The Social Sciences

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The Social Sciences


Emergence of Social Science. Between the late 1830s and the 1870s the various disciplines that make up the social sciences began to develop as a distinct field in the United States. One of the most important reasons for this development was the growing influence of science in general in America as increasing industrialization and advances in transportation and communication demanded more specialized knowledge. Colleges and universities responded to this demand by adding scientific and technical training to the literary and theological studies on which they had concentrated previously. Educational leaders, many of whom had studied in Europe, based their reforms on European educational advances.


As sectional tensions escalated in the 1850s, Southerners became increasingly defensive of slavery. George Fitzhugh produced some of the most sophisticated justifications of the institution, in the process helping to establish the new field of sociology:

We hesitated for some time in selecting the title of our work. We did not like to employ the newly-coined word Sociology. We could, however, find none other in the whole range of the English language, that would even faintly convey the idea that we wished to express. We looked to the history of the term. We found that within the last half century, disease, long lurking in the system of free society, had broken out into a hundred open manifestations. Thousands of authors and schemers, such as Owen, Louis Blanc and Fourier, had arisen proposing each a different mode of treatment for the disease which all confessed to exist. Society had never been in such a state before. New exigencies in its situation had given rise to new ideas, and to a new philosophy. This new philosophy must have a name, and as none could be found ready-made to suit the occasion, the term Sociology was compounded, of hybrid birth, half Greek and half Latin, as the technical appellative of the new-born science. In Europe, the term is familiar as household words. It grates harshly, as yet, on Southern ears, because to us it is new and superfluous the disease of which it treats being unknown amongst us. But as our book is intended to prove that we are indebted to domestic slavery, for our happy exemption from the social afflictions that have originated this philosophy, it became necessary and appropriate that we should employ this new word in our title. The fact that, before the institution of Free Society, there was no such term, and that it is not in use in slave countries, now, shows pretty clearly that Slave Society, ancient and modern, has ever been in so happy a condition, so exempt from ailments, that no doctors have arisen to treat it of its complaints, or to propose remedies for their cure. The term, therefore, is not only appropriate to the subject and the occasion, but pregnantly suggestive of facts and arguments that sustain our theory.

Source: George Fitzhugh, Sociology for the South; or, The Failure of Free Society (Richmond, Va.: A. Morris, 1854).

History. As in Europeespecially in Germanythe field of history went through important changes in the middle decades of the century. History began to be taught as a distinct discipline in the pre-Civil War years, and Jared Sparks, Thomas R. Dew, and Francis Lieber emerged as leaders in the profession. These men emphasized the importance of historical study for understanding modern thought and society; Dews Digest of the

Laws, Customs, Manners, and Institutions of the Ancient and Modern Nations (1853) exemplified this trend. The German emphasis on historical method, which stressed accuracy and through data collection, influenced American historians. These historians discussed their findings in seminars, which in the 1870s and 1880s became the dominant form of teaching for graduate students in the field.

Political Science. During the 1850s, 1860s, and 1870s political science had not yet achieved the status of a separate discipline; at most universities it was taught in history departments. When political science courses were offered, they usually focused on constitutional history or analysis. Some exceptions existed, however: in the late 1840s and 1850s Yale University offered courses in political theory and international law; and at the South Carolina College, Francis Lieber taught about politics from a theoretical framework. The first separate department of political science was organized in 1880 at Columbia University; other universities did not establish political science departments until the twentieth century.

Economics. In contrast to political science, the study of economicsor political economy, as it was then calledwas fairly well developed by the mid nineteenth century. Some colleges had offered classes in commerce and trade as early as the 1750s, and by 1860 most colleges included political economy in their curricula. The first professorship of political economy was established at Harvard University in 1871, and for the remainder of the century the study of economics became increasingly specialized. The related discipline of statistics also made important progress during the mid nineteenth century. The American Statistical Association had been founded in 1839 to secure authentic information upon every department of human pursuit and social condition. One of the associations main goals, to promote the compilation of more accurate state and federal census reports, was achieved with the 1850 census. In 1848 James D. B. De-Bow of New Orleans organized the first state bureau of statistics. During the period physicians, public health workers, and insurance actuaries made many statistical surveys.

Anthropology. In the mid nineteenth century a new social science, anthropology, grew out of the older discipline of ethnology. Today ethnology, the study of human cultural systems, is a subdiscipline of anthropology, the science that examines the origins, physical characteristics, and customs of human beings, but in the mid nineteenth century the terms were often used interchangeably. The explosive issue of slavery in antebellum America promoted the study of ethnology as Southerners turned to scientific theory to try to justify the institution. Beginning in the 1830s and peaking in the 1850s, Southern writers published books and articles claiming to show that blacks were inherently inferior to whites and thus required the civilizing effects of slavery. In Types of Mankind (1854) Josiah Nott and George R. Gliddon theorized that blacks and whites were different species. Other Southern ethnologists, such as John Bachman and S. D. Baldwin, while supporting the notion of racial inferiority, disputed the idea that different races of human beings constituted different species. Interest in ethnology was by no means confined to the South: Northern scientists, including Samuel G. Morton and Louis Agassiz, also worked in the field. Mid-nineteenth-century ethnologists and anthropologists were also interested in Nagaletive Americans: Lewis H. Morgans studies of the Iroquois Indians of New York, Systems of Consanguinity (1869) and Ancient Society (1877), helped to shape anthropological theory not only in America but throughout the world. The American Museum of Natural History, established in 1869, promoted the study of anthropology, and in 1876 the United States Geological Survey sponsored field studies of Native American culture and archaeology that led to the establishment of the Bureau of American Ethnology.

Sociology. Like anthropology, the discipline of sociology, which examines the roles of institutions and groups within a society, arose in America partly out of the Southern defense of slavery. Two books published in 1854 demonstrate this origin: the Mississippian Henry Hughess A Treatise on Sociology, Theoretical and Applied and the Virginian George Fitzhughs Sociology for the South; or, The Failure of Free Society. Both works defend slavery as the most effective means of ordering social relations. The study of moral philosophy in the early nineteenth century also contributed to the rise of sociology. In the 1830s Robert Hamilton Bishop offered a course at Miami University titled Philosophy of Social Relations, and from 1850 to 1858 William H. McGuffey, professor of moral philosophy at the University of Virginia, taught a course titled Philosophy of Social Relations, or Ethics of Society. Likewise, the subject of social science, which first developed in the 1850s, played an important role in the formation of sociology. This subject, different from the modern-day definition of social science, focused on contemporary social issues such as immigration, race relations, poverty, crime, alcoholism, and education. Henry C. Carey published the first book on the subject, The Principles of Social Science, in 1858. In 1868 R. E. Thompson, a student of Careys, offered the first independent course in social science at the University of Pennsylvania; Yale University, the University of Missouri, and Columbia University followed suit in the 1870s and 1880s. These courses tended to focus on Herbert Spencers formulation of Social Darwinism, the idea that human societies and institutions, like organisms, evolve through a process of natural selection.

Founding of the American Social Science Association. In August 1865 the Massachusetts Board of Charities invited selected individuals throughout the nation to help establish an organization dedicated to social science. The social reformer Frank Sanborn described the organizations purpose as the discussion of those questions relating to the Sanitary Condition of the People, the Relief, Employment, and Education of the Poor, the Prevention of Crime, the Amelioration of the Criminal Law, the Discipline of Prisons, the Remedial Treatment of the Insane, and those numerous matters of statistical and philanthropic interest which are included under the general head of Social Science. Sanborns statement shows that the American Social Science Association (ASSA) was devoted to the older conception of social science as a means to cure contemporary social problems. As universities offered more specialized social science courses in the 1870s, a divergence became apparent between the academic view of the discipline and that of the Social Science Association. Nevertheless, the founding of the ASSA is another indication of the midnineteenth-century interest in the scientific study of society.


Hamilton Cravens, History of the Social Sciences, in Historical Writings on American Science: Perspectives and Prospects, edited by Sally G. Kohlstedt and Margaret W. Rossiter (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986), pp. 183-207;

Thomas L. Haskell, The Emergence of Professional Social Science: The American Social Science Association and the Nineteenth- Century Crisis of Authority (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1977).