Contentious ideas about diversity and democracy in the U.S. 1915–1958

The project, headed by David Östlund, is examining a theme in U.S. intellectual history, 1915–1958. One part of the background is the amount of negative reactions to the unprecedented wave of immigration that had been seen during the half-century up to the 1920s, another is the prevalence during the same era of racist thought, particularly formed by the legacy of slavery in U.S. society.

The situation raised questions. Under which conditions would the republic be able to live up to its democratic principles? Did people have to be the same in order to be equal? Or was equality between minorities and the dominant majority, on the contrary, a condition of true democracy? What part did cultural differences play in this context? To what extent was diversity determined by innate characteristics – a matter of biological differences?

The project is examining three examples of thinking and activism that evolved in response to such questions. One is a current of thought within academic philosophy called cultural pluralism. The second is a movement within anthropological research with an antiracist stance, whose basic approach is known as cultural relativism. Finally, it deals with a pedagogical reform movement that as from 1935 was labeled intercultural education. The task of the project is to examine how these phenomena were interlinked and how they interacted.

Cultural pluralism was rooted in pragmatism as a school of philosophy when it confronted demands of assimilation on the Anglo-American majority’s terms, agendas associated with the vision of the U.S. as a “melting pot”. Their alternative vision was a federation of cultures thriving on equal terms; a symphony of voices making their unique contributions to the whole. For example, this approach was expressed in the contentious African-American cultural movement of the 1920s, known as the “Harlem Renaissance”.

For decades, research in anthropology had basically been a form of “racial science”. In contrast, the cultural relativist school in the U.S. became the most important source of scientific arguments against racism of its era. This shift was linked to an ambition to study the cultural features of presumed “primitive” societies on their own terms, without the yardsticks of western modernity. The opportunity to compare was instead used to critically examine contemporary U.S. society.

“Intercultural education” stemmed from educational progressivism, a current in pedagogical thought that challenged the school system’s traditional authoritarian approach, attempting to turn this societal institution into an instrumental factor in realizing the ideals of democracy. This branch of the movement developed and disseminated educational activities that were designed to combat prejudice against minority groups among white Anglo-American students, while simultaneously building self-respect and pride among students from groups of “new” immigrants (e.g. Swedish-Americans) as well as African Americans or Native Americans.

The study aims to examine central themes in U.S. intellectual history in a new way. In particular, this will be done by examining the relatively well-known cases of cultural pluralism and cultural relativist anthropology, by means of perspectives gained from their interaction with the least-researched phenomenon, intercultural education.

“Diversity and democracy: Cultural pluralist philosophy, cultural relativist science, and intercultural education confront racist USA, 1915 – 1958.”

Principal investigator:
Associate Professor David Östlund

Södertörn University

SEK 3.2 million