Social Origins of American Scientists and Scholars

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Science  09 Aug 1974:
Vol. 185, Issue 4150, pp. 497-506
DOI: 10.1126/science.185.4150.497


Data from a wide variety of sources reflect geographical, baccalaureate, and social class variations in the production of scientific and scholarly doctorates in the United States. To a significant extent, these variations are associated with the kind of religiousethnic group from which such persons come. Roman Catholics are extremely low producers of scientists and scholars, but fundamentalistic and traditional Protestant faiths (southern white Protestants, Lutherans) are also low producers. Liberal Protestant sects, such as Unitarians and Quakers, and secularized Jewish groups are highly productive, and less liberal faiths are moderately productive.

Variations in productivity are reflective of differences in beliefs and values. Highly productive groups share a certain set of values, unproductive groups hold the antithesis of these, and those groups intermediate in productivity possess a mixed blend. Tentatively, the common beliefs and value systems of high producers seem to include naturalism; intrinsic valuation of learning and the individual quest for truth; emphasis on human dignity, goodness, and competence; a life pathway of serious dedication, of service to humanity, of continual striving; humanistic equalitarianism; a pragmatic search for better ways of doing things unfettered by traditional restraints; and a focus on the relatively immediate, foreseeable future which can be affected by personal effort.

Historically, the scientists (or their immediate ancestors) have broken away from the traditional orthodoxy, broadened certain values, and retained others. For example, the children of Jewish immigrants to the United States departed from the traditional ritualism of the eastern European Jewish community, broadened the old value of scriptural erudition to include secular learning of all kinds, but maintained emphasis upon personal striving and social responsibility. Also, it appears that eminent scientists often emerge from devout Protestant homes emphasizing learning and responsibility but that such scientists frequently depart from the parental religious faith (31).

Psychodynamically, this set of cultural values produces a person with an inquiring cognitive disposition, whose duty it is to strive diligently to improve the human condition. Given a certain level of intellectual talent, and cultural support in educational, scientific, and scholarly institutions, youth will frequently choose careers in scientific and scholarly professions. This same cultural milieu apparently also produces disproportionate numbers of inventors and entrepreneurs; historically, it produced those who activated the industrial revolution and those who generally were responsible for rapid economic growth.

The data discussed herein extend only to about 1960, prior to the great social unrest of the 1960's and early 1970's. Speculatively, one might predict that productivity will diminish to the extent that current social movements stressing existential futility, goal attainment "now," or power relationships are successful in penetrating groups which have been highly productive, since these emphases undermine longterm scholarly striving.

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