There Are No New Ideas Part 1: Scholarship and Social Agitation

In this blog series I visit some old (and I mean old) literature to illustrate how ideas of knowledge mobilization and research impact have very deep roots. Part 1 looks at a paper from 1896 (yes, 120 years ago) making the case that social science scholars have an obligation to create impacts beyond the academy. This is summarized in the last sentence, “May American scholarship never so narrow itself to the interests of scholars that it shall forfeit its primacy among the interests of men!”

Picture of the articleSmall, A. W. (1896). Scholarship and social agitation. American Journal of Sociology, 1(5), 564-582.

This article was written by the founding chair of the Department of Sociology at the University of Chicago and appeared in the first volume of the American Journal of Sociology. It’s certainly not written in clear language and refers only to “men”,

I cannot wonder that hard-headed men of affairs have nothing but contempt for those garrulous peddlers of reform programmes who can find no fallacies in the postulates upon which industrial and political administration is based, but declare implacable feud with the consequences of the postulates (Page 571)

There are many pages devoted to the author’s illustration of his thesis using distinctions between ownership and proprietorship of property…but that’s not the point of this post. 120 years ago he was advocating many of the knowledge mobilization messages we advocate today. Early on in the article he links scholarship to impact (which I love he calls “something better than science”) which he describes as the endeavour to realize the vision derived from social science scholarship and link “thought with action”,

let us go about our business with the understanding that within the scope of scholarship there is first science, and second something better than science. That something better is first prevision by means of science, and second intelligent direction of endeavor to realize the vision.

I would have American scholars, especially in the social sciences, declare their independence of do-nothing traditions. I would have them repeal the law of custom which bars marriage of thought with action. I would have them become more profoundly and sympathetically scholarly by enriching the wisdom which comes from knowing with the larger wisdom which comes from doing.

He claims that scholarship must not just be a recorder of history but must also have an activist (the social agitation of the title of the article) aim looking to the future,

Scholarship must either abandon claims to the function of leadership, and accept the purely clerical r6le of recording and classifying the facts of the past, or scholarship must accept the responsibility of prevision and prophecy and progress.

The author closes the loop between scholarship and the public as end beneficiaries and also points to the responsibilities of institutions to support these endeavours “in larger and larger proportions”,

These conditions are the setting of the urgent problems that confront today’s men. Scholars are shirkers unless they grapple with these problems. It is for this that society supports us. We are presumed to be exponents of the higher excellencies of thought and action. We are expected to hold up ideals of the best, to guide the endeavors of the masses of men. It is squandering money to put more endowments into the keeping of educational institutions that are not devoting their energies in larger and larger proportion to search for solution of these moral problems.

The author also makes these efforts a moral obligation (“betrayal of his social trust”) and links social scholarship to community benefit,

I content myself with saying that scholars might exalt both their scholarship and their citizenship by claiming an active share in the work of perfecting and applying plans and devices for social improvement and amelioration. It is not only betrayal of his social trust, it is surrender of the best elements of his professional opportunity, for the sociological scholar to withdraw from affairs…If men will be the most productive scholars in any department of the social sciences, let them gain time and material by cooperating in the social work of their community.

The article ends with an appeal to social scholars to break out of the traditional patterns of scholarship,

It is timely to proclaim a different ideal for American scholars from that which has dominated the learned world for the last fifty years. May American scholarship never so narrow itself to the interests of scholars that it shall forfeit its primacy among the interests of men!

He says it is time to change from the patterns of the last 50 years. And that was 120 years ago! Is that really the pace of change in academics and academic institutions that are only now starting to turn attention to supporting these “energies in larger and larger proportion”? For more on this see “Changing a 600 year old business”.

120 years and academic researchers are now, finally, starting to listen (thank you @JulieEBayley)?

Read the rest of this blog series:

There Are No New Ideas Part 2: Politics and the English Language

There Are No New Ideas Part 3: The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge


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