Sumner, William Graham (1840–1910)

views updated


The American social philosopher, economist, and cultural anthropologist William Graham Sumner was graduated from Yale in 1863 and continued his studies at Geneva, Göttingen, and Oxford, with the aim of entering the Episcopal ministry. He did so in 1867, having returned to America the preceding year. Increasingly, however, this calling conflicted with his wider interests, and when in 1872 he was offered the chair of political and social science at Yale University, he gladly accepted it. He soon gained a considerable reputation as a teacher, publicist, and local politician, but his chief claim to renown derived from his studies in social development, culminating in his masterpiece, Folkways (1907).

Two conflicting impulsespolemical and scientificdominated Sumner's approach to the study of society. It was undoubtedly the polemical impulse that fed the scientific. Dissatisfaction with the reformist dogmatism of his age prompted his search for a scientific basis for his own no less dogmatic advocacy of laissez-faire. In place of "political engineering" based on a facile and sentimental philosophy, Sumner advocated "social evolutionism" free from moralizing preconceptions.

Sumner identified the basic social forces with certain group habits, or "folkways," which, he held, operate on a subconscious level and reflect the spontaneous and the primary needs and interests of a given society, such as hunger, sex, vanity, and fear. These needs and interests, rather than conceptually formed purposes, determine the course of social development. Once the folkways attain persistence and stability, they become reinforced by more conscious processes, such as religious sanctions. Through repeated transmission they assume the status of sociomoral traditions, or "mores." The mores, supported by group authority, then function as the chief agencies of "legitimation"; they determine what shall be deemed right or wrong, or socially acceptable or unacceptable. The mores form the matrix into which an individual is born, and they pervade and control his ways of thinking in all the exigencies of life. The individual becomes critically conscious of his mores only when he comes into contact with another society with different mores or, if he lives in a society at a higher level of civilization, through literature.

Attempts to change a particular set of mores meet with considerable resistance, for they present themselves "as final and unchangeable, because they present answers which are offered as 'the truth'" (Folkways, Ch. 2, Sec. 83). Hence, Sumner argued, it was not likely that they could be substantively affected by revolutions or other predetermined acts or changed "by any artifice or device, to a great extent, or suddenly, or in any essential element" (ibid., Sec. 91). Legislation by itself can do little to bring about a transformation of social and moral values. To be truly effective, legislation must grow out of a people's mores; only then is it in keeping with their basic "interests." Nonetheless, Sumner did not deny the significance of legislation, as some commentators have suggested. Indeed, he believed it had a highly educative role, even when it was ineffective in achieving its intended ends. For "it is only in so far as things have been transferred from the mores into laws and positive institutions that there is discussion about them or rationalizing upon them" (ibid., Sec. 80). These unintended consequences, far from being a threat to the established system of mores, constitute a vital component of that system, since it is through such a "rationalizing" process that the mores develop "their own philosophical and ethical generalizations, which are elevated into 'principles' of truth and right" (ibid., Sec. 83).

Although Sumner had little faith in the efficacy of social and economic change produced by state intervention, he was by no means a fatalist or a blind defender of the status quo. A relativist in the tradition of Baron de Montesquieu and Johann Gottfried Herder, a conservative in the tradition of Edmund Burke and Alexander Hamilton, an individualist in the tradition of Thomas Jefferson and Wilhelm von Humboldt, a historicist in the tradition of Friedrich Karl von Savigny and the romanticists, a Spencerian and Darwinist by confession, Sumner believed that man could mold his social life only by paying heed to the "organic" nature of social growth, that he could modify its operative values only "by slow and long continued effort" (ibid., Sec. 91).

Starting from premises not unlike those of Karl Marx, Sumner was, in a sense, a social determinist. However, he recognized the dynamic role of beliefs and the operative value of ideas and, like Marx, he denied their independence from or superiority to material interests. Material interests constituted both the primary source and the ultimate sanction of social action. Although they drew opposite inferences from their shared premises, and although they were both mistaken in their several dogmatisms and prophecies, Sumner and Marx nevertheless laid bare in an equally fearless manner many features of social development that their generation ignored.

See also Burke, Edmund; Darwinism; Herder, Johann Gottfried; Humboldt, Wilhelm von; Jefferson, Thomas; Marx, Karl; Montesquieu, Baron de; Savigny, Friedrich Karl von; Sociology of Knowledge.


works by sumner

A History of American Currency. New York: Holt, 1874.

Andrew Jackson as a Public Man. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1882.

What Social Classes Owe to Each Other. New York: Harper, 1883.

Alexander Hamilton. New York: Dodd Mead, 1890.

The Financier and the Finances of the American Revolution, 2 vols. New York: Dodd Mead, 1891.

A History of Banking in the United States. New York, 1896.

Folkways. Boston: Ginn, 1907.

Earth-Hunger and Other Essays. Edited by A. G. Keller. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1913.

The Forgotten Man, and Other Essays. Edited by A. G. Keller. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1918.

On Liberty, Society, and Politics: The Essential Essays of William Graham Sumner. Edited by Robert C. Bannister. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1992.

works on sumner

Ball, H. V., G. E. Simpson, and K. Ikeda. "Law and Social Change: Sumner Reconsidered." American Journal of Sociology 67 (5) (March 1962).

Barnes, H. E. An Introduction to the History of Sociology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948. Ch. 6, "William Graham Sumner; Spencerianism in American Dress."

Curtis, Bruce. William Graham Sumner. Boston: Twayne, 1981.

Ellwood, C. A. A History of Social Philosophy. New York: Prentice-Hall, 1938. Ch. 28, "William Graham Sumner and Laissez Faire."

Hofstadter, Richard. Social Darwinism in American Thought. Boston: Beacon Press, 1955. Ch. 3, "William Graham Sumner."

Keller, A. G. Reminiscences (Mainly Personal) of William Graham Sumner. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1933.

Pickens, Donald K. "Scottish Common Sense Philosophy and 'Folkways.'" Journal of Thought 22 (1987): 3944.

Starr, H. E. William Graham Sumner. New York: Holt, 1925.

Frederick M. Barnard (1967)

Bibliography updated by Philip Reed (2005)