Fundamentals of Social Psychology

Chapter 15: Convention Diffusion

Emory S. Bogardus

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CUSTOM and convention are terms that are often used interchangeably. Sometimes custom is made to include convention.[1] In the following discussion four main distinctions are made. (1) Convention is employed primarily to refer to the form and custom to the content of an idea or action that is socially inherited and imitated. (2) On the whole convention is much less able to stand the test of rational criticism than is custom, although the formal side of life unless overstressed gives dependability to functional activities. (3) There is more superficial talk about convention than custom, especially among the people who lay great stress upon manners.[2] (4) Convention ordinarily outlives custom, for by its very nature, the skeleton remains after the spirit has departed.

Convention and custom, however, are more alike than different ; both are non-competitive, both are imitations of the past, both are inculcated chiefly in the immature years of life. Convention, like custom, operates as both suggestion and imitation ; it is the imitation phase which is more personal and hence pertinent ; the two phases together constitute convention diffusion. Since convention relates to the formal phases of life and custom to the content and functional elements, it is clear that convention and custom generally relate to different phases of the same thing. Much that was said in the preceding chapter about custom applies in a way to convention; much that will be presented in this chapter concerning convention is vitally related to custom. There are many instances, however, where the structural side of an activity has become separated from a living content, and hence stands alone—a mere shell. In other cases, the function has been transferred or has become desiccated, leaving chiefly a convention which still performs mechanically and lives on because some people secure authority from its established prestige.

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Convention differs from fashion in many ways, for example, in being non-competitive in character. All strive to imitate it exactly rather than to push it to extremes in the competitive strife to outdo one another. It is not open to discussion, question, criticism ; it is undeliberately maintained. The assumption is that everyone will adopt it. It is not promoted by the few for a short time as is fashion.

Convention arrives through social heredity. A person who accepts a convention, does so by adding it to his stock of accepted procedures, as distinguished from him who accepts a fashion, for the latter person is giving up a new procedure for a newer one.[3] The process in the first case involves psychic addition ; in the second case, psychic substitution.

Convention is often basic to fashion changes ; it is the crust over which fashion cyclones move. The rigid convention of women wearing hats indoors at public gatherings, even in church, is a psychic background on which plays the rapid changes of the styles in women's hats. Likewise, formal occasions persist conventionally without being seriously questioned while being used at the same time as a framework for fashion scintillations. The convention is unquestioned that an elaborate evening gown must be worn by a lady at a formal evening affair; this convention carries with it the continuous permission to exercise a variety of fashion choices. The convention obtains among men of wearing woolen suits, but this non-competitive convention bears on its surface among many men, especially young men, a flashy display of fashion changes. Convention may thus be likened to Atlas carrying the world of fashion upon his shoulders.


Convention deals primarily with social structures rather than with social functioning. Convention is represented chiefly by forms. The eating of three meals a day by Americans, carrying food to the mouth with a fork, serving coffee at an evening dinner party, and so on, all deal with the forms of securing nourishment, not with nourishment itself. A formal reception affords opportunities for strangers to be introduced to each other and to express a few words of greeting, to act as though they were old-time friends, bowing graciously to each other, but not to develop very much real and abiding friendship. Almost a negligible percentage of the persons one is introduced to at a formal reception thereby become permanent friends. It is the form rather than the throbbing content of

( 179) friendship which is present. In the same way the making of formal calls and the leaving of calling cards are of the form rather than the essence of friendship.

Manners are elaborate conventional forms relating to nearly all the social relationships of cultured persons. They are intended to smooth off the rough edges of social contacts. They prevent individuality from hindering the functioning of sociality. Manners are methods of social approach, implying- incipient good will.

When carried to an extreme, manners are deceptive. Politeness is an illustration of manners that easily become lying. In order not to offend the feelings and the friendship of another person one may tell him how fine he looks in a new unbecoming hat; or how well he looks, when he is ill; or how splendid a speech he made when he blundered.

Even in the ordinary exercise of manners, the form often belies the spirit. Two track contestants who at heart hate each other, shake hands before the race—in the presence of the spectators. Business forms sanction addressing a strange woman as "My dear Madam."

As society grows older it gives more heed to manners and to the forms of social interaction. The pioneer is too busy mastering the wilderness and making adjustments mental and social to give time to the formal sides of social life, and hence is brusque or even rude. His pioneer life affords him few social contacts, and the "rough edges" of his conduct disturb no one, for there is plenty of elbow room. But when pioneering ends and a people depend on nature less and on one another more, they turn their attention to social forms as well as contents and develop manners even to the point of obsequiousness. Especially is this true where autocracy rather than democracy prevails.


Convention is based on past real or alleged utility. What is now a convention is often merely a shell of a former useful activity. The dress suit coat was once a long, square-cornered coat, but the corners were troublesome in horse-back riding and so two buttons were put on the back of the coat and the corners were buttoned upon them. Later, square corners were cut out of the front of the coat, leaving the two buttons on the back, where they have remained useless. The square corners that were cut from the front facilitated horseback riding; they are still cut out although new means of traveling have superseded horseback riding. The square notches in the collar of a man's coat once served a useful

( 180) purpose ; when overcoats were not worn and when the collar of the regular coat was turned up, the notched out corners made a place for the chin of the wearer. The collars of ordinary coats are no longer turned up, but the notches are still cut out of them.

The French heel once served a useful purpose. It was first worn by Louis XIV who because of his short stature had several "lifts" added to the heels of his shoes. The French heel is no longer worn by short men, nor exclusively by short women, but by women generally, not to increase height, but to be conventional in defiance of all the demands to the contrary of personal hygiene and comfort in walking. In the same way the unserviceable hoods on academic gowns are still maintained ; they originated in a definite utility to the monks who wore them several centuries ago.

Superstitions persist in a conventional way, without merit ; but once they were instruments of worth. The superstition of "knocking on wood" which appears silly today represented at one time a genuine religious spirit of supplication and consisted in prayerfully touching the wooden cross.

Every religious dogma likewise once represented an advanced idea or belief, but it became rooted in religious custom and may remain today as a convention, although several centuries behind modern scientific knowledge. Economic laissez-faire doctrines once served to stimulate the masses who were being released under a rising tide of democracy, but now they are tolerated conventionally, while governmental control increases apace.

The belief in luck was valid in primitive days when the unknown impinged on every hand, when the simpler phenomena of nature were not understood, when locomotion was slow and communication was limited to the voice. Under such conditions the belief in luck often gave the needed amount of initiative and of persistence to insure success. This belief still maintains itself, but only as convention except in the field of gambling,[4] where it acts as an all-powerful lure in causing people to risk their money for improbable returns. What is rational in one age is apt to persist until it no longer meets human needs, and thus becomes metamorphosed into convention.

Convention has been largely created by the hereditary leisure classes.[5] Not being forced to earn a living or to work strenuously, they often give their attention to the fringes and the forms of life, magnifying and exaggerating them. Since "society affairs" fill their lives, much attention is

( 181) given to the forms of being introduced, of greeting, of all the phases of politeness ; "manners" rule relentlessly.

For the average person the origin of convention is found in an unthinking acceptance or doing of prevailing ideas or activities. We lazily drift "into an acceptance of prevailing conditions and attitudes as they are found in our immediate place and time, as when we drift into our political and religious life." [6]

Many conventions are specific developments of general conventions or of a conventional atmosphere, partly caused by and partly the cause of a prevailing opinion. For example, "the polite thing in Belgium and France is always to address a young woman of marriageable age as `Madame,' instead of `Miss' as with us."[7]

The hereditary leisure groups use convention imitation to foster undemocratic teachings.[8] This point found expression in the false social dogma which is spread by the "upper" classes that "manual labor is degrading." In a commercial age it is easy for the false belief of a business class that "pecuniary success is the only success," to permeate even the education of the young in the home and school.

Autocracy readily employs itself in getting undemocratic ideas inculcated into the lower class customs. By every conceivable type of direct and indirect suggestion false conceptions are taught in order that these deceivers may assume an air of superiority. Factory girls let it be known—often by a glance of the eye—that servant girls will not be admitted to their parties. In South America guests in hotels or at clubs get themselves respected by encouraging the doctrine "of being waited on."[9] Hence self-serve cafeterias are always scorned by autocratic individuals. This practice becomes ridiculous in the story of the French king who allowed himself to be fatally over-heated because there was no servant present at the moment to move his seat away from the hearth-fire.

Education is easily duped by blind guides with conventionalized anti-social ideas. American Rhodes scholars when in England have been "looked at askance for doing for themselves things which the British student has done for him by his `scout'."[10] The members of American University rowing crews have been "protested" in England because they

( 182) were not "gentlemen," as proved by the fact that they were working their way through college.[11]

Clericalism promotes countless conventions as a means of maintaining itself in power, for example, the holier than thou demeanor, the vestments, the emphasis on creeds. Militarism likewise flaunts conventions, as illustrated in the haughty manners of many officers, the meticulous attention to saluting, and the fine distinctions made in obeying orders. Imperialism holds tenaciously to "rights."


Convention rules imperiously. It brooks no question; if challenged it cries "heretic," "traitor," "anarchist," "bolshevist." Dreading criticism, it hides in the semi-darkness of awe, fear, and respect of its devotee. Its meanings are drilled into child nature by repetition and ritual. The uncritical years and the lack of judgment of childhood lead to its easy acceptance. The "sacred memories" of childhood combine to enforce its dominion over maturity. It can be removed from its throne only through exercise of the highest degree of personal self control and rational insight.

Convention's imperiousness increases with the age of a society. A new civilization is too fluid to have developed the formal phases of associative life. The pioneer is forced by circumstances to rely on himself too much to be considerate of social forms. But as a civilization matures, the reactions of individuals crystallize into standard types of behavior, and when it passes maturity and its life energies slow up, its structural side turns to bone, which the enterprising individual may peck at but cannot dent.

With the rise of convention imperiousness, the forms of life control the content, and often assume in self protection a deceptive coloring. A bluff and bluster may deceive a few, but ultimately the shrivelled heart, the decayed core, is disclosed, and the societary ramshackle falls. The Czar and his followers killed those who opposed them, until the exigencies of war required that these "enemy" subjects be consigned to fight in the Czarist armies, but the demands of urgent war situations finally revealed the thinness of the shell by which the imperial party had domineered over a nation. A few quick revolutionary strokes were made, and the shell collapsed without giving evidence of even a tremor, so weak had it become.


Convention imitation arbitrarily limits competition between classes. Not only is convention imitation universal and non-competitive on a given social level, but it prevents one level from imitating another. Caste forbids one social status from imitating the one above it. "In Japan the code of the jinrikisha men forbids one runner to pass by another going in the same direction."[12] The private may not wear the uniform of the officer, and the layman may not don the robes of the clergy. It is partly for reasons like this that conventions remain uniform. The urge or competition making necessary any modification has been crushed out.


Convention often undergoes a transformation in meaning. After losing its original content, it cleverly lives on by bodying forth new meanings. Hallowe'en, once an expression of the belief in the return of departed spirits, now serves as an occasion of festivities ranging from ordinary social "parties" to rowdy expeditions by obstreperous youth. Thanksgiving Day with its family altar and church gatherings of thankfulness to Almighty God now is looked forward to by many as an occasion for overeating or for witnessing a football contest.

Convention survives by becoming recognized as symbolic. The Apostles' Creed is repeated by many thousands who no longer believe it in all particulars, but justify their hypocrisy on the ground that it is' the general spirit of the Creed to which they subscribe rather than the particular statements in it. Rituals are accepted as symbolic, but not always in their particular professions. The House of Lords is endured not for its present worth but as representative of past national glory. The antiquated ideas of some aged people are not challenged because of respect for hallowed fatherhood and motherhood. The King James version of the Bible with its sometimes figurative rather than accurate translations is maintained out of courtesy to the "King's English." Although expressive of a crude social order the classics of the Romans, Greeks, and Hebrews are still read widely ; for the sake of the best a large amount of dross is conventionally carried along. A university was once located at an ox ford, and another at Cam's Bridge; each of these plebeian terms has become conventionalized and immortalized in the names of England's two great institutions of higher learning.

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1. The non-competitive uniformities of behavior relating to the formal or structural phases of life are conventional.

2. Convention is an imitation of past forms that are usually inculcated in the early uncritical years of life.

3. Convention is the structural phase of the activities and beliefs of which custom is the content or functional element; it may become entirely separated from custom, the latter having shrivelled away.

4. When the content of a past alleged or real utility disappears the form may persist as a convention.

5. A main section of the field of convention is represented by manners and the forms of "polite society."

6. Convention has often been created by the hereditary leisure classes, who unduly magnify formalities.

7. Convention rules imperiously, and increasingly so, as the age of a group advances.

8. Convention may survive by adopting new meanings or by becoming symbolic.


1. Explain the relation of convention to custom.

2. How are convention and fashion related?

3. Why is the display of good manners conventional among the leisure classes?

4. What survivals, no longer useful, are there in the quaintly cut dress suit coat?

5. What is the origin of most conventions?

6. Why does convention rule imperiously?

7. Explain the relation of convention to social competition.

8. How do conventions sometimes change their meanings?

9. Illustrate : convention is symbolic.


1. Name three leading conventions that you have followed today.

2. Why does a Christian take off his hat in church and a Mohammedan his shoes?

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3. Explain : Manners become worse as one travels from East to West they are best in Asia, fairly good in Europe, poor in America.

4. Why has the dress suit for men remained more or less the same the world over?

5. Why may a man wear the same dress suit for years, whereas a woman must have a new dress for almost every formal occasion?

6. In what utility did the hood on the academic gown originate?

7. Explain : "Such generally admired beauties of person or costume as the bandaged foot, the high heel, the wasp waist, the full skirt, and the long train are such as incapacitate from all useful work."

8. Illustrate: "Almost everywhere propriety and conventionality press more mercilessly on woman than on man, thereby lessening her range of choice and dwarfing her will."

9. Is our food a matter of personal choice or of convention?

10. Does one's manner of living, or manner of work change the more rapidly, and why?

11. What are conventions for?


Baldwin, J. M., Social and Ethical Interpretations (Macmillan, 1906), Ch. X.

Cooley, C. H., Social Organization (Scribners, 1909), Chs. XVIII, XX, XXX.

Howard, G. E., Social Psychology (syllabus, University of Nebraska, 1910), Sect. XII.

Platt, Charles, The Psychology of Social Life (Dodd, Mead: 1922), Ch. V.

Ross, E. A., Social Psychology (Macmillan, 1908), Chs. VII-XI.

Veblen, T., The Theory of the Leisure Class (Macmillan, 1912), Chs. IX, XI.


  1. One of the best discussions of the relationship between custom and convention is given by E. A. Ross, in his Social Psychology (Macmillan, 1938), Ch. XII. Also see R. H. Gault, Social Psychology (Holt, 1923), Ch. VIII.
  2. The distinction that convention is an unthought feeling of acceptance, approval or disapproval of a point of view or form of behavior or station in life, while a custom is an overt method, form or habit of behavior which gives outward expression to the feeling of approval or disapproval (Gault, Social Psychology, 179) seems questionable.
  3. Ross, Social Psychology, p. 196.
  4. T. Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class (Macmillan, 1912), Ch. XI.
  5. Ibid., Ch. 1.
  6. R. H. Gault, Social Psychology, p. 183.
  7. Whiting Williams, Horny Hands and Hampered Elbows (Scribners, 1922), p. 262.
  8. The best presentation of this fact is found in E. A. Ross' Social Psychology, Ch. VII.
  9. E. A. Ross, Principles of Sociology (Century, 1920), p. 351.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Ross, ibid., p. 360.
  12. E. A. Ross, ibid., p. 189.

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