Special Issue: History of SPSSI

The March 2011 issue of the Journal of Social Issues, devoted to the history of the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues (SPSSI), Division 9 of the American Psychological Association, has just been released online. This special issue, edited by Alexandra Rutherford, Frances Cherry, and Rhoda Unger, has been assembled to mark the 75th anniversary of SPSSI and examines the organization’s efforts to effect social change. Articles in this special issue address work on morale during WWII, housing and race in postwar America, the sociological social psychology of Marie Jahoda, SPSSI’s quest for value neutrality in the 1930s through the 1960s, the organization’s Task Force on Sexual Orientation in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and much more. Full titles, authors, and abstracts for the issue follow below.

“‘Society Very Definitely Needs Our Aid’: Reflecting on SPSSI in History,” by Alexandra Rutherford, Frances Cherry, and Rhoda Unger. The abstract reads,

The year 2011 marks the 75th anniversary of the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues (SPSSI). One of the primary reasons SPSSI was established was the desire, on the part of its founders, to use scientific research for social action and to bring the insights of social science into national-level debates about social issues. This anniversary affords us the opportunity to examine when, where, why, and how SPSSI has been more and less successful in its efforts to impact society. Historical analyses focusing on the long-standing tension between scientific objectivity and political advocacy are used as a lens through which to examine SPSSI’s legacy and to provide a more informed basis for future action.

“Looking Again at SPSSI: History, Activism, and Advocacy,” by Martha T. Mednick. The abstract reads,

SPSSI has a well-established history of self-scrutiny. Central to any self-evaluation effort is the presence of an archival record that documents the aspirations and struggles of an organization and its members, perspectives that may never make it into the “official” published record. In this reflection, I describe my efforts in the 1980s, on the occasion of my presidential address, to use the archival record of SPSSI to examine how the organization had dealt with advocacy in the then-46+ years of its existence. I then mention a contemporary archival project for Psychologists for Social Responsibility, and comment on changes in the institutional landscape that have created a new context for SPSSI’s historic role as an activist organization.

“‘Education for Democracy’: SPSSI and the Study of Morale in World War II,”by Cathy Faye. The abstract reads,

Many scholars have noted that, by 1950, the early radicalism and devotion to change that was characteristic of the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues had faded. It was slowly overshadowed by a more orthodox adherence to the principles of science and objectivity. This article demonstrates that the difficulties faced by the Society in their work on morale during World War II contributed to this shift. The Society had little success finding support for their work on morale, partly because of the association between “morale” and “propaganda.” Thus, funding agencies refused to back what they saw as a partisan propaganda agency and other groups questioned the ability of social scientists to step out of the ivory tower and conduct practical morale work. The Society therefore further retreated from their activist position and began to adopt a more cautious and tailored approach to the study of social issues.

“Psychologists, Race, and Housing in Postwar America,”by Wade E. Pickren. The abstract reads,

Housing in postwar America became a critical focal point for issues of race and social equality. Housing and race relations became a real-world laboratory for psychologists and other social scientists, including several of the leaders of Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues, to examine developing theories of intergroup relations, especially as potential means to reduce prejudice. Further, it is argued that psychologists sought to impact emerging housing policy and to ameliorate an enduring social problem. The author concludes that the efforts by social scientists to provide workable solutions, typically from an unacknowledged place of White privilege, proved largely ineffective.

“Reclaiming SPSSI’s Sociological Past: Marie Jahoda and the Immersion Tradition in Social Psychology,” by Alexandra Rutherford, Rhoda Unger, and Frances Cherry. The abstract reads,

Aspects of the life and work of Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues (SPSSI)’s first female president, Marie Jahoda (1907–2001), are examined to help reclaim social psychology’s, and SPSSI’s, lost connection to sociology. Throughout her career, Jahoda promoted a nonreductionistic, problem-focused sociological social psychology that was profoundly influenced by her early interdisciplinary training and by subsequent collaborations with other SPSSI members in New York City in the decade following WWII. Her use of the participant observation method, or immersion approach, was an outgrowth of her sociological sensibility. She used this approach to describe and explain the complex interactions between individuals and social structures in real-life settings. By placing Jahoda at the center of our analysis, we aim to complicate standard historical narratives about the loss of the sociological tradition within social psychology and re-assess the relationship between the two social psychologies. We argue that her legacy should be brought to bear on contemporary debates about SPSSI’s social relevance and may help re-envision the disciplinary boundaries of contemporary social psychology.

“Value Neutrality and SPSSI: The Quest for Policy, Purity, and Legitimacy,” by Andrew S. Winston. The abstract reads,

I describe how the problem of “value neutrality” remained a central issue for SPSSI from the founding of the organization to the 1960s, as SPSSI leaders worked to maintain legitimacy in both scientific and public spheres. In 1930s psychology, notions of objectivity and political neutrality were intertwined in ways that produced substantial debate over SPSSI’s aims. Under pressures from anticommunism and changes in public and private funding for research, the problem of neutrality intensified by the 1950s. In this new climate, the need to demonstrate value neutrality was a powerful constraint on the ability of SPSSI to respond to resurgent scientized racism after the Supreme Court Brown decision.

“SPSSI Leaders: Collective Biography and the Dilemma of Value-Laden Action and Value-Neutral Research,” by Rhoda Unger. The abstract reads,

This study provides a collective biography of Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues (SPSSI)’s most recent cohort of leaders and compares their characteristics with those of previous generations of leaders. Unlike previous collective biographies, I use responses to an e-mail questionnaire from 90 individuals who have been elected to SPSSI office, most since 1986. I examine the social categories to which individuals belong; educational experiences; the branch of psychology in which they received their PhD; and the role of collegial networks in the recruitment of leaders. I also introduce an historical perspective by comparing data on early and more recent cohorts of SPSSI leaders. Finally, through this study I explore possible links between leaders’ characteristics and their reasons for becoming involved in SPSSI. In particular, I examine relationships between the variables previously discussed and leaders’ reasons for being involved in SPSSI, with special attention to differential views about the role of values in research.

“The SPSSI Task Force on Sexual Orientation, the Nature of Sex, and the Contours of Activist Science,” by Michael Pettit. The abstract reads,

Drawing on published and archival materials, this article charts the history of the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues (SPSSI)-sponsored Task Force on Sexual Orientation (1978–1982). The Task Force offers a lens through which to explore the assumptions about the nature of human sexuality at work in 1970s psychology. The concept of nature does not possess a stable meaning across disciplinary communities. Where for some nature connotes the normalizing sanction of natural laws, others associate the term with artificial claims about the constraints of a deficient biology. As an organization founded by social psychologists, SPSSI projects, such as its members’ work on race relations, tended to emphasize the latter strategy. Responding to conservatives who cast homosexuality as unnatural, a number of Task Force members turned to sociobiology as a normalizing natural science. In this regard, the Task Force was an important episode in defining what might constitute activist-science.

“A Wrinkle in Time: Tracing a Legacy of Public Science through Community Self-Surveys and Participatory Action Research,” by María Elena Torre and Michelle Fine. The abstract reads,

Community self-surveys, popularized by Margot Haas Wormser and Claire Selltiz in the 1950s, brought together diverse community groups to examine racial injustice in their local contexts. A precursor to contemporary participatory action research, the self survey method provides evidence of SPSSI’s long history of “engaged scholarship.” In this article, we resurrect this history and connect it to contemporary research in critical psychology that shares commitments to participation, methodological complexity, expanded notions of “expertise,” as well as social and political relevance.

“SPSSI and Peace-Building: A Participant’s Perspective,” by Paul R. Kimmel. The abstract reads,

A culture of peace promotes caring relations among individuals and groups based on full realization of their positive interdependence with each other and their environment—it entails social justice, norms of equity and multicultural sensitivity and social relations conducive to nonviolence, sustainable development, and human well-being. This is a history of Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues (SPSSI)’s efforts to build such a culture in the United States, especially within and through organized psychology. The perspective taken is primarily my own as a member of SPSSI Council, an SPSSI Representative to the American Psychological Association (APA)’s Council of Representatives, SPSSI’s first historian and first Public Policy Fellow at the APA, liaison between Division 9 and Division 48 of the APA, and SPSSI’s Representative to the Southern California Regional Council of Organizations. I argue for the importance of applying public interest science to issues of cultural, structural, and direct violence.

“SPSSI and Racial Research,” by Thomas F. Pettigrew. The abstract reads,

This review highlights the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues (SPSSI)’s racial research contribution to public policy. Although not an initial focus of SPSSI, racial research has long been a central concern of the organization. Klineberg’s work in the 1930s established an example of how social research could have widespread influence on social policy. SPSSI books and the Journal of Social Issues reveal the Society’s unswerving interest in such topics as prejudice and authoritarianism. The year 1954 proved a watershed year. Gordon Allport published his agenda-setting The Nature of Prejudice, and SPSSI played a key role in the momentous decision of the U.S. Supreme Court that held racially segregated public schools to be unconstitutional. Due to lack of funds, racial research declined sharply in the 1960s. Later, other concerns—such as an emphasis on cognition and the belated rise of attention to gender discrimination—competed with racial issues. Reactionary Supreme Court justices now often spurn social science evidence. The article closes with an assessment of the Society’s racial policy influence in the future.

“SPSSI and Poverty: Reflections at Seventy-Five,” by Heather E. Bullock, Bernice Lott, and Shirley V. Truong. The abstract reads,

This article highlights efforts by the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues (SPSSI) and its members to increase understanding of poverty and social class, and to propose policies to reduce economic inequities. Our review is based on writings about poverty and social class published in SPSSI journals and newsletters, and other activities from SPSSI’s beginnings in 1936 to the present. Both strengths and shortcomings in SPSSI’s economic justice record are noted. Special attention is given to the 1930s and the 1960s–1970s, periods in which poverty was a salient topic in the United States. SPSSI’s role in advocating for institutional change within the American Psychological Association is also considered. We close with a “wish list” for SPSSI’s next 75 years.

“‘Cautious Courage’: SPSSI’s Connections and Reconnections at the United Nations,” by Frances Cherry, Holly Ellingwood, and Gisell Castillo. The abstract reads,

The Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues (SPSSI) has had official connections to the United Nations (UN) at two separate points in its history. In the period right after World War Two (1946–1960), SPSSI leaders were involved in the building of a global social science network through the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Otto Klineberg was heavily involved in creating connections between UNESCO and SPSSI. Changes at UNESCO as well as in academic research culture, combined with continued Cold War politics, minimized SPSSI’s involvement at the UN throughout the 1960s and 1970s. By the mid-1980s, NGOs were increasingly a significant force in the UN through the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). SPSSI has had NGO status since 1987 and was awarded consultative status in 1991, allowing the Society greater input at the UN. Since that time, SPSSI has continued to bring a research focus to a range of projects at the UN aimed at improving global well-being.

“Foreground and Background: Environment as Site and Social Issue,” by Susan Opotow and Jen Gieseking. The abstract reads,

To examine how the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues (SPSSI) has engaged with environmental issues throughout its 75-year history, we consulted five SPSSI-based data sources. Our analysis, attentive to the larger sociopolitical contexts over time, focuses on SPSSI’s attention to the physical environment, the places in which social living and interactions occur. In SPSSI’s early years, social issues research was often situated within specific locales. Since 1960 and the emergence of environmental psychology and the environmental movement, SPSSI increasing focuses on environment as a social issue in its own right as well part of other social issues. Over time there has been a decline in mentions of the physical environment in SPSSI’s methods texts. This historical analysis highlights the specifics of context in SPSSI’s environmental research and urges attention to the physical as well as social aspects of environment in research and activism.

“SPSSI’s Living Past,” by James H. Capshew. The abstract reads,

Emphasizing that history is a dialogue with the past, in the present, having implications for the future, I comment on the articles in this issue and their role in providing historically informed perspectives on some of the perennial concerns pursued by individual SPSSI members and the organization itself.

“Introduction to Susan Opotow’s SPSSI Presidential Address,” by Daniel Perlman. No abstract.

“How This Was Possible: Interpreting the Holocaust,” by Susan Opotow. The abstract reads,

Moral exclusion occurs when individuals or groups are seen as outside the boundary in which moral values, rules, and considerations of fairness apply. It can render violence and injustice normal and acceptable. This talk describes research conducted at the House of Wannsee Conference, a cultural institution near Berlin, where the liquidation of Europe’s Jews was planned in 1942. Now a commemorative site and education center, this institution’s interpretive strategies increase visitors’ knowledge about past exclusionary processes. The House of Wannsee’s interpretive strategies emphasize the role of occupational groups in society. Consistent with that focus, this talk discusses psychology at two points in time: Gestalt psychology, which flourished in Germany from 1920 to 1933, and psychology from 2002 to the present in light of contemporary concerns about psychologists’ involvement in detention and torture.

About Jacy Young

Jacy Young is a professor at Quest University Canada. A critical feminist psychologist and historian of psychology, she is committed to critical pedagogy and public engagement with feminist psychology and the history of the discipline.