Academic Social Science and the Group

William H. Young

At its outset in the late-nineteenth century, American academic social science began a left turn away from our founding principles to theories from Europe—away from the individual to the identity group as the primary element of American society. Those theories included the economic determinism of Karl Marx, for whom social class was paramount, and the autonomy of group culture over the individual in the sociology of Emile Durkheim. The “superorganic” or group mind, instead of the individual mind, became a basic tenet of academic social science.[1] Communal sharing by group replaced individual responsibility and reciprocity.

In the late-twentieth century, academic social science turned further left—to embracing the European theory of cultural Marxism—which seeks to transfer power from privileged to disadvantaged or oppressed identity groups, based, interestingly, on racial or ethnic categories rather than economic status. The traditional family was supplanted by new collective group forms. “Diversity” by group became the academic ideal, replacing the unity of individuals as Americans.

In currently prevalent academic theories of governance, identity-group power, exercised through democratic will and bureaucratic fiat, supersedes majority rule, unleashing the very factions (groups) that the Founders sought to control. The divisiveness and polarizing tendencies unfortunately bear witness to James Madison’s admonitions in Federalist No. 10 and corrode the body politic.

Beginning in the late 1960s, public education began to incorporate “social justice” for designated identity groups into the curriculum, while simultaneously adopting dubious new teaching approaches such as “constructivism” and “critical pedagogy.” Equality by group entitlement replaced excellence of the individual as the purpose of education, leading to mediocre outcomes. In higher education, racial and ethnic preferences in admissions and hiring policies similarly treat individuals as members of identity groups, rather than according to their singular merits or achievements.

This shift of the manner in which academic social science views foundations of society has had profound and pernicious effects on American culture, politics, governance, and public and higher education.

Western Civilization and Our Founding

In every age prior to the American Founding—in Greece, Rome, the High Middle Ages, the Renaissance and Reformation, and the Enlightenment—Western civilization continually advanced beyond the cultures, practices, provincialism, and ethos of groups, tribes, or clans. Every advance sought individual freedom from subservience to the group and arbitrary, despotic authority. The rule of law replaced rule by the political power of hereditary groups, families, chiefs, or strong men. The dignity and autonomy of the individual became the touchstone of Western and American concepts of liberal democracy. Individual responsibility has been the foundation of human achievement throughout history.

At our founding, James Madison distinguished between the individual acting alone and acting in a group or faction. He recognized that groups magnify and encourage the worst aspects of individual behavior, to become the passionate factions that must be contained by government. He believed that

when joining in the actions of a faction, the individual undergoes a profound alteration where the more antisocial tendencies come to the surface and find group support for unreasonable behavior.[2]

Thus, Madison opened The Federalist, Number 10 with his famous proclamation that the most important purpose of the design of our new republic was the control of factions:

Among the numerous advantages promised by a well-constructed Union, none deserves to be more accurately developed than its tendency to break and control the violence of faction…. By a faction, I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.[3]

The limited government that Madison and the other Founders conceived deliberately avoided rewards from the state, the sphere of political power and group action.

Our founding order was rooted in the Western idea that the individual has a mix of innate but unequal traits and potentialities to be actualized through nurture from childhood by self, family, education, religion, and culture. Through their inherent nature and such nurture, individuals largely determine their own fate. Throughout the nineteenth century, America retained and built upon that concept.


But in the late nineteenth century, academic social science began to reflect the statist philosophy of Germany’s G. F. W. Hegel—government should act to produce economic and social equality by group—as the basis for the new political science of progressivism, as I expounded previously in Academic Social Science and Governance. From Marxism via Charles Beard, academic social science and progressivism turned to economic determinism by class and group rather than the individual.[4] Karl Marx argued that

The essence of man is not an abstraction inherent in each particular individual. The real nature of man is the totality of social relations….Individuals are dealt with only in so far as they are the personifications of economic categories, embodiments of particular class-relations and class interests.[5]

Marx insisted that human nature is not innate, but instead reflects the constantly shifting interactions of groups of people within their material environments.[6]

Progressivism and academic social science include the belief that history moves forward not on the basis of individual action, but instead through organic bodies with concerted purposes and power—groups or races—a form of medieval corporatism. Progressive ideology replaced individual responsibility with the collective responsibility of groups. “The individual,” wrote sociologist Lawrence Frank in a memorable 1937 essay,” Society as the Patient, “instead of seeking his own personal salvation and security, must recognize his almost complete dependence upon the group.”[7]

In A Theory of Justice (1971), Harvard philosopher John Rawls presented “a standard whereby the distributive aspects of the basic structure of society are to be assessed”:

Since the principle for an individual is to advance as far as possible his own welfare…the principle for society is to advance as far as possible the welfare of the group….Social justice is the principle of rational prudence applied to an aggregative conception of the welfare of the group.[8]

Rawls’s egalitarian conception provided a philosophical groundwork for the progressive welfare state.


The Frenchman Emile Durkheim began the academic discipline of sociology in the 1880s that spread to America. Durkheim heralded the autonomy of group culture over individual minds:

The group thinks, feels, and acts quite differently from the way in which members would were they isolated….If we begin with the individual in seeking to explain phenomena, we shall be able to understand nothing of what takes place in the group….Individual natures are merely the indeterminate material that the social factor molds and transforms.[9]

Durkheim suggested that when people make political decisions, they operate not as rational individuals, but as defenders of the groups that gave them their sense of identity.[10] He could have learned that by reading Madison.

In America, the turn of academic social science to the social or cultural identity group began ostensibly to overcome social Darwinism—rule by rapacious individuals over socially oppressed groups. Theories of mind began to be refashioned to make classism, racism, and sexism as untenable as possible, which Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker delineates in The Blank Slate (2002). The group mind became the basis for academic social science.[11]

Sociologist Talcott Parsons built upon Durkheim’s ideas in The Structure of Social Action (1937), a general theoretical system for the analysis of society that came to be called structural functionalism. It saw individual behavior as shaped by groups and other social forces. It was a version of corporatism—the organization of society by major interest or corporate groups.[12]

Academic social science has challenged all social values and institutions, including the family. Family sociology holds that progress consists in dropping familial bonds and perpetually devising new types of families. Social groups are to be contractual, man-made, and incidental in nature.[13]

A View from Literature

John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath (1939) portrayed the predicament of migrant workers and the continuing oppression and injustice of American institutions. But Steinbeck did not treat such workers as an oppressed group. He expressed faith in the common man and the need for self-reliance. His universal theme was that all men are part of a greater whole that transcends momentary reality.[14] He expressed his explicit opposition to the turn toward the group in East of Eden (1952):

Our species…has only one creative instrument, the individual mind and spirit of man….And now the forces marshaled around the concept of the group have declared a war of extermination on that preciousness, the mind of man...And this I must fight against: any idea, religion, or government which limits or destroys the individual.[15]

Unfortunately, academic social science rather than Steinbeck has prevailed.

Multiculturalism and Diversity

In the 1970s, cultural pluralism or multiculturalism began to supplant the meritocratic and assimilationist ideals of progressivism. Academic social science came to see America not as a community of individuals sharing a common nationality, culture, and history but a conglomerate of separate and disparate races, ethnicities, and sub-national cultures in which individuals are defined by their ascriptive group membership. A spurious “diversity” and group identity—characterized by ancestry, gender, or sexual orientation— dethroned unity and American identity to become the academy’s doctrine of political correctness, applied through social science.[16]

Multiculturalism presents “the historical account of America as a system of oppression,” which is “rooted in the work of Marxist historians and social scientists,” notes Peter Wood in Diversity (2003).

In just a few years, diversity has become America’s most visible cultural ideal….a cliché that promotes group stereotypes and undermines any real diversity of ideas and individuals….[and] validates only a narrow hierarchy of difference, asserting the principle that people are, above all else, members of social groups and products of the historical experiences of those groups….Diversity as it is practiced today is anti-individualist and at odds with America’s older ideals of liberty and equality.[17]

Academic social science was also imbued with cultural Marxism, introduced by Herbert Marcuse and the intellectual disciples of Antonio Gramsci in the 1960s and 1970s. Cultural Marxism seeks cultural and sexual liberation of identity groups from a repressive social (patriarchal family) order and an oppressive capitalist (bourgeois) order. Privileged white males were conjoined with capitalists as the oppressors, and minorities and women with workers as oppressed groups of victims.[18] Critical legal studies turned the rule of law toward identity-group rights to social justice.[19]

Mass Movements and Factions

In The New Realities (1989), the late management consultant Peter Drucker recounted the story of an unknown Viennese writer named Elias Canetti who in the early 1930s:

sharply criticized Freud for concentrating on the emotional disorders of the individual. The central psychological problem of the twentieth century, Canetti argued, was not the individual. It was the new degenerative disease of the body politic: the mass movement.

“The mass movement,” Drucker observed, had “become the dominant political phenomenon of the century.”[20]

Drucker argued that both society and polity have become pluralist again, a reversal of trends that prevailed since the High Middle Ages. Government is no longer the integrating force.

The new pluralism of the polity…focuses on power. It is a pluralism of single-cause, single-interest groups—the “mass movements” of small but highly disciplined minorities. Each of them tries to obtain through power what it could not obtain through numbers or through persuasion. Each is exclusively political.

The single-cause group derives its power from being a minority….Its strength lies in its single purpose rather than in numbers. Its task is almost never to get something done. It is to stop, to prevent, to immobilize….This is the new “mass movement” that increasingly dominates political process…..It…increasingly paralyzes and tyrannizes political life….[21]

The late Chicago political philosopher Allan Bloom pointed out in The Closing of the American Mind (1987) that:

Much of the intellectual machinery of twentieth-century American political thought and social science… treated the founding principles as impediments and tried to overcome the other strand of our political heritage, majoritarianism, in favor of a nation of minorities and groups each following its own beliefs and inclinations.[22]

In The Rise and Decline of Nations (1982), the late economist Mancur Olson showed that groups or factions seek to redistribute rather than create wealth and, over time, impose social and economic rigidities and costs which cause nations to lose vitality and reduce their rate of economic growth. Olson further warned that factions drive political life away from considerations of widespread common interests and spur a divisiveness that can even make societies ungovernable.[23] America is coming to reflect Olson’s prophecy.


Arguably, the turn by academic social science to the group over the individual has been most harmful in public education. Progressive education (see my previous article, Academic Social Science: Rousseau Redux) adopted the doctrine that children learn best “naturally.” This misguided belief is embodied in the pedagogy of “constructivism,” in which children construct their own knowledge in peer groups rather than learning it from the teacher, explains education historian Diane Ravitch in Left Back (2000).[24] The philosophy and aims of “constructivism” are cooperative learning and reward by group, leading to equality of outcomes through leveling of achievement.[25]

In The Death and Resurrection of a Coherent Literature Curriculum (2012), education professor emerita Sandra Stotsky explicates how and why “constructivism” became the pedagogical reason why high school graduates cannot read a text for information and apply it.

A reader response approach is the pedagogical counterpart of this learning theory for literary study—how to teach students to read a literary text. The teaching strategies…include peer-led small group work and student-selected reading and/or writing….In its radical form, strategies related to this approach encourage students to interpret what they read through the lens of personal or peer experience, even if their experience shapes an interpretation that may have little to do with what the author wrote. Any interpretation of a text can be considered valid….[26]

Current approaches to mathematics education also reflect the same pedagogy of “constructivism.”[27] As Ravitch describes them, such practices:

Put a premium on student-led activities, mathematical games, working with manipulatives (e.g., blocks and sticks)… and group learning, and discounted the importance of correct answers.[28]

Illustrating the turn to focusing education on the oppressed group, Stotsky reveals why the failed “whole language” pedagogy replaced phonics for reading:

Phonics instruction was one of the first areas of pedagogy to be politicized, and by the author of Reading: A Psycholinguistic Guessing Game (1967), Kenneth Goodman…[who] claimed that phonics instruction imposed standard forms of speech on dialect-speaking children …and led to the failure of those children to connect what they decoded with their native language and a lack of motivation to learn to read.

Goodman’s colleagues in education schools across the country took up this argument with eagerness and further support from Paulo Freire’s influential Pedagogy for the Oppressed, first published in 1970….A Brazilian educator and a Marxist, Freire, too, ridiculed phonics instruction as an oppressive strategy…advocating instead a whole language approach….[29]

Stotsky demonstrates that “critical pedagogy” is a teaching approach that attempts to help students question and challenge domination of oppressed groups:

It is a theory and practice of helping students achieve “critical consciousness”—a state of understanding about the world that helps liberate them from oppression.

The basic concepts of critical pedagogy were popularized by…Freire [who] denigrated traditional curriculum content as oppressive….To implement Freire’s ideas, teachers eagerly sought to develop their students’ political attitudes—group solidarity in students belonging to “non-dominant” social groups and hostility or resentment towards their “oppressors”…[30]

The oppressed-group ideology has been a major factor in the failures of public education that began in the 1960s.

In The Disuniting of America (1998), the late historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. illustrated the extent of dominance of the group over the individual in the academy:

When a student sent a memorandum to the “diversity education committee” at the University of Pennsylvania mentioning her “deep regard for the individual,” a college administrator returned the paper with the word individual underlined: “This is a red flag phrase today, which is considered by many to be racist.” Arguments that champion the individual over the group ultimately privilege the “individuals” belonging to the largest dominant group.[31]

In higher education, preferences for members of identity groups became the norm in college admissions policies after the 1960s.


Environmentalism, a powerful group faction and mass movement, “succeeded Christianity and socialism to become Western history’s third great redemptive struggle,” argues New York Times’ columnist John Tierney.[32] Man must redeem himself for violations of nature, the new realm of the sacred, and secure its deliverance, by repenting of his destructive economic rapacity and atoning for his guilt by preserving Mother Earth. The sustainability ideology has indeed become higher education’s new fundamentalism.

In Sustainability, NAS observes the focus on oppressed identity groups in that movement:

To get to the better world, policies that uplift underprivileged groups such as women, racial minorities, the disabled, and those who identify as gay, lesbian, or bisexual require special consideration….

To understand the sustainability movement correctly… we need to add…its embrace of identity politics under the rubric of “social sustainability.” The basic idea is that a sustainable society must not only rid itself of the penchant for exploiting nature but also of exploitation of oppressed groups of people.

To this end, sustainability reaches into cultural and social institutions, and it demands strict regulation to keep everything in line. Sustainability thus calls for the overthrow of patriarchal systems, misogynist bias, racist prejudice, and traditional marriage norms. It ties social and economic grievances to environmental degradation…[33]

Sustainability would further amplify the role of politics and groups or factions—but in redistributing scarcity and poverty rather than creating prosperity.


Ironically, the misguided identity-group ideology of our time is not new and has repeatedly failed throughout Western history. Governance of even small entities ruled by the power of groups collapsed because of violent faction wars, replaced by the rule of despots. From that history, Western civilization advanced to better ideals, principles, and practices, which I explicated above and which formed the basis for our founding.

The sharp left turn by academic social science over the twentieth century to idealize equality and rule by group has carried profoundly negative consequences for America and needs to be reversed—to return to our founding principles based on the individual.



This is one of a series of occasional articles applying the lessons of Western civilization to contemporary issues relevant to the academy.

The Honorable William H. Young was appointed by President George H. W. Bush to be Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy and served in that position from November 1989 to January 1993. He is the author of Ordering America: Fulfilling the Ideals of Western Civilization (2010) and Centering America: Resurrecting the Local Progressive Ideal (2002).



[1] Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (New York: Viking, 2002), 26.  Leda Cosmides and John Tooby, “Evolutionary Psychology: A Primer,” Center for Evolutionary Psychology, Anne Campbell, “Feminism and Evolutionary Psychology,” in Jerome H. Barkow, Missing the Revolution: Darwinism for Social Scientists, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 81. David P. Barash, Ideas of Human Nature: From the Bhagavad Gita to Sociobiology (Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 1998), 93, 96–98, 160–63, 165–67. “Social Determinism” and “Standard Social Science Model,” Wikipedia,,

[2] Richard K. Matthews, If Men Were Angels: James Madison & The Heartless Empire of Reason (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1995), 48–53.

[3] James Madison, The Federalist, “Number 10,” in Robert Maynard Hutchins, ed., Great Books of the Western World, vol. 43 (Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1952), 49–53.

[4] Matthew T. Downey, James R. Giese, and Fay D. Metcalf, United States History: In the Course of Human Events (St. Paul: West Publishing Company, 1997), 599

[5] Karl Marx, “Theses on Feurbach,” in K. Marx & F. Engels, Basic writings on politics and philosophy (New York: Anchor Books, 1989) (First Published 1845) and Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The economic and philosophic manuscripts of 1844 (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1988) (First Published 1844), quoted in Pinker, Blank Slate, 156.

[6] V. Venable, Human nature: The Marxian view, 3; “Chap. 2,” in Marx, The poverty of philosophy; and “Preface,” in Marx, Contribution to the critique of political economy, quoted in Pinker, Blank Slate, 155–56. Lev Vygotsky, “The socialist alteration of man,” in Rene van der Veer and Jaan Valsiner, eds., The Vygotsky Reader (New York: Wiley-Blackwell, 1994). Judy Cox, “An Introduction to Marx’s Theory of Alienation,” International Socialism, 79, Summer 1998.

[7] Christopher Lasch, The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1995), 218–19.

[8] John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971), 3–4.

[9]Emile Durkheim, The Rules of the Sociological Method (Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press, 1895/1962), 103–6, 110, quoted in Pinker, Blank Slate, 23–24. Peter Winch, “Emile Durkheim,” in Edwards, Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2:437–41.

[10]   Donald Kagan, Steven Ozment, and Frank M. Turner, eds., The Western Heritage (Brief Edition): Combined Volume, Third Edition (Upper Saddle River: Prentice-Hall, 2002), 483.

[11] Pinker, Blank Slate, 16–17, 23–27.  Cosmides and Tooby, “Evolutionary Psychology: A Primer,.” Campbell, “Feminism and Evolutionary Psychology,” 81. Barash, Ideas of Human Nature, 93, 96–98, 160–63, 165–67. “Social Determinism” and “Standard Social Science Model,” Wikipedia,

[12] “The Social Construction of Reality,” “Social Construction,” and “Corporatism, “Wikipedia,

[13] Carle C. Zimmerman, Family and Civilization, James Kurth, ed. (Wilmington: ISI Books, 1947/2008), 7, 17–20, 124, 165.

[14] John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath (New York: The Viking Press, 1939). Frank N. Magill , ed., Masterpieces of World Literature (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1989), 338–41.  Benjamin M. Friedman, The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005), 175–77.

[15] Will and Ariel Durant, Interpretations of Life (New York: Touchstone/Simon and Schuster, 1970), 46.

[16] Samuel P. Huntington, Who Are We? The Challenges to America’s National Identity (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004), 141–45, 171, 173, 175. Michael Barone, The New Americans: How The Melting Pot Can Work Again (Washington: Regnery Publishing, Inc., 2001), 11–14, 277–78.

[17] Peter Wood, Diversity: The Invention of a Concept (San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2003).

[18] John Patrick Diggins, The Rise and Fall of the American Left (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1992), 347–48. John Fonte, “Why There Is A Culture War: Gramsci and Tocqueville in America,” Policy Review, Heritage Foundation, December 2000–January 2001, 15–16. Linda Kimball, “Cultural Marxism,” American Thinker, 6 March 2009,

[19] Fonte, “Culture War: Gramsci and Tocqueville,” 18–20.

[20] Peter F. Drucker, The New Realities: In Government and Politics/In Economics and History/ In Society and World View (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1989), 99−100.

[21] Drucker, New Realities, 76, 99, 100.

[22] Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987), 31–2.

[23] Mancur Olson, The Rise and Decline of Nations: Economic Growth, Stagflation, and Social Rigidities (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982), 44, 47, 62, 65.

[24] Diane Ravitch, Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000), 441‒42.

[25] Heather Mac Donald, The Burden of Bad Ideas: How Modern Intellectuals Misshape Our Society (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2000), 88–90. Diane Ravitch, EdSpeak: A Glossary of Education Terms, Phrases, Buzzwords, Jargon (Alexandria: ASCD, 2007). “Social Constructionism,” Wikipedia. Cheri Pierson Yecke, The War Against Excellence: The Rising Tide of Mediocrity in America’s Middle Schools (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2005), 13, 103. Elissa Gootman, “For Teachers, Middle School is Test of Wills,” The New York Times, 17 March 2007. Ravitch, “Failing the Wrong Grades,” The New York Times, 15 March 2005.

[26] Sandra Stotsky, The Death and Resurrection of a Coherent Literature Curriculum (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2012), 106‒108.

[27] David Klein, “A Brief History of American K‒12 Mathematics Education in the 20th Century” in James Royer, Mathematical Cognition (Charlotte: Information Age Publishing, 2003).” Stotsky, “Who Needs Mathematicians for Math, Anyway?”  Ravitch, Left Back, 439‒41.

[28] Ravitch, Left Back, 439.

[29] Sandra Stotsky, “Read It and Weep,” Education Matters, Association of American Educators (March 2006)

[30] Stotsky, Death and Resurrection of a Coherent Literature Curriculum, 106‒110.

[31] Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., The Disuniting of America: Reflections on a Multicultural Society (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1998), 123.

[32] John Tierney, “The Optimists Are Right,” The New York Times Magazine, 29 September 1996.

[33] National Association of Scholars, Sustainability: Higher Education’s New Fundamentalism, March 2015, 30, 106, 17.

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