History of the Odum Institute


© North Carolina Collection, Wilson Library

The Howard W. Odum Institute for Research in Social Science was founded by Howard W. Odum in 1924, making it the oldest university-based interdisciplinary social science research institute in the United States, and apparently the world. Odum was a Georgian sociologist who came 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). He also founded the journal Social Forces and the 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.


© North Carolina Collection, Wilson Library

Odum soon surrounded himself with an incredible group of research assistants, including 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, Fletcher M. Green, and Katharine Jocher in Southern history. Jocher went on to become the university’s first female staff member to rise through the ranks to a faculty position.


With this team, Odum was able to institutionalize and emphasize the study of the social and economic problems of the South at an unprecedented level. 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.


© North Carolina Collection, Wilson Library

After Odum stepped down as director in 1944, the Institute’s emphasis began to change, as did the nature of social science research in general. Increasingly, what the faculty required 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. In the 1980s and 1990s, the Institute continued serving faculty and students with an increasingly diverse set of interests in the social sciences. The Institute launched a statewide public opinion survey in 1985 called the Carolina poll, followed in by the Southern Focus Poll. In 1995, the Center for the Study of the American South was established as an outgrowth of the Odum Institute and its historic focus on the South.


Today, in the midst of the big data revolution, the Institute continues its excellent support of social science research across all types of methods and data. Big data became revolutionary when it became data about people. Similarly, some of the same technologies that are producing massive amounts of data about people are also changing their behaviors. This places social science at the center of data science. The Institute has responded by helping launch a summer training program in data science, hiring a data scientist, modernizing its cyberinfrastructure, launching the UNC Dataverse as an archive platform for the entire campus, partnering with others to lead the Data at Carolina Initiative, launching several development and research initiatives around the topic of open data access and research transparency, expanding summer training programs in qualitative and mixed methods, continuing to explore advancements in survey research methods and technology, and growing its grant submission portfolio substantially. As the landscape of digital data continues to change, the Odum Institute will likewise continue to adapt and maintain its commitment to supporting social science research at UNC and beyond.

Thank you to former director John Shelton Reed for his contributions to this history of the Odum Institute.