Abstract: Greenwich House, NYC: A Laboratory of Early Social Work Practice & Modernist Social Science, 1902-1917 (Society for Social Work and Research 20th Annual Conference - Grand Challenges for Social Work: Setting a Research Agenda for the Future)

Greenwich House, NYC: A Laboratory of Early Social Work Practice & Modernist Social Science, 1902-1917

Thursday, January 14, 2016: 3:00 PM
Ballroom Level-Renaissance Ballroom West Salon A (Renaissance Washington, DC Downtown Hotel)
* noted as presenting author
Barbara L. Simon, Associate Professor, Columbia University, New York, NY

Key debates within the emergent American social sciences during the first two decades of the 20th century – about the role of subjectivity in social science and the capacity of social science to be make sound predictions -- shaped and roiled both practice and social investigations at Greenwich House (GH).  GH is an active settlement house in NYC’s Greenwich Village that was founded in 1902 by Mary Kingsbury Simkhovitch (MKS) and her husband, Vladimir Simkhovitch, and was purposefully organized along the lines of a research university.  Its Board of Managers initially included key social science professors from Columbia University.  Columbia professors chaired GH committees and directed the research of resident workers while Head Worker MKS supervised their daily practice.  For example, educator John Dewey, sociologist Franklin Giddings, anthropologist Franz Boas, and economist Edwin Seligman chaired committees that studied public schools’ social possibilities, housing and economic conditions of Negro families, sanitation, and the standards of living of neighbors.

At GH, practice and research were interdependent in line with the pragmatism of Dewey and MKS.  Social science modernism quickly unfolded at GH. There  scholars tried to balance reason, interpretive stances, and passions as they, like settlement house  workers and neighbors, grappled with intensifying urbanization and industrialization. Their modernism turned, in part, on their alienation from prior certainties about divine and natural law and their recognition of newness, contingency, and uncertainty in humans’ existence amidst the constant change they observed around them.   Cultural relativism also characterized GH’s modernist stance.


Archival records of GH and MKS constitute the primary sources for this study. Secondary sources include publications by GH staff and books, journal articles, dissertations, and newspaper accounts about GH, MKS, her staff, and Board of Managers between 1902 and1917.


Everyday settlement house work at GH from 1902 and 1917 involved: home visiting; recording workers’ observations meticulously in a shared daily log; facilitating a wide range of peer group activities and workshops for GH neighbors; and documenting empirically the status of Greenwich Village’s sanitation, food and water supplies, tenement conditions, employment possibilities, adult education, and public schools.  All social work practice fed social science investigations at GH and vice versa. 


The intertwining of social work practice and social research at GH between 1902 and 1917 illuminated the ample common ground as well as the growing discrepancies between the priorities of GH practitioners and their academic research guides.  Prominent social scientists who chaired research committees at GH collaborated closely with each other and discovered major tensions among themselves concerning the best pathways to follow in pursuit of knowledge about Greenwich Village.

Future research is needed to explore the reasons for: 1) the abandonment by GH after World War I of its research committee structure led by academics; and 2) social science scholars’ diminished interest in the 1920s in hands-on work and research of social workers at GH.