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.

My attention to his work on social and biological evolution and his complex accounts of race, nations and migrations pays attention to the critical distinction he made between the development forces driving the growth and ancient and modern nations.  This is lost in a discussion of methods and research programs.  Lost too is his polygenesis and his discussion of the role of climate.  All are mid-nineteenth century antebellum debates which roiled a generation of philosophers of history (derisively called by E.A. Ross and others) such as William Draper (whom was classed with Henry Buckle) among others.  This is part of the reasoning behind my application of the label “post-bellum” to the social scientists of the Gilded and the Progressive ages.

The trauma of the First World War deeply affected Giddings and others.  They were as concerned over immigration and assimilation, the arrival of predatory capitalism and labor unrest and the centripetal forces of society.  British observers like James Bryce (see the second volume of his American Commonwealth, making this an Atlantic rather than a strictly American problem) were as worried. Giddings was as motivated by questioned posed in many instances elegantly by Draper and Buckle.  These are questions and answers posed by many described at the Grote Club : what forces drive the development of modern nations, as opposed to archaic races?; is the human being (as Agassi would put it) the man-in-animal or the animal-in-man?; what are the conditions of modernity?; what are the connections between the struggle found in nature and those found in society (this is the infamous natural versus social selection discussion)?; what is the role of climate versus race or instinct in the progress of the races and nations of mankind?; how to characterize purely mental versus purely physical forces acting upon groups and individuals (or what Giddings refer to as subjective and objective).  American writers of the Gilded and Progressive Age were attempting to answer the same questions as Draper and Buckle, but with some radically differing evidences and emphases.

Viewing Giddings and others as writing in the tradition of Draper and other ‘philosophers of history’ confounds easy narratives and distinctions.  That Giddings and others offered radically differing answers than theorists a generation earlier makes them heralds of their own ideas whose uniqueness and complexity may only be brought out through rigorous contrast.  This prevents them from being caricatures of their own particular circumstances in the developing universities. For many years, so little has been known about 19th century intellectual histories in the United States that labor conflict, immigration, and the development of the university system (all macro social causes) have been used as a kind of crutch, a crutch also propped up by generalized intellectual movements- evolutionary positivism and historicism. However, we can now recover these 19th century contexts on this forum.

The reduction of social theory to university politics, debates over methods and the discussion of schools renders early sociologists explicable to modern readers at the expense of understanding the ideas and the questions they themselves felt they must answer.  Method and the problem of deduction was simply one part of their systems, as was evolutionary positivism.  The reality was much messier and more interesting. Attention must be shifted away from programmatic writings to the substantive work of sociologists themselves.  We will begin with Giddings himself.


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