Edward Alsworth Ross
December 12, 1866 - July 22, 1951
“There may come a time in the career of every sociologist when it is his solemn duty to raise hell.” –Edward Alsworth Ross
Edward Alsworth Ross was born on December 12, 1866 in Virden, Illinois, son of farmer William Carpenter Ross and schoolteacher Rachel Alsworth. Orphaned at the age of ten, Ross was taken in by three different Iowa families. Alexander Campbell, Ross’s lawyer and guardian, protected his inheritance, which afforded him plenty of funds for his schooling.
Ross earned his A.B. from Coe College in 1886, after which time he studied for a year at the University of Berlin and traveled in France and England (1888-1889). He started graduate study in 1890 at Johns Hopkins University where he majored in economics. Ross received his Ph.D. in political economy in 1891 with minors in philosophy and ethics. In 1892 he married Rosamond Simons, the niece of sociologist (and first president of the American Sociological Society) Lester Frank Ward.
During these first few years, Ross held a plethora of attractive positions, including professor at Indiana (1891-1892), secretary of the American Economic Association (1892), professor at Cornell University (1892-1893), and professor at Stanford University (1893-1900). While at Stanford, his affinity for free speaking sparked an intense dispute. Ross had been opposed to the use of migrant Chinese labor in the building of railroads. His progressive views, free silver advocacy, and blunt candor clashed with Jane Lathrop Stanford, the university’s benefactor (the Stanfords were involved in the building of the Union Pacific Railroad). Then-university president David Starr Jordan dismissed Ross at the request of Stanford. This set off a chain of events which forever changed the fates of American academics. George Elliott Howard, another Stanford professor (and later seventh president of the American Sociological Society), was terminated from his position for voicing his opinion of Ross’s unjust discharge. Subsequently, nearly half a dozen other Stanford faculty members resigned in protest. A national debate ensued concerning the freedom of expression and control of universities by private interests. From this grew the organized movement to protect tenured academics.
In 1901 Ross accepted a position at the University of Nebraska; Howard also took a position there in 1904. Together, with a young law professor named Roscoe Pound, they transformed the University into a bustling center of sociology. While at Nebraska, Ross published one of his most famous works, Social Control (1901), in which he analyzed societal stability in terms of sympathy, sociability and social justice. He explored the dimensions of racism and coined the phrase “race suicide” in his article, “The Causes of Racial Superiority” (1901). In his Foundations of Sociology (1905), Ross created a comprehensive theory of society.
In 1906, Ross followed an offer from the University of Wisconsin economics department. He became a professor of sociology there and, as the only sociologist among the faculty, developed his courses according to his own resolve. Ross wrote his popular essay, “Sin and Society” in 1907, which gained endorsement from Theodore Roosevelt. In 1908, Ross published Social Psychology, seeking to expand upon the ideas of French sociologist Gabriel Tarde. Two of his most progressive and influential books, Changing America (1909) and The Social Trend (1922), paved the way for future sociological analysis and reform.
Ross served as the fifth President of the American Sociological Society for the years 1914 and 1915. In this capacity, he sponsored sessions on freedom of expression and, with Roscoe Pound, created the American Association of University Professors. Ross, Howard and Pound generated one final work together called Principles of Sociology (1920). In 1929, Ross formed a separate Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Wisconsin, which he chaired until 1937. He retired in 1937 and was honored with election to the status of professor emeritus.
After his death in Madison, Wisconsin in 1951, an article entitled "Edward Alsworth Ross: Sociological Pioneer and Interpreter" was published in the American Sociological Review. Ross was nationally famous as a writer and lecturer. During his career he wrote twenty-seven books and over three hundred articles. Ross believed that the primary purpose of the field of sociology was to identify and cure the ills of society. His works are best understood as reformist and progressive, mostly written in response to social problems created by the rapid industrialization and urbanization at the turn of the century. Ross, like most sociologists of his time, was a social Darwinist in thought, especially in examining the struggles between races.
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“Moreover, such differences as there were in respect to economic condition did not put distance between people. In general, class distinctions show themselves, not between those who possess and those who do not possess, but between those who possess and those who not only do not but apparently cannot possess.” –Edward Alsworth Ross
Last Updated on May 31, 2005
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