When the nomination committee of the newly formed American Sociological Society (ASS) announced the first president of the society, Lester F. Ward, it came with more than the usual amount of admiration for an outstanding colleague. “All sociologists,” the speaker declared, “are under a heavy debt of gratitude to him, and their indebtedness to Ward is at least as great as to August Comte and Herbert Spencer” (AJS Vol. 11, No. 4, Jan 1906: 569). In accordance with Ward’s sociology, the debates leading up to the event had pictured the development of the discipline as part of a process of social evolution, following a trajectory of gradual social differentiation. The differentiation of sociology from the family of the social sciences to which the creation of the ASS stood witness was thus not merely an important step along this trajectory, but, to the eyes of contemporaries, came close to a proof of concept.
Not much has remained of this initial framing of the formation of the ASS, later renamed the American Sociological Association. What has stayed with us, however, is the tribute paid to the achievements of the former presidents of the association. The biographies of Ward and by now more than 100 subsequent presidents figure prominently in the accounts of the history of American sociology and they are on display on the website of the ASA. Yet glancing over these biographies more than a century after the formation of the association, one cannot fail to notice how much the discipline has transformed.
Not only the leading theories, methods, and empirical topics of sociology have changed over time, but also the political circumstances under which sociologists produced their work. Among the previous generations of ASA presidents are those who used their scholarship to promote human and civil rights and to defend democracy against fascism and communism, and later, against anti-communism, i.e. McCarthyism and the red scare. Yet there were also those who took a stand in favor of—not in opposition to—racial segregation, immigration restriction, prohibition of mixed marriages, and eugenic sterilization laws. While the former set of engagements rarely fails to be mentioned, the latter is frequently, albeit not always, overlooked.
The constitution of the ASA and the rules and procedures for electing presidents have likewise changed over time, and so has the status of the association within American sociology and its relation to sociologists in other countries. Given these transformations, it would be farfetched to argue that the biographies of the presidents of the ASA provide a window into the history of American sociology at large. What they nevertheless provide a window into is the way the discipline remembers its past. Compared to the ASA centennial publication Sociology in America: A History (Edited by Craig Calhoun, 2007), the presidential biographies on the ASA website reflect the breadth and sophistication of the available scholarship on the history of the discipline only incompletely.
To some extent, no doubt, this is due to the fact that they were produced for very different purposes. As they stand, the biographies fall into at least four segments. One segment, beginning with Ward in 1906-1907 and running through the 1923 presidency, is a series of biographies written by Michael Murphy, a former ASA staff member and inaugurator of the project. In a second segment, spanning the time from 1924 to 1952, entries vary substantially in length and rely heavily on Howard Odum’s American Sociology (1951) and a number of additional sources that range from biographical information taken from archive catalogues to obituaries. A third version of the biographies begins in 1953 and offers a uniformly very brief treatment of each president, with many being only one or two sentences long. The fourth and current form consists of portraits written by contemporary colleagues – usually as election profiles for Footnotes – and begins with the biography of the president serving in 2000.
Beginning in summer 2019, the Section on the History of Sociology formed a Committee on the ASA Presidential Biographies (CAPB), whose aim it is to bring the online presentation up to date and to close gaps in the historical record. The revision of the biographies aims for a unified style with an eye toward readability by the public. The revised biographies are not intended to be exhaustive, but to provide a first impression for a lay audience interested in sociology and a starting point for scholars who do research on the history of the discipline.
At a moment when people in this country and elsewhere in the world are reckoning with their monuments, it is more than timely for the ASA to take a closer look at the biographies of its presidents. One does not have to believe in evolutionary progress, as Ward did, to recognize that there is currently some room for improvement.