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Odum, Howard W.

Abstract and Keywords

Howard W. Odum (1884–1954) was the founding dean of the University of North Carolina (UNC) School of Public Welfare.

Keywords: Howard W. Odum, social change, social development, public welfare, South, race, African Americans, folklore

Howard W. Odum was founding dean of the University of North Carolina (UNC) School of Public Welfare (Brazil, 1988). When he first arrived at UNC as a young scholar, he founded the Department of Sociology. His vision included not just the study of society, but a commitment to social change and reform of the American Southeast. Odum recognized the need to develop social welfare systems, and he set forth to train public administrators to develop social service capacity in local municipalities throughout North Carolina (Odum, 1920). Odum saw social work as essential to democracy (Odum, 1923). In fact, earliest curriculum outlined in Odum’s proposal focused on social forces and social development (Odum, 1920) rather than psychodynamics and psychoanalysis as influenced by Freud. Interestingly when Odum was a doctoral student he personally met Freud during his first lecture in the United States. Odum seemed largely unaffected by Freud’s theories and approaches (Brazil, 1988).

Odum chose to look at the whole picture and his earliest theoretical work was holistic. This is exemplified in one of Odum’s greatest personal satisfactions—his book Southern Regions of the United States (1936). Odum detailed an inventory of the people and resources of the South as well as including a discussion about the entire nation in this book (Personal communication, M. F. Odum Shinnan, October 2000). Often simply called Southern Regions, the book was considered a must-have reference book for public officials in the American Southeast (Brazil, 1988; Sosna, 1977).

Odum’s vision also included the establishment of the journal Social Forces; early editions documented the proceedings of the charities and corrections conferences, among other social intervention subjects (Odum, 1922). Also, Odum initiated the development of the UNC Press and he went on to publish many of his books under this publishing house. For example, Odum authored one of the early texts in social welfare titled An Approach to Social Welfare (Odum, 1926). As he built a research base for these studies, Odum founded the UNC Social Sciences Research Institute, now renamed the Odum Institute in his honor.

Odum’s (1909) earliest research on race included the first thorough documentation of African-American folk music. While this particular music research respected the history and traditions of the people he studied, his dissertation research on African Americans was racist in that he asked research questions related to racial inferiority (Odum, 1910). This framing of research questions reflected the times and was illustrative of the state of social sciences circa 1910, but, in time, Odum drew conclusions about the context of the human experience and behavior. His book Race and Rumors of Race (1997; reprint) was considered an important text and today it is recognized as a work documenting the earliest stages of the civil rights movement (Brazil, 1988; Sanders, 2003; Sosna, 1977).

Examining social and natural environments and the impact on human and social development (Odum, 1938), Odum in his writings provides the first thorough natural and social environment treatment of ecological theory in social work (Rotabi, 2007). Odum was considered to be an important and leading liberal scholar in the South (Brazil, 1988; Odum, 1939; Sosna, 1977), often taking great personal risks in attacking the Klu Klux Klan and documenting lynchings and other social dynamics, including farming practices and the impact of poor environments and problems such as erosion (Odum, 1923, 1931). By the time of his death in 1954 his obituary in the New York Times stated that Odum “laid the groundwork for understanding the facts, customs and history of Southern people. No man in our time then had done more than Odum to help the understanding of the South in the South, and of the South in the nation, too” (“Howard W. Odum, sociologist, dies,” 1954).

His publications include: An Approach to Social Welfare (1926); “Religious Folk Songs of Southern Negros” in the American Journal of Religious Psychology and Education (1909); Social and Mental Traits of the Negro (1910); Southern Regions of the United States (1936); American Social Problems (1939); Civilization and Society: An Account of the Development and Behavior of Human Society (1932); Race and Rumors of Race, edited by Bryant Simon (1997); “The Journal’s Program” in Social Forces 1(1) (1922); “Social Work in Relation to Democracy and Progress in Social Forces 1(4) (1923); “Lynchings, Fears, and Folkways” in The Nation (133) (1931).

A collection of his work, Odum Papers of the Southern History Collection, can be found at the University of North Carolina’s School of Public Welfare.

For further reading, see Wayne D. Brazil’s Howard W. Odum, The Building Years, 1884-1930 (1988); Karen Rotabi’s “Ecological theory origin from natural to social science or vice versa?” in Advances in Social Work 8(1) (2008); Lynn Moss Sanders’ Howard W. Odum’s Folklore Odyssey (2003); and Morton Sosna’s Southern Liberals and the Race Issue: In Search of the Silent South (1977).