Bill Long 10/9/05
My "Take" on Sociology's Early History in America
To start with a disclaimer: I am no sociologist nor the son of a sociologist. I only took one course in the field, in 1971. Sociology has, as a discipline, fallen on hard times in the 1990s and this decade. Well, I think it might more accurately be said that sociology probably enjoyed entirely too good times in the 1950s - 1970s, and that its lowering in status in the university today, to a place slightly above the Department of Egyptology, is probably too undeserved but not fully unexpected. The burden of this essay is to try to illumine the development of the field as seen through the early history of the field's most prominent journal, the American Journal of Sociology (AJS).
Seeing the World through the AJS Lens
The first American journal in the field of sociology appeared in 1895. It was a product of the newly-founded University of Chicago. The U of Chicago was established on very firm (Northern) Baptist roots, and an aggressive and liberal Protestant spirit permeated the whole. William Rainey Harper hired Albion Small, a Protestant minister who graduated from Newton Theological Institution in MA in the 1870s, studied for two years in Germany, and then for years had taught at tiny Colby College (Waterville, ME) before getting a doctorate at John's Hopkins (1889), to head up the first department of sociology in the country (1892). Within three years Small had put together an editorial board, and the first edition of the AJS came out in July 1895. Three themes seem to characterize the initial issues: (1) the new realities of the modern world require patient understanding and insight into "men" in their social relations; (2) that the Gospel of Jesus Christ gave the encouragement not simply to undertake this task but the ethical imperative to produce meliorative works (or works that encouraged the realization of the "Kingdom of God" here on earth); and (3) that Lester Ward, the really big name at the time, and author of one of the first real sociology texts Dynamic Sociology (1884), would now find a regular field-based mouthpiece for his voluminous thoughts. Thus, the first issue had articles by Small on "The Era of Sociology," by Ward on "The Place of Sociology Among the Sciences," and a few articles on Christian sociology and Christian socialism by Shailer Mathews and Paul Monroe. While some of these articles were descriptive, many others were hortatory--encouraging readers to understand the way that diligent attention to the shape of social realities by "scientific" methods (a favorite word of the early sociologists) would result in more just institutions. This statement was more an article of faith than an assertion subject to proof; nevertheless the "faith" component was very evident in the first issues.
The Journal Evolves
Small lived until the mid-1920s and kept publishing in the AJS frequently over the years. By 1905, however, and especially by 1915, the tone of the articles had slightly changed. The Christian spirit was still there, but one had the sense that the hopeful ruminations of 1895 were now tied more directly to an evolutionary philosophy that would, in fact, provide the intellectual underpinnings for the Progressive movement. For example, in 1904 (vol. 10) Small can speak of the importance of the social process as a "continuous advance in the development, adjustment, and satisfaction of the health, wealth, sociability, knowledge, beauty, and rightness desires" (p.28). Though this could easily be connected with liberal Christian "kingdom of God" language, it need not be and increasingly it wouldn't be in the future.
But as an indication of the way that the AJS and the field would take on a more empirical bent, and the interesting way that eugenics theory could find a hearing among liberal Christians, was an article by Francis Galton, also appearing in 1904. When Galton defined the aim of eugenics as "to represent each class or sect by its best specimens; that done, to leave out their common civilization in their own way" (p. 2), he was encouraging a kind of fact-based inquiry into what constitutes the "best" members of a class and then, of course, encouraging various social policies to make sure that only these best members propagate. His ideas provided fodder for lots of discussion in the AJS over the years.
By 1915, however, the AJS was fully immersed in the attempts to provide rich descriptions of current social realities. For example, one article talked about "charitable charters" from the legal point of view; one addressed Chicago's housing condition and another was a review of Hoxie's interpretation of trade unionism. Lester Frank Ward died in 1913, and an article in 1915 reviewed some of his contributions to sociology. Albion Small himself provided a "history" of sociology over the previous 50 years. And, Jane Addams, renowned of Hull House, even provided a striking and almost bewitching two-page article on a so-called "Modern Devil-Baby" that she was supposed to have been harboring at Hull House.
Finally, for purposes of this essay, a brief Septmber 1914 piece described a "reasonable department" of sociology, based on the experience of the Kansas University department. The author stated the problem: if sociology was merely to be social psychology, it could be placed in the department of psychology; if it only focused on social philosophy, it could be swallowed up in a philosophy department. Though there was great divergence of opinion in how one might set up such a department, KU had divided its department into four categories:
1. The "Bio-Social Group," where courses in general anthropology, social evolutionn, criminal anthropology, race problems and eugnenics were offered.
2. The "Pure or General Sociology Group," in which were the courses on elements of sociology, psychological sociology, and courses of sociological theory.
3. The "Applied or Specialized Sociology Group," offering courses on contemporary society of the US, socialism, American and European charities, the family, rural sociology, principles of applied sociology and a few other courses.
4. The "Social Technology and Social Engineering" group of courses, which were designed to prepare a person for entering the nascent fields of social work. These courses seemed to be what we today would call "practicums," with placement at a state board of health, board of control, penal or reformatory schools, etc.
This all-too-brief foray into the history of sociology, stimulated by Porterfield's little pamphlet, opens up wide vistas for research, doesn't it? But not by me. At least not now...
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long