Albion Woodbury Small

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Small, Albion W.



Albion WoodburySmall (1854-1926) did more than any other American sociologist toestablish the recognition of sociology as an academic subject, and heshared with Lester F. Ward and Franklin H. Giddings the leading rolein defining the scope and status of sociology among the socialsciences.

Like many sociologists at the turn of the century,Small was initially trained in theology, but in his case thattraining had been greatly broadened and secularized before he beganto teach sociology. After graduating from Colby College in 1876 andfrom the Baptist Newton TheologicSeminary in 1879, he spent twoyears studying at Berlin and Leipzig. There he was deeply influencedby such historical economists as Gustav Schmoller and by such welfareeconomists as Adolf Wagner and Albert Schaffle. He read Karl Marxwith sympathy but never became a convert. After returning to America,Small taught history and political science for several years at Colbybefore obtaining a doctorate in 1889 from the Johns HopkinsUniversity. There he specialized in history and political science butwas impressed by welfare economics as taught by Richard T. Ely;sociology was not offered at Hopkins at that time. The influence ofthe welfare economists and admiration for Ward led Small to find theultimate justification of sociology in its stimulation andguidance of sound social planning and in its development of areliable body of secular social ethics.

Establishing sociology asa profession. In 1889 Small became president of Colby and remainedthere until 1892, when he was appointed to the first chair ofsociology in the United States, at the newly founded University ofChicago. There he built the first, and long the best, department ofsociology in the United States, appointing in the early years GeorgeE. Vincent, W. I. Thomas, Charles R. Henderson, and, somewhat later,Robert E. Park and Ernest W. Burgess. With Vincent, Small wrote thefirst sociology textbook, published in 1894. Continuing as chairmanof the sociology department until his retirement in 1925, Small alsoserved as dean of the graduate school after 1905. Throughout hisacademic career, he was respected not only as an administrator butalso as a conscientious and informative teacher.

Small foundedthe American Journal of Sociology in 1895 and edited it for the next30 years. It was long the only substantial sociological journal inthe United States and for that time the best in the world. Throughthis medium Small exerted a dominant influence in extending academicand public interest in sociology as well as in raising the standardsfor sociological literature. He did much to familiarize youngscholars with German sociology, an ever more important service as thenumber of Americans studying for their doctorates in Germanydecreased. Small helped to establish the American SociologicalSociety in 1905 and served as its president from 1912 to 1913. Untilhis retirement he was one of the most energetic leaders of thesociety, assuming the task of editing and publishing the AnnualProceedings of its meetings. He was also prominent in internationalsociological activities and served as president of the InstitutInternational de Sociologie in 1922.

Contributions tosociology as a discipline. Although Small may ultimately beremembered for his lifelong campaign to establish sociology as avalid field of academic endeavor rather than for his intellectualcontributions, the development of his ideas nevertheless exemplifiesa general trend in sociology during his lifetime. This trend, asSmall assessed it, was a transition from primary attention onrelatively static social structures to a dynamic and functionalanalysis of social processes. In his 1894 textbook he had shown muchinterest in the social organism analogies that were so popular in theearly period of sociology, but through his later work he became byfar the most important American figure in promoting the recog-nitionand elucidation of the concept of the social process.

The basicraw material of the social process is, according to Small, groupactivities. Group activities tend to be based on elemental humaninterests, and the inevitable conflict of these interests providesthe dynamics of the social process. This conception of Small’swas first shaped by his reading of Marx and by his studies underWagner and Schaffle which emphasized the economic pressures thatproduce social reconstruction. Small had also read the earlier booksof Ludwig Gumplowicz, which stressed the conflict of social groups,but was repelled by Gumplowicz’s naturalistic evolutionism,which maintained that mankind could not provide for the betterment ofsocial conditions. Small believed that conflicts could beaccommodated and anarchy prevented if the conflicts were carried outunder the authoritative supervision of the state, which adjudicatesgroup antagonisms.

As early as 1893 Small had constructed acomprehensive schedule of the human interests that emerge incomparable forms of group manifestations. While he was stilldeveloping this idea, he came into contact with Wesen und Zweckder Politik (1893), by Gustav Ratzenhofer, the learned Austriangeneral who was also a social philosopher. Small’s attempt tofuse his own views with those of Ratzenhofer was already evident by1903, and when he published his General Sociology (1905), the fusionwas virtually complete. Although General Sociology is widelyconsidered to be the mature expression of Small’s doctrine ofthe dynamic role of the conflict of interests, many of his studentscontend that he presented the subject in a more complete andintriguing manner in his famous lectures on “The Conflict ofClasses,” which, unfortunately, were never published.

Small’s contribution to sociological methodology, which heconsidered vitally important, has come to be virtually ignored;sociology has since turned toward a more quantitative approach. Hewas very concerned with defining the scope and objectives ofsociology, outlining the main subdivisions of the field and statingits fundamental ethical goals.

Small made significantcontributions to social science outside the field of formalsociology, especially to political science and economics. Hisconception of the state as the mediator of conflicting groupinterests inspired Arthur F. Bentley’s famous The Processof Government, perhaps the most important American contributionto political theory in the twentieth century. Several ofSmall’s books contributed to the development of institutionaleconomics (1907; 1909; 1913; 1924). His vigorous critique ofthe capitalist system was influenced not only by Marxism and theearly welfare economists but also by his (temporary) Chicagocolleague Thorstein Veblen and even more by Werner Sombart. It is notsurprising that Small’s wide-ranging acquaintance with thevarious social sciences should have led him, toward the end of hiscareer, to be increasingly interested in promoting and encouragingtheir synthesis.

Harry Elmer Barnes

[For the historical context of Small’s work, seeEconomicthought, article on The Institutional School; Social Problems; and the biographies ofEly; Gumplowicz; Marx; Ratzenhofer; Schmoller; Sombart; Veblen; Wagner; Ward, LesterF. For discussion of thesubsequent development of his ideas, see the biographies ofBentley; Burgess; Ogburn.]


1894 SMALL, ALBION W.; andVINCENT, GEORGE E. An Introduction to the Study of Society. NewYork: American Book Company.

1905 General Sociology: AnExposition of the Main Development of Sociological Theory FromSpencer to Ratzenhofer. Univ. of Chicago Press.

1907 AdamSmith and Modern Sociology: A Study in the Methodology of the SocialSciences. Univ. of Chicago Press.

1909 The Cameralists: ThePioneers of German SocialPolity. Univ. of Chicago Press.

1910The Meaning of Social Science. Univ. of ChicagoPress.

1913Between Eras From Capitalism to Democracy. Kansas City, Mo.:Inter-collegiate Press.

1916 Fifty Years of Sociology in theUnited States (1865–1915). American Journal of Sociology21:721–864.1924 Origins of Sociology. Univ. of Chicago Press.


Barnes, Harry E. 1926 The Place ofAlhion Woodbury Small in Modern Sociology. American Journal ofSociology 32:15–44.

Barnes, Harry E. 1948 AlbionWoodbury Small: Promoter of American Sociology and Expositor ofSocial Interests. Pages 766–792 in Harry E. Barnes (editor),An Introduction to the History of Sociology. Univ. of ChicagoPress.

Goodspeed, Thomas W. 1926 Albion Woodbury Small.American Journal of Sociology 32:1–14.

Hayes, Edwabdc. 1927 Albion Woodbury Small. Pages 149–187 in Howard W. Odum(editor), American Masters of Social Science. New York: Holt.

House, Floyd N. 1926 A List of the More Important PublishedWritings of Albion Woodbury Small. American Journal ofSociology 32:49–58.

Maclean, Annie M. 1926 AlbionWoodbury Small: An Appreciation. American Journal of Sociology32:45–48.

Ratzenhofer, Gustav 1893 Wesen und Zweck derPolitik. 3 vols. Leipzig: Brockhaus. → Volume 1: Diesociologische Grundlage. Volume 2: Die Staatspolitik nach aussen.Volume 3: Der Zweck der Politik im allgemeinen.

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Albion Woodbury Small

The American sociologist and educator Albion Woodbury Small (1854-1926) was instrumental in founding and developing the profession of sociology in the United States.

Albion Small was born in Buckfield, Maine, on May 11, 1854. Though trained as a minister at the Newton Theological Institution (1876-1879), he pursued wider interests at the universities of Leipzig and Berlin (1879-1881), particularly in political economy. Thereafter, till 1889 he taught at Colby College in Maine and embarked on advanced studies in economics and history at Johns Hopkins University. After selection as president of Colby College, he was chosen in 1892 to found a department of sociology at the new University of Chicago. During his tenure at Chicago, Small built the leading department of sociology in the United States, helped in founding the American Sociological Society (of which he was president in 1912 and 1913), and was the first editor of the American Journal of Sociology.

Small's teaching and writings were animated by the desire to demonstrate the distinctive nature of the young discipline of sociology, as well as to indicate the interrelations among various social sciences. His first major book, General Sociology (1905), viewed the subject matter of sociology as the processes by which various group interests clash and become resolved through accommodations and social innovation. In this work, he summarized and creatively interpreted the writings of Ludwig Gumplowicz and Gustave Ratzenhofer for the first time in English. Further interpretations of European thinkers were included in Adam Smith and Modern Sociology (1907), where Small tried to demonstrate the moral and philosophical undergirding of Smith's famous Wealth of Nations; The Cameralists (1909), an extremely detailed review of the social theory underlying the public economic policies of Germany from the 16th through the 19th century; and Origins of Sociology (1924), a highly erudite reconstruction of German academic controversies that seemed to Small to provide the foundation of modern methodology in social science.

The best summary of Small's overall thinking is contained in The Meaning of Social Science (1910), where the thrust of his General Sociology is clarified in surprisingly modern terms. Essentially, social science—including sociology—studies continuing processes through which men form, implement, and change valuations of their experiences. Human behavior derives meaning from these valuations, and both values and behavior are simultaneously patterned in the individual (as personality) and in society (through groups and organizations).

Small retired from the university in 1924. He died in Chicago on March 24, 1926. Although his ideas were largely derivative, his contribution to American sociology is incontestable.

Further Reading

Two detailed summaries of Small's works are Edward C. Hayes's "Albion W. Small" in Howard W. Odum and others, eds., American Masters of Social Science (1927), and a chapter in Harry Elmer Barnes, ed., An Introduction to the History of Sociology (1948). For general background see Harry Elmer Barnes and Howard Becker, Social Thought from Lore to Science (2 vols., 1938; 2d ed., 3 vols., 1961), and Bernhard J. Stern, Historical Sociology (1960).

Additional Sources

Christakes, George, Albion W. Small, Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1978.

Dibble, Vernon K., The legacy of Albion Small, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1975. □

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Small, Albion W. (1854–1926) An American sociologist, less known for his substantive contributions to sociology than for his role in establishing (in 1892) the prototypical and for many years the leading sociology department, at the University of Chicago. Founder of, and prolific contributor to, the American Journal of Sociology (1895)
, his publications include General Sociology (1907), Adam Smith and Modern Sociology (1907), and The Meaning of the Social Sciences (1910).

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