Journal of Social Issues, Spring, 1998
Social action research and
the Commission on Community Interrelations.
(Experts in the Service of Social Reform: SPSSI, Psychology, and
Author/s: Frances Cherry, Catherine Borshuk
The legacy of Kurt Lewin's commitment to social action research
has been duly marked by the Society for the Psychological Study
of Social Issues (SPSSI) through its annual Kurt Lewin Memorial
Award and through its publication of The Heritage of Kurt Lewin
(Bargal, Gold, & Lewin, 1992). Whereas Lewin's impact on organizational
and educational psychology has been well documented, it is less
known that shortly before his death in 1947, he was instrumental
in bringing about an innovative community-based research organization,
the Commission on Community Interrelations (CCI) of the American
Jewish Congress (AJC).
The subject of this article is CCI, one of the earliest social
action research organizations designed to combat prejudice and
discrimination through community intervention. Research began
in 1944, and CCI developed as an active and productive research
unit for 8 years. The work of CCI was highly regarded among social
scientists: SPSSI awarded CCI the Edward L. Bernays Intergroup
Relations Award in 1949. Yet not long after it began, CCI researchers
were defending its action orientation to its sponsor, the AJC
(Jahoda, 1952), and were gaining employment and research opportunities
elsewhere (Smith, 1994).
This article examines the circumstances surrounding the founding
of CCI, its accomplishments, and the challenges it faced in creating
changes in urban communities in the period after World War II.
CCI's blending of research and social action and the politics
that surrounded the organization's antiracist work serve as a
useful case history for contemporary social psychologists who
continue to work for social change in general, as well as those
whose interests include the study of prejudice, discrimination,
and ethnocultural identity more specifically. A critical analysis
of CCI attempts to address the reason why, as Marie Jahoda (1989)
wrote, "a non-reductionist social psychology is almost too difficult
to be tackled but too fascinating to be left alone" (p. 71).
The work of CCI is best understood from within its institutional,
societal, and disciplinary contexts. First, we explore the role
of CCI as a part of the American Jewish Congress, an important
American liberal Jewish institution committed to progressive social
change (Dollinger, 1993). Throughout its years, CCI was impelled
to serve both the interests of the AJC as well as other religious
and ethnic communities with which it had formed alliances.
This article also describes the philosophy of science and social
action promoted by the social scientists affiliated with CCI who
pioneered a particular brand of community-oriented investigative
practice. Their work had in common the primacy of studying discriminatory
practices over prejudicial attitudes and of treating the community
as their laboratory. Additionally, CCI's location within a specific
ethnocultural community presented researchers with a unique set
of challenges addressed by placing an understanding of minority
identification at the forefront of their plan to combat racial
and religious discrimination.
The early CCI projects, particularly the incident control, community
self-survey, and multiple group membership projects stand apart
from the variables-based laboratory science taking shape in the
psychological social psychology of the late 1950s. In time, social
psychology would see the importance of culture and community recede
(Cherry, 1995) while basic research and social application would
grow increasingly disconnected from one another (Collier, Minton,
& Reynolds, 1991). In addition, internal changes to the AJC
as well as external political pressures would ultimately redirect
CCI's approach to social change.
The CCI: A New Approach to Old Problems
In 1944, the AJC sponsored a conference in New York City aimed
at finding solutions to the problem of anti-Semitism. In response
to calls raised at the conference for further action, AJC leader
Stephen S. Wise began discussions with Kurt Lewin, who at that
time headed the Research Center for Group Dynamics at Massachusetts
Institute of Technology (M. Lewin, 1992), on methods for dealing
constructively with minority-majority conflicts. Within the AJC
there already existed two commissions - Economic Discrimination,
and Law and Legislation - that were active in monitoring anti-Semitism
and working toward legislation to fight discrimination in employment
The decision to establish a social scientific research unit within
the AJC had much to do with the transformation of the goals and
aims of the organization toward the end of World War II. Originally,
the AJC was organized for the specific purpose of establishing
civil rights for European Jews at the end of World War I and for
the continued defense of Jewish rights in general, and to represent
Zionist interests among American Jews (Urofsky, 1982). Its permanent
organization in 1922 reflected a continued concern for more democratic
processes in decisions affecting Jewish communities abroad and
at home rather than the more elitist process of the American Jewish
Committee (Cohen, 1972; Frommer, 1978; Urofsky). Although initially
concerned only with "issues that affected Jews as Jews" (Frommer,
p. 540), after witnessing the consequences of the failure of Western
democracies to intervene quickly in the Nazi expansions, AJC leaders
"were determined not to make the same mistake in the domestic
arena. Thus, infringement of anyone's rights - Jews or non-Jews
- was cause for concern by the Jewish Congress" (Frommer, pp.
540541). The organization thus became gradually more aligned with
the interests of other minorities facing discrimination. It was
amidst this growing commitment to minority rights in general,
as well as emerging discussions of cultural pluralism in American
postwar democracy, that plans for the founding of CCI took shape.
During World War II, civil rights became a fundamental issue
of American liberals as the Nazi persecution of European Jews
was translated into a fear of domestic fascism in the United States
(Jackson, 1990). By the war's end, the "work of democracy" (Keppel,
1995) to protect minority rights was being conducted in schools,
mayoral standing committees, youth centers, trade unions, church
councils, and intercultural associations, as well as in local
branches and chapters of national organizations such as the AJC,
the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People
(NAACP), and the Urban League (Johnson, 1946). The "battle for
good citizenship" (Giles & Van Til, 1946, p. 34) was being
waged on the local, regional, and national stages as both grassroots
groups and large institutions joined in the civic-minded effort
to promote democracy on all levels.
Profoundly affected by Gunnar Myrdal's (1944) study of racial
inequality, the number of American organizations countering ethnic
tension and hostility grew from approximately 300 in 1945 to more
than 1,350 by the 1950s (Herman, 1995). According to Jackson (1990),
Myrdal's location of the problem of American democracy "as a conflict
in the minds of White Americans helped to focus postwar research
on psychological issues at the expense of social structural and
economic analyses" (p. 279). Thus CCI, with a staff of prominent
social psychologists, became one of many organizations of its
day committed to the enhancement of intergroup relations.
Given the work of existing AJC commissions and other organizations
committed to fighting discrimination, what exactly was new about
CCI? From the point of view of those within AJC involved in establishing
CCI, there was the appeal of continuing to oppose anti-Semitism
using a scientific approach:
There are other organizations, Jewish and non-Jewish, engaged
in this work. The question the layman is entitled to ask is: What
innovation will the new Commission bring into the general strategy?
The answer is knowledge of facts. . . . What the Commission on
Community Interrelations proposes to do is to acquire precise
and thorough knowledge of facts and to proceed with action based
upon the facts. . . . ("An Action Program," 1945, pp. 4-5)
At midcentury, Lewin was hopeful about the potential of social
engineering, which he saw as a new science. Ash (1992) and Van
Elteren (1993) have both described the shift in Lewin's political
affiliations from his more left-leaning days in Berlin to his
liberalism in the United States. Working in America, Lewin became
increasingly concerned with questions of cultural pluralism and
the workability of liberal democracies within which, he believed,
social engineering could make a viable contribution. Although
autocratic leaders could be expected to exploit and manipulate
the less powerful, in democracies, he wrote, "the 'decent' citizen
apologizes for his lack of active participation in group affairs
by condemning group manipulation and leaving this business to
the politicians" (Lewin, n.d., p. 4). He argued that social scientists
had an important role to play in the social engineering process,
and furthermore, that such a process was beneficial to the maintenance
of democratic traditions:
We do not want group manipulation, but we do need that amount
of management of groups which is necessary for a harmonious living
together. We want this group management to be done "by the people,
for the people." This presupposes that not only the social scientist
has to know more about all the factors which make for good or
poor relations among groups in a community; this knowledge will
have to be common knowledge to the ordinary citizen. To my mind,
there is hardly anything more essential for the survival and the
progress of democracy than that every citizen understand more
clearly how the "right to be different" and the "cooperation for
the common good" can and should be integrated for harmonious group
relations in a democracy. (Lewin, 1945, p. 7)
CCI was headquartered in New York City and was initially promised
generous funding to carry out a program of research aimed at combating
anti-Semitism and discrimination, improving intergroup relations,
and conducting action projects to ease racial and religious tensions
in communities across the United States (Marrow, 1969). Its approach
was consistent with the brand of "radical liberalism" of the AJC
that depended on educating and immersing citizens in the skills
required for democratic participation.
CCI began with Kurt Lewin as chief consultant and Charles Hendry
coordinating early research projects. Lewin recruited Stuart Cook
to be director of research from 1946-50. Isidor Chein was associate
director of research from 1949-52, with John Harding as assistant
director of research. CCI's advisory council included, among others,
Gordon Allport, Nathan Cohen, Rensis Likert, Charles Johnson,
Margaret Mead, and Edward Tolman (Levy, 1945; Marrow, 1969; Smith,
1994). Over the years, CCI engaged a number of social psychologists
familiar to SPSSI (Deutsch, 1992; Harris, Unger, & Stagner,
1986; Levinger, 1986), including Kenneth Clark, Claire Selltiz,
Marie Jahoda, and Goodwin Watson. Within the AJC, CCI was applauded
for presenting a new approach that moved away from "goodwill meetings"
and "lectures that 'make things a little better'" (Levy, p. 6)
toward a more effective group approach. The enthusiasm with which
action research was embraced was evident, lauded because it was
"not carried out in ivory towers, but in communities where people
live, work, play, and go about their daily lives; in the places
where tension and conflict develop" (Levy, pp. 6-7).
Many of those involved with CCI were interested in creating a
social technology for addressing social problems. Their published
and unpublished research reports and popular pamphlets often spoke
of and to "ordinary citizens" at the neighborhood level who, with
training, would become a cadre of community "experts." Their writings
on discrimination reflected the enthusiasm and hopefulness of
the new technologies that had arisen with the war effort. Goodwin
Watson, reviewing CCI-sponsored community research, wrote that
the "social power of self-directed, cooperative fact-finding in
its potential contribution to strengthening democracy, ranks higher
than the discovery of atomic energy" (Watson, 1952, p. 13). In
their popular writings, CCI staff made extensive use of military,
engineering, and medical metaphors. For example, their pamphlets
spoke of "combating" prejudice, "testing" a technique for reducing
discrimination as one would test a new consumer product, and "writing
prescriptions" for preventing or curing the disease of prejudice.
The development and transformation of CCI is one of the earliest
examples of the difficulties of liberal social scientists' relationships
to action agencies and the delicate balance they attempt to strike
between scientific credibility and social utility. The following
sections examine some of the contexts in which CCI was enmeshed
- scientifically and socially - in its optimistic desire to deliver
a "cure" for discrimination.
Action Research: Social Utility and Scientific Meaning
In the writings of social scientists associated with CCI's most
active years (1944 to 1952), we encounter the essential ingredients
of an early nonreductionist social psychology. Social psychology
in the United States had developed at a rapid pace during World
War II, and by the 1950s turned increasingly toward laboratory
methods to conduct research about individual cognitive functioning,
often with no immediate application (Collier et al., 1991). By
contrast, CCI's nonreductionism made the community its laboratory,
the group its level of analysis, and the solution of social problems
For example, Chein (1949a) wrote of the "danger of sterility"
as a methodological concern to social psychological research,
where "the sole consequence of the research process is that the
findings come to occupy a place on the well known library shelf."
Referring to his colleagues in "pure" research settings, Chein
questioned the practice of allowing experimental design and scientific
rigor to take priority over application of research findings to
real social problems. With respect to prejudice, he criticized
research done for its own sake, arguing that locating the roots
of prejudice was neither more basic than applied research nor
more likely to offer a solution for ending prejudice.
CCI conceived of itself as offering something different in the
effort to promote intergroup harmony: social action founded on
proven research knowledge. As one internal document stated, CCI
was formed to "take the struggle against prejudice out of the
realm of hope, faith, opinion and guesswork and place it within
the scope of scientific measurement and scientific fact" (Commission
on Community Interrelations, n.d., a, pp. 3-4). Lewin's friend
and biographer Alfred Marrow described the precision with which
data gleaned from research would be applied to community problems,
suggesting that action research was an attempt not merely to measure
situations, but to evaluate conditions of success and methods
of modifying situations in a scientific manner (Marrow, 1969).
Selltiz and Cook (1948) addressed the question of whether social
scientific research could be both socially and scientifically
meaningful. Reflecting the concerns of both social researchers
and community service workers, they stated that socially useful
research should be applicable to concrete social situations; concern
problems that have immediate social consequences; and ensure that
practical action results from the research findings. They suggested
that for scientifically sound research projects to be of social
benefit, research must be focused on the process of change, performed
in collaboration with social agencies whenever possible, and as
part of a coordinated research plan to include many replications
in different settings and with different groups (Selltiz &
Thus, the research objectives of the CCI placed equal emphasis
on knowledge gathering and social change. A pamphlet outlining
CCI's projects and methodology emphasized the importance of the
testing process in determining methods for reducing prejudice
and discrimination. The testing process was represented by a five-step
methodology (see Figure 1) loosely combining the principles of
hypothesis testing and action research, consisting of having a
clearly stated problem, getting ideas for solutions, testing the
ideas, reporting the findings, and putting the results into action
("But What Works?" n.d.).
CCI's promotional literature appealed to midcentury Americans'
faith in scientific testing procedures and the effectiveness of
A good doctor does not prescribe a drug until its effects have
been carefully studied. A successful manufacturer does not buy
a machine until he has seen test production figures. A careful
housewife does not buy a washing machine or pressure cooker until
she has seen the seal of approval by a testing laboratory. We
need testing in the fight against prejudice. We cannot afford
to work in the dark any longer. ("But What Works?" n.d.)
It would be the job of "ordinary citizens" to research the facts
of discrimination in their communities, to respond to bigotry
effectively, and to raise children with a positive sense of both
their own and other groups' identity. Many of the results of CCI
studies were not published in scholarly books and journals but
appeared in popular Jewish periodicals or widely circulated pamphlets
or were publicized in addresses to community organizations in
order to reach a wider audience.
CCI associates wrote numerous position papers and books establishing
the philosophy of action research (e.g., Lewin, 1946; Selltiz
& Cook, 1948; Watson, 1947). In an article for the AJC membership,
Lewin outlined the philosophy of this "new approach to old problems"
(Lewin, 1945, p. 6). His faith in science, captured by his use
of the phrase "infra-red rays of social science" (p. 6) led him
to believe that the relations between majority and minority racial
and religious groups could be studied in the same objective and
scientific manner as any other form of social life. However, to
have true social utility, such studies must also extend beyond
the individual psychological level of analysis. Of the relationship
between scientific knowledge and social action, he wrote:
To be the basis for action, fact-finding has to include all the
aspects of community life - economic factors as well as political
factors or cultural tradition. It has to include the majority
and the minority, non-Jews and ourselves. The staff of the CCI
is composed of Jews and non-Jews, of sociologists, psychologists
and community organizers to fit this variety of tasks. (p. 6)
CCI's action research necessitated the training and involvement
of a wide range of community members, often with little or no
previous research training. Unlike the top-down approach practiced
in industrial and organizational psychology, CCI promoted a particular
form of social engineering that relied on the local voluntary
efforts of community members, Jewish Community Center workers,
and a significant number of women drawn from the numerous chapters
of the Women's Division of the AJC.
The Role of the Women's Division of the AJC in CCI
National Women's Division (NWD)(1) members played a significant
role in the work of democratic social engineering throughout the
CCI's social action phase. Not unlike most middle-class Jewish
women's organizations (Baum, Hyman, & Michel, 1976), the NWD
existed as a parallel organization within the AJC. Founded in
1933 by Louise Wise, its first president, the NWD was active during
and after the war in fund-raising, clothing drives for European
Jewish refugees, orphan resettlement, and intercultural and interfaith
activities (Urofsky, 1982). Local NWD chapters had participated
in the AJC's earlier Commission to Combat Anti-Semitism, and after
learning of the CCI's formation, sought representation in CCI
projects. Women's chapters formed committees to introduce the
"new approach" of CCI to its members and recruited volunteers
for many CCI projects ("News of Women's Division," 1945, p. 15).
The language of the NWD literature represented a blend of the
ideals of social engineering and democratic participation and
reflected middle-class women's domestic status as well. These
materials captured both the enthusiastic promotion of science
and middle-class women's growing opportunities for material consumption.
For example, one story written by CCI psychologists rendered the
new industrial and social technologies into metaphor. NWD chairs
introduced these technologies to their members by reading the
story, in which the "expert," Mrs. Greenberg, is elevated to "social
engineer" among her peers:
Mrs. Friedman got into a discussion with Mrs. Klein over what
kind of a vacuum cleaner Mrs. Klein should buy. Each woman was
set on a different brand. Finally, Mrs. Greenberg cut in. "Ladies,"
she said, "pardon me, but since my husband is an engineer and
since I know something about his methods, I can tell you that
you cannot possibly settle the merits of these machines merely
with your own opinions. I suggest you stop speculating and guessing
and look up reliable laboratory tests on these cleaners." . .
. The ladies agreed that this advice was sound. But would the
ladies have agreed if, instead of vacuum cleaners, they had been
talking about methods of combating prejudice, bigotry, and discrimination?
Would they have been as ready then to test methods in a laboratory?
(Commission on Community Interrelations, n.d., c, p. 3)
For the women involved in CCI projects through the NWD, the "work
of democracy" was to be practiced in the home, in a classroom,
or on an assembly line. Reporting on its involvement with CCI,
an NWD president noted:
Perhaps the primary accomplishments of our CCI work in the Women's
Division this year has been a change in our members' concept of
CCI from one which held the Commission to be an ivory tower to
one which pictures it as a source of specific usable techniques
which the chairman can use in her own community to go about her
daily business of working for good intergroup relations wherever
she lives. (Coan, 1949)
Women participating in CCI projects through NWD chapters were
involved in community self-surveys, fund-raising for intercultural
education programs and cultural-sensitivity training for teachers,
study groups on raising Jewish children, fact gathering on housing
conditions in Harlem, investigation of "anti-democratic incidents"
in neighborhood schools and factories, and monitoring of the introduction
of religious curricula into local public schools. In 1948, when
AJC cut CCI's funding levels, CCI Director Stuart Cook requested
that the NWD recruit more volunteers from Women's Division chapters
to aid CCI research.
The women who participated as community researchers and organizers
were both promoting their beliefs in intercultural harmony and
fulfilling their own educational aspirations. Through working
with CCI, women could "obtain a concentrated course in the psychology
of prejudice, with readings in the best modern texts" (Brodsky,
1949). Further, women who were trained as interviewers and Incident
Control training leaders received "a very practical training in
the psychology of leadership in democratic groups" (Brodsky).
CCI's action research projects thus proceeded with extensive
help from Women's Division volunteers. A brief overview of CCI's
program of research illustrates the efforts of the research staff
to investigate and direct social action processes through the
use of social science methodology.
CCI's Action Research Program
Southern (1987) has argued that An American Dilemma (Myrdal,
1944) was perhaps the document most influential to midcentury
race relations. Certainly, one can see the impact of Myrdal's
study on the work of CCI researchers. Their projects were premised
on the notion that once Americans recognized the moral incompatibility
of racism and egalitarian democracy, exclusionary practices would
Although the list of research projects completed by or in cooperation
with the CCI between 1944 and 1952 is lengthy (see Marrow, 1969,
for an extensive summary), three major paths of investigation
guided their projects: the development of methods to be used by
small groups to oppose racism and improve intergroup relations;
the study of the effects of face-to-face contact between members
of different groups under varying circumstances, specifically
in cases where the contact resulted in bigoted statements or actions;
and the social psychological examination of problems of minority
group membership, especially the problem of achieving positive
identification with one's own group while participating fully
in the life of the larger community (Jahoda, 1952). Three major
research projects corresponding to these investigative paths were
the community self-survey, the Incident Control Project, and studies
in Jewish identification and child rearing.
Community Self-Survey: Auditing Discrimination
Perhaps one of CCI's best-known techniques in marshalling the
facts of discrimination was the adoption and refinement of the
community self-survey of race relations, originated at Fisk University
(Lambert & Cohen, 1949) and initiated by several communities
(Wormser, 1949). Stuart Cook (1949) cited the work of Gunnar Myrdal
and the impact of An American Dilemma on CCI's support for community
self-surveys. As project director, Margot Haas Wormser described
CCI's first community self-survey in the fictional "Northtown"
as a process intended to reveal facts upon which further action
could be taken by communities.
Community self-surveys were action research operations wherein
members of a community worked together to identify racial prejudice
in the places they lived, worked, and socialized. In effect, a
"discrimination index" was secured through the participation of
citizens in the community who were concerned about the democratic
makeup of their community. In the pilot project, Wormser herself
introduced the concepts and methods of the self-survey, but it
was the residents of "Northtown," through their social agencies,
community and church groups, ethnocultural organizations, labor
council, and business organizations who carried out the research.
Through sponsoring organizations, subcommittees were struck and
resources and volunteers solicited, and in the end, hundreds of
community members took part in the survey, which consisted of
in-depth interviews with families from all ethnic and racial groups,
employers, schools, and real estate representatives (Wormser,
1949). Ultimately, the community was able to create for itself
a picture of intergroup relations and the extent of discrimination
in housing and employment, as well as an action plan to address
the most obvious sources of racial exclusion.
The community self-survey exemplified the democracy-oriented,
progressive community project CCI advocated, in the belief that
more progress could be made by involving people who were growing
concerned with discrimination than by attempting to activate those
who were apathetic. This reasoning illustrates CCI's attempt to
move beyond academic expertise and to place the tools of research
in the hands of concerned citizens.
The community self-survey became popular among civic organizations;
following the publication of Wormser's (1949) study of "Northtown,"
more than a dozen community groups contacted CCI for information
on planning their own self-surveys. In time, CCI published a detailed
manual, How to Conduct a Community Self-Survey of Civil Rights,
for distribution to interested community groups. The manual was
later published in book form (Wormser & Selltiz, 1951). Findings
gleaned from the self-surveys assisted in the preparation of legal
interventions undertaken by the AJC's Commission on Legal and
Social Action (CLSA). These community audits served a very real
educational function that mobilized awareness of the necessity
for social change.
However, Wormser's published description of the "Northtown" project
is also a valuable process document on the limitations that researchers
faced in their attempt to develop a community-based social psychology.
She described problems stemming from disagreements among community
groups. For example, the sponsoring committee ran into conflict
with the employers' association, which objected to some of the
questionnaires included in the survey and threatened to withdraw
its support. Because members of the community at large were for
the first time documenting unfair business and housing practices,
the vested interests of the business community were challenged
directly. Their antagonism was in part fueled by "the fact that
outsiders were running the survey" (Wormser, 1949, p. 11) as well
as by suspicions arising from Wormser's own involvement with the
project. "Rumors began to reach me," Wormser wrote, "that the
survey was being called a Communist survey, that the volunteers
were accused of being Communists, and that stories regarding the
political orientation of CCI were circulating" (p. 10). Instances
of studies being interrupted due to rumors of Communist involvement
were in fact reported in the community-based social psychology
of the late 1940s and 1950s, as McCarthyism became more threatening
to social scientists (see Festinger et al., 1948).(2)
Incident Control Project: Stopping the Spread of Prejudice
After World War II, minority-majority public contact in Northern
cities on bus platforms and in restaurants and office buildings
was becoming increasingly common. As part of its efforts to study
face-to-face contact among members of different groups, CCI turned
its attention toward public manifestations of antidemocratic racial
and religious prejudice. To this end, CCI's research on "how to
answer the bigot" (Citron, 1946, p. 6) became a key action research
project. Initially named the Democratic Participation Project,
this large-scale training program was carried out in collaboration
with six Women's Division chapters. Once again, it is possible
to see the compatibility of this project with Myrdal's analysis
of America's fundamental dilemma, that bigotry was un-American.
According to Abraham Citron, the project director, bigotry was
learned, and if left unchecked, could be passed along in group
situations. Through fact-finding techniques such as role-playing
bigoted incidents, then measuring audience reactions, one could
discover the most effective "antidote." The foes of democracy
were portrayed as spreading a virus in communities; CCI was conceptualized
as the medical team that could provide a vaccine to protect the
population from contamination. According to a popular CCI pamphlet:
It is important that you answer the bigot, because careful research
has found that a bigoted remark, unanswered, can and does spread
prejudice to the people who hear it. . . . The bigot is more than
a pain in the neck. He is a source of infection for the spread
of prejudiced ideas. But you can stop him! (Commission on Community
Interrelations, n.d., c)
The Incident Control Project was more concerned with observers
of racial incidents than with bigots themselves. The rationale
was developed as one of the lessons of the Holocaust for American
democracy. As Citron (1946) explained, Nazis had tested the acceptability
of anti-Semitism to the broader German public by organizing public
insults, which at first met with little enthusiasm. Citron argued
that permissiveness ultimately lent credibility and support for
more extensive actions. Prejudice was learned in small groups
"from people - living among them, listening, and talking to them"
(Citron, p. 6). He went on to argue:
The more intimate the group, the deeper the attitudes take root.
Although the bus and restaurant situations . . . are not of the
most intimate type, many people who hear such remarks time after
time are inevitably influenced by them. More people "catch" prejudice
in this way than are ever affected by hate sheets or hate meetings.
In this kind of incident we witness the mass production of blind
prejudice and hate. (Citron, pp. 6-8)
Research into the problem of public bigotry used the "socio-drama,"
wherein randomly selected participants (often passersby chosen
off the street) were asked to witness skits simulating public
race baiting in order to gauge ordinary citizens' reactions to
challenges to the race baiter. Socio-dramas were pretested on
more than 1,000 subjects in order to find the most effective argument
and tone for answering the bigot.
Myrdal's "American Creed" was built into the socio-dramas and
was often the most effective response for dissipating public expressions
of prejudice. The unfairness of anti-Semitism would ultimately
weaken democracy, according to the Creed, leaving it open to the
threat of Communism. In one scenario, two trained volunteers role
played an incident wherein Jews are stereotyped in a public incident:
Stevenson: That's no way to talk. What kind of country would
we have if we didn't stick together? We'd be easy suckers for
someone to make trouble.
Jones: What business is it of yours?
Stevenson: I'm telling you it's unfair to pick on the Jews or
on any other group. Everybody in America should get the same square
Jones: Why are you so worded about the Jews?
Stevenson: It's not just the Jews I'm worried about. It's the
danger of that kind of talk to our democracy that worries me.
This country is made up of all races and religions and it's up
to us to see that they all get an even break. (Commission on Community
Interrelations, n.d., c)
CCI research found that some audiences - such as war veterans
and union members - were more likely to respond positively to
"Stevenson" employing the "American tradition" argument than to
silence or to an appeal to individual differences, which stressed
that personal traits were not unique to particular social groups.
People chosen off the street preferred the latter appeal.
Citron (1946) was enthusiastic and saw his findings as "ammunition"
in reducing bigotry. He advised his readers: "Don't let the bigot
get away with it," "Remind the bigot that the country was built
for all and stands for equality," "Peg your argument to the situation"
- that is, state that in your personal experience all members
of any group are not alike and that you don't condemn the actions
of all members of a group based on the actions of one - and, finally,
use a "'somewhat militant' and serious" but not "aggressive or
unpoised manner" especially when "calling up the 'American symbols'
argument." He concluded that it was best to "act in a spirit of
fair play when you talk about fair play" to avoid sounding "like
a politician" (p. 8).
True to CCI's objective of following research with action, Citron
proceeded with an elaborate venture of setting up Incident Control
Training Institutes where community and religious organizations
as well as labor and women's groups were given skills to train
their members. In the training, a racist incident from one of
a number of scripts would be acted out, and participants would
practice their arguments. It is not known how many participants
were ultimately trained in how to answer the bigot, but institutes
were established in a number of Northern cities across the United
States, a training manual was made available to community groups,
and evaluations were conducted on the training institutes.
Jewish Self-Identification: Raising Healthy Minority Children
As CCI's social action projects got underway, so did a preoccupation
in Jewish communities with what it meant to be Jewish in the postwar
era. At various historical times, Jewish identity in the United
States had involved conformity to Anglo-American standards as
well as participation with other cultures in a melting pot ideology
to produce something uniquely "American." Postwar discussions
of Jewish identity, however, emphasized retention of cultural
identity in a pluralistic society where one could be both American
and Jewish (Shapiro, 1992). Not surprisingly, with a research
unit in one of the most prominent Jewish organizations in the
United States, support for research into determinants for producing
an increased sense of belonging in minority group members became
a priority. Both Lewin (1948) and Chein (1949b, 1949c, 1952) wrote
extensively on multiple group membership. After Lewin's sudden
death in 1947, many of his essays on identity were published in
the collection Resolving Social Conflicts (Lewin, 1948). Chein's
works on identity were found mostly in Jewish publications, as
working documents for CCI, or as talks given to Jewish community
center workers, parents, educators and social workers; most remain
unpublished (Borshuk & Cherry, 1997).
Lewin's writings on Jewish identity focused on his people's historical
ambivalence and uncertainty, particularly after their emancipation
from the period of European ghettoization that had previously
"made the boundaries obvious and unquestionable for everybody"
(1948, p. 149). In the United States, where assimilation had become
more possible, notions of self-hatred and group belongingness
were especially relevant to a discussion of raising healthy minority
children (Lewin, 1946). For Lewin, it was not belonging to many
groups that caused difficulty for children, but an uncertainty
of where they belonged. "Parents," he wrote, "should not be afraid
of so-called 'double allegiance.' . . . The real danger lies in
standing nowhere" (1948, p. 185).
Chein's discussion of group membership was geared toward the
pluralism of American social life. Chein advocated Jewish participation
in institutional settings - for example, integrated housing and
hospitals - in order to avoid divisiveness or a sense of separateness,
but separation in matters uniquely religious. He wrote, "Our goal
is a feeling of Jewish identification which is integrated with
the best values of American culture and which opposes both assimilation
and ghettoism" (1949b, p. 8). Chein was strongly in favor of the
notion of multiple group membership, writing:
Opportunities for Jews to participate as Jews in affairs which
are of concern to the general community - e.g., in working for
specific civil rights programs - should be developed and exploited.
. . . It helps the person to feel that being a Jew does not prevent
him from participating as an individual in the broader grouping
- and hence eliminates a barrier to a feeling of dual membership.
(Chein, p. 9)
Both Lewin and Chein expressed strong support for a dual-identity
role compatible with notions of cultural pluralism and intercultural
education and action. Lewin often repeated Rabbi Hillel's famous
phrase: "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am for
myself alone, what am I? And if not now, when?" With that in mind,
both Chein and Lewin promoted working on behalf of social justice
for other ethnocultural and religious communities as well as their
own, something they felt was possible only from a secure position
of belongingness to one's own group.
Discussions of American Jewish identification after World War
II were increasingly set in the context of the meaning of the
Holocaust for Jewish religious life and the role of American Jews
in the newly formed State of Israel. CCI sponsored study groups,
published papers, and public lectures to promote discussion and
debate of these topics. Most of the research conducted focused
on in-group diversity and methods for grounding the Jewish child
in a positive cultural identification while maintaining a bicultural
stance toward American life (Chein, 1949c). Results of extensive
exploratory studies directed by CCI and carried out in Jewish
community centers in Boston and New York City revealed that Jewish
children sometimes experienced the non-Jewish world as "alien
and hostile," and displayed more dissatisfaction than satisfaction
with being Jewish. This led CCI to promote and engage in further
investigations into Jewish identification, as well as to sponsor
a study of African American group identity (Rose, 1949).
It was the work on multiple group membership that the American
Jewish Congress would continue to support even as its overall
commitment to CCI was waning. The National Women's Division furthered
the issue by producing with CCI a discussion guide to be used
by its chapter members to promote exploration of how to raise
Jewish children (Chein, Kendler, & Coan, 1949). Study group
leaders prompted members to discuss their experiences and ideas
related to group membership and to discuss what it meant to be
Jewish in the United States, the role of yeshivas and other Jewish
education programs, the benefits and drawbacks to homogeneously
Jewish groups in education and housing, and the general adjustment
of Jews to American life.
The AJC had ample reasons for its increased interest in studying
the topic of Jewish identity. As expressed by a Mid-Queens study
group, Jewish communities of the time were faced with the growth
of anti-Semitism in America, the new State of Israel, effects
of World War II, and an increased interest among their children
in Judaism. Jewish identity was being reevaluated in light of
new challenges and changes in American life and world Jewry.
The Lewinian Project in an Era of Change
Community life in the United States in the immediate postwar
era was rapidly changing, as was the nature of civil rights work
in urban communities. And CCI, having established itself as a
liberal research institution focused on reducing intergroup tensions
through its work in communities, would also change. CCI's social
action research focused on three strategies: maintaining vigilance
over discriminatory practices in communities and making findings
part of a legal response; containing the spread of prejudice by
responding to rather than ignoring its public interpersonal expression;
and raising Jewish children with a positive sense of their dual
social identity as a preventive means of combating the impact
of prejudice and discrimination. With CCI as a research unit within
the AJC, these strategies had served the Jewish community well
in the immediate postwar period. However, CCI was eventually challenged,
and its struggles to maintain the research unit by the early 1950s
are best understood by examining events both within and external
to the AJC. The Lewinian project became less of a priority for
the AJC as civil rights battles were fought in court and in mass
political action. As well, the rise of experimental social psychology
in academic psychology found researchers studying prejudice in
the laboratory rather than discrimination in communities.
The Civil Rights Battle Goes to Court
In its efforts on behalf of minority groups, the AJC, as perhaps
the most progressive of liberal Jewish organizations, became less
concerned over time with communities and more concerned with courts.
In fact, from 1944 to the mid-1950s, much of the action around
civil rights advancement and the attack on exclusionary racial
covenants was in the courts and in the executive orders of the
federal government. Beginning in 1948, the Commission on Law and
Social Action copublished with the NAACP what became an annual
joint report on civil rights in the United States. The NAACP and
its legal staff, headed by Thurgood Marshall, made extensive use
of social scientific research in its court challenges, the most
famous of which was Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 (see Herman,
1995; Jackson, 1996; Kluger, 1976; President's Committee on Civil
Rights, 1947; Rosen, 1972; Southern, 1987). The AJC, along with
other civic agencies, filed amicus briefs, and CCI staff such
as Stuart Clark and Isidor Chein testified in several court cases.
Divisions in the Jewish Community
The AJC also encountered factions within the Jewish community
that did not share its enthusiasm for racial integration. Dollinger
(1993), in reviewing the substantial literature on Jewish liberalism,
has argued that after the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education
decision to desegregate public schools, "Northern Jews discovered
that their own desire for social inclusion compromised their liberal
civil rights stand and drew them uncomfortably close to the political
view of their Southern co-religionists" (p. 207). Other variables
also acted to dissolve longstanding organizational alliances between
Jewish and African American groups: the suburban flight of Whites
following urban rioting, decreased support for public education,
and the rise of Black nationalism and increasing expressions of
anti-Semitism (Clark, 1946; Diner, 1977; Salzman, 1992). By the
mid-1950s, many American Jews were benefiting from the postwar
economic boom that was accompanied by the lifting of anti-Semitic
restrictions on housing, education, and employment. The cost of
social inclusion sometimes meant collaboration with racial separation
and a waning commitment to African American civil rights, prompting
one historian to remark:
[After the Depression] the role of the Jewish agencies in nurturing
the national mood and making it more receptive to change was critical.
Arguably, the period from just before the end of World War II
to the mid-1950s, when the black-led protest movement got underway,
may be said to have been the Jewish phase of the civil rights
revolution. (Friedman, 1995, p. 136)
Throughout the 1960s, however, many Jews did remain committed
to the legal civil rights movement and were well represented among
White ethnics when it moved into mass social protest (Carson,
1992). In this phase, they participated by joining groups such
as the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and Congress
of Racial Equality directly rather than through liberal Jewish
organizations (Dollinger, 1993). The intercultural work of CCI
was increasingly viewed as less useful by a younger generation
of activists for whom reformist solutions and unenforced court
decisions were insufficient to the task of full equality. Although
CCI's brand of social action research could assist in evaluating
a problem and creating mechanisms for slow change through educational
and legal venues, African Americans had been struggling to break
down the color line for too long to leave the matter to liberal
CCI Comes Under Scrutiny
CCI continued to bolster the work of the legally oriented CLSA,
primarily through research on social contact that supported desegregation
legislation (Jahoda, 1952). But whereas the CLSA remained at the
forefront of legal efforts to combat discrimination, the value
to the AJC of an internal social psychology research unit such
as CCI came into question. As Marrow (1964) wrote, "Although [CCI's]
program was scientifically meaningful and socially useful to an
unusual degree, this was not recognized by the local welfare federations
across the country on which the AJCongress depended for its resources"
(p. 9). In response to concerns about its continuing utility,
Marie Jahoda was asked to evaluate the feasibility of the research
In her evaluation report, Jahoda (1952) argued strongly that
officially sanctioned fact finding on intergroup relations and
prejudicial attitudes was consistent with American Jewish values.
She argued that scientific knowledge was better than mere "enthusiasm
and intuitive insights" in the matter of social action, but that
spectacular results could not be expected, only "application of
the most rational procedure available . . . in dealing with complex
social problems" (p. 4).
Some of the AJC's concerns were prompted by a worsening financial
situation as well as its desire to pursue legal courses of action.
How much of the research being done was actually related to Congress
activities? And weren't there other research units, particularly
at universities, where this work was being conducted? Jahoda responded
by pointing out that some of the work of CCI, particularly "the
development of methods that can be used by the ordinary citizen
to improve intergroup relations," had "a special slant" not undertaken
elsewhere in the United States (1952, p. 6).
Jahoda also tackled the problem of adequate time for conducting
research in the context of a community agency that might desire
faster results. In fact, although shorter term research could
be of immediate use in legal argumentation, longer term research
extending up to 3 years was required to evaluate new techniques
for solving social problems. Researchers' success, concluded Jahoda,
could not be measured by the same standards as those for the regular
staff of AJC given the type of research being undertaken; there
were those who felt CCI's research standard was too high, and
others thought it too low. CCI staff were often viewed as aloof
from the main organization, yet they were often self-critical,
their morale low, ever mindful that they worked in an environment
where their funding was on the critical list. Despite the fact
that their function was never particularly well defined, they
were a highly productive research unit (Jahoda, 1952). When CCI
did search for external financial support, private foundations
did not want to risk tax-exempt status by sponsoring research
of a political nature. "Apparently," Marrow wrote, "the problems
under study were too controversial" (1964, p. 9).
Changing Communities, Changing Tactics
There were also those who thought that CCI's research agenda
was not controversial enough. Gardner Murphy (1952), although
acknowledging the tremendous organization in the variety of projects
against discrimination, wondered if the skilled practitioners
involved were practicing "benevolent despotism" despite their
openness and purported commitment to democratic ends:
If a few people can get stores to hire Negroes and those who
don't like it have to accept it, we liberals will all applaud.
The game can be played exactly in reverse, and we will all groan.
But is the process democratic in a Lewinian sense - is it based
on a group decision? (Murphy, p. 13)
Murphy wrote that political pressure, contingent on increased
economic power, was the key to minority gains. He felt the racial
crises of the time required both "group decision and sheer force
of political pressure - mixed well before using," and that "political
democracy in large amounts" was required "to protect and to implement
the results of social science" (Murphy, 1952, p. 13).
Although it is not clear from the archival record exactly how
matters raised by Jahoda's report were resolved, it is known that
by the mid-1950s the focus of CCI had shifted away from intercultural
education toward social conflict and urban affairs. CCI's new
research director, Don Hager, expressed disenchantment with the
intergroup relations approach and its "studied avoidance of the
relation between economic and political power structures and the
fact of prejudice, discrimination and conflict" (Hager, 1955,
p. 7). For Hager, conflict was part of the democratic process.
It could not be eliminated but only channeled to constructive
ends. Racial hostility reflected socioeconomic ills and differences
in social mobility. The urban crisis of impoverishment, violence,
and despair made the liberal goals of integration unrealistic
with respect to the priorities of low-income communities. Hager's
reorientation of CCI toward conflict analysis and urban affairs
would remain in place throughout the 1960s.
Laboratory Psychology and the Primacy of Prejudice
While CCI was being evaluated, several of its core group of social
psychologists became employed by the Research Center for Human
Relations at New York University (NYU). Stuart Cook moved to NYU
in 1949 and became head of the Department of Psychology there
in 1950, collaborating with colleagues Claire Selltiz, Isidor
Chein, and Marie Jahoda on research similar to that conducted
at CCI (Smith, 1994). Although the investigative practices developed
for a community-based social psychology were both pragmatic and
eclectic, designed for application to the particular problem of
intergroup discrimination, increasingly the social psychological
mainstream was disconnecting research and graduate training from
the immediacy of solving social problems (Lundstedt, 1968). As
American social psychology came of age between 1950 and 1970 (Apfelbaum,
1992; Collier et al., 1991), its practitioners would devote their
energies to a practice bounded by the parameters of laboratory
experimentation, based primarily on individual behavior, and geared
toward managerial concerns (Danziger, 1990, 1992). Removed from
the intergroup context, the study of discrimination would quickly
reduce to attitude and personality measurement.
Samelson (1978) has documented social psychology's "thematic
reversal" from the study of race superiority in the early part
of the century to the social psychology of prejudice and race
relations that was developed by the end of World War II. Part
of that reversal involved the emerging distinctions between prejudice
and discrimination. As experimental social psychology moved into
laboratory settings, prejudice became an isolated psychological
variable, detached from the processes of intergroup relations.
In the 1950s, the study of prejudice, enhanced by the use of attitude
measurement techniques developed during the 1930s and World War
II, became increasingly the focus of academic social psychologists
(e.g., Allport, 1954). The study of race relations turned to the
study of individual attitudes, cognitive biases, and personality
dispositions, mainly of Whites (Herman, 1995; Samelson). The focus
on specific communities was sacrificed for the general and the
context-free. CCI, in its promotion of community relations, was
a noteworthy exception to the movement toward laboratory experimentation
CCI's social psychology of community intervention was greatly
influenced by the social democratic notions of social scientists
such as Goodwin Watson, Kurt Lewin, and others who attempted to
bring a nonreductionist understanding to a point where society
and individual meet. However, the emerging demands of their field
downplayed those aspects of their work that were devoted to community
and group relations. Just as the AJC came to expect quick and
productive results from its researchers, so did the culture of
social psychology require traces of experimentally derived evidence
to add to its growing stream of literature. Thus, large-scale
societal investigations of prejudice and discrimination (e.g.,
Adorno, Frenkel-Brunswik, Levinson, & Sanford, 1950; Allport,
1954; Bettelheim & Janowitz, 1950; Dollard, Doob, Miller,
Mowrer, & Sears, 1939) were abandoned to make room for the
products of prejudice research such as the F scale and an increasing
number of attitude and social-distance measures. For the mainstream
of social psychology's practitioners, scientific meaning had been
severed from immediate social utility as measurability became
The history of CCI reveals a group of social psychologists committed
to the midcentury ideals of egalitarian democracy and social engineering
and heady with the promise of the technological advance of social
science methodology. Their story is instructive as a precursor
to the civil rights movement, experimenting with a social psychology
that was located in communities, identities, and relations between
groups. If their efforts to train citizens to stanch the spread
of racial hatred seem naive today, or their technological and
curative analogies quaint, it should be remembered that this group
also represented an early social psychological attempt to place
ethnocultural identity in a key position for understanding prejudice
and discrimination (see Gaines & Reed, 1995, for earlier work
in the African American tradition).
The challenges faced by those associated with CCI in the 1940s
are not atypical of those of social psychologists who continue
to create roles for their expertise in social agencies and community
organizations today. CCI's investigative practices offer a rare
glimpse into the action research of midcentury, when such work
was in its earliest stages of development. It was, of course,
only one of several historical models of action research that
inform contemporary scholar-activists in their social change work
(Wittig & Bettencourt, 1996). The record of CCI's research
unit reveals what were then the central difficulties faced by
community-based researchers working within larger agencies or
organizations. Balancing the demands of voices calling out for
social justice against the needs of sponsoring organizations and
their bureaucracies, along with expectations of methodological
rigor, continues to be a central challenge to community and social
Fig. 1. From CCI pamphlet on action research, "But What Works?
THE TESTING PROCESS
Where Do We Stand In The Fight Against Prejudice?
How can we determine which methods are getting results and which
The testing process is basically the same in this field as in
* We must have a clearly-stated PROBLEM
* Next, we need an IDEA about solutions to the problem
* Then we must TEST THE IDEA to see if it works.
* Finally, a report is made of the FINDINGS
* And, the RESULTS GO INTO ACTION
When these steps are followed, a TESTED method of combating prejudice
is being put to use.
* The authors wish to acknowledge their use of the following
archival collections: the Stuart Cook, Kurt Lewin, and Alfred
Marrow Papers at the Archives of the History of American Psychology,
Akron, OH; and the American Jewish Congress Collection at the
American Jewish Historical Society, Waltham, MA; as well as recent
correspondence with John Harding, Claire Selltiz, and Brewster
1 The National Women's Division focused its efforts on family,
educational, and community activities of the AJC, whereas the
Commission on Law and Social Action - the product of a 1945 merger
of the Commissions on Economic Discrimination and Law and Legislation
- focused on legal activities. Our reading of the various efforts
of the AJC suggests that during the period under consideration
(1944-52), the AJC reflected the different spheres of men's and
women's work consistent with the gender, White ethnic and class
stratification in activities of the period.
2 It is not known to what extent studies sponsored by CCI came
directly under the McCarthy glare. If anticommunism in the immediate
postwar period threatened liberal organizations such as the AJC,
it appears to have been well countered through legal action (Dollinger,
Adorno, T. W., Frenkel-Brunswik, E., Levinson,
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FRANCES CHERRY is a Professor in the Department of Psychology
at Carleton University. She is author of The "Stubborn Particulars"
of Social Psychology (Routledge, 1995), which deals with the history
and theory of social psychology.
CATHERINE BORSHUK is completing doctoral research at Carleton
University in social and community psychology. She is interested
in grassroots organizing, social identity movements, and alliance
building among social action groups.