Howard Washington Odum

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Howard Washington Odum

Howard Washington Odum (1884-1954) was a sociologist, educator, and academic administrator. He was the preeminent sociologist of the American South during the second quarter of the 20th century.

Howard W. Odum was born May 24, 1884, on a small farm near Bethlehem, Georgia. He graduated in 1904 from Emory College in Oxford, Georgia. From there he moved to Mississippi, where he taught in a rural school, earned an M.A. in classics in 1906 from the University of Mississippi, and found time to collect Black folk songs and folklore. He then went north for two Ph.D.'s, one at Clark University in 1909 under the psychologist G. Stanley Hall and one at Columbia in 1910 under the sociologist Franklin H. Giddings. Lasting influences of his doctoral studies included Wilhelm Wundt's folk psychology and William Graham Sumner's concept of the folkways. Odum's breadth of learning was a hallmark of his writings.

Failing to find an academic position in the South, Odum spent two years studying African Americans in the schools for the Philadelphia Bureau of Municipal Research. In 1912 he moved to the University of Georgia as an educational sociologist. Then, as dean of liberal arts at Emory in 1919-1920, he played a major part in the college's move to Atlanta as a university. In 1920 he became Kenan Professor of Sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, a position he held until he retired in 1954. He died November 8, 1954.

Odum was first and foremost a scholar and teacher, but he saw his scholarship as a way to help bring the South into the mainstream of national life. The South of his youth was underdeveloped. Its economy was unbalanced, with too much backward agriculture, a few low-wage industries such as cotton mills, and not much else. It was noted for mistreating its African American citizens and for schools and prisons that were deplorable by national standards. Yet the region had vibrant folk institutions such as country churches, close-knit families, and deep-rooted ties to home and community. Odum's goal was to help modernize the region while preserving its folk culture—no easy task, and one that made him a complex blend of imaginative reformer and romantic traditionalist. His work was all of a piece in his own mind, but its parts may seem unrelated and almost incompatible when we read them separately.

Odum wrote chiefly about three topics: African American life and culture, folk sociology, and regionalism and social planning. His first book, Social and Mental Traits of the Negro (1910), is a mine of facts about the life of Southern rural African Americans of the time. It is marred by views about race differences which were then common among white intellectuals (north and south) and which Odum later outgrew.

He returned to the study of African American culture in The Negro and His songs (with Guy B. Johnson, 1925), Negro Workaday Songs (with Johnson, 1926), and a partly fictionalized trilogy about the adventures and folk wisdom of a "Black Ulysses," a wandering roustabout whom Odum had come to know in Chapel Hill: Rainbow Round My Shoulder (1928), Wings on My Feet (1929), and Cold Blue Moon (1931). Odum's portrayal of African American culture as seen through the eyes of his picaresque hero was so sympathetic that African American intellectuals criticized him for glamorizing the crudity of a stereotyped African American. Odum's later writings on race were more conventionally scholarly and more explicitly in tune with the integrationist sentiments that had become nearly universal among sociologists by the 1940s. Odum was not an outspoken leader in the fight for racial integration, but he stood up for his student and colleague, Guy B. Johnson, whose liberal views on race brought Johnson and the university under severe attack in the state.

Odum's most nearly systematic theoretical creation was his "folk sociology." Influenced by Sumner, Odum saw folk society and social change as a gradual accumulation of folkways and mores—informal customs that grow from the everyday life of the common people. They are resistant to change, but must change rapidly in a technologically dynamic society. Some of them may be replaced or modified by "technicways"—adaptations of social life to new technologies—and "stateways"—laws that codify and support the technicways. At best, stateways give needed guidance in a world that the old folkways no longer fit. At worst, they are thwarted by deep-rooted folkways or, alternatively, lodge too much power in a central government whose rational planning ignores the feelings of the folk. Odum never laid out folk sociology in any one book, perhaps because his thinking on the subject was incomplete, with loose ends, when he died. For example, he provided no way to predict whether stateways or folkways would prevail when they were irreconcilable.

Odum's regionalism was essentially a call for social planning that would be national in scope while recognizing the special problems of the nation's several regions. His best-known book, Southern Regions of the United States(1936), compiled a massive array of statistics that showed the South trailing the nation in wealth, schooling, indoor toilets, and almost every other quality-of-life indicator. A more analytical though less celebrated work was American Regionalism (with Harry Estill Moore, 1938). This book was an imaginative blend of sociocultural analysis and policy advocacy. It delineated six major American regions on the basis of social and cultural differences and argued for using the regions as administrative units for national planning. Odum emphasized the difference between a divisive sectionalism and a unifying regionalism that would harmonize the regions but preserve their distinctive qualities.

Odum was president of the American Sociological Society in 1930, assistant director of President Hoover's Research Committee on Social Trends from 1929 to 1933, chief of the social science division of the Chicago World's Fair in 1933, president of the Commission on Interracial Cooperation from 1937 to 1944, president of the Southern Regional Council (an organization aimed at bettering race relations) from 1944 to 1946, and president or chairman of several statewide social action and planning organizations in North Carolina. He was visiting professor at Columbia, Yale, and the Universities of Illinois, Southern California, Utah, and Washington.

He did not develop a lasting theoretical perspective or found a school of thought. Most of his 20 books and nearly 200 articles were so focused on the early 20th-century South that they are somewhat time-bound. Nevertheless, he remained influential through the work of his students and their students, many of whom served as presidents of the Southern Sociological Society or the American Sociological Association. Perhaps Odum's most enduring legacies are the institutions he created at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He founded the university's Department of Sociology (1920), its School of Public Welfare (1920; since renamed the School of Social Work), its sociological journal Social Forces (1922), its interdisciplinary Institute for Research in Social Science (1924), and its Department of City and Regional Planning (1946). He was among the small number of faculty members instrumental in founding the University of North Carolina Press in 1922. All of these are widely recognized for the quality of their work. In particular, the Chapel Hill academic departments of sociology and of planning and the journal Social Forces have been ranked in national surveys of experts as among the top half dozen in their fields. Through these institutions that survived him, Odum helped bring the South into the national main-stream—but they bear hardly a trace of his concept of regionalism, for there is almost nothing distinctively Southern about them except their location on the map. They recruit faculty and students from all over the world, and their research no longer concentrates on specifically Southern problems. In this sense Odum, a Southerner to the core, may have achieved more than he wanted.

Further Reading

A lucid distillation of Odum's main ideas is Rupert B. Vance, "Odum, Howard W.," in the International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences (1968). Katherine Jocher, Guy B. Johnson, George L. Simpson, and Rupert B. Vance (editors), Folk, Region, and Society (1964) is a collection of Odum's writings chosen to show the broad range of his thought. It contains a biographical sketch and a nearly full bibliography of his publications. Its editors were Odum's former students and its approach is almost wholly sympathetic. A more critical though generally favorable discussion of Odum and his place in American thought appears as Chapter 5 in Daniel Joseph Singal, The War Within: From Victorian to Modernist Thought in the South, 1919-1945 (1982). Still more critical, and not at all popular with Odum's admirers, is Wayne D. Brazil, "Howard W. Odum: The Building Years, 1884-1930" (Ph.D. dissertation, Harvard University, 1975). Guy Benton Johnson and Guion Griffis Johnson, Research in Service to Society: Fifty Years of the Institute for Research in Social Science at the University of North Carolina (1980) gives a thorough and readable account of Odum's role in building a social science center at Chapel Hill.

Additional Sources

Brazil, Wayne D., Howard W. Odum: the building years, 1884-1930, New York: Garland Pub., 1988.

Sosna, Morton., In search of the silent South: southern liberals and the race issue, New York: Columbia University Press, 1977. □

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