He grew up and was educated in an era where scientific progress and rationality were seen as the most effective and promising paradigms for progressive thought and action and there was the cultural belief that science in particular could be the solution to a variety of social ills and problems. This ethos can also be related back to the Enlightenment, which was a period that was seen as a "... new stage in the evolution of humankind, and enabled people to claim a new confidence, a new authority through the operation of reason and its principles." (Traynor, 1999. p. 5) in many ways the theories that Ward propounded can be seen to have been engendered by the faith in progress stemming for the Enlightenment.
Wards extreme faith in human reason has been questioned in modern sociological theory and philosophy. The advent of the sociology of knowledge and the relativistic critique of rationalist ideologies has permeated much of sociological theory and the other social sciences. This modern movement and interrogation of rationalism and science has questioned the rational fundamentalism of thinkers like Ward and relegated their theories to the past. (Historicist Theories of Rationality) This is combined with the fact that science and pure rationality has been largely discounted and deconstructed in modern disciples, including sociology. One could also refer in this regard to and the alternative forms of rationality identified by Max Weber and others. (Sociology and the roots of protest: a critique of the "new social movements")
However, despite these critiques, Ward's approach to the sociology of gender is one of the aspects that is still receiving critical appraisal from sociologists. For example, in Lester Frank Ward as a Sociologist of Gender: a New look at His Sociological Work by Barbara Finlay (1999), the author states that;
Ward was one of many early sociologists who supported women's equality and who critically evaluated the role of gender in society, but like the others, his work has been ignored, discounted, and misrepresented by later, more conservative, interpreters of the discipline. However, he should be recognized as one of the important forerunners of the sociology of gender (FINLAY 1999, p.251)
Civelllo (1996) also points to the vision that Ward showed in his assessment of gender in society.
Ward attacked those Darwinists who adduced man's superior strength and intelligence as evidence of his "natural" superiority. Ward concluded that this demonstrated woman's primacy in evolutionary progress. "Woman," he claimed, "is the unchanging trunk of the great genealogic tree; while man, with all his vaunted superiority, is but a branch, a grafted scion." (Civello, 1996)
It is also important to note that Ward saw the equality and the emancipation of women as an integral part of his larger vision of broader social reform. (Civello, 1996) This is also related to his view that, "...intellectual inequality was perpetuated by social, rather than biological, inequality -- particularly in education and employment." (Civello, 1996)
This again brings us to one of the central aspects of his social theory, namely the importance of education in society and for social progress. This is also related to his analysis of the way in which society functions. Ward states that subjugation of women is "...one of the most extensive and systematic violations of natural laws...and the root of present inequalities throughout society." (Civello, 1996) He was also of the opinion that the female qualities of altruism and sympathy "would benefit... all society." (Civello, 1996) More specifically in terms of sociological theory, Ward stance was essentially a modification of the views of Spenser; especially in his refutation of Spenserian individuality and 'survival of the fittest'. (Biography: Lester Frank Ward)
However, despite the more positive reappraisals of his work, it is his more severe and negative views of the non-scientific interpretation of society that has been criticized. An example is his attitude towards religion, which he discounted as having little societal worth or formative value. This refers to his stated view that;
Our civilization depends wholly upon the discovery and application of a few profound scientific and philosophical principles, thought out by a few great minds who hold the shallow babble of priests in utter contempt, and have no time to dabble in theology. (Gabriel & Walker, 1986, p. 217)
It is possibly this insistence on extreme rationality as the most important, if not only, aspect in understanding and reforming society that has evoked modern criticism and is probably the central reason why he has been neglected in terms of the modern corpus of sociological thinking. Sociologists in the latter part of the Twentieth Century realized the importance of the complexity of social life and the need to take into account the many variables besides reason that constitute a viable sociological theory. A late modern and postmodern perception of the world and society would almost certainly see his theories as manifestation of the ideological narratives of the Enlightenment and the Nineteenth Century belief in scientific progress; as well as the dominance of scientific over other forms of thought. In this light the following summary some of the main aspects of Ward's sociology would be the object of deconstructive analysis by postmodern theorists.
Ward insisted that ideas rule the world of men. The function of the mind is, by using ideas, to put an end in human society to the wasteful economy of nature and to the blind operation of natural forces. By taking thought man can direct that energy expressed in human desires into socially beneficent channels. (Gabriel & Walker, 1986, p. 218)
Related to this is the criticism of his view of modern government. Ward saw government and control of the society as an integral part of his sociological vision. This is an aspect that would be out of line in the modern age of the open and transparent forms of democratic governance
In conclusion, while there are many instances when it where it would be valid to suggest that Ward was misguided in his faith in reason and science, on the other hand he was also an innovator and introduced many theories and notions into sociology that were to open up new and fruitful avenues of intellectual exploration. His views of gender and the role and value of women in society is a case in point, which has in fact engendered modern debate and in some cases a reassessment of his work and thought.
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