The Development of Sociology in the United States: Summary

Introduction: Awareness of social problems and the skepticism towards dominant policies set by the government caused the development of pre-sociological approaches. Tackling traditional approaches and policies resulted in the process of trying to understand the issues and its effects that were brought about. Even before the recognition of the father of sociology’s work, Auguste Comte, there was a wave of sociological attitude developed by multiple people which marked the pre-sociological movement in America. From the abolition of slavery in early colonies to the treatment of criminals, the development of sociology in America resulted in a massive shift in ideologies and approaches that continue to shape the society and its institutions. This paper discusses the origin of sociology in the United States- especially referring to its popularity following the Civil War. Furthermore, it discusses early sociology in the United States by exploring the works of prominent pioneers and the development of sociology subsequent to their contributions. Finally, the paper details the development of sociology as a university subject and ends with the progress and contemporary relevance of American sociology.

Factors that led to the development of American Sociology

The effects of the Civil War had left America with challenges and had unstabilized the social structure of the country and its people. It could be said that this was necessary as it led to people questioning the system itself and the fundamental problems of the government. During that period it was a major necessity to rework the social structure and social relationships. The war and its after results unstabilized the structure of classes and its fundamental notions. Moreover, it had made its way to America from Europe and this resulted in the formation of the American Social Science Association in 1865. It was written along the lines of the British Social Science Association, so sociology in both regions focused widely on similar aspects such as economy, and crime and racial problems. Contrasting the European study, American sociologists moved away from large scale theories to developing solutions to very specific problems; the Civil War had a direct effect on developing this approach.

English influence had an undoubted influence on the young American minds that were trying to rethink their ideologies and trying to answer multiple questions. Two Englismen, Spencer who published Study of Sociology in 1873 and Bagehot who published Physics and Politics in 1869 are referred to greatly to this day as their work was one of the building blocks of America’s Social Studies. One prominent Frenchman was Comte, who published Course of Positive Philosophy from 1851- 54 and System of Positive Polity in 1874 also had a great influence on the development of American Sociology.

There was also a huge German influence on America’s early sociology. During this period, there was a flood of American students studying at German universities. One of the professors at the University of Chicago remembered 15 prominent scholars that greatly contributed to American sociology who had studied in Germany. A German- American professor, Francis Lieber, who published Civil Liberty and Self- Government might have had an influence on American kids exploring a new interest to study social studies from a different perspective. The same publication also had a great influence on social studies such as economics, history and political science that followed right after the Civil War. The people that returned from these German universities were leading the growing educational system as Americans in German universities were exposed to prominent intellectuals, new methods and doctrines.

 The Development of Sociology in the United States

German influence had invoked a spirit in American minds and this influence led them to apply new methods to build new social relationships and understand the aftermath of the Civil War. For example, the political scientists who returned from Germany had greatly studied their government and had started to point out the flaws and had written about the nature of government to hope for a better America. Same as with the Historians and Economists who returned from Germany. But most of these prominent scholars had only studied History, Economics, and Political Science. It is the awareness that only these 3 do not make up the entire social studies and realizing that extending their studies to use the same methods to study and understand human relationships is what led to sociological formulations. Over time, this sociology became more clear and definite with this process.

Also Read: Emergence and Development of Sociology

 American Sociologists and their contributions

  • The earliest known American sociologist is Lester Ward who published Dynamic Sociology in 1883. His focus on the psychic factors in the development of civilization and logical schemes that are contrary to Comte were one of the greatest contributions to American Sociology. This is substantiated by how he discusses the redundancy of Spencer correction in the context of Comte’s hierarchy of sciences. He does so by building a logical argument that happens to contribute to the notion that psychic elements in social evolution must be emphasized on, hence serving as a foil to Spencer’s materialism. This has widely been recognized to be one of the most contributions to the development of sociology.
  • Albion Small published the Origins of Sociology which details the background of early sociology in America and Germany. He was also focused on ‘Methodology’ which was working out categories that would back up the facts that were being found. Through the course of his education in Germany and England, he developed an interest in political economy. This led him to work in the capacity of a professor of History and Political Economy in Colby University. His attention was drawn towards the role of conflict in classes and the impacts of the same, hence encouraging him to engage in conversations and educational prospects that gave him a further insight into sociology. This helped him gain steady recognition in terms of his contribution to sociology.
  • Franklin Henry Giddings contributed to the American Sociological Society and wrote the Scientific Study of Human Society. His prominent contributions were emphasizing on using scientific methods for sociology and greatly referring to sociological factors and psychological factors that trigger and condition social change. His promotion of quantitative measurements in sociology and his analysis on sociological phenomena enriched the establishment of sociology as a proper science. He is also known for his ideas “consciousness of kind” and “pluralistic behavior” which developed social phenomena.
  • Edward Ross’s book Social Control is known to be the biggest contributor to Social Psychology. It details how society, with psychological factors, controls humans. He was also a philologist who was keen on new phrases in languages and made his work easy to read. Furthermore, he was one of the first sociologists to study people internationally and understand their social institutions and social psychological processes. This made sociology very popular in America. His dedication to the social process in the Principles of Sociology is referred to this day making him one of the most important contributors to the social sciences field.
  • Charles Horton Cooley published Social Organization, which highlights the process of Socialization in primary groups such as, family and neighborhoods. He also combined art with sociology to illuminate sociological interpretation. From paintings to sculptures, he used great classics to provide his sociological conceptions. His Human Nature and the Social Order depicts individuals’ thought processes and their ideologies in society. His work focuses on socialization and human nature which contributed a lot to the physical sciences field. Moreover, his emphasis on using statistics and scientific methodology in the sociology field with his article called The Roots of Social Knowledge had progressed sociology in the academic field.
  • William Thomas’s book Source Book of Social Origins highlights the social structure and the social psychology of primitive societies. A very important contribution would be studying immigrants and their experiences, attitudes, customs and a shift in social complex. The Polish Peasant explains this and this helps understand the process and social structure that contributes to immigration. It revealed its complexity in terms of various ideals and expectations. Furthermore, His push for the importance of sex in social relationships which was very important to the social psychology field and this had not existed before his research.

Overall, from these prominent contributions by early sociologists, we can take away that they greatly focused on defining sociology and its scope and that it contains a specific methodology. It has a direct relationship with all the other social sciences and with the help of the other fields, they were able to analyze social classes, institutions and processes. Furthermore, it made its way to evolve and study social forces and most importantly, sub-fields such as social anthropology and social philosophy were greatly focused on.

From these contributions, overtime, there was great scope for sociology and it had evolved into one of the most prominent disciplines. In America, defining sociology by its own methods like social surveys, censuses, qualitative methods, and studying the communities and individuals were greatly focused on. Sociology also has to recognize that it is in a way interdisciplinary as it clearly needs the science, facts and knowledge of other subjects such as physics, biology and geography. To this day, there is a hesitancy to categorize sociology as an experimental science that researches in a laboratory but there has been a massive popularity of social experiments which is basically experimental science. Using scientific methods to understand the cause and effects of multiple factors in societies has led to prominent developments. Social experiments have changed the way Americans look at their economy, their governmental institutions and their school systems. They were able to bring out so many changes that supported a more progressive society.

Sociology as a University Subject

Currently, sociology is one of the most popular majors people take in America and has made its way to be studied in almost all fields. With the increase in the number of courses at universities and the varieties of sub-fields of sociology, a huge population gravitated towards it not only altering the way people think but also bringing awareness as to what exactly is going on in American societies. Especially highlighting theoretical sociology and closely studying its relationship with other disciplines brought about its prominence in universities. But again, even though it’s been around for so long and has such a rich history and prominence in the society, it has not matched up with other sciences like Physics and Biology. It has been stated that it could be due to its similarity to the term Socialism but it could simply be due to it not receiving enough scope along with the other prominent fields. Sociology is also noted in some places of America as against America and its policies and is stated to have an alternate propaganda but of course this is a very backwards viewpoint as all sociology continues to do is study and point out the processes and flaws in a society to build a better world.

Also Read: 10 Great Women Sociologists and Contributions


Overall, it should be noted that sociology has gone through a lot of history of conflict, war, and shift in ideologies to get to where it is today. It has been prominent in all aspects of society and proves to be one of the most prominent disciplines. With recent issues in America such as the Black Lives Matter movement and the migration issues, sociology was able to break down and provide the cause and effects of these prominent issues and continue to aid the issues. American sociology has been able to provide a framework for not only America but for the rest of the world too and it continues to study the world to push for a better society for individuals throughout the world.


  • Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. (n.d.). Sociology. Sociology in America.
  • Hurst, A. L. (2018, December 31). Biography of Early American Sociologists. Classical Sociological Theory and Foundations of American Sociology.
  • Gillin, L. J. (1926, December 28). The Development of Sociology in the United States. University of Wisconsin.
  • Springer. (2008).  Development of American Sociology: A Brief Historical Overview. In: Contemporary Sociological Theory.
  • Ellwood, C. A. (1927). III. The Development of Sociology in the United States since 1910. The Sociological Review, a19(1), 25–34.
Share on:

Neha is currently pursuing a degree in Sociology paired with International Relations and Media Studies. She aspires for a global career as an academic researcher and advocate of humanitarian action. She is deeply passionate about human rights and social justice, and she profoundly researches socio-economics, politics, and public policy to better understand the society and its institutions. One of her biggest accomplishments would be starting a free school in her backyard for kids with no access to education during the pandemic.