Maciver, Robert M.

views updated May 18 2018

Maciver, Robert M.



Sociologist, political theorist, philosopher, university administrator, and humanist, Robert Morrison Maclver was born in Stornoway, Scotland, in 1882. He will be remembered in the history of Western thought for having set forth systematically the fundamental moral, sociological, and philosophical principles of democratic institutions and processes.

Although he sought answers to the perennial theoretical problems of social, political, and moral philosophy that seem to defy ultimate solution, Maclver did not eschew concern for the mitigation of immediate social problems. He attempted to demonstrate by precept that sociological insights can be practicably applied to such pressing problems as labor relations, economic reconstruction, internationalism and peace, intergroup conflicts, religion, academic freedom, social work, juvenile delinquency, and effective utilization of manpower resources. He was vice-chairman of the Canadian War Labor Board in World War I and director of the City of New York Juvenile Delinquency Evaluation Project from 1956 to 1961, and he contributed effectively to the leadership of the Social Science Research Council, the Russell Sage Foundation, and the National Manpower Council.

Maclver’s very important contribution to political theory is his view of the state as an agency of human purpose. The state, he argued, is an association established by the community for the regulation of the external conditions of the social order. It is thus an instrumentality within a more inclusive unity. Its essential tasks are to establish order and to respect personality, but it is a creature of society and is bound by the value systems that men live by and for. Maclver revealed the intimate relations between political structures and processes, on the one hand, and human values, on the other.

Maclver’s contributions to sociology may be viewed as fourfold. First, he systematically developed and fruitfully exploited an impressive net-work of fundamental sociological concepts. Second, he helped stem the tide of excessive positivism and raw empiricism in American sociology, especially through his insistence on theory as a methodological tool. The progress of science, he suggested, is the progress of thought. Every scholar should be at the same time a specialist in his own field and a thinker about a larger one (1960, p. 30). Third, he reaffirmed the view of man as a creative human being with subjective hopes, feelings, aspirations, motives, ideals, and values. Life, he insisted, is expansively creative. Finally, he demonstrated that sociological writing can be clear, artistic, and literate. To an area of confusion and literary and intellectual chaos, Maclver brought both clarity of thought and felicity of expression.

Especially important in Maclver’s sociological system are his classification of social interests, the distinction between community and association, the concept of social evolution, the harmony theory of the relation between society and individuality, and the differentiation between the institutions concerned with means (civilization) and the world of ends (culture).

The classification of social interests, particularly the distinction between like and common interests, has proved of immense value in clarifying the nature of interindividual relationships, the bases of group organization, and the nature of the social bond. The distinction between community as the matrix of social organization and associations as specific organizations which grow and develop within that matrix is the keystone of Maclver’s political doctrines. To sociologists the distinction has proved significant in permitting a more precise definition of the problem of social solidarity and in providing a framework for a deeper understanding of the nature of a pluralistic or multi-group society.

Maclver’s reaffirmation of the validity of the concept of social evolution, in the face of the bitter attacks upon it by anthropologists such as Golden-weiser, anticipated by many years the resurgence of interest in and the defense of the concept by Julian Steward and other American anthropologists, as well as by sociologists such as Talcott Parsons (1964), Robert Bellah (1964), S. N. Eisenstadt (1964). Numerous insights have stemmed from Maclver’s tracing of a pattern of social change from the primitive type of functionally undifferentiated society, wherein life is of a communal nature, to the more evolved, functionally diverse, and institutionally and associationally differentiated social entity, wherein the basis of individual relationships is less communal and more associational and wherein personality becomes more developed and more expansive.

Important, too, is Maclver’s resolution of the timeworn controversy of the relationship between the individual and society. Rejecting both social contract theories and organismic theories, he stressed the fundamental harmony between individuality and society, recognizing, at the same time, that this harmony is far from perfect. Sociality and individuality, he asserted in one of his most successful formulations, develop pan passu.

Also significant is the distinction between the world of means (civilization) and the world of ends (culture). The terms are unfortunate because of the more traditional connotations of “civilization” and “culture,” but the emphasis on the difference between means and ends provides numerous analytical insights into the processes of social change and a better understanding of the functions of various social institutions. It indicates the areas of social life to which one may properly apply the concept of progress.

Maclver was an inspiring teacher. He had an impact on students at Aberdeen University, the University of Toronto, Barnard College, and Columbia University. At Columbia he held for more than twenty years the chair of Lieber professor of political philosophy and sociology. He served as president of the New School for Social Research in 1963/1964. He received advanced degrees from the universities of Edinburgh and Oxford and numerous honorary degrees.

In his Kurt Lewin memorial award address of 1961, Maclver stated: “In every area of scientific research we have often to depend on degrees of probability, on approximations, on indirect approaches, and such procedures can yield results of considerable importance. There are many ranges between certitude and ignorance, and nearly all we know about human beings and human activities lie within these ranges” (1962a, pp. 89-90). He has not been afraid to face “the paradox of knowledge,” namely, that “the only things we know as immutable truths are the things we do not understand,” while “the only things we understand are mutable and never fully known” (1938, p. 124).

Harry Alpert

[see alsoAcademic Freedom; Causation; Neighborhood; Prejudice, article on Social Discrimination; Public Interest; State.]


(1917) 1935 Community: A Sociological Study; Being an Attempt to Set Out the Nature and Fundamental Laws of Social Life. 3d ed. London: Macmillan.

1919 Labor in the Changing World. New York: Dutton. (1921) 1956 The Elements of Social Science. 9th ed., rev. London: Methuen.

(1926) 1955 The Modern State. Oxford Univ. Press.

1930a Jean Bodin. Volume 2, pages 614–616 in Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences. New York: Macmillan.

1930b The Trend to Internationalism. Volume 1, pages 172–188 in Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences. New York: Macmillan.

193l a The Contribution of Sociology to Social Work. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.

1931 b Society: Its Structure and Changes. New York: Long & Smith.

1932 Interests. Volume 8, pages 144–148 in Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences. New York: Macmillan.

1933 Maladjustment. Volume 10, pages 60-63 in Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences. New York: Macmillan.

1934a Social Pressures. Volume 12, pages 344–348 in Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences. New York: Macmillan.

1934b Sociology. Volume 14, pages 232–246 in Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences. New York: Macmillan.

1935 Graham Wallas. Volume 15, pages 326–327 in Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences. New York: Macmillan.

1937 Society: A Textbook of Sociology. New York: Farrar & Rinehart. → A rewriting of Maclver 1931b;.

1938 The Social Sciences. Pages 121–140 in On Going to College: A Symposium. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

1939 Leviathan and the People. University: Louisiana State Univ. Press.

1942 Social Causation. Boston: Ginn. → A paperback edition was published in 1964 by Harper.

(1947) 1961 The Web of Government. New York: Macmillan.

1948 The More Perfect Union: A Program for the Control of Inter-group Discrimination in the United States. New York: Macmillan.

(1949) 1961 Maciver, Robert M.; and Page, Charles H. Society: An Introductory Analysis. New York: Holt. → Book 3 (Chapters 22-29) is an unusually extensive treatment of social change in a general textbook.

1952 Democracy and the Economic Challenge. New York: Knopf.

1955a Academic Freedom in Our Time. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.

1955b The Pursuit of Happiness: A Philosophy for Modern Living. New York: Simon & Schuster.

1960 Life: Its Dimensions and Its Bounds. New York: Harper.

1962a Disturbed Youth and the Agencies. Journal of Social Issues 18, no. 2:88-96.

1962n The Challenge of the Passing Years: My Encounter With Time. New York: Stmon & Schuster. → A Paperback edition was published in 1963 by Pocket Books.

1964 Power Transformed. New York: Macmillan.

1966 The Prevention and Control of Delinquency: A Strategic Approach. New York: Atherton.


Alpert, Harry (editor) 1953 Robert M. Maclver: Teacher and Sociologist. Northampton, Mass.: Metcalf Printing and Publishing Company. → An evaluation by eight former students.

Alpert, Harry (1954) 1964 Robert M. Maclver’s Contributions to Sociological Theory. Pages 286–292 in Morroe Berger, T. Abel, and C. H. Page (editors), Freedom and Control in Modern Society. New York: Octagon Books.

Bellah, Robert N. 1964 Religious Evolution. American Sociological Review 29:358–374.

Columbia University, Commission ON Economic Reconstruction 1934 Economic Reconstruction: Report. Robert M. Maclver, Chairman. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.

Eisenstadt, S. N. 1964 Social Change, Differentiation and Evolution. American Sociological Review 29:375–386.

Parsons, Talcott 1964 Evolutionary Universals in Society.American Sociological Review 29:339–357.

Spitz, David (1954) 1964 Robert M. Maclver’s Contributions to Political Theory. Pages 293–313 in Morroe Berger, T. Abel, and C. H. Page (editors), Freedom and Control in Modern Society. New York: Octagon Books.

Robert Morrison MacIver

views updated May 11 2018

Robert Morrison MacIver

Robert Morrison MacIver (1882-1970) was a Scottish-American sociologist, political philosopher, and educator. He was a leading theorist of the interaction between the operation of society and the political institution.

Robert M. MacIver was born in Stornoway, Scotland, on April 17, 1882. His education was in classics at the University of Edinburgh and at Oxford University. He lectured in political science and sociology at Aberdeen University (1907-1915). At the University of Toronto (1915-1927) he was professor and head of the department of political science and served as vice-chairman of the Canadian War Labor Board (1917-1919). After heading the department of economics and sociology at Barnard College (1927-1929), he was Lieber professor of political philosophy and sociology at Columbia University (1929-1950).

During the next decade MacIver was successively director of research for the Jewish Defense Agencies, the Assault on Academic Freedom, the United Nations, and the Juvenile Delinquency Evaluation Project for New York City. He was president of the American Sociological Society (1940) and president and then chancellor of the New School for Social Research (1963-1966).

Beginning as a political philosopher with broad social interests, MacIver viewed the state as a social institution that is necessarily interdependent with other institutions and the prevailing class system. These themes formed the basis of his Community (1917) and The Modern State (1926). But in several editions of his Society (particularly the 1937 edition), he came to regard society as a network of acquired interests expressed in groups or associations and in legitimate value systems called institutions. Interests differ sociologically by emphasis either on goals (culture or myth) or on means and techniques (civilizational interests). The Web of Government (1947) analyzed the two forms of interest in promoting social change and gave special attention to the critical role of government in facilitating or moderating varied effects of innovations. In a related work, Social Causation (1942), he analyzed social change as a complex process of social causation in which a key aspect is the shared evaluation of cultural and technical innovation.

MacIver also had a continuing and judicious interest in many public issues. In The More Perfect Union (1949) he warned about the vicious circle of discrimination, deprivation, and accentuated racial prejudice. In Academic Freedom in Our Time (1955) he exposed contemporary assaults on academic freedom and convincingly demonstrated the importance of such freedom for a viable society. He directed a thorough investigation of delinquency programs in New York City which was summarized in one of his last books, The Prevention and Control of Delinquency (1966). He died on June 15, 1970.

Further Reading

MacIver's autobiography, As a Tale That Is Told (1968), is informative. Morroe Berger and others, Freedom and Control in Modern Society (1954), contains discussions of some aspects of MacIver's work by former students. □

MacIver, Robert M.

views updated May 29 2018

MacIver, Robert M. (1882–1970) A pioneering but neglected Scottish sociologist, who–after brief scholarships at Aberdeen and Edinburgh—became chair of sociology at Columbia University in New York in 1929, where he stayed until 1950. His classic textbook Society (first published in 1931, revised 1937, 3rd edn. 1949 with Charles Page) reveals his concern with developing a systematic, theoretical, humanistic, yet evolutionary sociology. His prime interests were the state (The Web of Government, 1947) and community (Community, 1928). Full biographical details can be found in As A Tale That is Told: The Autobiography of Robert M. MacIver (1968).

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