Learned Societies

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LEARNED SOCIETIES are voluntary organizations of individuals dedicated to scholarship and research, often focused on a particular subject or method. Although this form has ancient antecedents and European exemplars such as the British Royal Society and the French Academy, it has taken on a distinct form in the United States and has played a critical role in the evolution of American higher education. The history of learned societies can be divided into three phases. The earliest societies, founded before the Revolution, were local collections of literate and inquiring minds. In the mid-nineteenth century, a new model emerged: broad-based organizations often dedicated to popularizing new knowledge and promoting social reform. With the development of the American research university, learned societies in the United States developed their present form.

The first learned society founded in what was to become the United States was the American Philosophical Society, founded in 1743 in Philadelphia by Benjamin Franklin and reorganized and put on a firmer footing by incorporating offshoot organizations in 1769. The Society began publishing a journal, Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, in 1771, and organized the systematic observation and documentation of the transit of Venus in 1769. John Adams of Massachusetts, aware of the work of the American Philosophical Society from time spent in Philadelphia at the Continental Congress, was concerned lest Boston cede intellectual prestige to Philadelphia. He convinced the Massachusetts General Court to charter the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1780 with its seat at Boston.

The Boston and Philadelphia examples were reproduced throughout the early nineteenth century in smaller, newer cities. While these early learned societies aspired to national prominence (Thomas Jefferson was president of the American Philosophical Society while he was also president of the United States), they were primarily vehicles of local elites. The original statutes of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences required that the preponderance of its members be drawn from the immediate vicinity of Boston. Composed of gentlemen chosen by honorific election, these societies were defined initially by an Enlightenment commitment to general moral and intellectual cultivation, not to scholarly research as we now define it.

In the mid-nineteenth century, new national societies emerged that were both more focused and more inclusive than the local organizations. The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), founded in 1848, and the American Social Science Association, founded in 1865, were open to all who supported their broad aims. The AAAS evolved from a more specialized society of geologists and sought to provide a national forum wherein all scientists could announce discoveries and educate the public on scientific progress. The American Social Science Association was concerned not with abstract theory and methodology, but with the systematic approach to the solutions of social problems. The ethos of these societies, like that of their contemporary institution, the lyceum, reflected a conception of learning and science as elements of a shared civic culture and not as the esoteric pursuits of a few professionals. Less inclusive was the National Academy of Sciences, chartered by Congress in 1863 to help organize knowledge to support the Union cause in the Civil War. The National Academy of Sciences was limited originally to fifty distinguished scholars, who would elect all future members.

What became the predominant form of learned society—an open organization of scholars seeking to establish standards and to advance research in a particular arena of academic inquiry—was coeval with the development of the American research university. Beginning in the 1880s, scholars, often trained in German universities and eager to develop in America the type of research institutions with which they had become familiar abroad, established new societies frankly devoted to developing academic research in particular fields as professions. Three of the leading learned societies in the humanities and social sciences were founded within three years of each other by faculty of Johns Hopkins University, the first American institution founded as a research university: the Modern Language Association (1883), the American Historical Association (1884), and the American Economic Association (1885). The scholarly journals established by these new societies quickly became the principal arena for establishing standards and intellectual authority in the emerging scholarly disciplines. University presidents immediately saw and supported the professionalizing project of these nascent societies, since these new organizations provided them with a means of measuring scholarly credentials when deciding on faculty appointments and promotions. Universities provided offices, publication support, and other facilities to the new societies. Although many larger, discipline-based societies eventually developed independent offices, most of the smaller learned societies continue to rely on university support for their operations. The two strands of departmental organization of universities on the one hand and the professional authority of learned societies on the other together formed the DNA of the scholarly disciplines in modern American academia.

Even though the aims and membership of these new societies were narrower than those of those of their mid-nineteenth-century predecessors, the new academic professional organizations were generally more inclusive in their membership than the societies founded in the eighteenth century with elected memberships. Membership in research-oriented societies is usually open to all, but the overwhelming majority of members are faculty and students from colleges and universities. There has always been a tension between the academic and the occupational roles of learned societies. Many societies, committed to professionalizing scholarly research, initially eschewed engagement with pedagogy and occupational aspects of teaching.

The emergence of learned societies made possible in turn the creation of national organizations that could advance scholarly research through and with universities. While the American Association for the Advancement of Science continued to have individuals as its constituent members, it developed a complementary aspect as a federation of the more specialized, disciplinary-based scientific societies. In 1918, the National Academy of Sciences, supported by the nascent Rockefeller and Carnegie Foundations, established the National Research Council as a means of mobilizing the scientific expertise manifested in the new learned societies, which were to nominate scholars for membership in the new Research Council. The American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS), founded in 1919 with a constituent membership of thirteen societies, soon became the means by which the foundations could support research in the humanities and related social sciences. Since its founding, the ACLS has also sought to strengthen relations among its member societies, now numbering sixty-six. Activist social scientists drew together representatives of seven societies to form the Social Science Research Council (incorporated in 1924) as a vehicle for supporting policy-oriented research on contemporary social issues.

The number and size of learned societies increased during the epochal expansion of American higher education after World War II. The role of learned societies in establishing professional authority became all the more important in managing the growth of academia, especially as the larger, disciplinary societies provided the structure for the academic employment market, at least for junior faculty, by publishing lists of open academic positions and promoting their annual conventions as sites for the inter-viewing of job candidates. The increasing specialization of scholarship brought the founding of many new societies with interdisciplinary, topical, and sometimes highly focused interests. At the same time, the earlier, honorific societies begun in the eighteenth century became more national in their membership, selecting new fellows for their scholarly and institutional prominence, not for their local social positions. While many newer, smaller societies were directed by volunteers, usually taking time from other academic employment, the management of larger learned societies became more professionalized, with a permanent staff led by full-time executive directors.

The social and political turmoil of the late 1960s and 1970s deeply affected learned societies. Insurgent factions within large societies rejected a limited, academic definition of their society's mission and sought greater engagement with public issues. Many societies altered their methods of governance to allow for more competitive elections and broader representation of the demographic and institutional diversity of their membership. The retrenchment in the academic sector in the late 1970s obliged many learned societies to focus anew on the occupational issues concerning their members. Concern for the conditions of the academic workforce persists in many societies, along with activities aimed at the development of their fields not only in higher education, but also in primary and secondary education, and in the public realm.

While membership size, financial structure, and range of operations vary greatly among contemporary learned societies, a few generalizations are possible. The larger, disciplinary societies and the smaller, interdisciplinary societies often complement, rather than compete with, each other. Many scholars are members of more than one society, seeking different types of community in each organization. Most societies are financed though a combination of membership dues, meeting registrations, publication revenues, and donations. The membership of most societies extends beyond the United States, and many, especially those concerned with the study of world areas, have increasingly international constituencies. The rise of digital information technology poses special challenges and opportunities to learned societies, as electronic versions of their journals are distributed easily through the servers of university libraries and listservs and electronic discussion groups provide for virtual scholarly meetings.


Bender, Thomas. Intellect and Public Life: Essays of the Social History of Academic Intellectuals in the United States. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993.

Bledstein, Burton J. The Culture of Professionalism: The Middle Class and the Development of Higher Education in America. New York: Norton, 1976.

Geiger, Roger L. To Advance Knowledge: The Growth of American Research Universities, 1900–1940. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.

Kiger, Joseph Charles. American Learned Societies. Washington, D.C.: Public Affairs Press, 1963.

Steven C.Wheatley

See alsoAmerican Academy of Arts and Sciences ; American Association for the Advancement of Science ; American Association of University Professors ; American Association of University Women ; American Historical Association ; American Philosophical Society ; Engineering Societies .