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THE PREDICAMENT OF SOCIOLOGICAL STUDY - William Graham Sumner, The Challenge of Facts and other Essays 
The Challenge of Facts and other Essays, ed. Albert Galloway Keller (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1914).
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THE PREDICAMENT OF SOCIOLOGICAL STUDY
THE PREDICAMENT OF SOCIOLOGICAL STUDY1
During modern times science has gradually gained the mastery of one after another of the great departments of human interest. As yet its dominion is imperfect and disputed, but it is gaining ground every day as the authority to which we must all look for truth about the earth, human life, and the nature and destiny of man. As fast as science gains dominion it displaces arbitrary and personal elements. It gives correct notions of causation and so dispels superstition; it drives out transcendentalism, mysticism, and sentimentalism from every interest over which it obtains dominion. But science has not yet extended its domain over the social interests of mankind. Sociology is a science which has yet to come into being, and it is as yet only the name for an outline which we have to fill up by a long and laborious investigation.
If, as we well know, biology and its cognate developments are yet in their struggling infancy, how much more is sociology new and tentative. Yet if we can train a body of men to study it we shall undoubtedly win advantages as great as science has produced in any department which it has yet conquered. Let us now consider the sort of thing which the advance of science must drive out of sociology.
There are no topics which are more constantly discussed than social topics. Everybody has views about social questions; and these views are generally crude. That, however, does not prevent them from being freely put forward. Every one gets some experience of society and has an opportunity to make some observations of social phenomena. I believe, however, that any one who studies sociology will be very loath to give opinions on social topics which lead him far away from the most primary facts and doctrines of political economy or the simplest maxims of statecraft. We do not indeed lack those who are far more ambitious. I am not quite sure how much is intended in that clever satire, “The Revolt of Man,” when the women who have come to rule the world and have destroyed civilization and lowered the population, are represented as chiefly interested in politics and political and social economy. If it means that people who are fond of talking a great deal in proportion to the working and thinking they do, are prone to pitch upon social and economic topics, there is a great basis of truth under the satire. All the world-reformers, the philanthropists, the friends of humanity, and in general the class of those who are anxious to mind their neighbors' business, pitch upon sociological topics with especial avidity. It is a broad and expansive sensation to feel one's self telling one's neighbor how he ought to live. It must be sublime to have the consciousness that one is capable of setting the world straight. A religious teacher, who speaks in the name of a creed of religious dogmas, does not believe that he is speaking for himself, but thinks that he is bringing a message of authority to a world lost and blind in the midst of perplexities; but one who speaks only in the name of an ethical philosophy or a sentimental desire for reform has no standards or guidance whatever. The orthodox preacher may insist strongly on the authority and absolute value of his message, but the a priori philosopher can only establish arbitrary points of departure and arbitrary deductions. The preacher may be easily set aside if his authority seems to be destitute of foundation; the philosopher is certainly only entangling himself in a maze of rhetoric and metaphysics. The old biblical system unquestionably contained a sociology. The religion of the Jews and that of the Christians reaches out to the dimensions of a cosmic philosophy; it contains a whole system of natural philosophy, of the state, and of society, as well as of the church; it embraces, in short, the whole life of man in its scope and interest. So far as I know, that has been the case with all of the great religions; each one of them contained all things necessary to human life, the center of the system being in the religious bond or the religious consciousness. Modern science also embraces in its scope all human interests — all those at least which are limited by this world. These two systems cannot come to an adjustment and division of territory without many collisions and much friction. Now, however, there comes the metaphysician, the ethical philosopher, the sentimentalist, the man who wants to make everybody happy, the reformer, and the friend of humanity, and they all seek to conquer the domain which religion has not yet lost and science has not yet gained. Hence it is that sociology is to day torn and distracted amongst them all and that science seems, as yet, to have but the smallest share in the treatment of social issues.
A consequence of this state of things is that sociology is dominated by all the evil forces which ever harm any subject of human interest. There is a kind of transcendentalism in regard to social matters which is cherished by a certain school. Often the least experienced students are captivated by subtleties of this kind. The most round-about discussion, or the one which treats phenomena by reference to unimportant incidents and accidental coincidences, is pursued by preference. The whole discussion of social topics is conducted in a vein of sublimated and over-refined speculation. Of course the effect of holding this standpoint is that phenomena are not observed and that facts are left out of account.
Closely allied with this way of looking at sociological questions is one which is rather mystical than transcendental. There are German writers who are very fond of this mode of viewing society. Their influence seems to be spreading. They generally confuse political economy with sociology, and then give us a mystical political economy which is made to cover more or less the whole domain of sociology. The influence of this school is spreading both in England and America. Our American students go to Germany and, returning, need to prove that they have gained something by it. They undoubtedly do gain more than one can estimate and in a great variety of ways, but they feel bound to vindicate the specific instruction which they have received lest it might seem that their foreign study had not been necessary or advantageous. The particular effect produced is that the science of political economy, the art of government, and morals are confused together to the great disadvantage of all. Occult relations and laws are devised, and the path of social growth is held to lie in the cultivation of certain soul-states in the individual.
Then we have a certain peculiar dogmatism in sociology. Men who are eminent in other branches of science and who would vigorously resent any intrusion of dogmatism into their own departments will not hesitate to dogmatize in the most reckless manner about sociological questions. The reason is because they have never yet learned to think of social phenomena and laws as subject to the same point of view and modes of thought as natural and other sciences.
Then there are the sentimentalists, who are the largest class and who make the easiest work of social questions. In the study of the individual organism we know that normal physiology presents the greatest difficulties and is the essential basis for a correct study of diseases and remedies. We also know that popular knowledge of physiology is meager in the extreme, while popular notions attach almost entirely to diseases and to remedies. The same is true of society. The study of the structure and functions of the organs of society is long and difficult, and we have, as yet, accomplished very little towards it. We can hope to accomplish much only by a long study of history and a careful examination of institutions. I venture to say that no study except the highest mathematics has ever yet made such demands on the human mind as are made by sociology. We cannot make an experiment in sociology because we cannot dispose of the time, that is, of the lives of a body of men and women. We have to carry in mind a great number of variables, to weigh their value, and to deduce their resultant, although for many of them we can find no unit of measurement or comparison, and although we have no notation to help us. I think that we shall have to adopt some of these methods of the other sciences sooner or later, but at present I see no means of advancing sociology save by the cultivation of a trained judgment through the careful study of sociological phenomena and sequences.
Under these circumstances the student of sociology as a science will necessarily feel great timidity about all generalizations. There are so many more things that he does not know than there are which he does know, that he never feels ready to close the case and advance to a decision. There are so many components whose value be can only measure approximately that he cannot feel sure of his result.
This state of things, however, is precisely made to fit the sentimentalist. Here we have before us social diseases, and we see a great number and variety of social phenomena which are disagreeable and shocking to our sensibilities. Some of them are appalling. In the city of New York and in any other great city, we can find representations of every grade of barbarism from the bottom up. We think of the primitive man as a strange creature of passion and impulse, but there are social groups amongst us consisting of persons who have grown up without discipline and who are similarly primitive and barbarous. About all of civilization which they have caught is the fashion of wearing clothes. The primitive man made women do all the work; but there are plenty of men in modern civilized society, especially in the great cities, who do the same. We can find slavery, caste systems, serfdom, and feudal relations represented in scarcely disguised forms in the midst of any great city of to-day. We can find fetishism and every other form of religious superstition represented; likewise polygamy, polyandry, and every other form of sex relation. It has been said that the human animal runs through, in embryo, the whole biological development from which the human race has sprung and contains within himself all that development in an accumulated form. Something of that sort is true about society; our society to-day contains fragments of the whole history of civilization, accumulated and consolidated into the great existing fabric.
Hence it is a great mistake to think that we have left behind and sloughed off all old things. We have not. We carry with us survivals of all the old things. Sometimes those survivals appear to be clogs upon us; sometimes they seem to be stepping-stones by which we rise higher.
But now observe what a grand chance of error is offered to any one who goes out to look around upon our civilized society of to-day and to say how it pleases him. Of course he sees the most grotesque contrasts side by side. If we begin to boast of some of our triumphs, we do not finish the boast before some one of these contrasts bursts into view like the face of a grinning demon rising to deride us. If our social observer has imbibed the humanitarian sentiments which are afloat in our most refined society and if he looks at the horrors, cruelties, and sufferings which underlie our society, he cries out in dismay. He does not know that he is looking at a feeble reflection of the only scene which this earth presented to the sun for thousands of years. He does not see that the wonder is that we have gained a certain peace and security for a part of the human race, not that there yet remain at the bottom of society vast realms of misery and strife.
Of course the sentimental observer, terrified at the disease, is in haste for a remedy. The first step is to make a diagnosis, which is done by fastening the blame on some things or some persons. Let me repeat that the real marvel is that civilization has triumphed so far that, in three or four great civilized nations, a few million people can so far control the condition of existence that they can live their lives out in peace and security. One of the commonest and most baseless popular notions is that all men could be or ought to be to-day on that same status and that there is blame to be dispensed if they are not. A little reflection will show that it is quite impossible for all to have the best there is. No doubt all the social force in the world is exhausted in sustaining human society at its present level. That force is not all employed as economically as it might be; far from it. But that only throws us back on our true point of view and of effort, viz., to make the wisest use of what we have — to improve our institutions and advance the arts as a means of increasing our social force and to trust to this increase of power to advance civilization. Even then, however, we must understand that some men will absorb to themselves any gain we make and will thus prove themselves the best men. In fact, the advance which we gain, instead of saving and raising the miserable and pitiful victims who are at the bottom, may possibly crowd them out of existence entirely. For instance, if we break up one of the slums of a great city and disperse its poverty-stricken, vicious, and criminal inhabitants who might have festered there for a long time yet, we force them out into open contact with society where they are soon crushed by the competition of life or by the machinery of the law.
Such a line of thought as this, however, is never pursued by the sentimentalist. Seeking a diagnosis of the social evils which he perceives, he notes the preponderant importance of capital in modern society, and he notes the struggle of interests which is involved in the whole structure of our modern industrial system. I have tried elsewhere to show how it is that capital is the backbone d all civilization, and that higher and ever higher organization is essential, as the number of men increases, for the human race to keep up its advancing fight with nature. Consequently the struggle to get capital, to keep it, and to use it, is and must be one of the leading phenomena of society. The moralists and philosophers sneer at the struggle for wealth and criticize it, and still it goes on. The moralists and philosophers might do a great deal to make the struggle for capital more intelligent, but to try to preach it down is like telling men not to live; and to try to set limits or bounds of any kind to the accumulation of capital is simply telling men not to live as well as they can. We always come back to the same point: restraint or diminution of capital is a reduction of civilization.
The case is no better if we try to regulate in any way the struggle of interests under liberty. The sentimentalists are always greatly outraged by the notion of the survival of the fittest which is produced by liberty. If we do not like the survival of the fittest, we have only one alternative and that is the survival of the unfittest. If A, the unfittest to survive, is about to perish and somebody interferes to make B, the fittest, carry and preserve A, it is plain that the unfittest is made to survive and that he is maintained at the expense of B, who is curtailed and restrained by just so much. This process, therefore, is a lowering of social development and is working backwards, not forwards.
These points of criticism show us what we have to think about the attempts of the socialists and sentimentalists to attribute the dark phenomena of our society to capital or to liberty of organization, and of their proposals, by way of remedy, to assail property and liberty. It is only a commonplace to say that all human institutions and arrangements are liable to abuse and that we must keep up a constant warfare with selfishness and greed whenever they show themselves. That necessity will never be done away with while the world stands. Selfishness and greed will change their forms and lines of operation as changes occur in the industrial system and in the organization of society. To check the development of society in order to prevent selfishness and greed would certainly be preposterous.
Passing by others who dabble in social discussions, I will notice, finally, the poets and the novelists. The influence of the latter, in our day, is very great. About all the information which certain people possess on social questions comes from the novelists. They give us pictures of society either as they see it or as they want to see it. Their presentations are as fragmentary and disconnected as paintings hung in a gallery. At best they are kaleidoscopic and have no cohesion but that of an arbitrary symmetry. They deal by preference with that sociological subject which stands first in importance, the family, including marriage, paternity, and divorce, and also the relations of love and courtship. It is significant of the effect which the novel has produced by its treatment of these things that they are all regarded with a certain levity; we know, however, that they surpass all others in weight and importance. Consider the notions about love which are spread abroad amongst our young people by the novels of to-day. Those notions are purely conventional and artificial. I do not, of course, mean to argue that the old-fashioned plan under which the parents selected husbands or wives for their children was wiser than our methods of to-day, though we might well ask whether the old plan made any more unhappy marriages than are made to-day. But if young people are taught that love is a kind of disease which may be caught or may not, like the measles, that it comes only once in a life-time, that it is a passion which ought not to be controlled by reason or duty, that it is a law to itself, and so on, then it is not strange that families are broken up and lives are blighted later on. We can build nothing strong on passion. We build strongly only when we build on duty.
Nor can the novels be thought much more fortunate in their teaching about the relations of parents and children than in what they say about love and marriage. We stand here midway between the old doctrine that the parent had all the rights and the child all the duties, and the new doctrine which is that the child has the rights and the parent the duties, but that the child owes respect, deference, and obedience where he meets with affection and care.
Enough, now, has been said to show that what we need in this department, confused as it is by old theories and new, by old traditions and new fashions, by old creeds and new philosophies, is a scientific method which shall descend to a cold clear examination of facts and build up inductions which shall have positive value. That is what sociology attempts to do. If we can trace the evolution of society from its germ up to its present highest forms, we may hope to identify the forces which are at work in it and to determine their laws. We can disabuse our minds of arbitrary codes and traditions and learn to regard society as a growth under law. We may then hope to understand what we see about us, and if remedies are either desirable or necessary, we shall stand some chance of selecting them intelligently.
For approximate date, see preface.