What’s Your Sociology?

By Johanna Bockman

In the 1920s and 1930s, a time of much revolutionary activity, what did sociologists understand by sociology? There are at least three answers to this question, and the sociologists in DCSS exemplified at least two, if not all three, of the answers. The answers will likely surprise many sociologists today.

Representing the first answer, Stuart A. Rice, founding member of the DCSS, seemed to give up right away: “I do not want to go into a discussion of what sociology is. You all know the embarrassment that the question raises” (1934:220). He overcame his embarrassment to suggest that sociology deals with “problems,” which “are regarded by all as social or sociological problems” (ibid.). For Rice, Roosevelt’s New Deal programs put sociology into practice. The government had identified a wide range of sociological problems – problems with housing, work, the family, crime, and so on – which it was trying to solve through “social reform” in order to improve the “social well-being” and “social security” of the population. For Rice, this was sociology. Therefore, “government is a great sociological experiment.”

Source: the National Archives and New Deal Network. WPA workers indexing and preserving census records, New York City, October 1936.

Source: the National Archives and New Deal Network. WPA workers indexing and preserving census records, New York City, October 1936.


Yet, Rice came from a radical background in a radical time. In early 1920s Seattle, Rice had been the executive secretary of the local Farmer-Labor Party, which called for public ownership of railroads, utilities, and natural resources; an end to private banking; and the nationalization of unused land (“Stuart Arthur Rice” 1969). One Farmer-Labor Party song went:

Take the two old parties, mister.

No difference in them can I see.

But with a farmer-labor party,

We will set the workers free.1

After the electoral failure of one of the party candidates, Rice left radical politics to study sociology at Columbia University: “My matriculation in sociology…was a confession of failure, a search for freedom from illusions.…I wanted to abandon preconceptions and to learn what makes the world ‘tick,’ rejecting in the search everything but demonstrable evidence and objective analysis…finding the truth and taking the consequences” (ibid.). By the time he arrived in Washington, D.C., he seems to have turned to a more top-down sociology, a sociology for a New Deal public administration.

Other members of DCSS embraced a bottom-up approach to social life, the second answer to the question. The first president of DCSS and George Washington University sociology professor, D. W. Willard, wrote about the uniquely vibrant nature of associational life in Washington, D.C. Willard (1930) documented the wide variety of local associations that existed at the neighborhood level and federated at the city-wide level. Willard focused on white citizen associations, which more recent literature has criticized for their support of racially restrictive housing covenants and new forms of racial segregation in the 1920s (Gotham 2002; Sugrue 2014).

Other sociologists followed the cooperative movement and its more inclusive and integrative potential. In 1940, Eva Jeany Ross began as the head of the department of sociology at Trinity College in Washington, D.C. and soon joined the DCSS. She had been born in Belfast and then worked and studied in London, Paris, and elsewhere in Europe. She published a number of sociology textbooks. In 1937, she completed her sociology dissertation at Yale University, which was published in 1940 as Belgian Rural Cooperation: A Study in Social Adjustment. Ross approved that Belgian cooperatives worked “solely for the well-being of their members,” though she found unfortunate their later emphasis on “the profit motive” that made them more “capitalist” (1940: 74, 149). Ross supported cooperatives and their “social” nature.

Her work reflected an excitement about cooperatives in the United States and Europe. In far northeast Washington, D.C., with assistance from the New Deal’s Federal Emergency Relief Administration, civil rights activist Nannie Helen Burroughs established the Northeast Self-Help Cooperative, later renamed Cooperative Industries, Inc., a cooperative that served approximately six-thousand people between 1934 and 1938 (Bockman Forthcoming a). In 1938, the Washington Bookshop, also called The Bookshop and the Bookshop Association, formed as a cooperative, which sold books and records at a discount, but also functioned as an interracial social club, art gallery, and lecture hall (McReynolds and Robbins 2009: 76-77). Further away in France, like Ross, Marcel Mauss had written admiringly on Belgian cooperatives, and both Mauss and his uncle Emile Durkheim greatly supported “institutional socialism,” which seems to have found support within the Washington, D.C. sociological community and which I describe below.

In this second answer, sociology is not the top-down or technocratic guiding of social reform nor is it merely the description of populations and their social needs.

According to a fascinating interpretation by Gane (1992), Emile Durkheim had long written about the abnormalities of modern social life – anomie, suicide, and so on – caused by the anarchic capitalist system. In contrast to this destructive world, Durkheim sought a return to a more normal and healthy society of the guilds. He called for a guild or “institutional” socialism, an inclusive democratic society built from occupational organizations.2

In 1899, Mauss built on Durkheim’s ideas and turned to Belgian cooperatives as an exemplar because of their economic, welfare, intellectual, and artistic elements based on collective property; he later argued that a cooperative society must also include markets and money (Gane 1992: 140; Mauss 1924-5:188-190). Through vast international federation, cooperatives would reorganize society and be able to stand up to capitalism in the name of “a universal proletariat” (Gane 1992: 141). In contrast to elite-driven revolutionary or reformist change, Durkheim’s and Mauss’s ideas were evolutionary and socialist.

By the 1920s, many scholars had put forth similar ideas. Guild socialism became very popular. In his book Social Theory, G.D.H. Cole (1920) argued for “functionalist” democracy, in which people represent the many sides of themselves in associations – such as factories, churches, trade unions, cooperatives, socialist league, hobby clubs, and sports clubs – each defined

by their specific function. The state would be just one part of this much broader society of associations. These associations would unite through functional congresses or councils, which would realize full self-government by all the members of society, in contrast to representative democracy. The working class would organize this new order because it has a new form of social power, associative power.3 Thus, the excitement about cooperatives and local associations by Eva Jeany Ross, D. W. Willard, and others, as well as Lester Ward’s interest in evolutionary trends in Washington, D.C. reflects this second answer, a sociology that helps to create a new society built on local institutions and cooperatives with individuals participating voluntarily and as equals.4

Finally, the third answer is represented in the 1921 publication (in Russian) of Nikolai Bukharin’s Historical Materialism: A System of Sociology. To Bukharin, sociology was historical materialism, an approach to studying society from the perspective of the proletariat and class conflict, and laying out a revolutionary path forward. W.E.B. Dubois’s 1935 Black Reconstruction in America also reflects a similar approach to sociology. I have not found an example of this group in the early DCSS, but, if you have some ideas, let me know.

How do we today relate to these three different answers? On the surface, we have easily accepted that sociology’s forefathers were Weber, Durkheim, and Marx. We can see the DCSS sociologists as mirroring these three forefathers.

When we dig deeper, however, we can see that in the revolutionary world of the 1920s and 1930s, sociology had close ties to a variety of socialisms: a top-down socialism or capitalism expressed through statistics and rigorous methods, a grassroots socialism full of civic associations and cooperatives, and a revolutionary socialism of class conflict. Where would one of DCSS’s most famous sociologists from this time period, former DCSS president E. Franklin Frazier, fit in these categories? Do we see these socialisms today in sociology? Did the Cold War destroy sociology’s links to socialisms? Or have they just been lurking around hidden from clear view?


  1. “I Don’t Want Your Millions, Mister” by Jim Garland, sung by Tillman Cadle. Labor Arts website: http://www.laborarts.org/exhibits/laborsings/song.cfm?id=1. Retrieved December 29, 2014.
  2. Gane (1992) rejects 1930s theories about Durkheim’s connection with fascism, since more recent theories have demonstrated Durkheim’s commitment to democratic socialism (p. 139).
  3. In the early 1920s, Karl Polanyi developed similar ideas (Bockman Forthcoming b).
  4. However, the segregated associations of Washington, D.C. discussed by Willard and others did not allow for equality.

Works Cited

  1. Bockman, Johanna. Forthcoming a. “Home Rule from Below: The Cooperative Movement in Washington, D.C.” In Capital Dilemma: Growth and Inequality in Washington, D.C., edited by Sabiyha Prince and Derek Hyra.
  2. Bockman, Johanna. Forthcoming b. “Socialism and the Embedded Society: Preface to Karl Polanyi’s ‘Socialist Accounting,’” Theory and Society.
  3. Bukharin, Nikolai. [1921] 1925. Historical Materialism: A System of Sociology. International Publisher http://www.marxists.org/archive/bukharin/works/1921/histmat/.
  4. Cole, G. D. H. (1920). Social Theory. New York: Frederick A. Stokes Company Publishers.
  5. DuBois, W. E. B. 1935. Black Reconstruction in America 1860-1880. New York: Simon and Schuster.
  6. Gane, Mike. 1992. “Institutional Socialism and the Sociological Critique of Communism.” Pp. 135–64 in The Radical sociology of Durkheim and Mauss, edited by Mike Gane. London, UK: Routledge.
  7. Gotham, Kevin Fox. 2002. Race, Real Estate, and Uneven Development: The Kansas City Experience, 1900-2000. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.
  8. Mauss, Marcel. [1924-5] 1992. “A Sociological Assessment of Bolshevism (1924-5).” Pp. 165–211 in The Radical Sociology of Durkheim and Mauss, edited by Mike Gane. London, UK: Routledge.
  9. McReynolds, Rosalee, and Louise S. Robbins. 2009. The Librarian Spies: Philip and Mary Jane Keeney and Cold War Espionage. Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood Publishing Group.
  10. Rice, Stuart A. 1934. “Questions for Sociology: An Informal Round Table Symposium: What is the Role of Sociology in Current Social Reconstruction? What are the Sociological Implications of the New Deal? What is the Place of Sociology in the Federal Government? Is There a New Rural Sociology for the Inventory of American Agrarian Culture? What is the Matter with the Sociologists? and other Questions.” Social Forces 13(2): 220-223.
  11. Ross, Eva Jeany. 1940. Belgian Rural Cooperation; a Study in Social Adjustment. Milwaukee, WI: The Bruce Publishing Company.
  12. “Stuart Arthur Rice: Student Activist to Statistical Statesman,” The American Statistician, 1969.
  13. Sugrue, Thomas J. 2014. The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  14. Willard, D. W. 1930. “Community Organization Through Citizens Associations,” Social Forces 9(2): 220-229.

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