The Culture of Race, Class, and Poverty: The Emergence of a Cultural Discourse in Early Cold War Social Work (1946-1963)

Article excerpt

Through a primary source historical analysis, this article discusses the emergence of a cultural discourse in the early cold war (1946-1963) social work literature. It traces the evolution of social work's cultural narrative in relation to social scientific perspectives, changing race relations, and increasing welfare caseloads. Social work scholars originally employed their cultural discourse to account for racial and ethnic difference and eventually came to examine class and poverty from this viewpoint as well. This cultural framework wrestled with internal contradictions. It simultaneously celebrated and problematized cultural difference and foreshadowed both latter twentieth century multiculturalism as well as neo-conservative thought.

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In the introduction to their 1958 edited volume, Social Perspectives on Behavior, Herman Stein and Richard Cloward suggested, "If we are to develop, now and in the future, our characteristic method in psychosocial study, diagnosis, and treatment, knowledge of group and cultural patterns must match our not inconsiderable knowledge of personality organization" (Stein & Cloward, 1958, p. xiiii). The writers, two faculty members at the New York School of Social Work, largely echoed the sentiment of their peers. Increasingly, early cold war (1946-1963) social work scholars argued that an understanding of culture was integral to the study of psycho-social phenomena and the amelioration of social problems.

Although elements of a cultural perspective were present in earlier social work thought, cultural narratives gained new ground in the early cold war years or the period spanning from the close of World War II in 1946 until the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963. This development mimicked larger trends in the social sciences. In response to Nazi racism and a mounting civil rights movement, mainstream social scientists rejected biologically-based explanations of racial and ethnic difference and instead turned to the prospect of an environmentally produced "culture" to account for racial, ethnic, and--eventually--class characteristics. Postwar social workers largely followed suit. Like social scientists, social workers initially applied this cultural lens to questions of race and ethnicity, but soon came to examine class, poverty, and welfare use from this vantage point as well.

Historians generally maintain that psychological perspectives dominated early cold war social work thought (Curran, 2002; Herman, 1995; Leiby, 1978; Patterson, 1986; Trattner, 1994). These authors are correct in their claims, yet their psychiatric focus obscures postwar social work's simultaneous concern with cultural issues. Existing scholarship examines the origins of cultural narratives in the social science literature and its impact on policy making (Bell, 1982; Katz, 1986, 1989; O'Connor, 2001; Rainwater, 1970; Rainwater & Yancey, 1967), while a fewer number of authors investigate postwar social work's adoption of a cultural discourse in its discussion of the African-American family (Solinger, 1992; Kunzel, 1993). Nevertheless, historians have generally not explored the rise of a cultural discourse in the early cold war professional social work literature. To address this research gap, this paper asks: How did the postwar professional social work community respond to the growth of a social scientific cultural framework and how did it integrate this intellectual stance into its professional vocabulary?

Through a primary source analysis of social work texts, journal articles, and technical reports, this article traces the origin and emergence of a cultural discourse--meaning scholarly, expert narratives on culture--in the social work literature. It situates and tracks the evolution of social work's cultural discourse in relation to developments in the social sciences, changing race relations, an increase in the welfare caseload, and the political milieu of early cold war America. …