Critically Rethinking Cold War Social Science

The historian Audra J. Wolfe has a very good article, which you should read first, on the ongoing historiographic controversy around the terms Cold War science or Cold War social science. (I’m a little late seeing the piece, published in August.) The controversy is over whether Cold War social science is a useful historical category. She concludes that it is. Wolfe says that political leaders “granted” science and social science “nearly superhuman” powers during the Cold War, which differentiates this intellectual agglomeration from earlier (or later) ones like, say, Renaissance science. Other historians, however, have argued that for a variety of reasons it is not a useful term. I believe Cold War social science is a useful term but for different reasons.

Discussion of the controversy can be difficult because it revolves around resistance to a naming practice. The historiography of Cold War social science includes those who offer evidence of sufficient variety, difference, and complexity to undermine, they claim, the singularity of the concept. Thus, within the historiography of the concept are those who believe no such concept exists. Hopefully this doesn't get confusing!

The Cold War & the Present

Among the reasons to avoid the term is the definition of “Cold War,” which has been subject to great debate among historians: some definitions may be applicable to science and others may not. What work of periodization does Cold War do? For strict interpreters, such as Anders Stephanson, the Cold War lasted just about 15 years, approximately from the Marshall Plan to Kennedy’s assassination. In contrast, Odd Arne Westad argues that it began in 1917, with the Bolshevik revolution, but really ramped up in terms of its effects beyond the confines of Euro-America after the endpoint Stephanson offers. (I don’t believe their periodizations are mutually exclusive.)

Another key reason not to use the term, according to some historians, per Wolfe, is that it assumes what it is intending to explain. The term Cold War implies that science and social science were narrowly directed toward particular geopolitical goals in relation to the superpower struggle with the Soviet Union. Thus, the massive funding of science by the US state in the three decades leading up to and through World War II and its aftermath, despite the “supposedly open, international, and free from government interference” character of science itself, actually determined its findings. Moreover, this determination had "distorting" effects on science. In contrast, argue the dissenters, based on recent archival research, there is little observable, and even less necessary, correspondence between funding and findings. Nothing was distorted.

The dissenters, it seems to me, are often waging a past battle—a Cold War battle. One of the New Left’s key critiques was of the entanglements of universities and the national security state. To cause the severing of ties between academics and the state, or at least to push such research off university campuses, was one of the successes of this New Left critique. Those who think the New Left was excessive, that its critique was unfair, that it led to the embarrassment and even premature death of figures discredited as a result like Michigan State University professor Wesley Fishel—they all seem to have a dog in this fight. 

In contrast to my assessment that the dissent is about fighting old battles, Wolfe argues that the ongoing debate over whether to use the term Cold War science or social science “wasn’t a conversation about the past; it was a conversation about the present. Specifically, it was about the culpability of individual social scientists . . . in producing work that was either sponsored by or proved useful to American defense and intelligence operations.”

Well, I think we are both right, of course. Historiographic debates are often substantively about the present—or, the substance of historical writing is about the present. Think, for example, of the explosion of interest among historians in the study of empire after 9/11. New fields of historical inquiry themselves arise because of pressing present-day concerns. They wax and wane, and there is not a direct correspondence, of course, between what historians ask about the past and the present. It does seem naïve, though, to pretend historiography exists in a vacuum. After all, the historical inquiry into Cold War social science has occurred in the period of reinvigorated Pentagon attempts to utilize social science in warmaking. Still, historians tend to be sly or to dissimulate about the way the present impinges on their research, because of the risks of anachronism. As an alternative, historians rely on historiography to chart the twists and turns of debates within the discipline, a reliance which offers a largely “internalist” account, rather than situating the discipline within the external world—and its political economy—in which it perforce exists.

Relations Between Methodology & Social Life

Beyond the substance of inquiries, we can also analyze the conditions of inquiry: how it occurs, what its methodology is, and how social conditions affect epistemology. This analysis offers a way to get outside the highly charged and personal frame of “culpability” that is ultimately not very useful in this ongoing debate. I believe the debate around Cold War science has been insufficiently reflexive in its attention to methodology. Much of the historiography takes at face value the division between science and its others. Indeed, Wolfe symptomatically lumps together science and social science, which makes sense historically to a certain degree, as social scientists in the period of investigation thought of themselves as scientists (unmodified). But we can also historicize this worldview. To treat “hard science” and social science as part of the same set of intellectual and social processes is to partake in the very discourse of legitimation of social science during the Cold War. The term for this viewpoint is positivism, or more precisely, methodological positivism. It refers to a complex of methodological precepts that define how social-scientific inquiry must proceed. Chief among these is the assumption of the disinterested, value-free, and objective observer.

One of the main reasons that social scientists reacted so strongly to the New Left claim that funding streams from the Pentagon affected their work during the Cold War was precisely that, if true, it would have undermined their work entirely. Not only was it possible for value-free inquiry to occur, goes the argument, but in fact the Pentagon (etc.) wanted to fund it. By funding liberal social science, the United States was funding a mode of knowledge production consonant with US values—in contrast to those of the Communist world. The state was more interested in enabling value-free inquiry than in producing particular findings. This position may have some credibility, but I find it inadequate.

Those who argue against the usage of the term Cold War social science risk reinscribing the atemporal, aspatial claims to universal validity that underpins positivism. These historians are offering evidence for the discourse of disinterestedness, which is not difficult to find. But they seem to avoid asking why it was that this discourse was so prevalent—and, perhaps even more strangely, they avoid acknowledging that it began to crumble due to critiques like those of the New Left, Black radicals, and feminists in the late 1960s (voices frequently silenced by Cold War imperatives in the preceding decades). Historians of social science today risk tacitly denying that positivism is one particular form of knowledge production. Instead, they are replicating its own claims to supremacy among forms of scientific approaches to studying social life.

In contrast, it is possible to historicize the rise of atemporal and aspatial declarations attendant to liberalism broadly and to its subcategories like modernization theory. We can point to the rise of the concept of the disinterested observer. What is more, we can point to the way this concept gained currency during the Cold War at the very moment when its existence became dependent on the state and funding streams originating with the state.

We can also highlight that—and here is the main point—methodologies resonate with lived aspects of political economy. Discussions of the Cold War and its relationship to knowledge production in the current historical literature are woefully silent on the existence of a mode of political-economic settlement with which it was consubstantial, namely Fordism. In contrast, historians who have discussed the rise of social history and the subsequent cultural turn have been eminently concerned with plotting this historiographic shift on externalist terrain. William Sewell, Jr., for example, has written extensively and in a both historiographic and biographic vein about the relationships among the collapse of Fordism, the rise of neoliberalization, and shifts in historians’ approaches to the world. 

Sewell, among others, operates within a framework that tries to analyze the mutable, mediated interrelationships of objective and subjective social forms, rather than presuming their utter independence, as positivism does. Although there is a strong tradition of thinking in this way within Marxian approaches, it is also associated with the work of Pierre Bourdieu and other non-Marxian thinkers. That such an approach is avoided in the historiography of Cold War science seems curious to me. It need not be reductionist, nor economic determinist. In contrast, this way of thinking tries to grapple with a historical problem that some historiography on Cold War intellectuals otherwise eschews, which is the commonalities among social scientists in a particular historical period. Despite the range of findings that historians point out in attempting to discredit the singular concept of Cold War social science, there is relative silence regarding the epistemology these scientists shared. 

Even if one were skeptical about what I am calling the interrelationship of objective and subjective social forms, the bare minimum for reflexive historical analysis would be the need to foreground the conditions of emergence and resonance of any given analytic framework, as historian Manu Goswami has suggested. It is useful to ask oneself whether the theoretical and methodological (or historiographical) position one mobilizes can account for that position's external conditions of possibility. Thus, the critique of Cold War social science as a concept cannot reject the concept without using aspects of that social science itself, as if they transcend historical time. In a related way, Goswami critiques the cultural turn in history because it cannot account for its own rise without recourse to the very “forms of historical totalization that it rejected” in staking out its legitimate grounding against social history. For her, the fact that the cultural turn cannot explain itself immanently within its own epistemology means that it is an inadequate historical lens in the present. I would make a similar argument about some historiography of Cold War social science.

Fordism & Positivism, courtesy of George Steinmetz

George Steinmetz is an historical sociologist who has written extensively on the affinities between Fordism and positivism. His work has been a great influence on my thinking. It is somewhat shocking to me that it has been neglected in the history of Cold War social science. He argues that positivism became dominant under Fordism in the discipline of sociology for clearly identifiable reasons. To use the word I used above, which is his, key features of Fordism resonated with key features of positivism. It is a complex argument, to which I can only gesture here.

These are the major features of methodological positivism, according to Steinmetz. Beyond the value-free observer who existed at ontological distance from that which she observed (the famous fact-value dichotomy), positivism entailed the premise of a closed system that made possible “constant conjunctions” or explanations taking the form of “if A then B,” independent of time and space. Second, methodological positivism assumed the possibility of, and privileged, the empirical study of social life following guidelines drawn from the scientific study of the natural world, from which social life was assumed separate, and it presented its findings accordingly. Third, its empiricism disavowed unobservable causality due to an assumption of identity of essence and phenomenon. Fourth, methodological positivism did not reflexively consider the possibility of “feedback loops,” self-fulfilling prophecies, or “concept dependency” that would mediate between observer, object, and analysis and mutually affect the three.

Through an extended argument, in which Steinmetz labels positivism the “epistemological unconscious” of Fordism, he concludes that Fordism made positivism plausible:

“The main components of U.S. Fordism—stabilization through demand management, homogenization of consumer tastes, rising worker incomes pegged to productivity, collaborative labor unions, nation-state centrism—were constantly broadcast to the denizens of the Fordist metropolises as the American way of life. When positivists pointed out the connections between existing social patterns and their preferred manner of studying society, reality seemed to ratify their approach." 

What I would add, in the context of the Cold War, is that modernization theory, which was essentially positivist, justified, described, and prescribed the development approaches undertaken by the United States across the Third World, which were attempting to export many of these very features of Fordism. We may all chuckle now at the notion that the US war in Vietnam was attempting to put a television set in every peasant family’s thatched hut, but it becomes less funny when we realize how close to the truth it is.


Thus, when we think about the “nearly superhuman” powers of social science in the Fordist conjuncture, which was also the Cold War conjuncture, I believe we can get a better handle on exactly what makes them seem superhuman through an analysis of methodology. If we take the term superhuman literally, it signifies something that occurs beyond the control of humans. If there is an unwilled but consequential relationship between objective social forms and subjective modes of their perception, then the nearly superhuman aspects of social science during the Fordist period owe not to the way state officials sanctioned them but rather to the deep, abiding dovetail between the social reality positivists observed and the tools they found most appropriate to its study. That these thinkers were funded by the state in many cases tells us less about what made their practice part of the Cold War than that the Cold War represented a globe-spanning state-led US effort to universalize the social reality positivism claimed could best be apprehended through recourse to a universalizing scientific methodology.

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