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Edward A. Ross on Urbanization and the “Country Soul” January 19, 2012

Posted by Christopher Donohue in History of Economic Thought, Uncategorized.
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Edward A. Ross

Edward A. Ross

Edward Alsworth Ross (December 12, 1866–July 22, 1951) was a professor at Stanford and University of Wisconsin, founder of the sociology of “social control,” and a forefather of the sociology of deviance and criminality systematized by Robert K. Merton. Ross was also an important author of sociological introductions and textbooks, of which Robert E. Park and Ernest W. Burgess’ Introduction to the Science of Sociology (1921) and W. I. Thomas’ Source-book for Social Origins (1909) were two important examples.

Although the function of the textbook in the standardization of social scientific knowledge and methodology is an important topic and has, in my opinion, not attracted significant scholarly attention, what I am most concerned with here is what I call the persistence of gemeinschaft in the American social sciences. What I mean by this is the construction of a dichotomous relationship between city and country. Ferdinand Tonnies in the nineteenth century believed peasants and the countryside to be dominated by tradition, kinship, and custom. The cities, on the other hand, were determined by the workings of capitalism and the market. It was in the cities, as Georg Simmel observed later, that individuals achieved an immense individual freedom, but consequently, remained strangers to one another.

This was one of the latent ideas in my post on Robert Redfield and has since become a more important element of my research. The persistence of gemeinschaft also serves to shed a light on the relatively unknown historical presence of rural sociology. As importantly, the the persistence of gemeinschaft concept also dovetails nicely with discussions of “urban selection” among social theorists.

Unlike William Ripley, Ross, in his Principles of Sociology (1920,) believed that while the city attracted a certain kind of individual, there is less of an emphasis on the racial type of that individual. Instead of a particular race, inhabitants of the country tended to be “backward and custom-bound.” Ripley makes much the same observations as to the character of rural inhabitants, but the ethnological content is missing from Ross’ analysis.

Ross, along with Hansen, Ammon, and others, was concerned not only with the characteristics of city-dwellers but also those inclinations which caused individuals to migrate from the countryside to the city. Ross noted, “Perhaps the trait most distinctive of those who follow the call of the distant city when farming stagnates is the spirit of initiative.” Ross continues, “A heavy outflow of this element need not leave the community poorer in physique, or brains, or character, except as these are correlated with initiative, but it does leave it poorer in natural leaders.” This is a very German sentence, reflecting turn of the century anti-urbanism in Europe, Germany and France especially. For Ross, as for Hansen, Ripley, and Ammon, the loss of leaders to the cities, whatever their racial type, was a serious problem, as leaders, “are they who launch improvements” but it is also they who “minister” to the “higher life of the community.”

Like other sociologists of the period, including Max Weber, Robert Michels, Moisei Ostrogorski, and Pareto, Ross was concerned not only about the process of industrialization and urbanization and its impact on the social fabric and its institutions- marriage, the family, the organs of government, labor and occupations- but the interaction between the elite and the masses, a problem which was becoming particularly acute in the era of increasing franchise, labor unrest, and social revolution. All of these problems began to attract social scientific attention in the nineteenth century, Tocqueville’s Democracy in America was an early example, but in the decades around the First World War, this subject became a veritable obsession, as classical liberalism, socialism, and conservatism underwent sustained ideological attack.

That the masses were themselves directionless and prone to sloth was due to their conservative and almost timeless nature. The masses, particularly the masses in the country, were the seat of the mores, of the traditions, customs, and norms which governed behavior and allowed for an insight into, particularly in the case of marriage customs and sexual mores, the childhood of the “race” or the “people.” Walter Bagehot, concerned with the principles behind the evolution of society, referred to these mores as the “cake of custom,” and thought that social progress was impossible if society remained undisturbed. This was why conflict was so important in the history of the human race. Breaking through the “cake of custom” was the principle activity of elites in the minds of nineteenth and twentieth century social theorists; indeed, it was the “cake of custom” upon which one of the big bad wolves of early twentieth century sociology, Albert Keller, in his Societal Evolution, blamed the limited feasibility of a wide-scale program of “rational selection” or eugenics.

Ernest R. Groves in the Mind of the Farmer,” in Readings in Rural Sociology, ed. John Phelan (1920,) echoed sentiments similar to Ross in his account of the mentality of the farmer, who by virtue of his occupation, intellectual and social isolation, possessed a mind that was distinct from that of the city-dweller. Farmers, continually affected by their kind of labor, had to “be efficient in a particular kind of self-control.” Farmers, moreover, displayed a kind of “rural hostility,” which was “rooted in the fundamental differences between the thinking of the countryside and of city people.” Even given this “rural hostility,” the farmer was less given to wide-scale unrest than working-class members of the city, since “the work of the average farmer brings him into limited contact with his fellows as compared with the city worker,” consequently he has less “social passion,” having a “more feeble class consciousness” and a “weaker basis for cooperation.”

Ross was especially concerned with how the quickened pace of city life fundamentally changed the psychology of the rural migrant as well as the reasons for the transformation. He noted that the “urban type” lives on “surfaces” with “little time for reflection.” He continues, “compare the big head-lines, chromatic print, dramatic posters, and palpitant lights which must be used in order to reach the city mind with the meek announcement posted at the crossroad. ” The “city atmosphere” “quickens the rustic mind,” making him more alert. As a rural worker turns into a city resident, he more readily spurs “repetition.”

For Ross, the “country soul” was bound by tradition, occupation, isolation, and distrust of novelty. For Ross, Groves, and many others, the gulf between the mentality of the country and the distinctiveness of the “urban” mindset in both rural sociology and more general social science points to the persistence of gemeinschaft in twentieth century sociology, notwithstanding the “professionalization” of the social sciences through the efforts of the “Chicago School” and elsewhere. What this hints at is a clear dependence of professionalized twentieth-century sociology on the categories and worldview of nineteenth century sociology, if not the precise vocabulary. Robert Redfield’s peasant in the 1950s is at times indistinguishable from that of Ross and Ripley. Now, of course, the real question remains as to whether Talcott Parsons or Edward Shils displayed the same reliance upon nineteenth century categories. Perhaps.


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