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The Social Sciences, Philosophy, and the Cultural Turn in the 1930s USDA


Correspondence concerning this article should be sent to Andrew Jewett, History Department, Harvard University, Robinson Hall, 35 Quincy St., Cambridge, MA 02138, USA;


One of the more unusual attempts by the American state to mobilize academic expertise unfolded in the late 1930s, when the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) hired scholars in the “culture and personality” fields and philosophy to aid its efforts to promote economic, social, and cultural change in the countryside. USDA progressives also reached out to disciplinary scholars in other ways as they sought to institute a deliberative mode of planning in local communities and to remake the curricula of the land-grant colleges in support of that project. These USDA initiatives and scholars’ responses reveal that scientific knowledge was mobilized in the 1930s not just for the instrumental purpose of regulating economic behavior but also to explain and legitimate federal programs and to inform ambitious projects for cultural change. At the USDA, as at many other sites between the wars, scientific thinkers turned to the social sciences and philosophy in order to understand and then change the public mind.

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