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Ogburn, William Fielding

Ogburn, William Fielding

works by ogburn

supplementary bibliography

William Fielding Ogburn (1886-1959), American sociologist, was born in Butler, Georgia. He took his B.S. at Mercer University and received his PH.D. in 1912 from Columbia University. Between 1911 and 1918 he taught economics, political science, history, and sociology at Princeton University, Reed College, and the University of Washington. He was chairman of the department of economics and sociology at Barnard College from 1919 to 1927 and also taught at Columbia during this period. He then became professor of sociology at the University of Chicago and subsequently was appointed to the Sewell L. Avery distinguished service chair.

He retired in 1951, at which time he began traveling about the world, following his everbroadening interests and his desire to see and learn more. He lectured at the universities of Calcutta and Delhi in India, and at Nuffield College, Oxford, and traveled extensively through Asia, the southwest Pacific, Europe, and Latin America. In addition, he was visiting professor of sociology at Florida State University.

Ogburn held many responsible posts with the federal government, most of them concerned with such problems as retail prices and the cost of living. For a number of years he was chairman of the Census Advisory Committee. He was president of the American Sociological Association, president of the American Statistical Association and editor of its Journal, the first president of the Society for the History of Technology (founded in 1959), a vice president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and chairman of the Social Science Research Council. In addition, he was in demand as a labor mediator.

The general concern with quantitative methodology and thinking and the emphasis placed on statistics at Columbia when Ogburn was a student there were important early influences on his thought. The courses he took at Columbia from Franklin H. Giddings in sociology, Edward L. Thorndike in education, Henry L. Moore in economics, and Franz Boas in anthropology all involved quantitative methods and materials. This stress on a quantitative approach was reinforced by the work he did on statistical cost-of-living analyses for the federal government during World War I.

Ogburn’s early work in social science was influenced by reformist sympathies, although even then he wanted “to bring objective scientific techniques to bear on problems of social import” (Duncan 1964, p. ix). A 1915 article on the limited effectiveness of initiative and referendum in achieving reform was based on extensive statistical analysis. After the war, Ogburn gave up the role of reformer, although he continued to serve as a consultant to government agencies. He had come to doubt that idealism per se could accomplish very much, and he grudged the time that reformist activities took away from scientific ones. There is an interesting description by Duncan of the intellectual reorientation that accompanied Ogburn’s abandonment of the reformist role:

The conviction grew that the ideological component of reform movements was largely rationalization of wishes, a phenomenon akin to the fantasy or daydream. Seeking an understanding of this phenomenon, Ogburn read widely in psychoanalysis and himself underwent analysis. He came to appreciate the pervasiveness of bias in the absence of facts and developed the idea that social scientists should seek a knowledge of their own prejudices and rationalizations to the end of reducing the output of theories shaped primarily by emotion and desire. Yet, such self-knowledge would not, of itself, lead to a social science, “for we cannot have a science without measurement. And science will grow in the social studies in direct ratio to the use of measurement.” (ibid., pp. x-xi)

From his student days on, Ogburn never confined his interests to a single, narrowly defined social science. At Columbia he studied economics with John Bates Clark, E. R. A. Seligman, and Henry R. Seager. In the 1920s he was stimulated by the economist Wesley C. Mitchell and the anthropologists Robert H. Lowie and Alfred L. Kroeber. It was his contact with cultural anthropology that made him modify the stress on psychological motivation derived from the study of psychoanalysis; he became increasingly aware that “any investigation of motives is likely to be superficial without the recognition of cultural factors, which can be discerned only through historical investigation” (Duncan 1964, p. xi). Throughout his career Ogburn emphasized the interdependence of the various fields of social science, and his own work exemplified that interdependence.

Methodology and theory. Ogburn’s perennial concern with verifiable knowledge is epitomized in his insistence that the question “How do you know it?” be answered. In thus emphasizing the need for proof he helped to change the social sciences, particularly sociology, from disciplines dominated by social reformers and philosophers to ones based on the most nearly correct observations possible of the social world. Indeed, the emphasis on quantitative methods in sociology characteristic of the post-World War II period can be attributed in large measure to Ogburn’s influence, both directly, and indirectly through his students. Although Ogburn frequently used statistics, he was not a methodologist per se. He never insisted that statistical methodology is the only way of obtaining verifiable data or that statistical methods provide all the relevant information (see 1934; Ogburn & Bose 1959). To him methods per se only served the pursuit of “big ideas.”

Ogburn wished to differentiate between trivial findings (however well verified) and important findings, that is, findings relevant for advancing the social sciences as scientific disciplines or for dealing with some pressing social problems. Here he thought the relevant question is “What of it?” Ogburn never really relinquished his interest in social problems, and especially in his teaching he gave them salience. Examples of what he considered to be big questions are: What should the functions of government be? How can we raise our standard of living? How can nations get along with each other? How are beliefs and ideas shifting? What are the roles of heredity and culture in shaping personality? Although he realized that these big questions cannot all be answered and that the few answers which available data and statistical methodology can provide may be of little use, he nevertheless felt impelled to try to deal with such questions and one way or another to obtain as much verifiable knowledge as possible about them.

Just as Ogburn did not believe in methodology for its own sake, so was he wary of an unquestioning commitment to theory. He thought of theory as “the organization of knowledge,” which permits the researcher to see relationships and to construct hypotheses (1955). While he did not give much explicit attention to theory, referring to theorizing offhandedly as “Let’s think about it,” he did believe that his own explication of the problem of social evolution constituted a major contribution to sociological theory.

Social change . Ogburn was preoccupied continuously with the topic of social change. Until the first part of the twentieth century, writers on this subject had supposed that human society developed and grew as biological evolution proceeded, some peoples having more advanced societies and cultures than others because they were more advanced biologically. Then Franz Boas, in his work on the mind of primitive man and on the mental capabilities of various peoples, showed that all peoples have much the same inherent mental capabilities. Furthermore, he showed that there had been little, if any, biological evolution in the human race in the last few thousand years, while there had been very considerable social evolution. Therefore, culture must have grown and changed independently of any biological factors. Ogburn accepted the view that the explanation of social change must be sought in culture rather than in the biological nature of man. In his first systematic treatment of change, Social Change, With Respect to Culture and Original Nature (1922), he listed four factors which explain cultural evolution: invention, accumulation, diffusion, and adjustment.

Among these factors invention is basic. “Invention is defined as a combination of existing and known elements of culture, material and/or nonmaterial, or a modification of one to form a new one” ([1950] 1964, p. 23). Inventions result from the operations of three further factors: mental ability, demand, and the existence of cultural elements that can be recombined into new inventions. Individuals with the needed mental abilities have appeared in all societies, but the larger the population is, the more such individuals there will be. Demand is a factor that not only contributes to the making of inventions but also determines whether an invention, once made, will be used. An invention not used is, in effect, an invention not made and one which is not likely to serve as a base for future inventions. Finally, the more cultural elements there are, the easier it is to produce new inventions by combining several already existing ones.

Accumulation occurs when more new elements, that is, inventions, are added to the cultural base than are lost by obsolescence. A society or culture may be equated with an accumulation of inventions, and the larger that accumulation is, the easier it is to make new inventions. In theory, inventions should accumulate at an exponential rate, since any two or more existing elements may be combined to produce a new invention. Furthermore, a combination of an increasing population and an increasing cultural base should lead to a greatly accelerated rate of invention. In reality, of course, exponential growth seldom lasts long. “Reality lessens the slope or flattens it out eventually, perhaps to begin growing exponentially again for a time. Exponential growth may work out to be irregular—now popularly called cyclical “ (ibid., p. 26).

Diffusion is the spread of an invention from one area to another. It is not necessary for each separate population group, tribe, or nation to make all its own inventions. Given means of communication, an invention made in one place can travel widely. Hence, those nations living at communications crossroads may make enormous progress simply by receiving a wide variety of inventions from various sources. The strategic location of the ancient Greeks may account for the great cultural advances they made: they adopted and integrated the inventions and ideas (ideas are a form of invention) that were diffused to them. The reverse of this is that geographically isolated peoples tend to be culturally “backward.”

Adjustment is the final factor producing cultural evolution. Since all elements of a culture are interrelated, any pronounced change in one element will of necessity result in changes in other elements. Each time an invention is made, some social change has occurred that requires adjustment. An invention (material or nonmaterial) in one part of a culture may create an adjustment in a related part of the culture. “These adjustments do not take place instantaneously but are made after a delay and are called ‘cultural lags.’ Over the long course of social evolution, measured in thousands of years, cultural lags are invisible. At any particular moment, however, they may be numerous and acute “(ibid., p. 30). Duncan has stressed that, in Ogburn’s conception, “The lag relationship comes into play when it can be demonstrated that, of two hitherto closely related and mutually compatible parts of culture, one changes in such a way as to disrupt the relationship and impair the compatibility” (Duncan 1964, p. xvi).

In a society where few inventions have occurred and where, therefore, little social change has occurred for a long time, the various elements are adjusted to each other. “. . . When a significant invention occurs in one part of culture, the balance is disturbed; change is set up in the other related parts as a process of adjustment to the new invention. Thus social evolution goes forward by inventions which produce a disequilibrium in society, which in turn sets up forces which seek a new equilibrium” ([1950] 1964, p. 30).

According to Ogburn, a common pattern of social change in the twentieth century is for a technological advance to affect an economic organization; this in turn causes a change in a social institution such as the family or government, and finally causes change in the social philosophy of a people. Ogburn stressed that he did not assert the universality of this pattern. He saw it as an elaboration of the economic interpretation of history, which placed the technical factor before the economic one (1936).

Although Ogburn began his discussion of social change with inventions, he did not consider invention to be the unique cause of all social change. As noted previously, there must be a demand for an invention or it will not be used; such demand may precede or follow the invention. “This demand may vary over time and is a cultural variable.... Thus there may have been much more demand for inventions during the past hundred years than formerly” ([1950] 1964, p. 24).

Apparently Ogburn never explored in detail the social prerequisites of the adoption of an invention. That he was aware of their importance is indicated by his emphasis on demand and by the inclusion in Technological Trends (which he planned and edited) of a chapter entitled “Resistances to the Adoption of Technological Innovations,” written by Bernhard J. Stern. Ogburn himself wrote in the introduction that resistance to invention can come from a number of sources, among them technical faults, high production costs, state opposition on social grounds, and adverse popular opinion (U.S. National Resources Committee 1937, p. 7). Thus, Ogburn’s linear sequence—technological change(i.e., invention) affects the economic organization, which affects social institutions (including government) which, in turn, finally cause a change in the social philosophy of people—can in fact be converted into a circular sequence: the social philosophy of people may affect technological change(i.e., the demand for and use of a new object or idea) which, in turn, may affect social institutions. Since Ogburn considered all parts of a culture to be interrelated, he would surely have accepted this reformulation by which nontechnological elements in a culture affect the technological.

In his research, Ogburn actually attempted to measure social change as well as to explain it. To do this he considered very specific aspects of social trends—changes in the family, the city, etc.—from a limited geographical and chronological point of view. The best known reports of his research are probably in Recent Social Trends (see President’s Research Committee on Social Trends 1933). Most of his studies were made of social changes in the United States and referred to the twentieth century, prior to which very few statistics were available. He studied various trends separately and then sought to ascertain the extent to which they impinged upon or reinforced one another.

One generalization that he reached from this study of social trends is that movement continues in the same general direction for long periods of time; “long,” to be sure, is relative, and some trends are measured in decades, while others are measured in centuries. Ogburn emphasized that people are most often aware only of what are in fact deviations from long-term trends; because these deviations are so highly visible they often obscure the major direction of change. Ogburn was convinced that trends in any of our twentieth-century modes of behavior were likely to continue for a number of decades. He believed, therefore, that one could project at least a decade or two into the future with a probability of being correct about nine times out of ten. Examples of twentieth-century trends are the continuously increasing role of government and the growth of large businesses. Such social trends can be deflected or slowed down only with considerable effort; it would require unimaginably great efforts to redirect or stop them deliberately.

Ogburn’s research and writing on specific topics such as the family, cities, population, legislation and voting, war, and international relations are closely, even inseparably, related to his work on social change. The outlines of particular social trends quickly become blurred, merging in broader patterns of change. As Duncan has written, “If, in a ‘changing society’ whose parts are closely interrelated, hardly any aspect of life remains constant, the study of social trends can accept few limitations on its substantive scope” (1964, p. xix).

Influence . Ogburn had a direct influence on his students—particularly, of course, on those who prepared dissertations under his guidance or who served as his research assistants. (Probably all of the latter are named in one or another of his publications, often as junior authors.) These students and assistants were indoctrinated with the need for evidence. Most of his students accepted his stress on quantitative data, and some even became prominent statisticians. A secondary influence on many sociology students came from the introductory textbook Sociology (1940), which Ogburn wrote with Nimkoff; by 1964, this book had gone through four editions.

As early as the 1920s Ogburn emphasized the interdisciplinary approach that became popular in social science after World War II. He did research in all areas of social science and drew his collaborators from the different disciplines. One of his outstanding works, The Social Sciences and Their Interrelations (1927), which he and Alexander Goldenweiser, an anthropologist, edited, is an early work of interdisciplinary cooperation, dealing with anthropology, economics, history, political science, sociology, ethics, law, religion, statistics, psychology, philosophy, and even biology and the natural sciences. One of the early leaders of team research, Samuel A. Stouffer, was a student of Ogburn’s and was greatly influenced by him.

As one of the founders and first president of the Society for the Study of Technology, Ogburn tried to advance this field. It is too early to know whether or not sociologists will take an active part in this society and turn to the study of technological change.

Ogburn’s main contribution to sociology was in the field of culture and cultural change; to him this was the heart of sociology. He never was particularly concerned with certain topics now of interest to some people who consider themselves to be sociologists, e.g., “small group relations” or “sociology as an aid to business.” Yet there is a difficulty in working in the field of social change, caused by the fact that techniques are not available that permit the carrying out of intellectually satisfying research. How does one, for example, ascertain whether the American culture is becoming “childoriented” rather than “parent-oriented “? The problem becomes particularly acute if one is interested in quantitative analysis.

While Ogburn and other sociologists were grappling with this research problem, other social scientists were developing techniques for ascertaining public opinion. Methodologically, it turned out to be comparatively easy to develop satisfactory polls and surveys for learning (more or less accurately) what individuals thought and believed, but a generation of experience with these methods showed that although they were useful for answering some practical questions, especially in the field of marketing, they were unable to provide answers to the “big questions.” Sociologists therefore are still confronted with the question Ogburn raised—how to study social change.

Since World War II, interest in the study of social change has been greatly stimulated because of the efforts of the economically developed nations to aid the underdeveloped ones. Vast sums of money and much thought are being devoted to the task of effecting socioeconomic change. Although some sociologists are still trying to use survey techniques and to question individuals in an effort to determine how to assist the underdeveloped countries, this kind of research appears to be producing little of value. Ogburn’s work, however, does provide relevant guidelines to the appropriate ways of helping the underdeveloped countries undergo social and economic transformation: his conception of the interrelation of all parts of culture implies that the problem must be attacked on a very wide front, and his insistence on the inherent continuity of social trends in a society suggests that these trends must be taken into account when trying to effect socioeconomic change.

A. J. Jaffe

[For the historical context of Ogburn’s work, seeSociology; and the biographies ofBoas; Clark, John Bates; Giddings; Kroeber; Lowie; Mitchell; Moore, Henry L.; Seligman, Edwi N R. A.; Thorndike; for discussion of the subsequent development of his ideas, seeCreativity, articles onSocial AspectsandGenius AND Ability; Integration, article onCultural Integration; Prediction; Science, article onTHE Sociology OF Science; Technology, article onTechnology AND International Relations; Transportation, article OnSocial Aspects; and the biography ofStouffer.]

works by ogburn

(1922) 1950 Social Change, With Respect to Culture and Original Nature. New ed. with supplementary chapter. New York: Viking.

1927 Ogburn, William Fielding; and Goldenweiser, Alexander A. (editors) The Social Sciences and Their Interrelations. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

1930 Change, Social. Volume 3, pages 330-334 in Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences. New York: Macmillan.

1934 The Limitations of Statistics. American Journal of Sociology 40:12-20.

(1936) 1964 Technology and Governmental Change.Pages 131-143 in William F. Ogburn, On Culture and Social Change: Selected Papers. Edited by Otis Dudley Duncan. Univ. of Chicago Press.

(1940) 1964 Ogburn, William Fielding; and Nimkoff, Meyer F. Sociology. 4th ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

(1950) 1964 Social Evolution Reconsidered. Pages 17-32 in William F. Ogburn, On Culture and Social Change: Selected Papers. Edited by Otis Dudley Duncan. Univ. of Chicago Press. → First published as a supplementary chapter to the 1950 edition of Ogburn 1922.

(1955) 1964 Some Observations on Sociological Research.Pages 328-347 in William F. Ogburn, On Culture and Social Change: Selected Papers. Edited by Otis Dudley Duncan. Univ. of Chicago Press.

1959 Ogburn, William Fielding; and Bose, Nirmal K. On the Trail of the Wolf Children. Genetic Psychology Monographs 60:117-193.

On Culture and Social Change: Selected Papers. Edited by Otis Dudley Duncan. Univ. of Chicago Press, 1964. → Contains an extensive bibliography of Ogburn’s writings.

supplementary bibliography

Duncan, Otis Dudley 1959 Personal Notes: An Appreciation of William Fielding Ogburn. Technology and Culture 1:94-99.

Duncan, Otis Dudley 1964 Introduction. Pages vii-xxii in William F. Ogburn, On Culture and Social Change: Selected Papers. Univ. of Chicago Press.

Hughes,Helen Macgill 1959 William Fielding Ogburn. Social Forces 38:1-2.

Jaffe, A. J. 1959 William Fielding Ogburn, Social Scientist. Science 130:319-320.

President’s Research Committee ON Social Trends 1933 Recent Social Trends in the United States. 2 vols. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Stern, Bernhard J. 1937 Resistances to the Adoption of Technological Innovations. Pages 39-66 in U.S. National Resources Committee, Science Committee, Technological Trends and National Policy, Including the Social Implications of New Inventions. Washington: Government Printing Office.

U.S. National Resources Committee, Science Committee 1937 Technological Trends and National Policy, Including the Social Implications of New Inventions. Washington: Government Printing Office.

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William Fielding Ogburn

William Fielding Ogburn

William Fielding Ogburn (1886-1959), American sociologist, statistician, and educator, was concerned with quantitative methods and with the role of technology in social organization.

William Ogburn was born in Butler, Ga., on June 29, 1886. He received his bachelor of science degree at Mercer University and his master of arts degree (1909) and doctorate in sociology (1912) from Columbia University. He was professor of sociology and economics at Reed College (1912-1917) and professor of sociology at the University of Washington (1917-1918). During World War I he was with the National War Labor Board and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Ogburn was professor of sociology at Columbia University (1919-1927) and professor of sociology at the University of Chicago (1927-1951). He was director of research for the President's Research Committee on Social Trends (1930-1933), director of the Consumers Advisory Board of the National Recovery Administration (1933), and research consultant of the Science Committee, National Resources Committee (1935-1943). He was president of the American Statistical Association and the American Sociological Society. From 1953 till his death on April 27, 1959, Ogburn was visiting professor of sociology at Florida State University.

Description and measurement of the tangible aspects of social change were the recurring themes in Ogburn's career. His first major formulation of these problems appeared in Social Change (1922), where he traced social evolution through the invention and accumulation of mechanical and scientific forms. He gave special attention to the apparent gap between technical developments and adjustments in values, laws, and customs in contemporary society. This discrepancy, which he named cultural lag, was widely borrowed in later years to explain difficulties and resistances to social change.

During the next 20 years Ogburn encouraged investigators in specifying the effects of technological change in selected social activities. An early and continuing interest in family changes was expressed in several works, particularly American Marriage and Family Relationships (1928) and Technology and the Changing American Family (1955). As research administrator, he stimulated analyses of varied technological changes in Recent Social Trends (2 vols., 1933).

Ogburn's quantitative interests were applied in studies of elections, in many articles on population trends, and in a classic early survey of urban population and economic patterns, Social Characteristics of Cities (1937). A particularly ambitious work, The Social Effects of Aviation (1946), tried to anticipate the varied consequences of expanded use of air transport for economic, political, recreational, and other aspects of modern society. The widest dissemination of his views has probably developed from Sociology, a textbook in collaboration with Meyer Nimkoff, which has been revised several times since 1940.

Further Reading

Otis Dudley Duncan summarized Ogburn's work and provided a number of excerpts from his writings in his edition of Ogburn's On Culture and Social Change: Selected Papers (1964). Ogburn's work is also discussed in Llewellyn Gross, ed., Symposium on Sociological Theory (1959). □

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Ogburn, William Fielding

Ogburn, William Fielding (1886–1959) An early Chicago sociologist, President of the American Sociological Association in 1929, his prime interest was in processes of social change, and in this context he developed the concept of cultural lag. A good selection of his work will be found in On Cultural and Social Change (1964).

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