Union Notables

Franklin Henry Giddings    class of 1878

Franklin Henry Giddings, courtesy of President Stephen Ainlay

The life of Frank Henry Giddings exemplified three characteristics that still live at Union. First, although he majored in civil engineering, he went on to a career in sociology, where he often used the engineer’s tools to develop his thinking about social issues. Second, Giddings was always both intellectually active and civically engaged, taking his academic work out into the world for the betterment of both. Finally, his pioneering contributions to American sociology exemplify Union’s continuing commitment to intellectual excellence.

Giddings, the son of a well-known Congregational minister from Connecticut, entered Union in 1873. He withdrew from the College in 1875 to go to work, completing his degree in 1878. His early experience writing for newspapers in Springfield, Massachusetts, and in Connecticut, stimulated his study of economics and social issues. His extensive articles were well-received. His reputation grew and Bryn Mawr College hired him to teach political science in 1888. Columbia University hired him away in 1897 to be the first Professor of Sociology in the United States. He remained there until his retirement in 1928.

An engaging lecturer, Giddings often challenged students to discuss important issues. His courses were among the most popular on campus, although some students were frustrated by his penchant for straying from the syllabus to discuss current affairs. Giddings wrote the first sociology textbook in the United States. Its numerous editions were translated into many languages. Giddings was appointed Professor Emeritus in Residence at Columbia, a position created to encourage the continued interaction with colleagues and students.

Giddings believed that the findings of sociology must be applied to the solving of social problems, to the improvement of the human condition. He was active in numerous professional and civic societies, both in the United States and internationally, and he lectured at colleges and civic groups around the country. From 1915-1917, Giddings served on the New York City school board, and he was encouraged, but declined, to run for mayor of New York. His advice was often sought by individuals throughout the community.  He served as third president of the American Sociological Society. 

Giddings’ take on sociology centered on his concept of consciousness of kind: the recognition that other humans are similar beings to ourselves.  He believed that this capacity was most developed in humans and, therefore, it formed the basis for our complex social life.

Giddings is perhaps most remembered for his passionate belief that sociology must become an ‘exact science’ based on empirical observations of phenomena to which statistical analysis, a not yet fully developed approach to research should be applied. Giddings himself did not conduct extensive quantitative research, but many of his more than 4,000 undergraduate and 50 graduate students did. Giddings would be pleased to see that quantitative analysis has become a core part of sociology today.

Throughout his life, Giddings remained involved at Union, serving as an Alumni Trustee for 25 years. He returned to Union to present a guest lecture series. The College gave him an honorary Ph.D. in 1897 in recognition of the scientific contribution of his Principles of Sociology. An L.L.D. followed in 1900. In 1926, he spoke at Commencement and was made honorary Chancellor.  

Giddings always was a sociologist and an educator.  ‘How did they get that way’ and ‘where do we go from here?’ This was what was on the mind of Giddings the poet, philosopher, and sociologist who delighted in thinking of life as an adventure filled with romance.  - Herbert N. Shenton