Howard Washington Odum (May 24, 1884– November 8, 1954) was an educator, sociologist, and research director, and the first individual to undertake an organized, social scientific research program of the American South. Born near Mount Pleasant, Georgia, to a family of small fundamentalist farmers, Odum imbibed southern patriotism from his grandfathers, both Civil War veterans. An opportune family move allowed him to attend Emory College, where he received a bachelor's degree in classics. Odum earned a master of arts degree at the University of Mississippi, where a psychologist mentor directed him first to G. Stanley Hall at Clark University and then to Franklin Giddings at Columbia University. Odum's Clark dissertation in psychology in 1909 and his sociology dissertation from Columbia in 1910 were both based on African-American folktales. These writings reflected Odum's interest in African Americans, but he assumed their natural inferiority. Until near the end of his life, Odum, despite his membership in the Commission for Interracial Cooperation, was unable to transcend his prejudices, although he came to view black inferiority as a function of environment rather than genetics.
After short stays at several academic institutions, Odum went in 1920 to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he would remain for the rest of his life. Within his first five years at Chapel Hill, Odum founded the department of sociology, the school of public welfare, the Journal of Social Forces, and the Institute for Research in the Social Sciences. He excelled at raising money, receiving $1.25 million from Rockefeller foundations alone.
Odum was popular with foundations because he focused completely on specific social problems. He emphasized "objective measurement," and when he served as an assistant director for the 1929 President's Research Committee on Social Trends, he demanded totally factual contributions in line with Herbert Hoover's demands. Ironically, "impressionistic" analysis was central to Odum's own work.
By the 1930s Odum identified sectionalism, a self-enforced isolation that inculcated prejudice and caused people to reject outside help, as the South's greatest problem. He accused the Southern Agrarians of championing exactly such a view, and advocated the concept of regionalism, or the breaking up of the nation's complexity into smaller, cooperating regions. Using research teams to collect data in 648 categories, Odum wrote the influential Southern Regions (1936) and American Regionalism (1938). Despite Odum's extensive research and problem-solving orientation, he lacked a willingness to take into account political and economic power.
By the 1940s, Odum had returned to work on his initial subject of folkways, and he added the concept of technicways to reflect technological society and its culture, which he despised. Odum continued to write until the time of his death.
Challen, Paul. A Sociological Analysis of Southern Regionalism: The Contributions of Howard W. Odum. 1993.
O'Brien, Michael. The Idea of the American South, 1920–1941. 1979.
Singal, Daniel J. The War Within: From Victorian to Modernist Thought in the South 1915–1945. 1982.
Tullos, Allen. "Politics of Regional Development." In Lewis Mumford: Public Intellectual, edited by Thomas P. Hughes and Agatha C. Hughes. 1990.
Mark C. Smith