Edward Alsworth Ross (December 12, 1866 – July 22, 1951) was an American sociologist, one of first sociologists who pursued a comprehensive sociological theory. Regarded as a founder of sociology in the United States, he believed that the purpose of sociology was to bring about social reform, solving problems in human society. Ross was a prolific writer, and his publications were popular both in the academic sector and beyond, spurring interest in the social sciences and the possibility that they could discover solutions to many social issues.
Ross studied human nature in detail, regarding human beings as essential socially beings, the understanding of whose interactions and interdependencies were the key to bringing about a peaceful and prosperous society. His vision of a society of harmony, whose members maintain their individuality yet interact in mutually beneficial ways, is one that remains as a goal to be achieved.
Edward A. Ross was born in Virden, Illinois, to William Carpenter Ross, a farmer, and Rachel Alsworth, a school teacher. At age 20, he graduated from Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, after which he worked for two years as a teacher at the Ford Dodge Commercial Institute. In 1888, he studied at the University of Berlin, and in 1890 received his doctorate in political economy at Johns Hopkins University, with minors in philosophy and ethics.
Ross married in June 1892, to Rosamond C. Simons, an artist and the niece of sociologist Lester Frank Ward.
Ross worked as a professor at Indiana University from 1891 to 1892, and at Cornell University from 1892 to 1893. At the same time he was secretary of the American Economic Association (1892). He served as professor at Stanford University from 1893 to 1900. During his tenure at Stanford, Ross came in conflict with university’s benefactor Jane Lathrop Stanford over various issues. Ross, for example opposed the use of migrant Chinese labor in building the railroads, while Stanford was involved in the building of the Union Pacific Railroad. Ross was dismissed from the university, causing protests by his colleagues against that decision. When another professor was fired over the same issue, five other faculty members resigned in protest. The whole controversy stirred up a national debate over freedom of speech and started a movement to protect tenured academics.
In 1901, Ross started to work for the University of Nebraska. He was instrumental in turning the university into a nationally famous center of sociological research. He published his famed Social Control in 1901, in which he analyzed societal stability. In 1905, his Foundations of Sociology came out, in which Ross created a comprehensive theory of society.
In 1906, Ross accepted the position as professor of sociology in the Economics Department at the University of Wisconsin. In 1907, he wrote his popular Sin and Society, which was endorsed by Theodore Roosevelt. His Social Psychology was published in 1908.
In 1910 Ross traveled to China for six months, studying Chinese culture. Although a proponent of the neutrality of the United States during World War I, he supported President Wilson when he entered the war.
In 1914-1915, Ross served as the fifth President of the American Sociological Society. In the same year he helped found the American Association of University Professors, which had mission to advance academic freedom and promote professional values and standards for higher education. In 1929 he established the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Wisconsin, which he chaired until his retirement in 1937. He was elected professor emeritus the same year.
Edward Ross died in his home in Madison, Wisconsin on July 22, 1951. He was survived by his second wife, Helen Forbes, and his three sons.
Edward A. Ross was a system sociologist, trying to systematize the field of sociology. The basic elements of his theory can be found in his 1905 Foundations of Sociology. There he emphasized the role that different social processes may play in human progress. This work went through numerous editions and was among the most popular textbooks in sociology. His Social Psychology (1908) was the first textbook in this field published in the United States.
Ross was interested in the historical development of society and the way it preserved social order. His Social Control (1901) became a classic in American sociology. Ross analyzed a wide range of societies, from ancient Greece to the modern United States. He studied social values that were needed to maintain individual freedom and social stability in those societies. He analyzed human nature, particularly the part that contributes to social harmony, such as sympathy, sociability, sense of justice, and resentment. He also discussed how those elements interact in maintaining social order, especially in relation to the means of control—public opinion, law, belief, education, custom, and religion. Ross concluded that humanity needs much greater degree of social control as societies move from “community” to “society” and become more complex.
Ross was above all concerned with the role of sociology in solving social problems. He held that the purpose of sociology was to bring change in society. His Sin and City (1907) advocated social reforms, establishing Ross as a leader of Progressive thought. He argued that society reached the stage when all the members of the society were interdependent on one another, and at the mercy of each other. He warned of new types of crime that emerged in the modern world, such as white-collar crime. He called for the state to keep control of large corporations.
He spent a significant amount of time traveling and studying social conditions in Europe, Asia, and Africa. Upon his return from Russia in 1917, he reported to the United States government on the Bolshevik Revolution. He argued that the social reforms brought by the revolution had improved the economic and social life of Russian people.
In his early career, Ross advocated restrictions in immigration, in order to prevent a growing influx of people from Eastern and Southern Europe. He also supported eugenics and the national prohibition of liquor. During the Great Depression, he promoted reforms brought by the New Deal. He also supported the women’s rights movement.
Edward A. Ross was a nationally famous writer and lecturer in sociology. Regarded as one of the early founders of American sociology, he wrote 27 books and more than three hundred articles. His work was essential in keeping the universities in Nebraska and Wisconsin, where he served, as nationally famous centers for sociological research.
Ross always believed that sociology needed to be practical, with the purpose of curing problems of society. His numerous works discussed the issues created by the development of society. He was particularly focused on social control, and his work on this topic remained influential long after his death.
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