Popular Science Monthly/Volume 55/October 1899/Present Position of Sociology


THE present condition of sociological thought is confused, if not chaotic. It needs only a brief examination of the writings of professed sociologists to discover the want of agreement among them. There is no consensus of opinion regarding either the scope and method of the new science, so called, or its fundamental laws and principles. The name sociology stands for no definite body of systematic knowledge. It is applied to an inchoate mass of speculation, often vague and conflicting, which represents the thought of various thinkers about social phenomena.

A few years ago a student of sociology in Chicago wrote to "all the teachers of sociology in the United States, and to others known to be deeply interested in the subject and entitled to express an opinion," asking them to answer a number of pertinent questions regarding the nature and function of the "science."[1] About forty replied; of these, three discreetly pleaded knowledge insufficient to entitle them to an opinion. Comparison of the views expressed in the remaining twenty-seven replies led the investigator to conclude that the science is in a more or less undefined and tentative position. So little progress toward unanimity of opinion has been made by sociologists since the date of this census that its results may be taken as typical of present conditions. Among the questions asked were these: "Do you think the study is entitled to be called a science?" "In what department does it belong?" "What is its relation to political economy, history, political science, ethics?"

The question whether sociology is entitled to be called a science is answered by "fully three fourths" of the correspondents in the affirmative. Some hedge, by affirming that it is "becoming a science." Prof. John Bascom, of Williams College, appears to have entered into the humor of the situation; he writes, "It will do no harm to call it a science if we do not abate our effort to make it one."

The opinions regarding the department in which sociology belongs are entertainingly diverse. Prof. John Dewey, of the University of Chicago, is frank enough to admit that he doesn't "feel at all sure" where it belongs. "It would seem well," he adds, "to have it a separate branch, in order to make sure that it received proper attention." This feeling of uneasiness lest the claims of sociology be slightingly treated appears to be general among the representatives of the new study. Most of the teachers of sociology are of the opinion that it ought to form a department by itself." Some would place it in the department of the social sciences, along with politics, economics, jurisprudence, and the like. Others would change the order, making all the social sciences divisions of sociology. On the other hand. Professor Giddings, of Columbia University, says: "General sociology can not be divided into special social sciences, such as economics, law, and politics, without losing its distinctive character. It should be looked on as the foundation or groundwork of these sciences, rather than as their sum or as their collective name." Scattering replies place it under psychology, moral and political science, political economy, and anthropology. One teacher thinks it belongs under the "humanities"; while two say it has no natural boundaries, and is therefore not included in any one department." Altogether the impression left by the replies to this question is that the teachers of sociology are quite at a loss to know where to put the study in the university curriculum. They appear to realize confusedly that they have on their hands a pedagogical white elephant, which defies classification.

The opinions concerning the relation of sociology to political economy, history, political science, and ethics are almost delphic in their vagueness. Says one, "History is its material, ethics its guide, political economy its interpreter, and a rational system of political science its proposed end." Says another, "Sociology is political economy in practice, history in the making, political science as an art, and ethics applied." After worrying over these oracular epigrams it is refreshing to be told by another teacher that "the relation of sociology to political economy, history, etc., is close."

It would be superfluous to cite further illustrations of the unsettled state of sociological thought. The quotations that have been made show conclusively that the accredited representatives of the new "science" are at loggerheads upon fundamental questions. This fact the sociologists themselves readily admit. The author of a recent treatise on sociology speaks of the "confusion and perplexity among its teachers, and declares that its forms are as yet varied, and perhaps would suggest a series of pseudo-sciences instead if one genuine science."[2] Even Professor Giddings confesses in the preface of his Principles of Sociology that "much sociology is as yet nothing more than careful and suggestive guesswork." Professor Small, of the University of Chicago, in his Introduction to the Study of Society, speaks of sociology as an "inchoate science," and remarks that "only ignoramuses, incompetent to employ the method of any science, could claim for sociology the merit of a completed system."

Sociologists themselves, then, confess that differences of opinion exist among them. Let us look more carefully at the nature of these differences. They relate to the scope, the method, the object, and the ground-principles of the "science."

The province of sociology is defined by some very broadly, to include the whole range of the phenomena of human association. By others the scope of the study is limited to a narrower range of social phenomena. Among the latter, again, there are some who would identify sociology with the study of social origins, or the genesis of social institutions. Others would restrict sociology to a study of the history and function of the family. Still others understand by sociology merely the pathology of society, devoting themselves to the diagnosis bf social diseases, as crime and pauperism.

Professor Giddings has called attention to the natural tendency on the part of. each social philosopher to create a sociology in the image of his professional specialty. "To the economist," he says, "sociology is a penumbral political economy—a scientific outer darkness—for inconvenient problems and obstinate facts that will not live peaceably with well-bred formulas. To the alienist and the criminal anthropologist it is a social pathology. To the ethnologist it is that subdivision of his own science which supplements the account of racial traits by a description of social organization. To the comparative mythologist and the student of folklore it is an account of the evolution of culture."

The narrower conceptions of sociology, however, have been discarded by the best-known sociologists of the present time. There is a general tendency to adopt a broad definition of the province of sociology, to include in the field of investigation all the phenomena of social structure and growth.

But what is the relation of this general social science to the special social sciences—that is, the sciences dealing with special groups of social phenomena, as economics, politics, and jurisprudence? Is sociology anything more than a convenient collective name for the sum of all these? Touching this point opinions differ.[3]

At least three different conceptions of the relation of sociology to the various special social sciences may be distinguished. Sociology has been defined as (1) the "inclusive," as (2) the "co-ordinating," and as (3) the "fundamental" science of society. 1. The first conception is that of Spencer and De Greef. Spencer defines sociology as "the science of society," and defends his adoption of the term on the ground that "no other name sufficiently comprehensive existed." This implies that he conceives of sociology as an inclusive science. De Greef, the Belgian sociologist, makes the science all comprehensive; his scheme of classification "includes everything, from the husbanding of corn and wine to electioneering contests in the Institute of France."[4] 2. The second conception is that of Professor Small, of Chicago. He defines sociology as "the synthesis of all the particular social sciences." It does not include, it co-ordinates these sciences. It concerns itself with the relations which the various special groups of social phenomena hold to each other and to society as a whole, leaving to special social sciences the study of each group in minute detail. The conclusions won by these special sciences are taken by sociology and worked over into a body of correlated social principles. Sociology is, therefore, subsequent to the particular social sciences and dependent upon them. 3. The third conception is that of Professor Giddings, of Columbia University. He defines sociology as "the science of social elements and first principles." It is "not merely the sum of the social sciences; it is rather their common basis." It undertakes to analyze the general characteristics of social phenomena and to formulate the laws of social organization and evolution. Sociology furnishes a body of fundamental principles which make a common basis for the special social sciences. The latter rest on sociology, which is the antecedent and fundamental social science.

Now a little reflection will show that these three conceptions of sociology do not conflict, but harmonize. There is no real opposition between them, rightly understood. Each emphasizes correctly one phase of the relation between sociology and the special social sciences. Sociology is both an inclusive, a co-ordinating, and a fundamental science. In the first place, sociology is a general science, having as its subject-matter social phenomena of all kinds. There fore it comprehends all the sciences dealing with special kinds of social phenomena. These particular sciences are, in the nature of things, closely related to each other. They must possess in common certain laws and principles. These it is the task of sociology to formulate; for as the inclusive social science it should exhibit the mutual relations of the included social sciences. Thus sociology becomes a co-ordinating as well as an inclusive science. Furthermore, the laws and principles of the special social sciences, which sociology, as the co-ordinating science, undertakes to formulate, are necessarily fundamental. And in this respect sociology may be regarded as the fundamental social science. The three rival conceptions of sociology must be combined in the correct view. As Mr. Arthur Fairbanks remarks in his admirable Introduction to Sociology: "Sociology may embrace all the sciences dealing with society, but it does not destroy the partial independence of any of these branches. It includes economics, politics, and the like, but, instead of supplanting them, its sphere is to lay the foundation of these particular social sciences."

It appears, then, that the disagreement among the leaders of sociological thought regarding the scope of their "science" is more apparent than real. The same may be said regarding the contention about method. The debate here is over the question whether deduction or induction is the proper method of investigation in the social sciences. One party holds that the only legitimate method is the abstract-deductive, the investigator arriving at his conclusions by reasoning a priori from certain fundamental assumptions regarding the nature of man in general. What these thinkers aim at is a subjective interpretation of social phenomena in terms of human motives, principles, and ideals. Another party maintains that the only fruitful method is the concrete-inductive, the investigator reaching his conclusions by observing the facts of social life and reasoning from them to general laws and principles. The aim here is to give an objective interpretation of society in terms of race, environment, and historical conditions. The controversy has been especially violent among the economists. The English classical school of political economy made exclusive use of the deductive method; economic laws were deduced from the fundamental postulate of human selfishness. The German historical school employed the inductive method; economic laws were inferred from a study of the concrete facts of industrial life.

This academic discussion over method is tiresome and futile. Neither method will ever drive the other from the field. The exclusive employment of either deduction or induction will yield only half results in the social sciences. The two methods effectually supplement each other and should be used together. They are not rivals, but allies. Induction without deduction is blind; deduction without induction untrustworthy. This fact is recognized by recent writers on sociology. So Professor Giddings remarks that "history without deductive illumination is chaos. Deduction without verification is undoubtedly the very light that never was on sea or land!"

The principal method in the social sciences must undoubtedly be the inductive. The nature of the subject-matter determines this. The social sciences deal with the facts of social structure and growth. The task of the investigator is the explanation of these facts. He has first, then, to observe and compare the facts. But his observation must be guided and his conclusions verified by deduction.

Concerning the purpose of sociology, as touching its method, there are two conflicting opinions. But here again the seeming disagreement is not absolutely irreconcilable. It is held by some that the purpose of the sociologist should be merely the acquisition of knowledge, without further thought of the practical use to which the results of his researches might be put. He should aim to discover and formulate the laws of social forces, not to propose ideals of social reform. Sociology is a pure science and has no utilitarian end. By others it is held that the purpose of the sociologist should be the regulation of social forces in the interest of human progress. The object of sociology is the betterment of society, the acceleration social evolution. It is an applied science and has a practical end.

Both these views are tenable. In fact, sociology, like all sciences, has a double purpose. The primary purpose is to acquire knowledge; the secondary purpose is to apply that knowledge to the attainment of practical ends. This duality of purpose is clearly set forth by Mr. Lester F. Ward in a recent essay.[5] "Sociology," he says, "has both a pure and an applied stage." It "should be studied first for the sake of information relating to the laws of human association and cooperative action, and finally for the purpose of determining in what ways and to what extent social phenomena may, with a knowledge of their laws, be modified and directed toward social ideals."

Modern society is a complex of difficult problems. And this fact furnishes a background of motive for the studies of the sociologist. Not even the veriest stickler for pure science can deny the imperative need of established knowledge of the laws of social activity. The people perish for lack of wisdom. To enlighten the public mind on vital social questions and thus to promote an intelligent direction of social conduct toward rational ends is the high function of sociology. This practical purpose, however, should be kept always secondary to the pursuit of knowledge. "The knowledge is the important thing. The action will then take care of itself."[6] The discussion of the what-ought-to-be must wait on the investigation of the what-is. The neglect of this caution has been responsible for much false doctrine and foolish counsel. Sociologists have allowed their enthusiasm for ideals to blind the eye and bias the judgment. Panacea hawkers of all sorts have attempted to prescribe for social diseases, without making any study of social structure and function. Communistic quackery has masqueraded as sociological wisdom. The wild-cat sociology of the present day is a result of the over-addiction to social reform which besets students of society. It can not be too strongly emphasized that the primary object of the sociologist is the impartial investigation of facts. The man who forgets this becomes dangerous. He is liable to run amuck.

The differences of opinion as to the scope, method, and purpose of sociology have been found upon examination to be less serious than they at first sight appeared. But in regard to the fundamental principles of sociology, the confusion is hopeless. The student will search in vain in the systematic treatises on sociology for any definite body of established doctrine which he can accept as the ground-principles of the science. He finds only an unmanageable mass of conflicting theories and opinions. Each treatise contains an exposition of what the author is pleased to label the Principles of Sociology. But the "principles" are not the same in any two treatises; and by no process of analysis and synthesis can they be brought into harmony. They are fundamentally contradictory. It is impossible, I believe, to discover a single alleged ground-principle of sociology that has commanded general assent.

Some of the recent writers on sociology have devoted themselves particularly to the task of establishing one basal principle which may be applied to the interpretation of all social phenomena. At least half a dozen claims to the discovery of such a principle have been put forward. Prof. Ludwig Gumplowicz finds the elementary social fact to be conflict; Prof. Guillaume De Greef finds it to be contract; M. Gabriel Tarde contends that the fundamental principle of society is imitation; Prof. Emile Durkheim argues that it is "the coercion of the individual mind by modes of action, thought, and feeling external to itself." Professor Giddings criticises all these explanations of society, as either too special or too general, and under takes to prove that "the original and elementary fact in society is the consciousness of kind." This is the determining principle to which all social phenomena are to be referred.[7] But Professor Giddings's sociological postulate has been promptly rejected by his American colleagues, Prof. Albion W. Small and Mr. Lester F. Ward. The former speaks contemptuously of the consciousness of kind as a remote metaphysical category, and declares that the whole system of sociology based on the principle is "an impossible combination of contradictions."[8] This opinion is approved by Ward, who riddles Giddings's book with criticism, and complains of the author's inability to handle principles correctly.[9]

It is hardly necessary to penetrate further into this debate over first principles. The most exhaustive examination of the writings of the leaders in sociological thought would fail to discover any fundamental unity of opinion. The so-called principles of the science are multiform. They represent merely the unsupported conclusions of individual thinkers. If we except the barest commonplaces, no truths have been established; no scientific laws have been agreed upon. The content of the science of sociology, as expounded in treatises bearing this name, varies with the particular bias of the writer. In fine, there are systems of sociology galore, but there is hardly a sociology.

Of the various systems of sociology that have been developed since the new "science" was first outlined by Auguste Comte, that of Herbert Spencer is undoubtedly the most coherent and self-consistent. But even the genius of Mr. Spencer has been unequal to the task of working out a body of firmly grounded principles which should furnish a basis for the convergence of opinion on social questions. He has not succeeded in giving permanent form and content to sociology. His work is disparagingly criticised by other living sociologists. Small declares that "Spencer's sociology ends precisely where sociology proper should begin," and quotes approvingly De Greef's assertion that "Mr. Spencer not only fails to show that there is a place for sociology, but his own reasoning proves more than anything else that there is no social science superior to biology."[7] Ward, while commending the logical consistency of Mr. Spencer's work, pronounces him "unsystematic, nonconstructive, and nonprogressive."[10]

There is much justice in these criticisms of Mr. Spencer's system. His sociology is almost entirely descriptive; and his description of social phenomena has taken the form of an elaborate analogy between society and the animal organism. The utility of this biological analogy has rightly been called in question. The particular resemblances traced by Mr. Spencer between a society and a living body are these: both grow and increase in size; while they increase in size they increase in structure; increase in structure is accompanied by progressive differentiation of functions; and differentiation of functions leads to mutual interdependence of the parts. Furthermore, in the case both of a society and of a living body the lives of the units continue for some time if the life of the aggregate is suddenly arrested; while if the aggregate is not suddenly destroyed by violence its life greatly exceeds in duration the lives of its units. Since, therefore, the permanent relations among the parts of a society are analogous to the permanent relations among the parts of an organism, society is to be regarded as an organism.

Now the trouble with this clever analogy is that it breaks down completely when the comparison is carried beyond a certain point. Mr. Spencer himself notices some differences between the social body and the animal body, but declares that they are not of such fundamental character as to weaken the force of his analogy. One of these differences, however, can not be so lightly dismissed. If we compare a high type of animal organism with a high type of society, this striking unlikeness is discovered. In the former there is but one center of consciousness; in the latter there are many. "In the one," to quote Mr. Spencer's own words, "consciousness is concentrated in a small part of the aggregate. In the other it is diffused throughout the aggregate." The animal body has one brain, one center of thought, feeling, and life; the social body has numberless such centers.

When we go back and compare the course of development in the two cases the difference noted comes into even greater prominence. The evolution of animal life is characterized by progressive centralization, the evolution of social life by progressive decentralization. In the lowest form of animal, the amoeba, there is no single center of life. The life is in all the parts; reproduction takes place simply by division. But with each successive advance above this lowest form there is developed more and more definitely a single center of consciousness. One part becomes distinctly differentiated as the sole seat of life. If that part is destroyed, the organism dies. Thus, "animal development has meant a concentration of the more important nervous elements and a merging of their separate activity in the common activity of a single consciousness."[11]

The law of progress is quite the reverse in social development. At a primitive stage there is a marked subjection of the individual elements of society to a central authority, whether that of the patriarch, the tribal head, or the tribal assembly. The individual has no economic, legal, or moral independence. But as society develops, the control which the whole exerts over the parts through authority and custom is gradually diminished. The individuality of the members of the social body becomes more and more marked. Individual freedom and responsibility are definitely recognized. Thus, the development of society has meant "the development of individuality in each of its members." It is a development of persons; the "social consciousness exists only in the discrete social elements which have become individual."[12]

In a word, social evolution is accompanied by a growing individualization of the component elements of society, whereas animal development leads to ever-stronger concentration of the life of the organism in a single part.

This difference between the physical organism and society is fundamental and essential. It is far more striking than the superficial likenesses ingeniously adduced by Mr, Spencer. His analogy tends to obscure the real nature of social relations. Unless used with cautious qualifications it "suggests false and one-sided views" and thus hinders the progress of sociology. The biological analogy has, it may be conceded, a certain value as a convenient way of describing some of the aspects of social structure and growth. It may aid the student to comprehend certain facts, but, if followed blindly, it will lead him to overlook other facts of even greater importance.

The biological analogy has been carried to absurd lengths by some writers. There is wearisome enumeration of social aggregates and organs, and exhaustive description of the social nervous system. We learn that the individual may be either a communicating cell or a terminal cell, otherwise known as an end organ. The girl in the central telephone office acts as a communicating cell when she telephones to Mr. Smith a message from Mr. Brown." But when, Mr. Smith having asked her the exact time by the chronometer in the exchange, she looks at the dial and reports her observation to him, she is primarily a terminal cell or end organ."[13] The lookout man at sea, on the other hand, is invariably an end organ. This is far-fetched and fanciful. To clothe mere commonplaces in the borrowed rags and tags of biological terminology is not social science, nor does it aid one to get a correct conception of social reality.

The unsettled state of sociological thought which has been here set forth is a natural result of the peculiar difficulties that stand in the way of the social sciences. These have been described by Mr. Spencer with great fullness of illustration.[14] They arise from three sources—namely, (1) from the intrinsic nature of the facts dealt with; (2) from the natures of the observers of these facts; and (3) from the peculiar relation in which the observers stand toward the facts observed.

1. In the first place the peculiar nature of social phenomena is such as to render scientific observation difficult. They are not of a directly perceptible kind like the phenomena which form the subject-matter of the natural sciences. Quantitative measurement and experiment are not possible. Social facts "have to be established by putting together many details, no one of which is simple, and which are dispersed, both in space and time, in ways that make them difficult of access."

2. Again, to these objective difficulties are added the subjective difficulties resulting from the intellectual and the emotional limitations of the investigators. There is, very generally, a lack of intellectual faculty sufficiently complex and plastic to comprehend the involved and changing phenomena of society. The scientific judgment is disturbed by a variety of emotional prejudices, which Mr. Spencer classifies as the educational bias, the bias of patriotism, the class bias, the political bias, and the theological bias.

3. And, finally, the peculiar position which the sociological observer occupies with reference to the phenomena puts further obstacles in the way of trustworthy observation. The sociologist has to study an aggregate in which he is himself included. He is a member of society and can not wholly free himself from the beliefs and sentiments generated by this connection.

These peculiar difficulties which beset sociology have naturally impeded the development of the department compared with other branches of knowledge. They furnish adequate explanation of the unsettled condition of sociological thought which has been described in this paper.

In conclusion, it is hardly necessary to state that in the writer's opinion sociology is not, at present, entitled to be called a science. In order to establish the right of a body of knowledge to the title of science, the claimants must be able to show that they have a definitely bounded field of investigation, that they employ recognized scientific methods, and that they have established certain truths of unquestioned value. Sociology in its present state fails to meet these conditions. Its province is not yet agreed upon, its methods have been often unscientific, and its first principles are yet to be formulated. It is not, therefore, a science.

"Sociology," says one of its critics, "no more demonstrates its claim to existence as a science than astronomy would if we found some astronomers insisting that the sun went around the earth and others contending that the earth went around the sun."[15]

After all, the question whether sociology deserves to be called a science or not is one of merely academic interest. It has received far more attention than it really deserves. Nor will any amount of discussion upon this point help to make sociology a science. "It is safe to say," remarks the critic from whom we have just quoted, "that no great scientific work was ever done by a man who was fretting over the question whether he was a scientist or not. The work is the thing and not what it is called. On the other hand, no name can. dignify a work which is petty and futile."

It is not by talking about it, but by working over it, that a body of knowledge is developed into a science. And sociologists would do well to heed the advice of Tarde, the French writer: "Instead of discoursing upon the merits of this infant—sociology—which men have had the art to baptize before its birth, let us succeed, if possible, in bringing it forth."[16]

  1. Present Condition of Sociology in the United States. Ira W. Howarth. Annals of the American Academy, September, 1894.
  2. Fairbanks. Introduction to Sociology, p. 1.
  3. See for the following: H. H. Powers. Terminology and the Sociological Conference, in Annals of the American Academy, March, 1896.
  4. See Giddings. Principles of Sociology, p. 29.
  5. Lester F. Ward. Purpose of Sociology. American Journal of Sociology, November, 1896.
  6. Ward. Ibidem.
  7. 7.0 7.1 See Giddings. Principles of Sociology, chap. i.
  8. In American Journal of Sociology, September, 1896.
  9. In Annals of the American Academy, July, 1896.
  10. Small and Vincent. Introduction to the Study of Society, p. 46.
  11. Fairbanks. Introduction to Sociology, p. 44.
  12. Fairbanks. Ibidem.
  13. Small and Vincent. Introduction to the Study of Society, p. 218.
  14. Herbert Spencer. Study of Sociology, chaps, iv to xii.
  15. The Nation, vol. Ix, p. 351. Review of Small and Vincent's Introduction to the Study of Society.
  16. Quoted by Vincent in American Journal of Sociology, January, 1896, p. 487.