Humanist Sociology Research Paper

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Numerous theoretical frameworks, among them Marxism, conflict theory, phenomenology, symbolic interaction, feminist sociology, and postmodern sociology, can all be said to have some form of a humanistic orientation as a part of their overall framework. However, as a specific school, humanist sociology is most readily identified with those sociologists who in their teaching, research, and activism gravitate around the Association for Humanist Sociology (AHS)—founded in 1976 by Alfred McClung Lee, Elizabeth Briant Lee, and Charles Flynn. Although a number of sociologists (Glass 1971; Goodwin 1983; Lee 1973; Scimecca 1995) have offered definitions of humanist sociology, the one I will use here is that of a former president of the AHS, Thomas Ford Hoult (1979), who calls sociology humanist if “the research and teachings of its practitioners have one ultimate purpose—to develop a society where the best potential of all humans is to be realized; in short to develop a humane society” (p. 88).

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Because of this desire on the part of humanist sociologists to “develop a humane society,” they often find themselves outside, and in conflict with, mainstream sociology, with its emphasis on objectivity and value neutrality. This, however, was not always the case. As I will argue in this research paper, a humanistic orientation was at the very heart of the development of sociology in the United States. It is an orientation that was discarded in the 1930s, and it is this lost legacy that is now to be found in humanist sociology. In short, to be a contemporary humanist sociologist means that one regards sociology, first and foremost, as a moral endeavor, an ethical venture that emphasizes freedom of choice on the part of the individual, sees social justice as a basic right of the individual, and calls for intervention whenever freedom and justice are restricted (Scimecca 1987). Knowledge, for the humanist sociologist, is to be used for the betterment of humankind—to help usher in “a humane society.”

The Basic Premises of Humanist Sociology

There is a general consensus among humanist sociologists that along with the emphasis on freedom and justice, sociology should not (as conventional sociology has done) embrace objectivism (defined here as the position that facts exist independent of the observer and that the observer should be a value-neutral compiler of these facts). To this end, all articles in the official publication of the AHS, Humanity and Society, begin with a reflexive statement in which the author or authors state their values. The rationale behind this position is that objectivism not only excludes introducing moral precepts into research but also that “dispassionate observation” is based on a faulty epistemology. Humanist sociology, thus, seeks to answer the important questions concerning freedom (What is the role of autonomy and choice in a given society?); moral values (What is the best way of ensuring the fullest development of human potential?); and epistemology (How does the mind know reality?)—questions that are often overlooked by mainstream sociology. It is these assumptions and questions that define contemporary humanist sociology and are part of a larger tradition of humanism that can be traced back to the Middle Ages, through the Enlightenment, and in the origins of American sociology.

The Origins of Humanism

Humanism in its broadest usage began as the philosophical movement that originated in Italy in the second half of the fourteenth century, a movement that focused on and affirmed the dignity of the human being. Although, over the centuries, there have been numerous varieties of humanism, both religious and nonreligious, all who call themselves humanists have been in basic agreement that every human being has dignity and worth and therefore should be the measure of all things. While twelfth and thirteenth century intellectual life was dominated by the philosophical school of scholasticism (a philosophical system taught by the “schoolmen” of medieval universities, who tried to reconcile the philosophy of the ancient classical philosophers with Christian theology), by the fourteenth century, scholasticism came to be seen by intellectuals outside the Church and the universities as essentially irrelevant to daily life. The example most often used to point to the irrelevance of scholasticism is the debate over “How many angels could dance on the head of a pin?” The perceived irrelevance of scholasticism, along with the growth of medieval cities and greater contact with the East and its different views and customs, led thinkers such as Francesco Petrach (1304–1374) and Desiderius Erasmus (1466–1536) to propose a philosophical framework different from that of the scholastics—philosophical humanism (Martindale 1981).

Whereas the scholastics subordinated faith to reason whenever there was even the possibility of disagreement between the two, the humanists (who considered themselves Christians) saw no such contradiction between faith and reason. If God had given human beings free will and the ability to reason, then this reason would lead humankind to the truth of Christianity. God still ruled the world, and even though the humanists saw the world as in need of change, this change could be brought about by and through the use of God-given human reason. In short, for the medieval humanists, free will and reason could be used to usher in a more humane world than was the case in the Europe of the time.

Because there was no such thing as social science in the Middle Ages, humanism was simply a philosophical system, albeit a controversial one. The foundation of a sociological humanism would come out of seventeenthand eighteenth-century Enlightenment thought and can be directly traced to two traditions—moral philosophy and empiricism—traditions that, although modern sociologists now see them as separate, were to the Enlightenment French and Scottish philosophers (collectively known as the philosophes) intertwined and interdependent. The philosophes called for a fusion of morals and science, for a social science that sought to liberate human beings and ensure the fullest development of the person.

The Enlightenment and the Legacy of Sociological Humanism

Modern sociology begins with the Enlightenment philosophes’ call for the application of scientific principles to the study of human behavior (Rossides 1998). However, what must not be overlooked is that the philosophes were first and foremost moral philosophers. Science and morality were to be fused, not separated; the “is” and the “ought” were to be merged into a moral science, a science to be used for the betterment of humankind. Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778), with his arguments against inequality and in favor of the dignity of the person, best represents this early moral science tradition. Rousseau ([1755] 1985) started with the basic assumption that all people are created equal and from this premise formulated a radical system of politics. For Rousseau and the philosophes, individual liberty and freedom prospered only under conditions of minimal external constraint that had to be based on the consensus of the people (Goodwin and Scimecca 2006). The most important value was the freedom of the individual in a humane society, a society that, in turn, ensured this freedom. Not having any developed psychology of the individual or of the subjective side of human behavior or even knowledge of how institutions are formed, and lacking a scientific methodology, the philosophes were not able to advance beyond this very modest beginning.

This tradition of a “moral science” has, for the most part, been overlooked by contemporary sociologists, who instead focus on the undeveloped empiricism of the philosophes, which, although it without doubt played a preeminent role in the rise of social science, is still only, at best, half of what the philosophes advocated. By their dismissal of the moral science tradition and by their almost unquestioning embrace of the positivism that Comte, Spencer, Durkheim, and the other early founders of sociology as a discipline advocated,1 contemporary sociologists have also overlooked the concern of the philosophes that there was an epistemological dilemma inherent in the new empirical science they envisioned. If a social science was to arise out of the Enlightenment, it needed a new conception of knowledge—one that rejected Greek and medievalChristian epistemology. The Aristotelian view held that a definite entity resided within the human body, an entity that passively observed what was going on in the world, just as the spectator does. The observer sees a picture of the world, and it is this passive observation that constitutes experience. Science, in the Aristotelian model, was the process of observing objects as they were thought to be conceived in the human mind. Following Newton, the world was to be understood in terms of mathematical equations with axioms in the minds of humans that were put there by God and that enabled the mind to picture reality (Scimecca 1989). John Locke’s ([1690] 1894) Essay Concerning Human Understanding represented an early attempt to show that the extreme rationalist notion (that the world precisely followed mathematical axioms) was in error. Locke argued that first principles did not exist a priori but instead came from the facts of experience. Locke, however, became caught up in the epistemological dilemma that experience was mental and not physical and therefore still had to be located in the “unscientific” concept of mind. This led Locke, like David Hume (1711–1776) after him, to conclude that an exact science of human behavior was unattainable (Randall 1976). Only probabilistic knowledge could be arrived at, and this could only modestly be used to guide humankind.

Although the epistemological dilemma posed by Locke and other Enlightenment thinkers was real to them, the development of sociology in France, England, and later in the United States discarded these concerns and embraced positivism as the cornerstone of the discipline. Most of early American sociology, however, developed differently, and it is through the influence of pragmatism and the desire by a number of early American sociologists to use sociology to spread the social gospel and in the process reject social Darwinism that the tradition of humanism in sociology was kept alive in the United States around the turn of the twentieth century.

Pragmatism and Humanism

The importance of pragmatism for humanist sociology lies in its active epistemology, which, in turn, undergirds an active theory of the mind, thereby challenging the positivistic behaviorism of the time. For the pragmatists, how the mind comes to know cannot be separated from how the mind actually develops.

George Herbert Mead ([1934] 1974) exemplifies the pragmatists’ view regarding the development of mind. Consciousness and will arise from problems. Individuals ascertain the intentions of others and then respond on the basis of their interpretations. If there were no interactions with others, there would be no development of the mind. Individuals possess the ability to modify their own behavior: They are subjects who construct their acts rather than ones who simply respond in predetermined ways. Human beings are capable of reflexive behavior—that is, they can turn back and think about their experiences. The individual is not a passive agent who merely reacts to external constraints but someone who actively chooses among alternative courses of action. Individuals interpret data available to them in social situations. Choices of potential solutions are only limited by the given facts of the individual’s presence in the larger network of society. This ability to choose among alternatives makes individuals both determined and determiners (Meltzer, Petras, and Reynolds 1977).

Mead and the pragmatists held that the determination of ideas, in particular how social structure affected the mind of an individual, was a social-psychological process.

Thinking followed the pattern of language. Language is the mechanism through which humans develop a self and mind, and language is social because words assume meaning only when they are interpreted by social behavior. Social patterns, thus, establish meanings. Language sets the basis for reason, logic, and by extension all scientific and moral endeavors. An individual is logical when he or she is in agreement with his or her universe of discourse; he or she is moral when he or she is in agreement with his or her community. Language is a mediator of social behavior in that values and norms come from language. Value judgments and collective patterns exist behind words; meaning is socially bestowed.

Although Mead was the most important pragmatist for understanding the development of self, the epistemology of pragmatism was most precisely formulated by John Dewey (1931, 1929). Dewey’s epistemology represented a final break with the notion that the mind comes to know because it is a spectator to reality. For Dewey, thought was spatiotemporal. Eternal truths, universals, all a priori systems are suspect. Experience depends on one’s environment—an environment that is physical, biological, and cultural. Ideas are not Platonic essences, and they do not exist independent of the observer; instead they depend on the experience of the individual (Dewey 1931). Dewey’s position is, thus, anti-positivistic in that the mind deals only with ideas and, therefore, does not experience reality, but only ideas about reality. Truth is not absolute but is simply what is consistent with experience.

The individual is engaged in an active confrontation with the world; mind and self develop in a social process. The pragmatists provided an epistemological justification for freedom (a basic tenet of humanism). The mind develops in a social context and comes to know as it comes into being. Any restriction on the freedom of the mind to inquire and know implies a restriction on the mind to fully develop. Epistemology and freedom are inseparable. Pragmatism, by joining epistemology and freedom via the social development of mind, also provides a solution for the seeming incompatibility between an instrumental and an intrinsic approach to values. The value of freedom is instrumental in that it is created in action (the action of the developing mind); but it is also intrinsic in that the mind cannot fully develop without the creation of an environment that ensures freedom (Scimecca 1989). This integrated epistemological framework provides the basis for a humanistic methodology for sociology.

Pragmatism, Methodology, and Humanism

Dewey and Mead formulated a methodology that offered social scientists a frame of reference different from that of the “traditional scientific methodology.” Flexibility is the main characteristic of this pragmatic methodology—it does not offer specific rules of inquiry to which social problems have to be adapted. Instead, the methodology grows out of the problem itself. The social scientist fashions his or her methodology depending on the problem being considered. New methodologies start from the problems and obstacles that arise in the research process. The end result is that the research techniques developed enable the researcher to be both a participant and observer of social structures. There is an instrumentalist linkage between theory and practice as it is incorporated into the humanist sociologist’s life. This is what humanist sociologist, Alfred McClung Lee (1978) meant when he wrote “Sociologists cannot be persons apart from the human condition they presumably seek to understand” (p. 35).

The dilemma of which values to choose from is answered by pragmatism’s emphasis on responsibility as a moral standard—an ethical imperative that assumes that a fundamental quality of human beings is their potentiality for autonomy. People not only are but ought to be in charge of their own destiny within the limits permitted by their environment. Individual character development takes place to the extent that persons can and do decide on alternative courses of action (Dewey 1939).

Pragmatism is grounded in freedom of choice. However, as sociology teaches, choice is always limited among alternatives. It is in pointing out these limitations in the form of power relations and vested interests undergirding social structures that humanist sociology moves beyond pragmatism and confronts one of the basic criticisms of pragmatism raised by sociologists—that pragmatism lacks a viable notion of social structure. Humanist sociology seeks to fashion a full-blown vision of the free individual within a society based on the principle of human freedom (Scimecca 1995). It is this epistemology of pragmatism as adapted to spread the social gospel and reject social Darwinism that is of key importance in understanding the origins of American sociology.

The Social Gospel and Social Darwinism in the Origins of American Sociology

The origins of sociology in the United States are similar to the origins of sociology in Europe in that both came out of the same two traditions—”empiricism” and “moral philosophy.” However, more so than European sociology, American sociology today, with a few exceptions, the most noted being humanist sociology, has lost all emphasis on moral philosophy. Although there are a number of reasons for this abandoning of what has been called the “promise of sociology” (Goodwin and Scimecca 2006), I will argue that it was the role of positivistic and objective science in legitimizing sociology in the academy which carried with it the consequence of rendering sociology impotent as a critic of society that, in turn, provides the best explanation of why American sociology lost its moral compass. However, before doing this we need to look at the role the social gospel and the rejection of social Darwinism played in the shaping of early American sociology.

The Social Gospel and Early American Sociology

A large number of the leading early American sociologists were practicing Christians who viewed sociology as an instrument for spreading the social gospel, with its emphasis on equality and social justice. Furthermore, even those who were not overtly religious, along with their Christian counterparts, saw industrialization and capitalism as responsible for most of the evils (materialism, inequality, and injustice) extant in American society in the last decade of the nineteenth century and the first two decades of the twentieth century and viewed social Darwinism as an insidious ideology that reinforced these evils. With, perhaps, only one notable exception—William Graham Sumner (1940, 1911)2—the leading early

American sociologists were quite adamant in their views that sociology should be a moral sociology, one that would alleviate inequality and injustice. Although there are any number of early American sociologists who were influenced by the social gospel, Albion Small, Jane Addams, and Franklin Giddings stand out among them in their insistence on a moral sociology.

Albion Woodbury Small (1854–1929)

Albion Small left the presidency of Colby College in 1892 to establish the sociology department at the new University of Chicago and fashioned what would become the first school of sociology in the United States.

Upon his arrival at Chicago, Small’s aim was to distinguish sociology there from that of Sumner’s, which eschewed any attempt at social reform. Small who identified with the social gospel movement which sought to democratize the political, economic, and social spheres, originally hired scholars of the same background as his (men who were trained in the ministry), who wanted to establish sociology as a mechanism through which they could spread the social gospel. Every member of Small’s faculty during its first fifteen years . . . was associated with ministerial work, settlement houses . . . and Social Gospel. (Vidich and Lyman 1985:179)

Christianity drove Small’s vision of sociology. For him, sociology was first and foremost a moral discipline, one that would ameliorate the adverse conditions under which people lived. The implementation of the social gospel, or what has been referred to as “American Christian socialism” (Vidich and Lyman 1985:181), was to be accomplished through the use of science. “Sociology might be said to be the science of human interests and their workings under all conditions, just as chemistry is sometimes defined as the ‘science of atoms and their behavior under all conditions’” (Small [1905] 1974:184). This science of human interests was to be used to implement the social gospel that sought the reconstruction of the social order based on social and economic democracy (Small 1920). Jesus had come as a servant and sociology was to be used in the service of people. Social gospelers, seeking to spread Jesus’s mission to society’s poor and outcasts, would advocate legislation to include limitations on hiring children and better working conditions for pregnant women and mothers, a living wage to support families of all workers, compensatory insurance against sickness and old age, profit sharing, and progressive income taxes—in short, the redistribution of economic power (Beckley 1992). Although many of these items were later incorporated into the New Deal, at the time they were considered highly radical and condemned as a prelude to socialism.

For Small, laissez-faire capitalism was the cause of the major problems of American society, and he wanted to forge a moral scientific sociology that would solve these problems. Secular Marxism, in Small’s view, had failed badly and so had the organized religion of the time, which he saw as supporting the existing power arrangements. Only by combining Christianity and socialism would sociology become the moral and ethical science necessary to usher in a humane society. “The only way out of this mess must be the acceptance of the domain of a beneficent Father, and adoption of the belief that the only economy which can fit this world permanently is the economy of brotherhood” (Small 1920:683).

Thus, Small’s sociology (Small and Vincent 1894) was one of the first attempts to formalize the position of the social critic through the use of “informed scientific criticism of the very society in which the social scientists themselves live and work” (Becker 1971:21). And it is in Small’s vision of sociology that he tried to establish at the University of Chicago that we see the tensions involved in developing a new field worthy of inclusion in the university. According to Becker (1971), Small was torn between “two poles: the human urgency of the social problem on one end and the quiet respectability of objective science on the other” (p. 6). Unfortunately, or fortunately, depending on one’s orientation to the field of sociology, it was the latter version of the two poles that eventually conquered sociology. Small’s Christian version of sociology as a means for implementing the social gospel could not in the end withstand the charges of a lack of respectability as defined by the other social sciences, in particular economics, which was objective, quantified, and posed no threat to the laissez-faire ideology championed by the social Darwinists and the business elites of the time.

Jane Addams (1860–1935)

Jane Addams is usually not considered to be a sociologist but rather is remembered as a founder of the profession of social work and as a political activist. However, this overlooks her substantial contribution to a value-oriented sociology, one that took as its starting point the moral imperative of helping people to achieve their full humanity (Scimecca and Goodwin 2003).

Although Addams was not a practicing Christian in the traditional sense of the word,3 she was still caught up in the social gospel movement of the early twentieth century. Through its focus on equality and social justice, the social gospel movement was an important component of the intellectual context of Hull-House and played an important role in drawing Christian women to its outreach programs. As Dorrien (1995) says, “Jane Addams bought into the social gospels’ essential tenets” (p. 45). Or as Elshtain (2002) writes,

Educated young women should be the agents of [the] resurgence of Christian humanitarianism. Like the social gospel advocates, Addams believed that the concentration of power in the hands of a few people in the economic realm in America represented a dire threat to democracy. (P. 96)

Along with her intellectual acceptance of equality and social justice, Addams was very much connected to the leading members of the sociology department at the University of Chicago, in particular to Albion Small. She was imbued with the same spirit of social gospel reform as were the Christian sociologists at the University of Chicago, this despite the criticisms by some clergy that Addams and the women of Hull-House were not overtly religious enough.

Addams embraced the secular aspects of the social gospel—its progressive politics and its emphasis on social justice. Where she differed with the social gospelers was in how to bring this all about. But this didn’t matter in practice because her ends and the ends of the social gospelers were the same.

Jane Addams was an activist sociologist, and instead of accepting a value-free scientific approach to understanding human behavior, she sought to ameliorate the ills of society. She began from the moral imperative of helping people achieve their full humanity. Her sociology was value laden and progressive, while still being rigorous. What is often overlooked is that Addams and the women of Hull-House used systematically collected statistical data to reinforce their policy recommendations. In particular, Hull-House Maps and Papers (1895), of which she was a coeditor, served as the basis of the ecological approach later adopted by the Chicago School of Sociology. “The mapping of social and demographic characteristics of a population in a geographic area was the core methodology of Chicago sociologists of the 1920s, their only ‘recognized’ quantitative technique” (Deegan 1991:48).

For Addams, sociology should first and foremost help people lead better lives, and her own life was a testimony to this principle. Calling Addams’s sociology “critical pragmatism,” Deegan (1988) describes what could easily be a manifesto for humanist sociology today:

Addams’ theory of critical pragmatism was based on democracy to ensure social equality, and education as the mechanism to protect that right. She drew freely on the central concepts of symbolic interactionism, especially as they were articulated by Mead, Dewey, and Thomas. Social interaction based on equal participation for all, however, was stunted and blocked in American cities. As a result of capitalism, immigration, and changes in the home affecting primarily women, children, and the aged, communication and interactions were failing to work for the whole community. To resolve these problems, democracy and education needed to be used as tools to improve social institutions, community control and the vitality everyday life. In this way, Addams connected with the social psychology of symbolic interactionism and with the structural problems of city life. (P. 273)

In short, Jane Addams’s sociology was moral to the core, and because she was a radical and a woman (in a male-dominated world), her contributions to sociology have been overlooked.

Franklin Giddings (1851–1931)

Like Small, Giddings was a minister’s son, and his Christianity was an integral part of his sociology, providing the basis for his scientific sociological methodology, through which he sought to apply the social gospel to American society. Where he differed with Small was that where Small called for and professed to use a scientific methodology, Giddings focused on actually spelling out a scientific method of analysis for sociology.

As Vidich and Lyman (1985) state,

Giddings’s God yields his secrets if one asks the right questions. Mathematical equations and entities provide the appropriate means of discovering the Light, a way of changing the world for the better, a kind of functional equivalent of prayer . . . opening a way to perfect the social order. (P. 109)

For Giddings, God’s intentions were discernable and could be yielded if one asked the right questions. And mathematical equations provided the means for asking the right questions. Giddings ([1896] 1970]) is, thus, best remembered for establishing a scientific methodology for sociology, one based on statistical measures. His students, who would become known as “Giddings men,” were instrumental in bringing statistical measures to bear on social policy reform. Indeed, Paul Kellog, a student of Giddings, carried out the first major sociological survey. The Pittsburgh Survey, as it is known, conducted from 1907 to 1909, used interviewing and statistical inferences for public service.

Reflecting the Social Gospelers’ belief in obtaining useful facts . . . Kellog urged his survey staff to regard “the standard ahead of us” as “piled-up actuality.” Ultimately the findings would be used to establish “relations,” to “project” the survey’s work “into the future,” and to suggest practical solutions to particular problems. These solutions, in turn, would be carried forth by “local initiative . . . to shoulder the responsibilities which the facts show to be obvious.” The facts were to speak for themselves to the makers of social policy. (Vidich and Lyman 1985:130)

It was no coincidence that the Pittsburgh Survey was underwritten by the Social Science Research Council, funded by John D. Rockefeller (a practicing Baptist) and other wealthy Christians who saw their wealth as being held in trust for God, with themselves as stewards. The Pittsburgh Survey became a model for Protestant reformers who used social surveys to support their view of the social gospel.

Through the survey, American sociology set its feet firmly on the ground of statistical study and started on a road toward “practical” social reform. At the time, this meant an alliance with the Progressive movement and a cooperative attitude toward those entrepreneurs and captains of industry who sought to soften the prevailing “tooth and claw” version of Social Darwinism with their own Protestant-inspired stewardship. (Vidich and Lyman 1985:131)

Giddings, therefore, can easily be classified as within the moral sociology tradition, given his belief in sociology as a scientific mechanism for the implementation of the social gospel. His comingling of statistical sociology and religious reform would, however, be lost as sociology opted for the scientific over the reform aspects. However, this would not come to pass for a few more years.

The Rejection of Social Darwinism and Early American Sociology

Arguably, the two major critics of social Darwinism among the early American sociologists were Lester Frank Ward and W. E. B. Du Bois. Each, in his own way, attempted to fuse science and morality in their rejection of what they considered to be an insidious ideology that had a major role in supporting an unjust status quo.

Lester Frank Ward (1841–1913)

Ward fashioned a morally based scientific sociology as a framework for rejecting social Darwinism and as a basis for instituting social reform. To this end, he (Ward 1883) introduced the notion of telic forces (the forces of human design), which could direct the laws of nature.

Man is not the subject but the master of nature, and all progress is achieved by the conscious exercise of that mastery over the impersonal and chaotic forces of nature. This mastery over nature distinguishes man from all creatures here below. All of nature and all forms of life are subject to the iron laws of evolution, but man and man alone, through the psychic forces of mind and spirit, can control and direct those laws. (Commager 1967:xxxviii)

Ward’s emphasis on telic forces represents his total rejection of the social Darwinism of Spencer and Sumner. From this point of view, natural forces could be controlled by human action and Ward was an outspoken critic of any laissez-faire approach. As civilizations progressed, human factors came to play a greater and greater role in the advancement of behavior. Social phenomena should not be left to work out their progress unaided. Education was the key for Ward for inducing social change. His Applied Sociology (Ward 1906) placed him squarely on the side of the social activists and reformers, with his championing of universal public education as providing the best chance for solving social problems and enhancing social progress. Education should not be the sole province of the upper classes as had been the case historically. Nor should it be the province only of men, and Ward strongly advocated education for women.

Ward (1883) called for a “sociocracy,” a society where every man and woman would be allowed to develop to his or her fullest capacity and come to control his or her destiny. Additionally, Ward believed that a small group of individuals should manage the society, envisioning education as the key to producing this class of managers. “As a contribution to this end, Ward proposed the establishment of a national academy of the social sciences, to train public administrators and study the great social problems of the age” (Commager 1967:xxxvi).

This idea of Ward’s, like many of his other ideas, never came to pass. Still, although contemporary sociologists have often forgotten Ward, he did leave sociology with an important legacy. He was among the first sociologists to challenge the doctrine of laissez-faire, and he championed the notion that human beings through the use of their intellect could influence social reform. In addition, he was an early feminist, rallying against the exclusion of women from education. And in relation to a moral sociology, he constantly advocated a sociology that was one “of the liberation instead of the restraint of human activity” (Ward 1898:247).

W. E. B. Du Bois (1868–1963)

At the heart of W. E. B Du Bois’s sociology were the moral imperatives of freedom, social justice, and equality for all humankind. Indeed, Du Bois’s sociology provided a theoretical base within which to understand, to examine, and most important, to rectify inequality and injustice in the United States and in the world.

Du Bois, throughout his life sought to amass a body of knowledge that he hoped would advance human understanding and thereby promote greater freedom and democracy for all people. For Du Bois, research that was not designed and carried out to achieve social justice was worthless. He wholeheartedly believed in the moral imperative to usher in a free society in which blacks and all other minorities could participate fully. Originally, he held that sociology through its use of the empirical method of applying science to social problems would help change conditions as people saw the injustice of racism and other forms of discrimination. This was the basic principle behind The Philadelphia Negro (Du Bois [1899] 1970), which over a century later can still be read as a model of sound scientific research. In the work, Du Bois interviewed over 5,000 blacks as he documented the effects of racial discrimination. His conclusions went against the socalled scientific thought of his time, which held that blacks were genetically inferior. Arguing from a scientific and structural perspective, DuBois offered documentation that poverty, neglect, and racial discrimination were responsible for the plight of blacks in America. This was a theme he took up throughout his life. In particular, he was arguably the leading critic of a particular form of social Darwinism—”scientific racism” (the view that science lent support to the genetic inferiority of the blacks). It needs to be noted that although it was never the intention of Darwin (he never referred to race in his studies), his principle of natural selection (the belief that natural organisms least equipped for survival were eliminated in the evolutionary process) was used to buttress racism.

In the name of science, Du Bois was oftentimes a lone voice taking on the “scientific racists,” the eugenics movement, and the early psychologists of intelligence, all who espoused views of racial inferiority. This, at the time, was no small task, given the prestige of the scientists who supported the view of racial inferiority. As Taylor (1981) states, “The inherent and immutable inferiority of the black race was trumpeted in both scientific and popular channels by physical and social scientists” (p. 449). What Du Bois did was painstakingly dismantle the major arguments used by advocates of scientific racism through the use of his own scientific method for conducting research on blacks (Goodwin and Scimecca 2006).

However, although his conclusions were well-argued and backed up by empirical data, his work was mostly ignored by white society, and as Du Bois began to doubt that research and logic by themselves could change peoples’ minds, he became more and more of a political activist. Still, whether in his scientific study of blacks, such as The Philadelphia Negro (Du Bois [1899] 1970), in his organization of the Atlanta Conferences, which accumulated statistical data on the plight of American blacks, and in his critique of the scientific racists, or in his political activism in helping to found the NAACP and in his editorials in the official journal of the NAACP, The Crisis, his life and writings were so intertwined that he can be seen as an examplar of what it means to advocate a moral sociology. Du Bois was a through-going humanist, one who always believed that people are the measure of all things, that freedom was paramount, and that research needed to serve in an emancipatory capacity or it was useless information. That his influence as a social critic and political activist oftentimes overshadowed his sociology should not detract from the recognition he deserves as an early founder of American sociology and a principal advocate of a moral sociology.

The Rise of Objective Sociology

I’ve shown how a number of prominent early American sociologists at the turn of the century, with the notable exception of William Graham Sumner, saw the young discipline of sociology as a moral science, one driven by an ethical imperative to improve the lives of people. However, by the 1930s, this view of sociology had changed dramatically as sociologists rejected a humanistically oriented sociology for what they considered to be an objective, value-free discipline. While there are numerous reasons for this transition, two stand out from the others: (1) the use of science as the means for legitimizing sociology in the university and (2) the nonthreatening nature of an objective science to the status quo. To best understand the importance of science at the time when sociology was seeking to legitimize itself as a discipline worthy of study in the university, we need to look at how graduate American higher education developed and became transformed by the rise of science into a nonthreatening objective entity, one that offered no substantive critique of the political structure.

The Rise of the American University

Johns Hopkins, founded in 1876, was the first graduate university to devote itself to the ideal of research. With an emphasis on the discovery of knowledge, the graduate universities went into the disseminating end of the process, and Johns Hopkins became the first university to establish a university press. The University of Chicago quickly followed suit.

In the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, science came into its own in American higher education and in the process solidified the structure of the university as we know it today. Science courses began to proliferate. Nonphysical or natural science disciplines, seeing the handwriting on the wall, began to imitate the sciences. Social studies became social science, and psychology broke with philosophy and began to emphasize the experimental approach; even philosophy began to look toward positivism (Scimecca 1980).

By the 1920s, this emphasis on science led to the rejection of the social amelioration approach so much a part of the sociology of Small, Addams, Giddings, Ward, and Du Bois. Scientific sociology was to be objective and not value laden. Positivism and its dictum that only what could be measured was worthy of scientific study became the byword of sociological methodology; anything less was dismissed as “armchair theorizing.” According to Bannister (1987:3), this objective sociology took three forms. First, like behaviorism (only behaviors, not intentions, mattered), it confined itself to the observable and external elements of human behavior. Experience was seen as the only viable source of knowledge. Second, rigorous methods of analysis needed to be applied to the collected data. Such staples of research as the case study, participant observation, and even the comparative methods used by the Chicago School of Sociology were not deemed scientific enough because they did not use statistics. Third, and last, sociologists were to observe strict neutrality when it came to providing data that could affect public policy decisions. Moral judgments and ethical standards had no place in a positivistic, scientific, objective sociology; they had no place in the university.

This shift in sociology from social amelioration to positivistic science can be seen in the thought of three men who were instrumental in instituting these changes from a moral to an objective sociology: Robert Park, Franklin H. Giddings (whose Christian sociological approach we looked at previously), and William F. Ogburn. How the vision of sociology of these men affected the two major centers of early twentieth century sociology—the University of Chicago and Columbia University—as these institutions were caught up in the need to legitimize themselves in the science-dominated world of higher education is vital to an understanding of how American sociology lost its humanistic orientation.

Robert Park (1864–1944)

Robert Park was a leading figure in the transition from sociology as a moral discipline at the University of Chicago to its claim to be an objective science devoid of any moral imperative.

Originally a newspaper reporter, he earned an M.A. in psychology from Harvard and a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Heidelberg. After completing his graduate studies, Park took a job with the famous African American leader Booker T. Washington and worked as Washington’s secretary and assistant for nine years. Then, in 1914, at the age of 50, Park embarked on still another career. He accepted an offer to teach a summer course at the University of Chicago. Shortly afterward, he joined the department as a full-time member and from then on proceeded to change the nature of sociology at Chicago from its ameliorative mode to a purely objective science mode.

I noted previously that the Department of Sociology at the University of Chicago, since it’s founding by Albion Small, was characterized by its activism, with its sociologists in conjunction with Jane Addams and the women of Hull-House applying sociological research to bettering the conditions of the people of Chicago. Park, as he replaced Small as the dominant figure at the University of Chicago, changed all this. Rauschenbush (1979) even quotes Park as saying, “A moral man cannot be a sociologist” (p. 97). What Park did was to equate the sociology prior to his arrival at Chicago to social work, which he saw as unscientific. The ministerial-trained sociologists of Chicago and the women of Hull-House were labeled by Park as religious do-gooders and hence not to be taken seriously.

Park (Park and Burgess 1921) had been impressed with the work of Herbert Spencer, in particular by Spencer’s naturalist conception of society. Claiming Spencer ([1873] 1961) as an influence, Park developed a new scientific approach to studying social phenomena, what he called “human ecology,” “borrowing the concept of ecology from . . . plant biologists. Human ecology reinforced Spencer’s analogy to society as an organism by depicting the city as an organism with a typical natural history” (Breslau 1990:433). Park first used this approach, which later became known as the “social ecology” model, to institute a new method of research for social policy studies, one devoid of any hint of social amelioration. Park projected Spencer’s organicist analogy of society onto spatial coordinates. The social organism was no longer an abstraction but was located in the concrete basis of the city through maps and empirical field research. (That Park does not acknowledge that Addams and the women of HullHouse introduced this methodology in Hull-House Maps and Strategies, instead crediting Darwin and Spencer, can easily be interpreted as an example of his own biases.) And, according to Deegan (1988), a price was paid for Park’s methods of research “This new approach was more acceptable to businessmen and the academic community, but much less powerful and effective in everyday life” (p. 144).

It needs to be noted that Park’s science was modeled on biology and did not have a quantitative component. In fact, Park argued adamantly against the use of statistics and social surveys in his teaching and writings, preferring field research instead. However, fieldwork was costly and could not be realized without outside funding. (Among the many ironies in the origins of American sociology is that over the objections of Park, who was so adamant in calling for a scientific sociology, science in sociology came to be equated with statistics, something that Park was equally adamant against.)

Between 1921 and 1929, eighteen studies by sociology students were published, all subsidized by foundation support. Most of the funding came from a single foundation, the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial, which provided facilities and overhead, and matched all grants from local sources. (Breslau 1990:439)

This combination of Park’s denigration of social reform and the need for funding proved to be too much of an obstacle for the moral sociologists at Chicago to overcome. Although not by any means social Darwinists, Park and his colleagues and students carried out empirically based field studies in what they considered to be a purely objective manner. These studies, in complete opposition to Small’s original Chicago School of Sociology and the policy studies of Addams and the women of Hull-House, eschewed any type of intervention and did little if anything to change the conditions of the people of Chicago. In short, these studies were safe and did not pose any threat to the status quo. “This new scientific standard assured that the recipients of funds would refrain from using their research to make calls for sweeping legislation, especially calls for state intervention in the economy, because do so would undermine their claims to scientific authority” (Breslau 1990:442). It was a compromise that kept the business community from directly interfering in the dispersal of funds, but it rendered sociology impotent in carrying out any meaningful social reforms.

With the subsequent appointment of William Fielding Ogburn to the Department of Sociology at Chicago in 1927, the transition from a social reformist department to an “objective” scientific one was complete. However, before looking at the influence of Ogburn, we need to turn back to what had occurred at Columbia University, where the so-called Giddings men, of whom Ogburn was the most prominent, had been trained in a new type of scientific sociology—one that had the use of statistics as its foundation.

The Giddings Men

In the decade before World War I, Columbia University began to emerge as a leading center of graduate sociology education in the United States. “Between 1908 and 1914, the department granted twenty-five of the fifty-six doctorates in sociology given by American universities, the Chicago sociology department running a distant second with eleven” (Bannister 1987:77). Much of this shift was due to the influence of Franklin Giddings and his introduction of statistics into sociology.

Columbia was a favorable setting for the advance of statistical methods in part because Columbia officials regarded such methods as a way to display their university’s adherence to the research practices of a scientific institution, while simultaneously gaining a distinctive competitive edge, and identitymark that set it apart from its rivals. (Camic and Xie 1994:778)

While still a vital part of the social gospel movement in sociology, Giddings’s sociology was very different from that of the other social gospelers due to his championing of statistical methods, something of which Small was highly critical.5 In his Inductive Sociology Giddings (1901) introduced three elements into what he called the “new statistics”: (1) the ranging of figures to establish averages, medians, maximums, and minimums; (2) the calculation of the ‘standard deviation’ from the mean; and (3) the use of the ‘coefficient of correlation’” (Bannister 1987:76). While Giddings did not often employ statistical procedures in his own work, he nevertheless “set the terms under which statistics became the hallmark of scientific sociology in America” (Vidich and Lyman 1985:111). For Giddings, statistics was the inductive method par excellence.

It would be those sociologists trained by Giddings during his tenure at Columbia in a heavily statistical sociology who would collectively come to be known as Giddings men. It was these Giddings men, much to the chagrin of Giddings, who transformed sociology into a rigid quantitative, statistically oriented discipline, one that drained sociology of its moral basis.

Among the most important “Giddings’ men,” were William Fielding Ogburn (1886–1959), Howard W. Odum (1884–1954), and F. Stuart Chapin (1888–1974). Each served as president of the American Sociological Society (1929, 1930, and 1935, respectively) as did three othersJames P. Lichtenberger in 1922, John L. Gillan in 1926, and Frank H. Hawkins in 1938. Giddings himself served two terms (1910 and 1911). (Vidich and Lyman 1985:134)

As had occurred in Chicago with the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial Foundation having a great effect on the transition to what was perceived as a scientific and objective sociology, so too did Rockefeller money have an effect, in the form of John D. Rockefeller, who was the main patron for the Russell Sage Foundation and the Social Science Research Council. These two foundations were instrumental in underwriting the education of Columbia-trained sociologists (Giddings men) in what was hailed as a more objective discipline and, I would reiterate, one that would not pose any threat to the status quo. As previously said, foremost among the Giddings men was William Fielding Ogburn, who along with Park was instrumental in the transition of sociology from a humanistically oriented discipline to a scientifically oriented one.

William Fielding Ogburn (1886–1959)

Although Ogburn is still known for his theoretical contribution of the concept cultural lag (the view that the technological and material segments of society change more rapidly than the other segments producing a cultural lag) into sociological theory in his Social Change (Ogburn [1922] 1966), it is his commitment to a quantitative sociology that rejected ethical judgments, both in the academy and in the public policy arena, that constitutes his unique stamp on sociology. As Laslett (1991) writes, Ogburn, throughout his academic career

advocated the position that sociology had to become more scientific, by which he meant empirical, objective, and quantitative. For him, to become scientific, sociology needed to distance itself from the moral and political reform interests and activities that had been characteristic of its earlier history. Social problems were of interest to the scientific sociologist as a subject for detached study, not involvement. (P. 512)

For Ogburn, the role of the sociologist was to measure social trends in society, not to change or shape them. This approach to social problems fit in quite nicely with the attitude of the government, which wanted factual information on social phenomena without interpretation by social scientists, and Ogburn’s work outside academia exemplified this role for the social scientist. During the 1920s, Ogburn represented sociology at the Social Science Research Council; he was the research director on President Herbert Hoover’s Committee on Social Trends and served on several New Deal agencies during the Depression (Laslett 1991). Ogburn was thus a powerful force in the discipline of sociology as well as in the public policy sphere. And with his appointment to the sociology faculty of the University of Chicago in 1927, the last vestiges of any moral sociology there were undermined. The University of Chicago and Columbia University, the two major sociological centers of graduate sociological education at the time, were now both firmly in the camp of the “objectivists,” who denigrated any type of sociology that was not statistical and value free.

Just as Park had seen to the erosion of a reform-oriented sociology at Chicago by pushing a field-based empirical sociology, one based on observation and classification, Ogburn ushered in the replacement of Park’s vision of sociology with a sociology that was based on a rigorous set of procedures, the more statistically sophisticated the better (Bannister 1987:175). With Ogburn’s Presidential Address to the American Sociological Society in 1929 on the objective, scientific role of the sociologist, any morally oriented sociology with an ethical imperative to help people, if it was not already a thing of the past, was now only a vision held by a small minority of sociologists at minor colleges and universities. In one of sociology’s major ironies, the most famous sociologist whom Franklin Giddings had trained dealt the final blow to the moral science Giddings had envisioned.

As sociology entered the depression years, mainstream sociology ceased altogether to be a moral science; it was instead defined by sterile, value-free quantitative methods of research. In essence, sociology and the statistically sophisticated technicians who dominated the discipline put themselves up for sale to the highest bidders. The sociologist was no threat to the powerful, no threat to the status quo. Sociology produced knowledge for policymakers, knowledge that was statistical, narrow in scope, and ruffled no feathers. Positivism and objectivism had driven out moral philosophy, and sociology lost its ethical and moral center. Park and Ogburn’s vision of sociology had triumphed. The dream of the vast majority of the early American sociologists had been subverted in the name of a value-neutral sociology—one that, for the most part, ignored the realities of power and inequality, a sociology that opted instead for technical precision. However, there were a few exceptions to this trend—the most prominent being C. Wright Mills and Alfred McClung Lee, who were instrumental in keeping a humanist approach to sociology alive.

C. Wright Mills (1916–1962)

  1. Wright Mills attempted to fashion a critical, humanist sociology that would help liberate individuals. His most precise articulation of this humanist sociology is to be found in Character and Social Structure (Gerth and Mills 1953), written with Hans Gerth, and in The Sociological Imagination (Mills 1959), which is essentially a reformulation of the framework posited in Character and Social Structure, where the interrelationship of the individual and social structure is offered (Scimecca 1977). The major difference between the two works is that The Sociological Imagination is much more critical of mainstream sociology. In these two works and in White Collar (Mills 1951) and The Power Elite (Mills 1956), Mills offers a sociology that is critical and liberating with his notion of how the individual can overcome the constraints of social structure.

The product of his early training in pragmatism,7 Mills never gave up the notion of an autonomous individual who could use reason to ensure his or her freedom. To be free, the individual had to make the connection between “private troubles” and “public issues” (Mills 1959); she or he had to use “the sociological imagination” to make the connection between biography and history and use this information in the support of liberation. The sociologist needed to

study the structural limits of human decision in an attempt to find points of effective intervention, in order to know what can and what must be structurally changed if the role of explicit decision in history-making is to be enlarged. (Mills 1959:174)

Mills’s humanist sociology enables the individual to transcend the realm of private troubles and come to see that structural problems are at the heart of alienation. The use of the sociological imagination could lead to freedom when and if the individual became aware that “rationally organized arrangements . . . often . . . are means of manipulation” (Mills 1959:169).

Mills’s sociology presented a picture of human beings as potentially free but constrained by power relations. In his view, some people (those with power) are freer than others and are therefore responsible for their actions. History may be made behind people’s backs but not behind everyone’s back. There are varying degrees of power and freedom. Mills’s humanist sociology is a sociology of moral responsibility in the face of societal constraint, in essence a study of how freedom is being eroded.

Mills’s sociology is an exemplar of what humanist sociology should be. It is an attempt to realize the promise of the Enlightenment—the fusion of morals with science. Mills offers a sociology that has as its basis the moral responsibility to create a just and humane society. The main purpose in amassing a body of knowledge is to serve human needs. The is and the ought are combined.

Alfred McClung Lee (1907–1992)

As previously noted, Alfred McClung Lee was a cofounder of the AHS in 1976.8 In addition, he was not only the first president of the AHS but was also the leading theoretician of humanist sociology.

Like Robert Park, Lee began his career as a journalist, but there the similarities ended. In his long career, Lee was a socially active sociologist, one who embodied the Enlightenment vision of a moral social science. For Lee (1973), the challenge of sociology was to develop and disseminate knowledge about the restrictions on human beings and to provide blue-prints for social action to overcome these restrictions. Sociologists had to be both social critics and social activists, and he was adamant in his condemnation of those who didn’t use their research for establishing a humane society. In his biting and witty style, Lee (1973) writes that sociologists

expend endless research grants and fill many volumes with refinements of semantics, methodology, and theory which— like the fisherman-craftsman’s dry flies—are for the purposes of conspicuous distinction rather than production. They always conclude their reports on the high note that they have made a ringing case for further research on the subject—that is, for more research grants. (P. 183)

Perhaps Lee’s most stinging criticism of the loss of a moral and activist base for sociology can be found in Sociology for Whom (1978), which is an expansion of the themes spelled out in his 1976 Presidential Address to the American Sociological Association. Sociology, without a moral foundation, according to Lee (1978), is for sale to the highest bidder, and he says, “Too many come to believe that ‘truth’ and ‘scientific objectivity’ are things to be packaged for the tastes and services of ‘important’ denizens of the worlds of commerce and politics” (p. 20). Asking the question “sociology for whom?” Lee does not like the answer given by mainstream sociology. Sociology must be for everyone, not just for the powerful. Sociology must be humanistic, and at the end of Sociology for Whom, Lee (1978) sees this tradition embodied in the AHS.

What will be useful at this time is a scientific body that will bring together those who are not impressed by the deceptive appearances of exclusive control of sociological legitimacy by our existing organizations. The Association for Humanist Sociology is such an organization. It seeks to affiliate people whose curiosity is constantly roused by the realization that ‘things are seldom what they seem.’It is attracting sociologists committed to the service of humanity, to the age-long highroad of humanist social investigation and social theory. Its sociology implies acceptance of a humanistic ethic as a self-imposed mandate. That ethic implies not only service to broad human interests and concerns but also accuracy in observation, mistrust of formulas and methodologies, use of statistics not as irrefutable ‘hard facts’ but as a medium for the summarization and analysis of human observations, search for the most tenable and practical theories, and freedom from an acceptance of outside controls over one’s scientific work. (P. 217)

For Lee (1978), sociology was a discipline that “tries to cope with the problem of people in all of their humanity” (p. 92). For him, the only worthwhile sociology was a humanist sociology.

Humanist Sociology Today

For humanist sociologists, the implications of what has been presented in the preceding pages are clear. Sociology began as a moral discipline, having its origins in the Enlightenment and in the call for freedom and the development of human capabilities to their fullest extent. So too with the origins of American sociology at the turn of the twentieth century. But this “promise of sociology” has been discarded by the majority of sociologists. Thus, humanist sociologists remain disenchanted with conventional sociology and continue to emphasize a value commitment in their research as they analyze the problems of equality and social justice today. With studies in such areas as peace (Wolfe 2004), poverty (Leggett 1998), social class (Dolgon 2005), the media (Starr 2001), crime (Pepinski 1991), the empowerment of women (Bystydzienski and Bird 2006), and economic justice (Lindenfeld 2004), to name just some of the activist research being carried on, humanist sociologists continue to offer a value-committed research agenda for the most important public policy issues facing the United States and the world today. Such an agenda will, without doubt, continue into the future, for humanist sociologists believe it is a tragic mistake for sociologists to ignore sociology’s history. The early history of American sociology testifies to a vision of a moral science, one that emphasized the important ethical imperative for freedom, a vision that was value laden, and that, in the words of Alfred McClung Lee (1988), was “a sociology for people,” not a sociology for bureaucrats, or technicians, or policymakers.

Using a nonpositivistic epistemological foundation, humanist sociologists employ their methods of research to answer the question originally posed by the Enlightenment philosophes: “How can social science help to fashion a humane society in which freedom can best be realized?” Only when mainstream sociology reclaims its origins and it seeks answers to this question can it again become relevant to the lives of people. In the meantime, this is what humanist sociology is all about, and it will continue to shape the research agenda of humanist sociologists in the twenty-first century.


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