American Sociological Association


from The American Sociologist, February 1971

Robert MacIver’s greatness lies in part in the breadth of his contributions. In this age of specialization, he distinguished himself in two fields: sociology and political science. He wrote twenty-one books, the last at the age of eighty-six. First and foremost a scholar and writer, he was at various periods of his life a public servant and a university administrator. Always, whatever the office, there was the whole man – erudite and imaginative, brilliant and humane, urbane and autonomous, with passionate convictions and flashes of playful wit.

MacIver was born in Stornoway, Scotland, April 17, 1882. He received the M.A. with first-class honors in classics in 1903 and the Ph.D. in 1905, both from the University of Edinburgh. He continued his classical education at Oxford, receiving the Oxford B.A. double-first in “Greats” in 1907. He taught political science at Aberdeen University and in 1915 emigrated to Canada to become professor and eventually head of the Department of Political Science at the University of Toronto. During the First World War, he served as Vice-Chairman of the Canada War Labour Board. The second migration took place in 1927 when he became head of the Department of Economics and Sociology at Barnard College, Columbia University. Beginning in 1929 he combined this post for several years with the chairmanship of the Columbia University Graduate Department of Sociology, as Lieber Professor of Political Philosophy and Sociology. Upon retirement from Columbia in 1950, he assumed directorship of a series of research projects such as “The Assault on Academic Freedom” and “The City of New York Juvenile Delinquency Evaluation Study.” In 1963 he became President and in 1965 Chancellor of the New School for Social Research.

In his autobiography, As A Tale That Is Told (1968) MacIver remarked, “I professed various subjects… in various seats of learning, but never a subject in which I myself had any serious instruction during my long university training.” This, of course, was particularly true of sociology which was not taught at Edinburgh or at Oxford. MacIver learned his sociology reading Simmel, Durkheim, and Levy-Bruhl in the British Museum. He describes his “lone battles” to get sociology accepted in Scotland and Canada. It is against this background that we must judge the originality of his books The Community: A Sociological Study (1917), Elements of Social Science (1921), and Society: Its Structure and Changes (1931). MacIver’s own assessment of these works appears ambivalent. “Sociology has always been for me a kind of beloved mistress with whom I seemed unable to get on really comfortable terms.” He states in his autobiography that his books in sociology “did not give me anything like the degree of satisfaction I got from my books in political science, The Modern State (1926), The Web of Government (1947), and Power Transformed (1964).” These sentiments may not be unrelated, as I shall point out, to the reception of his works in American sociology. I shall limit my remarks to MacIver’s sociological contributions.

Society: Its Structure and Changes (1931, 1936, and, in collaboration with Charles H. Page, 1949), is nothing less than a total system of sociology. Having located the sociological focus in social relationships (relationships involving mutual awareness), MacIver goes on to map the sociological domain with analytical brilliance and with logical coherence. Even when the influence of other thinkers, Toennies, Max and Alfred Weber, Durkheim, Spencer, Simmel and others, is apparent, every page bears testimony to an original mind that developed the older ideas and made them his own. For example, Toennies’ Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft may have stimulated MacIver, but his seminal distinction between state and society and his taxonomy of social structure go far beyond the original contrast. If Max Weber’s emphasis on subjective meanings ever directly influenced MacIver, the emphasis was deeply congenial to the latter. The view of man as a goal-seeker reacting selectively to his environment in terms of his values and meaning dominates all of MacIver’s writings. It is reflected in the concept of “dynamic assessment” as applied to social causation and it pervades his writings in political science. Alfred Weber’s culture and civilization and Spencer’s evolution are additional examples of continuities and developments of older concepts in MacIver’s system.

As Harry Alpert once observed, MacIver excelled at conceptual clarification, but Society (1931) presents much more than an array of concepts. MacIver grappled with and returned his own answers to most of the problems that a work purporting to be a comprehensive treatise on sociology must encompass. This book presents a rich flow of profound observations and trenchant distinctions expressed in beautiful prose – too beautiful, perhaps, to ensure the idea an academic patent. The functions and limits of socialized force, the evolutionary aspects of changes in the western family, the endemic and transitional sources of urban problems, the institutional controls that “lie outside the direct purposes of men,” the like and the common interests, the socially and personality-rooted types of prejudice, evolution and progress, the distinctions between social codes, and the state as an association within the matrix of the community – each reader may choose his favorites.

Social Causation (1942) must be understood in terms of the polemics of the period. MacIver waged a battle against two related features of American sociology of the late 1920s: raw empiricism and positivism. As a collaborator of George Lundberg and at the same time a graduate student of MacIver in the thirties, I have vivid memories of their debates, conducted with passion and civility. The protagonists were too far apart in their metaphysics and temperaments to influence one another in the slightest. Every debate confirmed each more strongly in his position. It took a new generation of sociologists to achieve a partial resolution of the time-worn controversies.

As an answer to the positivists who would identify causal analysis in the natural and the social sciences, Social Causation presents an alternative designed to be distinctively suitable to sociology as a humanistic discipline. The book may be viewed as a massive attempt to discern the kind of operations that are involved in the imputation of causality in macrosociological analysis. If the effort is not wholly successful, if some other language can make these operations less ambiguous and more easily communicable, MacIver’s model is nevertheless useful to anyone embarking upon a macrosociological study as a prophylactic against simplification. It contains brilliant distinctions between various logical types of causal quests as well as the threefold classification of social phenomena. The first two are “directly expressive of the… assessments of a number of people,” whether they result in aggregates of like activities or in concerted action. In contrast, conjunctural phenomena are the unintended social resultants of variant individual activities.

The moral substratum of MacIver’s system – his libertarianism and fierce opposition to political tyranny and theological dogmas – may be found to derive from his core value. The good society is one conducive to making its members autonomous, individuated, and cultivated, each “acting in his own consciousness.” Having demolished the misleading fusion of the concepts of evolution and progress, MacIver reveals that, assessed by his own moral yardsticks, evolution does tend to bring progress. He may concede that a more evolved society, in comparison with a simpler one, has greater chances of both success and failure, of “a finer harmony or of a graver disharmony.” But the liberating effects of “organic solidarity” always appear more real to MacIver than anomie and alienation. He was akin to Simmel in stressing the functions of a multigroup society for individuation and autonomy. Despite the ever-present tension between the individual and society, there is no basic contradiction between them. Together with Cooley, MacIver finds reconciliation in the ability of the individual to say “we” instead of merely “I” and thereby to “liberate profound elements in his nature.”

The moral impetus for MacIver’s famous distinction between state and community may have stemmed from his wish to counteract the notion of unlimited political sovereignty of Hegel and others and to establish the supremacy of the social over the political order. But this does not make MacIver a laissez-faire theorist. “The state,” he holds, “cannot be content with the mere establishment of order,” but must function as a positive agency for economic regulation and planning and for the “development of personal, no less than of economic, resources of the community.” Several of MacIver’s books, most notably The More Perfect Union (1949), testify to his deep concern with social problems. Notwithstanding his realistic acknowledgment of the dark side of social life – exploitation, brutality, wars, blind self-destructiveness – the mood of despair was simply not in his emotional repertoire.

No man who was elected president of the American Sociological Society, who received eight honorary degrees from major universities, and who received numerous other prestigious awards can be said to have been neglected by his contemporaries. His students held him in reverence and affection. The generosity with which he gave his time may be illustrated in the meetings held for graduate students at his home over many years, where talks were followed by lively discussions late into the evening. Not merely tolerant of disagreement, he encouraged it by his zest in intellectual polemics. Any imperfect idea shared with him by a student invariably rebounded enriched, refined, and clarified.

Today references to MacIver’s works are less frequent than might be expected. He was, of course, writing against a powerful current with respect to methodology. He pitted his polemical strength against the use of natural science methods in sociology, especially of quantification and measurement. He properly criticized the methodological crudities of the period, but the future lay with the development and sophistication of quantitative techniques, not with their abandonment. His other battles were more attuned to the times. Sociologists were turning away from raw empiricism, and MacIver’s own work almost certainly contributed to the shift toward a more theoretical orientation. From the point of view of its impact, however, his own treatise may have suffered from the defect of its virtues. Its very balance, its rejection of economic, technological, and cultural determinisms, and its acknowledgment of stability and change, unity and divisiveness, harmony and conflict may have blunted its potential to send disciples along some selected and highlighted path. His writings abound in seminal perceptions, and I have cited several examples, any one of which might have served as a point of departure for a new quest. But even these are presented as the ripe fruit of reflection, as answers without the problematics that would lend them a dynamic thrust. Put in other words, MacIver’s sociological contribution was a work of brilliant synthesis just at the time sociology was searching for a more analytical conceptual apparatus that hopefully might lead to a cumulative theoretical discipline.

MacIver had many admiring student, but few disciples, because he had no methodological tools or simple model of analysis to transmit to lesser minds. His disciples had to be equally endowed thinkers, stimulated by his shining model, to make a contribution of their own.

MacIver is survived by his wife, the former Ethel Marion Peterkin whom he married in 1911, a son Donald Gordon, and a daughter Betty (Mrs. Robert) Bierstedt.

Mirra Komarovsky
Barnard College,
Columbia University

Last Updated on May 24, 2005
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