Sumner, William Graham

views updated

Sumner, William Graham



William Graham Sumner (1840-1910) was one of the founders of the science of sociology in the United States. He studied political economy at Yale, graduating in 1863, and then studied French and Hebrew at Geneva, ancient languages and history at Gottingen, and Anglican theology at Oxford. In 1866 he returned to a tutorship at Yale. Ordained as an Episcopal clergyman, he served parishes in New York City and Morristown, New Jersey, but gave up the ministry when, in 1872, he was appointed to a professorship of political and social science at Yale. During the next 38 years at Yale he achieved a reputation as teacher, polemicist, and scholar.

An abrupt change seems to have occurred in Sumner’s career in the early 1890s. Before that time, he had been nationally known as an economist and essayist, fighting brilliantly against tariffs, socialism, sentimental social movements, and big government; thus, his undergraduate courses were enormously popular. After 1890 he increasingly deserted economics for sociology; polemics gave way to research, and the rostrum to the study. Consequently, his public reputation waned. Yet, the early and popular Sumner now merits only a few paragraphs in American social histories as a representative social Darwinian, whereas the later Sumner is given whole chapters in histories of sociological thought. Sumner the economist represented a current of opinion, but Sumner the sociologist was a brilliant innovator.

Economic views . As a professor of economics Sumner steadily championed individualism and laissez-faire and, just as insistently, condemned governmental regulation (”interference”) and social reform movements. He believed the economic, political, and social worlds to be governed by natural laws. According to these laws, perfect competition results in a struggle for existence, and the fittest survive in the social, as in the natural, order. To the extent that the social order is rational, interference with it is irrational; to the extent that it is beneficent, interference is pernicious. In any case, interference will eventually prove futile, for the laws, such as those of supply and demand, are relatively fixed.

Sumner fought ardently for free trade and sound money. He spoke of the sacredness of private property. In a famous essay entitled “The Forgotten Man” (1883a), he praised the sober citizen who always has to bear the costs of protective tariffs, governmental social services, and high wages secured through union activity. One of his essays was entitled “What Social Classes Owe to Each Other” (see 1883b), and his blunt answer to the question implied by the title was: nothing. The title of another notable essay, “The Absurd Ef-fort to Make the World Over” (1894), is indicative of Sumner’s stark social philosophy. He was constantly engaged in controversy, and his drastic, uncompromising language not only revealed his impatience with any suggestion of sentimentality, but even implied that he regarded tact as hypocrisy.

Shift to sociology . In 1875 Sumner adopted Spencer’s newly published The Study of Sociology for use in one of his classes [see the biography of Spencer]. This is the basis for the claim that Sumner gave the first university course in sociology. The use of the Spencer volume was significant, for it marked the beginning of Sumner’s shift from political economy to sociology. Initially, Spencer’s work may have appealed to Sumner simply because of its individualistic, laissez-faire philosophy. On careful reading, however, Spencer’s Study of Sociology revived an excitement Sumner had known ten years before at Oxford, when he and his friends were reading Henry Thomas Buckle’s History of Civilization in England. It had seemed to them then that it was necessary to develop a true social science and that it must be based upon history in the broadest sense. Now Spencer’s volume was pointing the way—a way made increasingly plain when the first of the three volumes of his Principles of Sociology appeared in 1876. Spencer’s work convinced Sumner that such a social science was indeed feasible, that it must be achieved by induction from ethnographic and historical materials, and that Spencer had found the correct guiding principle—evolution. Sumner had to agree, however, with those of Spencer’s critics who asserted that bias and prepossession kept Spencer from being genuinely scientific.

The seed sown in Sumner’s mind by Spencer began to germinate when Sumner read the work of an obscure Czech scholar, Julius Lippert, whose Evolution of Culture first appeared in 1886 (Mur-dock 1933). Drawing, like Spencer, on ethnographical material, Lippert traced the evolution of specific cultural traits (such as the use of tools or fire), of institutions, and of ideas. To Sumner it seemed that Lippert, like Spencer, Gumplowicz, and Tylor, hovered on the brink of a social science of sufficient scope to include the whole social life of man.

From 1890 on, Sumner felt it his duty to develop an inductive science of society. (He called it sociology reluctantly, since he disliked the word partly because of its impure etymology, partly because it had been invented and used by philosophers, and partly because it had been seized upon by sentimentalists. “Societology” might be better; “the science of society” would be best of all, but it yields neither a convenient adjective nor an adverb.) Whereas Spencer had employed half a dozen young scholars to collect ethnographical material, Sumner thriftily collected all his own; to that end he learned eight languages in addition to the six already at his command. His absorption in his herculean task precluded further polemics; he now saw economics as merely one important aspect of the science of society.

Folkways and mores. Sumner himself succinctly described how he came to make his greatest contribution to sociology:

In 1899 I began to write out a text-book of sociology from material which I had used in lectures during the previous ten or fifteen years. At a certain point in that undertaking I found that I wanted to introduce my own treatment of the “mores.” I could not refer to it anywhere in print, and I could not do justice to it in a chapter of another book. I therefore turned aside to write a treatise on the “Folkways.” (1906, preface)

The treatise Folkways made sociological history. Its subtitle is “A Study of the Sociological Importance of Usages, Manners, Customs, Mores, and Morals.”

To Sumner, a study of folkways is to a science of society what the study of the cell is to biology. Or, in terms of a further analogy, he asserted that as habits are to the individual, so folkways are to the group: they are men’s customary acts. They have their origin in the repetition of the small acts that satisfy the fundamental needs all men feel; hence, they tend toward uniformity within a group. The same psychological processes are involved in the making of folkways as in the formation of habits. Folkways group themselves around men’s major interests in life: the maintenance, protection, perpetuation, and security of the individual in his society. This is to say, then, that they cluster to form social institutions.

Folkways thus become the human means of adjustment to the conditions of life. Certain ways of adjustment survive because they are “expedient,” but with time they tend to become more and more arbitrary, positive, and imperative in the compulsion they exert on people, and it is as if they exert social pressure to conformity in and of themselves. A notable characteristic of the folkways is that they exhibit a “strain toward consistency”: those in one area of life will come to make sense in terms of those in other areas, until there emerges a noticeable pattern of consistency. There may also be a strain toward “improvement.”

Certain folkways become mores. (Sumner coined the term “folkways,” but he borrowed “mores” from the Latin word for “customs.”) The mores are “the popular habits and traditions, when they include a judgment that they are conducive to societal welfare, and when they exert a coercion on the individual to conform to them, although they are not coordinated by any authority” (Sumner & Keller 1927, vol. 1, p. 34). Mores are both fewer and more coercive than folkways; when they are laid down by society as ethical principles, they constitute morals. Folkways are conventions whose observance makes social inter-course easy, agreeable, satisfying; mores are actions people should perform because they are socially important. A person merely earns disapproval for breaking folkways; he is usually punished, often severely, for breaking mores.

Mores constitute an ideal of “the man as he should be”; a child acquires an awareness of this ideal before he is capable of reasoning about the rationality or desirability of the particular mores, and he takes their Tightness for granted. Negative mores are taboos; these are generally supported by a greater element of “philosophy” or of religious sanction than positive injunctions. To say “thou shalt not” often implies that the tabooed action would displease the ghosts or spirits. Laws are those folk-ways and mores which are given the added “specific sanction of the group as it is organized politically” (1906, p. 56). Like the folkways, mores form accretions around nuclei of social interests, about such “institutions” as those connected with sex and the family, with worship and the church. (Sumner defined an institution as “a concept, idea, notion, doctrine, interest, and a structure”; 1906, p. 53.) The mores have their strongest hold upon the “ever conservative” masses of society. However, both folkways and mores, conservative as they are, change and evolve, since individuals constantly—often unconsciously— make minute variations in their observance of them and these variations are then imitated. This evolution helps to keep even the most traditional society adaptable.

Sumner presented practically all of his analysis of folkways and mores in the first two chapters of Folkways. The remaining four-fifths of the book is primarily a demonstration of the power of mores “to make anything right and to prevent the condemnation of anything” (1906, p. 52)—slavery, cannibalism, asceticism, unusual sexual practices, and so on.

Other sociological concepts. Folkways ranks, by common agreement, as one of the most influential works in American sociology, despite the fact that it is not a systematic treatise. In addition to inventing and developing the concepts of folkways and mores, Sumner coined the now indispensable word “ethnocentrism,” made the contrast between “in-group” and “out-group,” and distinguished between institutions that are “crescive” and those that are “enacted.” Many of his ideas stimulated work in other areas: studies of social control, for example, stress the power of the mores. Analyses of socialization, of the relativism of culture, of social and cultural change, of the lack of rationality in human sanctions and social control, and of the nature of institutions are all enriched by perceptions in Folkways.

The “text-book of sociology” Sumner began to write in 1899 was eventually published in 1927—seventeen years after Sumner himself had died—as the first three volumes of The Science of Society, with Sumner’s disciple, Albert G. Keller, as coauthor. (The fourth volume, the “Case-book,” presented a compendium of ethnographic material used by Sumner and Keller as evidence upon which their principles were based; Maurice R. Davie collaborated on this volume.) This large work describes the body of social institutions of which the folkways and mores are the cells.

The theory underlying The Science of Society may be briefly summarized. All men are driven by four powerful forces: hunger, love, vanity, and fear. Folkways and mores, clustering around these drives and their satisfaction, produce universal institutions. Out of the need to satisfy hunger, in all its ramifications, grow the institutions of “self-maintenance,” of economics. These lead immediately to governmental institutions, since men must live together peaceably and defend themselves and each other if they would survive. Out of the drive of sex-love grow the institutions of marriage and the family; from fear (Sumner usually spoke of it as “ghost-fear”) grow the elemental forms of religion. Vanity alone produces no universal institutions, since it is protean in form and yields no benefits for societal survival.

The main body of the three volumes traces in detail the evolution of all mankind’s major social institutions. It is precisely here that Sumner’s vast work fails, for he accepted assumptions commonly held by anthropologists at the turn of the century, when he began his work, but long since renounced by 1927, when the work was published. Sumner assumed that evolution is unilinear, that all institutions begin in simplicity and develop toward complexity through definite “stages,” and that the institutions of primitive people now alive represent arrested development at the various stages through which civilized man has evolved. The comparative method that Sumner employed is quite outmoded, and the value of his posthumous work, for all its scholarship, is far less than the insights of Folkways.

Sumner’s style. In all stages of his career Sumner used language vividly. He perceived the strength of simple Anglo-Saxon words and the subtle complexities of Latin ones—and when each could be most tellingly employed. On the first page of Folkways, for example, he made his point in terse language: “The first task of life is to live” and “Men begin with acts, not with thoughts.” His coined word “folkways” has all the plainness of the people who make folkways, whereas the Latin “mores” suggests the involved rationalizations of the people’s significant customs. Sumner could use impressive Latinisms: “The aleatory element [was an aspect of man’s] most elementary experience which was irrational and defied all expedient methods” (1906, p. 6).

He used paradox effectively. An example is his phrase “antagonistic cooperation”—by which he meant that people usually cooperate when it is necessary or advantageous but without yielding their self-interest. (Sumner renounced the idea of a social instinct; he considered it evident that antagonistic cooperation would, of itself, produce society.) He could impress his ideas upon both readers and hearers by his choice of words. Thus: “If we do not like the survival of the fittest, we have only one possible alternative, and that is the survival of the unfittest. The former is the law of civilization; the latter is the law of uncivilization.”

Sumner was clearly anthropological in his approach to his materials. His research for Folkways and The Science of Society was principally ethno-graphical. Keller quotes Sumner as once saying, as he pointed to a vast wall in the university library, “What I’d like to do would be to cover that wall-space, or a bigger one, with drawers and then set a lot of men to work filling them with notes. Up and down would be tribes and peoples. Crosswise would run topics, like property, marriage. There’d be a third dimension, too: the length of the drawers. Then we’d get somewhere, after a while!” (Keller 1933, p. 30). This vision of his bore fruit in G. P. Murdock’s establishment of the Cross-cultural Survey or Human Relations Area Files.

To Sumner, sociology and anthropology were one; but even by the time of the publication of Folkways American sociology, with Ward, Giddings, Small, Cooley, and Thomas, was taking the psychological turn it followed for decades and American anthropology was beginning to follow the path Boas had begun to hew for it—and this was neither the path of social anthropology nor of Sumner’s “science of society.”

James G. Leyburn

[For the historical context of Sumner’s work, see Social control, article on the concept; Social Darwinism; for discussion of the subsequent development of his ideas, see Integration, article on social integration; Marriage, article OU Family Formation; Reference Groups; Social Change; Society; and the biographies of Hankins; Odum; Ross; THOMAS


(1883a) 1918 The Forgotten Man. Pages 465-495 in William Graham Sumner, The Forgotten Man, and Other Essays. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press.

(1883b) 1952 What Social Classes Owe to Each Other. C aid well, Ohio: Caxton.

(1894) 1911 The Absurd Effort to Make the World Over. Pages 195-210 in William Graham Sumner, War, and Other Essays. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press.

(1906) 1959 Folkways: A Study of the Sociological Importance of Usages, Manners, Customs, Mores, and Morals. New York: Dover. → A paperback edition was published in 1960 by New American Library.

1927 SUMNER, William Graham; and KELLER, Albert G. The Science of Society. 4 vols. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press. → All four volumes were begun by Sumner; he asked Keller to continue the work on them, and Keller, in turn, invited Maurice R. Davie to help complete Volume 4.

The Challenge of Facts, and Other Essays. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1914. → A collection of essays, most of them previously published.

Earth-hunger, and Other Essays. New Haven: Yale Univ.

Press, 1913. → A collection of essays, most of them previously published.

Essays of William Graham Sumner. 2 vols. Edited by Al-bert G. Keller and Maurice R. Davie. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1940. → Contains essays written or published between 1881-1910. A complete bibliography appears in Volume 2, pages 479-507.

The Forgotten Man, and Other Essays. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1918. → Contains essays published between 1876 and 1906.

War, and Other Essays. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1911. → Includes essays written or published between 1881 and 1909.


Davie, Maurice R. 1963 William Graham Sumner: An Essay of Commentary and Selections. New York: Crowell.

Keller, Albert G. 1933 Reminiscences (Mainly Personal) of William Graham Sumner. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press.

Lippert, Julius (1886-1887) 1931 The Evolution of Culture. Translated and edited by George P. Murdock. New York: Macmillan. → First published as Kulturgeschichte der Menschheit in ihrem organischen Aufbau.

Murdock, George P. 1933 Lippert, Julius. Volume 9, pages 490-491 in Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences. New York: Macmillan.

Spencer, Herbert (1873) 1961 The Study of Sociology. Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press.

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

William Graham Sumner

views updated

William Graham Sumner

The American sociologist and educator William Graham Sumner (1840-1910) was one of the earliest proponents of sociology in the United States and was especially notable for his advocacy of the evolutionary viewpoints of Herbert Spencer in academic and public circles.

William Graham Sumner was born on Oct. 30, 1840, in Paterson, N. J. His parents were both of English ancestry and of modest social background. The family moved to Connecticut, where Sumner attended the public schools and Yale College. After graduation, he studied ancient languages and history at Göttingen (1864) and theology and philosophy at Oxford (1866). The following year he was appointed tutor at Yale and then was ordained in the Protestant Episcopal Church. In 1869 he left Yale to be rector of churches in New York City and Morristown, N. J. In 1872 he became the first professor of political and social science at Yale—a position he long held.

Sumner had been greatly influenced by Herbert Spencer's essays on the structure of human society, and he used them as the basis for the first course in sociology ever given in a university in the United States (1875). As his teaching evolved, he planned a massive treatise on a comparative institutional analysis of societies, but he interrupted this task to produce the work that gave him worldwide renown—Folkways (1907). Folkways was notable in several respects. It contributed terms that have become widely used—such as folkways, mores, the wegroup, and ethnocentrism. In addition, Sumner established the notion of different degrees of social pressure for conformity in his analyses of folkways, mores, and institutions. A crucial and fundamental idea in this book was the observation that social life is mainly concerned with creating, sustaining, and changing values. But Sumner insisted that the values in folkways and mores are inherently nonrational and yet powerful in influencing thought and behavior. Consequently, he regarded conflict and struggle as inseparable components of human society in any age. "Nothing but might has ever made right … nothing but might makes right now" is a much cited and fairly representative statement of Sumner's approach to the essentials of society.

Sumner brought a forceful and undeviating conservatism to numerous discussions, though he was one of the earliest defenders of academic freedom while at Yale. He was a tireless exponent of laissez-faire (which he defined as "mind your own business") and a sharp critic of the imperialism of the United States. Many articles emphasized the validity of economic rather than political considerations. A favorite theme was the futility of trying to obtain "progress" by governmental policy. Perhaps the most persistent argument by Sumner concerned the plight of the "forgotten man, " the middle class taxed against its will for programs designed to serve other groups.

On April 12, 1910, Sumner died in Englewood, N.J. His disciple, A. G. Keller, prepared Sumner's long, unfinished manuscript for publication in four volumes as The Science of Society (1927). In subsequent years many of Sumner's articles were collected in book form.

Further Reading

Short biographical studies of Sumner are Harris E. Starr, William Graham Sumner (1925), and Maurice R. Davie, William Graham Sumner (1963). See also Harry Elmer Barnes, ed., An Introduction to the History of Sociology (1948), and Robert G. McCloskey, American Conservatism in the Age of Enterprise (1951).

Additional Sources

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

Sumner, William Graham

views updated

Sumner, William Graham (1840–1910) An early American sociologist and noted laissez-faire Social Darwinist. Influenced by the works of Herbert Spencer, he argued that social life was governed by natural laws (as binding as those governing the physical world), the most basic of which stipulated evolutionary struggle and the survival of the fittest (meaning the most industrious and frugal). He accepted that societies could ensure the survival of the weakest (for example through welfare programmes) but regarded this as a stimulus to social decline. These beliefs have attracted the usual criticisms levelled against other varieties of economic determinism. In Folkways (1906) he argued the moral relativist position that each human group has its own appropriate folkways, mores, and institutions—the various group habits that, by trial and error, seem to be best suited to the particular circumstance prevailing at the time. The possible contradiction between this argument, and the belief in the universal superiority of folkways that support a laissez-faire economy, is not addressed in Sumner's work. He also coined the widely used terms in-group, out-group, and ethnocentricism. For the last two years of his life he was president of the American Sociological Association.

About this article

William Graham Sumner

All Sources -
Updated About content Print Topic