Online Journal of Peace and Conflict Resolution 1.2 -- May 1998

Boulding at Michigan: General Systems and Peace Research

by J. David Singer


     In her insightful biography (Creative Tension, University of Michigan Press, 1974), Cynthia Kerman describes some of the patterns that emerge from Kenneth Boulding's responses to the Thematic Apperception Test, and I mention them here because they help me to recall the man who played so central a role in my early career. Among these are: optimistic outcomes of the stories, despite lack of involvement with the characters; avoidance of strong emotion; repression of aggressive feelings; a high value placed on personal autonomy; and a view of the social environment that is quite negative, yet ripe with opportunity for autonomous action. In today's parlance, one might say that Kenneth Boulding had a strong sense of social efficacy and responsibility toward the human race, but was nevertheless quite able to remain at some emotional distance from human beings one at a time. I always found him positive, upbeat, and engaging, ethically committed yet neither self-revealing nor intimate. The paradox that his friends and admirers seemed to note often was a social exuberance and spontaneity combined with extraordinary self discipline, or if one prefers, a religion-inspired repression of deep affection or explicit hostility.

     With these impressions in mind, I recall my first fateful encounter with Kenneth and Elise Boulding. It was in the Boston area in late 1957, he was one of the speakers at a Friends conference on U.S. foreign policy and I'd come over from Harvard where I was on a post-doctoral in the Social Relations program, trying to go beyond the simplicities of my recent graduate training in political science and world politics. In the course of conversation, he described with great enthusiasm the genesis of The Journal of Conflict Resolution and the plans for a Center for Research on Conflict Resolution at the University of Michigan. Having heard of a one-year visiting position there, finding little to excite me in other job openings, and quite taken with his commitment to an inter-disciplinary and applicable social science in the war-peace field, I followed his urging and after a brief interview in Ann Arbor was hired for the 1958-59 academic year. Little did I realize that I'd be in his orbit for so long and with such a mixed range of experiences.

     Welcomed warmly into the Conflict Resolution crowd by Kenenth, Elise, Robert Angell, Anatol Rapoport, Dean Pruitt and others, I was delighted and moved by this mix of scholarly competence, theoretical excitement, and moral commitment. The weekly "brown bags" ranged from soporific to fireworks not only from one week to the next, but from moment to moment, depending on the speaker (either in-house or out-house, we used to say), the topic, and of course, how Kenneth responded. While always courteous and never belligerent, he could blend his constructive comments with impish insights that could be as devastating as they were subtle. Quite often his marvelous turns of phrase were directed at the political science profession and its members, and it was not long before the reasons became evident. Not only did he consider it as dismal and stuffy as his own discipline of economic – and for good cause in my view – but, in addition, he had over the previous decade earned the hostility and disdain of James Pollock, our department chair. The latter was a man of considerable intellect, clout, and vanity who'd been instrumental in the post-war occupation of Germany and drafting the federal constitution. Pollock not only considered himself far more expert on matters of war and peace than most mortals, but was outraged by this brash pacifist economist who challenged U.S. policies in regard to interventions in Central America and the Middle East, astronomical military spending, nuclear weapons testing, and of course, the re-arming of Germany. It wasn't only a clash of views, but of styles as well; my chairman was proper, dapper, sophisticated, authoritarian, bigoted, and ultra-conservative, whereas Kenneth was breezy, rumpled, often child-like in his innocence, indifferent to bourgeois tastes, irreverent egalitarian, an utterly unprejudiced citizen of the world, and remarkably non-doctrinaire. And he did all sorts of un-academic things: participated in rallies, signed petitions, joined vigils, marched, and even chained himself to the campus flagpole to dramatize his sorrow over America's sordid performance on the world scene.

     When it became evident that I was consorting with Boulding and his circle – and this was no more than a month or two after arrival at Michigan – it was clear that my days were numbered. Pollock essentially told me to decide whether I was a political scientist or peace researcher, and my suggestion that I could be both was greeted with some derision. In the months that followed, as the convergence between my worldview and Kenneth's became more compelling, I felt more the departmental pariah, and expected to be terminated at the end of my first year. But I had the full support of Robert Angell (the co-director of the Center) as well as several of the senior and high-status social scientists on campus, along with grad student enthusiasm; more importantly, the colleague for whom I was a visiting substitute requested a second year's leave, giving me an extra year in Ann Arbor.

     It is important to emphasize that not all the senior faculty disapproved of Kenneth. While his colleagues in Economics were pretty ambivalent about the range of his research and writing, and the chair of Anthropology tended toward my department's dim view, many faculty were great Boulding fans. This was partly, as I recollect, because of his general popularity among the students, his marvelous good nature, sense of humor, and magnificent turn of phrase, along with his unambiguous integrity. My sense is that he acted out – with gusto – the fantasies that many of them cherished privately. It has to be remembered that earlier in that decade, the University of Michigan had folded in the face of the McCarthy assault, firing three tenured faculty members who had run afoul of various Congressional committees. Not that Boulding was a radical – far from it. His political, economic, and social views were refreshingly unconventional and even inconsistent. In his earlier years in England he'd flirted with anarchism and Marxism, and had even worked in a couple of Labor Party campaigns. But he was too much of a free spirit to join any political organization for very long; he was the quintessential non-conformist.

     Another reason for Kenneth's prestige and respect on campus – in addition to the warm recognition he was getting elsewhere – was his involvement in the general systems movement. In their origins and founding fathers, the peace research and general systems outlook had much in common. Those who were in Palo Alto with Boulding in 1954-55 – such as Anatol Rapoport, Ralph Gerard, Richard Meier, and Herbert Kelman – were also with him at Michigan at one time or another. One of his many aphorisms was that "knowledge is a many-storied motel with poor elevator service," conveying that concepts and findings in each discipline rarely got transferred from one discipline to another, even though there were impressive isomorphisms from one to the other. Thus, it was not entirely coincidence that The Journal of Conflict Resolution (1957) and the Mental Health Research Institute (1955) were established within two years of one another at Michigan. This Institute, built around a group that moved from the University of Chicago, was created within the Department of Psychiatry under the direction of Raymond Waggoner, partly to enhance the research productivity of that department, but also to pursue the idea of a unified science of human behavior – to which Boulding was strongly committed. On the other hand, Boulding had no office or position at the Institute and rarely visited from across the campus. Wearing three hats myself (Political Science, Conflict Resolution, and Mental Health) I could easily appreciate the dangers of being spread too thin, but I always sensed another problem: his "rugged individual" style, manner and personality. The two key figures at our Institute – which I'd joined in 1960 after finally being terminated by Pollock, only to return four years later on an irresistible joint appointment – were Miller and Gerard. Both men were brilliant and with humane instincts, but the general systems idea was just as suspect in the Psychiatry department and Medical School as peace research was in Political Science or the College, and the figured (correctly in my view) that Boulding could be a political liability. Thus, Rapoport and I (and Deutsch, on monthly visits from Harvard) were the bridge between these two off-beat centers, both of which existed to a large extent because of Kenneth's fertile imagination, prodigious scholarship, and moral commitment.

     When Kenneth left Michigan for Colorado in 1967, it seemed to mark for me the end of an all-too-brief "golden age." He'd come in 1949, and those two decades marked the dramatic transition from a perfectly respectable midwestern state university to one of the nation's great universities. Many of us here and elsewhere believed that by the mid-1960s Michigan was the outstanding social science school in the world, but by the end of the war in Vietnam, we were clearly in decline – and the divisions and animosities generated by that war were far from irrelevant to this change in fortune. Had he stayed on here, things might have been different; I can think of no colleague in my career better able – and willing – to take on the Philistines. But with the Bouldings' departure, people such as myself felt somehow less efficacious in the face of the continuing militarization of the society, bureaucratization of the university, and demoralization of the nation.

     He and Elise were – to use Karl Deutsch's phrase – towers of strength, whose goodness, integrity, generosity, and energy sustained many of us. Their home was a little chaotic, with a steady flow of visitors, local friends of all stripes, professions, and ages, exciting discussions, frequent potluck suppers, and an irresistible mix of goodwill and serious purpose. Through the ten years of partnership at Michigan and twenty-odd years of frequent interaction, my admiration never wavered. We occasionally disagreed, but we never quarreled. We were two different people, however: he was fifteen years my senior, a devout Christian vis-a-vis Jewish atheist, a poet and artist opposite a mechanic and athlete, and perhaps most crucial of all, he more the philosopher and speculative prophet against my preference for conceptional clarity and reproducible evidence. This may help explain why we were close colleagues and perhaps even soul-mates, but never close friends. As suggested above, I found this great extrovert to be a very private person, totally engaged at the community level but quite inaccessible at the personal level. But never mind. Working with him for all those years was exciting, inspiring, challenging, and uplifting. Although we mourn his passing from this world, I hope we will emulate him, value him, and read and learn from him for a long time to come. We need to, desperately.



Visit a page about Kenneth Boulding at Communications for a Sustainable Future.

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