Albion Woodbury Small

The American sociologist and educator Albion Woodbury Small (1854-1926) was instrumental in founding and developing the profession of sociology in the United States.

Albion Small was born in Buckfield, Maine, on May 11, 1854. Though trained as a minister at the Newton Theological Institution (1876-1879), he pursued wider interests at the universities of Leipzig and Berlin (1879-1881), particularly in political economy. Thereafter, till 1889 he taught at Colby College in Maine and embarked on advanced studies in economics and history at Johns Hopkins University. After selection as president of Colby College, he was chosen in 1892 to found a department of sociology at the new University of Chicago. During his tenure at Chicago, Small built the leading department of sociology in the United States, helped in founding the American Sociological Society (of which he was president in 1912 and 1913), and was the first editor of the American Journal of Sociology.

Small's teaching and writings were animated by the desire to demonstrate the distinctive nature of the young discipline of sociology, as well as to indicate the interrelations among various social sciences. His first major book, General Sociology (1905), viewed the subject matter of sociology as the processes by which various group interests clash and become resolved through accommodations and social innovation. In this work, he summarized and creatively interpreted the writings of Ludwig Gumplowicz and Gustave Ratzenhofer for the first time in English. Further interpretations of European thinkers were included in Adam Smith and Modern Sociology (1907), where Small tried to demonstrate the moral and philosophical undergirding of Smith's famous Wealth of Nations; The Cameralists (1909), an extremely detailed review of the social theory underlying the public economic policies of Germany from the 16th through the 19th century; and Origins of Sociology (1924), a highly erudite reconstruction of German academic controversies that seemed to Small to provide the foundation of modern methodology in social science.

The best summary of Small's overall thinking is contained in The Meaning of Social Science (1910), where the thrust of his General Sociology is clarified in surprisingly modern terms. Essentially, social science—including sociology—studies continuing processes through which men form, implement, and change valuations of their experiences. Human behavior derives meaning from these valuations, and both values and behavior are simultaneously patterned in the individual (as personality) and in society (through groups and organizations).

Small retired from the university in 1924. He died in Chicago on March 24, 1926. Although his ideas were largely derivative, his contribution to American sociology is incontestable.


Further Reading on Albion Woodbury Small

Two detailed summaries of Small's works are Edward C. Hayes's "Albion W. Small" in Howard W. Odum and others, eds., American Masters of Social Science (1927), and a chapter in Harry Elmer Barnes, ed., An Introduction to the History of Sociology (1948). For general background see Harry Elmer Barnes and Howard Becker, Social Thought from Lore to Science (2 vols., 1938; 2d ed., 3 vols., 1961), and Bernhard J. Stern, Historical Sociology (1960).

Additional Biography Sources

Christakes, George, Albion W. Small, Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1978.

Dibble, Vernon K., The legacy of Albion Small, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1975.