Development of American Sociology: A Brief Historical Overview

The development of American sociology was heavily influenced by the European pioneers discussed in the last chapter, but it also reflected the distinctive historical background of the United States. Its foundations can be traced to the emergence of the Chicago School in the early decades of the twentieth century. The first professional sociology journal in the United States, the American Journal of Sociology, was established at the University of Chicago and today is one of the leading journals in the field. Chicago itself proved to be a kind of natural laboratory for qualitative, ethnographic-type research on urban social processes and problems.

Chicago School sociology represented the widespread American pragmatic and individualistic mentality in which knowledge is related to dealing with real-life problems and social reforms. This reform emphasis contrasted with the perspective of social Darwinism that was also influential at the time. Social Darwinism was based on the evolutionary theory of British theorist Herbert Spencer, in which social reform efforts were thought to interfere with the process whereby long-term evolutionary progress occurs through the struggle for survival and the survival of the fittest.

These opposing viewpoints can be illustrated in the contrasting perspectives of Lester Ward (1883) versus William Graham Sumner ([1906] 1979). Lester Ward, who in 1906 became the first president of the American Sociological Society (now the American Sociological Association), viewed the development of strategies to improve society as part of the evolutionary process, which to him was superior to the blind forces of nature in insuring long-range progress. In contrast, William Graham Sumner took a more laissez-faire approach in which efforts to implement social reforms were regarded as interfering with the natural process of evolution and were unlikely to be successful in the long run anyway, especially if they were counter to established customs and folkways.


Historical Overview Social Reform Chicago School American Sociological Association Subsequent Chapter 
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© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2008

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