Lundberg, George

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Lundberg, George

Lundberg’s positivism

Career and influence



George Andrew Lundberg (1895–1966) was a vigorous and influential advocate of the pursuit of sociological knowledge by the method of natural science. Much of his writing was devoted to stating and clarifying the postulates of scientific thought, the fundamental attributes of objective research, and the applicability of such principles to sociological inquiry. He dedicated his academic career to the view that there are no characteristics of social phenomena and no features of scientific method that would preclude rigorous adherence to that method in the investigation of those phenomena. He gave particular emphasis to two implications of this position. First, he insisted that quantification of sociological concepts is possible and that great effort should be devoted to it. Second, he consistently argued that the achievement of scientific competence requires that sociologists learn to abandon traditional moralistic orientations toward their subject matter (Lundberg et al. 1929, pp. 403-404).

During his lifetime great strides toward quantification were taken which Lundberg credited chiefly to the impact of successful empirical work, such as demographic studies, rather than to any methodological arguments (1944a, p. 7). He was far from sanguine in his last years, however, regarding the emancipation of contemporary sociologists from a legalistic-moralistic mode of thought, and this alleged bondage became the central issue of his final polemics.

Lundberg’s positivism

Lundberg asserted that not all words have empirical referents but that people have responded to them as if they did. The alleged distinction between the “tangible” subject matter of the physical sciences and the supposedly “intangible” subject matter of the social sciences is merely a reflection of the differential advancement of observational and symbolizing techniques in the two fields; it is not an intrinsic difference in the respective classes of events being observed. Nothing essential is “left out” when we study societal phenomena objectively, although we often mourn the loss of feelings that were associated with familiar but ambiguous terms we have had to abandon. The operations by which we measure characteristics of the phenomena we study constitute definitions of those characteristics. The same phenomena may be studied according to various frames of reference, but these will lead to different conclusions.

Exclusion of value judgments

Lundberg’s conceptual approach was similar to that of the Vienna circle, but he arrived at it independently. He attempted to show that all too many of the familiar-sounding terms in the sociological vocabulary were the sociological equivalent of the early chemist’s phlogiston—no more necessary to describe or explain social phenomena than phlogiston was to account for combustion.

The sociologist’s central task, he said, is to gather reliable data and from them to state principles— i.e., predictable sequences of behavior within highly standardized situations. Such principles can then be used to explain events in other situations whose significant departures from the standardized situation can be measured.

To be scientific, our analysis must be nonteleological. The physical sciences do very well without the concept of values, Lundberg said, but social scientists persist in transforming the verb “valuating” (which refers to discriminal or selective responding) into a noun, “values,” and then they hunt in vain for its ostensible referent (194la, p. 351). When critics accused him of “leaving out” what is essentially human, Lundberg replied that he was not denying the occurrence or importance of value judgments but only insisting that they are a kind of behavior and that standards of value are inferences from behavior. Thus defined, values are not inaccessible to scientific study (1941k, p. 84). Men have always had visions of the good life, and these have helped to shape human actions. Reliable assessment of the changing content of such visions is a prerequisite to their effective public implementation, and there now exist scientific procedures by which one can do this assessing better than it is done by traditional methods (1950a, pp. 110-111). Lundberg offered specific proposals for the study of human values (ibid., p. 105), but he continued to be accused of advocating a sociology that would “omit” this indispensable concept.

For some, this accusation gained plausibility from his perennial insistence that no science tells us what to do with the knowledge it creates. Scientific conclusions are statements of the probability of certain occurrences under clearly specified conditions, but they do not contain assessments of the “goodness or badness of the sequences described, apart from specified standards. The crucial point is that these standards are not themselves set by the scientific methods that result in the conditional scientific statements” (1950b, p. 265).

Social science and citizenship

In his presidential address to the American Sociological Society during World War II, Lundberg adamantly maintained that “it is more important than ever that we should not let the priority of our duties as citizens blind us to our functions as scientists” (19430, p. 69). As a means of winning the war it was probably necessary, he conceded, to fabricate seriously distorted pictures of the world and of the nature of the enemy. Unfortunately, such pictures would persist, at least in part, for some time after the war and would influence the structure of the peace settlement. With a peace founded on illusion, another war was rendered likely (1944 b, p. 89). It was vital that social scientists themselves not mistake the distortion for truth. Some of his statements illustrating this point were offensive to certain members of his audience and may have obscured his main message—that social scientists could hope to command public respect and thus be effective in an advisory role in regard to the peace settlement only if they were to demonstrate their scientific competence and objectivity (1944 a, pp. 1-2).

Mindful of the impatience of others, Lundberg responded to the cliché that objective pursuit of abstract knowledge in such a crisis was like “lecturing on navigation while the ship goes down.” Because some men were content to keep on studying while their personal ships sank, he said, we have today some accumulated knowledge of navigation. We would not, had they joined the clamor for “short cuts to salvation whenever a storm occurred” (1943 b, p. 199).

What bothered Lundberg most was the superficiality of the commitment of so many social scientists to the thoughtways of science. He lamented that in times of crisis many of us easily slip back “into the familiar personalistic-dramatic pattern of theology in which the forces of Good and Evil under their respective personal leaders again struggle for mastery” (1941b, p. 93). Not all scholars agreed with him when he spoke of the “theological and metaphysical nonsense” characterizing wartime discussions of “a highly subjective and relative concept called freedom.” He held that “men are free when they feel free. They feel free when they are thoroughly habituated to their way of life” (1944a, p. 4). But some of his audience apparently felt dissatisfied with such a relativistic notion of freedom.

His unconventional views—for example, he had the temerity to argue that the understandable Jewish hostility to the German government exacerbated that government’s hostility toward Jews—led to accusations that Lundberg had an anti-Semitic and profascist outlook, a product of his sociological positivism (Hartung 1944, pp. 340-341). If fascism means government by a self-appointed elite that suppresses all expressions of opposition, the accusation was clearly contradicted by Lundberg’s lifelong insistence on the importance of distinguishing the role of scientist from the role of citizen and giving the scientist, in his role as citizen, no greater voice in public policy making than might be assented to by other citizens (1949, p. 10).

There is some indication that the accusation of anti-Semitism may have influenced Lundberg’s subsequent choice of research topics, for although he had studied patterns of status differentiation and preferential association in the prewar years, he had not done previous research on minority groups as such or on ethnocentrism (Lundberg & Steele 1938; Larsen 1965a). He turned to these topics after the war, as if to substantiate his contention that moralistic and legalistic biases had heretofore tended to limit social science inquiry into these matters. As Lundberg saw it, numerous Jewish organizations striving to combat anti-Semitism pursue policies which actually aggravate it (1944c). The preventive for such ill-conceived programs is more adequate and more reliable knowledge, to which Lundberg proposed to contribute (Lundberg & Dickson 1952),

Career and influence

Lundberg’s polemics, less than persuasive to his accusers, were not his sole preoccupation in the postwar years. He also coauthored one of the leading introductory sociology textbooks (in its third edition at the time of his death), and he served as chairman of the department of sociology at the University of Washington during a period of rapid expansion of its faculty, its graduate program, and its research activities. Other facets of his postwar activities included writing the popular book Can Science Save Us? (1947) and editing a sociology series for a book publisher. Lundberg lectured on, and helped to promote, sociology in the Scandinavian countries, and, after concluding his administrative role at the University of Washington, he continued to teach there for a number of years before he retired. He was in demand as a lecturer at various universities and before nonacademic groups as well.

Before assuming the chairmanship at Washington, Lundberg had been on the faculties of the University of Pittsburgh, Columbia University, and Bennington College and had held appointments at Stanford, Brigham Young, and Minnesota. He had held research positions with federal and local welfare agencies and had been elected president of the Sociological Research Association and two regional sociological societies, as well as the American Sociological Society.

Lundberg was a graduate of the University of North Dakota, which also awarded him an LL.D. in 1958. He held the M.A. degree from Wisconsin and the PH.D. from Minnesota, which also awarded him its Distinguished Achievement Medal in 1951. He was editor of Sociometry from 1941 to 1947 and wrote some seventy articles, as well as several influential books.

At the time of Lundberg’s retirement, Paul H. Furfey, one of his stanchest intellectual adversaries, paid him this tribute: “He has always made it seem obvious that winning an argument is unimportant, but that arriving at the truth is supremely important” (Larsen 1965 a, p. 26).

William R. Catton, Jr.

[See alsoLeisure; Positivism; Values.]


1929 Lundberg, George A.; Bain, Read; and Anderson, Nels (editors) Trends in American Sociology. New York: Harper.

1934 Lundberg, George A. et al. Leisure: A Suburban Study. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.

1938 Lundberg, George A.; and Steele, Mary Social Attraction-patterns in a Village. Sociometry 1:375–419.

1939 Foundations of Sociology. New York: Macmillan. → A revised and abridged paperback edition was published in 1964 by McKay.

194la The Future of the Social Sciences. Scientific Monthly 53:346–359.

1941b Societal Pathology and Sociometry. Sociometry 4:78-97.

1941 c What Are Sociological Problems? American Sociological Review 6:357–369.

1943a A Message From the President of the American Sociological Society. American Sociological Review 8:69-70.

1943b Introductory Note. Sociometry 6:199 only.

1944a Sociologists and the Peace. American Sociological Review 9:1-13.

1944b Scientists in Wartime. Scientific Monthly 58:85-95.

1944c Letter of March 1, 1944, to Dr. Zvi Cahn of the Nascent American Jewish Sociological Society. Unpublished manuscript.

(1947) 1961 Can Science Save Us? 2d ed. London: Long-mans.

1949 Applying the Scientific Method to Social Phenomena. Sociology and Social Research 34:3-12.

1950 a Human Values: A Research Program. Washington State University, Pullman, Research Studies 18:103–111.

1950 b Can Science Validate Ethics? American Association of University Professors, Bulletin 36:262–275.

1952 Lundberg, George A.; and Dickson, Lenore Selective Association Among Ethnic Groups in a High School Population. American Sociological Review 17: 23-35.

(1958) 1963 Lundberg, George A.; Schrag, Clarence C.; and Larsen, Otto N. Sociology. 3d ed. New York: Harper.


Hartung, Frank E. 1944 The Sociology of Positivism: Proto-fascist Aspects. Science and Society 8:328–341.

Larsen, Otto N. 1965a The Art of George A. Lundberg as a Teacher. Sociologiske meddelelser 10:19-28.

Larsen, Otto N. 1965b Publications of George A. Lundberg. Sociologiske meddelelser 10:6-18.