Story: Social sciences

Page 3. Foundation and growth, 1945 to 1970s

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Teaching social science

Teaching began at Victoria University College’s School of Social Sciences in 1950. Initially the school’s main focus was training social workers. The name ‘social sciences’ is said to have been adopted to avoid government suspicion of social work. Sociology was not introduced as a general BA subject until 1957. Ernest Beaglehole, professor of psychology from 1948, encouraged crossover work between psychology, sociology and anthropology.

Crawford Somerset taught at Victoria’s education department from 1948 to 1962, bringing a strong interest in educational sociology.

At Canterbury University College the psychology department began teaching sociology in 1958. Industrial or organisational psychology, studying behaviour in the workplace, had been taught since 1951.

Sociology and socialising

In his inaugural address Victoria University’s newly appointed professor of social work, D. C. Marsh, illustrated the general ignorance that surrounded sociology. He spoke of a student who enrolled in a sociology course because he thought it involved organising activities such as dances.

The Carnegie Corporation grant

New Zealand social sciences received a significant boost in 1953 with a Carnegie Corporation grant of US$60,000. This was to be spread over five years and split between Auckland, Victoria, Canterbury and Otago university colleges. The resulting studies during the 1950s included:

  • a series of studies on Māori communities around ‘Rakau’ (Murupara) by researchers including James and Jane Ritchie
  • Joan Metge’s work on urban and rural Māori
  • John Rangihau’s study of Tūhoe communities
  • studies of adolescents and older people
  • studies of divorce
  • community studies of the Clutha hydro-dam workers community and of the Hāwera area.

Building capacity

Over the 1950s and 1960s Victoria University built up a cohort of social scientists. Students from the social-work training programme were encouraged to carry out research, with a particular emphasis on public surveys. In the 1960s and 1970s researchers at Canterbury University such as Richard Thompson carried out studies of race relations.

During this period sociology became firmly established in New Zealand universities. Jim Robb was appointed the first professor of sociology at Victoria in 1966. By 1971 Victoria, Auckland, Waikato, Canterbury and Massey all had sociology courses and chairs of sociology. Victoria’s social science capacity was increased in 1974 with the establishment of the Institute of Criminology.

In Victoria’s geography department Professor Keith Buchanan and his successor Harvey Franklin concentrated on human geography. Kenneth Cumberland of Auckland University also made some significant contributions to this discipline.

The fuss over The fern and the tiki

Social psychologist David Ausubel came to New Zealand on a Fulbright scholarship in 1957–58. The book that resulted from studies during his visit, The fern and the tiki, caused outrage in New Zealand. Ausubel criticised New Zealanders’ characters, social values, drinking habits and child-rearing methods He accused Pākehā of racism against Māori and smugness about their own supposedly enlightened attitudes. New Zealanders did not react well to being judged by an American, especially one who was also a social scientist.

Sociology’s ‘golden age’

In the period of social change from the mid-1960s to the early 1970s student interest in the social sciences boomed. Sociology in particular had large numbers of undergraduate students. The universities faced difficulties with inadequate staff numbers and high staff turnover. By the mid-1970s these problems were largely overcome. Sociology entered something of a golden age, continuing through to the 1990s.

Student numbers declined, but the quality of teaching and research improved. Despite some American influences, New Zealand sociology largely followed British models. Many of the sociologists appointed in the 1970s came from the UK. Research from the 1960s to the 1980s was dominated by community surveys, usually carried out by senior students. Among the topics covered were:

  • racial attitudes and migration
  • social stratification
  • family structures, child rearing and educational sociology
  • community studies.

Associations of social scientists

The increasing numbers of social scientists led to the creation of professional associations. In 1947 psychologists formed the New Zealand Branch of the British Psychological Society, which became the New Zealand Psychological Society in 1967.

In 1963 Australasian sociologists formed their own society. New Zealand sociologists later set up a local branch of the Australasian society. In 1988 the independent Sociological Association of Aotearoa New Zealand (SAANZ) was formed. Such groups enabled New Zealand social scientists to organise conferences, publish journals and promote their professional interests.

How to cite this page:

Peter Clayworth, 'Social sciences - Foundation and growth, 1945 to 1970s', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/social-sciences/page-3 (accessed 19 October 2019)

Story by Peter Clayworth, published 22 Oct 2014, updated 30 Jun 2015