Ross, Edward A.

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Ross, Edward A.



Edward Alsworth Ross (1866–1951) was one of the founders of American sociology and is perhaps best remembered for his militant advocacy of melioristic sociology—a sociology dedicated to the cause of social reform. He was internationally known, also, as a sociological theorist.

Born of Scotch-Irish parents in Illinois, Ross grew up on the Middle Border: as a child, he was taken to Centralia, Kansas, and then to Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Orphaned when he was not yet ten years old, he was cared for by various relatives in Iowa and finally given a foster home with the Beach family in Marion, Iowa; he maintained close ties with Mrs. Beach until her death. At the age of 16 Ross left Marion to study at the preparatory school of Coe College, and 4½ years later he received his b.a. from that institution. Following his graduation, he studied in Germany and at Johns Hopkins, where he received his ph.d. in 1891. After teaching for one year at Indiana University and then at Cornell, Ross joined the faculty at Stanford University in 1893 as a full professor of administration and finance.

Ross’s fervent Populist-Progressive views on controversial social issues soon aroused the wrath of California conservatives. Mrs. Leland Stanford, the widow of the founder of Stanford University, repeatedly urged David Starr Jordan, the president of that university, to dismiss Ross; Jordan interceded for Ross on several occasions but was finally forced to demand his resignation. In November 1900 Ross accompanied his enforced resignation with a public statement blaming Mrs. Stanford for his ouster. Seven of his colleagues subsequently resigned in sympathy or were similarly dismissed. Throughout the country, Ross’s dismissal became a cause célèbre. Public figures and publicists censured the university for dismissing a scholar because of his political views, and Ross, in the role of martyr, encouraged the public outcry. He continued his academic career first at the University of Nebraska and then, in 1906, at the University of Wisconsin, where he taught until his retirement in 1937.

The sources of the various components of Ross’s thought, of his sociology, his Progressivism, and his intermittent nativism, are to be found in the social and economic tensions of a predominantly agrarian society in the process of urbanization. Reared as he had been in the moralistic Middle West, Ross’s response to this disruptive transformation was to seek to retain the values of nineteenth-century America: the dignity of the individual, personal and public morality, and the continuing progress of man and society. The virtues of the past would survive if public opinion were guided by enlightened leaders, if legal sanctions were applied in a sophisticated manner, and if supernatural religion were abandoned. Thus Ross sought to synthesize the old and the new, to infuse an impersonal industrial society with the idealized virtues of the face-to-face community in which he grew up.

Ross’s important contributions to American sociology came early in his career. His sociological theory was allied to his ideology: in his Foundations of Sociology (1897–1904), a collection of essays, he attacked conservative social Darwinism and tried instead to fashion a sociological theory that could be used to understand and reform American society. He applied his erudition to the demolition of such outmoded theories as the monism of Buckle, Loria, and Vico; the bio-organicism of von Lillienfeld and Schäffle; the genetic evolutionism of DeGreef and L. H. Morgan; and, with particular determination, he assaulted the mechanistic theory of Herbert Spencer. Ross did accept two basic nineteenth-century concepts: organicism and positivism. However, he altered organicism by stripping it of its biological and physical implications and redefining it in social and psychological terms. He refocused the positivist approach on the study of social phenomena in small units, as the necessary basis for a valid science of society. If Ross did not succeed in making organicism completely social or positivism completely operational, he must nevertheless be credited with communicating the need for a new definition of the subject matter and methodology of sociology.

Foundations was an important work not only because it presented this new definition but also because it was the first book in American sociology to stress the importance of social processes as a sociological concept. Ross divided the social processes—the general and recurring phenomena that pervade the entire social order—into major categories and subcategories. In 1905, he described 11 major categories (for example, cooperation and competition) and 32 subcategories; by 1920, he had reduced the major divisions to four (association, domination, exploitation, and opposition). However, Ross never arrived at a definitive number of processes, nor did he ever establish the exact nomenclature to describe them. He saw these processes as accounting for such phenomena as the power of the army, the structure of the family, the functioning of the church, and the nature of the government. The analysis of social processes constituted the core of the textbooks he wrote between 1920 and 1940, and he utilized them to explain the civilizations of the past as well as contemporary society: war, for example, is the product of “competition,” slavery the result of “segregation” and “subordination,” and democracy the consequence of “equalization.”

Ross’s sociological formalism—evidenced by his study of social processes—was supplemented by research on social behavior. Social Control (1901) and Social Psychology (1908) delineated the formal and informal ways in which society constrains the behavior of the individual. Social Control contained Ross’s finest contribution to sociological thought and brought him international fame. Like William Graham Sumner’s Folkways (1906) and Charles Horton Cooley’s Human Nature and the Social Order (1902), Social Control was an attempt to explain order. Sumner understood social stability as the evolving “cultural system” produced by folkways and mores; Cooley stressed the role played by the subjective processes in the socialization of the individual (a “psychological system“) in creating stability. Taking a position between the two, Ross presented a “social system” that is both individualistic and interactional in that it integrates to some degree the external norms emphasized by Sumner and the inward processes discussed by Cooley. In addition to discussing the ways and means of societal control of the individual, Ross dealt with what he called the “grounds” of control, that is, the conditions for the need of social control, and with the relationship of social change to the techniques of control.

Social Control is still valuable as a listing of the means society has to control the individual: custom and convention, legal and social sanction, religion and education. But the operation of social control is more complicated than it seemed to Ross in 1901. In his later years Ross recognized this and made an unsuccessful effort to remedy this failing; he never published this piece of work. He was unable to explain in a manner satisfactory to modern, predominantly interactionist, social psychologists the mechanism by which external norms (custom and convention, for example) are internalized.

Ross’s Social Psychology (1908) is likewise obsolete. It was based on the Tardean imitation-suggestion theory and remained an academic best seller even when the Tardean theory itself was no longer accepted. Ross did not incorporate interactionist theories in his book, and this eventually led to its identification with an outmoded phase of social psychology that was concerned with mobs and panics, custom and convention. Nevertheless, Social Psychology served to stimulate an interest in that discipline and pointed to the need in the academic curriculum for the separate study of social psychology.

As a sociologist Ross faithfully served the cause of Progressivism, that outgrowth of the middle-class reform spirit which pervaded American life and thought in the first 15 years of the twentieth century. In Foundations, his definition of the social processes mirrors the temper and values of Progressive America. In Social Control and in Social Psychology, Ross was preoccupied with the problem that confronted all Progressives: the preservation of both individual freedom and social stability in a mass society. Ross did not see social stability threatened by the breakdown of social tradition and of supernatural religion, as did European social psychologists like Le Bon and Sighele. As a Progressive, he welcomed the dissolution of traditional institutions and rituals and even condoned an occasional mob action in the cause of social justice.

Throughout his career Ross was interested in practical reforms both at home and abroad, and his Social Control and Social Psychology are filled with specific suggestions for the mitigation of social evils. He did not hesitate to urge political leaders in foreign countries on every continent (he visited them all) to adopt American ways: to industrialize their economies and to democratize their political systems.

In addition to constructive Progressive ideas, a minor note of nativism was evident in Ross’s thought for many decades. Until 1930 he was a spokesman for Anglo-Saxon superiority. His nativ-ist syndrome included opposition to continued Japanese immigration to the United States in the 1890s and to southern and eastern European immigration in the early decades of the twentieth century, a preoccupation with eugenics, and an obsession with differential fertility rates. His nativ-ism reveals his limited faith in the power of social institutions to cure social evils. Reform needed the reinforcement of nativism if the virtues of nineteenth-century rural American life were to be restored or perpetuated.

Ross was physically imposing (he was 6½ feet tall) and personally attractive. He could be both rigidly moral and shrewdly supple. He was generous but not effusive, frugal but not penurious. Despite his Stanford reputation and two subsequent incidents involving academic freedom at Wisconsin, he was far from seeking entanglement in controversies. He took a rather detached view of institutions and organizations, being reluctant either to exercise authority or to be dependent upon the authority of others. To be sure, he served two terms as president of the American Sociological Society (1914 and 1915) and was chairman of the sociology department at the University of Wisconsin from 1929 until 1937. With the exception of Lester F. Ward, whom Ross regarded intellectually and emotionally as a father figure, he rarely became involved in profound friendships or in taxing personal feuds, thus leaving himself free to pursue a productive as well as a lucrative career. (His introductory textbooks The Principles of Sociology, published in 1920, and New-age Sociology, published in 1940, were widely used.)

Ross is still a figure of consequence to his profession. As a reformer and, for a time, a creative social theorist, he deserves respect; as a writer and popularizer of sociology he has had few peers in the annals of American sociology.

Julius Weinberg

[For the historical context of Ross’s work, seeSocial Darwinismand the biographies ofCooley; Loria; Morgan, Lewis Henry; Spencer; Sumner; Vico; Ward, Lester F.For discussion of the subsequent development of Ross’s ideas, seeSocial Control.]


(1897–1904) 1920 Foundations of Sociology. 5th ed. New York: Macmillan. → A collection of Ross’s essays and lectures at the turn of the century; first published in book form in 1905. Especially valuable as a survey of contemporary sociological theory at an important juncture in the history of American sociology.

(1901) 1928 Social Control: A Survey of the Foundations of Order. New York and London: Macmillan. → Dealing with the problem of how American mass society can achieve a balance between social stability and individual freedom, this book represents Ross’s most creative contribution to sociological thought.

1907 Sin and Society: An Analysis of Latter-day Iniquity. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. → A moralistic Progressive tract that makes a sophisticated plea for sociological jurisprudence—a demand that society bring its legal theory and practice abreast of current problems.

(1908) 1918 Social Psychology: An Outline and Source-book. New York: Macmillan. → An exposition of Ross’s Tardean imitation-suggestion theory and a primer in social psychology on which a generation of students was raised.

(1909) 1919 Changing America: Studies in Contemporary Society. New York: Century. → A collection of Progressive pieces with popular appeal.

1919 What Is America? New York: Century. → Originally written for the U.S. government during World War I as a piece of “interpretation” (propaganda) to be used for overseas consumption and later converted by Ross for domestic readers. Extensively used in translation by foreign-language newspapers as part of the Americanization program after the war. An excellent summary of Ross’s Progressive outlook on American history and society.

(1920) 1938 The Principles of Sociology. 3d ed. New York: Century. → A mature presentation of Ross’s sociological theory and findings. A highly readable text used for many years throughout the country.

1922 The Social Trend. New York: Century. → A collection of previously published essays and lectures on current popular issues.

(1924–1927) 1928 World Drift. New York: Century. → An anthology of articles and addresses on foreign and domestic affairs.

1936 Seventy Years of It: An Autobiography. New York: Appleton. → Boastful and vain, yet an informative, revealing autobiography.

1940 New-age Sociology. New York and London: Apple-ton. → A further revision of the earlier texts and a not-too-successful attempt to keep data and theory abreast of current sociological thought.


Cooley, Charles H. (1902) 1956 Human Nature and the Social Order. Rev. ed. In Charles H. Cooley, Two Major Works: Social Organization and Human Nature and the Social Order. Glencoe, III.: Free Press. → Each title reprinted with individual title page and pagination. Separate paperback editions were published in 1964 by Schocken.

Hertzler, Joyce O. 1951 Edward Alsworth Ross: Sociological Pioneer and Interpreter. American Sociological Review 16:597–613.

House, Floyd Nelson 1936 The Development of Sociology. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Karpf, Fay Berger 1932 American Social Psychology: Its Origins, Development, and European Background. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Kolb, William L. 1948 The Sociological Theories of Edward Alsworth Ross. Pages 819–832 in Harry Elmer Barnes (editor), An Introduction to the History of Sociology. Univ. of Chicago Press.

Martindale, Don 1960 The Nature and Types of Sociological Theory. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Sumner, William G. (1906) 1959 Folkways: A Study of the Sociological Importance of Usages, Manners, Customs, Mores, and Morals. New York: Dover.