Sociology as a University Study

Published in/Publicerad i/Julkaistu: Inauguration of the Martin White Professorship of Sociology, 1908.
The Edvard Westermarck Online Collection, (Eurooppalaisen filosofian seura ry), ed./red./toim. Juhani Ihanus, Tommy Lahtinen & Yrsa Neuman 2011. Transkribering/Litterointi/Transcription:, Fanny Malmberg 2011.




Professor Westermarck said :


Mr. Vice-Chancellor, ladies and gentlemen,

      Some days ago I heard a remark which I would like to repeat on this occasion, as I think it may interest you. A professor of an American university, who has been staying in England for some time, said that nothing in this country had impressed him so much as the exceedingly keen interest at present taken in sociology. If the same professor had visited England some four or five years ago he would perhaps have been equally struck by the almost complete absence of any traces of such interest. We all know that the change which has come about is in the first place due to the enthusiasm of Mr. Martin White, which has led to the establishment of chairs in sociology at the University of London, and, in conjunction with the incessant energy and fervour of Mr. Bran ford, to the formation of the Sociological Society. But a question which calls for an answer is : Why has sociology had to wait so long for a place in English universities ? To this problem I shall at first devote a few minutes' consideration.

    The slow recognition of sociology as a university study is by no means peculiar to England ; we meet with exactly the same case in continental countries. The main reason for it must therefore be sought in circumstances which are independent of any national characteristics. It simply lies in the nature of sociology itself. Sociology is a young science, because it is a difficult science. The object of every science is not only to describe, but to explain the facts with which it is concerned ; and the object of sociology is to explain




the social phenomena, to find their causes, to show how and why they have come into existence. Now, a social phenomenon is often exceedingly complex, and its causes are often so hidden that they can be detected only with the greatest difficulty or very incompletely. And these impediments in the way of sociology, which are due to the nature of its facts, are much increased by the circumstance that the interpretation of those facts is extremely apt to be influenced by the personal feelings of the inquirer. The sociologist occupies a quite peculiar position in respect to the facts with which he deals : he has to investigate phenomena many of which very vividly affect his sentiments, arousing either sympathy or antipathy, either approval or indignation. The sociologist must, so far as possible, cut himself off in thought from his relationships of race, country, and citizenship ; must get rid of those interests, likings, prejudices, and superstitions which have been generated in him by the life of his own society and his own time ; must look on the changes which social phenomena have undergone and are undergoing, without reference to nationality, or creed, or personal welfare ; and all this, as Herbert Spencer truly remarks in his admirable book on the "Study of Sociology," is what the average man cannot do at all, and what the exceptional man can do very imperfectly.

    These difficulties will always be serious obstacles in the way of sociological research. They will, I fear, for ever prevent sociology, or at least various branches of it, from attaining the same degree of exactness as is attained by most other sciences. Even the most careful, impartial, and unprejudiced student of social phenomena will very often have to be content with hypotheses and more or less doubtful presumptions instead of well established truths. Yet it must be admitted that hypotheses are legitimate in every science, and that exactness is, after all, a question of degree. By applying to the data of social life a strictly scientific method, investigators of such data have at last raised the study of them to such a level that sociology can justly claim a place in the list of sciences side by side with biology and psychology. But it can be no matter of surprise that the development of this science has been so late and slow. Nor is it difficult




to explain the opposition which sociology has aroused, and still arouses, in certain quarters.

    Whatever may be said about Auguste Comte's law of the three stages in reference to other sciences, it certainly holds true of the study of social phenomena. This study has passed both through a theological and a metaphysical stage. Genesis was once regarded as the sole authority for primitive society. The metaphysical stage, again, is typically represented by what the Germans call Naturrecht, by the idea that there are "natural rights" inherent in human beings, and that their social relationships are governed by certain principles of "natural law." By entering into the third or positive stage, the study of social facts finally rose to the modern science of sociology, which is based neither on authority nor on any metaphysical principle, but on the data of our experience alone.

    This development from one stage into another has naturally been accompanied by resistance. But in the present day the existence of an independent science of sociology is hardly denied either by theologians or metaphysicians, even though they claim that there are social phenomena which cannot be solved without the aid of either theology or metaphysics. The opposition to sociology rather comes from another quarter. It is not infrequently looked upon with suspicion, or barely veiled contempt, by students of other sciences. It is considered too vague, too constructive, too full of far-reaching but unproved generalisations, to deserve the name of science in the proper sense of the term. Look into one of those books called the "Outlines of Sociology," or the "Principles of Sociology," or the "Elements of Sociology," of which there is at present a great abundance—look into one of these books, and you will find an astonishing amount of broad generalisa-tions often enough stated in very positive terms, but combined with an even more astonishing absence of facts. If this is what is meant by sociology, it is said, then sociology can certainly not be regarded as a science in the same sense as physics, or chemistry, or physiology, or psychology. Before laws are formulated or generalisations made, there must be a careful examination of details — this is the rule in every science. But the students of modern sociology seem to




think that they can dispense with the troublesome process of minute induction, and are consequently building castles in the air.

    For my own part, I must confess that I consider these objections to contain a great deal of truth. If by sociology is meant the widest generalisations of social facts and nothing else, its pretensions to be a science are as yet premature. But I see no reason whatever why the term sociology should be reserved for such generalisations. They may or may not be the ultimate aim of sociology, but before any such aim can be attained the social phenomena must be studied in detail. And this study of details is a part of sociology itself, not only a preparation for it. In my opinion, sociology is not merely the philosophy of the social sciences, but these various sciences form branches of sociology. Sociology is the science of social phenomena in the widest sense of the word. What we want at present is not text-books on sociology as a whole, but sociological monographs. Any one who takes up the study of sociology must not expect to come to an exhibition, where every article may be had ready and finished. On the contrary, he will find that he has entered a workshop, where everything is in the making—and he will have to take part in the work.

    If we define sociology as the science of social phenomena, we must admit that some branches of this science have now for a considerable time had their place in both British and continental universities — for instance, economics and the history of law. But at the same time, the introduction of the subject and name of sociology into the university curriculum implies a novelty of the highest importance ; for there are various branches of sociology which have previously had no place in it: among others, the comparative study of social institutions and social anthropology. And the very name of sociology is a great gain, first, because it expressly co-ordinates phenomena which intrinsically form parts of one and the same group, and, secondly, because it emphasises the fact that these phenomena should be made subject to a thoroughly scientific treatment.

     The term "sociology" itself has also met with much opposition, which in some measure explains the long delay in




establishing the first chairs in sociology. This term had the disadvantage of being introduced into the English language by Herbert Spencer, who was connected with no university, and whose philosophy was not accepted in the academic circles of his own country. If it had originated in the brain of some German philosopher, it would long ago have become a catchword in the older universities, and some insight into its mysteries would have become, the hall-mark of a well-educated gentleman. As it then happened, it gave offence to purists, as being a word half Latin, half Greek ; and it was also said that if there could be such a word at all, it would mean not the science of social facts but the science of partnerships or alliances, "socius" denoting a partner or "ally." This opposition has been met by the argument that "sociology" is not the only word against which similar objections might be raised. Many other words have been formed from heterogeneous roots, or mean something else than what the old Romans would have meant by them. Thus, the word "suicidium," or suicide, would, if it had existed at all in classical Latin, have meant not self-murder, but the killing of pigs. Finally, it has been argued that sociology suggests socialism, and in fact sociology and socialism are even now frequently confounded with one another. Such a confusion is quite human. I am told that the Sultan of Turkey has prohibited the importation of dynamos into his country, because he is afraid of dynamite.

    What benefits, then, may we expect from the study of sociology at the universities? In answering this question I shall restrict myself to the comparative study of social institutions and social anthropology, not because I underrate the importance of other branches of sociology, but because these are most closely connected with my own teaching. As to the purely scientific value of these studies I shall say nothing. It is obvious that if sociology is studied in the universities there will be an increasing number of professional sociologists, and sociology will consequently make a more rapid progress. But this argument would carry no weight with persons — and there are many such persons — who are doubtful whether sociology itself is good for anything, or simply a fad. I think we have every reason to believe that a study of the




new branches of sociology which have been introduced into this university should prove very useful to certain classes of people, as also to the community at large. Legislators and lawyers ought certainly to profit by a comparative study of social institutions. Such a study must help to broaden and deepen their views on the subjects of their professions. It shows what a deep foundation the general principles of law have in human nature ; how laws should differ in different cases, so as to suit the social environment ; how laws, as a matter of fact, have an inveterate tendency to survive the conditions under which they were established, and how all kinds of sophistical arguments arc often brought in to support laws that owe their origin to circumstances and ideas which have long ceased to prevail. By tracing a law to its ultimate source it may be found that it really has no longer any right to exist, and therefore should be repealed or altered ; and nobody who has had the slightest experience in the matter can deny that the comparative study of legal institutions often throws entirely fresh light upon the history of laws which are still in force. It may be shown that there are laws which have their roots in sheer superstition or in primitive thoughtlessness, and yet continue to figure in the statute-book. On the other hand, the comparative study may also give direct hints to the legislator how the laws of his country should be improved. In spite of our own notorious excellence, we may even have to learn a few things from the customs of savages. For instance, when the suggestion has been made that the law should step in and prevent unfit individuals from contracting marriage, the objection has at once been raised that any such measure would be impracticable. Now we find that many savages have tried the experiment and succeeded. Mr. Im Thurn tells us that among the wild Indians of Guiana a man before lie is allowed to choose a wife must prove that he can do a man's work and is able to support himself and his family. In various Bechuana and Kaffir tribes, according to Livingstone, the youth is prohibited from marrying until he has killed a rhinoceros. Among the Dyaks of Borneo no one can marry unless he has in his possession a certain number of human skulls. Among the Arabs of Upper Egypt the man must undergo an ordeal of whipping by the relatives of his




bride, in order to test his courage ; and if he wishes to be considered worth having, he must receive the chastisement, which is sometimes exceedingly severe, with an expression of enjoyment. I do not say that these particular methods are worthy of slavish imitation. But the principle underlying them is certainly excellent; and especially the fact that they are recognised and enforced by custom, shows that it has been quite possible among many peoples to prohibit certain unfit individuals from marrying. The question would naturally arise, whether, after all, something of the same kind might not be possible among ourselves.

    Another class of persons to whom the comparative study of social institutions, and especially social anthropology, should be most useful, are colonial officials and, in general, everybody who has anything at all to do with races different from his own. I hope that you will not consider the remark I am going to make inappropriate, though it comes from a foreigner ; for I have never felt myself as a foreigner in this country. I cannot help saying that it seems to me a perfect riddle how it is that no knowledge whatever of the native customs and ideas of non-European peoples is required of those who go out to rule over such peoples. The only solution I can possibly imagine is that colonial officials are supposed to acquire the necessary knowledge after they have settled down on the spot. But no error could be greater than this. It is no exaggeration to say that the large majority never learn to understand the natives. A few, no doubt, take an interest in their customs, and even write books on them ; but these very books only too often show what an irreparable loss it was that their authors should have gone out to the colonies without having a previous training for their work. It is not necessary for the purpose to acquire a very comprehensive knowledge of social anthropology ; the chief thing is that the interest should be stimulated, that attention should be drawn to subjects which otherwise would probably escape the notice of the European resident, and that he should be informed of the literature which might be useful to him. I cannot conceive how anybody can go to live among uncivilised or semi-civilised peoples without having in his portmanteau books like Prof. Tylor's "Primitive Culture," and




prof. Frazer's "Golden Bough." Now I am not merely thinking of the benefits which sociology would derive from an increased number of well-trained field-anthropologists ; I am here in the first place concerned with the value which sociological studies would have for the ordinary work a colonial official has to perform, and for his intercourse with the natives. Ignorance has always been the main cause of the troubles which have followed upon the contact between different races. The Indian mutiny might in all probability have been prevented by a little greater insight into native ideas and beliefs ; and the same may be said of many of those deplorable events which in recent years have taken place in Morocco. I have sometimes been simply amazed, not only by the arrogance, but by the criminal ignorance with which European residents in that country have treated its native inhabitants. I am convinced that in our dealings with non-European races some sociological knowledge, well applied, would generally be a more satisfactory weapon than gunpowder. It would be more humane — and cheaper too.

    But even to the ordinary citizen sociology ought to commend itself as a study well worth his while. You can hardly be said to have a thorough knowledge of the society or country in which you live, unless you are in a position to compare it with other societies or other countries. Ignorance is particularly apt to make us over-estimate our own peculiarities, and this hardly makes for progress. Sociology reveals to us the interesting fact that people generally consider their own nation or tribe to be the best, however miserable and uncultured it really may be. In their intercourse with white men, savages have often with astonishment noticed the arrogant air of superiority adopted by the latter; in their own opinion they are themselves vastly superior to the whites. According to Eskimo beliefs, the first man, though made by the Great Being, was a failure, and was consequently cast aside and called kob-lu-na, which means "white man," but a second attempt of the Great Being resulted in the formation of a perfect man, and he was called in-nu, the name which the Eskimo give to themselves. Australian natives, on being asked to work, have often replied, "White fellow works, not black fellow; black fellow gentleman,"




When anything foolish is done the Chippewa Indians use an expression which means, "As stupid as a white man." The Japanese imitate our inventions and utilise our knowledge, but have no admiration for our civilisation as a whole or our views of life. Muhammedans envy us our weapons of destruction, but in their hearts they regard us as their inferiors. When we carefully scrutinise what other people think of us, we come to the somewhat disappointing but not altogether unwholesome conclusion, that the belief in the extreme superiority of our Western civilisation really only exists in the Western mind itself.

    Ladies and gentlemen, I am sorry that the shortness of the time at my disposal has enabled me to give only a very fragmentary sketch of the practical importance of the study of sociology. Should anybody among you still entertain doubts as to its usefulness, I must humbly invite him or her to come and attend the lectures on the subject which are delivered at this school, whether he or she be an ordinary citizen, a colonial official, or a future member of Parliament.