Lester Ward is generally thought of as the founder of American sociological study. He served as the first president of the American Sociological Society, which was founded in 1905 (and which later changed its name to its current form, the American Sociological Association), and was appointed Chair of Sociology at Brown University in 1906.
Works and ideas
Like Comte and the positivist founders of sociology, Ward embraced the scientific ethos. In 1883, Ward published his two-volume,1,200 page Dynamic Sociology, Or Applied Social Science as Based Upon Statistical Sociology and the Less Complex Sciences, with which he hoped to establish the central importance of experimentation and the scientific method to the field of sociology.
But for Ward, science was not objective and removed, but human-centered and results-oriented. As he put it in the preface to Dynamic Sociology:
"The real object of science is to benefit man. A science which fails to do this, however agreeable its study, is lifeless. Sociology, which of all sciences should benefit man most, is in danger of falling into the class of polite amusements, or dead sciences. It is the object of this work to point out a method by which the breath of life may be breathed into its nostrils. "
Thus, Ward embodied what would become a distinctive characteristic of American sociology. Though devoted to developing sociology as a rigorous science, he also believed sociology had unique potential as a tool to better society. He believed that the scientific methodology of sociology should be deployed in the interest of resolving practical, real-world problems, such as poverty, which he theorized could be minimized or eliminated by systematic intervention in society.
Criticism of laissez-faire
Ward is most often remembered for his criticism of the laissez-faire theories advanced by Herbert Spencer and popular among his contemporaries. Spencer had argued that society would naturally evolve and progress while allowing the survival of the fittest and weeding out the socially unfit. Thus, social ills such as poverty would be naturally alleviated as the unfit poor were selected against; no intervention was necessary. Though originated by Spencer, these ideas were advanced in the United States by William Graham Sumner, an economist and sociologist at Yale. Ward disagreed with Spencer and Sumner and, in contrast to their laissez-faire approach, promoted active intervention.
As a political approach, Ward's system became known as "social liberalism," as distinguished from the classical liberalism of the 18th and 19th centuries. While classical liberalism (featuring such thinkers as Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill) had sought prosperity and progress through laissez-faire policies, Ward's "American social liberalism" sought to enhance social progress through direct government intervention. Ward believed that in large, complex, and rapidly growing societies, human freedom could only be achieved with the assistance of a strong democratic government acting in the interest of the individual. The characteristic element of Ward's thinking was his faith that government, acting on the empirical and scientifically based findings of the science of sociology, could be harnessed to create a near Utopian social order.
Ward had a strong influence on a rising generation of progressive political leaders, including on the administrations of Presidents Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and Franklin D. Roosevelt and on the modern Democratic Party. He has, in fact, been called "the father of the modern welfare state. " The liberalism of the Democrats today is not that of Smith and Mill, which stressed non-interference from the government in economic issues, but of Ward, which stressed the unique position of government to effect positive change. While Roosevelt's experiments in social engineering were popular and effective, the full effect of the forces Ward set in motion came to bear half a century after his death, in the Great Society programs of President Lyndon B. Johnson and the Vietnam war.
Influence on academic sociology
Despite Ward's impressive political legacy, he has been largely written out of the history of sociology. The thing that made Ward most attractive in the 19th century, his criticism of laissez faire, made him seem dangerously radical to the ever-cautious academic community in early 20th century America. This perception was strengthened by the growing socialist movement in the United States, led by the Marxist Russian Revolution and the rise of Nazism in Europe. Ward was basically replaced by Durkheim in the history books, which was easily accomplished because Durkheim's views were similar to Ward's but without the relentless criticism of lassiez faire and without Ward's calls for a strong, central government and "social engineering". In 1937, Talcott Parsons, the Harvard sociologist and functionalist who almost single-handedly set American sociology's academic curriculum in the mid-20th century, wrote that "Spencer is dead," thereby dismissing not only Spencer but also Spencer's most powerful critic.
Lester Ward, the first president of the American Sociological Association, is generally thought of as the founder of American sociological study.