What can we learn about society and sociology from very old textbooks? Not much.

In sociology, the concept of society is fundamental. It is a concept that every sociology student, and simply everyone, should think about. But what is society in sociology? And can we learn it from very old sociology textbooks?

In this post, I attempt to answer these questions with the work of Charles A. Ellwood, 14th President of the American Sociological Association, and his long-forgotten sociology textbook.

In Ellwood, we will find some solid truths from over a hundred years ago that still has relevance today.

But, as it is clear, Ellwood’s textbook is filled — and I do mean filled — with blatant sexism, ethnocentrism, and racism. Its relevance for today is so limited that it is a sociology textbook we should forget.

What is society?

“Society,” Ellwood writes, is the reciprocal relations between individuals. A society is any group of individuals who relate to each other, and is constituted by the mental, social, and material interaction and interdependence of these people.

This seems a decent definition. Let’s continue.

What is sociology?

We can define sociology as the scientific study of human social life in all its aspects. Ellwood also defines sociology.

“The science which deals with human association, its origin, development, forms, and functions, is sociology. Briefly, sociology is a science which deals with society as a whole…”

Well, Ellwood goes on to say that the evolution of society is sociology’s main concern, and that sociologists should look at its whole, rather than its individual parts. But, that definition inspired functionalism, which today is pretty much defunct as a theory and perspective.

Ellwood believed that sociology should be the hunt for laws of human society.

What is society in sociology?

Ellwood wrote that “Any form of association, or social group, which may be studied, if studied from the point of view of origin and development, whether it be a family, a neighborhood group, a city, a state, a trade union, or a party, will serve to reveal many of the problems of sociology.”

Social phenomena, which is within the study of sociology, are building blocks of society. Social phenomena are all phenomena which involve the interaction of two or more individuals, and a result of some interdependence.

Whereas a common question is the relationship between the individual and society, sociology, according to Ellwood, recognizes that there has never been an individual without society.

“The individual and society are correlatives,” writes Ellwood.

“We have no knowledge of individuals apart from society or society apart from individuals. What we do know is that human life everywhere is a collective or associated life, the individual being on the one hand largely an expression of the social life surrounding him and on the other hand society being largely an expression of individual character.”

Again, this is pretty good and relevant.


Sexism, Ethnocentrism, and Racism in Ellwood’s Textbook

Its 2022, and we need to acknowledge that the knowledge products of the past, while holding some truths, also held social and personal ills of sexism, ethnocentrism, and racism. A main reason we do not still read Ellwood, President of ASA in 1924, is that his introductory textbook is filled with these ills.

A small sampling:

Sexism: “It would seem that the labor of married women outside of the home should be forbidden by the state, except in certain instances, with a view to assuring to the state itself a better citizenship.”


Ethnocentrism: “There can be no question as to the moral right of the United States to restrict immigration. If it is our duty to develop our institutions and our national life in such a way that they will make the largest possible contribution to the good of humanity, then it is manifestly our duty to exclude from membership in American society elements which might prevent our institutions from reaching their highest and best development.”

America first, it seems. More ugh.

Racism: “Suffice to say that the African environment of the ancestors of the present negroes in the United States deeply stamped itself upon the mental traits and tendencies of the race.”

And this is not even the worst of it. Even more ugh.

What can we learn about society and sociology from old textbooks?

Not much. There is no forgiving such awful and long-winded diatribes against women, immigrants, and everyone is not white. We, as sociologists and as society, have moved on from Ellwood’s Sociology and Modern Social Problems. Good riddance to it.

Copyright The Sociology Place

Photo by Kyle Cleveland on Unsplash

Joshua K. Dubrow is a PhD from The Ohio State University and a Professor of Sociology at the Polish Academy of Sciences.

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