Ogburn, William Fielding, 1886-1959

Alternative names
Birth 1886-06-29
Death 1959-04-27

Biographical notes:

Of the Social Science Research Council (U.S.).

From the description of Correspondence from Johan Thorsten Sellin, 1930. (University of Pennsylvania Library). WorldCat record id: 243693252

Sociologist. B.S., Mercer College, 1905. A.M., Columbia University, 1909; Ph. D., 1912. Professor of sociology and economics, Reed College, 1912-17; professor of sociology, University of Washington, 1917-18; professor of sociology, Columbia University, 1919-27. Professor of sociology, University of Chicago, 1927-1951. Named Sewell L. Avery Distinguished Service Professor of Sociology, 1933.

From the description of Papers, 1908-1960 (inclusive). (University of Chicago Library). WorldCat record id: 52246090

From the description of Ogburn, William Fielding. Interview 1958 (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 779178324

William Fielding Ogburn, sociologist, was born June 29, 1886 in Butler, Georgia. He received a Bachelor's degree from Mercer College in 1905, and taught school for several years before entering Columbia University in 1908. At Columbia he received an A.M. degree in 1909 and a Ph.D. in 1912. Upon graduation he was appointed professor of sociology and economics at the newly organized Reed College in Portland, Oregon, where he remained for five years. He taught for a year at the University of Washington, and worked for the National War Labor Board and the Bureau of Labor Statistics during World War I. In 1919 he returned to Columbia and served as Professor of Sociology until 1927, when he moved to the University of Chicago. He was named Sewell L. Avery Distinguished Service Professor of Sociology in 1933. After retiring in 1951, he traveled extensively in many parts of the world, and took visiting professorships at the universities of Delhi and Calcutta, at Nuffield College, Oxford, and at Florida State University. Ogburn married Rubyn Reynolds in 1910 and they had two children, Howard Reynolds and William Fielding, Jr. He died April 27, 1959.

Ogburn was brought to the University of Chicago because of his background in statistics and quantitative methods. At Columbia his teachers included Franklin H. Giddings in sociology, Edward L. Thorndike in education, Henry L. Moore in economics, and Franz Boas in anthropology. Although his orientation was very different from the "Chicago school" sociologists who relied heavily on personal observation and individual life histories, he was appointed by the Department of Sociology to fill a perceived gap in the Chicago curriculum and to assure that the department maintained its national standing. Some lively controversies ensued between Ogburn, Thomas C. McCormick, and Samuel Stouffer with proponents of the case history method including Robert Park, Herbert Blumer, and Louis Wirth. The case method was not abandoned, but Ogburn's influence was indisputable. Ernest Burgess for one readily acknowledged the value of statistical data, although he continued to use life histories in his own research. The Social Science Research Building, completed in 1929, attested symbolically and functionally to the impetus Ogburn gave by bringing the various disciplines of the social sciences together in one building, and providing laboratory space suitable to the needs of statistical and demographic research.

As a teacher, Ogburn is remembered for his insistence on rigorous standards of measurement and the need for verifiable knowledge. In his own writings, however, he did not concern himself primarily with methodological techniques, nor did he focus his interest on a particular subject. Ogburn made important contributions to the literature on social reform legislation, voting behavior, consumer spending, marriage and the family, demography, and social effects of business fluctuations. Much of Ogburn's work was concerned with social change, especially with the idea of "cultural lag," the theory that some parts of society adjust to changes slower than others which causes disequilibria. For the 20th century he saw inventions and technology as a major force that produced changes in economic organization, family and government structures, and eventually in people's social philosophy.

Among Ogburn's most notable books are Social Change with Respect to Culture and Original Nature (1922); Recent Social Trends in the United States (1933), which Ogburn edited as director of the President's Research Committee on Social Trends commissioned by Herbert Hoover in 1929; Sociology (with M. F. Nimkoff, 1940), an introductory textbook used by a generation of students; The Social Effects of Aviation (1946); and Technology and International Relations (ed. 1949).

In some ways Ogburn had a stronger reputation nationally than he did in his own department in Chicago. His connection with Recent Social Trends, which attempted to bring together a body of empirical data from different disciplines concerning national life, made him a knowledgeable spokesman on many issues affecting social policy and planning. He believed that important social trends were persistent and long-term in nature, and therefore thought it possible to make projections with a fair degree of accuracy. Known for his scientific approach, he also detested obscure terminology, and was able to express ideas clearly and directly for non-technical audiences. He was widely quoted in newspapers, and wrote many articles for the New York Times Magazine and other popular periodicals, with titles like "What's Ahead in the Home," "Our Future Cities," and "Machines and Tomorrow's World."

Ogburn participated on a number of government committees that were established to review programs and make policy recommendations. In addition to the President's Research Committee on Social Trends, they included the Consumers Advisory Board, the National Resources Committee, the Resettlement Administration, and the Census Advisory Committee. He also served terms as president of the American Sociology Society and the American Statistical Association, as vice president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, as chairman of the Social Science Research Council, and was elected the first president of the Society for the History of Technology shortly before his death. He disliked meetings and criticized colleagues who built up their reputations by collecting committee assignments, perhaps because he spent so much of his own time occupied in such duties.

In spite of his distaste for "theory" and his constant demands for quantifiable social knowledge, Ogburn had a philosophical bent of mind that displayed itself in his pursuit of the "big ideas" and in attempts to synthesize his findings into broad concepts. He also developed an interest in psychoanalysis and enjoyed hobbies such as tennis, photography, and bird watching. One of his last projects was to track down the source of stories of children supposedly raised by wolves in India.

From the guide to the Ogburn, William Fielding. Papers, 1908-1960, (Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library 1100 East 57th Street Chicago, Illinois 60637 U.S.A.)


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