Newcomb, Theodore M. (Theodore Mead), 1903-1984

Alternative names
Birth 1903-07-24
Death 1984-12-28

Biographical notes:

Professor of sociology and psychology at the University of Michigan.

From the description of Theodore M. Newcomb photograph series. 1922-1984 (scattered dates). (University of Michigan). WorldCat record id: 85778154

From the description of Theodore M. Newcomb papers, 1906-1984. (University of Michigan). WorldCat record id: 34420940

Theodore M. Newcomb was born in Rock Creek, Ohio on July 24, 1903. He received his B.A. from Oberlin College in 1924 and his Ph.D. from Columbia University in 1929. In 1931 he married Mary Shipherd; they had three children, Esther, Suzanne, and Theodore, Jr. Newcomb, a pioneer in American social psychology, built his professional reputation on his research into the impact of college on students, attitudes and beliefs.

Newcomb was associate professor of sociology at Lehigh University from 1929 through 1930 and at Western Reserve University from 1930 to 1934. In 1934, he became professor of psychology at the newly established Bennington College. The liberal environment and teaching of small classes were quite agreeable to Newcomb. At Bennington, he began his four-year longitudinal investigation of the impact of college on the political and social attitudes of students. The study revealed that degrees of attitude change corresponded to the individual's length of stay and status in the college. A follow-up study 25 years later found that the attitudes acquired by graduation persisted to a considerable degree in a large sample of alumnae. The Bennington study has served as a model in social psychology for its thoroughness and accuracy.

In 1941, Newcomb began his long appointment with the University of Michigan, which would continue until his retirement in 1972. His initial position was as associate professor of sociology. The early years were interrupted by his wartime service from 1942 to 1945 as a researcher in the Foreign Broadcast Service, Office of Strategic Services, and in the Strategic Bombing Service Morale Division. In 1946, he was promoted to professor of sociology and named professor of psychology at Michigan.

Newcomb continued actively to conduct research, especially on theories of interpersonal behavior and attitude change. The Group House Project research was the basis for The Acquaintance Process. Newcomb demonstrated that groups of initial strangers developed attraction preferences toward other group members that were predictable from attitude similarities revealed in their responses to questionnaires taken prior to their arrival at the university. The Peer Influence Project studied juveniles in correctional institutions. Newcomb was interested in comparing similarities and differences between such juveniles and college students, as both were in educational institutions. Late in his career, Newcomb and Kenneth Feldman co-authored The Impact of College on Students (1969) which concluded that many attitude changes attributed to college experience were, in fact, normal developmental changes. Newcomb continued to collaborate with University of Michigan faculty until his death in 1984.

Newcomb was instrumental in establishing the Survey Research Center in 1946. This evolved into the Institute for Social Research, of which he was program director. In 1946, he founded one of the first doctoral programs of social psychology in the country, which he chaired from 1947 to 1953. Newcomb also was a key player in the creation of the Residential College and the Pilot Program. These two programs attempted to create a small liberal arts college learning environment within a large university and may reflect Newcomb's views as an educator from his own experiences at Oberlin and Bennington. Newcomb was quite active in professional organizations. He was a member of the American Psychological Association's (APA) board of directors from 1948 to 1950, and its president in 1956. He was also a charter member and president of the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues as well as co-editor of its first yearbook, Industrial Conflict (1939). His work was esteemed and he received the Kurt Lewin Award (1962) for his efforts in social psychology. He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1957 and to the National Academy of Science in 1974. At the University of Michigan he held the Mary Ann and Charles R. Walgreen Professorship for the Study of Human Understanding (1969-1974), and was Professor Emeritus of Psychology and Sociology.

Throughout his career, Newcomb supported liberal causes and was outspoken on his political views. He joined with other progressive psychologists to form a radical committee of the APA in the late 1930s, working to improve the living conditions of the oppressed working man in America. He opposed the House Committee on Un-American Activities during the McCarthy era. While under investigation himself, Newcomb publicly defended three University of Michigan faculty members who had been removed from their positions for their alleged Communist sympathies. In the mid-1960s, he was the senior of 22 faculty members who endorsed the University of Michigan's teach-in on the Vietnam war.

From the guide to the Theodore Mead Newcomb Papers, 1906-1984, 1936-1983, (Bentley Historical Library University of Michigan)


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