A Brief History

newspaper headlines

Social Studies admitted eighteen sophomores into the first class in the fall of 1960. The planners of the program, a distinguished array of scholars from the various social sciences, were named as the first Standing Committee on Social Studies, with the charge of offering the first courses of instruction and also overseeing the general program. The names of these “founding fathers” are worth recalling:

Stanley Hoffmann, an authority on international relations;
Alexander Gerschenkron, an eminent economic historian;
H. Stuart Hughes, a specialist in European intellectual history;
Barrington Moore, Jr., a political sociologist writing about Soviet society and revolutions;
Robert Paul Wolff, a student of political and social theory, who became head tutor for the first year of the program;
Laurence Wylie, a scholar working on social change in France.

The rationale for the creation of the new concentration was threefold. First, in the view of these faculty members, too many students were graduating as narrow specialists, unfamiliar with the methods and tools of other disciplines. As Stanley Hoffmann phrased it, government majors knew little about Freud and Weber; economics majors had no background in government or history. “We were all concerned that social science itself was losing coherence, splintering into artificial and uncommunicating disciplines.”

Second, they found that some students were finding it difficult to focus intelligently on specific problems (such as racism or nationalism or revolutionary movements) or certain areas (such as Western Europe or Latin America) without being academically coerced into a conventional departmental approach. For students and faculty with these interests, it was considered desirable to devise a program permitting the crossing of departmental lines and the study of major social problems from a variety of disciplinary perspectives. One faculty advocate described this process as “creative trespassing.”

Third, the very successful concentration in History and Literature, over six decades old in 1960, provided “a most encouraging precedent” and also some reason to believe the traditional departments would cooperate in the formation of this new concentration. In order not to antagonize unduly those departments that might feel threatened by the loss of able students and faculty, the proposers suggested limiting the program to a relatively small number of undergraduates.

Only honors candidates would be admitted each year. No more than 25 or 30 students would be selected. No formal courses would be given by the program except for the sophomore, junior, and senior tutorials. Faculty would be drawn on a part-time basis from the social science departments. Students would concentrate in one of the following fields of study: problems of industrial societies; law and the social order; and international affairs. Later, problems of developing societies became a field of study. In order to explore these fields, students would take five courses from an approved list of department courses.

The Dean of the Faculty, McGeorge Bundy, supported the concept of the new concentration and guided the proposal effectively to the Faculty’s vote of approval at its April 12, 1960 meeting.

From the very beginning and down to the present time, in addition to an emphasis on interdisciplinary work and a focus on discrete social problems, the academic content of the Social Studies program has embraced three further fundamental propositions:

  • Some kind of a theoretical perspective, preferably explicit and coherent, is indispensable to a rational analysis of social problems.
  • One of the best ways to develop an informed theoretical perspective is to study the ideas of the “classic” social scientists of the past, especially the works of Tocqueville, Durkheim, Marx, Weber, and Freud
  • The historical context of social problems should be given special attention, so a range of history courses is required for all concentrators.

Over the years, the concentration in Social Studies has continued to grow in student enrollments, number of faculty, curricular offerings, and department resources. In 1965, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences reviewed the five years of the program’s experience and voted unanimously to make Social Studies a permanent part of the curriculum of Harvard College. Down to 1977, the program accepted only a limited number of students, but thereafter the size of the sophomore class increased markedly, to the point where Social Studies is one of the largest concentrations at Harvard College. After Stanley Hoffmann’s tenure as chairman for most of the ‘60s, Michael Walzer served as chairman for more than a decade and was succeeded by the next chairman, David S. Landes, in 1981. Charles Maier served as chairman from 1993-1997, Seyla Benhabib served from 1997-2001, Grzegorz Ekiert from 2001-2006, Richard Tuck from 2006-2015, and James Kloppenberg from 2015-2018. Eric Beerbohm, Professor of Government, is currently serving as Chair.