Cover image for Sociology in Government: The Galpin-Taylor Years in the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 1919–1953 By Olaf F. Larson, and  Julie N. Zimmerman, and Assisted by Edward O. Moe

Sociology in Government

The Galpin-Taylor Years in the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 1919–1953

Olaf F. Larson, Julie N. Zimmerman, and Assisted by Edward O. Moe


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ISBN: 978-0-271-02849-1

360 pages
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Rural Studies

Sociology in Government

The Galpin-Taylor Years in the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 1919–1953

Olaf F. Larson, Julie N. Zimmerman, and Assisted by Edward O. Moe

“This detailed chronicle of the research conducted in the US Department of Agriculture’s Division of the Farm Population and Rural Life between 1919 and 1953 provides a useful overview of the range of research conducted or sponsored by the division and some of the political and institutional challenges to its program. Larson (emer., Cornell Univ.) and Zimmerman (Univ. of Kentucky) nicely illustrate that high-quality research was produced during the years that Charles Galpin and Carl Taylor headed the division. Readers are provided with in-depth descriptive accounts of their tenures.”


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From 1919 through 1953, the U.S. Department of Agriculture housed the Division of Farm Population and Rural Life—the first unit within the federal government established specifically for sociological research. Distinguished sociologists Charles Galpin and Carl Taylor provided key leadership for 32 of its 34 years as the Division sought to understand the social structure of rural America and to do public policy-oriented research. It reached the height of its influence during the New Deal and World War II as it helped implement modern liberal policies in America's farming sector, attempting to counteract the harsh effects of modern industrialism on the rural economy. In addition, the Division devoted resources to studying both the history and the contemporary state of rural social life.

Sociology in Government offers the first detailed historical account and systematic documentation of this remarkable federal office. The Division of Farm Population and Rural Life was an archetypal New Deal governmental body, deeply engaged in research on agricultural planning and action programs for the disadvantaged in rural areas. Its work continued during World War II with farm labor and community organization work. Larson and Zimmerman emphasize the Division's pioneering practices, presenting it as one model for applying the discipline of sociology in the government setting. Published in cooperation with the American Sociological Association, Sociology in Government preserves the history of this pathbreaking research unit whose impact is still felt today.

“This detailed chronicle of the research conducted in the US Department of Agriculture’s Division of the Farm Population and Rural Life between 1919 and 1953 provides a useful overview of the range of research conducted or sponsored by the division and some of the political and institutional challenges to its program. Larson (emer., Cornell Univ.) and Zimmerman (Univ. of Kentucky) nicely illustrate that high-quality research was produced during the years that Charles Galpin and Carl Taylor headed the division. Readers are provided with in-depth descriptive accounts of their tenures.”
“The most significant contribution of this book is its ability to provide roots for contemporary rural sociologists, especially those housed in land grant universities or federal government agencies or those holding extension appointments. It provides history and context for our work, and shows the relevance and potential contribution of applied, policy-related research. The authors show a deep respect for Division staff, particularly Galpin and Taylor, as advocates for rural communities and visionaries for the future of rural sociology.”

Olaf F. Larson is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Rural Sociology at Cornell University.

Julie N. Zimmerman is Professor of Rural Sociology in the Department of Community and Leadership Development at the University of Kentucky, and the Historian for the Rural Sociological Society.



Felice J. Levine and James J. Zuiches; John E. Lee Jr.


List of Acronyms

1. Introduction

2. Establishing the Division: The Background

3. The Division as an Organization

4. Research Priorities and Programs: Continuities and Discontinuities

5. Farm and Rural Population

6. Levels and Standards of Living

7. The Social Organization of Rural Society: Locality and Other Groups

8. The Social Organization of Rural Life: Institutions and Services

9. Farm Labor

10. The Sociology of Agriculture

11. The Division and Black Populations Yvonne Oliver

12. The Practice of Sociology: I

13. The Practice of Sociology: II

14. Some Other Areas of Research

15. The Division and the Social Science Research System

16. Retrospect and Reflections


Appendix: Persons on the Professional Staff of the Division of Farm Population and Rural Life, Bureau of Agricultural Economics, U.S. Department of Agriculture, 1919–1953





Sociology started holding a small niche in the federal government system on a continuing basis about eighty years ago. Growing out of antecedents based in the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the first, and for a time, the only unit specifically established for sociological research was initiated in 1919. This unit was known for most of its thirty-four-year life history as the Division of Farm Population and Rural Life (referred to hereafter as the “Division”). It was located within the Bureau of Agricultural Economics (BAE) in the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

The Division has a unique place in the history of sociology. Despite its always small staff and budget and its placement at a subordinate level in the administrative organization of the USDA, it had a leading role in the development and promotion of the specialized area designated as rural sociology. It was a pioneer in the practice of sociology, that is, in the application of sociology to the public agenda in a federal government setting. In 1953, shortly after President Dwight Eisenhower’s administration came into office, the BAE was abolished by order of then Secretary of Agriculture Ezra T. Benson in a reorganization of the USDA and, concurrently, the Division was dissolved. Some of the Division’s work was continued within a new research agency of the reorganized USDA.

Until now, the Division’s work was undocumented and had never been systematically assessed. The record of this important chapter in the history of sociology was at risk of being lost as the roster of living persons with direct Division experience has been greatly depleted. To prevent this loss, we first undertook to identify as completely as we could and catalog the work of the Division and its cooperators; the result was Sociology in Government: A Bibliography of the Work of the Division of Farm Population and Rural Life, U.S. Department of Agriculture, 1919–1953 (Larson, Moe, and Zimmerman 1992a). The present volume is the first attempt to systematically examine the work of the Division. In this, we indicate the need for the research done, the problems or issues addressed. We undertake an analysis of the research and assess its contributions to substantive knowledge about rural society, to research methods, to sociological concepts and theory, to public policy development, to federal action and educational programs, and to the social science research system.

This historical analysis depends primarily on the literature identified in the some 1,500 citations to the Division’s work listed in Larson, Moe, and Zimmerman (1992a). Living history also played an indispensable role in this research on the Division. Indeed, two of the authors of this project were former Division staff members. Olaf F. Larson served during 1938–46 as, successively, leader in a newly established regional office in Amarillo, Texas; in Washington, D.C., with major work in rural rehabilitation research; and as leader in a new regional office in Portland, Oregon. Edward O. Moe served on the Washington staff during 1940–42, working first on one of the “culture of a contemporary rural community” studies and later on investigations for use in planning the Columbia Basin irrigation project in Washington state.

In addition to possessing first-hand knowledge of the Division, these two authors provided contact with other former Division staff. Six of these were gathered together to form an advisory panel for the project. They were: Calvin L. Beale, Gladys K. Bowles, Louis J. Ducoff, Douglas Ensminger, Paul J. Jehlik, and Conrad Taeuber. Their service on the professional staff of the Division covered the period, collectively, from 1936—when its New Deal expansion years were just starting—through the Division’s 1953 demise. The advisory panel served as both resource and reviewers. They recounted experiences and interpretations of events, personalities and programs, providing important insights into the Division.

Understanding the Division

At the time the Division was established, sociology was a relatively new and not widely understood discipline. The emergence of sociology as a recognized specialty among the social sciences was symbolized by the formation of what is now the American Sociological Association (ASA) in 1905. The Rural Section within the ASA would be formalized in 1922 (Nelson 1969:126–27). The limited knowledge available about rural social organization and rural people was largely descriptive. Sociological research methods for data collection and analysis were primitive in comparison with even ten or fifteen years later.

The placement of the Division within the Bureau of Agricultural Economics meant that the Division’s fate from beginning to end was linked with that of the BAE. This structural position meant that changes in function assigned to the Bureau and shifts in the Bureau’s budget and political acceptability had direct and major consequences for the Division. All funding for the Division was channeled through the BAE. Congressional appropriations were made to the BAE for lines of investigation that might involve the work of more than one of the BAE’s divisions; the Bureau’s chief then determined each Division’s budget. Likewise, the subordinate position of the Division meant that, in general, its lines of access to users or potential users of its work within government was channeled through or approved by the upper administrative level of the BAE. Fortunately, each BAE chief typically was a strong and crucial supporter of the Division and, at times, played a protective role. Each was, without exception, a highly regarded professional agricultural economist.

As a research unit in a federal agency, the Division was subject to the constraints imposed by the political process at the national level. This was expressed by actions of Congress and by decisions of political appointees who held administrative posts above the Bureau level in the governmental hierarchy. Based on his years of experience as Division head, Carl C. Taylor (1946b:390) tried to explain that in a federal agency the use of research funds is “restricted to types of activities specified by the Congress.” The Congress could, and, in some instances did, impose prohibitions on what the Division and the BAE were doing. Through committee hearings and other means the Congress could exercise a chilling effect on social science research.

Between the Division, the BAE, and the Congress were intermediary decision-makers about budget and research program activities. As political leaders and appointees these intermediaries were identified with specific political ideologies. However, they also were tuned into the policy and program implications of shifts in the nation’s economic and social environment. Especially important here were the Secretary of Agriculture, always an appointee of the President, and the President’s budget people as represented during much of the time by the Bureau of the Budget. Some Secretaries and their close associates in the USDA were extremely supportive of the Division and its work; the most notable were David F. Houston and Henry A. Wallace.

<1> Four Periods in the Division’s History

The Division’s fate during its entire life history was largely determined by factors and forces external to it—the changing economic and social context in the United States, including societal crises; the political responses to the changing context and the crises; the structural position within the USDA; and the decision-making and influence of non-sociologists, especially of political appointees, at higher levels of the USDA’s bureaucratic hierarchy. As a consequence, the thirty-four-year life span of the Division was clearly characterized by marked fluctuations in staff, funding, and in type and range of program activity. In reviewing this hectic and rocky history with colleagues at the 1948 annual Rural Sociological Society meeting, Carl Taylor (1948b:7) commented “no well planned research program with so short a history should have experienced . . . such marked epochs.”

Reflecting these changes, we found it useful to divide the Division’s life history into four periods. The first, when Charles J. Galpin was head, is what we have come to refer to as the Galpin years, 1919–34. Second is the depression-born New Deal years, 1935–41. Third is the World War II period, 1942–45, and fourth is the postwar period, 1946–53.

<2> The Galpin Years

During 1919–34, the Division was always very small scale. It was a constant struggle to keep funds for the work in the annual appropriations by Congress (C. Taylor 1939). The professional staff never exceeded five persons. Funds from regular appropriations were less than $34,000 in the best of years. When the Division started, there were no farm population census figures, the farmer’s level of living was not even a matter of statistical discussion, and there was only limited information on the dynamics of the small community’s social structure. A distinctive contribution of the Galpin years was the start on building a knowledge base about rural life in the United States. Three fields of research were especially important: farm population (migration, gain or loss on farms, composition), rural organization (the community, neighborhood, and special interest group structure in rural areas), and farm family levels and standards of living. Another feature of the Galpin years was his success in getting sociological research under way at numerous land-grant and other universities and increased in the few places where it existed. The Division also had a role in developing professional resources in sociology through planning and supporting training to increase the methodological competence of sociologists.

<2> The New Deal Years

During the depression-born New Deal period, 1935–41, the fortunes of the Division improved dramatically. Opportunities opened to provide sociological knowledge for policy development and programs aimed at improving the well-being of agriculture and rural people. The result was that the staff, in Taylor’s words was “swamped almost to the point of confusion in attempting to render requested service far beyond its personnel and financial resources” (1939:225). The demand came from the new agricultural action agencies such as the Farm Security Administration (FSA), the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA), and the Soil Conservation Service (SCS); from the new nationwide grassroots level agricultural planning system (called land-use planning) initiated by the BAE in cooperation with the land-grant colleges; and from nonagricultural agencies in the federal government, most conspicuously the Department of Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation. Access was also opened to provide research findings to policymakers in Congress; over two-thirds of the items in the bibliography in the “Congressional testimony and reports” category fall within the 1935–41 period (Larson, Moe, and Zimmerman 1992a).

Some feeling for the ethos that prevailed in the Division is conveyed by excerpts from Taylor’s talks to professional colleagues (1940:17–31; 1941a:154–59). For example, agricultural action agencies were “opening the gates of opportunity to the sociologist by furnishing real laboratories and elaborate funds for study and by asking questions to which their administrators need practical answers. . . . The sociologist has a rare opportunity to put himself on the spot and use his knowledge to be of service to both the public and to his science.” Taylor also argued that there is a “valuable reciprocal functioning of research and action in the field of sociology. . . . Sociology as a science will probably grow only to the extent that it makes itself useful to programs of social action.”

Several characteristics distinguished the New Deal years:


1. This period marked the high point in the unit’s staff and budget. Professional staff reached a peak number of fifty-seven, about half in Washington and half in the regional offices which eventually were set up in nine locations. Funds allocated from all sources exceeded $400,000 in the later years of the period.

2. The staff was made up predominantly of sociologists but, by design, it was given a multidisciplinary mix by the addition of cultural anthropologists, social psychologists, human geographers, cultural historians, and economists. The research of the economists was largely in the area of agricultural labor, an area which in this period became a major one for the Division for the first time. The other new members of the unit were identified especially with community studies.

3. Because of the structural context, being in the BAE, and also by necessity and conviction, much of the Division’s research and evaluation work was conducted on an interdivision basis within the BAE, an inter-agency basis within and outside the USDA, and with multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary sets of researchers.

<end NL>

<2> World War II

By 1940, requests for information began to come to the Division from the federal agencies planning in case the U.S. became involved in World War II. These national defense concerns began to reshape the Division’s work. The events of December 7, 1941, immediately led to a drastic redefinition of priorities and programs for most federal agencies, including the USDA and, therefore, the BAE and the Division.

On January 1, 1942, the BAE announced the immediate wartime work program for the Bureau as a whole and for each of its 11 divisions. The Bureau’s program called for giving first priority to “all lines of work that make significant contributions to winning the war” (USDA, BAE 1942:1). The BAE’s efforts to aid in meeting the farmers’ labor needs were to center in the Division. Second to farm labor studies was the application of the Division’s expertise in rural social organization to assist in organizing rural communities for wartime activities. This work was carried out in cooperation with the Extension Service, the Office of Civilian Defense, USDA War Boards and others. Studies of civilian participation in the war effort and of the impact of the war on rural life and communities were also significant elements of the Division’s wartime activities. The January 1, 1942, BAE announcement gave second priority to those lines of work which had the promise of making a practical contribution to the solution of major problems of the immediate postwar period.

The shift in priorities forced by the wartime information needs of the government resulted in a sharp curtailment of the Division’s research then underway. Some studies were dropped. For others, analysis and publication was not carried to the point envisaged in the original design. A high proportion of the Division’s wartime work was made available only to a restricted group of users, e.g., policymakers and administrators within the federal government. For example, 40 percent of the 482 citations for 1942–45 (excluding periodical publications of the Division and unpublished addresses) in Larson, Moe, and Zimmerman (1992a), were placed in the “Restricted use” category. These restricted items, in mimeo, dittoed, or typed form, were not intended for distribution outside of government circles. Valuable research published in this form destined the reports to become “fugitive” literature. For example, during 1943–44 intensive studies of the impact of the war were made in 12 widely dispersed rural communities. Eight of the studies were issued in mimeo form by regional offices of the Division, one never got beyond a Ph.D. dissertation; the fate of the other three has escaped us.

The inter-division, inter-agency characteristic of the Division’s activities not only continued but increased during the war period. The multidisciplinary nature of the professional staff gradually diminished, however, as personnel was lost to the military service and to other wartime agencies and programs without replacement. By war’s end, professional staff had dropped to 44 from the New Deal period peak of 57 and the annual budget had shrunk by one-third from its earlier peak. But harder times were ahead.

<2> Postwar Period

As the Division entered the postwar period, 1946–53, its fortunes quickly took a turn for the worse. External political forces, congressional action, executive decisions at the top level of the USDA, and the structure that linked the Division’s fate to that of the BAE all combined to bring about the retrenchment and, eventually, the demise of the Division.

The assignment of planning responsibilities within the USDA to the BAE and its land-use planning organization had come under fire from the Soil Conservation Service and the Agricultural Adjustment Administration within the Department of Agriculture and from the American Farm Bureau Federation outside (Hardin 1946; 1955:160–62). Weakening of the BAE began with congressional prohibition, in the appropriation act for fiscal year 1943, of use of any BAE funds for state and local land-use planning. Then, on January 1, 1946, all of the BAE’s planning functions for the USDA were removed and restored to the Office of the Secretary, by then Secretary of Agriculture Clinton P. Anderson. Concurrently, Congress, in the appropriations act for fiscal year 1947, cut the Bureau’s funds for economic investigations by $500,000, ordered the closing of the regional offices, and barred the use of any funds for “cultural surveys,” (the referent for the Division’s research in seventy-one “laboratory” counties). About this time, Howard R. Tolley, a strong supporter of the Division’s work, was forced out as BAE chief. His successor, O. V. Wells from within the agency, was more in tune with the redefined much narrower BAE role, one limited to providing factual and scientific information for use by others (Hardin 1946; 1955:175–76). Another development counter to the Division’s interests was the abolishment in 1946 of the Farm Security Administration—long in political hot water—and its reorganization into the Farmers’ Home Administration. The FSA had been a significant user of the Division’s work and had provided some of its funds at times; the new agency, reflecting the changing political climate, was permitted to operate only a much more restricted program than did the FSA.

With these reorganizations, Congressional-ordered cutbacks in funding and restraints on program activity, and the shift in political climate, user-demand by action agency clientele for the Division’s work was diminished. The research program was narrowed in scope. Among the four approved broad fields of research, farm labor was best-funded. By about 1950, the work in rural organization was being phased out. Population studies continued, as throughout the Division’s history, to be an important area. Work on farm family levels of living continued and, with the help of funds from the Research and Marketing Act of 1946, was broadened to include studies of health services available to and used by rural people.

Staff reductions occurred at a rapid rate. By 1948, the professional staff was down to twenty-three, about half that at war’s end. Frustrated with the deteriorating environment in the BAE for the Division’s work, Carl Taylor, head of the Division, retired in June 1952 to accept consultant assignments on rural development with the State Department and the Ford Foundation. His successor, Margaret J. Hagood, came from within the Division. By the decision of the new Secretary of Agriculture, Ezra Benson, little more than a year later on November 2, 1953, the BAE and, with it, the Division of Farm Population and Rural Life came to an end.

<2> Characteristics Common to All Periods

While each of the four periods had activities and features unique to it, there were some characteristics common to all. These included:


1. A governing principle for the Division, as for the BAE, was the ideology, the faith, the belief that knowledge could be applied to the solution or alleviation of societal problems (Hall 1983); in fact, the rationale for establishing the Division was to conduct studies “with a view to facilitating advancement in the life of American farmers and their families” (USDA, Office of the Secretary 1919b:6).

2. Another governing principle was that the Division, like the Bureau within which it was placed, had a high order of professionalism (Hall 1983; McDean 1983). The Division’s leadership and much of its staff previously held university positions as sociologists. The Division sought and maintained working relationships with land-grant and other universities nationwide. Its leaders were active in professional sociological organizations. And, it consistently sought to develop and improve research methods and add to the fund of validated knowledge about rural life.

3. The Division’s program always had a mix, in varying proportions, representing both its applied orientation and its interest in discipline-building.

4. The Division had the benefit of continuity in leadership (Galpin for fifteen years, Taylor for seventeen years), leadership which had the respect of peers. For example, Taylor was elected to the presidency of both the Rural Sociological Society and the American Sociological Association.

<end NL>

<1> Organization of Book

The remainder of this book is organized in the following manner. Chapter 2 relates the antecedents and events which preceded the establishment of the Division and reviews the conditions which led to the decision to have a unit within the federal government to undertake studies of farm life. Chapter 3 presents the Division as a research unit, its leadership and staffing, its budget, its organization, and its cooperative relationships within the government, with the states, and with the private sector. The determinants of the Division’s research priorities and programs, the factors shaping research continuity and discontinuity, are examined in Chapter 4. In the latter chapter, we also touch upon some of the impediments and obstacles encountered by the Division in conducting research and publishing the results.

In the five chapters that then follow, the focus is upon substantive areas that were central to the Division’s research program during all or part of its existence. In each chapter we highlight contributions to knowledge and its use—including the identification of public issues—together with contributions to research methods and to sociological concepts and theory. Chapter 5 covers farm and rural population, an area of emphasis throughout the Division’s history. Chapter 6 pertains to farm and rural levels of living, another area of continuing program emphasis although the methodological approach shifted sharply over time. Several aspects of the social organization (or social structure) of rural society, also an area of continuing emphasis throughout the Division’s existence, are considered in Chapters 7 and 8. By the start of World War II, the Division was recognized as a major source within the government of farm labor information; this research area is the subject of Chapter 9. In Chapter 10 we cover the range of topics that fall under what has come to be designated as the sociology of agriculture, e.g., farm tenancy, types of farming systems, and agriculture and community.

The Division’s studies of black populations and its relationships with historically black colleges and universities are examined in Chapter 11. During the time Carl Taylor was Head, the Division’s research findings were frequently fed into the policy-making process at the federal level or used for program purposes by a diverse set of public agencies. In Chapters 12 and 13 we illustrate the Division’s work done for or used by major agricultural and other action agencies and programs. The full scope of the Division’s research extended well beyond the major substantive areas included in Chapters 5 through 13 as one may infer from the fact that a parsimonious assignment of keywords to the research citations in Larson, Moe, and Zimmerman (1992a) gave us 168 substantive area topics. In Chapter 14 we examine the research on some of the additional topics on a highly selective basis, e.g., studies of farm women, youth, and farmer attitudes and opinions.

Chapter 15 assesses the contributions of the Division to the development, strengthening, and maintenance of the social science disciplines and research system. In Chapter 16 we offer some reflections on the Division and sociology in a government setting. Finally, in the Epilogue we make a linkage between the Division and sociological work within the USDA agencies that succeeded the Bureau of Agricultural Economics.

This endeavor provides a record of an important piece in the development and history of rural sociology in the United States. Without efforts such as this one to rescue rural sociology’s records, future attempts to document and provide interpretations will be stymied. It is important to recover the history of our own discipline, not only to preserve the past and the steps of those who came before us, but also as an expression of the value we place on this discipline.

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