The Department of Social Relations
A Search for the Theory of Everyone.
“The community stagnates without the impulse of the individual. The impulse dies away without the sympathy of the community.” - William James.
Inscription on the first floor of William James Hall, former home of the Department of Social Relations.
In 1946, a new department was established at Harvard University. The intention of the department’s founders—Talcott Parsons, a sociologist; Gordon Allport, a social psychologist; Clyde Kluckhohn, an anthropologist; and Henry Murray, a clinical psychologist—was to create a sort of superdiscipline for the social and behavioral sciences. They envisioned the department as a hub for the development of an all-encompassing science of human behavior, a place to bring together insights usually sequestered from one another in disparate corners of the university campus. They hoped that from this new department would eventually emerge a grand, unified theory for the whole of mind and society: a comprehensive explanation for every individual, every interaction, every societal trend, every cultural institution. In short, a theory of everyone.1
In some ways, this project of disciplinary transcendence succeeded. The Department of Social Relations, as it came to be called, was the home of many of the twentieth century’s biggest advances in the science of behavior. A remarkable proportion of the era’s most influential thinkers either taught or trained there. The list of researchers who spent time at the department reads like a Who’s Who of behavioral science.2 By the end of the Department’s first decade, Social Relations had become one of Harvard’s most popular undergraduate majors, and the Department’s activities included everything from behavioral science’s greatest achievements (the memo that influenced the verdict of Brown v. Board of Education) to its most flagrant violations of public trust (the psychological study that traumatized an undergraduate Ted Kaczynski) to controversies that are still playing out today (Timothy Leary’s original experiments on the therapeutic effects of LSD). The theories and frameworks developed in the Department of Social Relations are by and large the ones that contemporary behavioral scientists—anthropologists, sociologists, and psychologists—still work within. Most of today’s “big idea” trade books began their lives as research programs dreamt up during the Cold War in departments like this one. The Department of Social Relations also gave rise to the largest scale effort to create a comprehensive theory of human behavior. Within the Department, it was known simply as “The Project.”
As far as the developing this theory went, there were two basic strategies. The one on which The Project was premised was to describe humanity in all of its diversity. That is, to come up with an account of all the ways in which people can differ from one another. If you could capture all of the possible variations, then you’d have your theory. This was where the idea of “social relations” came from: the template of homo sapiens is pretty much uniform across the globe; what makes people unique is the ways in which they organize into their own systems of society and culture.
The other strategy took the opposite approach. Instead of looking for differences, it sought to say what exactly that common template was. In this view, the distillation of humanity’s essence was the mind, and the goal of a science of humanity should be to say how the mind works. Many of the researchers who came to believe in this approach were trained at Social Relations. But realizing that they were going down an altogether separate road, they started their own organization, also at Harvard, called the Center for Cognitive Studies. The kind of work they began doing at the Center soon became known as “cognitive science.”
The intention behind Cognitive Studies was the same as the one behind Social Relations: to bring all involved parties under one roof in order for everyone to get on the page as everyone else. At its start, cognitive science was also meant to draw on fields such as psychology, anthropology, neuroscience, and linguistics. But it had an advantage that Social Relations didn’t: the computer. Cognitive scientists looked at the computer and saw a system that was devoid of the complicated trimmings of human sociality, while retaining the information processing capabilities that formed the foundation of the mind. This was the canvas on which the theory of everyone could be painted.
But then, in 1972, both projects disintegrated: the Department of Social Relations almost three decades after its founding, and the Center for Cognitive Studies after little more than a decade. Both enterprises had failed to articulate a theory of everyone in the way they had originally envisioned. The Department of Social Relations never delivered on its promise of a grand theory of behavior. There is no “social relations” discipline, with its own language to allow people to talk with equal ease about society, personality, culture, and the other relevant domains of human social life. It promised a unified view of things; that view never came. Instead of unifying, its research splintered back into its constituent disciplines of sociology, psychology, and anthropology. While cognitive science did succeed in becoming a recognizable field of study, it also took on the defining attribute of an academic discipline: separateness from other disciplines. Cognitive science grew as the “science of the mind” along with the rise of sophisticated computing technology. Yet in its reliance on computer model of the mind and its adoption of techniques from artificial intelligence, cognitive science’s view of intelligence became just that: artificial. This coming-together then falling-apart of different academic traditions defines much of the intellectual landscape on which we find ourselves today. It also leaves us with a series of questions.
What would it take to come up with a true theory of everyone? Is it possible to do what the Social Relations founders envisioned: to meaningfully combine insights from across the behavioral sciences into a unified view? To have not just separate departments for psychology, sociology, and anthropology—but a place where practitioners of these disciplines could mingle? Why did this project fail at Harvard during the Cold War? Why aren’t there more ambitious efforts like this to create cross-disciplinary understanding?
I3 also can’t help but wonder what cognitive science would look like today if the Social Relations project had turned out differently. One of the reasons I began to dig into this history was because I found that the core problems of cognitive science—how we think, how we remember, what inspires actions, how do we perceive our environment—were of actually of great concern to these interdisciplinary thinkers. They approached these topics from a humanistic, socially-situated perspective. And they did so before we usually think of the what became the “Cognitive Revolution” (the intellectual movement in which the dominant paradigm of Behaviorism was overthrown by what became cognitive science.)
This goes against the grain of the orthodoxy of cognitive science history — which is essentially that computers came along and then we started thinking about the mind in a certain way. I think there is something fundamentally wrong about the way we’ve told this story. For example, Gordon Allport was plying a scholarly trade that looked strikingly like modern cognitive science well before the figures we normally associate with this new discipline came to fore. Most of them—Jerry Bruner, George Miller—trained with Allport. If you look closely at Allport’s 1954 Nature of Prejudice, you’ll see that most of the chapters are what we’d today consider cognitivist; they resemble what we think of as cognitive psychology rather than social psychology. This book was the culmination of decades of previous work.
Another example would be Herb Simon's Administrative Behavior, first published in 1947. In his autobiography, Simon claimed that the seeds of everything he’d go on to do—including but not limited to initiating key fields of artificial intelligence, developing the theory of bounded rationality, which is the foundation stone of modern behavioral economics, and won him the Nobel prize in economics—were contained in that project, a surprisingly qualitative investigation of humans in their social context.
Eventually, there was a kind of power struggle between the humanistic and computational conceptions of what cognitive science could be. Allport, in his way, embodied both. He acted as a kind of bridge. But he died in 1967. The field coalesced around these two distinct (and increasingly disparate) approaches. Two of Allport’s students were flag-bearers of these camps: Jerome Bruner being the most eminent champion of the humanistic approach, and George Miller being an exemplar of what computationally-inspired cognitive psychologist initially looked like.
It goes without saying that the computationalists won out. Part of what I wanted to understand in the story of the Department of Social Relations is what we missed out on by developing a cognitive science based on the computationalist’s reductionism without the partnership of the humanist’s broad conception of behavior, without that concern for the crucial mundanity of behavior in life as its actually lived and not simply as it plays out in the overly-sterile environment of laboratory experiments. Perhaps I would’ve stuck with cognitive science if I felt like there had been more room for that sort of thing.
This piece is derived from the “overview” I submitted as a part of the book proposal I put together on Soc Rel. I sent it to a dozen or so agents. I couldn’t get anyone on board. Some of them tried to assure me that it wasn’t because it was total dogshit, but more because it was just too… academic. Which I think is fair. Having received that criticism, it didn’t take me long to come around to the same point: the story that I wanted to tell here would mostly be of interest to academics—cognitive scientists, maybe people in the behavioral sciences more broadly—and not to the general public. I was just about to submit the proposal to a round of up-market university presses. Then I decided to scrap it. To quote me: “I don’t want to be an academic. I don’t feel that it’s my burden to rewrite the history of cognitive science. So what if cognitive scientists have misinterpreted their own history? Fuck ‘em.”
By which I mean pretty much every twentieth century academic I’ve ever been obsessed with. My favorite anthropologist: Clifford Geertz. My favorite sociologist: Mark Granovetter. And then of course a whole host of psychologists and cognitive scientists were at Soc Rel: Jerome Bruner, etc… Not to mention Stanley Milgram, who first dreamt up his shock-machine experiment while still a graduate student at Social Relations. It was a whole scene.
I think part of the reason why I decided not to pursue the project to completion was that, in all honesty, it really was an exercise in ripping off* the style of one of my favorite authors, Louis Menand. It wasn’t me trying to be me; it was me trying to be him. I’d like to think it wasn’t the world’s worst job of trying to affect Menand’s style. But it also, no doubt, fell well short of its target. All that, in conjunction with the amount of effort it would take to pull off the full vision—Menand's books take, like, 10 years to write; I estimated it would take me about three to do what I wanted to do—and I decided the project just wasn't worth it. If it felt like I was being authentic, then sure. But if I am going to tell that story, I need to do it in my own way... Maybe one day. But I’ve got other projects I’m pursuing for the time being.
* Sometimes I feel that I have no voice of my own. Not only in writing—though definitely in writing; I am incredibly self conscious about whose “voice” I am affecting when writing, and it so rare that it ever feels like my own—but also in life. I feel all too often like I take on the energy of the people around me, like I am a reflection of whatever conversational tact my interlocutor brings to the table. If it is low-key and to-the-point, I am low-key and to-the-point. If it is enthusiastic and discursive, I am enthusiastic and discursive. I feel it most keenly when doing interviews for my podcast, because that is an initial space for conversations where my explicit goal is to meet the other person where I am at. But I am very self-conscious about feeling that I chameleon-like change my energy-level, the directness of my questions, the propensity for humor based on what that other person gives me. I don’t necessarily consider this a bad thing. Part of me likes it and thinks that it’s a useful quality, particularly in an interviewer. But I also find it worrisome. It is a source of self-doubt.