William Graham Sumner, a founder of sociology and a brilliant anthropological theorist of normative order, was strongly influenced by the writings of the British evolutionist Herbert Spencer.
Sumner was born in Paterson, New Jersey on October 30, 1840. He studied political economy and graduated from Yale University (1863). He studied French and Hebrew at the University of Geneva in Switzerland, ancient languages and history at Gottingen University in Germany, and Anglican theology at Oxford University. Following his ordination as an Episcopal priest (1869) and his service at parishes in New York City and Morristown, New Jersey, he was appointed professor and chair of political and social science at Yale (1872).
Having established a very visible, natural reputation as a professor spotlighted by his economic theory of individualism, private property, and laissez-faire in opposition to tariffs, socialism, and social reform movements in the 1870s and 1880s, Sumner became interested in the evolutionary theory of Spencer and primary natural laws and adopted Social Darwinism while abandoning the study of political economy for sociology. He transformed his life’s work from popular lecturer, essayist, and polemicist to objective sociological researcher and scholar, teaching the first course in sociology (the “science of society”) offered in the United States. He employed ethnographic methodology in his research and conceptualized a classificatory schema of tribes and peoples with their characteristics that was later established by G. P. Murdock as the Human Relations Area Files.
Sumner’s major works include Socialism (1878), The Forgotten Man and Other Essays (1883), What Social Classes Owe to Each Other (1883), War, and Other Essays (1894), Folkways: A Study of the Sociological Importance of Usages, Manners, Customs, Mores, and Morals (1906), Earth-hunger and Other Essays (1913), The Challenge of Facts, and Other Essays (1914), and The Science of Society (with A.G. Keller, 1927).
Folkways is an anthropological and sociological classic. Sumner knew the power of words (he was fluent in 14 languages), and he chose his words very carefully. By inducting from ethnographic and historical materials, he shaped a model of sociocultural evolution and examined folkways as people’s customary acts, which evolve toward uniformity and social institutions. As such, folkways became the means of adaptation to social conditions; they are the acts to satisfy people’s needs of maintenance, protection, perpetuation, and security.
Folkways are conventional customs for appropriate behavior. Those folkways that are judged to be necessary for societal welfare become mores (and institutionalized as laws) where violations and commensurate sanctions (social control punishments) exert coercion for compliance. Those mores considered ethical principles constitute morals. To Sumner, the social grid of folkways, mores, and morals make normative social order possible and produce universal institutions: people will conform to the “norms” because they are right and their violation constitutes taboos and results in severe punishment. Sumner perceived the tendency of folkways and mores to evolve as a people adapt to meet their needs.
Sumner’s other contributions include the concepts “ethnocentrism,” “in-group” and “out-group,” a dynamic conceptual model of social institutions (“crescive” and “enacted”), the theoretical underpinning of sanctions and social control, and, above all, principles upon which a compendium of ethnographic material can be utilized in the “science of society.”
Sumner died on April 12, 1910 while in midstream of his life’s work. His theory of unilinear evolution failed to incorporate Spencer’s theory of dynamic change, resulting in rejection by anthropologists and sociologists. Nevertheless, his contributions are significant and influential, perhaps the classic work of American anthropology and sociology, and hold promise for the emergence of a “science of society.”
- Davie, M. R. (1963). William Graham Sumner: An essay of commentary and selections. New York: Crowell.
- Sumner, W. G. (1906). Folkways: A study of the sociological importance of usages, manners, customs, mores and morals. New York: Dover.
- Sumner, W. G., & Keller, A. G. (1927). The science of society (4 vols). New Haven: Yale University Press.