An Interpretation of Sociology in the United States

Luther Lee Bernard
Washington University


Sociology in the United States was influenced in its early development by Comte's positivist philosophy, theology, metaphysics, and the anthropogeographic, cultural, statistical, transcendental, humanitarian or welfare, journalistic— descriptive, psychological and ethical viewpoints. From 1890 to the present it has been transformed and integrated variously into Christian sociology, Christian ethics, general sociology, cultural sociology, practical or applied sociology, social work, historical sociology, descriptive sociology, sociological methodology, social psychology, human ecology, behavioristic sociology, and fundamentalist sociology; and also into various territorial and functional subsociologies, such as rural sociology, urban sociology, social biology, the sociology of religion, educational sociology, social ethics, etc. The present trend is to concentrate upon sociological methodology as a means to the further development of the content of the subject. The behaviorist or dynamic approach to content makes primary use of social psychology, cultural sociology, and human ecology as its chief supports.

The following interpretation does not claim to be more than the author's conclusions arrived at after considerable study of the field of American sociology. Other interpretations may properly differ from this one.

I. It now seems clear that sociology is a much older subject, even as measured by university curricula, than Small and some of the earlier American sociologists supposed. Although the term sociology did not become current in Europe before 1839 and did not appear in our literature before the 1840's, courses that may properly be described as sociology were to be found in the curricula of the College of Philadelphia (now the University of Pennsylvania) and in Columbia College in 1754 and 1794, respectively. These courses were entitled, in the first case, "The Ends and Uses of Society" and, in the second instance, "Humanity." Acting on a suggestion from the writer, Read Bain has discovered a course entitled the "Philosophy of Social Relations" given by Robert Hamilton Bishop at Miami University in 1834- 36, and a course with the same title began to be offered at the University of Virginia by Dr. W. H. M'Guffey,

(44) a former colleague of Bishop at Miami University, in 1850. W. G. Sumner introduced the subject under the title of sociology and used Spencer's treatises at Yale as early as 1873. Between this date and 1889, when Blackmar began to teach sociology at Kansas, Giddings, at Bryn Mawr, and Small, at Colby, approximately a score of colleges and universities, north and south, east and west, had introduced the subject either as an independent course, or as an integral part of a more general course bearing the subtitle of sociology. The first treatise on sociology ever published, I believe, in any country was brought out in 1854 by Henry Hughes of Mississippi under the title of A Treatise on Sociology, Theoretical and Applied. In the same year George Fitzhugh of Virginia published a much less systematic work entitled Sociology for the South. Before 1860 sociology had developed primarily in the South, because southern leaders were thinking more about social problems in a large cosmopolitan manner and the South was sending her sons to Europe for education and intellectual contacts.

II. Sociology in this country has had a more varied heritage than have the other social sciences. In common with its sister social sciences it developed originally from the old metaphysical theory of natural law or the law of nature, which was an attempt to formulate an orderly and non-arbitrary explanation of the world of phenomena, physical and social, that man recognized as his environment, and was also an endeavor to give to this natural order an ethical sanction by tying the theory of natural law up with that of divine law. The study of political and economic relations was split off from this integral body of natural law, through the work of Grotius and Pufendorf, respectively, before sociology could claim a separate existence. To be sure, Vico began the separation for sociology and the philosophers of history carried it forward, just as Hobbes, Locke, Montesquieu, Rousseau, the Cameralists, and the American revolutionary theorists developed the Grotian political conceptions and as the mercantilists, the physiocrats, and Adam Smith transformed the beginnings of Pufendorf into political economy.

The chief respect in which sociology failed to develop in step with the other two social sciences through the eighteenth and first half of the nineteenth centuries was, on the one hand, that it lacked their

(45) practical motivation toward unity of discipline and objects of application, and, on the other hand, that the less institutionalized and more traditional character of its subject matter exposed it to the controversies now beginning to rage between theology and secular philosophy. Theology, having to make some concessions to the new demands for a more experiential and secular interpretation of social and ethical relations, gave about the middle of the eighteenth century, especially in Protestant countries, its sanction to moral philosophy, which began to supplant the old discipline of natural law in the college curricula. The philosophy of history was the more radical and more highly secularized form taken by this new study of society and social relations, which we now call sociology. Both of these subjects, moral philosophy and the philosophy of history, occupied the center of sociological attention until in the third quarter of the nineteenth century, and even political economy and political philosophy were usually taught in departments of moral philosophy during this period, thus sustaining a sort of logical relationship of dependence to the more general science of sociology in process of development. I have no doubt that the claims made by some of the earlier sociologists, including Small, for a sort of general tutelage of their subject over the other social sciences originated consciously or unconsciously from their earlier close relationship with the old discipline, moral philosophy.

About the middle of the nineteenth century there arose a third group of men who were even more dissatisfied with the old speculative methods of deriving principles respecting human society. They had been led by the new critical history to doubt the methods of the old philosophy of history and they had even less confidence in the theological biases of the dominant moral philosophy, although they were by no means necessarily antireligious. They were for the most part practical men, who had learned something— sometimes much — regarding the methodology of statistics. Many of them had a strong economic bias, some were influenced by Buckle, and most of them were strongly attracted by the positivistic spirit of Comte. These men organized the new synthetic discipline of Social Science. wrote treatises in the field, and established courses under that title in the colleges and universities. Although their interests were allied

(46) with all the social sciences, they may be regarded as particularly antecedent to sociology. In fact, the works of Spencer were their most commonly used textbooks and the content of their courses was frequently renamed sociology within the remaining years of the century. This new subject Social Science may in fact be regarded as a more practical and a more secularized substitute for the old moral philosophy, and both were to give way to the new sociology.

III. The newly renamed subject of sociology which began to appear in the curricula in the eighteen-seventies and which around 1890 began definitely to replace its old antecedents in the curricula was by no means a well-integrated discipline at the time it took its place. History and political economy far surpassed it in the matter of integration in 1890, although political science possessed at that time little if any more unity than sociology. Neither was the methodology of sociology as scientific and as objective as the methodologies of history and political economy. Sociology still bore the diverse earmarks of its several origins, some of which were methodologically antagonistic to others. As a discipline it still had before it twenty or thirty years of strenuous work of integration before it could claim equal ranking in unity of content and method with its sister social sciences.

It may be instructive to point out here some of the more outstanding viewpoints which made claim for recognition in the new subject of sociology. The most insistent among these was, perhaps, the positivism of Comte and his followers, known better in this country through the writings of Spencer and Mill than through those of Comte himself. The Positive Polity of Comte, which is the more sociological of his two great works, never has received much attention in the United States. Lester F. Ward and Giddings were particularly influenced by the positivist viewpoint, while Sumner, Small, Simon N. Patten, and Carver were its devotees in less degree. The philosophic viewpoint was represented by the neo-Hegelians (including in considerable degree Small, Cooley, J. M. Baldwin, and the Deweyites among the sociologists, especially of the more recent Chicago schools), also by the transcendentalists, so closely allied to the neo-Hegelians (of whom Cooley, Patten, and Veblen may be considered examples in varying degrees), and finally by the surviv-

(47) -ors of the philosophy of history approach, which in fact characterized more or less all of those whom I have mentioned here as adhering to positivism and other philosophic viewpoints, as well as other sociologists like Blackmar, Loos, and Weatherly. The anthropogeographic viewpoint was closely allied in sympathies with these other philosophic schools, but was adopted by only a portion of the men named above, and by none of them without reservations. Perhaps L. M. Keasbey is a better example of this school than any of the others mentioned.

The Christian ethics or moral philosophy viewpoint maintained itself so strongly that in large measure it refused to assimilate with the new sociology and took refuge particularly in the theological seminaries and in Harvard University, where gradually it adopted an applied sociological content without giving up its name. In this Christian ethics viewpoint may be distinguished three strands: the Scotch Calvinistic reform philosophy perhaps best represented by the work of Paley, George Combe, Chalmers, and Francis Wayland; a branch of the transcendentalists; and the Catholic moral philosophy, which only gradually and latterly has begun to take over the name of sociology. Always closely allied with this Christian ethics viewpoint was the social welfare outlook, which, however, derived almost as much from the Social Science group as from the moral philosophers. Indeed it was the American Social Science Association that gave birth to the National Prison Association and the National Conference of Charities and Correction, in 1870 and 1874, respectively. Many of the adherents to the Social Science school were really moral philosophers or Christian ethicists particularly characterized by their antislavery interests and their partisanship for an intelligent popular democracy.

Not the least important problem of these early sociologists who struggled to integrate their subject in the years between 1870 and 1910 was that of securing adequate data to serve as a basis for their generalizations. The new critical history, which had turned from generalizing doubtful facts to the collection and verification of document;, had largely discredited the sociologists' open sesame of the philosophy of history. The political economists had at hand a large body of statistics of commerce, industry, money and exchange, and

(47) the like, which enabled them to work inductively toward a definite science. Political science had not yet attempted seriously to develop beyond the limits of constitutional history and public law into the realms of practical politics and political psychology. The methodological viewpoint of sociology, while increasingly repudiating the old speculative methods of its antecedent natural law and the untested inductions of the later moral philosophy, was so inadequately supplied with statistical data regarding non-economic phenomena that it was not able to do for even the applied aspects of sociology what political economy was doing for the fields of banking and currency, taxation, public finance, manufactures, and trade. However, the Social Science school, with its emphasis upon statistics and surveys, was encouraging sociology to take an interest in this more quantitative aspect of methodological induction.

Many sociologists were now genuinely interested in systematic induction. Their discipleship of the Comtean positivism made them the chief champions of the inductive method among the social sciences, although their materials for performance long remained scanty. While waiting for more quantitative social data to come in from governmental bureaus, private agencies, and individual surveys, they followed the lead of Spencer in the eighteen-seventies and made use of anthropological data gathered from travelers and returned missionaries. American sociology was predominantly cultural in the anthropological sense during the seventies and the eighties of the past century, and some men, notably Sumner, Thomas, and Veblen, continued to work with anthropological materials after that date. The cultural viewpoint is not of recent origin in American sociology, as some sociologists and anthropologists have supposed, but was one of the first viewpoints to appear after sociology began its career of integrating its subject matter. The cultural viewpoint declined markedly in relative importance from 1890 to 1910, because in that period statistical and survey data began to come in with relative abundance and to replace the less dependable anthropological data as bases for generalization. Warner's American Charities (1894) and Wines' Punishment and Ref ormalion (1895) were followed by Mayo-Smith's Statistics and Sociology (1895), Wright's Outlines of Applied Sociology (1899), Weber's Growth of Cities,

(49) and many other sociological works based on statistical data and sociological surveys.

Two other viewpoints came prominently into American sociology in the eighteen-nineties, both of them reaching this country primarily through European sociological literature. The collective psychology viewpoint came primarily from Tarde and Le Bon. The journalistic descriptive viewpoint, attempting to give a general conspectus of the more visible and obvious cultural traits of contemporary civilization, reached us not only from France but also from England, and had many antecedents in the survey approach. I suppose we may say that E. A. Ross has been the most active exponent of these two early viewpoints in European sociology, although he has not lacked emulators. Both of these viewpoints were closely related functionally to the anthropological-cultural viewpoint, and, in my opinion, they were largely the result of the attempt to apply the method of cultural analysis to contemporaneous society on the basis of methodological norms then recognized in this field.

IV. Let us turn now from this rather brief cross-section analysis of the all-too-frequently discrete interests and outlooks of the sociologists during the first thirty or forty years of their recognized existence as college and university professors and as curriculum makers to an equally brief survey of their attempts to consolidate, integrate, and orient their subject matter. This integrating and reorienting movement began in earnest soon after 1890. The earliest marked signs are to be found, I believe, in the work of Giddings and Small. Before this time, with the single exception of the anthropological approach,, sociological methodology had been primarily local, individual, and discrete, without any marked attempt to make it characteristic of the subject as a whole. Perhaps it was the catholic urge to integration coming from the positivistic antecedents of these men that led them to work out a general sociological methodology. Both of them began, characteristically enough, with the definition of sociological concepts, and Small, limited by his neo-Hegelian outlook and his lack of a scientific background, never got beyond a logic of concepts united with a rather static application of the critical historical school's method of documentary investigation. But Giddings, after a. period of neo-Bucklean generalization of so-

(50) -cial laws, apparently recalling his earlier experience with statistics, and perhaps also profiting from his contacts with Mayo-Smith and Carroll D. Wright, began to make a truly inductive methodological approach to the study of social phenomena. The department of sociology at Columbia University has been for thirty years the source of numerous studies in statistical interpretation of a fairly high order. In so far as a dependable inductive quantitative sociological methodology is concerned, it may be said that the department at Columbia during the headship of Giddings has led the field of American sociology.

The various philosophic viewpoints mentioned above have either been transformed, in so far as they were of value, into the recent more critical inductive methodological procedures, or they have been absorbed and adopted by the newer schools of Christian ethics, Christian sociology, and social ethics. Also, to some extent, they have affiliated themselves with the newer cultural sociology which has arisen in the last decade with new force and prominence owing to the massing of large bodies of dependable anthropological data consequent upon some thirty years of intensive field studies in ethnology and anthropology. This new cultural orientation in sociology has arisen in part in response to a growing demand for an examination and criticism of traditional social institutions and of their traditional theoretical sanctions. This particular type of criticism it accomplishes impersonally under the technique of the study of methods of cultural change. So far cultural sociology has been rather slow to adopt and apply the techniques of social psychology. Also in its antagonism to the old anthropogeography it has undervalued the significance of an analysis of environmental factors, and clings to a static and metaphysical definition of culture. The old anthropogeographic viewpoint, rejected so unceremoniously by the cultural sociologists, has been revised and modernized into the new school of human ecology, which promises to give a better account of the dynamics of social change than cultural sociology itself affords.

The old welfare viewpoint, with its strong humanitarian urge, has been largely segregated into social work. . . . .

The journalistic-descriptive and collective-psychology viewpoints or schools have merged largely with the renascent cultural sociology

(51) and have made valuable contributions to that field. But collective psychology also has a considerable role to play in the new field of behavioristic analysis of the adjustment process which has been brought into sociology in recent years by the newer social psychology, at first by Baldwin and Cooley, and later by a large group of sociologists trained in the field of social psychology. The emphasis of this school of behavioristic sociologists is upon the technique of the adjustment process without any preconceptions as to institutional and traditional values. The strategic and pragmatic importance of their viewpoint has focused the development of sociology in their direction, with the new cultural sociology and human ecology as strong supporting wings to their center of attack upon sociological theory.

V. American sociology cannot be understood properly without some knowledge of its historical and present relationships with the other social sciences. We have already noted the derivative and synthetic origin of sociology in this country. This is not necessarily an evidence of weakness, as frequently has been asserted. A synthetic approach is often more effective than a unilateral one and it may turn out that the sociological synthetic wholeness is its strongest feature, as was so often implied by Small. Its ability to achieve unity and integrity, both of subject matter and of method, in the face of much professional antagonism and ridicule, is one of its signs of vitality. Sociology has always served as a correlator. Again and again its insistence upon the essential unity of social life and behavior has been adopted at points by the other social sciences. Three of its predecessors— natural law, moral philosophy, and Social Science proper— insisted upon this essential unity and wholeness of viewpoint as a means to adequate and effective social adjustments in whatever fields of experience they may occur. Again and again sociology has also developed some new subsidiary discipline, such as social psychology, educational sociology, labor problems, immigration, cultural sociology, in order to complete its picture of the social situation, only to have these subjects absorbed and adopted by other social sciences possessed of more powerful administrative organizations. Thus sociology has supplied no inconsiderable amount of the material which has served to bind the ex-

(52) -panding social sciences more closely in their reciprocal approaches toward one another. This fecundating function of sociology has also in some measure served to modify the strong prejudices which were early manifest against sociology, and its pretensions, particularly in the East.

VI. The regional and particularistic development of sociology in the United States has been so characteristic that a word must be devoted to it. The three great early academic centers of sociology were Yale, Chicago, and Columbia. Yale began with cultural sociology, with some admixture of anthropogeography, and has integrated to the general developmental process of the science but slowly. Even now, more than twenty years after Sumner's death, the department at Yale is still dominated by his ghost. Chicago kept the philosophic bent under the dominance of Small, relieved somewhat by the collective psychology of Vincent and the cultural-ecological-behavioristic approach of Thomas. After Thomas, for ten years, the department at Chicago was turned largely into a city editor's office on an academic scale, and the graduate students were put to work reporting systematically interesting sociological news and in making ecological community analyses. Today, the city editor's chair is giving way to the laboratory of the statistical investigator and the Columbia viewpoint and methodology have extended to her rival of nearly forty years, just at the time when sociology at Columbia appears to have returned to the philosophical approach. In recent years various provincial centers of sociology have developed. The centers at Wisconsin, Michigan, and North Carolina have been more or less independently organized by their leaders, but most of the others of importance have been characterized largely by feudalistic dominance and discipleship. They are for the most part little Columbia's and little Chicago's, sometimes exhibiting a spirit of rivalry and invidious competition more fitting for commerce than for the impersonal search after truth.

Pathological aspects, however regrettable, should not of course be omitted from the picture, if it is to he a true one. The sociologists have now reached that stage of conflict between the older and the newer viewpoints in sociology which the economists came upon rather rudely in their own way in the early eighteen-nineties. Re-

(53) -cent revolts, sometimes from the floor of the American Sociological Society, against manipulation of policy and personnel and against an undemocratic system of control in the interests of older viewpoints and interests have occurred. Also regional associations are springing up which may in time threaten the strength of the national organization should the latter be captured or held by a small combination of university departments. Factionalism and sectionalism in program-making have been almost as noticeable as in the control of the electoral policies. Tolerance of viewpoints apparently is not yet our most conspicuous virtue. Perhaps all of these pathological phenomena are but growing pains which evidence evolution under difficulties toward democratic self-determination. A more serious trend appears to be the growth of an informal, and perhaps an inevitable, association between the larger research foundations and a few of the larger departments of sociology which in effect excludes the teaching members in smaller departments from participation in planning and supervising important research projects. The effects of this informal alliance, if it grows, will probably be the concentration of graduate students in sociology at three or four centers and the increasing reduction of other departments to a feudal dependence upon these subvented departments, with the consequent discouragement of research and productive scholarship and of departmental growth in the vast number of outlying institutions.

Naturally the leading personalities among the sociologists have contributed much to the color of American sociology. Ward was a sturdy positivist and neo-Comtean, who never ceased to identify sociology in particular with the philosophy of science as applied to human affairs in general. Sumner, having sought long for methodological peace found it finally in the generalization of anthropological data, and never thereafter deserted his Spencerian idols. Small never escaped from his theologico-philosophic training further than the German historical school and the limited psychology of Ratzenhofer could carry him. Giddings, among those of the older group, covered the largest span of intellectual evolution, as has already been explained. Thomas has gone through almost an equal expanse of development from the early cultural sociology to the new behavioristic social psychology. Cooley worked brilliantly in the same

(54) field, but was somewhat hampered by his neo-Hegelian preconceptions, being primarily a philosopher rather than a scientist. He and Weber were the real founders of "human ecology" among the sociologists, although most credit for initiating this line of development must go to the historians and geographers rather than to the sociologists. Ross has added to his American adaptation of European collective psychology and journalistic descriptive sociology a more recent interest in population adjustment. Park brought the city editor's chair into the sociological office and directed some of the best journalistic reporting of sociological news of our day. The old Christian sociologists, such as Peabody, Graham Taylor, and Henderson, are being succeeded by a group of militant prophets of social justice typified by Harry Ward and by Graham Taylor himself. The cultural sociologists and the human ecologists have been characterized. They are attempting to explain the stereotyping and the succession of cultures. The behaviorists are unraveling the dynamics of culture and the development of personality. Because they start with objective analysis instead of with assumptions as to preexistent social and ethical values, they have incurred the antagonism of the sociological fundamentalists who would apparently convince us that the sociological world was made in six days and that there should be no reconstructive labor after the seventh.


  1. Owing to limitations of space, section VII of this paper, which is concerned with methods of investigation, will appear separately in the American Journal of Sociology.

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