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Research Methods

Eugenicists were faced with the problem of defining and measuring the traits whose patterns of inheritance they wanted to determine. Definition posed a considerable problem when the traits were complex behaviors that were often defined in different ways in different cultures or different historical periods. What counted as an alcoholic or a criminal? How was "feeblemindedness" defined? Recognizing that such conditions are culturally defined, Davenport, for example, lumped all such individuals into the category of "social defectives" or "socially inadequate persons." For most of the behavioral and mental traits in which eugenicists were interested, no objective and quantitative definitions or measurements existed. For the most part, they had to rely on highly qualitative, subjective methods of defining traits and categorizing individual behavior.

One trait that could be expressed quantitatively was intelligence, tests for which were developed, particularly in the United States. In 1912 Davenport arranged for Henry H. Goddard (1856–1962) to administer versions of the French Binet-Simon test to immigrants arriving at Ellis Island. Although the Binet-Simon test was intended to measure only an individual's mental functioning at a given point in time, Goddard and a host of American psychometricians considered that it also measured innate, genetically determined intelligence. Goddard coined the term "feeblemindedness" to refer to those who scored below seventy on his tests. He claimed, "Feeblemindedness is hereditary and transmitted as surely as any other character. We cannot successfully cope with these conditions until we recognize feeblemindedness and its hereditary nature, recognize it early, and take care of it" (p. 117).

Psychometricians and eugenicists maintained their belief that their tests measured innate capacity rather than merely accumulated knowledge despite the abundance of culturally specific material and terminology in the tests. Even when results from the U.S. Army tests during World War I showed that the longer recruits from immigrant families had lived in the United States, the better they did on the tests, Carl C. Brigham (1890–1943), a Princeton psychologist who analyzed the data, argued that the trends showed a decline in the quality of immigrants over time, not their degree of familiarity with the cultural content of the tests.

The family pedigree chart was one of the main means for displaying and analyzing data on the heredity of a behavioral trait. The data were often anecdotal and subjective and many times were obtained from second-and thirdhand sources. Typical examples are the family studies carried out through the auspices of the Eugenics Record Office at Cold Spring Harbor. Starting with an individual, usually incarcerated in a mental or penal institution, field-workers would interview not only that individual but as many members of the family as possible. Where possible, medical records would be obtained. The data were then organized into pedigree charts to suggest how heredity influenced many behavioral, personality, and mental traits. For example, in a study published in 1919, Davenport claimed that thalassophilia, or "love of the sea," was due to a sex-linked Mendelian recessive appearing in the families of prominent U.S. naval officers. That the condition must be sex-linked was clear to Davenport, since in pedigree after pedigree only males showed the trait. Similar simplistic arguments were extended to explain the differences between racial, ethnic, and national groups, such as the claim that blacks showed genetic tendencies toward "shiftlessness" and the Irish toward "alcoholism."

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Ephemeris to Evolution - Historical BackgroundEugenics - The Historical Development Of Eugenics, 1904–1950, Research Methods, Eugenics In The Public Arena, Criticisms Of Eugenics