Edward Alsworth Ross

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Edward Alsworth Ross

Edward Alsworth Ross (1866-1951), one of the founders of American sociology, is best remembered for his "Social Control."

Edward A. Ross was born in Virden, Ill., on Dec. 12, 1866. His father was a farmer, and his mother a schoolteacher. At 20 Ross graduated from Coe College in Cedar Rapids, lowa; at 22, after two years as a teacher at the Ford Dodge Commercial Institute, he left for graduate study at the University of Berlin; and at 24 he received his doctorate in political economy at Johns Hopkins University.

In 1893 Ross was appointed full professor at Leland Stanford University, where he remained until his celebrated dismissal, in 1900, over the question of his right to speak out as a reformer on public issues. After five years at the University of Nebraska, he left in 1906 for the University of Wisconsin, famed for its Progressive-minded faculty and teachings. He spent the rest of his career at Wisconsin, first as professor of sociology and then as department chairman. He retired in 1937 and died in Madison.

Ross achieved national fame as a writer and popular lecturer. He authored 27 books and over 300 articles. His work can best be understood as the creative response of a reform-minded sociologist to the problems produced by the rapid industrialization and urbanization of the nation. Social Control (1901), a classic in American sociology, surveyed the institutions and values that would be needed to maintain individual freedom and social stability in an industrial order. Social Psychology (1908), the first textbook published in that field in the United States, similarly delineated the role of public opinion, custom, ceremony, and convention in maintaining social stability. The Principles of Sociology (1920, 1930, 1937), for many years one of the most popular texts in the field, stressed the role that the social processes can play in ensuring human progress.

More explicitly reformist in outlook were Ross's many books for the layman. Sin and Society (1907) established Ross as a major figure in Progressive thought; other popular works advocating social reform include Changing America (1909) and The Social Trend (1922). He also published many books on social conditions in Europe, Asia, and Africa. In 1917 he went to Russia to report on the Bolshevik Revolution and for many years advocated recognition of the Soviet Union by the U.S. government and an appreciation of the improvements the Soviets brought to the economic and social life of the Russian people.

For a time Ross was active as a nativist. In his early career he espoused the superiority of the Anglo-Saxon peoples and advocated immigration restriction to prevent a large-scale influx of southern and eastern Europeans to the United States. In the 1920s his nativism included a program of eugenics and the nationwide prohibition of liquor. By 1930 Ross shed these notions and spent the greater part of his efforts promoting the New Deal reform and the freedoms of the individual. He served as the national chairman of the American Civil Liberties Union (1940-1950).

As a popularizer of the notion that the purpose of sociology is the reform of society, Ross had no peer among American sociologists in his lifetime. An erudite scholar, inspiring lecturer, courageous reformer, and uncompromising champion of freedom for the individual, he fulfilled the role he established for himself admirably.

Further Reading

Ross's autobiography is Seventy Years of It (1936). For his biography see Julius Weinberg, Edward Alsworth Ross and the Sociology of Progressivism (1971). His sociological theories are best explained by William L. Kolb, "The Sociological Theories of Edward Alsworth Ross," in Harry Elmer Barnes, ed., An Introduction to the History of Sociology (1948). Other works which place Ross in the history of sociology are Charles Hunt Page, Class and American Sociology: From Ward to Ross (1940); Howard W. Odum, American Sociology: The Story of Sociology in the United States through 1950 (1951); and Heinz Maus, A Short History of Sociology (1956; trans. 1962).

Additional Sources

Ross, Edward Alsworth, Seventy years of it: an autobiography, New York: Arno Press, 1977, 1936. □

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