A Pioneer in Human Ecology
by John D. Kasarda, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Born in 1910, Amos came of age during the Great Depression where he dropped out of the University of Cincinnati for a life as a hobo. He rode boxcars to the West and panned for gold in Oregon. He even stowed away on a Japanese freighter heading to Asia before being discovered and sent back.
After his stint riding the rails, Amos returned to the University of Cincinnati where Professor James Quinn introduced him to sociology and human ecology. Amos also encountered Roderick McKenzie, a renowned visiting professor from the University of Michigan, who impressed him with his theories of urban hierarchies and metropolitan dominance. McKenzie convinced Amos to follow him back to Ann Arbor, where he became McKenzie’s protégé. When an untimely illness and early death took McKenzie from Michigan in 1940, his protégé succeeded him. There, Amos rose through the ranks from instructor to professor and served as chair of the department from 1951 to 1962.
Michigan’s Sociology Department was in its heyday during Amos’ decade as chair, leading the way with its Survey Research Center, Center for Group Dynamics, Population Center, and Detroit Area Study. It also had many distinguished faculty ranging from social psychologists to demographers, a number of whom had strong personalities and radically different takes on what should be central to the discipline. Gerhard Lenski (Amos’ close colleague at Michigan and UNC) noted that all the ingredients for a department blow-up were in place. Yet, Amos effectively served as leader and social glue holding everything together as Michigan’s Department of Sociology prospered.
In 1966, Amos departed for Chapel Hill becoming Kenan Professor of Sociology at UNC where he remained a highly active scholar and graduate student mentor until his retirement in 1976. Soon afterwards, he took to writing fictional short stories, many of them incorporating his keen observations over the years of academic lifestyles. To the surprise of a number of us who always thought of Amos as being steadfast and restrained, some of these short stories have elements of intrigue and even risqué behavior.
It was his more than 100 scholarly works, though, for which Amos will be most remembered. His academic career is best defined by an early book, Human Ecology: A Theory of Community Structure (1950). That book remains the most comprehensive statement of the ecological approach to social organization. In many ways, it was a major departure from previous work in sociological human ecology. Amos was able to distill prior research and field observations of human ecologists into a codified theatrical framework that explained characteristics of social organization as the product of a population adapting to its environment.
By strengthening human ecology’s intellectual ties to the field of ecology, Amos led human ecology away from reliance on biology and the early Chicago-School urban sociology. Despite drawing on the historical work of George C. Homans, he also moved human ecology firmly into the realm of macrosociology. Amos believed that the structure of organizations—be they communities, societies or formal organizations—had overwhelming influence on individual behavior and superseded individual influence, with real power in the organized system. It was, therefore, his understanding of system structure and its macro drivers that occupied the majority of Amos’ scholarly efforts.
His ASA presidential address, "Cumulative Change in Theory and History" (American Sociological Review, December 1978), is a good illustration. Amos argued that although individual societies rise and fall over the long wave, human society tends to progress through cumulative advances and transferability of technology and economic organization. The result is societal growth measured in terms of system complexity, energy and products consumed, territory covered, and population supported.
A precursor of his conceptualization of societal growth was his models of ecological (system) expansion. Extending the works of Charles Horton Cooley and Roderick McKenzie, he explicated (and quantified) how socio-spatial system expansion occurs through advances in transportation and communication technology that integrate dispersed populations and their economic organizations over ever-widening territories. An outcome of the expansion process is the formation of hierarchies of places (at the local, national, and global levels) characterized by competitive-cooperation.
Interestingly, Amos was among the few American scholars in the 1950s and 1960s who dispassionately engaged Marx. After considering the predictions of Malthus and those of Marx about the relationship of the size of a population to available resources, he came down firmly on the side of Marx, finding corroboration for the principle that access to resources is limited in the first instance by social organization. While certainly not a Marxist scholar, he felt an affinity for some of Marx’s theorizing and revisited the issue several times in his career, most recently in "Human Ecological and Marxian Theories" (American Journal of Sociology, 1984).
Amos’ calm manner belied his sharp, original mind, which frequently inspired curiosity and originality among many of his students, from demographer Donald Bogue to organizational ecologists Michael Hannan and John Freeman. Hannan and Freeman’s classic article "The Population Ecology of Organizations" (American Journal of Sociology, 1977) began as a paper in Amos’ UNC graduate seminar. Howard Aldrich, current chair of UNC’s Department of Sociology, contends that this article changed the field of organization studies forever.
Amos contributed as much to practice as to theory, and he was as accomplished in the field as in the classroom. He served on the advisory committee for the 1960 United States census and on numerous National Academy of Sciences committees and boards (1960-1978). Amos also was a demographic adviser for the government of Malaysia (1973-74), directed the census of Aruba in 1960, and was an adviser to the prime minister’s office in Thailand (1964-65). He conducted field studies of populations and urban land use in Japan, the Philippines, and elsewhere.
For his many contributions to population studies, Amos was elected president of the Population Association of America (1971-72). In 1990, he received the Robert and Helen Lynd Award from the American Sociological Association for his research and scholarship on community and urban sociology. Also that year, Cornell University honored Amos with an award for outstanding achievements and contributions to sociological human ecology. At UNC, The Amos Hawley Distinguished Professorship is named in his honor.
Amos’ final request characterized his modest and generous persona. He asked that no funeral or memorial service be held and that any memorial contributions be made to a fund for the benefit of graduate students in the Department of Sociology at UNC. This fund has now been established and designated by UNC as The Amos Hawley Memorial Fund.