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History and Sociology {1}
    by Peter A. Munch (Volume 20: Page 46)

History and sociology are closely related because we are trying to understand ourselves as human beings in terms of the society in which we live. But during the lifetime of this Association the relationship has been little more than a shirt tail relationship. In our search for knowledge and understanding we have gone separate roads, and we have ended up at points so distant from each other that we don’t even speak the same language.

This was not always so. Auguste Comte, commonly regarded as the founder of modern sociology (at least he invented the word), recognized explicitly the importance of historical material to sociology. {2} His “law of the three stages,” which he presented as the basic sociological law, was, of course, a grandiose historical generalization. And since his time, sociologists have vied with historians in developing great evolutionary schemes of social development, built around the basically historical idea that each stage in the development emanates from the preceding. Less ambitious, but more fruitful perhaps, were the attempts made by the great sociologists of the turn of the century to interpret special aspects of our modern society in terms of its past history. Men like Durkheim, Tönnies, Max Weber, and, in America, Ward and Cooley, all looked upon the contemporary society through the perspective of history.

The main stream of American sociology has moved far away from this tradition. It appears that American sociologists never recovered entirely from a feeling of inferiority for the so-called “exact” sciences, and when public recognition (as well as funds) started to flow richly to the physical and [47] biological sciences, the pressure from what Whitehead described as “scientific materialism” apparently became so great that the American sociologists, as well as economists, surrendered unconditionally to empiricism in its most extreme and sterile form, denounced all rational interpretation as “armchair philosophizing,” and declared triumphantly that “Science is Measurement,” as it says in the motto of the Cowles Commission for Research in Economics. Mathematics and statistical methods became the symbol by which sociology was given the outer appearance of a “science,” an aspect which was given further emphasis by the development of a professional jargon, incomprehensible to anyone outside the field and, incidentally, to many within it.

In my opinion, this development in American sociology was a regrettable mistake, not only because it alienated sociology from history, and from the study of literature, philosophy, and other branches of knowledge which we commonly include in the term “the humanities.” It was a mistake particularly because it estranged the sociologist even from the very essence of human culture and forced him to accept an image of man which reduced him to a mechanical automaton. This view, in the long run, gave the sociologist a rather superficial, in some respects even distorted, picture of human society.

I would like to emphasize, though, that, while this has been the dominant trend in American sociology for several decades, it is only part of the picture. The old tradition of a more humanistic sociology survived the ordeal of “tough empiricism,” supported by a small but highly capable group of scholars, whose goal has been a rational understanding of human society in its variety of forms rather than an amassment of poorly comprehended “facts.” These scholars were concerned with human values, those that unite human beings to their fellow men as well as those that separate them. They were concerned with ideas and sentiments which, when shared by a number of humans, form the constituent elements of groups [48] and institutions, of customs and morals. On the whole, they were concerned with those intangible aspects of human culture to which a measuring stick is not easily applied, but which are fundamental to our lives as human beings. And there are several indications that this school of sociology is again growing in strength and creative vitality. It is quite evident that, during the last decade or two, American sociology has seen a growing search for fundamental ideas and concepts of a rational nature, which could be useful as tools for a meaningful comprehension of social phenomena in their historical context.

If this prediction comes true, we can look forward to a closer relationship between history and sociology in the near future. And we can hope for, if not a convergence, at least a co-operation and mutual inspiration between the various disciplines that concern themselves with the understanding of society in general as well as our own society in particular.

The need for a co-operation between the various social and humanistic disciplines has been recognized by historians for some time. This has probably some connection with other developments in the field of history, particularly those of the last fifty years or so. I am referring to the shift in emphasis in historical research and writing from the great names and the conspicuous events of power politics and wars to the less conspicuous but often more significant conditions and events of what has often been described as “social history,” that is, the history of common people, of groups and institutions, of communities and families, of customs and usages - in short, what Dean Theodore C. Blegen has advocated as “grass roots history.” This trend has been growing strongly in later years and is an answer to a demand that has repeatedly been presented by leading historians for some time. I cannot resist the temptation to quote from my greater namesake and relative of a hundred years ago, the Norwegian historian P. A. Munch. In the preface to the first volume of his monumental history of the Norwegian people, published in 1852, he says: [49]

I have deliberately called the work the “History of the Norwegian People,” not the “History of Norway,” or “of the Norwegian Kingdom,” nor the “History of the Kings of Norway.” It was my purpose to give a . . . description, not only of the political or external history of the country, but also of the inner history of the people, of the folk culture in its development and progress; a description of the achievements made, not only by the princes, but by the people themselves. {3}

Talking about the Icelandic sagas as historical documents, he remarks:

Even though the accounts preserved in the Icelandic sagas concern family histories for the greater part, they present the folk culture and reflect the folk character common to Norway and Iceland with such fidelity and in such a rich and manifold variety that they often have much greater historical significance than many reports of important political events. {4}

In the same vein Dean Blegen, in his presidential address to the Mississippi Valley Historical Association in 1944, pointed to history as “Our Widening Province” and made a plea for extensive research into the grass roots of American culture. {5} We are also reminded of his pioneer work with the America letters and his clear-sighted recognition of their value and significance as historical documents.

It is quite evident that, with this broadening of the view and deepening of the search, the historian would be breaking new ground and would bring out a vast amount of information of the greatest significance for the understanding of our present-day society and culture. Thereby he enters, by way of the past, into many fields which were previously regarded as the exclusive domain of other disciplines, and he opens up the possibility of a deeper perspective in many areas of human knowledge.

In this situation, the breaking down of barriers and the removal of fences between the various disciplines concerned [50] with the interpretation of our present-day society has become a compelling need. The distinction between the study of the past and the study of the present is meaningless and has now become obsolete. How can we understand the present unless we understand the past from which it evolved? The past is still with us in the thoughts and ideas, in the values and morals and actions of the people around us. In trying to explain the customs, norms, and institutions of the present, how can we avoid trying to understand how they came into being in the first place? Dean Blegen, in the address to the Mississippi Valley Historical Association that I mentioned above, said, “We are interpreters of the past, but unless we relate the past to the present we interpret in a vacuum.” {6} I think that statement could easily be reversed, and, speaking as a sociologist, I could say that we are interpreters of the present (at least we claim to be), but unless we relate the present to the past we are indeed interpreting in a vacuum.

I must admit that sociologists have not always acted in accordance with this obvious truth. Not only have they been so busy with their statistical tables, IBM cards, and calculating machines that they have forgotten the past, but many have deliberately and explicitly rejected the historical method, which seemed to them to consist of mere conjectures on the basis of accidentally available data. After all, one cannot apply a carefully constructed questionnaire to the graveyard of a ghost town.

I can hardly blame the historians for being rather skeptical with regard to the possible contributions of sociology to their field. However, as I have already pointed out, this is not the whole picture. If I may speak as a representative of what I would like to describe as “humanistic sociology,” I believe I could point to a few avenues by which the sociologist could make an important contribution to the study of history.

We know from psychology that human perception is selective. We do not “see” everything that comes to the eye. This [51] applies in no less degree to the scholar’s perception of data. Not only does the scholar select the data which at the moment seems important to him. Through his training and his work he develops an increased sensitivity to certain kinds of data, depending on the field in which he works. Thus a trained historian will undoubtedly be able to find clues for the interpretation of the past where an outsider would see nothing but trivialities. Likewise, the sociologist, if he is a real scholar, may be extremely sensitive to certain implications of a historical document which a historian - assuming that he has no training in sociology - might entirely overlook.

Let me take as an example a phenomenon in human society which may have an important bearing upon the field of particular interest to this Association. I am referring to social structure. If this seems like another of those big words that sociologists are prone to use to blur their thoughts to the outsider, I can explain that the meaning is quite simple. It refers to the fact that no human society is composed of individuals who look alike, think alike, and act alike in every respect. To a certain degree they do - otherwise they would not form a society, and it is one of the tasks of the cultural anthropologist to discover in what respects and to what degree such similarities may be found. But beneath the similarities in ideas, customs, and institutions, there are always variations and differentiations, some of which give rise to the formation of groups and factions within the society, infinite in number and variety. Social structure refers particularly to the relationship between these groups and factions, whether it be a functional relationship (as when two groups do different things for the mutual benefit of both) or a relationship based on difference in prestige, status, and power. From the point of view of a sociologist, these groups and factions, as well as their mutual relationships, are extremely important because no individual acts entirely as an individual - in everything he does, thinks, or feels, he acts, if not as a representative or spokesman, at least as a product of a group, reflecting its [52] attitudes toward other groups as well as toward the larger society. An insight into these structural relationships, therefore, is absolutely necessary for a true understanding of any aspect of human social life.

In the extensive recording and interpretation of the history of the Norwegian people in America, which has increased in quantity as well as in quality under the auspices and leadership of the Norwegian-American Historical Association, it is apparent that much attention has been given to the relationship of the Norwegian nationality group to the larger American society. This is to be expected, and it is more than justified by the consideration that here is a structural relationship of crucial importance to an immigrant group. However, before we can understand this relationship fully, in all its caprices and facets, we need to pay more attention to the inner structure of the group. In this area we have only scratched the surface.

From the many excellent studies and sketches and documentary publications which have been brought forth by this Association, we know that the Norwegian nationality group was far from a homogeneous body. There were social differentiations and tensions, even conflicts, which sometimes split the group wide open but mostly served to vitalize it in its struggle for status and social recognition within the American society. We know that there were loyalties within loyalties, sometimes conflicting in half-joking, half-earnest combats; for example, the loyalty to the home valley or bygd, which produced differentiations that crystallized in the formation of the various bygdelags. We know that there were class differences, carried over from Norway, but sometimes brought to acute conflicts in this country because they collided with the American belief in a classless society.

We need to know more about these things. We need to know how the various factions within the Norwegian nationality group affected each other, and how they affected the life of the communities and settlements as well as the whole [53] group, in politics as well as in church life, in education as well as in economic organization, and in the relationship to the larger American society.

The definitive history of the Norwegian church in America has not yet been written. We know that this is a history exceptionally full of dramatic conflicts, both at the congregational and at the synodical level. When I lived in Madison, Wisconsin, I used to inform visitors from Norway that if they wanted to see a Norwegian settlement, all they had to do was to drive out in the country in any direction; if they saw two churches close together, preferably one on each side of the road, they were sure to be in the heart of a Norwegian settlement. Why is this so? Could it be that social differences within the settlements had something to do with it? I think there is evidence to show that this was the case.

In one local instance within my own experience the evidence was clear. In the northwestern corner of Green County, Wisconsin, the Valdres people of the Blue Mounds and Perry settlements met and mingled with the Hadeland people of the Wiota settlement. The relationship between the two groups was probably the usual one of a mildly joking differentiation, expressed in mutual teasing and an occasional fist fight, but emphasized somewhat by the fact that the Valdres people, being the older settlers in the area, regarded themselves as a little superior. The earnestness of the situation, however, be came apparent when a church conflict at the synodical level split the local congregation in two, almost exactly along the line of demarcation between the two bygde-groups, the Hadelendings forming a congregation of their own. That these structural phenomena are still at work, perpetuating the differentiation between the two congregations, became evident from an answer I received when asking an informant whether a certain family belonged to the “new” church: “Oh, my, no! They are trembling now at the mention of it!”- and then, as an explanation, “He’s a Valdris, you know.” Such a statement, interpreted with sensitivity to structural phenomena, [54] actually tells more than a hundred pages of printed documents.

But there were other differentiations than those based on loyalty to a particular bygd. One of the more important, which has received only scant attention in research and writing so far, is the rather strong differentiation between the homesteaders and the educated immigrants. This differentiation, too, was carried over from Norway and had its roots in the sharp class distinction in that country between the peasants and the bourgeois urban class as represented particularly by the embedsmenn, or crown officials. In a recent monograph on rural-urban conflicts in Norway, I have expressed the opinion that the conflict between the cosmopolitan urban and the national or regional rural cultures took a more acute form in Norway than in most countries of the western world. {7} One expression of this is an exceptionally articulate peasant movement, built upon a combination of nationalistic and democratic ideas and striving for an emancipation of the peasant class from the dominance and leadership of the embedsstand (people of the official class).

The extensive emigration to America in the nineteenth century was undoubtedly a part of these strivings for emancipation. The immigrants came to this country in search of a classless society. And, although there were repercussions and disappointments of various kinds, in general they were convinced that they had found it, as the America letters indicate in many instances. Yet, having cast off the bonds and chains of a class-ridden society, they apparently felt the need of an anchorage in the sacred institutions of the old bygd, one of which was the religious and spiritual guidance of an intellectual elite. And when the educated professionals of Norway answered calls to serve as pastors and doctors in the newly established settlements of the Middle West, they came to furnish what they, too, considered a much needed leadership, [55] as interpreters of cultural values which to them were sacred, and to the transmission of which they had devoted their lives. Thus they became the most ardent fighters in this country for the preservation of the Norwegian culture in its purest form.

Ample recognition has been given to these intellectual leaders as builders of churches and colleges, although their motivations, I believe, have not always been fully understood. We are indeed lucky to have such an excellent account of the life of a pioneer college president as Professor Karen Larsen’s devout book about her father. {8} We also have several important documentary volumes such as Professor David Nelson’s recent publication, Elisabeth Koren’s diary. {9} This is important groundwork. But much more of it needs to be done. It seems to me that we have greatly neglected the intellectual and spiritual leadership of the educated immigrants in community affairs, how they affected the everyday life of communities and settlements. I am thinking of the many pastors, doctors, teachers, and lawyers who did not become great leaders in synodical affairs but nevertheless exercised a profound influence in their respective localities. I am thinking particularly of those who worked without the support of the established institution of the church, as family and community doctors, in later years as builders of clinics and hospitals, following the American pattern of a family enterprise, like the Gundersen Clinic in La Crosse or, on a smaller scale, the Gulbrandsen Clinic in Viroqua, Wisconsin - and I am sure there are many more. It is simply astounding that a history of the Coon Prairie settlement in Vernon County, Wisconsin, was once written without even mentioning the names of its doctors, J. K. Schreiner and John Schee. Of course, I cannot hold this Association responsible for that; but I think it is symptomatic of a lack of interest that may still exist.

We need to know more about the relationship of this [56] intellectual elite to the homesteaders, how it has influenced their thought - in both positive and negative ways. We need to understand the peculiar ambivalence of the immigrants, a mixture of deference and devotion on the one hand and resentment, even defiance, on the other. Opinions were divided here, as they were in Norway. But in America the deviant opinions were more readily expressed, and the status of the intellectual became an issue which sometimes split settlements and communities right down the middle. While in Norway the emancipation of the peasants from the intellectuals expressed itself in the promotion of landsmål and peasant culture, in this country it found its clearest expression in organization. This in itself is an interesting piece of acculturation.

But there were even more subtle ways in which the stratification of the Norwegian nationality group influenced the lives of the immigrants. Professor Einar Haugen has given us a picture of the role of the intellectuals in the “struggle over Norwegian,” where this group naturally took the conservative stand, while the more radical elements among the homesteaders saw in a rapid Americanization an instrument of emancipation from a “pastoral overlordship.” {10} It is likely that even in other issues arising from the necessary adjustment to the American scene, the intellectuals represented a conservative force and a pressure towards linguistic and cultural purism. Above all, it is evident that the presence of an elite, decidedly Norwegian in character, represented an important and very forceful counterbalance to the pressure from American society, and, although most of the issues it raised were lost, this group functioned as a brake to soften the impact of a strange culture upon the Norwegian settlements.

These are only samples of the extensive groundwork that [57] needs to be done before we are ready for the great synthesis that must come in a history of the educated immigrant and the intellectual elite of the Norwegian-American society. May be we are not ready for it yet. Many of the values represented by the intellectual elite were at odds with the prevalent values of the homesteaders as well as of the larger American society, and I find that feelings are still running high. I sometimes still find a strong emotional resentment of the very idea of an elite coupled with a certain deference to anyone who is identified as a member of it. Some have abolished the deference but retained the resentment. Besides, class distinctions are taboo in American conversation, to the extent that sociologists writing about the subject have found it necessary to cover the identity of the communities they studied with fictitious names; one of them even published his book under a personal pseudonym. Even I had a peculiar feeling that I had to muster some small amount of courage to mention the matter. After all, as is obvious to most readers, I have a stake in this - I am “begging for my sick mother,” as the Norwegian expression goes.

But, basically, this is a thing of the past. The intellectual elite does not exist any more in the old sense, and most of its expressed causes are definitely lost. It should not be impossible at this stage to approach the matter with scholarly detachment and objectivity, yet with that sympathetic insight which is necessary for a true understanding.


<1> This is a slightly revised version of an address presented at the triennial meeting of the Norwegian-American Historical Association in Minneapolis on May 11, 1957.
<2> Paul Hanly Furfey, The Scope and Method of Sociology, 462 (New York. 1953).
<3> P. A. Munch, Det norske folks historie, volume 1, part 1, p. iv (Christiania, 1852). The passage was translated by the present writer.
<4> Munch, Det norske folks historie, volume 1, part 1, p. v.
<5> Theodore C. Blegen, “Our Widening Province,” in Mississippi Valley Histoical Review, 31 :3-20 (1944-45). This paper later appeared in abbreviated form in Blegen, Grass Roots History, 245-256 (Minneapolis, 1947).
<6> Blegen, Grass Roots History, 248.
<7> Peter A. Munch, A Study of Cultural Change: Rural-urban Conflicts in Norway, 30-63 (Oslo, 1956).
<8> Karen Larsen. Laur. Larsen: Pioneer College President (Northfield, 1986).
<9> The Diary of Elisabeth Koren, 1853-1855 (Northfield, 1955).
<10> “The Struggle over Norwegian,” in Norwegian-American Studies and Records, 17:1-35 (Northfield, 1952). This article was later reprinted as chapter 10 of the same author’s The Norwegian Language in America: A Study in Bilingual Behavior, 1:233-260 (Philadelphia, 1953).

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