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Sumner, William Graham (1840–1910)

Bernd Weiler


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William G. Sumner, born in Paterson, New Jersey, is commonly regarded as one of the most influential American social scientists in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In histories of sociology he is often portrayed or – as some would argue – misportrayed as a conservative apologist for “tooth-and-claw” capitalism and as the great Social Darwinist antipode to his progressive and reform-oriented contemporary and fellow-countryman L. F. Ward. After graduating from Yale in 1863, Sumner, the son of an immigrant mechanic and pious Protestant from Lancashire, attended the universities of Geneva, Goettingen, and Oxford to study languages, history, and theology and to prepare himself for the ministry. In 1866 he returned to Yale as a classics tutor and, shortly afterwards, joined the Protestant Episcopal clergy. In 1872 he was appointed to the newly founded chair of political and social sciences at Yale, a post he held until his retirement in 1909. In the 1870s Sumner also served as a politician for the Republicans. Disillusioned, he left politics after a few years and became a liberal Mugwump. In 1908, two years before his death, Sumner succeeded L. F. Ward as the second president of the American Sociological Society. Among the main intellectual influences on Sumner's work were classical economic theory, especially Malthus's population theory, the positivistic approach to ... log in or subscribe to read full text

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