The Study and Needs of Sociology

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William Henry Van Ornum, "The Study and Needs of Sociology," The Arena, XXIV, 3 (September 1900), 328.


THE need of a science of social relations becomes painfully manifest the moment we realize that there is nothing today that meets this requirement. Almost all the social questions that vex the people and threaten the existence of social order would quickly disappear if there were formulated a body of scientific principles based on known facts and in harmony with the nature, aspirations, and tendencies of the people who constitute all society. I will try to make this clear.

Science is defined by Webster as "knowledge duly arranged, and referred to general truths and principles on which it is founded, and from which it is derived; a branch of learning considered as having certain completeness, philosophical knowledge, profound knowledge, complete knowledge, true knowledge." This is what I mean by science; and this is what I plead for when I present the needs of the time for a science of sociology. It must be a science that stands or falls, at all times, upon the truth or falsity of its proclaimed facts and principles. A truth needs not the sanction of authority, the protection of law, or the safeguard of orthodoxy. These things are but an offense, a stench in the nostrils of truth. Whenever any proposition needs these supports, it is time to bring it to the bar of truth and call upon it to defend itself against the charge of error. It is only error—only falsehood that needs any sort of artificial crutch to lean upon outside of itself.

Now, taking sociology to mean "that branch of philosophy which treats of human society," it is evident that as yet there is no such thing as a science of sociology. There is nothing within the realm of human knowledge hearing upon social relations that in any way answers the requirements as to philosophic truth and completeness which are called for by our definition of science. It is true that there exists a body of teaching which is given in some of the colleges and universities, under the name of sociology; but it lacks every element of science, as is readily seen even on slight examination. Nor is it possible that this should be different under the circumstances. The revenues of present institutions of learning, with rare exceptions, depend upon endowments made up of gifts, actual or prospective, from wealthy men who furnish the principal resources of these institutions. The governing bodies, the trustees, hold their places as the agents of their rich patrons, or else as suppliants begging for endowments with which to carry on their work. This necessarily makes them subservient to wealth as such, and prevents all teaching in those institutions that would offend those actual or prospective donors by attacking their private accumulations or the privileges by which they were obtained. It is obvious, then, that no matter how conscientious and faithful may be the instructors in those endowed institutions, or institutions seeking endowments, no body of teaching bearing upon social adjustments can ever prevail that tends to lessen the power of the rich over the poor or to prevent the accumulation of their riches. And it is just as impossible that a science of human society, the application of which, in practice, would equally preserve and protect all the members of that society, by providing for the needs of all without favor, should ever originate in such an environment.

To show that this is no fanciful statement of a remote and improbable contingency, I have only to point to the long list of professors who have been dismissed from their places within the last ten years, for teaching social doctrines at variance with the supposed interests of men of wealth, or who have espoused the cause of the poor against their rich oppressors. These cases have been too many and too conspicuous to require more than a general mention. In few of them has there been more than a pretense that the action taken was for other reasons than to gain the favor of those who make endowments to institutions of learning. When we come to the fundamental principles on which a science of sociology must be built, if we are ever to have such a science, it will be seen how vital it is to the wealthy and privileged classes not only that no such science should be taught but that there should be no such science to be taught.

That which is taught in the schools as social science is a jumble of partial facts and unsupported theories under the heads of "science of government," "political economy," finance, and "social problems." The social problems include a few harmless things about wages, trades-unions, monopolies, pauperism, and criminality, all tending to foster the idea of some essential superiority and virtue on the part of the rich and justifying their rulership over the poor. They are harmless in that they do not endanger the privileges of the rich, but vicious and hurtful to the extent that they promote false notions of human relationships and hinder the development of better social adjustments. The science of government, so far as it is a science at all, is the science of rulership—of the mastery of a part of the people over others; the science of spoliation—of greed and of exploitation. It is based upon the principle of getting the utmost away from everybody else and giving the least possible in return. It is the philosophy of "dog eat dog." Historically and philosophically, it is the direct antithesis of freedom and equality, upon which all scientific society must rest.

Their political economy and finance are no better. They make no pretense to economic justice. The schools are only propagating-grounds for spreading economic heresies that violate every principle of righteousness in the interest of the rich. Here are laid the foundations of schemes for taxing away the substance of the poor so subtly and silently that the poor shall never suspect that they are being robbed. And here are taught doctrines of finance that perpetuate the slavery of debt upon the whole world. So that there is no such thing as a science of sociology; and if such a science is ever to be constructed it must be done outside of the recognized institutions of learning.

It may be objected that all this takes no account of the great number of institutions for higher education under the control of the State and municipal authorities, and which are supported by taxation; but wealth governs here just as absolutely, only in a different way, as it does in those privately endowed. The contributions of the rich to the campaign funds of the political parties give to them the same influence over political administrations that they enjoy in the administration of endowed colleges. The one concern, greater than all others, of every political party or administration is to continue itself in power or to displace its opponent. To do this it must have money and lots of it. And those who furnish the money are the rich and privileged, who dictate the terms on which they make their contributions. No party can, except under rare circumstances, win an election and attain to power without the favor of these large contributors; and after it has obtained the power its only hope of keeping it is to maintain its standing with those contributors. Therefore, wealth exerts the same influence in the one class of institutions that it does in the other. In one case it operates through the college trustee, while in the other it is through the political boss; but in each the control is equally effective. It is idle to hope for relief from institutions controlled by either of these agencies.

This is not to blame either the authorities or instructors in these institutions. We can condemn the system without passing judgment on the men. If we tolerate the system we cannot justly find fault with those who take advantage of it. This condition of affairs must continue so long as the colleges and universities depend upon present methods of raising their revenues. The system of endowments and State support has outlived its usefulness. It has become an abuse. It no longer promotes human progress by increasing the facilities for education; but it hampers progress by limiting the opportunities for obtaining an education. It is only a small percentage at best, and that percentage is fast decreasing, of the people who can go to college and get what is termed a liberal education. With an adequate science of sociology, something that would be recognized as bearing the manifest stamp of truth, this would be changed. Society would quickly shape itself to meet the requirements. The privileges of the rich only continue by reason of the ignorance of the people. Once the nature and effect of those privileges became generally known they would be brought to a speedy termination. The people would no longer give up their earnings to support an idle and useless class. Instead of an almost universal poverty there would come a universal prosperity in which all could indulge their utmost ambitions in the line of study. There was a time when endowments promoted the spread of knowledge—when they were necessary to the growth and development of education; but that time has passed. When the production of wealth was slow and difficult and was mainly carried on by manual labor, it was only a few who could afford the time and expense required to obtain an education. The work of enlarging the field of human knowledge through original research had to be left to the rich. A leisure class was necessary. But now, when the machine has taken the place of human muscles, when steam and electricity furnish the motive power, and when labor has been subdivided until a few months at most, and often a few days, suffice for the acquirement of the skill needed for most of the mechanical occupations, there is no longer need of a leisure class as distinguished from a working class. Privilege has no longer a reason to be.

I shall be asked how it is possible to provide for the support of public institutions of learning except it be by taxation. It is not possible now. Things must go on much as they are until a better understanding is reached. A change can only come as a result of a distribution of wealth in which all shall share after a more scientific system has been found and applied. This may consist only in the destruction of class privileges whereby a few now exercise so preponderating an influence in public affairs. It is impossible to tell beforehand just what changes will come as a result of certain other changes. The political machine that we call the State may be abolished entirely; or it may slough off its present characteristics of force and violence and preserve only its administrative features. Or, again, a new business organization may develop from and through the cooperative needs of the people that will supply all the requirements of a public administration without restriction of the freedom of individuals. This is already done in a measure by the existing stock companies, which administer the affairs of the members without interfering with the personal liberty of those members. But one thing is certain—that, whatever form the new organization shall take on, the needs of the people will determine what that form shall be. At present I think the wise thing is to encourage private institutions of learning that depend upon fees of tuition for their revenues; and then bend every exertion to destroy privilege and increase the resources of the people, and therefore their ability to meet expenditures. Their resources will increase just in proportion as the power of privilege to expropriate their substance is decreased. The development of a science of sociology is the one thing needed to make plain the methods by which this can be accomplished.

On entering upon the study of sociology, from any possible starting-point, one is immediately struck with the multitude of theories that prevail in every branch into which the subject divides itself. Writers almost innumerable have formulated peculiar notions on special subjects, according to their own varied interests or inclinations, with slight regard to their bearing upon others. With rare exceptions these notions are the outgrowth of class prejudices accented by a dense ignorance of the facts and conditions in other classes than their own, which easily magnify the importance of minor facts and principles while missing entirely the greater and more general truths. In this way there has come to be a seeming wilderness of theories and speculations without order or harmony, oftentimes the most contradictory. Thus all manner of cure-alls are offered to the public, each warranted to correct every social ill and usher in a social millennium if only the plans formulated by its particular author are adopted and applied. As a result, we have the people divided into warring factions under different names, each struggling for the mastery, and conducting their warfare in a spirit of partisanship and intolerance well calculated to hide the truth rather than reveal it. And, still worse, we have the professed followers of the great Teacher—who, more than all others, laid down the fundamental principles on which all social science must rest—trying to care our social ills by an individual salvation: putting an individual plaster on a social sore.

There is nothing discouraging in this condition of things. On the contrary, it is a hopeful sign. This is the condition that must precede the formulation of a science of sociology. In this way all the facts and theories must be developed and brought to the attention of the real workers in the scientific field, who must find, by large generalizations, the underlying principles of human association. In the same way the sciences of zoology and botany were made possible. A vast amount of knowledge was collected about the physical structure, characteristics, and habitat of plants, and also of the structure, habits, and life history of the lower animals, before these sciences were possible. The same thing has been true of every other branch of science. It has been necessary that all these special theories on the subject of human relationships should be promulgated in order to compel the coming sociologist to take due account of all the factors in the problem before him.

One of the greatest obstacles in the way of the formulation of a science of sociology has been the problem of harmonizing two well-marked tendencies in human development that are seemingly antagonistic. One is, the aspiration everywhere of mankind toward liberty. In every country and in every age this has been the watchword of all popular uprisings and the stimulus to exalted endeavor. And yet, along with the struggles for the realization of this ideal, has gone another tendency to the enslavement of the individual. This has been a marked characteristic, increasingly so, particularly in industry, during the last hundred years, if not always. There has been a steady increase in the subdivision of labor and the application of machinery whereby each individual produces less and less of the things needed for the satisfaction of his own wants, until no man any longer produces more than an infinitesimal part of anything. Each is becoming more and more dependent upon all the others in the social organism for even the commonest necessaries of life. Along with this tendency has gone the rapid absorption, by a few individuals, of both the natural resources and the instruments of production, without which industry is impossible; so that the mass of the people are being enslaved, through their needs, to a small part of their fellows. Manifestly there can be no science of sociology that does not take these facts into account and does not harmonize them. This is one of the problems that must be mastered before such a science is possible; but it is only one. In the meantime, the facts of social relations must be studied, and taught in such schools as are free to teach them; and the various theories must be brought to the test of criticism until the time shall come when the knowledge shall be systematically arranged.

When a sufficient knowledge of the details has been obtained, some one with a vision broad enough to take in the whole field, and with keen enough insight to distinguish between essentials and non-essentials, will construct a science of sociology—or, at least, furnish a clew that will enable some one else to do it. Other investigators will correct the mistakes of the first, until the science comes to possess all the completeness and unity of botany or zoology. It will then meet the requirements of Webster's definition already quoted. But it can never spring from the present endowed or State-supported schools and colleges; nor is it likely to be taught in them. When the time arrives that we have such a science, these schools and colleges will have disappeared. Nature has a way of killing any institution when it ceases to minister to human needs; and the killing process, in this case, has already begun, notwithstanding all their wealth and resources. They are getting more and more out of touch and sympathy with the people, which is both the first and final step to their decay. Their wealth cannot save them. The future society must provide for the preservation and sustenance of all the people; and a teaching that fails to give voice to that aspiration will be rejected. A society that fails to do this has no reason to be. And a sociology that formulates the structure of that society must spring from and be taught by agencies independent of endowments, or revenues derived from political sources, as we know politics now. The aspirations of the people toward liberty are certain to be realized.

William Henry Van Ornum.

Chicago, Ill.

  • William Henry Van Ornum, “The Study and Needs of Sociology,” The Arena 24, no. 3 (September 1900): 328-336.