Kōrero: Social sciences

Whārangi 2. Early 20th century

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Social Science Research Bureau

The Institute of Pacific Relations (IPR), a non-governmental organisation established in the US in 1925, encouraged social science research in the Pacific. After several attempts, a New Zealand IPR committee was set up in 1935, and was particularly interested in studying standards of living. The IPR helped persuade Dan Sullivan, minister in charge of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR), to establish the DSIR Social Science Research Bureau (SSRB) in 1937.

The SSRB, headed by economist William Torrance Doig, researched the standards of living of dairy farming families. This was followed by urban studies of boot-makers and tramway workers. Minister of Health Peter Fraser blocked the report on dairy farmers, considering it damaging to the government. The report was finally released in 1940 but the other studies were never published. The SSRB was closed down in July 1940.

Nothing to do with the government?

Researchers for the Social Science Research Bureau travelled the backblocks of New Zealand interviewing dairy farmers and their families. Researcher W. J. Young reported, ‘I am constantly told, “Well as long as you have nothing to do with the Government I will help you, but mind, if it is anything connected with the Government you can get out.” If the car bore a Government plate … I could not get interviews.’1

Industrial Psychology Division

In 1942 the government set up the DSIR Industrial Psychology Division, headed by English psychologist Leslie Hearnshaw. The division researched a range of issues in munitions factories, including absenteeism, the role of female workers and worker response to lighting, heating and ventilation. In 1948 most of the division’s staff were transferred to the Department of Labour. The DSIR section was renamed the Occupational Psychology Research Section, but closed down in 1954.

Music while you work

For seven months in 1944–45 the Industrial Psychology Division carried out a musical experiment in munitions factories (which were mostly staffed by women). They found production increased when music was played. The women were vocal about which music they liked, guaranteeing they got tunes they approved of. The preferences were for the popular tunes of the day – Bing Crosby, Vera Lynn, dance music, jazz and light waltzes. The younger women favoured the popular tunes, while older women preferred the light music. Strauss waltzes were universally popular.

Social-science education

In 1907 Thomas Hunter set up New Zealand’s first psychology laboratory at Victoria University College in Wellington. The Victoria Senate did not recognise experimental psychology as a formal subject until 1916.

All the university colleges taught education courses, involving aspects of social science. In 1923 James Shelley, education professor at Canterbury College, set up a psychological laboratory with Clarence Beeby as his research assistant. They worked on industrial and educational psychology.

H. D. Skinner was appointed lecturer in anthropology at Otago University in 1919. In 1930 Henry Ferguson became lecturer in experimental psychology. His research included studying the causes of road accidents.

Psychology and anthropology

In the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s researchers turned their attention to the transition of Māori into the ‘modern’ world. Psychologist Ivan Sutherland edited the landmark work The Maori people today, published in 1940. Ernest and Pearl Beaglehole studied the Māori community at Ōtaki, using ethnopsychology, a combination of psychology and anthropology. In the 1930s Otago University students carried out a series of social and health studies of Māori communities based on the work of Harold Turbott.

The New Zealand Council for Educational Research

The New Zealand Council for Educational Research (NZCER) was established in 1934, with Clarence Beeby as its first director. NZCER research included a range of transition studies on apprenticeships, vocational guidance, movement from school to work, transition from school to university and vocations for young Māori. The NZCER also conducted studies on rural schools and community centres in Rangiora and Feilding. Most of the research was carried out by local school teachers or community workers, rather than professional researchers.


The most significant NZCER project was Crawford and Gwen Somerset’s community study into the rural area of Oxford in North Canterbury, dubbed ‘Littledene’ in the report. This was based on a study of Muncie, Indiana, by US sociologists Robert and Helen Lynd, who described the work in their book Middletown: a study in modern American culture (1929).

The Somersets’ report was published in 1938 as Littledene, and was a pioneering work in New Zealand social-science research. The Somersets found that the men and women of Littledene were involved in a wide range of community groups, despite their heavy workloads. The study also found that education for children and adults played an important role in the social life of the rural community.

Kupu tāpiri
  1. J. H. Robb, The life and death of official social research in New Zealand: 1936–1940. Wellington: Victoria University of Wellington, 1987, p. 35. Back
Me pēnei te tohu i te whārangi:

Peter Clayworth, 'Social sciences - Early 20th century', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/mi/social-sciences/page-2 (accessed 14 July 2024)

He kōrero nā Peter Clayworth, i tāngia i te 22 Oct 2014, updated 1 Jun 2015