37 Biography of Early American Sociologists

NOTE ON SOURCES: The following sources were used for biographical information on the early American sociologists. All are recommended for further reading: Heinz Maus, A Short History of Sociology (1962); Charles Hunt Page, Class and American Sociology: From Ward to Ross (1969), Timothy Raison and Paul Barker, The Founding Fathers of Social Science (1963); Stephen Turner, American Sociology: From Pre-Disciplinary to Post-Normal (2014); Ronald Fernandez, Mappers of Society: The Lives, Times and Legacies of Great Sociologists (2003)

Although the United States did not produce classical theorists on the same level as Marx, Weber, and Durkheim, it would be wrong to think that there were no theoretical advances taking place there in this period.  The early American sociologists were aware of what was going on in Europe. In fact, the first US sociology journal, the American Journal of Sociology, had Durkheim on its editorial board.  In contrast to European sociology, however, it is true that American sociology tended to be less theoretical, more pragmatic, and more closely tied in with public policy research.  The several Americans included in this section were known for developing ideas and concepts as well as “doing” sociology.  There are a few things that stand out and should be noted.  From the beginning, there was a tension between those who espoused a Spencerian Social Darwinist approach to the social world and those who would use sociology to formulate plans and solutions to social problems.  This tension may be rooted in the newness of the United States, its unique history as a colony and destination of mass migration (voluntary and forced).  Several writers noted the importance of understanding and ameliorating racial problems, for example.  Others sought to explain and prevent the hardening of class lines in a nation that was by definition anti-aristocratic, and more generally the problems and promises of a democratic society.  Finally, American sociologists were a diverse group, as the following biographies attest.

William Graham Sumner (1840-1910)

Sumner is known as one of the “four founders” of American sociology (along with Small, Giddings, and Ward).  Sumner was born October 30, 1840 in Paterson, New Jersey. His father was not wealthy and was known to engage in prospecting during Sumner’s youth.  Sumner himself worked as a clerk before graduating from Yale College in 1863.  He dodged the draft for the American Civil War and instead traveled to Europe, where he studied at several universities, eventually hearing about sociology through Herbert Spencer while at Oxford University.  Sumner had two careers: the first, begun in 1867, was an ordained minister. The second, was as first Professor of Sociology in the US, at Yale.   In 1871 he married Jeannie Whittemore Elliott.  They had three sons, two of whom survived to adulthood.  As a sociologist, Sumner was greatly influenced by the social Darwinism of Spencer and was an outspoken advocate of laissez-faire policies.  He served as the second president of the American Sociological Association (1908-1909), succeeding Ward, whose approach to sociology was diametrically opposed to that of Sumner.  His major sociological publications include Social Static: The Conditions Essential to Human Happiness(1851), the multi-volume System of Synthetic Philosophy(1862-1892), and The Study of Sociology(1873).

Lester Frank Ward (1841-1913)

Ward is known as one of the “four founders” of American sociology (along with Giddings, Sumner, and Small).   Ward was born June 18, 1841 in Joliet, Illinois.  His father was a poor farmer and his mother the daughter of a clergyman.  His father eventually owned and operated a sawmill outside Chicago. At age 17, Lester moved to Pennsylvania to work for his older brother, making wagon wheels. Eventually, he earned enough money to put himself through college.  While there he met and married his wife, Lizzie Vought.  Leaving college, he joined the Union Army and fought in the frontlines of the Civil War, where he suffered injuries.  At the end of the war he moved to DC to edit a liberal-minded newspaper.  Lizzie soon died in childbirth.  A few years later, in 1869, he earned his college degree from George Washington University, followed quickly by a law degree (1871) and a master’s degree (1873), and a second marriage, to Rosamund Simons.  For several years Ward worked for the US Government as a geologist and paleontologist, but his attention eventually turned toward society.  In 1883 he published a massive 1,200-page book entitled Dynamic Sociology: Or, Applied Social Science Based on Statistical Sociology and the Less Complex Sciences.  Here he articulated a vision of sociology that was reformist and geared towards benefiting human society.  In contrast to his contemporaries, Spencer and Sumner, Ward criticized the laissez-faire policies of his day as pernicious and unjust. In contrast, he advocated a strong welfare state, equal rights for women, and the abolition of white supremacy.  In 1906 he became chair of sociology at Brown University.

Albion Woodbury Small (1854-1926)

Small is known as one of the “four founders” of American sociology (along with Giddings, Sumner, and Ward).   He was born May 11, 1854 in Buckfield, Maine.  Trained first as a minister like his father before him, he later studied history, economics and politics in Germany (Universities of Leipzig and Berlin), where he met and married his wife, Valeria von Massow, daughter of a German general, in 1881. They had one daughter, Lina.  Completing his studies in Germany, he returned stateside to study history at Johns Hopkins University.  He earned his PhD in 1889 with a dissertation on The Beginnings of American Nationality.  He taught and became the president of Colby College (Maine) before founding the first Department of Sociology at the University of Chicago in 1892.  There are a lot of firsts about Small.  He wrote the first textbook in sociology (in 1894) and founded the first sociology journal, American Journal of Sociology(in 1895).  He was the fourth president of the American Sociological Association.  His major works include his first textbook An Introduction to the Study of Society (1894), General Sociology(1905), The Meaning of the Social Sciences(1910), and Between Eras: From Capitalism to Democracy(1913).

Giddings, Franklin Henry (1855-1931)

Giddings is known as one of the “four founders” of American sociology (along with Small, Sumner, and Ward).  The son of a prominent Connecticut minister, he studied civil engineering at Union College in 1873 but did not graduate.  He became a newspaper editor and school teacher.  In 1876 he married Elizabeth Patience Hawes. They would have three children. He went back to college and earned his degree in 1888, after which he took a position at Bryn Mawr, becoming a full professor of political economy in 1892.  In 1894, he became a full professor of sociology at Columbia University – this was the first such position in the United States.  A dedicated researcher, Giddings was instrumental in creating a research-oriented American sociology.  He wrote two early sociology textbooks – Inductive Sociology (1901) and The Scientific Study of Human Society (1924).  He served as the third president of the American Sociological Society (1910-1911).  Other works by Giddings include: The Theory of Sociology (1894), The Theory of Socialization (1897), Elements of Sociology (1898), and Descriptive and Historical Sociology (1906).

Thorstein Veblen (1857-1929)

Veblen was born July 30, 1857 in Cato, Washington, to Norwegian immigrants.  His father was a carpenter by trade but when the family moved to Milwaukee in 1847, they turned to farming.  Prosperous, the Veblens were able to send their twelve children to college.  His sister, Emily, was the first daughter of Norwegian-American parents who earned a college degree.  His oldest brother, Andrew, became a professor of physics. Thorstein attended nearby Carleton College, where he studied both economics and philosophy and became involved with Ellen Rolfe, the niece of the college president.  After graduating in 1880, he moved East, where he began taking advanced courses in philosophy at Johns Hopkins University.  Lacking funds to continue there, he transferred to Yale University on a scholarship, and obtained a PhD in 1884, with a degree in philosophy and social studies. Unable to find employment, which may have had something to do with either being irreligious or Norwegian, he moved back to the family farm for several years, where he married Ellen Rolfe in 1888.  In 1891 he took up economics at Cornell University and then moved to the University of Chicago, where he was offered a teaching position.  He began writing and publishing in earnest soon after, publishing The Theory of the Leisure Class in 1899, The Theory of Business Enterprise in 1904, and The Instinct of Workmanship and the State of the Industrial Arts in 1914.  In 1911 he divorced Ellen and in 1914 married Ann Bradley Bevans, a former student.  He had no children.  In 1917 he moved to DC to work with a group on the peace talks following World War I.  In 1919 he helped form the New School for Social Research in New York City.  He continued to publish books critical of capitalism (The Higher Learning in America(1918), The Vested Interests and the Common Man(1919), and Absentee Ownership and Business Enterprise(1923)) until his retirement to California. He died in Menlo Park on August 3, 1929.  He is known for many things – originating the term “conspicuous consumption,” developing institutional economics, and being a consistent and sharp critic of capitalism and capitalists.

Gilman, Charlotte Perkins (1860-1935)

Gilman was born July 3, 1860 in Hartford, Connecticut. On her father’s side, she was related to the novelist Harriet Beecher Stowe and the suffragist Isabella Beecher Hooker.  She attended the Rhode Island School of Design in 1878 and became a painter.  In 1884, she married a fellow-artist, Charles Walter Stetson.  Suffering from post-partum depression after the birth of her daughter the following year, she wrote the novel she is most remembered for, The Yellow Wallpaper.  The marriage was not a happy one and Gillman divorced in 1894.  She became very active in feminist and social reform organizations on the West Coast.  She remarried, her cousin Houghton Gilman, in 1900.  In 1932, Gilman was diagnosed with incurable breast cancer.  She opted to commit suicide in 1935. Gilman is perhaps most known for her novels, particularly The Yellow Wallpaper, and poetry, but she was the author of numerous articles (two published in the American Journal of Sociology) and several non-fiction books, including Women and Economics(1898), Concerning Children(1900), The Man-Made World or, Our Androcentric Culture(1911), and Social Ethics(1914).

Jane Addams (1860-1935)

Addams was born on September 6, 1860 in Cedarville, Illinois, the youngest of eight children.  Her father was a wealthy farmer and capitalist, owning several mills, farms, and factories, as well as serving as the local bank’s president. He was active in the Republican Party and a friend of Abraham Lincoln.  Addams was afforded ample opportunities, unusual for women of her day but perhaps not so unusual for women of her class.  She went to college close to home and, after the death of her father, moved to Pennsylvania to take up a medical education.  Suffering from depression and a bad back, she decided to help the poor directly rather than continue her medical training. Eventually, after much traveling and reading, she founded Hull House in Chicago in 1889.  Hull House was a settlement house, a sort of cross between social service agency and community arts center, and included a public kitchen, a music school, a library, an employment bureau, and a gym, among other things. Social reformers came from all over to observe its activities, and Addams was flooded with invitations to speak about the Settlement House movement. Addams never married but had at least two serious romantic relationships with women.  The first of these, Ellen Starr, helped found Hull House.  The second, Mary Rozel Smith, with whom she lived, helped support Hull House financially.  They remained together until Mary’s death in 1934. Although never holding a sociology position, she was closely connected with the new sociology department at the University of Chicago, whose activities were aligned with methods developed by Addams (e.g., local ethnography in service of social reform). In the late 1980s, a resurgence of interest in Addams led to recognition that she was one of the “key founders” of the discipline in America.  Her published works include descriptions of the Hull House project, The Subjective Value of a Social Settlement (1892) and Twenty Years at Hull-House(1910), polemics against harmful practices, Child Labor(1905), and more general sociological books such as Democracy and Social Ethics(1902).

Robert Ezra Park (1864-1944)

Park was born February 14, 1864 in Harveyville, Pennsylvania, but grew up in Red Wing, Minnesota.  After graduating from the University of Michigan in 1887, he worked as a journalist, focusing on issues of social concern, particularly race and urban issues all over the US (Detroit, Denver, NYC, Chicago, and Minneapolis).  He married Clara Cahill, the daughter of a wealthy Michigan family, in 1894[1].  They had four children.  In 1899, he went back to school, to study philosophy under William James at Harvard. Park next studied philosophy and sociology in Berlin under Georg Simmel, writing a dissertation on Crowds and the Public.  He followed his studies with a position as a professor of philosophy at Harvard but left the prestigious post to do field research with Booker T. Washington at the Tuskegee Institute.  After completing this research, he took a position as a professor of sociology at the University of Chicago, a natural fit for a man of his temperament and interests in race relations and urban sociology.  After teaching in Chicago for several years, he ended his career at Fisk University, where he remained until his death in 1944.  Park’s major publications during his life include The Man Farther Down (1912; with Booker T. Washington), Introduction to the Science of Sociology (1921; with fellow Chicago sociologist Ernest Burgess), The City: Suggestions for the Study of Human Nature in the Urban Environment (1925), The University and the Community of Races (1932),Race Relations and the Race Problem (1939).  Several more publications followed his death, collections of articles and lecture during his lifetime.

Charles Horton Cooley (1864-1929)

Cooley was born August 17, 1864 in Ann Arbor, Michigan.  His father was a Michigan Supreme Court judge and dean of the University of Michigan Law School.  Cooley was said to be a shy child, and suffered from his father’s overbearing nature. Although he began college (UM) at the young age of sixteen, it took him seven years to finish his studies, earning a degree in mechanical engineering.  In 1890 he married Elsie Jones, an educated woman and daughter of a professor of medicine at UM.  They had three children and lived a very close domestic life in Ann Arbor.  He returned to UM for a master’s degree in political economics and a PhD in economics, which he earned in 1894. Interested in analyzing social problems, he began teaching sociology the following year. One of the first sociological books he published was entitled Nature versus Nurture in the Making of Social Careers(1896).  His output was prodigious thereafter, and included The Process of Social Change (1902), Human Nature and the Social Order (1902), SocialOrganization (1909), Social Process (1918), Life and the Student (1927), and Sociological Theory and Research (1930).  He is most famous for developing the concept of the “looking glass self,” and the idea that one’s self-identity is socially constructed. In this, he is the grandfather of symbolic interaction theory.

Edward Alsworth Ross (1866-1951)

Ross was born December 12, 1866 in Virden, Illinois, the son of a farmer.  He graduated from Coe College and served as an instructor at a local business school for two years before undertaking graduate study in Germany.  In 1891 he received a PhD from Johns Hopkins University in political economy.  He served as professor at Indiana University from 1891-1892, Cornell from 1892-1892, and Stanford from 1893 to 1900.  In 1892 he married Rosamund Simons, the niece of Lester Frank Ward. He was famously fired from Stanford because of his radical political views on the railroad industry, which bothered Stanford’s widow.  This case became one of the first “academic freedom” controversies in the US. After his firing he taught at the University of Nebraska for a few years, before eventually settling in at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he served as Professor of Sociology until his retirement in 1937. Ross served as the fifth President of the American Sociological Society (1914-1915).   From 1940 to 1950 he served as chairperson of the American Civil Liberties Union.  His major publications include Social Control: A Survey of the Foundations of Order (1901), Foundations of Sociology (1905), Changing America: Studies in Contemporary Society (1912), What is America? (1919), and The Russian Bolshevik Revolution (1921).

W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963)

William Edward Burghardt Du Bois was born February 23, 1868 in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, a relatively integrated community for the time.  His family had been part of the free African-American population for several generations, and his parents were small landowners.  Du Bois attended the local integrated (mostly white) high school before attending the historically black Fisk University.  It was here that he first discovered Southern racism and the Jim Crow system.  After Fisk, Du Bois attended Harvard, studying under the famous American philosopher, William James.  He gave a commencement oration on Jefferson Davis.  After studying in Berlin and teaching a course at a small college in Ohio, he earned a PhD from Harvard in 1895, the first African-American to do so. He also married one of his students from Ohio, Nina Gomer. They had two children, a son who died young and a daughter, Yolande, who became a high school teacher and wife of the famous poet Countee Cullen. The following year he published his dissertation, The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade to the United States of America, 1638-1870, and was hired to conduct a sociological study of Philadelphia’s Black community by the University of Pennsylvania.  In 1897 he was hired as professor of history and economics at Atlanta University.  From here began Du Bois’ remarkable publication record, including The Philadelphia Negro (1897), The Souls of Black Folk (1903), Darkwater: Voices from within the Veil (1920), and Black reconstruction (1935).  He also became deeply active in political movements, both in the US and abroad. He helped organize the first Pan-African Conference in Paris in 1919, edited the political journal The Crisis, and became active in the Communist Party. After the death of his first wife, he married Shirley Graham, an author and activist.  Du Bois was a life-long proponent of peace and supporter of decolonization efforts around the world, eventually moving to and dying in the newly independent nation of Ghana.

Charles Abram Ellwood (1873-1946)

Ellwood may more properly be considered the “second generation” of American sociologists.  He was largely seen as a successor to Ward in approach, fighting against “objectivism” in social sciences, bringing a more social psychological perspective to his work, and gearing his research toward the amelioration of social problems.  We don’t actually know much about his beginnings or personal life.  Ellwood was born on January 20, 1873 in New York.  He graduated from Cornell University in 1896 (where he studied under Ross), but also studied at the University of Chicago (where he studied under Small) and Berlin.  He first became a professor of sociology in 1900 at the University of Missouri and later moved to Duke University.  He served as the fourteenth president of the American Sociological Association, where his presidential speech was a stirring rebuke to Intolerance (1924).   His major works include Public Relief and Private Charity (1903), Sociology and Modern Social Problems (1910), Sociology in its Psychological Aspects (1912), and The Social Problem: A Constructive Analysis (1917), Cultural Evolution (1927), and Methods in Sociology (1933).


  1. For more on “the curious marriage” between Park, a man who mocked wealthy philanthropic “club-women” and Clara Cahill, the epitome of such a club-woman, I recommended Mary Jo Deegan’s 2006 article, “The Human Drama Behind the Study of People as Potato Bugs” in The Journal of Classical Sociology.

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