Defining the Public, Defining Sociology: Hybrid Science-Public Relations and Boundary-Work in Early American Sociology

Abstract: In this paper I examine how scientific disciplines define their boundaries by defining the publics with whom they engage. The case study is an episode in the development of early American sociology. In response to the dual challenge of credibility set up by the conflict between religious Baconian science and secular positivist science, key actors engaged in specific strategies of boundary-work to create their desired “sociological public” – a hybrid form of science-public relations that appealed to hostile university scientists while excluding a supportive religious audience from participation in the production of scientific knowledge. Using this case, I offer two specific insights. First I illustrate how, in the pursuit of scientific credibility, actors engage in boundary-work to differentiate audiences, not just practitioners. Such defining of publics is constitutive of scientific disciplines in their formative stage. Second, I demonstrate how audience boundaries can be redefined through the capture of existing boundary objects. Specifically, the removal of informational content in key boundary objects creates durable boundaries that are difficult to overcome.

Author: Michael S. Evans

Keywords: boundary-work, religion, science, sociology

Notice: The final, definitive version of this paper has been published in Public Understanding of Science 18(1):5–22, 2009, doi:10.11770963662506071283 by Sage Publications Ltd, All rights reserved. © SAGE Publications Ltd. It is available at: http://online.sagepub.com/. For quoting or citing, please refer to the published version.

1. Introduction

From 1890 to 1920, “sociology” changed from a general term encompassing a wide variety of social programs to a specific term describing a scientific approach to the study of society. The group of people who could legitimately speak for sociology changed as well, from a diverse group of religious reformers and progressive activists to a small group of academic professionals ensconced in major universities. A key element in this disciplinary formation of American sociology was a debate over the respective roles and contributions of religion and science to the study of society. While this religion and science debate involved a struggle over who could legitimately speak for sociology, it also involved conflict over, in Albion Small’s terms, the “sociological public” (Small, Ward, and Stern 1936:185) with whom sociology would legitimately engage. In the context of this debate, Small, Lester Ward, E. A. Ross, and other key actors took deliberate steps to define their desired “sociological public” by excluding the undesirable religious public.

Though the agenda of early American sociology was largely dominated by concerns originating in religious traditions, and though several early practitioners and supporters of sociology often professed religious affiliations (Greek 1992:51-101), the shift from Baconian empiricism and Common Sense Realism to positivism as the dominant epistemology in late 19th century America meant that religion ceased to be a source of scientific credibility (Bozeman 1977; Garroutte 2003; Smith 2003). This shift placed sociology, as an aspiring scientific discipline, in a precarious position. On one hand, sociologists had to appeal to established university scientists for scientific credibility, despite the general hostility of these scientists toward a new science of society. On the other hand, they had to isolate and limit a religious public that had become a liability in the pursuit of credibility, despite the widespread support of that religious public for the sociological project.

This paper focuses on the response of early American sociologists to this dual challenge of credibility. Key actors engaged in deliberate and specific strategies of what Gieryn (1983:782) calls “boundary-work,” the everyday demarcation of science through mundane practices “for purposes of constructing a social boundary that distinguishes some intellectual activities as ‘non-science.’’’ Acting together, these early sociologists responded to the dual challenge of credibility by creating the “sociological public” – a hybrid form that sought to involve university scientists as deliberative partners in the production of sociological knowledge, while limiting formerly participating religious supporters to mere consumer status as members of a non-deliberative audience.

The specific argument of the paper is that defining the “sociological public” constituted sociology as a scientific discipline. Drawing on the historical case, I provide two key insights into relationships between science and its publics. First, by emphasizing the hybrid form of the “sociological public,” I demonstrate how actors in pursuit of scientific credibility define their discipline through deliberate boundary-work directed at specific audiences, not just at competing practitioners. At a broad level, this point extends the social constructivist agenda of “public understanding of science” (PUS) (see Wynne 1995). Most studies in the PUS tradition, however, focus on cases of conflict arising from public(s) ignoring, rejecting, or challenging science and its practitioners (eg Martin 1991; Wynne 1992). In contrast, early American sociology provides a case where a public supported the scientific project, but aspiring scientists acted to reject it anyway, precisely because that public was undesirable from a credibility perspective.

Second, most studies of science and boundary-work are told from a truly constructivist perspective, that is, they either emphasize the importance of boundaries for constructing scientific communities, disciplines, or core sets (Gieryn 1983; Abbott 1988; Collins 1974), or they emphasize the importance of bridging boundaries through the construction of interfaces such as “boundary objects” or “trading zones” (Star and Griesemer 1989; Galison 1999). In contrast, I focus on how existing links are broken as boundaries are reconfigured. Early American sociology gained scientific credibility in large part by limiting or eliminating established relationships with supportive publics. In response to Lamont and Molnár’s (2002:187) call for additional research into the mechanisms of boundary construction, I show how actors captured and removed the relevant informational content of a key boundary object, the American Journal of Sociology, as as part of their strategy to limit the role of the religious public in the new hybrid “sociological public.”

Finally, I consider briefly the lasting consequences of such boundary-work. In the case of early American sociology, audience boundary-work appears to have created durable boundaries with regard to religious publics, and in some sense the hybrid form of the “sociological public” persists through the present day. I raise questions about whether such durable configurations can be or should be challenged, and suggest directions for further investigation. However, since this paper is analytical rather than normative, I do not take a position or make specific recommendations about reintegration of religious publics into sociology.

2. Background: Religion, science, and reform in early American sociology

As the story of a scientific discipline in formation, the development of American sociology presents an interesting case in the sociology of science (see also Cole and Zuckerman 1985; Friedrichs 1970; Turner and Turner 1990). In 1880, “sociology” meant social reform and its supporting apparatus, from education to the collection of statistics, not a science of society in the narrow sense invoked by Comte and Spencer (Turner and Turner 1990:12). By 1920, “sociology” had emerged in American universities as the scientific study of society conducted by academic specialists committed to objectivity and scientific method, able to draw on an institutional base, organized into a professional association, and represented in print by a flagship academic journal. In the intervening years, a relatively small group of actors contended for control over the direction, shape, and institutional form of the new discipline through the publication of textbooks, journals, and newsletters, the founding of special interest organizations, and tactical maneuvering for critical academic positions.

The rise of American sociology is also remarkable because it is a bridge case where the intersection of religion and science is a core feature of the construction of the new scientific discipline. The process of contention over the new discipline was characterized by the mobilization of a particular style of discourse explicitly pitting “religion” against “science.” Actors drew on historical resources and contemporary public debates to construct themselves and the new discipline not just as one alternative within a plurality of possible scientific approaches, but as a superior scientific alternative to similar projects originating in well established religious traditions. Furthermore, there is a wealth of source data on the science and religion debate, making it especially accessible. The most visible of these source data are the monographs, textbooks, journal articles and, most importantly, personal correspondence written by actors such as Lester Ward, William Graham Sumner, Franklin Giddings, Albion Small, and E. A. Ross, among others, in which they discuss the role of religion in the study of society. {1}

The tension between religion and science in American sociology dates back at least to the 1854 publication of A Treatise on Sociology, Theoretical and Practical by Mississippi lawyer Henry Hughes. The Treatise outlined a Comtean vision of a hierarchical society ruled by an “intellectual elite of social scientists” who would maintain moral order by applying scientific principles to the management of society (Vidich and Lyman 1985:9-14). But while Hughes was committed to the Comtean ideal of scientific principles as the basis for creating and maintaining social order, he absolutely rejected Comte’s underlying argument about secularism, preferring to see scientific sociology as an appropriate means to a religious end, namely the production of order in the service of God and the stewardship of His Creation. Once his system was realized, Hughes claimed, “then shall Experience aid Philosophy, which vindicate the ways of God, to man” (quoted in Vidich and Lyman 1985:16).

This approach, combining a support for science with a commitment to religious goals, resonated strongly in the postwar United States, which had so recently experienced a widespread upheaval in its social order. The Social Gospel movement, led by theologians such as Josiah Strong and Walter Rauschenbusch, drew direct connections between the idea of God’s Kingdom on earth and the benefits of social science. As Rauschenbusch put it:

The kingdom of God is not a matter of saving human atoms, but of saving the social organism. It is not a matter of getting individuals to heaven, but of transforming the life on earth into the harmony of heaven. (quoted in Greek 1992:60)

Social Gospel proponents believed that exploration of God’s creation and work through the investigation of society would lead to the “social salvation” of humanity (Greek 1992:40-41). This vision motivated a wide variety of projects under the rubric of “sociology” that appealed to a broad range of audiences and supporters, from churchgoers to private charities to government policymakers. Social Gospel proponents promoted social reform through direct involvement and intervention in people’s social lives, whether through charitable projects, education, or government support. Of course, not all social reformers shared the same theological beliefs, but they did share the idea that religious principles could underpin social justice and democracy (Edwards 2003).

Perhaps the most well known example of such hands-on reform is Hull House in Chicago, a part of the larger “settlement house” movement originating in Britain (Phillips 1996). Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Star founded Hull House in 1889 to provide education, cultural activities, and childcare for primarily immigrant working-class Chicago residents. Such individual improvement, according to Addams and Star, would improve the quality of society by providing a way for people to realize their potential while strengthening their ties to one another (Knight 2005). Unlike organized charity offered by philanthropic organizations and large churches, Hull House aimed to overcome limiting social conditions, not just temporary individual economic conditions (Greek 1992:80).

Key to the success of such social reform projects as settlement houses was the development of means to determine whether or not such projects were appropriate and effective. Social Gospel proponents saw scientific sociology, in particular the use of surveys and statistics, as important means to this end. Settlement houses directly engaged sociological research in order to achieve their goals, while also providing a “sociological laboratory” for the analysis of current social problems (Greek 1992:85). Several large social survey projects emerged from the settlement house movement and similar organized reform projects, such as W. E. B. DuBois’ The Philadelphia Negro, William Bliss’ Encyclopedia of Social Reform, the Handbook of Population and Religion in New York City, and Paul Kellogg’s Pittsburgh Survey of steel workers (Greek 1992:84; White and Hopkins 1976: 136-137; Vidich and Lyman 129-130).

Within the universities, early discussion of science and society revolved around science in service of religion, ethics, and social reform. Scientifically oriented sociology and social work peacefully coexisted as “complementary disciplines” (Greek 1992:136). Social Gospel proponents such as Johns Hopkins professor Richard T. Ely and former University of Wisconsin president John Bascom offered courses on “social science” and “social ethics” (see Morgan 1982), directly linking science to religion and social reform. Several early courses were taught by settlement house participants, including Graham Taylor at Chicago and Francis Peabody at Harvard (White and Hopkins 1976). Schools of social work, such as the professional school at Columbia, drew on many social science disciplines, including sociology. Many of the early professors of sociology also held membership in the National Conference of Charities and Corrections (later renamed the National Conference of Social Work) (Klein 1931). And according to a 1909 survey by Lee Bernard, more than 90 academic institutions included practical or applied training in social work as part of their sociological instruction (Bernard 1909:187).

Clearly religion, science, and reform were closely intertwined in early American sociology. For Social Gospel proponents, science could be supported because it served the needs of religion and improved the chances of realizing God’s Kingdom on earth. But the support of Social Gospel proponents for science was not limited only to social reform. They also endorsed evolutionary science as part of their belief in the immanence of God in the world. As minister and Social Gospel leader Washington Gladden wrote:

Nature, as we have seen, is instinct with Reason, and the Reason which is revealed in Nature is only another name for God. It is the immanent God, the Eternal Reason, who has been patiently disclosing himself to us in the world round about us, and thus cleansing our minds from the crude and superstitious conceptions with which in our ignorance and fear we had invested him. (1908)

The idea of evolution linked closely to ideas of progress and development at the heart of the Social Gospel. Gradual, progressive change toward social salvation could be accomplished through the application of Christian principles and rational scientific analysis to society. But as with Henry Hughes and his Treatise, most Social Gospel writers committed themselves to scientific approaches and knowledge without committing to the underlying secularism of Comte or Spencer. The intertwining of evolutionary science with progressive social reform ideals may have made Social Gospel proponents “captives of science” (Greek 1992:65), but they had very clear ideas about what a science of society should be doing, perhaps best summarized by minister George Herron:

Unless it is primarily a science of righteousness, sociology can not be a science of society…Sociology can become a science of society only by becoming a science of redemption. Only by grounding society in right social faiths and laying the axe of truth at the roots of social falsehoods, by regenerating society with right social visions, will sociology fulfill its scientific vocation[.] (quoted in Greek 1992:68)

Much of early American sociology was not university-entrenched academic research, but a varied set of attitudes and practices directed at multiple publics. These projects shared a commitment to improving social conditions and ameliorating social ills, however defined. Projects driven by Social Gospel proponents encouraged and promoted the development of a science of society, precisely because such scientific analysis would serve religious purposes by paving the way to social salvation. However, this commitment to a particular vision of science as a servant of religion posed a challenge to academic sociologists, despite their mutual support for social reform and practical social work. In the next section, I discuss why “religious reformers” presented a challenge to aspiring scientists of society, despite their shared commitment to social reform and the practical application of social research.

3. Religion and science in conflict

Both Hughes’ religious Comteanism and the Social Gospel mixture of scientific commitment with religious goals reflected the dominant Baconian epistemology of mid-19th century America. In Baconian epistemology, the world is fully comprehensible through empirical inquiry, and valid knowledge is accessible to any person with common sense (Bozeman 1977; Marsden 1980). Thus credibility, which Steven Epstein defines as the “capacity of claims-makers to enroll supporters behind their arguments, legitimate those arguments as authoritative knowledge, and present themselves as the sort of people who can voice the truth” (Epstein 1996:3) did not depend on any particular scientific expertise or specialized knowledge. Scientific facts about the world could be discovered through biblically guided empirical inquiry, or even through direct revelation from scriptures.

In the 1870s, however, religious claims to scientific credibility experienced a sharp challenge from positivism. Contrary to the Baconian scheme endorsed by religion, under positivism only those experts free of outside influences and epistemological predispositions were capable of finding true and valid scientific knowledge. As Eva Garroutte (2003) has demonstrated, positivists effectively hijacked the discourse of American science for their own purposes through publications such as Popular Science Monthly and Scientific American. Ironically, this strategy “allowed positivist activists to proffer themselves not only as the only relevant scientific ‘experts,’ but also as the only capable judges of what qualified as ‘true religion’’’ (Garroutte 2003:202). This redefinition of valid scientific knowledge completely restructured the role of religious actors, who lost their status as respected participants in scientific inquiry and became just another source of amateur, and therefore unscientific, wonderings about the world.

Positivism in sociology first provoked widespread controversy in 1880 at Yale University, where William Graham Sumner came under intense pressure for using Spencer’s The Study of Sociology as a textbook in his Yale senior sociology seminar. Yale President Porter and many Yale faculty openly denounced Sumner, largely because Spencer’s work indicted the “theological bias” as an obstacle to an objective science of society. The religious press objected strongly to Sumner’s choice of text:

Theologically it is probably the most objectionable book Spencer has written, making no secret of its contempt for believers in the Christian religion, who are told that they must lay aside their faith if they wish to study sociology. There is enough of this intolerance to make the book decidedly offensive. (from the Independent, quoted in Youmans and Youmans 1880:268).

Response from E. L. Youmans and W. J. Youmans, the editors of Popular Science Monthly and direct monetary supporters of Spencer, was swift, invoking the historical futility of religious objection to science:

There was a time when the great universities of Europe were called upon to resist the progress of astronomy, in the name of Christianity. Later, they were again called upon to resist the progress of geology, in the name of Christianity. And now our colleges are called upon to resist the progress of sociology, in the name of Christianity. (Youmans and Youmans 1880:268)

This exchange, couched in the language of “religion” against “science,” neatly exemplifies the public discourse of conflict in early American sociology. The point of distinction between religion and science was not substantive, as Social Gospelers and positivists alike were committed to social progress achieved through the application of scientific principles to the study of society. Rather, the conflict between “religion” and “science” was largely a conflict between a Baconian view of science, where religion could be a source of scientific credibility, and a positivist view of science, where religion was a source of biased, and therefore unscientific, claims about the world. Precisely because religion supported the substantive claims of sociology, it was a threat to the scientific credibility of the fledgling discipline.

Throughout the 1880s and 1890s, the conflict manifested in several forms. Some of the most explicit attacks, from both sides, came in the publication of books by aspiring sociologists. Lester Ward, a polymath employed as a government geologist, published his influential Dynamic Sociology in 1883, which openly wondered “how much higher the the human mind would have risen in its efforts to comprehend the natural universe, had no such explanation as a spiritual being or a personal god ever suggested itself” (1883: 187). Meanwhile, texts such as J. H. W. Stuckenburg’s Christian Sociology, Ely’s The Social Aspects of Christianity, and Herron’s The Christian Society laid out the Social Gospel case for a sociology driven by religious commitments and Christian principles.

The conflict also occurred at the organizational level, where academic sociologists faced off against the Christian Sociology movement. By the mid-1890s, sociology in its various guises had gained a foothold in the university. Courses in sociology, such as those taught by Richard Ely and William Graham Sumner, were widespread, with 106 institutions offering at least one course by 1895 (Morgan 1982:36). Several universities had also specifically appointed professors of sociology, including Albion Small at Chicago, Franklin Giddings at Columbia, and W. I. Thomas at Oberlin. Beginning in 1895, the University of Chicago even published an academic journal, the American Journal of Sociology, under the editorship of Albion Small, who expressed his concerns about the role of religious sociology in the first issue:

To many possible readers the most important question about the conduct of the Journal will be with reference to its attitude toward “Christian Sociology.” The answer is, in a word, toward Christian sociology sincerely deferential, toward alleged “Christian sociologists” severely suspicious. (Small 1895:15)

Drawing Small’s suspicion were those actors outside the academy, largely Social Gospel proponents, who supported and promoted religious sociology. Herron, Strong, Rauschenbusch, and Gladden, among others, worked to create organizations such as the American Institute of Christian Sociology, founded in 1893, and the Oberlin Institute of Christian Sociology, founded one year later. Under the editorship of George Frederick Wright and Z. Swift Holbrook, the theological journal Bibliotheca Sacra became Bibliotheca Sacra: A Religious and Sociological Quarterly, providing a new venue for publication and discussion of social reform issues. Religious sociologists also organized seminars, workshops, and conferences that provided connections to broader religious communities and engagement with influential social networks including prominent and respected figures such as Clarence Darrow, Jane Addams, and Samuel Gompers. (Swatos 1984:13-17).

By 1895, sociology had split more or less into two camps, which Christian Smith (2003:107, following Swatos 1984) calls “irreligious academics” and “religious reformers.” The religious reformers, such as Herron, Strong, Gladden, and Rauschenbusch, continued to support sociology as the science of society, based on a commitment to a Baconian view of science and scientific credibility that was ultimately compatible with religion. These religious reformers did not place limits on their publics, since the objective of the varied projects of sociology was nothing less than total social salvation. On the other hand, academics such as Ward, Small, Giddings, Ross, and Thomas, drawing from a positivist view of science as objective and unbiased, saw any professional association or affiliation with religion as an obstacle to scientific credibility, irrespective of their personal religious beliefs or commitment to social reform. These academics could neither endorse nor accept religious sociology, nor could they allow participation from the publics with which it engaged.

4. Boundary-work and audiences: The sociological public as hybrid form

Academic sociologists thus faced a crucial dual challenge of credibility. In order for sociology to be credible as a scientific discipline in the positivist setting of the American university, they had to appeal to university scientists who were already hostile to a project seen as being driven by religious concerns rather than objective scientific inquiry. At the same time, they had to prove their independence from religion by limiting the ability of religious sociology and its publics to participate in the production of scientific knowledge, despite the persistent support at both the individual and organizational level for sociology and its potential contributions to social reform.

From an STS perspective, early American sociology initially appears to be a clear-cut case of professional boundary-work. As articulated by Tom Gieryn (1983; 1995; 1999), boundary-work is the “strategic practical action” that builds and reinforce boundaries between science and non-science (1995:23). What makes science different is whatever people do to make science different, including using particular rhetorical styles, building organizations, and securing an institutional base. Actors who have existing credibility may monopolize authority or authenticity by linking it to areas that they control, or they might leverage existing authority in one area to expand into another (Gieryn 1995:424,429). Once boundaries are established, actors police boundaries by “expel[ling] non-real members from their midst,” labeling them as “deviant, pseudoscientist, amateur, [or] fake,” or by preserving the “autonomous control of science by scientist-insiders” from outside influences such as politics or economics (Gieryn 1995:432,435).

However, STS scholars have noted that boundary-work is not always deliberately strategic, nor is it entirely within the control of “insiders.” Boundary-work might be habitual, the unreflective repetition of prior practices (Knorr-Cetina 1981:73). It might be enabled or constrained by existing forces, such as particularly resonant discourses, or by insider interaction with more powerful organizations (Kinchy and Kleinman 2003). Perhaps most importantly, as Gieryn (1999:23) observed, successful boundary-work must “appeal to the goals and interests of audiences and stakeholders” (Gieryn 1999:23).

I contend that this aspect of boundary-work, the drawing of boundaries around a desired public, has been largely neglected in STS. If science has epistemic authority, according to Gieryn, it is in a certain place at a certain time (Gieryn 1999:24-25). To this I would add that it has epistemic authority for a certain audience. Scientific credibility is negotiated, and a critical part of that negotiation is the definition of the appropriate and legitimate public with whom scientists will engage.

In the remainder of this paper I show how boundary-work in early American sociology focused more on differentiating the audiences for sociology than on differentiating aspiring practitioners. Similarities in substantive positions between religious reformers and academic sociologists, or, put another way, the lack of a clear jurisdictional boundary or internal/external distinction, meant that actors could not always condemn or label one another without jeopardizing their own legitimacy. Academic sociologists needed to engage in the science and religion debate in order to limit the participation of the religious audience in sociology, but had to be careful to do so in a way that did not directly challenge any of the conceptual foundations that underpinned both religious reform and secular sociology, since those foundations were in many cases identical. Because the agenda of sociology was drawn largely from concerns of the Social Gospel and reform movements, boundary-work directed at rival practitioners was hazardous and possibly self-defeating, as it could damage anyone associated with “sociology.”

The definition of the “sociological public” thus became the most central problem in defining sociology. To whom would sociologists, and sociology as a discipline, be credible, and how would boundaries around that public be drawn and maintained? The term “sociological public” comes from a 1900 letter from Albion Small to Lester Ward describing the progress of the elimination of undesirable religious influences:

The sociological interest and the size of the really sociological public are both on the increase in this country. At the same time, we are unloading rapidly the people who want a sort of sociological Christian science, but have no brains for sociology. The remnant will make headway in elucidating the social situation in all its phases. (Small, Ward, and Stern 1936:185)

Small here uses the term “sociological public” to indicate the desired set of participants in the production of scientific knowledge about society, which clearly does not include religious participants. While I adopt and incorporate Small’s usage, I extend the term “sociological public” to indicate not only the desired set of participants in sociology, but also the web of relations between aspiring scientific sociologists and their interlocutors, both desired and undesired. The “sociological public” is not simply a public in the sense of ordinary lay people debating matters of concern raised by scientific experts. Rather, it is a hybrid form of science-public relations mixing different audiences with different roles in, and varying interaction with, the science of society.

The word “hybrid” has been used in several different senses in organizational studies and STS, describing cooperative arrangements such as joint ventures (Powell 1987), intermediate institutions such as advisory panels (Miller 2001), or, more generally, any mix of two apparently exclusive categories (see Prins 1995; Lee and Roth 2001). Here I use the term to emphasize two specific features of this historical configuration of science and publics. First, the “sociological public” is not a typical lay public, but a hybrid of an expert scientific audience and a non-expert religious audience. Second, the desired “sociological public” consisted of audiences with two distinct roles: the academic scientists as knowledge producers, and religious reformers as consumers who could receive sociological knowledge, but not engage with sociology or sociologists as respected participants.

5. Sociology and its audiences

In books, journals, and especially in personal correspondence between key academic sociologists such as Ward, Small, Giddings, and Ross, there is a persistent awareness and reflexivity about how sociology appeared to various audiences, what role particular audiences should play, and what actors should do to engage these audiences. One of the dominant themes in these primary sources is the idea that sociology was an advanced science that ordinary people, even well-educated ones, would not be equipped to understand, much less improve through the creation of new knowledge. As Albion Small sardonically put it:

Of course, it is an affront to omniscient democracy to intimate that every man is not as competent a specialist as any man upon such a familiar subject as human society. Of course, if the average man does not take in the full meaning of a sociological proposition, it is the fault of the sociologist who utters it…The sociologist who asks the public to reflect, instead of flattering the demand for quick and complete remedies for social ills, sends himself to Coventry for the long term. (1903:475,477)

In Small’s conception, one of the worst things sociologists could do was to solicit participation from the untrustworthy general public. The job of the sociologist was to produce knowledge that would be judged by competent scientists. This sentiment was echoed by Lester Ward, who viewed sociology as the “highest of the sciences”:

Sociology is an advanced study, the last and latest in the entire curriculum. It should perhaps be mainly postgraduate. It involves high powers of generalization, and what is more, it absolutely requires a broad basis of induction…This knowledge should not be picked up here and there at random…It should be fed to the mind with an intelligent purpose in view, and that purpose should be the preparation of the mind for ultimately entering the last and most difficult as well as most important field of human thought, that of sociology. (1895:25)

Such sentiments were hardly confined to Small and Ward. A 1894 survey of academic sociologists showed “almost general agreement…that sociology proper is a branch that cannot successfully be taught outside the college or university” (Howerth 1894:117). Instead of appealing to the general public, academic sociologists were interested primarily in engaging established scientists in the university setting, both social and physical, who were capable of judging the scientific merits of sociology.

The problem was that these scientific judges were often indifferent, incapable of recognizing, or even averse to the idea of sociology as a legitimate scientific enterprise. As a government geologist and paleobotanist, Lester Ward already had established a network of contacts through publication and correspondence that included noted evolutionary theorist Alfred Russel Wallace, to whom he sent copies of his sociological work. But even with the advantage of an existing mutual respect, it was clear that Wallace, while supportive of Ward and sympathetic to social reform, did not fully appreciate Ward’s sociological aspirations:

I have also looked through & read a good deal of the first & second parts [of The Psychic Factors of Civilization], which however being so purely psychological does not interest me so much…The greater part of your book is so purely philosophical and it is so difficult to see the bearing of several of the chapters on Social reform, that I fear it will not reach beyond students of philosophy & psychology, & thus have less influence than it deserves to have[.] (Stern 1935:378)

Actors without the benefit of existing scientific credibility encountered far less friendly rejection. Small writes that, upon receiving a favorable review of Giddings’ Inductive Sociology from E. A. Ross, he pursued a second opinion from “two or three of our physical science men” who pronounced it “absolute drivel” (Small, Ward, and Stern 1937:306). Ross also acknowledged the challenge of making sociology credible to university scientists, denouncing the “campaign in disparagement of sociology and the reluctance of some of the big institutions to meet the demand for sociological instruction.” Looking back on the early years, Small wrote in 1916 that sociology was “ridiculed by a hundred academic men to every one was willing to consider them seriously” (Small 1916:773). As Ross noted, this hostile attitude seemed especially to come from economists, who were “most contemptuous of sociology” (Stern 1948:93). Ross also wrote of the “battle I shall have to wage for Sociology in the University of Wisconsin…developing my lectures and bringing my courses to a degree of strength where they will have to respect sociology” (Stern 1949:93).

But despite the apparent recalcitrance of established scientists in endorsing sociology as a science of society, early sociologists were committed to achieving scientific legitimacy by gaining their approval. Another strategy involved minimizing disputes between aspiring sociologists, in order to present sociology as a respectable discipline rather than a scattered collection of scholarship on social issues. In private correspondence, there was sometimes bitter infighting, criticism, and nervous strategizing. On separate occasions, Small accused Ward of trying to be a “sociological pope,” Ward commented to Ross that Small’s General Sociology was “a big volume filled with nothing but the things that you and I and the rest have been saying for years,” and Ross expressed to Ward his concern that his “endeavour to make sociology mean something else than safe ‘scope and method’ will hinder my advancement to a bigger university,” out of fear that his intent to broaden the appeal of sociology would hurt his legitimacy and the reputation of sociology (Small, Ward, and Stern 1937:313; Stern 1949:90; Stern 1948:93).

In their public writing, however, actors supported one another by writing reviews of each other’s work, minimizing differences in order to support the idea of academic sociology. Ward, for example, leveraged his position to write reviews of other sociology works for scientific publications, such as his 1908 review of Ross’ Social Psychology, which gave Ross “great satisfaction” upon its publication in the periodical Science (Stern 1949:108). Small, on the other hand, refused to review a book by Giddings because “it might not be well or decorous either for me or for the [Educational] Review for my criticisms to appear in a publication of Columbia College” (Stern 1932:310).

In stark contrast to efforts to appeal to established university scientists, the clear and persistent theme with regard to religion was that religious participation was no more desirable or beneficial than participation from the uneducated general public. Religious involvement was a threat to scientific credibility, as Ward clearly articulated in an 1896 review of Giddings’ Principles of Sociology, where he denounced the well-meaning but amateur “warm-hearted clergymen” and “Christian sociology:”

[W]e have already in the infancy even of the word sociology a burden of unscientific and half charlatanic applications of it that threaten to sink it as deeply into obloquy and contempt as a similar procedure sunk that etymologically far better word, phrenology, half a century ago. (Ward 1896:703)

At the same time, many academic sociologists did not want to eliminate completely the religious audience for their work. This resulted in a peculiar approach to sociological boundary-work that attempted simultaneously to frame religion as useful and relevant to society, but not useful or relevant to the science of society. The goal was to retain the religious audience, but in the role of recipient or consumer of sociological knowledge, not participant or contributor in its production. An illustrative exchange occurred between Small and Ward over Ward’s dismissal of religion as an “error of reasoning” in his Dynamic Sociology. In 1890 Small suggested:

[F]rom the strategic or rhetorical point of view I regret that you could not have refrained from certain details which, whatever their importance in the argument, necessarily shock certain people who would otherwise follow you very much further…There are thousands of men who hold to the substance of the traditional evangelical doctrines, who are yet theoretically willing to be convinced that any one of them is untenable…I do wish that you had withheld some portions in order that a larger constituency might have been won for the portions that would have remained. (Small, Ward, and Stern 1933:165))

Ward replied that he didn’t write “for the feeble-minded,” demonstrating a disdain for the religious audience that continued to be a sticking point between Small and Ward (Small, Ward, and Stern 1933:168).

But the tension was not limited to these two actors. Christian Smith (2003) has analyzed the contents of over thirty books on sociology, all of which were used as textbooks in various university courses, to examine the discursive effects of this contradictory approach. Texts claimed, for example, that “religion has always been an important force in social life, but…its influence and credibility in the modern world are for good reasons rapidly declining” or “religion has historically been engrossed in politics and public culture, but…true religion in the modern world should confine its social role to the private life of individuals,” or, most telling, “religion is a well-meaning agent of social reform, but…it is dangerous and irresponsible unless it submits itself to the knowledge and authority of the social sciences (Smith 2003:139-147).

The distinction between the production of knowledge for university scientific audiences and the dissemination of knowledge to religious audiences became clearest, however, when religious actors attempted to work with academic sociologists. In 1895, Rev. Dr. L. T. Chamberlain, a Presbyterian minister and president of the Institute of Christian Sociology, asked Ward and Small for help in putting together a sociology convention combining religious reformers and academic sociologists, even promising to restrict the participation of the most extreme religious reformers such as George Herron. Small’s comment to Ward on this request illuminates the critical distinction between the two audiences:

I feel like giving Dr. C all the support I can, although I have my serious doubts about the constituency which can be gathered, and about the results that can be reached…Other things being equal, honest Christians ought to be the best social functionaries. Therefore I am glad to help get social knowledge in circulation among them, even if I do not hope to get much help from them in enlarging knowledge. (Small, Ward, and Stern 1933:171)

To Small, Ward, and other academic sociologists, sociological knowledge was something produced by scientists and disseminated to the broader public only after careful deliberation and review. There was little expectation that mere consumers of this information were capable of fully understanding or contributing to the science of society. Most importantly, the religious audience, as well-meaning but non-academic and unscientific social reformers, could only be considered as recipients of sociological knowledge rather than producers, if sociology wanted to attain scientific credibility. Thus the desired “sociological public,” as a hybrid configuration of science-public relations, encompassed both a hostile scientific audience as participants and contributors to sociology, and a supportive religious audience limited to mere consumption of sociological knowledge. By presenting a mostly united front and endorsing the positivist vision of an objective science of society, academic sociologists persisted in gaining the recognition, if not the full credibility, of university scientists. And by 1900, Small could say with confidence that “we are unloading rapidly the people who want a sort of sociological Christian science, but have no brains for sociology” (Small, Ward, and Stern 1936:185)

6. Capturing boundary objects

The key question remaining here is, how did this “unloading” occur? How is an audience constructed? Or, more appropriately in this case, how were certain audiences or publics excluded? It is clear that early American sociologists strategically considered distinct audiences, and that they envisioned different roles for these audiences in the science of society. But unlike boundary-work between actors, where one actor or group visibly excludes another in the competition for a particular goal, the mechanisms by which a public can be defined as legitimate and desirable, or better yet, enforced as legitimate and desirable, are not clear or well-theorized. Of course, there are many studies that look at how actors, groups, and movements shape their messages to appeal to particular audiences. It is less common, however, to examine the opposite of this situation, that is, the mechanisms of deliberate exclusion with regard to particular audiences. At some level, it seems counterintuitive that actors contending for credibility would be able to choose their audiences as part of establishing that credibility, since it is not usual to think of those seeking credibility as being capable, or possessing the necessary power, of defining the terms under which they will achieve it.

To get at one of the mechanisms by which the formation of a specific public occurs, I employ here the idea of a “boundary object” from the work of Leigh Star. Boundary objects are “those scientific objects which both inhabit several interacting social worlds” and which “satisfy the informational requirements of each of them.” Boundary objects are “plastic enough to adapt to local needs and the constraints of the several parties employing them, yet robust enough to maintain a common identity across sites” (Star and Griesemer 1989:393). In short, boundary objects can bridge multiple publics in order to broaden possibilities of inclusion and communication. Boundary objects can take a variety of forms and exhibit a wide array of interpretative flexibility, but must meet both of the two basic requirements of bridging social worlds and satisfying informational requirements for each of them. A term like “cancer” can bridge the social worlds of caregiving, medical research, and family life, while meaning something different and specific in each of those social worlds. A well-designed museum exhibit can satisfy the requirements of archaeology, museum donors, historians, and indigenous peoples in one configuration.

Most discussion of boundary objects in STS focuses on either the success or failure of boundary objects in bridging social worlds, based on the assumption that boundary objects are intended to continue successfully in their bridging and informational functions. I suggest, however, that actors may deliberately engineer the failure of a boundary object in order to limit the access of particular social worlds, constituencies, or publics to the social worlds that the object bridges. By redefining a boundary object so that it no longer bridges social worlds, or no longer satisfies the information requirements of the worlds it bridges, actors may limit or eliminate the usefulness of the boundary object, effectively drawing a new boundary.

In academic disciplines, boundary objects connect disciplines to many different kinds of social worlds. Sociology’s development in this respect is very similar and nearly concurrent with other academic social science disciplines, where the establishment of academic departments, professional organizations, and flagship journals was key to entrenching disciplinary identity with many different publics, including university researchers, interested lay publics, and government agencies. Political science is an analogous example that closely preceded sociology in the university setting. American academic political science began with the appointment of Francis Lieber to a professorship in history and political science at Columbia in 1857, and the first political science department emerged there in 1880 (Farr 1990). The first political science journal, the Political Science Quarterly, started publication in 1886. In 1903, the American Political Science Association formed and began publishing an official journal, the American Political Science Review in 1906 (APSA 2006). Each of these boundary objects brought together a different set of social worlds to define the academic discipline called “political science.”

As with political science, there are many possible boundary objects to consider in early American sociology. Sociology textbooks, for example, could be viewed as boundary objects meant to bridge social worlds of higher education, social reform, and scientific sociology. Yet Smith (2003) shows that the construction of the science and religion debate happened largely within the pages of these textbooks, as authors used the texts to help define what good sociology, and good sociologists, looked like, thus limiting their ability to bridge social worlds. Camic and Xie (1994) suggest that statistical methods were boundary objects helping sociology gain scientific credibility by linking the new discipline to established social science disciplines such as economics. Certainly there was significant overlapping membership in early professional organizations and academic departments. One might also consider the the evolution of the American Sociological Society, an organizational object originally intended to bring together people interested in sociology from across political science, economics, and history, among others, but which changed to accommodate a constituency of scientific sociologists.

But perhaps the most vivid construction and reconstruction of a boundary object occurred in the early years of the American Journal of Sociology. In 1895 Albion Small wrote a letter to William Harper, president of the University of Chicago, to propose the founding of a journal entitled the American Journal of Sociology (AJS). The journal would be charged with “discrediting pseudo-sociology,” providing “freedom of publication for all responsible conclusions and opinions, whether approved by the editors or not,” and becoming “indispensable to all thinkers whatever their professional position or special social interest” (quoted in Dibble 1975:164-166). Small specified exactly who he had in mind by listing the possible audiences for the new journal, including sociologists, scientific writers, leaders, sociological students, publicists, journalists, ministers, charity workers, school officers, and specialists in fledgling social sciences such as economists and political scientists (Dibble 1975:166). Furthermore, the journal was explicitly intended to bridge several social worlds, such as general education, social reform, organized religion, social governance, and academic culture.

Small’s original idea was to use the journal as a publishing outlet for ideas about social reform from multiple types of sources. In his article “What is a Sociologist? ” Small wrote that “the name ‘sociologist’ belongs, then, to all students of society who think of human life, past, present, and future, as somehow bound together,” and despite his private skepticism of the value of religious contributions to sociology, the early AJS seems to endorse this broad vision (Small 1903:471). Since much of the editorial work of AJS was simply Small requesting articles from his acquaintances, regardless of their affiliations, it is perhaps not surprising that this founding ideal guided the early numbers of the journal. In addition to work by Small, Ward, and Ross, early issues of the AJS contained several publications by authors associated with Christian Sociology, including serialized essays by Shailer Mathews, a professor (and later Dean) of the University of Chicago Divinity School, and multiple articles by Social Gospel proponents such as Josiah Strong and Charles Ellwood.

AJS thus started out as a boundary object bridging several social worlds. But as Shanas (1945:525) notes, by 1900, a mere five years later, Christian Sociology had “almost disappeared” from the pages of the journal, providing empirical evidence that Small’s “unloading” was well underway. With the establishment of the AJS as the official journal of the American Sociological Society in 1905, and the locking in of a subscriber base of professed, if not always professional, sociologists, the contents of the journal shifted to exclude one social world while satisfying the informational requirements of another. As religious content declined, “sociological shop-talk” about the place of sociology in the university increased to nearly five percent of the journal contents between 1900 and 1904, to more than nine percent between 1905 and 1909, and to over fourteen percent between 1910 and 1914 (Shanas 1945:525).

Providing further evidence that the AJS no longer served as a successful boundary object bridging scientific sociology and other social worlds in early American sociology, attempts by the University of Chicago Press to include publics beyond scientific sociology as journal subscribers were unsuccessful. Originally the journal itself had been imagined by Harper, in response to Small’s proposal, as a religious journal, and promotional campaigns offered a bundled subscription of the AJS, American Journal of Theology, and Biblical World to the press’s mailing list of ministers (Abbott 1999:97). For several years after the arrangement with the American Sociological Society, even though the journal contents had changed, the press continued to market AJS as though it were meeting its initial goals for inclusiveness, sending promotional mailings to such diverse groups as the National Prison Association, the American Economic Association, and the subscriber list for the Constructive Bible Studies series (Abbott 1999:98). Notably, however, this “wide constituency strategy” failed to gain significant new subscriptions, and the Press abandoned the strategy by 1910 (Abbott 1999:98).

The case of the AJS is important for two reasons. First, as Andrew Abbott has observed, the disciplinary identity of sociology was largely shaped by the journal. Judging by the content of the journal and by the composition of its subscriber base, the AJS certainly no longer satisfied informational requirements for religious sociology, and as evinced by the failure of the press to extend the subscriber base, the narrowing of the journal contents also had implications for the journal’s ability to engage publics outside of its core group of subscribers from the American Sociological Society. The use of the journal to exclude religious audiences from legitimate debate in sociology, by removing its ability to bridge social worlds, thus became part of disciplinary practice. Second, the changes in the journal were echoed in changes in the American Sociological Society, where the “particularly rabid and propagandistic ‘Christian Sociologists’’’ were no longer welcomed (Turner and Turner 1990:28), and in university departments, where Small, Ward, Ross, and Giddings built departments that reflected their own views of scientific sociology (Smith 2003). In short, the redefinition of the AJS was part of a broader redefining of boundary objects so that that they bridged a different set of social worlds, a set that no longer included religious publics as legitimate participants in sociology.

7. Conclusion: Defining the public, defining sociology

In this paper I have argued that defining the “sociological public” defined sociology. The epistemological shift from Baconianism to positivism in American science removed religion as a source of scientific credibility, and raised a dual challenge of credibility for aspiring scientists of society whose agenda had largely been set by religious reformers. Unlike with many cases of boundary-work, the lack of disciplinary definition and the prevalence of similar substantive positions held by actors meant that actor differentiation could backfire as often as it could be successful. In order to gain scientific credibility, actors deliberately focused on the creation of a “sociological public,” a hybrid form of science-public relations that appealed to hostile university scientists as valued participants in the production of sociological knowledge, while limiting the role of supportive religious reformers to mere consumption. Key academic sociologists actively excluded religious audiences from legitimate participation in sociological debate by redefining the boundary objects, such as the AJS, that bridged their social worlds. This boundary-work, by defining the limits of the “sociological public,” also defined the boundaries of “sociology.”

Viewed from the present, the case of early American sociology raises questions about the durability of such boundary-work. Empirical evidence indicates a deep-seated and persistent irreligiosity in sociology, a phenomenon that has not been clearly explained. Of course, academics tend to be less religious across the board (Lehman and Shriver 1968; Mixon, Lyon and Beatty 2004; Thalheimer 1973; Wuthnow 1977), but some research seems to indicate that social sciences are less religious than physical and biological sciences (Lehman and Shriver 1968; Thalheimer 1973; Wuthnow 1985). To be clear, I am not implying a normative conclusion about what the relationship between religion and sociology ought to be. But from an analytical perspective, certainly it is well established in organizational sociology and the sociology of science that boundary-work often becomes routinized as standard practice, reproducing divisions without regard for the original conditions under which boundaries were created. Gieryn calls this the “cartographic legacy,” where “accumulated residues of previous instances of boundary-work” are reproduced, “as when a creased and dog-eared map gets unfolded rather than drawn fresh” (Gieryn 1999:20).

From this case study, it is not clear whether a scientific discipline constituted through audience boundary-work is necessarily more resistant to reconfiguration of its science-public relations. In the absence of reimaginings of the “sociological public,” it is possible that sociology today retains the cartographic legacy, and the hybrid form, of its early boundary-work. Such questions deserve further investigation. What is clear, however, is that boundary-work directed at audiences can be as important as boundary-work between practitioners and that, in the case of early American sociology, such boundary-work by academic sociologists effectively defined the new discipline.


I thank Steve Epstein, John Evans, and two anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments. Previous versions of this paper were presented at meetings of the Society for Social Studies of Science and the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion.


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{1}Much of the personal correspondence between key actors is available in archives, such as the Lester Ward Papers at Brown University and the Franklin Henry Giddings Papers at Columbia University. In the 1930s and 1940s, Bernhard J. Stern examined, edited, and published a significant number of letters, especially those from Albion Small, as collections under his own authorship or co-authorship as editor. These include collections published in Social Forces (Stern 1932; Small, Ward, and Stern 1933, 1935, 1936, 1937), American Sociological Review (Stern 1946, 1947, 1948), and The Scientific Monthly (Stern 1935). Quotations from these letters will indicate their source, but will cite Stern’s publications.

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