Albion Woodbury Small (May 11, 1854 – March 24, 1926) founded the first American department of sociology at the University of Chicago in 1892. He was influential on the establishment of sociology as a valid field of academic study in the United States, and his foundational works have borne fruit in several generations of sociologists and other social scientists. Although he regarded ethics as providing the essential direction for societal change based on information obtained through scientific research, in his lifetime, his success was limited to developing the framework for gathering the data; the interpretation and guidance on how to transform human society into the harmonious world of true peace was yet to come.
Albion Woodbury Small was born in Buckfield, Maine, the son of Reverend Albion Keith Parris Small and Thankful Lincoln Woodbury. He was raised in a strict religious spirit, which was reflected in his works and in his idea that sociology should be an ethical science.
Small graduated from Colby College at Waterville, Maine in 1876, and with the blessing of his parents went to study theology at the Baptist Andover Newton Theological School. He graduated in 1879, but was never ordained. At the seminary, Small became interested in German philosophical thought and went to Germany to study history, social economics, and politics. He studied from 1879 to 1881 at the University of Leipzig and the Humboldt University in Berlin. In 1881, he married Valeria von Massow, with whom he had one child.
Upon his return from Europe, Small went to teach history and political economy at Colby College. As the field of sociology was just starting to emerge, Small enrolled in Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore to take advanced classes in history and economics. He studied at Johns Hopkins from 1888 to 1889, and received his Ph.D. writing his thesis on The Beginnings of American Nationality: The Constitutional Relations between the Continental Congress and the Colonies and States from 1774 to 1789.
He became the president of Colby College in 1889 and served in that position until 1892. At Colby, he immediately reorganized the department of philosophy, adding a new course in sociology—one of the first three sociology courses taught in the United States. Together with George E. Vincent, Small published the world’s first sociological textbook Introduction to a Science of Society in 1894.
In 1892, Small left Colby to move to the University of Chicago. He founded the first department of sociology there in 1892, chairing it for over 30 years. This was the first accredited sociology department in an American university and it soon became the center of sociological thought in the U.S.
In 1895, Small established the American Journal of Sociology. From 1905 until 1925, he served as dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Literature at the University of Chicago. In 1912 and 1913, Small served as president of the American Sociological Society. He retired in 1925, and died in Chicago in 1926.
Small's interest in the field of social science was vast. He was an expert in various fields, from economics and politics to history and theology. However, his ultimate genius lay within sociology. Studying in Germany, he became familiar with German sociology, and through his General Sociology and Origins of Sociology he introduced German sociological thought to the United States.
Small believed that all the social sciences need to work together, and his works reflect that idea. The reason for Small’s plea for unity in social science comes from the reality of the late nineteenth-century academia. Historians, economists, and political scientists, each, in Small’s opinion, had too narrow a range of interests, often separated from each other. His theological and philosophical training provided Small with a broader view of human sciences, with the idea of unity as the ultimate ethical achievement. Small thus worked until his death to reach that goal. He attempted to catalog and classify a broad spectrum of human interest, and he saw sociology as the means to do that. His General Sociology is the synthesis of his views on this topic.
True to his view of unity among social sciences, Small also published significant works relating to economics and politics: Adam Smith and Modern Sociology (1907) was an attempt to interpret the moral and philosophical meaning of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, and his Between Eras: From Capitalism to Democracy (1913) was influential in its attack on capitalism.
In addition, Small paid a considerable amount of attention to ethical principles in sociology. For him, the purpose of sociology was to be a guide for social reform in the wider society. Thus, ethics are needed to provide the direction for how to improve social institutions.
Small's significance for American social science lies in his tireless work to establish sociology as a valid field of academic study. Small introduced German sociological thought and methods to the United States, and opened the first accredited department of sociology in an American university. That department became world famous, and in the first half of the twentieth century was the center of sociological thought in the United States, with its graduates teaching in colleges and universities throughout the country, and authoring the majority of publications in American sociology.
Small coauthored the very first sociological textbook: Introduction to a Science of Society, and established and edited the first sociological journal in the United States: the American Journal of Sociology. Thus, although his own sociological approach and theories were quickly replaced, the field of sociology itself grew and blossomed from his foundational work.
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