Sumner and Methodology[1]

Charles Horton Cooley

Like every one else I have been thinking a good deal of late about research, methodology, and the like, and it has occurred to me that a promising way to approach the matter would be to ask, What is the most successful work of research that American sociology has produced? No doubt opinions would differ about this, but it seems to me, on reflection, that if a vote were taken, bearing in mind that the question refers to factual methods and results as distinguished from more speculative sociology, a plurality of the voters, if not a majority, would probably be found to favor Sumner's Folkways. Let us assume, at any rate, that this is the case and ask ourselves, What can we learn about methodology from Sumner? What sort of work is Folkways and how was it produced?

What strikes me most strongly when I consider this question is that Folkways does not conform to any of the current canons of methodology. It is not quantitative; it does not proceed by statistical method; it is not made up of case studies; it is not psychoanalytic, nor yet behavioristic, according to the doctrine of the sect that goes by that name, since much of the material it uses is based on sympathetic imagination. Moreover, it is not in any great measure a work of direct observation at all! It is almost all second hand. And, last and worst, its objectivity is open to question. There is reason to think that Sumner was by no means an unbiased man, but was, on the contrary, noted for a somewhat dogmatic individualism and pessimism that were not without influence upon his treatment of the folkways.

Just before I left home I read an article in one of our lead-

( 326) -ing sociological journals by one of the most distinguished writers, in which he maintains that institutions, groups, folk-ways, and that sort of thing are not real in a scientific sense at all. If Sumner had been living at the present time and had had the advantage of consulting this author he might have learned, apparently, that the object of his studies simply did not exist, at least for science, and so might have spared himself the trouble of pursuing them further.

Nearly all that I have said of Sumner's Folkways might also be said of Darwin's Origin of Species, which, so far as method is concerned, was a work of much the same character. They are both books in which the author seems quite regardless of everything except collecting the greatest possible body of pertinent facts and striving to make out what they mean.

You may say, perhaps, that Summer (like Darwin) was a pioneer, and that what did well enough in those rude times must be given up in these riper days when we are hoping to develop our subject into a real science. But does any one doubt that if a book of the same force, originality, and wealth of suggestion were to appear now it would have just as much success ? Or that people would care as little about the orthodoxy of the method as they did twenty years ago?

Well, what does all this mean as regards methodology? Certainly not that it is unimportant; perhaps merely that we should not take the methodological dogmatist too seriously. I am not sure but that methodology is a little like religion. It is something we need every day, something we are irresistibly impelled to talk and think about, but regarding which we never seem to reach a definite conclusion. Each one, if he is clever, works out something adequate for his own use, but the more general principles remain unsettled. Others help us far more by their example than by their theory. It would appear that a working methodology is a residue from -actual research, a tradition of laboratories and work in the field: the men who contributed to it did so unconsciously, by trying to find out some-thing that they ardently wanted to know. If other sciences have more than ours it is because they have a longer record of achievement.

To return to Sumner. I think I see at least two inferences

( 327) that we can well draw from his case. The first regards the power of an abundant factual material. It is this, together with his vigorous personality and style, that more than any-thing else gives Sumner his immense influence. There are pages of facts, fresh, fascinating, well presented facts, for each idea. You are led to assimilate the subject in a natural, enjoy-able way. It took great patience to accumulate all this material, and admirable reserve to withhold and brood over it until his ideas were mature and fit to shape into a lucid book. If he had been anxious to be known as a "research man," eager to get credit for his work as soon as he had done it, if not before, he could never have attained any such success. Perhaps this is a trait of methodology about which young students might concern themselves more than they do.

Another lesson is the old one of self-reliance. It is a matter of history that every one who has done anything important in the past has done it partly by resisting immediate and con-temporary influences and finding a way of his own. There are plenty of us elders to tell the young student just what to do and how to do it. He can learn a great deal from us, no doubt, but only on condition that he rely first of all on his own judgment and common sense. The best authorities agree that science is nothing more than common sense refined and perfected, and if a rule of methodology appears, on fair consideration, to be opposed to common sense, he is safe, I think, in disregarding it.

It is always wise, in your own development, to retain the initiative. In my opinion a young man should not go to a teacher and say, "Give me a research project and show me how to work it out," nor should a teacher countenance any such attitude. If the student is to do anything important it will be rooted in his own life, and his first task is to discover and develop the germ. Let him retire into the wilderness, if necessary, and mature his purpose. When he goes to a teacher he should be able to say, "I know in a general way what I want to find out, and I have prepared a tentative plan for doing so. I should be glad to have your opinion as to what I have done and how I may proceed with it." It is easy to help those who can help themselves.


  1. This brief paper constitutes the remarks made by Professor Cooley at the annual dinner of the American Sociological Society, December, 1927. It was published in Sociology and Social Research, XII, No. 4 (March-April, 1928), pp. 303-6.

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