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New Films Commemorate ASA Centennial

The commemoration of ASA’s centennial year will include premieres of two documentary films (A Century of Progress: Presidential Reflections, and Lester F. Ward: A Life’s Journey) at the ASA Annual Meeting in Philadelphia. Each film was specially developed to celebrate the contributions of sociology to our understanding of social life in America.

A Century of Progress

This 20-minute film begins with a brief overview of the founding of the American Sociological Society, ASA’s pre-1959 name, acknowledging the organization’s inclusion of applied, action-oriented social reformers as well as pure-theoretical-academic scholars. The film recognizes some of the prominent founding members including Noble Prize recipients Jane Addams and Emily Balch, along with Charlotte Perkins Gilman, a renowned leader of the women’s rights movement.

The documentary continues with a review of each of the successive presidents of the Society. An image of each president is accompanied by a brief statement to reflect one of their core ideas or observations. For deceased presidents, the statements are based upon either their presidential address or an idea commonly associated with them. For example, the statement with Edward A. Ross (1914) reads, “Society is sewn together by inner conflicts”; Mirra Komarovsky (1973), is associated with “Challenge the ideology of domesticity”; and Erving Goffman (1982), is known for “Observe the drama of everyday life.”

Living presidents were asked to submit abbreviated statements of no more than three lines with no more than 19 characters per line. Despite the challenge, nearly all agreed to do so. For example, Seymour Martin Lipset wrote, “To know one country is to know none”; and, the now deceased Matilda White Riley suggested that her statement be: “We shape society and society shapes us by the way we age.”

The documentary was developed and produced by Gale Largey, Mansfield University, with the assistance of Michael Murphy, Archivist for the American Sociological Association. Craig Calhoun, President of the Social Science Research Council, served as a consultant for the project.

Lester F. Ward: A Life’s Journey

This 110-minute film describes in detail the life and ideas of Lester F. Ward—the founder of American sociology and the first president of the American Sociological Society. The viewer is taken to Ward’s birthplace in Joliet, Illinois, to creeks he walked as a young boy near Chicago, to the actual fields he plowed in Iowa, to Bradford County, Pennsylvania, where he taught in a country school, and to the battlefields at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, where he survived after being wounded three times. Through it all, one gains a sense of the impact of social settings in the ultimate formation of Ward’s sociological thought.

After the Civil War, Ward became a noted botanist and served as the chief paleontologist of the U.S. Geological Survey before finally turning to the emerging discipline of sociology being fostered by philosophers Comte and Spencer. The film takes note of Ward’s intense insistence about equal opportunity in education, his vigorous advocacy of the women’s movement, his staunch opposition to the classism and racism inherent in the early eugenics movement, and his recognition of the need for applied sociology in the functioning of government. In fact, the highly respected historian Henry Steele Commanger later referred to Ward as “the architect of the modern welfare state.”

The film underscores that Ward was highly respected not only in the United States, but also in Europe. In 1900, he became the first American to be elected president of the Institut International de Sociologie, and five years later, he was elected the first president of the American Sociological Society.

In 1906, Ward was invited to become a professor at Brown University and he served in that capacity until his death in 1913. Living in the dorms, he was a beloved professor. In fact, in 1912 Brown students dedicated their yearbook to him.

The documentary is presented in the first person with Jack M. Wilcox speaking as a very believable “voice of Lester” reflecting on his life and ideas. In addition, throughout the documentary there are “voices of other notable figures” offering insights about Ward and his ideas. Those “voices” include John Wesley Powell, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Ludwig Gumplowicz, and Edward A. Ross—each of whom dedicated one of their books to Ward.

The documentary incorporates many excerpts from Ward’s diaries; and perhaps its most notable strength is the extensive use of the actual words/quotes of Ward. Visually, one sees a range of images of Ward, from age 19 until shortly before his death. In addition, drawings by the artist Jon Laidacker provide a special touch of added understanding.

Sociologist as Director

The documentary was written, directed and produced by Gale Largey in association with Mark Polonia, Phil Ogden, and many other individuals. It was developed over a seven-year period and involved extensive research. Largey, who completed his doctorate in sociology from SUNY-Buffalo in 1972, recently retired after a 35-year teaching career at Mansfield University of Pennsylvania. He has produced several documentaries including The Austin Disaster, 1911: A Chronicle of Human Courage. It was selected for showing at the Full Frame/Double Take, and Hot Springs Film Festivals, and has been shown on various PBS stations.

Individuals performing voice parts in the documentary included ASA President Troy Duster (as E. Franklin Frazier), Past-president Douglas Massey (as Albion Small), ASA Executive Director Sally Hillsman (as Ward’s biographer, Emily Palmer Cape), and Diane Vaughn (as Charlotte Perkins Gilman).

Consultants on the project included ASA Archivist Michael Murphy, and Edward C. Rafferty, a social historian, who has published the most recent of six biographies on Ward. Rafferty’s 2003 work is titled Apostle of Human Progress: Lester Frank Ward.

At the 2005 ASA Annual Meeting in Philadelphia, A Century of Progress will be shown on Friday night, August 12, at the beginning of the first plenary session. Lester F. Ward will be shown on Saturday, August 13, at 7:30. The place will be announced at the meeting. Everyone is invited to celebrate with pride the legacy of Lester F. Ward. You will find that he was an individual truly worthy to be recognized as the founder of American sociology. Long before it was popular, he spoke out very openly and vigorously for the rights of women, minorities, and the poor.