and Karl S. Lashley -- all experimentalists interested in the animal or physiological psychology. By winning every vote they determined the nature of examinations in the field, the selection of graduate students, and all important policies of the department.

The other three were Gordon W. Allport, Robert W. White, and Henry A. Murray, who, by contrast, concerned themselves with personality and its relation to social environment. Frustrated at every point by a department that was both professionally and personally hostile, the minority considered secession. Two members of other departments encouraged them: Clyde Kluckhohn in Anthropology and Talcott Parsons in Sociology. At several meetings in 1940, this little group (whose members came to call themselves "The Conspirators") drew plans for a new department to include Sociology (which had a staff of only three), Kluckhohn, and the disgruntled psychologists.

Theory of Human Behavior

Although it appeared to develop in response to professional antagonisms, the Conspiracy was motivated more fundamentally by the desire to forge a comprehensive theory of human behavior through the joint efforts of clinical and social psychologists, social anthropologists, and sociologists. Yale's Institute of Human Relations had tired a similar experiment in the thirties. The Rockefeller Foundation constructed a big building in New Haven for all of Yale's behavioral scientists, hoping that putting them together would lead to fruitful interdisciplinary cooperation. It didn't Each group went it own way and not until the Rockefeller Foundation threatened to cut off the Institute's funds were there any successful attempts at collaboration.

The Institute of Human Relations had little influence on the planning of Social Relations at Harvard since the dominating theorist at Yale was a student of animal learning. The Conspirator had, in Murray's words, "expelled animal psychology." The new department clearly leaned away from the natural sciences and toward philosophy and the social sciences; this was a logical result of the development of behavioral studies at Harvard.


Until 1933, courses in psychology were offered under a Department of Philosophy and Psychology. E. G. Boring, who felt a "mission to rescue Harvard psychology from the philosophers," was largely responsible for the creation of an independent Department of Psychology, and under his direction, psychological studies at Harvard concentrated for a few years on perception and animal learning. But the reorganization of behavioral science disciplines into the Social Relations Department restored the traditionally close ties between Psychology and Philosophy.

Interdisciplinary Education

The founding of Social Relations was distinguished by a vigorous enthusiasm for an experiment in interdisciplinary education, and the vision which guided the planners of the new department was every bit as exciting as that which inspired their contemporaries, the designers of Harvard's General Education program. In addition to their goal of drafting a general theory of human behavior, the social relationists also set out to broaden the intellectual base of the behavioral sciences. The founders of the Department were eminently qualified for these undertakings: Murray, trained in medicine and psychoanalysis, was also an eminent Melville scholar; Kluckhohn had studied classics before he took up cultural anthropology; Allport traced his roots at Harvard back to the old Department of Social Ethics; and Parsons' interests extended beyond orthodox sociology to economics and politics.

Not everyone in the University, however, shared the pioneering spirit of these men. President Conant (who loathed psychoanalysis) showed little interest in the proposals for a new department, and it was only when Paul Buck became Provost during the War that the Administration gave the idea serious consideration. With the enrollment of hundreds of veterans at the College after 1945, there was for the first time in the University's history a great demand by students for courses in clinical and social psychology -- the kinds of psychology young people had met with in the armed services. ON January 29, 1946 the Faculty of Arts and Sciences voted to establish the Department of Social Relations and, at the same time the Provost set up the Laboratory of Social Relations as an independent research facility. The experimental psychologists, losing a good bit of their old staff but allowed to keep the name "Psychology Department" for themselves, moved to the basement of Memorial Hall where S. S. Stevens had designed for them the Psychological Laboratories.

The Soc Rel Department has become one of the largest, richest, and most influential at Harvard. It has been vigorously criticized by persons in other fields, has harbored some of the most controversial research at the University, and through the past 17 years has remained an anomaly--something like a perfect vacuum. All the trends not only in modern education but also at Harvard have been toward increased specialization; Social Relations declared itself interdisciplinary and unspecialized from the start, and though in 1963 it isn't what it used to be, it has held out against extraordinary pressures toward fragmentation.

The Problems

The Department today has very serious administrative problems and goes through more internal upheavals than are good for it. Social Relations also maintains a most precarious equilibrium: in attempting to balance the proper amount of interdisciplinary pioneering and in trying to divide its energies equally between undergraduates and graduates, the Department puts itself in a position where the slightest changes in prevailing conditions require complete re-evaluation of the whole program.

Very soon, the greatest change ever to hit the Department will come along: in the Fall of 1964 the personnel of all the disconnected branches of Social Relations (which now occupy more than a dozen separate buildings throughout Cambridge) as well as the Memorial Hall psychologists will be packed together into the William James Center for the Behavioral Sciences on Divinity Avenue. At Yale, when the same sorts of people were forced to have coffee with one another, the result was chaos and disunity. No one has the slightest notion of what will happen on Divinity Avenue, but the James Center has already brought into focus all of the accomplishments and problems of Social Relations and has led everyone in the Department to reflect on the future of Harvard's behavioral studies.

Today Social Relations has the third-largest enrollment in the College; it has grown steadily since 1954, and had 329 undergraduates this year.

Critics often explain the growth of Soc Rel by charging that the Department is a "gut." They claim concentration in Social Relations is far less difficult than in other fields, especially since one can take courses in which an honors grade may be had almost without effort. In fact, however, the freshman seminar program, which exposes many students to behavioral science for the first time, and extremely popular General Education courses taught by David Riesman and Erik Erikson have been the greatest factors in drawing freshmen and sophomores to So cial Relations. These courses were not planned as recruiting ventures, but they have had that effect.