Sumner, William Graham

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Sumner, William Graham,

1840–1910, American sociologist and political economist, b. Paterson, N.J., grad. Yale, 1863, and studied in Germany, in Switzerland, and at Oxford. He was ordained an Episcopal minister and from 1872 was professor of political and social science at Yale. In economics he advocated a policy of extreme laissez-fairelaissez-faire
[Fr.,=leave alone], in economics and politics, doctrine that an economic system functions best when there is no interference by government. It is based on the belief that the natural economic order tends, when undisturbed by artificial stimulus or regulation, to
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, strongly opposing any government measures that he thought interfered with the natural economics of trade. As a sociologist he did valuable work in charting the evolution of human customs—folkwaysfolkways,
term coined by William Graham Sumner in his treatise Folkways (1906) to denote those group habits that are common to a society or culture and are usually called customs.
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 and moresmores
, concept developed by William Graham Sumner to designate those folkways that if violated, result in extreme punishment. The term comes from the Latin mos (customs), and although mores are fewer in number than folkways, they are more coercive.
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. He concluded that the power of these forces, developed in the course of human evolution, rendered useless any attempts at social reform. He also originated the concept of ethnocentrism, a term now commonly used, to designate attitudes of superiority about one's own group in comparison with others. His major work was Folkways (1907). The massive Science of Society by Sumner and Albert G. Keller, a colleague, was not completed and published until 1927 (4 vol.; Vol. IV by Sumner, Keller, and M. R. Davie).


See H. E. Starr, William Graham Sumner (1925); A. G. Keller, Reminiscences (Mainly Personal) of William Graham Sumner (1933); W. G. Green, Sumner Today (1940, repr. 1971); R. G. McCloskey, American Conservatism in the Age of Enterprise (1951, repr. 1964); M. R. Davie, William Graham Sumner (1963).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Sumner, William Graham


Born Oct. 30, 1840, in Pa-terson, N.J.; died Apr. 12, 1910, in Englewood, N.J. American sociologist, economist, and publicist. Representative of social Darwinism. Professor of political and social science at Yale University.

Sumner, whose ideas developed primarily under the influence of H. Spencer, defended two main principles: the universality of natural selection, which he interpreted to include the idea that selection and the struggle for existence are natural in society, and the concept of the automatic, unchanging character of social evolution. Taking these principles as his point of departure, Sumner regarded social inequality as a natural and essential condition for the existence of civilization, advocated laissez-faire in social development, and opposed government regulation and attempts at social reform and especially revolution. His views expressed the interests of the middle strata of the American bourgeoisie, who, confronted by the intensification of state-monopoly tendencies, were demanding favorable conditions for free competition.

In Folkways (1906), which is based on an analysis of extensive ethnographic sources, Sumner developed the concepts of the “in-group,” the “out-group,” and “ethnocentrism” in “primitive” societies and the initial stages of human history. He characterized relations within the in-group as cohesive and relations between the in-group and the out-group as hostile. According to Sumner, hostility is associated with ethnocentrism, or man’s proclivity for appraising the environment through the prism of the cultural notions of his social (ethnic) group. Folkways is important in the history of social psychology and ethnopsychology not for its author’s social Darwinist principles but for its analysis of normative aspects of social life, certain features of customs, and other phenomena.


Challenge of Facts and Other Essays. New Haven, Conn., 1914.
Folkways. Boston-New York, 1940.
The Science of Society, vols. 1–4 New Haven-London, 1927–28. (With A. Keller.)


Kon, I. S. Pozitivizmv sotsiologii. London, 1964.
McCloskey, R. G. American Conservatism in the Age of Enterprise, 1895–1910: A Study of W. G. Sumner. New York, 1964.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

Sumner, William Graham

(1840–1910) sociologist, educator; born in Paterson, N.J. Son of an immigrant English workman who read and thought about social and economic issues, he took a B.A. from Yale in 1863 and then went to Europe to study for the ministry. In 1869 he was ordained as a priest in the Protestant Episcopal Church and by 1870 he was rector of the Church of the Redeemer in Morristown, N.J. Desiring to speak out on social and economic issues of the day, in 1872 he accepted a professorship in political and social science at Yale, a post he held until his death. He was one of the most influential teachers of his era, famed for his independent thought, innovative classes, and rigorous standards. Usually labeled a proponent of laissez-faire capitalism, he was a man of strong moral convictions and opposed all forms of shoddy thinking. He saw all aspects of society as interrelated and as he worked on what was to be his major book, he became sidetracked on a supporting study of the underlying customs of societies through the ages; he published this as Folkways (1907). Thus his major work, Science of Society, came out in four volumes posthumously in 1927, heavily edited by Yale professor Albert G. Keller. A man of immense energies, in addition to his teaching he participated in community activities, working in particular to improve Connecticut's public education. In his day he was also widely known for his lively essays and public lectures, perhaps the most notable being one called "The Forgotten Man," what a later generation would call "the silent majority" of average people who "are never mentioned in the newspapers, but just work and save and pay."
The Cambridge Dictionary of American Biography, by John S. Bowman. Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1995. Reproduced with permission.
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