[This article appeared in VOX, the academic publication of the University Professors for Academic Order, Spring 1990.]

American Social Science: It is Time It Emerged from the Shadow of the German Historical School

Dwight D. Murphey


American intellect in the twentieth century fits amazingly well Dickens' description of late-eighteenth century France in the opening lines of A Tale of Two Cities: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times."

            "Modern art" has for many decades flooded the world with bizarre and meaningless work which, although touching' neither the intellectual nor spiritual sensibilities of its viewers, has been welcomed with open arms by sophisticates and truckling hangers-on alike -- which is to say, by the great majority of those whose voices have been heard on the subject. And yet, amidst the effluvia some very good work has managed to get done, so that when all the rest is forgotten, the twentieth century will have left a significant legacy from the likes of the Wyeths and even the Salvador Dalis.

I am struck by how much American social science resembles modern art in this regard. One cannot read the works of an Edward Banfield or an Ernest van den Haag without appreciating the excellent work that has been done. And yet one cannot work within an American university for long without sensing -- much less being hit squarely in the face by --  the flood of mediocrity that chokes the life out of the academic setting and that makes the true intellectual fly to his solitude to do his best work.

Much of this mediocrity can be laid directly at the door of the social sciences -- or, better yet, of the "social science establishment," which even permeates such a professional college as a school of business. Economics is one important, though only partial, exception.

A complete explanation of what is wrong with either modern art or twentieth century social science requires no less than a full exploration of the ills that have afflicted the modern age as a whole. It would explore, among other things, such factors as the collapse of consensus at the end of the Middle Ages; the onrush of empiricism, with the simultaneous disavowal of theistic and metaphysical perspectives; the alienation of the intelligentsia from the main commercial culture, with all of the ideological warpings that alienation has visited upon modern intellectual culture; and the rise of average humanity in a democratic assertiveness that Jose Ortega y Gasset spoke of as "the revolt of the masses," with the corresponding demise of leisured, educated elites.

That, of course, is a vast subject that we cannot undertake here. I refer to the need for a complete explanation, though, because I feel the insufficiency of any particularized explanation, including one that attributes twentieth century social science's ills primarily to its origins in the German Historical School. It is best to understand the specifics that I am about to cite as simply having been the outer manifestations of much larger developments.  

American social science's Byzantine complexity and shallowness

Before we examine the origins of American social science a century ago, however, we should pause to see just what is meant when critics speak of its "mediocrity" and choking-quality.

During my twenty-two years as a college professor, I have witnessed an irritating stream of faculty and graduate student work that I have thought to be trivial, devoid of meaningful content, naive, pseudo-scientific, pretentious, limited by pedantic credentialism, and ideologically biased. Accordingly, I thought seriously not too long ago of devoting five or ten years to extensive reading in the social sciences, so that I could write a book that would describe the problem and analyze its causes.

I didn't get far into the literature, however, before I discovered that Stanislav Andreski has already written such a book. It appeared in 1972 under the unfortunate title Social Sciences as Sorcery. (The name is unfortunate because

Andreski's book is by no means a polemic flawed by wild disdain; it is an extremely perceptive, honest and well-reasoned account of American academic life and of the contemporary social sciences. )

Here are some of the problems Andreski points to:

1. A "flood of publications" that pour onto the shelves from a vast number of specialties and that "reveal an abundance of pompous bluff and a paucity of new ideas." The massive literature includes, he says, a "torrent of meaningless verbiage and useless technicalities."l

2. Trivial content, reflecting a scattering of attention and a lack, on the part of most practitioners, of what I call "a serious intellectual project."

Andreski thus confirms the insight voiced by C. Wright Mills (an insight worth acknowledging despite good reasons not to admire Mills' work as a whole) when Mills spoke of "the pretentious triviality that passes for social science."2

3. Purely verbal innovations. "The fashionable sociological jargon consists almost entirely of distasteful and confusing verbal innovations which represent no new ideas whatsoever ...a tautological rephrasing which tells us nothing that we did not understand before."3

4. A corresponding decline in standards of literary expression. (This is exemplified by the jargon spoken by so many school teachers today -- a jargon that sets them off into a wholly separate and stilted world.)

5. A slavish pursuit of intellectual fashions.

6. A craving for novelty and for superficial innovation.

7. A frequent use of reductionism, such as in behaviorist psychology, whereby a partial truth is treated as though it is all that matters.

8. The use of quantification to the exclusion of everything else. "What I am arguing against is the soul-destroying taboo against touching anything that cannot be quantified, and a superstitious reverence for every scribbling that looks like mathematics.”4

That this fetish for the purely quantifiable is itself a mind-restricting form of reductionism is illustrated delightfully by Antoine de Saint Exupery in his perceptive children's story The Little Prince: "Grown-ups love figures. When you tell them that you have made a new friend, they never ask you any questions about essential matters. They never say to you, ‘What does his voice sound like? What games does he love best? Does he collect butterflies?' Instead, they demand: How old is he? How many brothers has he? How much does he weigh? How much money does his father make?' Only from these figures do they think they have learned anything about him."5

9. The tedious accumulation of surveys. Andreski says that "if we look at the types of data utilized by the protagonists of quantitative methods outside economics, we can easily see that the overwhelming majority consist of cumulations of responses to questionnaires -- about the most superficial kind of information one can think of."6

10. The use of simulation models that cannot capture the complex reality of real life and that are "used for the sole purpose of blinding the public with science."7

I have spent my academic life within a college of business. For many years, I have inquired incredulously whether "the business world really uses the mathematical modeling and other esoteric methodology that the faculty and administration consider the only legitimate subject of professorial effort?" I have repeatedly been assured that it does, but now I notice the following observation, inserted without the elaboration it so richly deserves, in the recent Porter-McKibbin study Management Education and Development:

“Interview data indicated that most corporate respondents pay relatively little attention to research being produced by business schools . . . In effect, they typically claim that they can safely ignore most business school research with impunity.”8 

11. A slavish adherence to credentialism, or what Andreski calls a "class of salaried diploma holders," with all of the restraint-on-intellectual-trade and artificial boundary-drawing that such credentialism suggests.9

12. Conformity. This marks a close adherence to the attitudes of the academic peer-group, although it doesn't preclude somebody's putting on a show of assertive contentiousness if in fact the ideas he puts forward are safely in agreement with what his peers also believe.

13. The meaninglessness of many doctoral degrees, which often no longer attest to significant new  inquiry. 

14. The existence of large numbers of academic drones.  Although these people are schooled in technique, they bring little that is really thoughtful to the process. No wonder Saul Bellow can refer to "the disheartening expansion of trained ignorance and bad thought."10

15. The presence, at the same time, of the hard-driving academic go-getter. Andreski refers to "the smooth other-directed, fund-raising and empire-building academic executive, who chooses his opinions, stances and morals as he does his friends: that is, in accordance with their usefulness to his career."ll

To this list, I would add the problem of frequent ideological bias. The academic community as a whole is so steeped in the worldview of the Left that the concepts and values of the Left often appear unquestioned in the literature of modern social science. This is true even though many purport to subscribe to Max Weber's prescription for a value-free, scientific study of society, which Weber called a "Wertfreiheit."

Andreski attributes modern social science's many shortcomings to the simple workings of human nature. With Thucydides-like perception, he observes that a Byzantine system such as this can arise from its practitioners' desire to serve their own individual and collective interests; from the fact that people on the whole really don't like to think all that much; and from the corresponding fact that most people have no innate desire to seek the truth and are, therefore, more attracted than repelled by the absurd and the obscure.

 There is undoubtedly much truth to that sort of explanation. There are, however, also the cultural-intellectual factors that I referred to earlier. And it is worth asking, too, about the particular process by which American universities got themselves into such a fix. After all, the same "human nature" is present in other aspects of life but does not invariably institutionalize mediocrity.  

Origins in the German Historical School

In the second half of the nineteenth century, the American intelligentsia, for the most part deeply alienated from America's commercial culture, sought out and attained an ideological, academic consensus by migrating en masse to German universities. Jurgen Herbst tells us in The German Historical School in American Scholarship that "between the years 1820 and 1920 nearly nine thousand American students set sail for Europe to enter the lecture halls, seminars, and laboratories of German universities." He adds that "soon after 1870 American students of the liberal arts and the social sciences began going to Germany in large numbers."12

This had a telling impact on American university life. "With the opening of The John Hopkins University in 1876, the massive influence of the German historical school on American social science began," Herbst tells us.13

Although other influences inside late nineteenth-century Germany included Marxism and Bismarck's program of social legislation, it was the historical school, then so strong within the universities, that had by far the greatest influence.

The German Historical School began its ascendancy a generation before, with Roscher, Knies, Hildebrand and Engel (a statistician, not the Engels who was Marx's patron). It was the second generation, headed by Schmoller, Bucher, Knapp, Brentano, Conrad, Lexis and Wagner, that presided over the period that most influenced Americans. A third generation, according to Anthony Oberschall, "contained the founding fathers of German sociology, Weber, Tonnies, Simmel, Sombart, and Troeltsch."14

If we examine the characteristics of the Historical School, we come face-to-face with the main contours of what later became twentieth century American social science:

1. Ideologically, the members of the Historical School were deeply alienated against bourgeois culture. "...[T]he second generation," Oberschall tells us, "was especially fond of preaching and propagandizing from the university

classroom, which earned them the mocking designation of ‘socialists of the chair.’” Accordingly, they strongly opposed the influence of Herbert Spencer, and they sought to undermine classical economics with a relativistic attack that

argued, in effect, that a theory of a market economy only describes conditions in a single, unique period of history. The argument between Gustav Schmoller of the Historical School and Carl Menger of the Austrian School of  Economics is a famous one, and was a major part of what is known as "the Methodenstreit" ( a long-running debate over methodology).

I do not wish to oversimplify regarding the ideological complexion of the Historical School, and of American social science as influenced by it. Generally, the more rabid socialists threw themselves into the more militant socialist movements, such as the German Social Democratic Party in which the followers of Lassalle and Marx were contending for dominance. The far Left has continued to criticize empirical social science even though from another perspective we see that much of that social science has shared the Left's worldview. During the New Left period, for example, C. Wright Mills excoriated American social science for not making a radical critique of the precise "liberal establishment" that it had helped to create.

2. A close relationship developed between the professors of the Historical School and Bismarck's administration as he initiated Europe's first welfare state. In his Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy, Joseph Schumpeter reported that "ideas and proposals normally came to the bureaucracy from its teachers at the universities."16 The relationship of the "expert" to the welfare state has, of course, continued in the twentieth century as part both of American academic life and of government.

3. Most significantly for our present analysis, the methodology and tone was set that has characterized American social science throughout the following century:

  • Herbst tells of an indiscriminate piling up of data. He says that "the emphasis was on the discovery and classification of new materials . . . Little attention was paid to style or to principles of selection and discrimination. Facts qua facts were held to be of equal significance."17

  • Oberschall tells about how data that disagreed with the Historical School's biases were brushed aside, such as when Richard Ehrenberg's findings about the upward mobility of factory workers were ignored.18

  • At the same time, other empirical data were embraced uncritically. Oberschall mentions "the lack of critical appraisal about what had actually been established" by a certain survey. He says that "only the statistician Bortkiewitz mentioned the danger of making inferences from a small and unrepresentative number of cases."19 The same criticism can be made of tens of thousands of studies today.

  • Surveys became a prime tool. "Whereas the social survey was a consciously borrowed import from France," Oberschall says, "there existed in Germany a much older academic tradition of statistics.'"20

  • So also did the seminar. Leopold von Ranke started the seminar system in 1833.21 Speaking in the context of the effect on American universities, Herbst says that "the seminar as a method and an institution was an integral part of the new graduate education." "It was due," he says, "to men who...had been converted to the German ideals by their teachers and colleagues."22

  • Publication became the ultima ratio of academic standing. Herbst speaks of "the cult of the monograph and the research journal."23

  • Credentialism became a fetish and a key to academic acceptance. It is again Herbst who tells us that "German- trained scholars...established the Ph.D. degree as a certificate for teachers in all first-class colleges and universities."24 This institutionalized preference only for what fits the mold of a highly structured system is the route by which the independent scholar and the freely roving mind have, to a very large degree, been denied a place in twentieth century American universities.

The German influence was so compelling that American academic life molded itself rapidly in the image of the Historical School in the final quarter of the nineteenth century. The German-trained academics felt a strong desire to become organized and to supplant existing structures. Accordingly, they established the American Historical Association in 1884; the next year, Richard T. Ely formed the American Economic Association; and the American Sociological Society emerged in 1905. The modern academic specialties came into existence, shattering "political economy" into several pieces. (The continuing call for "interdisciplinary teaching" reflects some dissatisfaction with this fragmentation.)  


The current system, institutionalized, is self-perpetuating, and is not likely to change itself except through a slow evolution. Certainly there is little chance that reforms will be made from within unless a substantial number of academics become conscious precisely of the fact that the existing system is a damaging, self-limiting new Scholasticism. They need to become aware, in a much more explicit and self-conscious way than they now are, of the system's inanities and mediocrity. Thus, much of the solution will have to come from a heightened criticism.

We live at a time that is almost unprecedented in its openness to new intellectual initiatives. We will never come to "an end of ideology," in my opinion, since it is only through large systems of social philosophy that mankind is able to mediate the complexities of social reality. But over the past half-century we have seen a gradual and now-accelerating collapse of the Left. Since none of the forms of the Right commands general acceptance, the result is presently a void. This is a highly dangerous situation, but also one that offers great positive potential if it is used to good advantage.

John Stuart Mill, picking up an idea from Coleridge, argued more than a century ago that a free society needs an "intellectual clerisy," an intellectual culture appropriate to itself. I see this as an essential factor in the maintenance and enrichment of an open and free society. It is a factor that a society based on individual freedom, which is necessarily a "bourgeois" society, has almost never enjoyed. A free society desperately needs, however, as one of its permanent components, an intellectual culture that is, at one and the same time, committed to the basic values of the society (rather than deeply alienated against them) and idealistically reformist in its hostility to all abuses and in its desire for moral and aesthetic uplift.

If such an intellectual culture can emerge out of the current void (and there is no certainty that it will), one of its foremost tasks will be to critique and to reform contemporary social science and the academic environment built around it. Once there is the perception and the will, the reforms will not themselves be difficult to make.



1. Stanislav Andreski, Social Sciences as Sorcery (London: Andre Deutsch Limited, 1972), p. 11.

2. Excerpt from C. Wright Mills' “On Politics” published in Planned Social Intervention (London: Chandler Publishing Company, 1970), p. 11. 

3. Andreski, pp. 67, 68.  

4. Andreski, p. 136.  

5. Antoine de Saint Exupery, The Little Prince (San Diego: Harvest/HBJ Books, 1943), trans. by Katherine Woods, pp. 16-17. 

6. Andreski, p. 125. 

7. Andreski, p. 119.  

8. Lyman W. Porter and Lawrence E. McKibbin, Management Education and Development (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1988), p. 304.  

9. Andreski, p. 30.  

10. Foreword by Saul Bellow to Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987), p. 17. 

11. Andreski, p. 225.  

12. Jurgen Herbst, The German Historical School in American Scholarship (Cornell University Press, 1965), pp. 1, 8. 

13. Herbst, p. 203.  

14. Anthony Oberschall, Empirical Social Research in Germany, 1848-1914 (Paris: Mouton & Co., 1965), pp. 11, 12. 

15. Oberschall, p. 13. 

16. Joseph A. Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy (New York: Harper and Brothers Publishers, 2nd ed., 1947), p. 341. 

17. Herbst, p. 38.  

18. Oberschall, p. 86. 

19. Oberschall, p. 130. 

20. Oberschall, p. 4.  

21. Harry Elmer Barnes, ed., The History and Prospects of the Social Sciences (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1925), p. 28. 

22. Herbst, p. 36.  

23. Herbst, p. 100. 

24.  Herbst, p. 100.