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William Fielding Ogburn

William Fielding Ogburn

June 29, 1886 — April 27, 1959

William Fielding Ogburn served as President of the American Sociological Society (later changed to Association) in 1929. His Presidential Address, "The Folkways of a Scientific Sociology," was delivered at the organization's Annual Meeting in Washington,DC in December 1929 and was later published int he Proceedings of the 1929 meeting.

Howard W. Odum, in his 1951 book American Sociology: The Story of Sociology in the United States through 1950 provided the following biographical sketch of William F. Ogburn (pages 147-152):

Going directly to graduate work at Columbia University with Giddings in 1908, three years after his graduation from Georgia's Mercer University in 1905, William F. Ogburn, the nineteenth president of the American Sociological Society, was the first to make sociology his first and last field of professional work. That is, after his excursion into secondary-school teaching, as was customary with most graduates of Georgia colleges who expected to go into professional work, Ogburn began his studies in sociology and was still going strong at the 1950 mark. His only transitional excursion away from sociology was as instructor at Princeton University in economics, politics, and history while he was working for his Ph.D. degree in sociology at Columbia, unless his year of postwar economic studies in France or his presidency of the American Statistical Association could be so designated.

Born in Butler, Georgia, in 1886, and having received the B.S. degree from Mercer University at Macon, Georgia, and the M.A. degree in 1909 from Columbia University and the Ph.D. in 1912, he was professor of sociology at Reed College, Portland, Oregon, for four years where he did what he sometimes estimates his best teaching. Following the Reed College tenure he was for two years, 1918 and 1919, in World War I, examiner and head of the cost of living department for the National War Labor Board and special agent for the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics. Following this service he came back to Columbia University as professor of sociology in 1919 where he remained until 1927 when he was called to Chicago to serve in a similar capacity. In 1933 he was appointed to the Sewell L. Avery distinguished service professorship and has remained there continuously except for leaves of absence granted to undertake special work. He received the honorary degree of LL.D. from his Alma Mater and from the University of North Carolina.

Like his predecessors among the presidents of the American Sociological Society, he has been called on to cooperate in many ventures and to undertake much in allied fields. Although Giddings had been the sociological pioneer in insisting that statistics be given a major role in sociology, and although he had been a fellow in the American Statistical Association, Ogburn was a president of the Association and editor of its journal. So, too, although several of the presidents of the American Sociological Society have been fellows in the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Ogburn has been the only vice-president up to 1950. And again, Ogburn has been the only sociologist to be president of the Social Science Research Council and chairman of its Problems and Policy Committee. Other related scientific associations included the International Statistical Institute, the Population Association of America, the Sociological Research Association. His active and advisory services to outside agencies have also been numerous. He was chairman of the United States Census Advisory Committee, director of the Consumers Advisory Board of the National Recovery Administration, special adviser to the Resettlement Administration and research consultant to the National Resources Committee, 1935-43.

His most distinctive cooperative research effort, however, was his directorship of the President's Research Committee on Social Trends established by President Herbert Hoover and running from 1930 to 1933.Ogburn not only was mainly responsible for the outlines and arrangements for this study but the appropriation of more than a half million dollars for the study by the Rockefeller Foundation was facilitated by Ogburn's directing the study. Another president of the Society, Howard W. Odum, who had initiated the request for the appropriation, was assistant director of research, while the other members of the committee were Wesley C. Mitchell of Columbia, chairman, Charles E. Merriam of Chicago, vice-chairman, Shelby Harrison of the Russell Sage Foundation, and Alice Hamilton of Harvard. The results of this cooperative research program were published in two main volumes of thirty-four chapters by almost as many collaborators, in addition to the zoo-page summary and thirteen separate monographs. Ogburn himself contributed two of the main chapters dealing with science, invention, and social change, and with marriage and family relationships.

In this work Ogburn was able to urge upon the committee one of his major indices of Methodology, namely, that research be undertaken in no area unless statistical data were available for objective measurement. And in those cases where the major authors had not had access to or experience in statistical research, it was the policy of the Committee to provide statistical assistants. Thus, Samuel Stouffer, subsequently to go as professor of sociology and director of the research laboratory of social relations at Harvard, collaborated with Jesse F. Steiner in his excellent chapter on the community and recreational activities, and Clarence Heer, professor of finance at North Carolina, collaborated with Howard W. Odum in his chapter on public welfare.

Ogburn's main books and brochures included Progress and Uniformity in Child-Labor Legislation: A Study in Statistical Measurement, published as his Ph.D. thesis, 1912; Social Change with Respect to Culture and Original Nature, 1922; The Social Sciences and Their Inter-relations, edited jointly by Ogburn and Alexander Goldenweiser, 1927; American Marriage and Family Relationships with E. R. Groves, 1928; The Economic Development of Post-War France: A Survey of Production, with William Joffé, 1929; Social Changes, edited for The American journal of Sociology and published each year, 1927 to 1935; Recent Social Trends, 1933; Sociology — a textbook, with Meyer F. Nimkoff, 1940; American Society in Wartime, edited 1944; The Social Effects of Aviation, 1946. A revised edition of Social Change appeared in 1950.

In addition to these books a number of smaller pamphlets have been published. Most important of these are: Living with Machines, 1933; You and Machines, 1934; Social Characteristics of Cities: A Basis for New Interpretations of the Role of the City in American Life, 1937; Technological Trends and National Policy, 1937; Machines and Tomorrow's World, 1938; War, Babies and the Future, 1943; The Politics of Atomic Energy, 1946.

Few men in American sociology have equaled Ogburn in sheer quantity of output of articles for journals. Not including book reviews, approximately a hundred and seventy-five such articles have appeared, in addition to approximately twenty chapters written for and published in books edited by others. According to the chief subject matter and to journals carrying them, these journals have been divided into two groups in an unpublished paper in 1948, (1) learned and technical journals and (2) popular magazines. The number of articles appearing in the learned and technical journals include fifty-three from sociological journals, including The American Journal of Sociology, Social Forces, Publications of the American Sociological Society, Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Sociology and Social Research.

The range of his contributions is indicated by some eighty-five articles in other journals, including Public Management, Journal of the American Statistical Association, Survey Graphic, Monthly Labor Review, Political Science Quarterly, Scientific Monthly, Journal of Political Economy, American Political Science Review, American Economic Review, State Review of Literature, Journal of Adult Education, American Labor Year Book. There have been some fifty articles in popular magazines and newspapers, including the New York Times, the Berliner Tageblatt, Air Affairs, American Magazine, Ladies' Home Journal, Nation's Business.

Although Ogburn may not be as noted as his teacher Giddings was for the creation of a great many sociological terms and concepts, his term "cultural lag," defined sociologically for the first time in his book Social Change, has become a classic. As Ogburn defined it on page 196 of this book, "The thesis is . . . that the source of most modern social changes today is the material culture. The material-culture changes force changes in other parts of culture such as social organization and customs, but these latter parts of culture do not change as quickly. They lag behind the material-culture changes, hence we are living in a period of maladjustment."

Ogburn writes, "I think we have made a good deal of progress in the scientific method in sociology since you and I were in the graduate school together at Columbia University, and I think the United States is far ahead of any other country especially continental Europe, in scientific sociology. But at best the movement will be slow. I think much too much attention is given to systematization and not enough to verification. On the other hand, I am not a perfectionist. If I were, I would advocate a restriction of effort to a narrow field such as statistical surveys, population studies, and vital statistics. I think the degree of accuracy and the extent of verification is contingent upon the need in laying out work, and I am not disposed to be critical particularly of failures to obtain perfection. Rather I would welcome approximations provided the author knows that they are approximations and knows what science is. I would rule out, however, some approximations where the goal for the author is philosophy, persuasion, propaganda, ethics, or the essay. I am not adverse to the sociologist writing essays or propaganda providing he does this merely as a human being and not as a scientist."

When urged to indicate the nature of some of his own contributions Ogburn wrote: "I claim that the problem of social evolution is solved and that I have played a considerable part in solving it. By solving I mean solving in the sense that Darwin solved the problem of biological evolution. Darwin did it by pointing out three factors: variation, natural selection, and heredity. Darwin added the factor of natural selection. The problem of social evolution is solved by four factors: invention, exponential accumulation, diffusion, and adjustment. My contribution has been largely in the factor of exponential accumulation and also in the development of the factor of invention. I also think that my role has been significant in the adjustment of one part of culture to another (cultural lag). There will no doubt be refinements in the analysis and measurements just as there have been in Darwin's three factors which explain biological evolution.

"One other contribution of mine I'm rather fond of is the observation verified by measurement that trend lines seldom change their direction very sharply or quickly although the fluctuations about a trend line often do. The development of the reasons why trend lines do not change their direction sharply is interesting, but this discovery rests upon its significance for planning and for the recognition it gives to social stability."

Although Ogburn's many contributions have been indicated as in the field of statistical method, the influence of technology upon society, the family, and population, he writes that "I suppose I would be classed by most of my colleagues as in the field of social change although I don't like to be fenced in." And with reference to sociology's great opportunities in the future, he wrote, "I think the greatest opportunity in sociology lies in getting away from bias and prejudice and contributing reliable information. You will recall that the idea which you and I had in carrying through together the Social Trends study was to rule out all opinion unsupported and to accept nothing but reliable conclusions. The idea was that as a multiplication table should be reliable both for the Tory and the Communist, so the conclusion of social trends should be valid alike for the radical and the conservative. I think the almost universal acceptance of the social trends study was a tribute to a measure of success in making it reliable. If we succeed in building up a respect for the reliability of social science among statesmen, responsible educators, and capable congressmen, and among business and social leaders, universities and the students will follow. One of the biggest hindrances to the attainment is the distorting effect of bias and emotion. Another practical obstacle to research I have come to think is the prestige which goes to the advisory function in public affairs and the prestige of committee work with agencies such as federal government and the special wartime agencies. It is impossible to do research work and committee work in Washington at the same time, and nowadays sociologists run away from the long, hard, slow tasks of research for the quicker, easier prestige of counseling in public affairs. Such counselors I call committee bums."

Ogburn's presidential address in 1929 was in character when he spoke on "The Folkways of a Scientific Sociology." In substance it was what he wrote later in The Scientific Monthly, for April, 1930. "In the past the great names in sociology have been social theorists and social philosophers. But this will not be the case in the future. For social theory and social philosophy will decline, that is, in the field of scientific sociology. Social theory will have no place in a scientific sociology, for it is not built upon sufficient data. Of course, certain syntheses of broader researches may be called theory, a new meaning for an old term. But such syntheses will be based on evidence. Social theory in good part is the product of wishful thinking, taking form in the Zeitgeist in which it is developed."

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