Fundamentals of Social Psychology

Chapter 18: Accommodation

Emory S. Bogardus

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ACCOMMODATION is an adjustment of habit to new ideas and procedures. The process originates in passive adaptation,[1] which may be traced back through plant and animal life. Lower forms of life are slowly made over to meet environmental conditions. The environment may stimulate the growth of certain characteristics, and hinder the development of other traits, that is "select" certain traits and crush out others. Plants, animals, human beings, and social groups that cannot change as fast as the physical or mental stimuli would demand become extinct, hence, the need for passive adaptation.[2]

In mental interaction there is a large amount of passive adaptation. The docile child responds to parental and school suggestion, and the servile hanger-on or the "hired servant" in modern politics jumps to do the bidding of his master. The world is full of blind imitators, following light-footedly in the steps of prestige. Unearned leadership often rests on a clientele of passive adapters, whose fickleness is often their weakness and whose spinelessness leads them hither and yon after the false gods of the hour. A charlatan with almost any quack remedy or mysterious patter may easily gain a following of dupes.

Transmutations is the term used by E. A. Ross to indicate a phase of passive adaptation, or in his words, "unwilled social changes. The speech of our ancestors underwent the unnoticed sound-shiftings recorded in Grimm's law. Refracted through generations of scribes, pictographs shrivel into conventional ideographic characters. Coins minted first as tiny spades or knives dwindle into unrecognizable shapes." [3]


Active adaptation originates in an advanced phase of passive adjustment. In the earliest stages of forethought man has anticipated changes in environment and prepared for them, withstood their shock, forestalled

( 211) some entirely, and deliberately created others. In this way he has passed from helpless to active adaptation; the center of influence has shifted from environment to himself. Instead of being made over by environment he has risen to levels of mastery. Active adaptation was represented by aggressive leaders long before the concept was definitely made a sociological principle by Lester F. Ward in 1883.[4] Ward proclaimed the rightful superiority of mind over matter and of intelligence over instinctive behavior, and made an effective plea for social planning, or social telesis.

A useful distinction, following Ward, has been made by Bristol,[5] between active material and active spiritual adaptation. The first mentioned process, provoked by intersocial stimulation, has led to conquests of the material resources of the earth.[6] In a fuller degree active adaptation passes from impulsive and narrow visioned material conquests to rational and habitually unselfish social achievements. The problems of active material adaptation do not concern us here as much as those of active spiritual adaptation, although the first mentioned process is based on mental interaction and is a foundation of social telesis.

It is at this last mentioned point that economic thought has been at variance with psychological interpretation of society. The economist has argued that material civilization is the basis of social life, while the social psychologist has pointed out that social life is basic even to material civilization and that social life creates and determines all economic values. Without social life, contacts, attitudes, and responses, and an elemental social spirit, there could be no economic values or material civilization.

Active spiritual and social adaptation represents the control element of accommodation proper. It is characterized by changes in social habits, and is complementary to structural and organic changes. All social heritages are accommodations, and social organization is a series of accommodations.[7] Domestication of animals illustrates passive adaptation. Step by step through selection the domestication process takes place. Taming of animals, on the other hand, represents active adaptation or accommodation, that is, individual animals naturally in conflict with man become accommodated to him.[8]

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Pioneering material and spiritual illustrates active adaptation. The Pilgrims brought new types of religion, ethics, and government to America ; Copernicus proposed a revolutionary conception of the world; and Wilson suggested "fourteen points" for international conduct that would reverse many powerful international tendencies. The pioneer is apt to be so "different" that his ideas are at once vigorously challenged ; he may be persecuted, and even may not live to see the accommodation effected which his pioneering spirit has generated.


A deadlock or equilibrium of physical and mental strength leads to toleration, a first step in accommodation. When mental conflict is markedly unequal and the superiority of one idea or procedure is undisputed, there will be no toleration.

We tolerate what we cannot avoid, but we may continue to dislike and to disapprove. During this period of status quo, however, new contacts are made. Out of them a favorable reaction may now and then be experienced by one side or the other. If the period of toleration continues long enough a number of favorable reactions may be experienced by both opponents. These wholesome experiences gradually wear away the effect of the repellent contacts and furnish a basis for further accommodation.

Toleration is often deceptive; it seems to mean more than it is. A person may tolerate another but in effect be saying to himself: "Just wait, I'll get even with you yet, old fellow." Politeness is often the cloak that deceptive toleration wears. Two rival society belles or two athletes from rival institutions may shake hands and, as far as the public sees, are the best of friends but at heart they despise one another.

The teacher or club leader may tolerate an obstreperous pupil or member, in the hope of ultimately benefiting him. A pupil may tolerate the unpleasant ways of a narrow-minded teacher in order not to lower his chances for a passing grade, or a group member may tolerate group laughter in order to be able ultimately to be elected "president" or secure some other favor from the group. Wherever toleration exists it generally has an ulterior purpose.

Rational tolerance is difficult to secure where established feeling currents prevail. Mountain feuds do not ordinarily permit of tolerance. The sight of one belonging to the enemy family prompts the drawing of weapons. Race prejudices may become so bitter that anyone's life is endangered who even pleads for tolerance. A few years ago the mayor

( 213) of Omaha attempted to persuade a mob to tolerate an alleged wrong until the courts could act, and immediately the noose was thrown around the mayor's neck and he was dragged to the ground, barely escaping death. The darkest pages of human history might be written in terms of intolerance.


One of the simpler types of accommodation is subordination. The inferior bows to the superior; the inexperienced to the experienced; and the person of no social standing to the one of "birth." The status of follower is the most common form of subordinated accommodation. The relation of child to parent, and under the patriarchal system, of wife and husband, also illustrates this principle.

Not only may one individual be subservient to another, as a slave to his master or a subject to a despotic ruler, but individuals may be subject to group dominance and coercion. The will of the majority or a majority rule represents subordination of the individual to the group. Subordination may also be related to a principle, as in the case of a missionary who dedicates his life to religious teaching.

Slavery is an outstanding illustration of subordination; it is a form of accommodation where one person has become the property of another, where he has no or few political rights, where he is socially on a low level, and where he performs compulsory labor.[9] The origin of slavery is to be found in force, in unequal ability to fight, and in unequal social circumstances ; and the strength that slavery once acquired was due chiefly to the development of a social system and an educational training which gave to the children of slaves the belief that they are "slaves."The "system"killed off all who remonstrated and thus the mass of children born in slavery were offspring of the more docile parents. Slavery, and likewise the caste system, constituted one of the lowest forms of standardized mental reaction that mankind has devised, for it prevented the majority of the people from experiencing normal social contacts, from responding even to accidental new social stimuli, and from enjoying and profiting by the forms of mental reaction which prevail when democracy rules.


Custom abhors accommodation. Possessing the prestige of having "worked,"custom is apt to pose as perfect, unimprovable. It has become

( 214) embedded in the habits of persons, and cannot easily be made over. Custom sometimes fallaciously refuses to accommodate itself on the ground that if it yields an inch an ell will be taken.

Certain ranges of social phenomena are more custom-bound, than others. For example, religion, science, and law have their rigid sides which resist accommodation, and plastic sides which admit of adjustments and additions. Religion is largely controlled by custom in the matter of creeds and dogmas, but not in the practical activities and the dynamic lines of social service. Science has its hypotheses and theories which resist change, but makes observations and measurements without end. Law clings tenaciously to principles and doctrines, but is extensible "on the side of rulings, decisions, and statutes."[10]


Compromise is the main form of accommodation. When both sides to a controversy recognize the necessity of making an adjustment a mental sparring process occurs. Each will give in as little as possible and yet will endeavor to get as large a concession as it may from the other.

Compromise leads to a variety of adjustments. There may be a mutual acceptance of a strong middle course. Each of the cut-throat competitors may right-about-face and organize a monopoly, pool their interests, and arrange for a division of the expected profits, as illustrated in the shift from competing railroads and oil companies, to the organization of gigantic combinations on a "community of interests" basis.

Compromise may end in the maintenance of the original competitive units which agree to divide the field among themselves, as in the case of Protestant missionary societies that have divided certain foreign "fields," each agreeing to keep out of the territory of the other. Only in recent years have educational heads begun to make agreements whereby one university develops certain departments and a neighboring institution certain others.

Compromise is a principle that should be resorted to whenever the contending forces seem to possess more or less equal social and moral justification. If the facts on one side are socially constructive and on the other harmful, as in connection with the widespread use of intoxicating liquors, then compromise would be bad. To "stand pat" on social and moral principles, and to fight the evil forces threatening them

( 215) is better than to compromise. To accommodate one's self to evil, to marry a man "in order to reform him," to condone sin in order to avoid a "row" are all dangerous procedures, for in the interim, habits both individual and social may become established. Sometimes the only suitable attitude to take is not accommodation but aggressiveness.

Conciliation implies an attitude of willingness to compromise. When an attitude of genuine good will exists accommodation is practically assured. The main function of peace makers is perhaps that of stimulating the spirit of conciliation. If mutual sacrifice is not thus engendered, compromise is apt to end in perfunctory ceremony, having the form but not the substance of real accommodation.


A quick form of accommodation is conversion, i. e. a sudden change in attitudes and ideals. Established habits are abruptly broken and new ones started in their places, usually under a great emotional strain. The best illustrations are found in the religious field where supernatural power is called in as an aid in making an about-face and where a person suddenly acquires a great faith in this power. The psychologist would probably give social suggestion and auto-suggestion considerable credit in conversion phenomena.

Many conversions are returns to attitudes and habits that were started in childhood and youth. The mother's cry, "Where is my wandering boy tonight ?" has little or no appeal to the man who had a licentious, child-beating mother, but is peculiarly effective with him who ran away from home as a boy, leaving a broken-hearted, loving mother to pine and die.

The maintenance of conversion depends not only on a store of habits that may be resuscitated, but also upon the social stimuli that function. If these came from constructive, sympathetic religious contacts then conversion may hold long enough for the necessary new habits to become established. But if all the convert's social contacts be non-religious, anti-religious, or vicious then conversion represents a precarious accommodation.


Slow and steady adjustment is perhaps the best. It is circumspect while engaged in "building more stately mansions" for society. Groups, as well as persons, progress best by evolutionary accommodation ; revolution by way of contrast, destroys worthy habits and cultural values as well

( 216) as unworthy ones. For several decades past the people of England have responded sufficiently to the rising tide of labor influence to avoid revolution and yet slowly enough to conserve the social values acquired during the past centuries. The labor leaders of England also are following the principle of evolutionary accommodation. They actually refrained from attempting to secure the control of the House of Commons until the rank and file, the voting majority had reached a reasonable level of political judgment. The leaders have been shrewd enough to see that if the laboring class jumped into the control of government they would not have time to develop the political understanding and vision requisite to meet their greatly enlarged responsibilities. By acquiring power faster than its members learn to exercise power, a group may wreck itself. Accommodation, personal or group, requires time, patience, training. Hence, leaders must be guided by the speed with which their constituents are able to give up old habits and establish new ones, rather than by their own idealism.


Accommodation depends on personal temperament. If one is phlegmatic, and if his reaction time is slow, he is apt to accommodate himself slowly. On the other hand a nervous temperament shifts. The phlegmatic temperament once adjusted stays adjusted; the nervous is apt to be changeable and to be a poor subject for dependable accommodation.

Disposition is another important factor in accommodation, for the sunny disposition is better material than the sour. An agreeable person is committed by nature to the principle of accommodation; a "grouch" finds fault but is slow to change or to assist in making needed accommodation.


Accommodation does not represent complete assimilation, but an adjustment of different ideas or procedures which have not wholly melted into a common idea or procedure. Hence accommodation represents a dualism. In its results are represented either opposites or else differences of degree. A democratic social organization is the product of ideas of personal liberty and social control. To keep a democratic state from going to pieces anarchistically or from coming to a stop at the dead center of communism requires skillful pilots trained in the principles of

( 217) accommodation. The Republican or Democratic parties are queer combinations of both conservative and liberal elements.

Every person likewise is characterized by beliefs and practices that are anomalous. One person is penurious and lavish toward different objects at the same time; another is characteristically spiteful and devoted toward different persons, and so on. Not being able to view himself as others see him, he remains unaware of his inconsistencies. Friends are too considerate and for fear of hurting his feelings do not help to eliminate the contradictions in his habits. Moreover, a person often stubbornly refuses to examine past prejudices which have become anomalous in new beliefs he has acquired. The Descartean remedy is often needed, whereby one throws out all his beliefs and takes back only those which represent logical growth and accommodation.


1. The first step in accommodation is passive adaptation whereby unfilled changes are effected by the action of the environment.

2. Active adaptation, or accommodation proper, implies the use of intelligence in modifying environment or in making over one's self.

3. Active material adaptation owes much to social stimuli and results in the exploitation and utilization of natural resources.

4. Active spiritual adaptation consists in transforming culture, social organizations, and human attitudes.

5. Tolerance, an initial step in accommodation, is often deceptive.

6. Accommodation may terminate in relationships of subordination and super-ordination, as in the case of slavery.

7. Custom opposes accommodation, for it fears change.

8. The main form of accommodation is compromise which may end in the making of a new super-organization, in disjunctive agreement, or in division of the field.

9. Conciliation is an attitude favoring reasonable accommodation.

10. The quickest form of accommodation is conversion, the success of which depends on the support of new habits and helpful social contacts.

11. The most dependable type of accommodation is evolutionary, for time is thus given whereby personal habits may be made over and group heritages adjusted.

12. Accommodation is a dualism, or an adjustment between elements somewhat different, complementary, or opposite.

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1. Distinguish between passive and active adaptation.

2. Distinguish between active spiritual and passive spiritual adaptation.

3. What is tolerance?

4. Why is subordination common?

5. What is conciliation?

6. What is conversion?

7. How does accommodation vary with personality?

8. In what sense is accommodation a dualism?


1. Under what conditions are you least tolerant?

2. Why is toleration often deceptive?

3. When should one be a compromiser?

4. How did the compromise work of Henry Clay prevent the South from winning the Civil War?

5. How might further compromise have prevented the war altogether?

6. Why is not conciliation more common than it is?

7. When is conversion a reliable form of accommodation?

8. What examples of evolutionary accommodation have you observed?

9. Upon what factors does the speed of accommodation by the individual depend?

10. What dualistic accommodations have you noted in your own personality?


Baldwin, J. M., Mental Development (Macmillan, 1895), pp. 476-488.

Begbie, Harold, Twice-born Men. (Revell, 1909).

Bristol, L. M., Social Adaptation (Harvard Univ. Press, 1915).

Huntington, Ellsworth, Civilization and Climate (Yale Univ. Press, 1915), Ch. III.

Morley, John, On Compromise (London, 1874).

Park and Burgess, Introduction to the Science of Sociology (Univ. of Chicago Press, 1921), Ch. X.

Ross, E. A., Principles of Sociology (Century, 1920), Ch. XX.

Simmel, George, "Superiority and Subordination as Subject Matter of Sociology,"trans. by A. W. Small, Amer. Jour. of Sociology II: 167-189; 392-415.


  1. F. M. Bristol, Social Adaptation (Harvard Univ. Press, 1915), p. 55.
  2. This idea has been extensively developed by anthropo-geographers, such as Ells-worth Huntington in his Civilization and Climate (Yale Univ. Press, 1915) ; Ellen Semple's Influence of Geographic Environment (Holt, 1911), is an encyclopedia of illustrations of passive adaptation.
  3. Principles of Sociology (Century, 1920), p. 526.
  4. Dynamic Sociology, 2 vols. (Appleton, 1915).
  5. Supra, p. 221.
  6. Referred to by Ward as "material achievement" as distinguished from "social and spiritual achievement."
  7. An excellent chapter on "Accommodation" has been written by Park and Burgess (Introduction to the Science of Sociology, Univ. of Chicago Press, 1921).
  8. Ibid., p. 665.
  9. H. J. Nieboer, Slavery as an Industrial System (The Hague, 1910), pp. 5, 6,
  10. Georg Simmel, "Superiority and Subordination" (transl. by A. W. Small), Amer. Jour. of Sociology, II:172-186.

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