Sumner, William Graham

Sumner, William Graham

Bio: (1840-1910) American sociologist. William Sumner studied theology at universities in the United States and Europe, and in 1867 became a deacon of the Episcopal Church. However, this profession did not suit him, so he accepted the position of professor of political and social sciences at Yale University. His lectures, as well as his entire scientific and ideological approach, are mostly shaped by the works of Herbert Spencer. Sumner's scientific ideas were influenced by Spencer's evolutionism, while political ideas were shaped by the acceptance of the extreme liberalism of the aforementioned English author.


Sumner's position was that it was necessary to study social phenomena objectively and that sociology should be freed from the influence of metaphysics, psychology, but also any kind of moralization. He considered it necessary to use the ethnographic method as a source of data in sociology. In his book Folkways: A Study of the Sociological Importance of Usages, Manners, Customs, Mores, and Morals (1906), Sumner presented a sociological study of customs, morals, and social conventions. He gave a theoretical explanation of the origin, nature, and dynamics of these social and cultural patterns. Sumner starts from the evolutionary theory of human behavior and innate instincts. Through his animal ancestors, man inherited an instinctive ability to distinguish pain from pleasure, which enabled him to adopt, through trial and error, types of group behavior that gave a group a better chance of survival.

The four main types of innate instincts or motives for human action are: hunger, sexual desire, vanity, and fear. These motives form the basis of specific "interests" that people, in their lives, try to satisfy. Society creates patterns that regulate the right ways to meet these interests. These right ways of satisfying interests are "folkways". Folkways or social „customs“ include all established patterns of behavior, from the way of spending free time, to the most important moral rules. Customs work in an unconscious habitual way and are strengthened, over time, by tradition, habits, and religious sanctions. Sumner calls the process of developing and establishing customs a "ritual." Because people believe in the wisdom and usefulness of customs, it allows them to perform a huge number of daily activities without rational thinking about the purpose of each individual action. Sumner believes that if individuals were forced to always make a rational judgment about every action, the psychological burden would be unbearable.

When a particular correct pattern of behavior acquires the authority of fact (truth), in a particular society, then it becomes part of "mores". Mores are coercive and constraining social norms that include philosophical and ethical teachings, beliefs, codes, and standards of the good life. Social norms (mores) formulate rules and boundaries of behavior. Every individual is subject to the "legitimacy" of social conventions from birth. Mores regulate the social, political, and religious behaviors of people. Social conventions usually contain "taboos", forbidden behaviors that have been proven to be harmful by historical experience. Social norms coerce individuals, so a person who does not respect them is expelled from society. In this way, mores perform the function of social selection.

Different societies have different folkways of life, that is, different customs, rules, taboos, and conventions, so it is necessary to apply ethnographic research to determine specific customs for each particular society. Often people in a society are not even aware of all the customs in their society until they get to know societies that have different customs. Since social mores and customs are specific to each society, there is no absolute or universal morality. Social conventions also change over time in a particular society. Sumner believes that customs originate, develop, change, and die out, similar to living beings. Changes in social customs arise from an unconscious collective effort to adapt customs to changing circumstances and the interests of society.

                              Social Evolution and Capitalism

Sumner believes that social evolution, like a natural evolution, is a spontaneous and automatic process. Any conscious attempt to change social conventions encounters resistance, has little chance of success, and requires a lot of time. It follows that any attempt at social and economic reform that goes against the spontaneous course of social evolution has very little chance of success. This is exactly how Sumner defends capitalism and the free market because any attempt to limit or abolish the free market would be doomed. State interference in the free market goes against the spontaneous flow of social evolution and is an obstacle to progress. In addition, the state has much less ability to manage the economy, compared to private initiative and the free market; and, at the same time, the interference of the state in the economy prevents the state from performing its true function - preserving order, peace, and individual and civil liberties.

Sumner presented his defense of extreme economic liberalism in his book What Social Classes Owe to Each Other (1877). Sumner especially respects the middle class, which he considers valuable, independent, and modest, and which gives the greatest contribution to the development of society. He believes that any expansion of state intervention brings the most damage to the middle class. In addition, paternalistic legislation leads to the exploitation of society by corrupt plutocracy. In the end, Sumner concludes that social classes owe each other nothing but mutual respect and the pursuit of freedom and security in society.

                                      Types of Government

Sumner also studied various political systems or forms of government. He believed that there is no best system of government because each such system must be adapted to the specific economic, social, and intellectual conditions of the society that it exists in. He thought that there should be a system of government in the United States that defends individual and civil liberties, a free market, and a hard currency. The best way to ensure such a system is a representative democracy, where those representatives would be elected by intelligent and politically educated, and experienced voters. He saw direct democracy, state intervention, plutocratic and party interests, but also unprofessional political leadership, as a threat to American society. Sumner was also a great critic of American imperialist policy in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.


Main works

What Social Classes Owe to Each Other (1877);

Problems in Political Economy (1883);

Collected Essays in Political and Social Science (1885);

Folkways: A Study of the Sociological Importance of Usages, Manners, Customs, Mores, and Morals (1906);

War and Other Essays (1913a);

Earth Hunger and Other Essays (1913b);

The Challenge of Facts and Other Essays (1914);

The Forgotten Man and Other Essays (1918);

The Science of Society, 4 Vols. (1927-1928).

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