Dictionary of American Biography, Supplement 5 (c) 1977 by American Council of Learned Societies


Contributor: Bannister, Robert C.


Odum, Howard Washington, (May 24, 1884 - Nov. 8, 1954), sociologist, was born near Bethlehem, Ga., the son of William Pleasants Odum and Mary Ann Thomas Odum. He grew up in modest circumstances on his family's small farm. His formal education was a product of hard work, borrowed money, and happy coincidence. At the age of thirteen the family moved to Oxford, Ga., where he attended Emory Academy and College, graduating in 1904 with the B.A. degree in English and classics.

After teaching for a year at a rural school in Toccopola, Miss., Odum earned an M.A. in classics at the University of Mississippi in 1906. At the university, Thomas Pierce Bailey, a recent Ph.D. in psychology from Clark University, converted Odum to social science and encouraged his collecting of the songs and tales of blacks in nearby communities. When he entered the graduate program at Clark, Odum fashioned these researches into a doctoral dissertation, "Religious Folk-Songs of the Southern Negroes" (1909), under G. Stanley Hall. At Clark he also met a fellow graduate student, Anna Louise Kranz. They were married on Dec. 24, 1910, and had three children.

In 1910 Odum wrote a second doctoral dissertation, his first formal work in sociology, under Franklin Giddings at Columbia University. This was published as Social and Mental Traits of the Negro (1910). In it Odum provided a compendium of detail concerning black society. Although Odum insisted that the black was "neither an aberrant form of other races nor a hopelessly arrested type of any race," thus challenging fashionable racist assumptions, critics found this work marred by Odum's apparent acceptance of disfranchisement and segregation, and by his failure to make clear distinctions between cultural and racial traits.

As his interest in folk culture deepened (he had early been influenced by Franz Boas's lectures at Columbia), Odum turned to secular songs in The Negro and His Songs (1925) and Negro Workaday Songs (1926). In Rainbow Round My Shoulder (1928), Wings on My Feet (1929), and Cold Blue Moon (1931) he described the wanderings of Left-Wing Gordon, a semifictional black Ulysses whose ripe wisdom dramatized the richness of folk culture. Odum later worked for the Commission on Interracial Cooperation (1919-1944), at first sharing its approach of seeking gains for southern blacks within the framework of segregation. But during the 1940's as president of the newly formed Southern Regional Council (1944-1946), he finally came to reject segregation.

Following graduate school, Odum launched a career as sociologist and administrator. Unable at first to obtain an academic post, he undertook a study published as Hygiene in the Schools of Philadelphia (1912) for the city's Bureau of Municipal Research. From 1912 to 1919 he was professor of educational sociology at the University of Georgia. In 1918 he served as director of civilian relief for the southern division of the Red Cross, establishing a foundation for his later interest in public welfare. He returned to Emory in 1919 as professor of ecology and dean of liberal arts, but in 1920 joined the faculty at the University of North Carolina, where he remained for the rest of his life.

At Chapel Hill Odum organized and directed (1920-1932) a new school of public welfare (later renamed the School of Social Work); and in 1924, with characteristic adroitness in securing grants, he established an institute of research in social science with the help of the Rockefeller Fund. In 1922 he founded the Journal of Social Forces, which he also edited. It was largely due to his efforts that the University of North Carolina gained a national reputation in the social sciences within a decade. Odum's own work in the 1920's joined faith in "objective measurement" with the belief that sociology must provide social guidance. In such books as An Approach to Public Welfare and Social Work (1926) and Man's Quest for Social Guidance (1927) he urged greater efficiency and government involvement in the welfare system in opposition to the "charities and corrections" approach of voluntary philanthropy. In 1929, at President Hoover's request, he helped William F. Ogburn coordinate the monumental study that was published as Recent Trends in the United States (1933). The work marked a new departure in the relations between the federal government and the social sciences.

During the 1930's Odum developed his best-known concept, that of regionalism. He announced his new subject in "Folk and Regional Conflict as a Field of Sociological Study," an address to the American Sociological Society, of which he was elected president in 1930. Aided by a grant from the Social Science Research Council, he published Southern Regions (1936), followed by American Regionalism (1938, written with Harry E. Moore), the most complete statement of his program. Working actively for his concept, Odum planned a Council on Southern Regional Development in the late 1930's. Although this ambitious scheme failed, his ideas found limited fruition in several New Deal regional plans, in the work of a southern governors' conference that in 1939 proposed a ten-year plan based on his design, and in the development research of the Southern Association for Science and Industry, founded in 1941.

The antithesis of sectionalism, regionalism to Odum meant cooperation and coordination among the nation's major areas, delimited by geography, history, and culture. His goal was unity through diversity. More than a social program, regionalism was a conceptual framework for synthesizing the social sciences and even the humanities and natural sciences. Critics, however, recited the realities of sectional competition and interest group politics that finally thwarted Odum's purpose. He was also hampered by the sheer breadth of his vision and by an obscure prose style, soon dubbed "Odumesque." Odum saw the world, one of his students noted, "in larger units, [and] deeper patterns than he could communicate or we could understand."

In his last decade, Odum worked to systematize his folk sociology. Contrasting "folkways," "technicways," and "stateways," he described the destruction of traditional community through technology and the resulting intellectualism, specialization, and centralization of the modern state. Although he did not idealize the folk--he saw Nazism, which he abhorred, as a folk movement--he stressed the role of folk culture in strengthening and vitalizing state civilization. Odum refined his ideas in Understanding Society (1947) and in a long article on folk society in Social Forces (1953). His system nonetheless remained incomplete.

Odum's combination of energy, productivity, and modesty charmed colleagues and students. Apparent contradictions in his personality were measures of his wide-ranging interests. An academic activist, he disliked narrow "do-goodism." A social scientist, he turned to prose poetry to express deeper truths of human experience in An American Epoch (1930), an impressionistic view of southern folk life through four generations. A prolific scholar, he once remarked that his pedigreed Jerseys (of which he was a master breeder) were worth more than his books. Active to the last, he was working on several books when he died in Chapel Hill, N.C.

[The Howard W. Odum Papers at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, is a rich collection covering Odum's entire career. Major works by Odum not mentioned in the text are Southern Pioneers in Social Interpretation (1925), of which he was editor; Systems of Public Welfare (1925), written with D. W. Willard; American Masters of Social Science (1927), of which he was editor; An Introduction to Social Research (1929), written with Katharine Jocher; American Social Problems (1939); American Democracy Anew (1940), written with H. D. Meyer et al.; Alabama Past and Future (1941), written with G. H. Yeuell et al.; Race and Rumors of Race (1943); The Way of the South (1947); and American Sociology (1951).

The most important discussions of Odum's work are Emory S. Bogardus, "Odum and Folk Sociology," Sociology and Social Research, July-Aug. 1957; Dewey Grantham, "The Regional Imagination," Journal of Southern History, Feb. 1968; Harvey A. Kantor, "Howard W. Odum: The Implications of Folk, Planning, and Regionalism," American Journal of Sociology, Sept. 1973; George L. Simpson, "Howard W. Odum and American Regionalism," Social Forces, Dec. 1955; George B. Tindall, "The Significance of Howard W. Odum to Southern History," Journal of Southern History, Aug. 1958; Rupert B. Vance, "Howard Odum's Technicways," Social Forces, June 1972; and Rupert B. Vance and Katharine Jocher, "Howard W. Odum," ibid., Mar. 1955, with portrait and complete bibliography of his publications.]