President's Committee on Social Trends

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Established in 1929 by the newly inaugurated Herbert Hoover, the President's Committee on Social Trends was a group of leading social scientists and foundation officials whose task was to collect data on leading social institutions and behavior. Hoover had utilized this survey approach since his days as food administrator during World War I, and he had made it a keystone of his work as secretary of commerce. Hoover's view of social science perceived the collection and description of facts as leading automatically to obvious conclusions. On several occasions he noted his intentions of basing his social policies upon the data of the social trends study.

The chairman of the committee was Columbia University economist and director of the National Bureau for Economic Research Wesley Mitchell. Mitchell and Hoover had known each other since their government service in World War I. Like Hoover, Mitchell believed in the slow accumulation of statistical facts that could eventually lead to social improvement. The committee's vice-chairman was Charles Merriam, founder of the Social Science Research Council (SSRC) and long-time collaborator with Mitchell on social science committees. Almost all of the contributors had a close relationship with the SSRC.

More significant for the actual writing of the report were the director and assistant directors of research, William Ogburn and Howard Odum, both possessors of doctorates in sociology from Columbia. Ogburn, in particular, insisted upon absolute objectivity and absence of opinions. His favorite chapters included little beyond statistics. Fearing that some chapters would include recommendations, Ogburn sent out a memorandum promising to prevent acceptance of any chapter with conclusions or recommendations. While the more politically astute Mitchell and Merriam blocked his veto in several cases, almost all of the chapters bore Ogburn's imprint.

The Committee's final product, Recent Social Trends, finished in early 1932, was thirty chapters and over 1,500 pages. The subjects ranged from agricultural and forest lands to taxation and public finance. While most reviews were complimentary, others noted its limitations. Adolf Berle, soon to become a member of Franklin D. Roosevelt "brains trust," stated that the work needed a "master" to interpret the data and develop specific policies. The historian Charles Beard saw Recent Social Trends as a crisis in the empirical method. Berle and Beard's predictions were borne out. The book did not provide a basis for social reform or legislation, even in the Great Depression, but it does serve as a splendid overview of American society at the beginning of the 1930s.



Bannister, Robert C. Sociology and Scientism: The American Quest for Objectivity, 1880–1940. 1987.

Karl, Barry D. "Presidential Planning and Social Research: Mr. Hoover's Experts," in Perspectives in American History 3 (1969): 347–409.

Karl, Barry D. Charles E. Merriam and the Study of Politics. 1974.

Mark C. Smith

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President's Committee on Social Trends

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President's Committee on Social Trends