Time Capsule

In 1967, Thomas Pettigrew, PhD, and Kenneth Clark, PhD, invited the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to speak as part of APA Div. 9 (Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues, SPSSI) programming at APA’s Annual Convention.

“APA gave us a small room in the Washington Hilton,” Pettigrew recalled. “They gave us this little room, and we objected. They said, ‘Well, hardly anybody’s going to come.’ And we said, ‘We think you’re wrong about that.’”

Pettigrew’s concerns were justified; 5,000 showed up for King’s talk and a second, huge room had to be set up with a large screen for televised viewing.

In his electrifying speech, King called on behavioral scientists to study mechanisms for decreasing divisiveness and building unity in the black community, and to inform white America of the “realities of Negro life.” As King said: “White America needs to understand that it is poisoned to its soul by racism.”

King’s speech was just one of hundreds of events that the division has coordinated over the past 75 years with the goal of using psychology to further social justice.

SPSSI was born on Sept. 1, 1936, at New Hampshire’s Dartmouth College. It was conceived and delivered by a dynamic group of concerned social scientists who felt that organized psychology was not acting on the pressing social and economic problems of the 1930s. As one founder, Walter Lurie, put it, “we believed the study of psychology must have some relevance to economic and political problems, if it had any human worth at all.”

In its first year, SPSSI welcomed 17 percent of APA’s members into its ranks.

This group shared an intense desire to engage in socially relevant science to ensure that psychology did not remain aloof from the major problems of the day. But 75 years ago (as now), it was not clear what role political values would play in such an endeavor. Although most of the founding members were declared socialists, they disagreed on how openly political the organization should be. As Steuart Britt, an early member, put it, “My one hope is that personal views be completely divorced from our work and that social problems be studied on a purely objective basis…. To me it seems that a social psychologist should be allied with no political party or any other creed.”

In an attempt to attract as many members as possible, early SPSSI leaders did downplay their politics in official publications, but they also viewed the formation of the organization and its potential to impact American psychology — and society — as a political action in and of itself.

Disseminating research

Over the course of its history, SPSSI has been a major force, not only in supporting research on social issues, but in disseminating this research to maximize its social relevance and policy impact. One of its early and most publicized efforts was a statement on Psychology and Atomic Energy issued in 1946 at the request of the Federation of American Scientists. In its statement, which was covered by The New York Times and circulated to more than 300 newspapers and press associations, the SPSSI Council on International Peace issued a six-point plan for the nation. The plan’s intent was to prevent war and promote “a free and vigorous program of research and engineering” to turn atomic energy “to the service of human welfare.” It was read on the floor of Congress by a representative from New York and entered into the Congressional Record.

Racial prejudice and race relations have been another long-standing focus of SPSSI’s activities. Best known is the work SPSSI members did to prepare the Social Science Statement used in the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case, which led to the desegregation of American schools. In the 1960s, SPSSI set up a travel fund for behavioral scientists to attend and research civil rights events and other community actions. The society also sponsored the Boston Conference on Observation, Research and Civil Rights Demonstrations, which among other functions trained social scientists to serve as expert witnesses in civil rights cases.

SPSSI has also issued numerous public statements on a variety of race-related topics. In 1969, for example, in response to Arthur Jensen’s publication “How Much Can We Boost IQ and Scholastic Achievement?” in the Harvard Educational Review, SPSSI issued a “Statement on the IQ Controversy: Heredity vs. Environment,” which emphasized that social science research did not support a strictly hereditarian view of racial differences in intelligence and called for more, not fewer, resources for compensatory education programs. Endorsed unanimously by the SPSSI Council, the statement was written by at least three psychologists who would subsequently become presidents of the APA: George Albee, PhD, Kenneth Clark, PhD, and Philip G. Zimbardo, PhD.

SPSSI today

More recently, SPSSI members have been centrally involved in bringing social science research to the Supreme Court. In 1989, Susan Fiske, PhD, presented psychological research on gender-based stereotyping in the case of Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, the first time such research had been used in a Supreme Court case. In 2003, Patricia Gurin, PhD, and her colleagues at the University of Michigan used research on the beneficial effects of intergroup diversity to defend affirmative action in law school admissions in Grutter v. Bollinger. One of their central arguments, reiterated 50 years after Brown v. Board, was that diversity benefitted both minority and majority students.

Nine years ago, SPSSI moved its central office from Ann Arbor, Mich., to Washington D.C., to become better positioned to influence policy at the national level. Often in coalition with other groups including APA, SPSSI organizes congressional briefings, compiles fact sheets and crafts position statements on a wide range of social issues. It has policy statements on a wide variety of issues, including the use of torture and interrogation, climate change, and the psychological effects of unemployment.

While SPSSI’s history reveals the enormous complexity and inevitable challenges of combining scientific research with social change, it also reveals the crucial necessity of this mission. Seventy-five years in, SPSSI continues to hook its members with its social action agenda. As one new member, City University of New York doctoral student Rachel Liebert, recently put it, “I was drawn to the organization because its central ethos blurs the boundary between the ivory tower and the community.” When asked why that ethos was so important to her, her answer was clear: “Because I want to change things.”

Alexandra Rutherford, PhD, is an associate professor of psychology at York University in Toronto and is SPSSI’s historian. Katharine Milar, PhD, is historical editor of “Time Capsule.”

Further reading

  • Finison, L.J. (1979). An aspect of the early history of the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues: Psychologists and labor. Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, 15, 29–37.
  • Harris, B., Unger, R.K. & Stagner, R. (1986). 50 years of psychology and social issues [Special issue]. Journal of Social Issues, 42(1).
  • Krech, D. & Cartwright, D. (1956). On SPSSI’s first twenty years. American Psychologist, 11, 470–473.
  • Mednick, M.T.S. (1984). SPSSI, advocacy for social change, and the future: A historical look. Journal of Social Issues, 40, 159–177.
  • Rutherford, A., Cherry, F.C., & Unger, R.K. (2011). 75 years of social science for social action: Historical and contemporary perspectives on SPSSI’s scholar-activist legacy [Special issue]. Journal of Social Issues, 67(1).