Ward, Lester F.

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Ward, Lester F.



Although Lester Frank Ward (1841-1913) was eulogized at his death as the last of the giants of nineteenth-century sociology, his influence on later sociology was slight. Despite his keen intellect, encyclopedic knowledge, and prolific writing, his vision of sociology as the scientia scientiarum, as well as his neologistic conceptual apparatus, died with him. Nevertheless, while his books are seldom read and his concepts seldom taught, many of his ideas—the primacy of artificial over natural forces in the development of human society, the psychological rather than the biological basis of human social life, and the stress on process and function rather than on structure in the study of society—provided significant leads for the more modest research that characterized sociology in the generation that succeeded him.

Ward’s life history represents one version of the American success story: from farm to city, from hand work to head work. His father, whom he described as “a mechanic, a jack-of-all-trades,” had moved as a boy from New Hampshire to western New York. In 1840 the family moved to Joliet, Illinois, and it was there that Ward was born, the youngest of ten children. In 1855 the Wards went by covered wagon to Iowa with a quarter-section land warrant. During these years, Ward received the rudiments of an education and learned to love the woods and fields. When his father died in 1857, Ward returned to Illinois with his mother and divided his time between farm work and grammar school.

Convinced of the value of an education, Ward read avidly and taught himself Greek, German, French, and Latin. In 1858 he went to Meyersburg, Pennsylvania, to help one of his brothers, who had established a wagon-hub factory there. The venture failed, and Ward turned briefly to school teaching, farmed in the summers, and prepared for college at the Susquehanna Institute. After Lincoln’s call for volunteers at the opening of the Civil War, he enlisted in the Union Army, was wounded three times, and was mustered out in 1864.

Upon recovering from his wounds, Ward entered government service in 1865. He served as a clerk in the Treasury Department, as chief of the Division of Navigation and Immigration for brief periods, and as librarian of the Bureau of Statistics. In 1867 he began attending evening classes at the Columbian (now George Washington) University, from which he received an a.b. degree in 1869, an LL.B. in 1871, and an m.a. (in botany) in 1872. In 1881 he became an assistant geologist in the U.S. Geological Survey, in charge of paleo-botany. He was promoted to geologist in 1883 and became chief paleontologist in 1892. He wrote extensively on botany and geology and served for a short time in the 1880s as professor of botany at the Columbian University.

Ward’s belief in the value of education moved him to write a book that would deal systematically with the importance of education in human society. The book was originally to be called “The Great Panacea,” and between 1869 and 1874 most of his spare time was devoted to planning and writing it. However, he came to recognize that the scope of his concern was so wide that extensive reading and scientific study would be necessary if he was to complete his task. Consequently, he devoted a year to reading philosophy and science, especially the works of Ernst Heinrich Haeckel, Auguste Comte, and Herbert Spencer. By 1876 Ward reported the following result of these labors in his notebook: “I had begun to see that what I was writing was sociology, and that I should try to do something original in that science” (Glimpses of the Cosmos, vol. 3, p. 172). He made an entirely new outline, and, after numerous revisions, he completed the manuscript in 1880 and titled it Dynamic Sociology (1883).

Ward was repeatedly unsuccessful in his attempts to have his work published. Eventually, he himself subsidized the publication, selling his home to do so. The work contained essentially all his major ideas, and his subsequent writings were either elaborations, clarifications, or (as in his Outlines of Sociology 1898 and A Textbook of Sociology 1905, the latter written in collaboration with James Q. Dealy) condensations of his system of thought. While Dynamic Sociology was neither a popular nor a financial success, it did come to the notice of many sociologists, such as Albion W. Small at Colby College, and it established Ward’s reputation as a sociologist, both in his own country and abroad.

While still a civil servant, Ward lectured in summer sessions at the University of Wisconsin, the University of Chicago, Johns Hopkins, and Harvard. Finally, in 1906, after more than forty years in government service, he resigned his post to accept an appointment as professor of sociology in the department of social and political science at Brown University. There he continued to teach and write until his death in 1913.

Ward’s work was influenced both by the advances then being made in the fields of biology, psychology, and anthropology and by the revolutionary social changes that took place in America in the last half of the nineteenth century—industrialization, urbanization, and the rise of monopolistic finance capitalism. The intellectual roots of his thought are found primarily in Comte and Spencer. Indeed, Ward’s work can be considered an American version of Comte’s positivism, combined with Spencer’s cosmic application of the theory of evolution. Although Ward’s sociology was not fruitful in the development of social science, it did at least provide a rationale, couched in scientific terminology, for the spirit of reform so characteristic of early American social science.

According to Ward’s cosmic philosophy, the universe consists ultimately of a series of relationships between particles of matter. The evolution of structures from the simplest to the most complex is the product of a struggle between forces unique to each stage. There are three stages: (1) the genesis of matter; (2) the genesis of organic forms, of mind, and finally of man; and (3) the genesis of society. This evolutionary scheme, with all its ramifications, was Ward’s primary concern. In spelling out the sequence, Ward introduced the concept of “synergy”—a combination of the ideas of energy and mutuality. Synergy is a process that operates among the antithetical forces of nature and leads to the development of increasingly complex structures. Successive levels of complexity consist of more than the sum of the preceding elements, and this emergence of new levels he called creative synthesis (borrowing the term from Wundt). The process of creative synthesis was Ward’s basis not only for ordering the sciences in a manner similar to that of Comte and Spencer but also for his conception of sociology as standing at the summit of all the sciences.

Like most of his contemporaries, Ward developed his system of sociology as a handmaiden to his larger purpose, the improvement of mankind. In true positivist fashion, he sought the laws governing the operation of social forces so that the social structures resulting from these forces might be manipulated to produce the “happiness” that he regarded as the goal of all human endeavor. Sociology can serve this end because it is “a true science, answering to the definition of a science, viz., a field of phenomena produced by true natural forces and conforming to uniform laws” (1903, p. 99).

Ward distinguished between “pure sociology” and “applied sociology,” attributing to each a different role in the process of reform and the creation of happiness. Pure sociology is diagnostic in function, is concerned with what men do—with “human achievement”—and is oriented to the study of social functions. In contrast, applied sociology is therapeutic in function, is concerned with “human improvement”—focusing on the future rather than on the past and present—and is oriented to demonstrating how the principles discovered by pure sociology may be applied to bringing about human progress. Ward insisted that applied sociology is a science rather than an art; it can lay down only the most general guides to social action, and the sociologist himself is neither an active reformer nor a politician.

In his account of the nature of human society and the process of social evolution, Ward introduced two concepts that continued to play a role in sociological thought after his death. The first concept was that social forces are essentially psychological in nature; this idea not only became one of the themes of American social psychology but also became an organizing principle for many early sociology textbooks, for example, the texts by Small and Vincent in 1894, by E. A. Ross in 1920, and by Park and Burgess in 1921. The second concept was that of telesis: In contrast to Spencer and Sumner, Ward held that human society is not only the product of a natural genesis but, in accordance with the principle of creative synthesis, manifests a new process, telesis. Whereas all previous aggregative structures had advanced by a process of blind adaptation through natural selection, human society permits a process of adaptation through artificial selection, a process that produces purposive achievement. Both human and animal action are motivated by natural desires, but human action, when guided by intellect, leads “indirectly” to achievement and an accelerated rate of progress. Ward envisioned an ideal stage of development in which government (as the instrument of social telesis), armed with sociological principles, would produce “attractive legislation” to ensure a maximum of happiness for all. In more practical terms, Ward’s recipe for human happiness was public support of compulsory education, designed according to scientific principles.

His theoretical emphasis on social evolution and his pragmatic interest in large-scale social reform combined to place Ward’s specifically sociological contributions more in the realm of social process than of social structure. He did, however, discuss social structure in relation to the development of human society. As he saw it, in the earliest stage of development, a conflict between races and the subjugation of one race by another led to the rise of caste. The social inequalities inherent in a caste system were then mitigated by the rise of law and the substitution of legal rights for military force. Thus there developed a form of society he called the state, which was characterized by a class structure in which all strata had legal rights and duties. Constant contact, conflict, and intermixture then led to the creation of a homogeneous people, and as a final stage, with the rise of patriotic sentiment, the formation of a nation took place.

Ward was interested in analyzing class structure only in its relationship to the ills of human society and to the prospects for ameliorating these ills. He appreciated the functional significance of property as well as the potential for exploitation in the class systems of historic Western societies (including his own). The most important division in society, he believed, is that between producers and nonproducers; and he documented the sharp contrast between the worlds and the functions of the rulers and the ruled. However, he considered these structural developments as mere human artifacts: Class differences result simply from differences in opportunity, especially educational opportunity, which lead to equally artificial social and cultural monopolies and injustices. Therefore, the way to social amelioration is to make public education compulsory and thus to diffuse knowledge and equalize opportunity. This fundamental reform should be carried out by the government, which Ward regarded as the basis of liberty and the mediator of class antagonisms. (Although Ward approved of the trade union movement and of left-wing parties aiming at a redistribution of wealth, he regarded state socialism as a poor substitute for his scientific sociocracy.)

Ward’s views were democratic: He assumed that all men have fundamentally equal capacities; he insisted on the necessity of equal educational opportunities; and he had a rationalist faith in the ability of enlightened government to bring about social telesis. There were also radical elements in his thinking: He attacked the dominant laissez-faire tradition, and he developed a gynecocentric theory of the primacy of the female, which gave support to the movement for the emancipation of women.

Although Ward did most of his work outside the university, his writings brought him into close contact with scholars in both the natural and social sciences. He was a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and a member of the National Academy of Sciences, and he was deeply involved in the affairs of local and national professional societies of philosophers, economists, and geologists. His status as one of the leading American sociologists of his day is indicated by his election in 1906 as the first president of the newly founded American Sociological Society.

As the last of the great system-builders, Ward stood at the end of one line in the development of sociology—the conception of sociology as “queen of the social sciences.” Ward had an essentially eighteenth-century conception of scientific research. For him, science consisted primarily of logical reasoning from more or less obvious facts, of simple observation, classification, and generalization. (His training as a botanist and geologist may have reinforced this position.) He had no interest in quantification, which helps to explain why subsequent American sociologists rejected his theoretical and methodological approach in favor of more limited research informed by quantitative methods. Ward, indeed, proved a better prophet than intellectual leader: The emergence of the modern welfare state and the involvement of professional sociologists in the practical problems of politics, poverty, and race represent a kind of vindication of his work.

Harold W. Pfautz

[For the historical context of Ward’s work, seesocial darwinism; and the biographies ofcomte; gum-plowicz; spencer; for discussion of the subsequent development of Ward’s ideas, seeevolution, article On CULTURAL EVOLUTION; SOCIAL PROBLEMS.]


(1883) 1926 Dynamic Sociology: Or Applied Social Science, as Based Upon Statical Sociology and the Less Complex Sciences. 2d ed. 2 vols. New York: Appleton.

(1893) 1906 The Psychic Factors of Civilization. 2d ed. Boston: Ginn.

1898 The Outlines of Sociology. New York: Macmillan.

(1903) 1925 Pure Sociology: A Treatise on the Origin and Spontaneous Development of Society. 2d ed. New York and London: Macmillan.

(1905) 1927 Ward, Lester F.; and Dealey, James Q. A Textbook of Sociology. New York: Macmillan.

1906 Applied Sociology: A Treatise on the Conscious Improvement of Society by Society. Boston: Ginn.

Glimpses of the Cosmos: A Mental Autobiography. 6 vols. New York: Putnam, 1913-1918.

The Ward-Ross Correspondence: 1891-1912. Edited by Bernhard J. Stern. American Sociological Review[1938-1949] 3:362-401; 11:593-605, 734-748; 12: 703-720; 13:82*94; 14:88-119.

Young Ward’s Diary. Edited by Bernhard J. Stern. New York: Putnam, 1935.


Cape, Emily P. 1922 Lester F. Ward: A Personal Sketch. New York: Putnam.

Chugerman, Samuel 1939 Lester F. Ward, the American Aristotle: A Summary and Interpretation of His Sociology. Durham, N.C.: Duke Univ. Press.

Dealey, James Q. (1927) 1965 Lester Frank Ward. Pages 61-96 in Howard W. Odum (editor), American Masters of Social Science: An Approach to the Study of the Social Sciences Through a Neglected Field of Biography. Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat.

Gerver, Israel 1963 Lester Frank Ward. New York: Crowell.