Lester Frank Ward


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One of the pioneers of American sociology, founder of a psychological evolutionism, which (contrary to Herbert Spencer) ascribed an important role in evolution to human mentality. Self-educated from boyhood, Ward enlisted in the Union Army in 1863, and finally gained his university degrees through evening study. He was a geologist and palaeontologist until the age of 65—when he accepted a professorship in sociology at Brown University (where he continued to teach until his death). In 1906 he was elected to be the first president of the American Sociological Society. Greatly influenced by Comte and Spencer, Ward's sociology is organized around a theory of evolution. This process is described in terms of stages, these being the result initially of ‘genesis’ (spontaneous blind forces), but latterly of ‘telesis’ (purposive actions of humans based on knowledge and the anticipation of consequences). Ward conceptualized sociology as the systematic study of social forces, these being psychic in nature, and resulting in a continuous process of ‘social synergy’ by which new structures were created. He is significant mainly because his works, particularly his discussion of telesis, anticipate the emphasis that 20th-century sociology was to place on culture (see Dynamic Sociology, 1902; Pure Sociology, 1903; and Applied Sociology, 1906). There is a useful introduction to his writings in Ronald Fletcher, The Making of Sociology, vol. i (1971).

Subjects: Arts and Humanities.

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