The contradictions of public service: a study of Howard Odum's intellectual odyssey

Milligan, Michael James, Department of History, University of Virginia
Gaston, Paul, Department of History, University of Virginia
Ayers, Edward L., Department of History, University of Virginia
Perdue, Charles L., University of Virginia

In the generation between the first and second world wars, the American South became a kind of laboratory for social reform, its manifold deficiencies examined by native critics as never before. At the center of this new activity was Howard Odum, widely regarded by contemporaries and historians as "the father of the systematic scientific study of Southern society" and as the quintessential Southern liberal reformer. Now part of the received wisdom, this view rests on the unexamined assumption that Odum's command over "modern" social science ensured a progressive direction to his reformist agenda for the South. It is this assumed harmony between research and action, between Odum's role as scholar and his role as regional advocate, that my study examines. It seeks to illuminate the precise connection between social research and reform in Odum's intellectual life and, in so doing, it addresses broader questions about the limitations of post-World War I American sociological thought.

Like the sociological profession as a whole, Odum was torn between adhering to research that was scientifically rigorous in method and one that was socially ameliorative. My conclusion is that, in practice, his sociology fulfilled neither objective: the loose, impressionistic nature of his early folk-race studies failed to convince the nation's "objectivist" leadership that regional research was academically credible, while his commitment to social scientific activism was compromised by a preoccupation with conditions of social stability and cultural integrity and a growing disaffection with the goals of material progress and societal modernization.

Based on a close analysis of Odum's writings and personal correspondence, my study uncovers a tension between scholarship and reform, between the academic man and the public figure, that must be thoroughly explored before we can understand either Odum's historical significance or the underlying limitations and ambiguities of southern reform before the Civil Rights Era. The key to the process lies in taking Odum's scholarship more seriously than previous historians have done, and in examining the tortuous paths he followed as both national scholar and regional reformer.

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PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
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