William Graham Sumner  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

William Graham Sumner (October 30, 1840 – April 12, 1910) was an American academic and "held the first professorship in sociology" at Yale College. For many years he had a reputation as one of the most influential teachers there. He was a polymath with numerous books and essays on American history, economic history, political theory, sociology, and anthropology. He is credited with introducing the term "ethnocentrism," a term intended to identify imperialists' chief means of justification, in his book Folkways (1906). Sumner is often seen as a proto-libertarian. He was also the first to teach a course entitled "Sociology".

Sumner was a critic of natural rights, famously arguing

"Before the tribunal of nature a man has no more right to life than a rattlesnake; he has no more right to liberty than any wild beast; his right to pursuit of happiness is nothing but a license to maintain the struggle for existence..."

Sociologist

As a sociologist, his major accomplishments were developing the concepts of diffusion, folkways, and ethnocentrism. Sumner's work with folkways led him to conclude that attempts at government-mandated reform were useless.

Folkways

Sumner's most popular book is Folkways: A Study of the Sociological Importance of Manners, Customs, Mores, and Morals (1907). Starting with four theoretical chapters, it provides a frank, objective, and candid description of the nature of many of the more important customs and institutions in societies past and present around the world. The book promotes a sociological or relativistic approach to moral behavior, as expressed in his thesis that "the mores can make anything right and prevent condemnation of anything." (p. 521)




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