Franklin Giddings: Towards a Better Understanding of Post-Bellum Social Thought

In my previous post, I began to describe Franklin Giddings‘ account of biological and social evolution.  As with the first posts for this blog, the post painted with a broad brush, without nuance and given to jumpiness.  Giddings was a rather prominent sociologist in his time, but like most early sociologists (including his rival Albion Small), he has been lost to time.  Dorothy Ross’ magisterial Origins of American Social Science accounts for Giddings sociology as “straightforward  evolutionary positivism.”  He  “cut through” many of the dilemmas induction and deduction and of articulating a science that was both an account of nature and an explication of a historical narrative by rendering science “description.”  He was deeply indebted to Ernst Mach and Karl Pearson, whose elitist values and Darwinism Giddings “probably” cherished (Origins of American Social Science, 228; for her account see pgs. 227ff.)

Giddings work  at Columbia in statistical methods and sociology renders more explicable Paul Lazarsfeld’s work at Columbia much later in the tradition Giddings founded (more on how I disagree with sociology being a march toward quantification in a later post). Ross’ emphasis is on Giddings methods and his embodiment of some of the accreditations of his times: his focus on competition, assimilation and association, his elitism and positivism, his “deep fear” which he shared with other “American sociologists of social fragmentation,” and of the rise of quantification in the social sciences.  All of these factors make his work emblematic and exemplary of his generation of social theorists whom came to intellectual sentience during the Gilded Age, only to be dogged with pessimism after the First World War. Ross also makes clear that his project is very much a baroque failure.

Ross’ account is exemplary and correct.  I want to point out some assumptions.  The first is that her account is in many ways indebted (unacknowledged perhaps) to the work of Imre Lakatos.  In Lakatos’ vision of scientific progress, all great minds  have methodological insights used in the development of a research program which they use to train cadres of students, whom form schools which protect and apply these insights to their work. The most numerous and successful schools are better able to fight pitched battles in the university against other schools for scarce academic resources.  In this war of all against all, all intellectual products are part of programs (which Ross mentions specifically) which crystallize around methods- methods which are debated and which have university-political ramifications.  Ross’ account of Giddings reduces his sociology (he was as well known as an economist who penned intriguing work with John Bates Clark, which renders her description of him as a “sociologist” misleading to the less-than-expert; he was both and none) to a methodology and a research program.  Philosophers of science are very concerned with the status of  research programs, of induction and deduction.  I am unsure whether turn of the century social theorists -or theorists of the “Progressive Era”- should be described in a manner which Ernest Nagel would understand.  In all fairness, Giddings’ Inductive Sociology makes something of- unsurprisingly- induction, but it is short, early and programmatic.  Understanding him in this fashion- at the expense of his writings on social and biological evolution and the interconnection between nature and society- has the effect of modernizing him, a Lazerfield or Merton in waiting, which if his writings on race, language and nation are presented in their fullness, he can not be.

Continue reading


Henry Buckle, Franz Boas and Ellsworth Huntington: the Inquiry into Causes and the Character of Sociology (Part 1)

This post has become far too long.  It will be concluded in Part 2, which focuses mostly on Franz Boas and the debate over the causal power of climate and environment among turn of the century ethnologists.

If it can not be asserted that Henry Buckle began the modern inquiry into social life, it can certainly be argued that blatant misreadings of his unfinished History of Civilization in England (the first volume of which was published in 1857, the second and last, in 1861) provided so much food for thought that the modern sciences of economics, sociology, ethnology and geography were greatly aided by the controversy which surrounded his work.  The castigation of Buckle as a determinist (what kind exactly has changed over time) was  extraordinarily useful for theorists in the emerging social sciences as an aide to define the scope of their respective inquiries.

Although well-remembered today, in the 1910s and into the 1920s, Franz Boas’ writings on the bodily constitution of immigrants (first published in 1910) and in particular his conclusions about the impact of the environment on the form of the head (and upon cephalic measurements so important for studies of social evolution as well as nastier forms of racial ideology) was deeply controversial and not that well received- to an extent not understood by historians of anthropology. Led by George Stocking, much of the work on Boas has emphasized his work in physical anthropology as part of an emerging consensus, which drew great strength Rudolf Virchow and and an establishing environmentalist tradition in Germany.  In the words of one recent author it was, paraphrasing Stocking, “revolutionary” and dealt a “profound blow” to the “typological” work of William Ripley and Joseph Deniker (Constructing Race: The Science of Bodies and Cultures in American Anthropology, 63.) This as any reader of EWP knows, is a profound over-statement.  If one properly examines the initial reception of Boas’- he was, for a less than brief time, the Buckle of ethnologists, particularly to the Italians.

Continue reading

Robin Fox in his Biosocial Anthropology (1975) makes something of the neologism of ‘biosocial’ to explain his community’s effort into making social inquiries like anthropology both scientific and against relativism.  Biosocial anthropology was preferable to ‘social biology’ as practiced in the UK since the latter had been historically associated with eugenics.  According to Fox, biosocial was a perfect novel term to describe his inquiry into the boundary between nature and society. To this day, and partially because of this shift in designation, social biology and biosocial science have remained distinct communities separated by the Atlantic (although social biology is much more demographic in focus.)

I remained suspicious of Fox’s claim for the novelty of this term and went about further research.  It appears that there was such a thing as biosocial science prior to Fox.  As importantly, its meaning shifted according to the bearer and according to then-forming disciplines. Bio-social originated as a criticism of biological reductionism and the misrepresentation of early Continental works in criminology,  contending instead for the influence of environment upon man’s constitution.

Continue reading

Biosocial Science from Italian Criminology to American Post-war Studies of Prejudice

Robin Fox: Biosocial Anthropology as Philosophical Anthropology

Ether Wave Propaganda

In a previous post, I attempted a taxonomy of post-war inquiries which interrogated the connections between the biological and social sciences in various post-war intellectual communities.  Bio-social anthropology, biosocial anthropology, sociobiology and social biology were loosely defined.  Part of the challenge of discussing these (mostly) post-war inquiries is in going beyond the fraught discussions over the extent that any or all of these inquiries engage in biological reductionism and biological determinism.

What is needed more is a discussion of the ideas themselves and their genealogies and by extension, their connections to broader themes in post-war and Cold War sciences.  The ideas themselves are quite complicated, and many philosophers of science, such as Mario Bunge (though much of his work is among my favorites in philosophy of science) reduce them to caricatures (intelligent distortions- but reductions which worry about their societal implications and evil intent.) On a philosophical and ethical level-…

View original post 1,472 more words