American Sociology
E. A. Ross

Howard Odum

Edward Alsworth Ross was the fifth president of the American Sociological Society, and the last to be re-elected for a second year. He was a prolific writer of books, his texts selling in the aggregate nearly a half million copies; he was an entertaining teacher, an enthusiastic and generous supporter of the American Sociological Society and of his colleagues, striding across a continent back and forth, and finally settling down at the University of Wisconsin where he produced most of his works. And he has even excelled his predecessors in the length and vigor of his years. Born just after the Civil War in 1866, he hastens to help celebrate the approaching half-century mark with the publication of his Capsules of Social Wisdom at eighty-two years of age. And in between he has been the most traveled of all America's sociologists, moving hither and yon outside his America, to Mexico, to China, to Russia, to Sweden, to India, and many other places. Barnes concludes that "no other American sociologist has had so interesting and colorful a life as has Ross." Next to Sumner he has been the most popular teacher of under-graduates and for thirty years he headed one of the most distinguished departments of sociology in America.

Like Ward, Ross came from the American Midwest but unlike Ward, he went to get his formal education more directly in college and university. He was graduated from Coe College in 1886, studied at Berlin 1888-89, went on to Johns Hopkins and received his doctorate there in 1891 about the time Small was getting ready to go to Chicago. None of this training, however, was in sociology, and even after his year at Indiana, he accepted a chair in economics and commerce at Cornell University and did not function as professor of sociology until 1893 at Stanford University. Ross's zeal as reformer got him in trouble there and so in 1891 he went as professor of sociology at Nebraska until 1906, whence he moved permanently to the University of Wisconsin where he remained for a third of a century and as emeritus professor gives promise of celebrating fifty years of service at a single university.

In a statement prepared especially for American Sociology, Ross tells how he came to specialize in the field of sociology: "In my postgraduate study in the Universities of Berlin and Johns Hopkins, 1888-1891, I took courses in philosophy and economics but nothing in sociology, for noth-

( 99) -ing was offered. As soon as I held a university chair (1891), however, I began teaching it for it had a fascination for me. While preparing the series of papers that became Social Control, 1901, it was borne in upon me how unsettled was everything about the new would-be science and for at least eight years I gave my spare time to such studies as `The Scope and Task of Sociology,' 'Social Laws,' 'The Unit of Investigation in Sociology,' 'The Properties of Group-Units,' 'The Social Forces,' 'The Factors of Social Change,' and `Recent Tendencies in Sociology.' These and other like papers were brought out in 1905 under the title The Foundations of Sociology.

"These years of critical examination of sociological writings left me exceedingly dissatisfied with the way in which the development of sociology so far had been affected by reigning religious, ethical, or philosophical ideas. I realized that I needed a much broader knowledge of society than I had. In those days no funds were available for `social re-search,' but I found that by teaching two summer sessions without pay I could, once in every three years, have a summer and a semester with pay, for social exploration. I saw now the possibility of educating myself into a real sociologist by studying different societies `on the spot,' and I seized it."

Ross's main books are Social Control, 1901; The Foundations of Sociology, 1905; Sin and Society, 1907; Changing America, 1908; Social Psychology, 1908; Latter Day Sinners and Saints, 191o; Changing Chinese, 1911; The Old World in the New, 1914; South of Panama, 1915; Russia in Upheaval, 1918; What Is America? 1919; The Principles of Sociology, 1920, 1930; The Russian Bolshevik Revolution, 1921; The Social Trend, 1922; Social Revolution in Mexico, 1923; The Social Revolution in Mexico, 1923; The Soviet Republic, 1923; Roads to Social Peace, 1924; Civic Sociology, 1925; Readings in Civic Sociology, 1926; Standing Room Only? 1927; The Outlines of Sociology, 1933; Seventy Years of It, 1936; New Age Sociology, 1940. Of these books, Social Control, Foundations, Principles and Social Psychology represented Ross's more scientific work, while most of the others reflect his popular interest and methodology.

Ross's contributions to American sociology rest upon several bases. He was a pioneer, unafraid in the early days when he was needed. He wrote the first book on social psychology. His Social Control was new. He

(100) encouraged hundreds of sociologists who were never in his classes, including Sorokin. His texts were teachable, his treatment of social processes is the best classification of any. Yet Ross's popularity was due to the dynamics of his personality as well as to the range and quality of his work. According to Barnes, Ross was distinguished by "his ability to present his ideas in a manner which attracts the lay reader as well as the professional sociologist." On page 819 of his Introduction to the History of Sociology, Barnes says that "Although his tendency to popularize has at times led Ross into the pitfalls of overeasy generalization, it must be recognized that sociology owes a great deal to Ross for arousing public interest concerning certain of its problems and methods." His emphasis on getting ideas across to the general reader, still popular in 1950, according to Barnes "seems to be the result of a fusion of a genuine scientific interest in societal phenomena with a strong desire to aid in solving the problems which the peoples of the world have been called upon to face. It is possible to trace the presence of this combination of interests in Ross from his graduate days at Johns Hopkins through his periods of teaching at Indiana, Cornell, Stanford, Nebraska, and finally, Wisconsin.

Ross's principles or theory may be found in the four books that were written primarily from the scientific point of view: Social Control, The Foundations of Sociology, Social Psychology, and Principles of Sociology. Barnes estimated on page 823 that "although chronology would indicate that the works be taken up in the order listed, a clearer conception of his system can be developed if we start with The Foundations of Sociology. The chapter on `The Unit of Investigation in Sociology' presents a comprehensive map of the field of study for the sociologist as Ross conceived it." Barnes quotes Ross to the effect that "The basic unit of sociological investigation, although not the sole unit, is the social process." And on pages 9091 of his Foundations of Sociology, "The five units so far favorably considered groups, relations, institutions, imperatives, uniformities are products. They precede the individual and survive him. To the onlooker they appear as gods or fates, moulding the lives and disposing upon the destinies of ordinary men. Nevertheless, they have all risen at some time out of the actions and interactions of men. To understand their genesis we must ascend to that primordial fact known as the social process."

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Tested in the light of contemporary 1950 society, Ross rates reappraisal on many counts: (1) his early protest against bigness and exploitation; his sensing of the diversities of world cultures; (2) his uneasiness on the population question; (3) his appeal for world organization and peace; (4) his sensing of the power of communication and psychological cur-rents; (5) his emphasis upon process; (6) and later his powerful urge to give the world the benefit of his "Folk Wisdom."

Ross tells us personally his impressions of sociology as late as 1948. In his statement prepared for this book he says, "Among the effects upon me of all my studies carried on through twenty years were:

"1.         I saw that sociology must go forward on its own, not as a mere offshoot of some other science. 

"2.         I lost confidence in the value of analogies between social processes and other processes. 

"3.  I ceased to trust the hypothesis that there is one dominant trend in the development of all societies, whatever their geographic environment, make-up or history.

"4.         I rejected the idea that there is a single underlying pattern for each class of social process and each order of social institution. 

"5.         I arrived at the conviction that the actual character of a given society is best revealed in the two or three score of major social processes that go on within it. These processes, the factors determining each of them, as well as the products institutions, groupings, and interactions to which they give rise, are the principal things the sociologist has to study and set forth. 

"As I review the course taken by sociological thinking and research in the fifty-seven years since I began to teach the subject, I am well-contented. Less and less is arm-chair thinking relied on; stronger and stronger is the demand for honest to goodness social research. There is great difference of opinion as to the best techniques of research, but never have I met with a suspicion that the methods followed are `rigged' in advance in order to insure the emergence of certain desired results.

"I do feel, however, that our sociological treatises and journals are far more optimistic than they are justified in being. They take little notice of the fact that natural selection has been almost put out of business insofar as it pertains to human beings, and that in scores of ways the hereditarily inferior, the constitutionally less fit, are being helped to sur-

( 102) -vive and multiply. Unless more attention is given to the significance of biology for human beings, it is easy to foresee the plight of our posterity after three or four centuries!"

Ross is still worried about the earth's population, and says, "Again, sociologists are ceasing to hold the complete confidence of the higher intellectual circles by their neglect of what is happening in the field of population growth and population pressure."

Ross, like his contemporaries, was called upon to undertake many tasks and he participated in a wide range of activities. He was director of education on "The Floating University," 1928-29, and lectured at Harvard, University of Chicago, Northwestern. He was secretary of the American Economic Association 1892-93, was a member of the Institut International de Sociologie. He gave the Weil Lectures on Citizenship at North Carolina in 1924, and was advisory editor of The American Journal of Sociology, and until very recently he "never missed a meeting" of the American Sociological Society.

The two presidential addresses of Ross now appear peculiarly timely and might well, from their titles only, be on the program of tomorrow's most important conferences. In 1914 he talked on "Freedom of Communication and the Struggle for Right." This was printed in The American journal of Sociology for February, 1915. His 1915 address, printed in the Papers and Proceedings of the Tenth Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Society, Volume X, page 1 ff., pointed out that the destinies of civilization have been determined by battle and by the techniques and invention of warfare. The role of population pressure, of improved communication, of unequal economic and social conditions in the civilizations of the world are powerfully affecting peace. In the light of his assertion that it was easy for a nationalistic government to convince the people that "a war of defense" is necessary, and of what has happened since 1915, his remedy seems prophetically powerful. What Ross saw was that a "great union" of the world is the only answer.


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