Eleanor Bernert Sheldon, 1920-2021: Pioneer in Social Indicators Movement

Eleanor Bernert Sheldon in 1972
Eleanor Bernert Sheldon in 1972

Eleanor Sheldon, a pioneer in the use of social indicators as an important tool of social science, died on May 8 at the age of 101. Sheldon, a sociologist, also pioneered in another way: She was the first female president of the Social Science Research Council, serving from 1972 to 1979, and was the first female director for a number of major American corporations.

With Wilbert E. Moore, she edited the influential 1968 volume Indicators of Social Change–Concepts and Measurements, which arrived just the Great Society-endorsed push for social data saw the need for the sobriquet “social indicators movement.” This book, was “foundational to the social indicators movement,” the Social Science Research Council (SSRC) wrote in a memoriam for Sheldon, defining the movement itself as an effort “to develop statistical measurements to evaluate quality of life and human well-being over time.” The volume would lead to the development of the General Social Survey.

In their book, Sheldon and Moore wrote about harnessing social indicators for change on both a programmatic and societal scale:

Such indicators would give a reading both on the current state of some segment of the social universe and on past and future trends, whether progressive or regressive, according to some normative criteria. The notion of social indicators leads directly to the idea of “monitoring” social change.

She was born Eleanor Harriet Bernert on March 19, 1920 in Hartford, Connecticut. Sheldon did her undergraduate studies at Colby Junior College and then the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, graduating in 1942. During World War II she worked in Washington, D.C. in the Princeton University Office of Population Research and then at the Bureau of Agricultural Economics, studying rural migration. As a William Rainey Harper Fellow, she completed a Ph.D. in sociology at the University of Chicago in 1949, having simultaneously served as associate director of the Chicago Community Inventory, 1917- 50, and co-author of the Chicago Community Fact Book.

Sheldon worked at the SSRC as a staff member in 1950 and 1951 and as a social scientist with the United Nations Population Division in 1951-52 before lecturing in sociology at Columbia University from 1951 to 1952. From 1955 to 1961 she lectured in sociology and at the School of Nursing for the University of California, Los Angeles.

She served as an executive associate at the Russell Sage Foundation from 1961 to 1972, a time when the foundation and Sheldon were doing seminal work on social indicators. (The foundation, for example, published Sheldon and Moore’s book.)

In 1972, Sheldon took the helm at SSRC, and as noted in the council’s memoriam, “undertook a broad range of innovative projects on topics including area studies, human development, research methodology, and law and social science.”

A current family photo of Eleanor Sheldon

Among the initiatives the council spotlighted were the “Television and Social Behavior” (1973-79) and “Mass Communications and Political Behavior” (1974-80) projects, as well as development of the SSRC Committee on Scholarly Communication with China. The latter arose as the United State was re-establishing diplomatic ties with the communist nation, an outreach then being replicated at the academic level.

Sheldon also guided the creation of the SSRC Center for Coordination of Research on Social Indicators, which was based in Washington, D.C. As the SSRC noted, “In the decade that followed, the Council worked with researchers and government agencies to lay a scientific foundation for research on social indicators and to bring this research to policy-makers.”

She was a fellow of the American Statistical Association (1971) and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. After leaving the SSRC, Sheldon served as the first woman member on the boards of directors for the Mobil Corporation, Citicorp, H.J. Heinz, and Equitable Life Assurance Society. She was a trustee of the Rockefeller Foundation for seven years starting in 1978.

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