The Nature of Institutions

Floyd Henry Allport


THE term institution has long been one of the descriptive categories of sociology and political science. Upon looking over treatises dealing with this concept, however, one is impressed by its lack of fruitfulness. The content which it implies has been of little use in helping us to understand actual human situations. Accepted out of traditional usage, the term "institution'' has not been subjected to that scrutiny which is usually applied to working scientific concepts.

There seem to be at least two possible ways of defining institutions, ways which belong to diverse currents of social theory. The first view treats the data of social science as upon a plane separate from the data of natural science, and as comprising entities which are "super-individual" and uniquely "social." From this standpoint institutions are entities having a kind of structure. They are also spoken of as forms of control which society places upon human life, or as the rational working out of social purposes. In whatever manner such statements may differ in detail, they have the common import of treating institutions as things in themselves. Human behavior is of course implied in them; but they have a reality of their own upon a societal plane, which is to be studied by an approach not to individual behavior, but to the institution per se.

The other definition classifies institutions as phases or segments of human behavior. Since the institution, on this view, is wholly behavior, it is to be discovered only by a study of the habits and attitudes of individuals. We must, of course, have a sufficient sample of individuals; but we are nevertheless studying concrete individual behavior, and the supporting discipline therefore is not sociology but psychology. The principles to be employed in this approach are not those of a sociological level, such as social continuity, tradition, social organization, and social control; but psychological concepts such as attitude, habit formation, educational processes, and common segments of response. The units involved in such a formulation of institutions are in the same sphere of reality as the units of biology, chemistry, and other natural sciences. Like the latter, and unlike the sociological units, they tend to be directly and concretely, rather than metaphorically, experienced. This approach, practically ignored by social scientists in the past, has peculiar advantages not only

(188) for the understanding of institutional processes, but for developing a technique of measurement and discovering generalizations whereby changes may be predicted.

The sociological and psychological viewpoints are, to be sure, often combined by social writers within a single definition. A recent textbook, after discussing various definitions, finally arrives at the conclusion that "an institution is made up of three factors: namely, (1) a system of approved group-ways carried over from the past, (2) people interested in observing and perpetuating this system of ways and organized for the purpose of doing so, (3) a group of things used by the people for the observance and perpetuation of the ways."[2] This statement clearly combines the two views of institutions described above. The psychological phase is shown in the mention of certain definite types of human behavior (group-ways) as well as of individual human beings. The sociological aspect is comprised in speaking of "a system of group ways" perpetuated by the people; this system, by inference and by contradistinction from the people themselves, being treated as a reality apart from individuals. The group behavior is somehow abstracted from its concrete existence in individuals and given substantive character as "the institution." A still clearer example of the practice of changing psychological units into sociological entities endowed with a potency of their own is shown in the following definition quoted by the same authors from Hobhouse: "Institutions are recognized and established usages governing certain relations of man." A further formulation from the sociological standpoint treats institutions as "accumulations of social capital which have been produced in the course of community life."[3]

The chief difficulty in all those formulas is that of securing a satisfactory substantive meaning for the term institution. The group of collaborators quoted above tell merely what the institution comprises; they neglect to state what it is. Hobhouse calls institutions ''usages which govern human relations." But this statement is unsatisfactory because untrue except in a metaphorical sense. To say that usages (habits) govern men is merely to say that men usually behave in an habitual manner. The author last quoted resorts to a purely figurative notion (''accumulated social capital") in order to give content to the term under discussion.[4]

The conclusion which seems to force itself upon the writer is that, from the viewpoint of natural science, the institution is not a substantive concept at all. That which the sociologist calls an "Institution" is from the psychologist's standpoint merely similar and reciprocal habits of individual behavior, together with tools which individuals have constructed for carrying them out. These habits are plural and discrete (existing in individuals separately) and therefore devoid of the synthesis or unity implied by a single term such as "institution." It is impossible to abstract from individuals these ways of behaving and point to "the common way" of behaving as an entity in any scientific sense. The word institution describes a situation of similar and reciprocal behavior. It is not a thing in itself. From a psychological standpoint we may speak of institutionalized behavior, but not of an institution.


It is not impossible, the writer believes, to resolve this paradox of mutually antagonistic formulations and to combine the two views into a useful approach. For the present, however, it will be of greater help toward clarity of thinking if we hold them sharply in opposition. For purposes of studying the contrast we can find no better material than that contained in Professor Judd's recent work, The Psychology of Social Institutions. This book, though written mainly from the standpoint of a psychologist, combines the psychological approach with the traditional view concerning social entities. Certain contradictions and shifts of emphasis have resulted which are illuminating from the standpoint of our study. These will now be considered in detail.

In the work mentioned above, the author treats mainly of the simpler and more elementary portions of culture, such as language, number systems, and measures of precision in weight, distance, and time. The more complex institutions of the sociologist, such as the "church" and the "state'' have been given only a cursory analysis. The main theme of the book is that we cannot understand society, or even individual behavior, so long as we study only the isolated individual. No mere laboratory investigation of the individual and no description of his instinctive or emotional nature will enable us to understand the complex institutional factors which mold and control his very thinking and living. "We live," says the author, "in a world where the luxuries of life are delivered to us through meters, reported in Arabic numerals, and paid for in coin'' (p. 151). In consulting a watch a man makes use of many inventions and of the coöperative acts of past generations performed by individuals whose lives and characteristics are now lost forever. Hence "there is a breadth and scope in the psychology of social institutions which is entirely lacking in any system of individual psychology" (p. 127). "Coins," according to this author, "are symbols of a series of social interrelationships" (p. 49). The social situation he views as involving a network of mutual expectancies. We expect people to greet us in a manner prescribed by their social status in relation to ours. We expect our paper money to pass at the same value as coin or in exchange for a certain amount of some specific commodity. We expect people to keep their appointments according to a standard system of time which we also are following. The social situation creates a certain type of expectancy and consequent effort to meet this. The general treatment of the book thus dignifies institutions by treating them as a field of objective facts and implying that they have a "psychology" of their own which in some paradoxical manner is distinct from the psychology of human individuals.

On the other hand, since Professor Judd is a psychologist he is bound, in the concrete development of his thesis, to treat the individual as the locus of the psychological processes of which institutions are composed. "This attitude of confidence [in paper money] . . . . is the outgrowth of repeated experiences in which we have seen the paper accepted without hesitation by trades-people" (p. 5r). He also points out that the stability of paper currency is dependent upon the individual's attitude of confidence in the government set up by the group in which such paper passes as legal tender. In another connection he takes the position that the rapid increase in the diffusion of printed information is due not so much to such inventions as the modem printing press, as to the increase in reading ability and reading habits of the people. Coming therefore to closer description, Professor Judd's

(170) "institutions" resolve themselves into the concrete activities of individuals involved in the making and using of tools, in the employment of common measures of precision and in attitudes of mutual expectancy. "Expectation," he says, "may be described as the conscious counterpart of a habit" (p. 60). While we have travelled a long way from instinctive and emotional life to arrive at these patterns of tool-using and mutually expectant attitudes, it is still true that we are dealing with patterns of human behavior and therefore with the psychology of individuals. And thus the author leaves us with the contradiction which results from attempting to combine without analysis the sociological and the psychological views of institutions. On the one hand the institution is conceived as an objective social entity; upon the other it is viewed wholly as subjective and within individuals.

Attention may be called to certain passages of Professor Judd's book which when placed side by side will exhibit this contradiction.[5] At one place the author says: "Institutions are crystallized ideas. They make possible the transmission of ideas. They are detached from the minds in which they originated and are capable of affecting other minds" (p. 17). Let us compare this super-individual conception of institutions with the two following formulations: "The effects of institutions such as we have been describing did not begin to accumulate rapidly until men arrived at a recognition of the advantages of imitation as a method of adaptation" (p. 17). And again: "A word cannot pick up an idea and carry it over to another mind. Ideas become effective in a group only in so far as all the members of the group have learned forms of thought which are common" (p. 114). At one time the author thus stresses the rôle of the institution in understanding the individual; at another time he stresses the psychology of the individual as the basis for understanding the institution. He wishes to establish the conviction that "individual mental life is what it is by virtue of powerful social influences" (p. 12.8). Yet he is continually showing that these "social influences" are simply the modes of behavior or the inventiveness of other individuals.

Turning now to a few special problems in which the psychological and sociological views may be contrasted, let us examine more closely the concept of ''expectancy" which Professor Judd has made basic in his treatment of institutions. "The fact which we have described by the term 'expectation,''' he says, ''is at once a product of group life and a dominant fact within the individual. Once an expectation has been created it becomes a guide to conduct. The breach of an expectation gives just as acute distress as a physical pain. In this sense expectation is a new form of reality capable of being described and demanding respect on the part of all members of the group"[6]  (p. 59). Again: "Social groups produce by their interaction modifications of individual behavior. These we call conventions. The convention is recorded in the individual as an expectation and as a habit of personal conduct. It should not be overlooked that expectation while it is related to behavior is not synonymous

(171) with individual habit. The superior expects a certain type of salutation from the inferior, but the superior does not himself cultivate as a personal habit the mode of salutation which he expects. Habit and expectation issue in highly elaborated systems of behavior and in complex codes of conduct to which the group not only gives its sanction, but on which it is prepared to insist with adequate power to enforce its demands" (pp. 6i-62.). (Italics are by the present writer.)

This view, while sound in the main, invites a criticism of the treatment of expectation as a category different from habit. Is there really an "expectation" (or abstract custom), apart from habits of individuals, which determines such situations as these? While it is true that the superior does not have the same habit of salutation which he expects from the inferior, still, he has a habit of his own. The social situation comprising expectancy then may in certain cases mean the readiness of two individuals to respond to each other by respectively different forms of behavior. It is a situation in which each expects a form of behavior different from his own. The superior, moreover, is actually thwarted in his own habit of salutation if the greeting of the inferior is lacking in deference or otherwise at variance with convention (expectation); for the former in this case must block his usual reaction and respond by anger, hauteur, or some other method suitable to the implied offense. In other words expectation lies in the neuro-muscular "set" for releasing wonted habit-responses without blocking or hindrance. When we say our expectation is thwarted by unconventional behavior of our fellows, we mean our own habits of response are thwarted. In addition to this, other habitual reactions of the superior are blocked, attitudes which we are accustomed to regard as his "sense of self-esteem" or "public dignity." Expectation then may be reduced to a situation where each person is set to perform his particular group of habits upon meeting the other. These habits may be the same in the two persons or may differ, according to the individual's previous encounters with the other person, or with similar individuals who have stimulated him in the same manner.

A more obvious example of the identity between expectation and habit is seen in our behavior in passing upon the right when we meet another individual upon a highway. In this case the expectancy which each has of the behavior of the other is mainly comprised in the fact that neither can perform his own usual habit (passing upon the right) unless the other person does likewise. In this democratic situation the responses of the two individuals are similar but, owing to their face to face position, reciprocal. A more despotic arrangement would be for the inferior to yield always the complete right of way to the superior. In this case the habits of the two would be again reciprocal, but different. To quote Professor Judd's own statement of the case: "The man of superior rank, which at first meant the man of superior strength, [upon meeting another man] pushed the weaker man aside. When two men of equal rank met, they sometimes decided who should have the path by trial of strength. In either case, the tendency was ultimately developed for the weak to defer to the strong Indeed, all that we have described by such terms as 'prestige' and 'rank' is in the making when men meet on a narrow path, not because the path in itself conveys the idea of prestige but because the social situation creates a certain type of expectation and a consequent effort to meet this expectation" (pp. 6263). It seems to the writer, however,

(172) that if Professor Judd had gone a little further and had acknowledged that this custom of dominance and submission lay entirely in the habits or attitudes of the persons meeting each other, he would have reduced "expectation" to a scientific category instead of having left it hanging in the air.

A second problem bringing into contrast the two views of institutions under consideration is concerned with numbers and measures of precision. To Professor Judd the number system is apparently not merely a matter of individual psychology but a unique social invention existing objectively. It is a tool which individuals come to use in learning to think and deal with their experiences. It is a mold in which the individual's thought is cast, and not merely a set of habits which he may acquire. This is shown, he says, by the fact that children exhibit marked individual differences in their learning of the number system. Some use one kind of mental imagery, some another kind, and some none at all. Some are proficient in one branch and defective in other branches; others are equally proficient in all. In contrast with these psychological differences we may place the stable and objective character of the number system which in itself is the same for every individual. The "social institution" therefore is something more than the psychological processes of individuals (pp. 154-156).

In reply to this ingenious argument it may be said that its author has limited himself too thoroughly to the introspective point of view. There are to be sure conspicuous differences in individuals' reports of their "content of consciousness" during the learning process and in their use of numbers. If we consider their behavior, however, we shall find no striking differences, but rather, striking similarities. If two boys each count out ten pennies, while there may be individual peculiarities in the manner of handling the coins, there will, however, be certain aspects of their movements which are practically identical. When several persons speak the numbers, while there may be individual differences in pitch and timbre of the voice and in inflection, there will be striking similarity as to the basic vowel and consonantal sounds. These audible similarities rest, of course, on similar responses of the vocal muscles in the various speakers. When we examine therefore the "institutional" or like behaviors of individuals we shall find quite enough identity and regularity to convince us that the number system may appear as stable and universal while still having its existence in the behavior mechanisms of human beings. There is no necessity for the hypothesis of an objective numeral system in order to treat this "institution" as a datum of science or to explain its fundamental value and universal acceptance.

A unit of measure, such as a yard, is another example of a concept which, though often treated as super-organic, may be reduced to the plane of natural science. Conformity to widespread human usage and the feeling of prestige attaching to universal acceptation incline us strongly to believe that that which is universally used and spoken of must be fundamentally real and independent of human experience. Everyone speaks about a yard in so matter of fact a way that we tend naïvely to accept it as an entity existing in the natural order of things long before men began to weigh and measure, and discovered and adopted by men at some early period of history. Experience, however, when carefully observed reveals no such entity as a yard. We have only spatially extended objects. The notion of "yard" indicates psychologi-

(173) -cally the attitude we take in breaking up such a linear extension into designated parts. The material scale used for laying off these subdivisions, rather than the abstract notion of "yard," is the thing which designates the length of the parts. We know we are using the right scale because our "yardstick" can be compared at any moment with a standard stick kept at the national capital under carefully controlled conditions of temperature, etc. The fact that we compare our scale with this particular standard has, of course, no significance beyond the fact that millions of other persons with whom we may deal can be relied upon to govern their behavior by the same standard and apply to it the common term, "yard." It would be difficult therefore to find any substance for the notion of "yard" except of a psychological sort: i.e., the habitual attitudes of individuals in designating, accepting, and using a certain physical object for purposes of measurement.

Professor Judd had brought out clearly the acceptance of units of measure as real things by the untutored mind. This notion belongs in the realm of primitive metaphysics rather than modern science. The child is born into a world where the units of time and space, like paper and silver money, seem to be ultimate realities. He accepts them as phenomena quite divorced from human causation, just as he would accept rocks or trees. Only through critical reflection can these "institutions" be reduced from objective or societal reality to a psychological plane. People in early times, like many moderns, seem not to have made such a critical analysis. And this was no doubt one of the main reasons why there were such notorious and unchallenged discrepancies in the employment of weights and measures. The long standing lack of precise standards and universal enforcement of their use seems remarkable in modern perspective. Professor Judd has traced the histories of these technological improvements and has shown that only at a relatively recent date have individuals been specially commissioned to give deliberate study to the legal standardization of weights and measures. But he seems to have overlooked the important rôle which the very tendency to reify the institution, or standard of measure, may have played in this delay of standardization.

As long as commodities are measured by a certain definite stick or weight which is carried from place to place such confusion can not occur. But when the unit is conceived as a thing in itself, of which anyone of a class of unstandardized objects, such as the hand or the arm, is accepted as a representation, then measurements are bound. to become inexact, because attention has been diverted from the concrete to the abstract. The foot and the ell were so permanently established as objective social realities, of which the human foot or forearm were merely expressions, that it was a long time before our ancestors recognized the fact so obvious to us, namely, that human appendages differ in length, and that the important thing therefore is not the abstract "foot" but the concrete "foot-rule." In order to be approached and studied by the method of natural science, units of precision like the other "institutions" must therefore be defined not upon the societal level, but in terms of the habits or attitudes of the individuals who employ them.


In his tendency to ascribe causation to the social pattern or institution as such we find that Professor Judd is in close agreement with cultural determinism. However his concrete psychological analysis

(174) may contradict this theory; in his insistence upon the gap between primitive human nature on the one hand and social institutions upon the other, he leans strongly to the side of such writers as Ogburn and Dewey. Here again a correction is needed from the standpoint of psychology and biology in order to keep the notion of institution within the realm of natural science. We shall consider the relation of institutions to original human nature and the learning process in such elements' of culture as language, tools, and industrial organization.

Professor Judd's account of the growth of language deals mainly with the development of language as an entity. Symbols (pictorial and phonetic), syntax, and semantics are thoroughly discussed. The problem of origin, however, and the rôle of face-to-face behavior through which symbolic vocal expression must have originated are neglected. He treats the pattern of language-forms, like other institutions, as a kind of mold into which society compels the individual to be fitted. The institution itself makes for the conformity not only of communication but of the verbal tools with which thinking is largely conducted. While there may be truth in this conception, it neglects certain fundamental aspects. It explains neither the origin of language in the race nor the process by which individuals acquire it. The psychological definition of institutions would require that we consider language to exist essentially in the vocal and writing habits of individuals. And if language is a part of individual behavior, we must expect to find it integrated and having significance with relation to the prepotent (instinctive) needs and the emotional life of the individual. It could not have come into existence without in some way rendering service to these needs. Nor would it be learned by succeeding generations and maintained in social interaction without its having such a value. A scrutiny of face-to-face groups in which language is being developed, if such were available, would yield important knowledge upon this problem. We should probably find that the necessity of getting reactions from others and adapting our biological needs to the environment through eliciting appropriate behavior from others (social control) were the necessary conditions for the invention and transmission of linguistic behavior.

In the consideration of tools as a part of institutional structure we can attack the cultural argument in its clearest form. Professor Judd maintains that when tools were developed their manufacture and use became institutions far removed from the primitive instinctive and emotional life of mankind. Through tools we pass from mere biological existence into an age dominated by material inventions. The enormous technological specialization and development of modern life seem to be a forceful confirmation of this hypothesis. The fact, however, remains that tools were and are developed in the service of prepotent (instinctive) needs, and would probably not now be used if individuals did not have these needs. Tool culture may be regarded as inventive and learning processes worked out as efferent modifications of the original food seeking and protective responses of the infant. These forms of behavior (tool culture) have become so efficient and so capable of satisfying our wants before they arise that their vital connection with the biological and psychological aspects of human nature is often overlooked. As soon, however, as conditions are so altered that tools and allied institutional behavior fail to minister to these needs we find that the original instinctive and emotional behavior of man at once comes forth to dominate the situa-

(175) -tion. Fundamental and individual human nature has in fact been active all the time though obscured through the complexity of technical and social organization. We err in ignoring these constant and basic factors merely because modern organization is so stabilized that they rarely come to notice except during a cultural upheaval or crisis.

The entire modern division of industry may be summarized under two heads: (a) performing some one of the adaptive processes into which the entire work of the world has been divided, and (b) getting paid for this work in some medium of exchange and using this medium to satisfy the biological wants and emotional cravings of the worker. Professor Judd himself has formulated this process and indicated its highly developed nature as follows: "These collateral institutions [division of industries] were the primitive form of exchange. The hunter had food in excess of his personal needs. The spear-head maker had stone points but lacked food. It seems very simple in this day, when customs of exchange and the means for carrying on trade are fully established and understood, to suggest that the hunter and the artisan enter into a mutually advantageous relation and exchange their products. For primitive man, wholly unsupplied with money, unsupplied with instruments of measurement, and, above all, unacquainted with the idea of exchange, the situation was by no means so readily adjusted as it is today" (p. 19). Keeping in mind this essential formula of exchange of labor the entire history of industrial institutions might be treated not merely as the advance of technology, but as a progressive specialization of behavior habits whereby the instinctive tendencies of individual life can be better adapted to the environment, and adapted not so much through direct contact with the raw conditions of nature as through common institutional attitudes and reciprocal adjustment of habits within the group. To say, therefore, that economic culture becomes a super-organic entity divorced from the psychology of the individual and controlling him as if from above is so one sided as to be thoroughly misleading.

The same criticism applies to the artificial separation which the cultural determinist makes between cultural institutions and human nature in the matter of maladjustment. Professor Ogburn has dealt with the general aspects of this problem in his work upon Social Change. It has remained, however, for Professor Judd to give a vivid account of the conflict between "individual psychology" and the nature of the industrial institution.[7] In our age of rapid machine industry and specialization of process the prospect of unemployment produces a constant and harassing anxiety. Old age, failing health, or swings of the business cycle may dislocate the worker suddenly from the industrial organization within which, in modern society, he finds his sole means of earning a living for himself and his family. Fear of such a calamity cannot be released in the normal primitive method, nor can he vent his anger against the thwarting conditions, because there are no tangible stimuli from which he can flee or upon which he can center his attack. The industrial machine is wholly abstract and impersonal. There is no personal enemy or physical obstacle, but only a set of conditions which he can neither understand nor control. The internal secretions and other reinforced emotional energies have therefore no outlet in behavior and can be of no service in solving his problem. Their effect is merely further to reduce his poise and capacity for industrial work, a result which in turn

(176) augments his fear. A vicious circle is thus established with whose effects the industrial psychiatrist is only too familiar. It is this sort of situation which Professor Judd has chosen to illustrate his thesis that individual nature and institutions are two separate, and often mutually opposed, realities.

A more helpful approach to this situation, however, seems to the present writer to lie not in a separation of these two factors, but in the recognition that they are both parts, though imperfectly adjusted, of the human organism. It is not tools alone which have produced industrial maladjustment, but also division of labor and super- and sub-ordination of the many persons engaged in the management and craft of the various industries; in other words, individual habits of organization through which the specialized tools of industry can be coordinated. All this as we have shown before is not really an objective social pattern or "new environment" to which the worker must adapt himself, though it has been so described by sociologists. It lies not so much in the environment of men as in the habit systems of men themselves. Psychologically the institution consists of a large number of similar and reciprocating habits of individuals. These habits, like others, have been acquired slowly and are difficult to change except through gradual relearning. Industrial maladjustment can therefore be interpreted not as friction between an objective (super-individual) culture and individual human nature, but as a certain conflict and lack of adaptation of habits within and between individuals, and a failure of the institutionalized reactions perfectly to satisfy the needs of organisms under the conditions in which they live. We are dealing of course with a complex problem. The cultural determinist is correct in saying that without the rapid advance of technological inventions this lag in the adjustment of the human factor could not have taken place. What he overlooks however is the fact that the institutional habits (within individuals) which make possible the industrial organization of the machine age, are also a necessary part of the picture. That is, industrial maladjustment is as truly a lack of adaptation between the operation of the institutional habits of the individual and his instinctive behavior, as it is between the outer tool culture and his inner instinctive needs.[8] Hence the conflict may be located upon the psychological plane quite as well as between the psychological and the sociological levels.

Considerations of this sort suggest that the whole problem may be turned about face. Instead of positing institutions as agencies detached from human beings through which society controls individuals, we may regard them as comprised in the similar and reciprocal responses of a large number of individuals.[9] Institu

(177) -tions do not form a new level of natural phenomena superseding prepotent (instinctive) behavior, but grow directly out of such behavior through learning and invention. They are in fact merely complex modifications of original responses, and are developed in the process of adapting to a world of natural objects mainly through and with the help of one's fellow men.

Experience seems to show that there are no gaps in nature. Between physics, chemistry, biology and human behavior, there are neither sharp dividing lines not differences in scientific attitude, experimental attack, or type of generalization. It seems unlikely also that the data of sociology should be in a world apart. It is true that the happenings observed upon the societal level are generally neglected by the "pure" biologist or psychologist. To point out a range and pattern of phenomena which the psychologist and biologist would not by themselves discover, is, in the writer's opinion, the great service which the sociologist can render. This service, on the other hand, changes to a hindrance when the attempt is made to segregate such a field of phenomena from the approach, method, and inductive processes prevalent throughout the other sciences. While it is true that a study of prepotent responses alone will not give us a full understanding of institutional structure, nevertheless such responses set limits outside of which institutions cannot permanently develop. One cannot make a prediction regarding societal development from instinctive behavior alone; but neither can one make such a prediction without it. A balanced treatment would therefore observe a basic identity, rather than a separation, between institutions and the psychology of the individual.[10]


If we have sufficiently demonstrated the need of supplementing the sociological view of institutions by the psychological one, the problem of the future is the development of an approach through units conceived in psychological terms. It is beyond our present competence to predict the nature of such a research or to offer any valuable contribution to its technique. It seems clear however that the first step is to break with traditional usage in the matter of terminology. If we are to investigate institutions as human behavior, our concepts must be more sharply defined and brought into line with the principles underlying denotation in the natural sciences. The biologist has given up the use of metaphor and personification as a principle of explanation. He does not explain the behavior of frogs by reference to the fact that frogs as a class behave in a certain manner. The attempt is made always to state the units of explanation in simpler and more specific terms. He may of course describe the behavior of frogs as a class or group; but he cannot proceed deeply into the problem without a consideration of neuro-muscular and glandular responses and synaptic nervous patterns implanted in the germ cell or developed through learning. In the same manner the social scientist must be more cautious in his use of the notions of social groups, classes, forces, and structures as principles of explanation. He must denote action and agent, movement and function, not in a metaphysical or figurative sense,

(178) but in the manner of one who is seeking to explain his phenomena through units explicity verifiable by human observation. In dealing with action of any sort, that is, what is commonly called "cause and effect," he must be careful to specify concretely the agent and the recipient. Thus, to say that "society controls the individual" is an assertion of a metaphysical character and out of keeping with the approach we are here proposing. To indicate exactly who or what it is that does the controlling, who is controlled, and how the controlling is brought about in terms of a specific and concrete event would be to make a statement quite in harmony with the method of natural science. Vague and misleading also is the usage of treating institutions, in a reified or personified way, as agents of social control. The "state" or the "church" never really acted upon any object, controlled any individual, or framed any policy. It was only popes, churchmen, or rulers who, supported by obedient attitudes of citizens or worshippers, performed such acts. For such attempts to invest institutions with power to move and act as entities in the world of natural phenomena we need some distinctive name. The writer would suggest for this purpose the term "institutional fallacy."

It should be made clear that we are not here discrediting all use of the notion of institution. Institutions in the sociological sense are descriptive categories which have a real value in pointing out ranges of human phenomena which the isolated laboratory psychologist would never see. Their greatest usefulness, however, can be secured only by recognizing their limitations. "Institution" is a descriptive term. To use it, or any of its variants or types, as a principle of explanation will involve the user in the fallacy of attempting to change words into things. Explanation, as in all scientific work, must consist of description upon a lower, (i.e., in this case, psychological) plane. It is not necessarily a fallacy to use the notion of "groups" or "institutions" merely as a convenient mode of speaking; but it is fallacious to speak of them as causing something, acting upon something, or being acted upon, thus concealing the fact that they exist (in the sense of natural science) only in the behaviors of individual human beings.[11]

Institutional fallacies in the literature of social science will be found to be exceedingly numerous and varied. To point them out, the writer believes, is a service to the refinement of sociological method.[12]

(179) It is perhaps unjust to call every instance of group or institutional reification a fallacy. Their users would doubtless maintain in most cases that they were intended only as metaphorical. It is surprising however how the application of institutional and group metaphors tends to lapse over into literal acceptance, and to pass from concept to cause, from description to explanation. Our objection is not merely that such usage is unfruitful in itself. The word institution has a plausible but specious ring of authority. Many persons (scholars as well as laymen) accept it with their desire for explanation satisfied. Further, investigation is not thought necessary; hence the social situation remains unanalyzed and the important factors undiscovered. The institutional concept has been used to conceal a rich field of scientific data and to stifle the advancement of research. Clearly then our first task in fostering a psychological approach to this field is to subject much of the terminology of social science to a thorough revision.


  1. A discussion of Professor Judd's Psychological Analysis.
  2. Arneson, Barnes, Coulter, and Hubbert. A Gateway to the Social Sciences. Ginn and Company, 1926. Pp. 108-111.
  3. Judd, C. H. The Psychology of Social Institutions, p. 3.
  4. It is noteworthy that in Professor Judd's entire work no adequate definition is given of what an institution is in terms capable of scientific use.
  5. Our purpose here is not to discredit the valuable treatment which Professor Judd has given the problem of institutions. A more balanced and systematic review of this work has been provided by the present writer in The School Review, September, 192.6, pp. 547-551. The references used in this discussion arc selected merely as a guide into some of the confused problems of method in the social sciences.
  6. The term "expectation" in this sense is practically interchangeable with the sociologist's term "custom."
  7. loc. cit., ch. 14.
  8. Professor Ogburn in his Social Change takes the position that since human nature is constant, it can be neglected in the elucidation of changes. While this may be true to some extent of biological (innate) aspects of human nature, it is not true of the acquired and changeable aspects. And the institutional habits to which we have referred belong to the latter class. Since they can be changed, and are in fact continually changing, their rôle in the production and solution of cultural maladjustment must not be overlooked. Professor Judd's suggestion of old age pensions as a remedy is a proof of the possibility of altering or supplementing our institutional habits in such a way as to adjust the situation. While Professor Ogburn might refer to this as a cultural rather than a psychological development it can as truly, and, the writer believes, quite as suggestively be dealt with as the latter.
  9. We should of course include material objects, such as tools, buildings, and records within the scope of the word institution. The ability to use such implements, however, as well as the social organization growing up around them, belongs upon the level of the behavior of individuals.
  10. The fundamental activities of human nature determine not only the extent of institutional specialization; they determine also its directions. The fact of a universal culture pattern, described by Professor Wissler shows how intimately the psychology of the human individual is interwoven into the texture which is studied by the ethnologist.
  11. For further discussions by the present writer dealing with various aspects of the "group" and "institutional" fallacies consult the following:
    "The Group Fallacy in Relation to Social Science," Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, Vol. XIX, No. i, April June, 1924. (Also reprinted by the Sociological Press, Hanover, N. H.) "The Group Fallacy in Relation to Culture," Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, Vol. XIX, July-September, 1924.
    "Social Change: An Analysis of Professor Ogburn's Culture Theory," Journal of Social Forces, 1924, Vol. II, 671-676.
    "The Psychological Nature of Political Structure," American Political Science Review, August, 1927.
    "The Psychology of Nationalism," Harper's, August, 1927.
  12. The following examples of institutional fallacy are taken for convenience from Judd's Psychology of Social Institutions, with italics by the present writer. They are by no means characteristic of the entire book; and the reader should be cautioned against the unfair impression which their selection might convey. The institutional fallacy, moreover, far from being limited to Professor Judd, may be found in the writings of many sociologists and political scientists.
    "Government, for example, is a device which social intelligence bas evolved to direct and check human behavior so that there shall be harmony within the group" (p. 4). "Every social institution becomes in this way not merely the embodiment of an idea or tendency which brought it into being, but a force influencing the consciousness and behavior of all who come into contact with it'' (p. 65). ''The institution is not the group but it is the product of cumulative group action and the source of group influence" (p. 75).
    "Money dominates individual behavior and in so far as it does, we are justified in saying that the group, through its institutions, exercises control over the individual" (p. 75). "The fact is that the will of the group has become so influential in guiding individual behavior that even when social judgment expresses itself, not in statutes, but in that much vaguer form known as public opinion, it operates powerfully to limit and direct the activities of citizens" (p. 322). "Men start with a few words and phrases and as soon as they master these they deposit the results of their common thinking and common behavior in institutions such as religious belief or customs of courtesy" (p. 214)

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