History of the Odum Institute

John Shelton Reed

A shorter version of this history will be included in the new Encyclopedia of North Carolina History, edited by William Powell.

The Howard W. Odum Institute for Research in Social Science at the University of North Carolina, in Chapel Hill, is the oldest university-based interdisciplinary social-science research institute in the United States, and apparently the oldest in the world. Founded in 1924, the Institute was supported for its first eight years by grants from the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial of New York, which awarded the funds "to be used in the development of [the university's] research in the social sciences." As President Harry W. Chase remarked, "It is rare that a gift is given with so few conditions"; he told the university's Board of Trustees that the Institute would operate by "putting at the disposal of the men already in our faculty increased facilities to do their work." That has always been the Institute's mission; consequently, its history has been largely determined by the research interests of the university's social science faculty.

In its early years, that history was inseparable from the interests of its visionary founder and first director, Howard W. Odum, a Georgian who had come to Chapel Hill in 1920 as Kenan Professor of sociology to head UNC's new Department of Sociology and School of Public Welfare (later the School of Social Work).

Odum's interest in the social and economic problems of the South was shared by many of his colleagues at the university (notably Eugene C. Branson, head of the Department of Rural Social Economics), but Odum's achievement was to institutionalize that emphasis and move it to a higher level. Odum obtained the initial funding for the Institute, and under his direction it played a central role in making the University of North Carolina what it still is today: the world's leading center for the study of the American South.

At first, most of the Institute's resources went to generous stipends to recruit and to support a cadre of talented research assistants, who were assigned to work on faculty-initiated projects. Although their primary affiliation was with the Institute, most also worked for graduate degrees in various university departments and many went on to distinguished scholarly careers, often remaining in Chapel Hill, or returning to it. A short list would have to include Guy B. Johnson, T. J. Woofter, Jr., and Arthur F. Raper in the study of race relations, Lee M. Brooks in criminology, Rupert B. Vance in demography, Paul W. Wager and Edward J. Woodhouse in the study of local government, and William S. Jenkins, Guion Griffis Johnson, and Fletcher M. Green in Southern history. Two early research assistants later became directors of the Institute: sociologist Gordon Blackwell (subsequently president of Furman University), who succeeded Odum as director from 1944 to 1957, and statistician Daniel O. Price, who served from 1957 to 1966.

The Rockefeller grant also subsidized the publication of Odum Institute research by the new University of North Carolina Press, which built its considerable reputation largely on the work of Institute scholars. In the Institute's first decade, 31 of the 48 books by faculty and students associated with the Institute were published by the university press. (Many of the 142 papers published in the same period appeared in the Journal of Social Forces, "a Southern medium of study and expression" established by Odum in 1922, which soon became a joint production of the Institute and the Department of Sociology. The Institute also took over the University of North Carolina News Letter, a monthly report of social welfare news published under Eugene Branson's supervision since 1914.)

Although Odum's Institute is probably best remembered for its research on social and economic problems, from the start it took a broad definition of "social science": alongside surveys of the textile industry, tenant farming, and race relations were pioneering works on Southern history and literature and scholarly studies of black folklore. Whatever the subject matter, however, the vast majority of the early Institute studies dealt with aspects of North Carolina or of the American South more generally.

After Odum stepped down as director in 1944, the Institute's emphasis began to change. Ironically, the university's success in building nationally recognized social-science departments meant that the faculty's research interests were increasingly defined by the concerns of their academic disciplines rather than by the South's problems (which were, in any case, less pressing than they had been). At the same time, patterns of funding were changing: graduate research assistants began to receive support directly from grants and contracts for specific projects, and vanishing foundation support for basic administrative costs was gradually replaced by state funding.

Most importantly, the nature of social-science research was changing. Increasingly, what the faculty required in the way of "facilities to do their work" was computational hardware and support in statistical analysis, the use of computers, and data acquisition. Over the next 25 years the Institute gradually took on major responsibilities in these areas, which remain its principal focus today. The Institute's Social Science Data Library, for example, has become the third largest repository of social-science data in the United States, providing researchers around the world with data on population, health, economics, and public opinion. Its unique holdings include the public-opinion surveys of Chapel Hill alumnus Louis D. Harris and the National Network of State Polls, for which the Institute serves as headquarters.

Today, the Odum Institute serves a faculty whose interests are more diverse and less regionally oriented than ever, but it still bears some traces of its origins. Social Forces and the News Letter survive (although in forms that Howard Odum would not recognize), and there has even been a modest return to the study of the American South. Twice a year since 1985, in cooperation with the School of Journalism and Mass Communications, the Institute has conducted the Carolina Poll, a statewide public-opinion survey. Building on that experience, the twice-yearly Southern Focus Poll was begun in 1992; this national telephone survey has an "oversample" of Southern respondents that allows for closer attention to matters of regional interest than does the typical nationwide survey. In 1993, the interdisciplinary quarterly Southern Cultures was begun by the Institute; two years later it was handed off to the university's newly established Center for the Study of the American South. That new Center was itself initially housed and supported by the Institute, a process of organizational "incubation" similar to the one that nurtured the Center for Urban and Regional Studies in the 1960s.

In these and other ways, the Odum Institute continues its tradition of contributing to the understanding and betterment of its state and region. Its major achievement, however, has probably been its contribution to the emergence of the University of North Carolina as a major national research institution, and in that respect it still plays an important role.

Wayne D. Brazil, Howard W. Odum: The Building Years, 1884-1930 (1988).

Guy Benton Johnson and Guion Griffis Johnson, Research in Service to Society: The First Fifty Years of the Institute for Research in Social Science at the University of North Carolina (1980).