William Graham Sumner

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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.


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And so to empire, beginning with the Mexican War in the mid-1840's, through the Spanish-American War (characterized by William Graham Sumner as "The Con quest of the United States by Spain") half a century later, and onward, through President Wilson's crusade to make the world safe for democracy, to conflicts in Vietnam, the Persian Gulf, Afghanistan, and Iraq, the last two wars inspired by George W.
is a William Graham Sumner professor of sociology at Yale University and a lecturer at Yale Law School.
He finds, too, through perceptive review of the rhetoric of Senator John Sherman, William Graham Sumner, and Chief Justice Melville Fuller, among others, that the era often thought dominated by laissez-faire thinking actually arrayed a wide variety of political-economic ideas.
One place to turn is the work of William Graham Sumner.
Nock, Rose Wilder Lane, Isabel Paterson, Garet Garrett, Lysander Spooner, and William Graham Sumner, he provides rich material for those who want a better appreciation of American individualism and classical liberalism.
The Little America tradition remained strong, if at all turns unsuccessful, through the Spanish-American War, the opposition to which, most notably the Anti-Imperialist League, was filled with classical liberals like Yale sociologist William Graham Sumner and was funded by (mostly) small businessmen--a conservative coalition.