Now and Then[1]

Charles Horton Cooley

It has occurred to me that it might not be inappropriate in an elderly sociologist to offer some impressions regarding the state of the subject when he began to study it, contrasted with that at the present time, and perhaps to draw some inferences regarding the nature and value of what has been accomplished during the interval.

If we go back, then, to about 1890 we find that for most American students, sociology was to be sought in the works of Herbert Spencer, supplemented, perhaps, by the earlier writings of Lester F. Ward, although the latter were very little known.

I will not attempt at this time to estimate the contribution of Herbert Spencer—he certainly had a vast and on the whole salutary influence—but I will call attention to one aspect of his work which is pertinent to what I have to say. His sociological theories, it seems to me, were not well suited to be the starting point for detailed scientific investigation, on account of the somewhat remote and analogical character of their relation to actual life. They did not spring primarily from social observation; they sprang rather from the wish to extend over the social field conceptions drawn from physics and biology. As they were not tools forged to deal with social facts they could not readily be used for the purpose by other students.

I take it, then, that the younger generation of students at that time felt, vaguely perhaps, that the right start had not been made, that there was no practical basis for applying the evolutionary ideas of the time to human life, and that it still remained to build a satisfactory frame-work upon which the growth of a modern social science could proceed.

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It was natural, therefore, that this second generation should occupy themselves for the most part with somewhat extensive studies, rather than intensive, at the same time endeavoring, by a first-hand and disinterested study of facts, to ensure that their generalizations should have the character of working scientific hypotheses.

Now it is my suggestion that this has, on the whole, been the fact, that the principle endeavor and achievement of the generation to which I belong has been to build up a framework of workable hypotheses, to cover the field of sociology with a network of provisional generalizations, not firmly established but sufficiently supported by fact to invite verification or modification by more limited and intensive studies.

Of course this was too big a task to do completely or finally, but we felt that it had to be done, because the whole subject was so organically connected that our work could not safely advance far at any one point unless it was supported by a corresponding advance all along the line.

My point is, you see, that thoroughness of detailed investigation was not at that time a practicable ideal, because if at-tempted, it would have proved unsound for lack of sound general premises to base it on. We all feel, I think, that a good deal of detailed work has actually been done, by biologists or others not in touch with the progress of sociology, which is nearly or quite worthless because not soundly based.

Coming then to what I may call the third generation of American sociologists, the student of to-day has ample reason to find fault with the work of his elders if he judges it from the point of view of that thorough working out and verification of each detail which is one of the tests of scientific method. At the same time he has reason, perhaps, to be thankful that they did not devote themselves to precisely that aspect of the scientific ideal at a time when the more urgent need was to formulate a system of problems. As it is we have a literature which leads the student directly into the maze of social fact which surrounds him and offers him clues which he may follow until he is ready to drop them and make a trail of his own.

At the present time no man with any gift for research need lack a problem, and in working out that problem he may have

( 285) the assurance that he is one of many who are working co-operatively and are prepared to appreciate and fulfill one an-other's endeavors. This co-operative situation is due largely to the possession of a common background of what I may call factual ideas, derived mainly from a study of the contemporary literature of their subject.

Concerning the future I ought not perhaps to speak. The rising generation is the best judge as to what its task is. It would seem, however, if what I have said is sound, that not much of its best energies is likely to get into general works on the principles of sociology. Text-books we shall no doubt have—a constant flow of them—and that is well because a teacher can be most effective when he uses his own book. But I conceive that original work is likely to take the direction of more limited but thorough studies. This work will be theoretical—I for one am not interested in any work that is not—but the theory will spring from a more circumscribed and penetrating study of fact. There is room for many such books, and, if they are really well done, a technical public ready to appreciate them.

Let me ask, finally, whether the time has not come for a more stringent criticism of our product? We elders have "got by" and now we would like to raise the standard. When everybody was trying to do everything we were all so superficial that no one ventured to cast stones at any one else. But the new generation will not tolerate "arm-chair sociology." There is altogether too much foundation for the impression prevailing in other fields that work in sociology is hasty and pretentious. Let us have no journalism, but insist that whatever a man's subject, or whatever his conception of scientific method, he give us no work that is not, in one way or another, a thoroughly good job.


  1. This brief paper consists of remarks made at the annual banquet of the American Sociological Society, held in Washington, December 1923, and published in Journal of Applied Sociology, VIII, No. 5 (May-June, 1924), pp. 259-62

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