Science will save us…

Scientific Charity: Movement or Milieu?

Often referred to, yet almost never explained, scientific charity is a confusing jumble. Attempts to associate the movement with a “thing”, such as a particular COS or particular person like Carnegie or specific institution like the Russell Sage Foundation, are understandable due to the complications of studying scientific charity as intellectual history. Claims to a charity or philanthropy that would now be scientific were simultaneously trumpeted by those involved in late 19th century reform, the social gospel movement, the creation of American social science, the creation of professional social work, the creation of the social science departments in American universities, the creation and enlargement of the American foundation, the Charity Organization Societies, the Settlement movement, the creation of a host of new professional associations, and the many other civic and political organizations working in education, penal reform, charity reform, medicine, etc. that offered new and purportedly scientific means by which human social problems could be rationally apprehended and dealt with in preemptive fashion. Of course, the rise of the “scientific” across the 19th century is a well-known phenomenon in and of itself. (See Figure One)

…to see the tables & figures:

The claim of this dissertation is not that this relationship between science and the goals of charity/philanthropy was actually new; after all it was the 12th century philosopher Maimonides who said: “Anticipate charity by preventing poverty.”17 Instead, my research focuses on descriptions of the broad appeal to science common to the 19th century founding logic assumed by so much of what we know today in the United States as charitable institutions, social welfare infrastructure, the social sciences, and philanthropy. I’m interested in how scientific charity presented itself as new apart from any sort of empirical proof of either anything being specifically wrong with older forms of charity or anything being specifically better about the newer forms being espoused. The belief that science had the ability to improve charity functioned more as a rallying cry for the need for improved methods to confront the stress put on traditional charitable networks and institutions. They built it so they would come.

To date, there is no book-length treatment of the subject.18 Searches for the term “scientific charity” in 19th century literature reveal that the movement had widespread appeal. For example, searches that I conducted in the Proquest database of American Periodicals 1740 – 1940 reveals thousands of entries related to science and charity, with a noted increase in the period under study here: 1865-1909. Between 1740 and 1840 only 1936 references in 1495 publications were noted, while between 1840 and 1900 alone, in the same number of publications, there were 11, 365 references. Using the Google Ngram Viewer tool and searching for usage of “scientific charity” between 1840 and 1900, one notices the definite increase starting around 1874, the year of the NCCC inaugural meeting.19 The issues that were central to the interests of scientific charity, such as “pauperism”, were also prominent during the same time frame in these publications. (See Figure 2)

Until recently what we have learned about the phenomenon called “scientific charity / scientific philanthropy” was presented by scholars interested in the history of the social science professions. Their tendencies were to present scientific charity as synonymous with the Charity Organization movement at the NCCC and the creation of the field of social work or present it as the parallel stream of proto-social science at the ASSA’s professional associations and the creation of university-based sociology. I want to claim that scientific charity could be usefully understood as more of a milieu than any specific movement, where powerful new ideas about the trajectory of American philanthropy were theorized, discussed, and promoted. The Charity Organization movement and the movement to create social science disciplines were subtexts to the main story: the belief that a point in human and societal evolution had been reached where social problems could be scientifically understood and brought under control. But before we can investigate this milieu and what was spoken there, we need to further situate scientific charity.

Masking Reform

Scientific charity was more than just a late 19th century conservative aberration in the long march towards the full flowering of progressive reform based in social scientific discoveries.20 The problem with scientific charity as nothing more than proto-Social Work or proto -Sociology, is that this account can leave the impression that the moral intentions of reform were left behind when the ASSA and the COS structures were abandoned, leaving in its place a value-free science of the social. And so for example, the eugenics movement can appear in historical accounts as an aberration, instead of the continued progression of scientific philanthropic reform begun much earlier in the 18th and 19th century and continuing to gain steam well into the 20th century despite a certain dislocation from its ideological reformist roots.21 The logic that powered scientific charity did not end when the gentry intellectuals of the ASSA and their reformist brew of old- school Political Economy and social up-lift work were pushed aside in 1909 and as the Charity Organization Society (COS) movement lost credibility in the eyes of university- based social scientists. Scientific charity also functioned as a moral language of social reform, primarily based on a moral appeal to replace older inefficient/ineffective forms of charity with newer scientifically improved forms, which continued to expand, like the NCCC itself, into the 20th century. Interpretations of the movement to improve public and private charitable methods in mid to late 19th century America conflate scientific charity with the rise of the Charity Organization Society movement and its application of the concept, and are thus quick to associate the end of the scientific charity movement with the demise of both the ASSA and the rending asunder of objectivity and advocacy by the separate growth trajectories of professional social work and academic sociology.

Scientific charity seems to have functioned as a mid-way point, allowing social thinkers and practitioners to move from charity, by way of a charity that would now be scientific, to a science that would still be charitable, and then on to the disciplinary splits that authors like Furner, Haskell, and Ross make central to their accounts of professionalization. Peter Novick has suggested this approach, when he points out that “much of what passed for professionalization was superficial”, and so the shift from amateur ameliorative social science (scientific charity) and objective social science (university-based Sociology for example), was not as fixed as many interpreters of the 19th century would have it.22 By passing too quickly over this terrain (1865 – 1909) it is easy to think that the ameliorative purposes of charity were shown to be unscientific and thus discarded by the younger social scientists now armed with German PhDs, eager to be paid for their services in the new universities and university departments. Professionalization and social control narratives have this tendency. Paying attention to how the changes happened, might give us insight to these same claims very much in the headlines today, asking us to believe (and contribute), for example, to the global initiatives of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and their globalized formula convinced that private philanthropy applied scientifically will end poverty…this time around.

I am not the first to critique these simple dichotomist historical narratives: examples include James Leiby starting in the 1960s, Henrika Kucklick and Robert L. Church in the 1970s, Silva & Slaughter in the 1980s, Lawrence Goldman in the 90s, and since the 90s a growing list of critical studies like those of Mary Jo Deegan.23 These scholars and others mentioned in my literature review have all explored to what degree “the apparent division between ’amateur’ social scientists in 1880 in the ASSA and ‘professional’ social scientists in universities a generation later masks an essential similarity in the reformist aims of both groups.”24 The social context of those brought together at the NCCC was broader than the intra-academic search for disciplinary legitimacy. For example, in the case of the emergence of Sociology, the struggle for authority was not carried out “as a self-contained and homogenous intellectual community but as occupants of a distinct position among many other positions in this struggle. In particular, they were part of a broader field of sociology that included practical workers in charities, public administration, applied research and reform.”25

19th century social science was an amalgam of forces pulling in different directions; but each direction attempted to legitimize its claims as the more scientific fulfillment of the historic philanthropic disposition of mankind. For Franklin Sanborn of the ASSA social science was “…neither a science nor an art, but a mingling of the two, or of fifty sciences and arts, which all find a place in it”.26 And those at universities struggled with the same “…unresolved ambiguity in the meaning of social science itself.”27 The first line of the first address at the first annual meeting of the American Sociological Society (today the ASA) was a disclaimer by Lester Ward in which he acknowledges that yet in 1906 the issue of whether sociology was an actual science was still unresolved, before proceeding to mount his defense that it should be thus considered.28 American’s discovery of and ideas on the relationship between social science and charity underwent monumental changes during the mid to late 19th century. But a simple story of the defeat of older, idealistic, and metaphysical understandings of social problems like poverty by a set of newer, positivistic, and scientific understandings due to a superiority of their science has many problems that will surface in the course of this dissertation.


So what was it in the imagination of so many mid to late 19th century American reformers that led them to think that science provided “new” and presumably better ways to conceive of and to obtain the ends of charity and philanthropy? What were the distinguishing marks between a science of charity and the emergent social sciences during this period? What was scientific charity to those who first named it? Attempts to answer these questions, leads one immediately back to the institutions where those claims were first publically voiced and theorized…the ASSA and the NCCC. Virtually all histories of social science, social work, and philanthropy give a passing nod to the inaugural role of those brought together by the ASSA and perhaps even more importantly the NCCC. So why is there still not a single book focused specifically on the history of either of these institutions? Virtually all historical accounts currently available in the field of philanthropic studies mention the importance of Scientific Charity/Philanthropy. So why is there still not a single book focused specifically on the history of this movement/idea to which so many late 19th century institutions claimed allegiance? I hope to have at least probed these questions by the conclusion of this dissertation and to have offered a tentative definition of scientific charity/philanthropy that rescues it from its simple association with any one particular movement, i.e. the Charity Organization Society.

… stay tuned for the next installment, April 1 2020

17 Mark Dowie, American Foundations : An Investigative History (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT, 2001), P. 1.

18 I survey the work that has been done on the topic in my literature review found in chapter two.

19 The Google Ngram Viewer is a phrase-usage graphing tool which charts the yearly count of selected n- grams (letter combinations), [n] words, or phrases, as found in over 5.2 million books digitized by Google Inc (published between 1500 and 2008). The words or phrases (or ngrams) are matched by case-sensitive spelling, comparing exact uppercase letters, and plotted on the graph if found in 40 or more books.

20 The Baconian theme of social transformation through science coupled with the unique American political opportunities seemed to indicate a never-ending upward climb towards the fulfillment of their divinely ordained place in history and the world. The Civil War had thrown this common sense belief into confusion, and the ASSA was a place where the restoration of America to its potential was discussed. For more on the background to Gilded Age ideas of progress see: James T. Kloppenberg, Uncertain Victory : Social Democracy and Progressivism in European and American Thought, 1870-1920 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986); David W. Noble, The Progressive Mind, 1890-1917, Rev. ed. (Minneapolis,  Minn.: Burgess Pub. Co., 1981); Ernst Troeltsch, Protestantism and Progress : The Significance of Protestantism for the Rise of the Modern World, 1st Fortress Press ed. (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986); Geoffrey Blodgett, “A New Look at the American Gilded Age,” Historical Reflections 1, no. 2 (1974); Stephen Pimpare, The New Victorians : Poverty, Politics, and Propaganda in Two Gilded Ages (New  York: New Press : Distributed by W.W. Norton, 2004); James B. Salazar and ebrary Inc., “Bodies of Reform the Rhetoric of Character in Gilded Age America,” in America and the long 19th century(New York: New York University Press, 2010).

21 Daniel Lowenfeld, “The International Origins and Popularization of Eugenics” (St. John’s University (New York), 2011).

22  Peter Novick, That Noble Dream  : The “Objectivity Question” and  the American  Historical Profession (Cambridge [Cambridgeshire] New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988), P. 48.

23 Lawrence Goldman, Science, Reform, and Politics in Victorian Britain : The Social Science Association, 1857-1886 (Cambridge, UK ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002); James Leiby, “Amos Warner’s American Charities 1894-1930,” The Social Service Review 37, no. 4 (1963). See also: A. Lawrence Goldman, “Exceptionalism and Internationalism: The Origins of American Social Science Reconsidered,” Journal of Historical Sociology 11, no. 1 (1998); Kuklick, “Restructuring the Past: Toward an Appreciation of the Social Context of Social Science.” Kuklick, “The Organization of Social Science in the United States – the Sociologists of the Chair: A Radical Analysis of the Formative Years of North

American Sociology (1883-1922) by Herman Schwendinger and Julia R. Schwendinger: The Legacy of Albion Small by Vernon L Dibble: Advocacy and Objectivity: A Crisis in the Professionalization of American Social Science, 1865-1905 by Mary O. Furner: The Emergence of Professional Social Science: The American Social Science Association and the Nineteenth Century Crisis of Authority by Thomas Haskell. .” Edward T. Silva and Sheila Slaughter, “Prometheus Bound-the Limits of Social Science Professionalization in the Progressive Period (Silva and Slaughter).Pdf,” Theory and Society 9, no. 6 (1980).

See also the first chapter in: Stephen P. Turner, American Sociology : From Pre-Disciplinary to Post- Normal, Sociology Transformed (2014).

24 Robert L. Church, as quoted in: Lawrence Goldman, Science, Reform, and Politics in Victorian Britain :

The Social Science Association, 1857-1886 (Cambridge, UK ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002), P. 333

25 Daniel Breslau, “The American Spencerians: Theorizing a New Science,” in Sociology in America : A

History, ed. Craig J. Calhoun(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), P. 43.

26 The use of “art” and “science”, not being linked to professional classes, still retained the classic distinctions of science as accumulated knowledge and art as applied skill. This distinction can be seen in the entry for Art in the Encyclopedia of Social Reform, entitled “Arts and Social Reform”, where “art” is “the producing of good work”. Encyclopedia of Social Reform (New York, London: Fundk & Wagnells Company, 1897), s.v. “Art and Social Reform.”

27 “…neither a science…”: “The Work of Social Science in the United States: A Report by F. B. Sanborn, General Secretary of the Association,” The New York Times, May 23, 1874 1874. “…unresolved ambiguity in…”: Recchiuti, P. 39.

28 Lester F. Ward, “The Establishment of Sociology,” in American Sociological Society, ed. ASS

(Providence, Rhode Island: The University of Chicago Press, 1906).