Social Organization

Chapter 4: Primary Ideals

Charles Horton Cooley

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LIFE in the primary groups gives rise to social ideals which, as they spring from similar experiences, have much in common throughout the human race. And these naturally become the motive and test of social progress. Under all systems men strive, however blindly, to realize objects suggested by the familiar experience of primary association

Where do we get our notions of love, freedom, justice, and the like which we are ever applying to social institutions? Not from abstract philosophy, surely, but from the actual life of simple and widespread forms of society, like the family or the play-group. In these relations mankind realizes itself, gratifies its primary needs, in a fairly satisfactory manner, and from the experience forms standards of what it is to expect from more elaborate association. Since groups of this sort are never obliterated from human experience, but flourish more or less under all kinds of institutions, they remain an enduring criterion by which the latter are ultimately judged.

Of course these simpler relations are not uniform for

(33) all societies, but vary considerably with race, with the general state of civilization, and with the particular sort of institutions that may prevail. The primary groups themselves are subject to improvement and decay, and need to be watched and cherished with a very special care.

Neither is it claimed that, at the best, they realize ideal conditions; only that they approach them more nearly than anything else in general experience, and so form the practical basis on which higher imaginations are built. They are not always pleasant or righteous, but they almost always contain elements from which ideals of pleasantness and righteousness may be formed.

The ideal that grows up in familiar association may be said to be a part of human nature itself. In its most general form it is that of a moral whole or community wherein individual minds are merged and the higher capacities of the members find total and adequate expression. And it grows up because familiar association fills our minds with imaginations of the thought and feeling of other members of the group, and of the group as a whole, so that, for many purposes, we really make them a part of ourselves and identify our self-feeling with them.

Children and savages do not formulate any such ideal, but they have it nevertheless; they see it; they see themselves and their fellows as an indivisible, though various, " we," and they desire this " we " to be harmonious, happy, and successful. How heartily one may merge himself in the family and in the fellowships of youth is perhaps within the experience of all of us; and we come to feel that the same spirit should extend to our country,


(34) our race, our world. "All the abuses which are the objects of reform. . . are unconsciously amended in the intercourse of friends." [1],

A congenial family life is the immemorial type of moral unity, and source of many of the terms — such as brotherhood, kindness, and the like—which describe it. The members become merged by intimate association into a whole wherein each age and sex participates in its own way. Each lives in imaginative contact with the minds of the others, and finds in them the dwelling-place of his social self, of his affections, ambitions, resentments, and standards of right and wrong. Without uniformity, there is yet unity, a free, pleasant, wholesome, fruitful, common life.

As to the playground, Mr. Joseph Lee, in an excellent paper on Play as a School of the Citizen, gives the following account of the merging of the one in the whole that may be learned from sport. The boy, he says,

"is deeply participating in a common purpose. The team and the plays that it executes are present in a very vivid manner to his consciousness His conscious individuality is more thoroughly lost in the sense of membership than perhaps it ever becomes in any other way. So that the sheer experience of citizenship in its simplest and essential form—of the sharing in a public consciousness, of having the social organization present as a controlling ideal in your heart—is very intense. . .

Along with the sense of the team as a mechanical instrument, and unseparated from it in the boy's mind, is the consciousness of it as the embodiment of a common purpose. There is in team play a very intimate experience of the ways in which such a purpose is built up and made effective. You feel, though without analysis, the subtle ways in which a single strong character breaks out the road ahead

(35) and gives confidence to the rest to follow; how the creative power of one ardent imagination, bravely sustained, makes possible the putting through of the play as he conceives it. You feel to the marrow Of your bones how each loyal member contributes to the salvation of all the others by holding the conception of the whole play so firmly in his mind 11.9 to enable them to hold it, and to participate in his single-minded determination to see it carried out. You have intimate experience of the ways in which individual members contribute to the team and of how the team, in turn, builds up their spiritual nature . . .

And the team is not only an extension of the player's consciousness; it is a part of his personality. His participation has deepened from cooperation to membership. Not only is he now a part of the team, but the team is a part of him."[2]

Moral unity, as this illustration implies, admits and rewards strenuous ambition; but this ambition must either be for the success of the group, or at least not inconsistent with that. The fullest self-realization will belong to the one who embraces in a passionate self-feeling the aims of the fellowship, and spends his life in fighting for their attainment.

The ideal of moral unity I take to be the mother, as it were, of all social ideals.

It is, then, not my aim to depreciate the self-assertive passions. I believe that they are fierce, inextinguishable, indispensable. Competition and the survival of the fittest |are as righteous as kindness and cooperation, and not necessarily opposed to them: an adequate view will embrace and harmonize these diverse aspects. The point I wish particularly to bring out in this chapter is that the normal self is moulded in primary groups to be a social

(36) self whose ambitions are formed by the common thought of the group.

In their crudest form such passions as lust, greed, revenge, the pride of power and the like are not, distinctively, human nature at all, but animal nature, and 90 far as we rise into the spirit of family or neighborhood association we control and subordinate them. They are rendered human only so far as they are brought under the discipline of sympathy, and refined into sentiments, such as love, resentment, and ambition. And in so far as they are thus humanized they become capable of useful function.

Take the greed of gain, for example, the ancient sin of avarice, the old wolf, as Dante says, that gets more prey than all the other beasts.[3] The desire of possession is in itself a good thing, a phase of self-realization and a cause of social improvement. It is immoral or greedy only when it is without adequate control from sympathy, when the self realized is a narrow self. In that case it is a vice of isolation or weak social consciousness, and indicates a state of mind intermediate between the brutal and the fully human or moral, when desire is directed toward social objects—wealth or power—but is not social in its attitude toward others who desire the same objects. Intimate association has the power to allay greed. One will hardly be greedy as against his family or close friends, though very decent people will be so as against almost any one else. Every one must have noticed that after

(37) frank association, even of a transient character, with another person, one usually has a sense of kindred with him which makes one ashamed to act greedily at his ,expense.

Those who dwell preponderantly upon the selfish aspect of human nature and flout as sentimentalism the "altruistic" conception of it, make their chief error in failing to see that our self itself is altruistic, that the object of our higher greed is some desired place in the minds of other men, and that through this it is possible to enlist ordinary human nature in the service of ideal aims. The improvement of society does not call for any essential change in human nature, but, chiefly, for a larger and higher application of its familiar impulses.

I know, also, that the most truculent behavior may be exalted into an ideal, like the ferocity of Samuel, when he hewed Agag to pieces before the Lord,[4] or of the orthodox Christian of a former age in the destruction of heretics. In general there is always a morality of opposition, springing from the need of the sympathetic group to assert itself in the struggle for existence. Even at the present day this more or less idealizes destructiveness and deceit in the conflicts of war, if not of commerce.

But such precepts are secondary, not ideals in the same primary and enduring sense that loyalty and kindness are. They shine by reflected light, and get their force mainly from the belief that they express the requirements of the "we" group in combating its enemies. Flourishing at certain stages of development because they are requisite

(38) under the prevailing conditions of destructive conflict, they are slowly abandoned or transformed when these conditions change. Mankind at large has no love of them for their own sake, though individuals, classes, or even nations may acquire them as a habit. With the advance of civilization conflict itself is brought more and more under the control of those principles that prevail in primary groups, and, so far as this is the case, conduct which violates such principles ceases to have any ideal value.

To break up the ideal of a moral whole into particular ideals is an artificial process which every thinker would probably carry out in his own way. Perhaps, however, the most salient principles are loyalty, lawfulness, and freedom.

In so far as one identifies himself with a whole, loyalty to that whole is loyalty to himself; it is self-realization, something in which one cannot fail without losing self-respect. Moreover this is a larger self, leading out into a wider and richer life, and appealing, therefore, to enthusiasm and the need of quickening ideals. One is never more human, and as a rule never happier, than when he is sacrificing his narrow and merely private interest to the higher call of the congenial group. And without doubt the natural genesis of this sentiment is in the intimacy of face-to-face cooperation. It is rather the rule than the exception in the family, and grows up among children and youth so fast as they learn to think and act to common ends. The team feeling described above illustrates it as well as anything.

Among the ideals inseparable from loyalty are those of

(39) truth, service, and kindness, always conceived as due to the intimate group rather than to the world at large.

Truth or good faith toward other members of a fellowship is, so far as I know' a universal human ideal. It does not involve any abstract love of veracity, and is quite consistent with deception toward the outside world, being essentially "truth of intercourse" or fair dealing among intimates. There are few, even among those reckoned lawless, who will not keep faith with one who has the gift of getting near to them in spirit and making them feel that he is one of themselves. Thus Judge Lindsey of Denver has worked a revolution among the neglected boys of his city, by no other method than that of entering into tile same moral whole, becoming part of a "we" with them. He awakens their sense of honor, trusts it, and is almost never disappointed. When he wishes to send a boy to the reform school the latter promises to repair to the institution at a given time and invariably does so. Among tramps a similar sentiment prevails. " It will be found," said a young man who had spent the summer among vagrants, " that if they are treated square they will do the same."

The ideal of service likewise goes with the sense of unity. If there is a vital whole the right aim of individual activity can be no other than to serve that whole. And this is not so much a theory as a feeling that will exist wherever the whole is felt. It is a poor sort of an individual that does not feel the need to devote himself to the larger purposes of the group. In our society many feel this need in youth and express it on the playground who

(40) never succeed in realizing it among the less intimate relations of business or professional life.

All mankind acknowledges kindness as the law of right intercourse within a social group. By communion minds are fused into a sympathetic whole, each part of which tends to share the life of all the rest, so that kindness is a common joy, and harshness a common pain. It is the simplest, most attractive, and most diffused of human ideals. The golden rule springs directly from human nature.

Accordingly this ideal has been bound up with association in all past times and among all peoples: it was a matter of course that when men acted together in war, industry, devotion, sport, or what not, they formed a brotherhood or friendship. It is perhaps only in modern days, along with the great and sudden differentiation of activities, that feeling has failed to keep up, and the idea of cooperation without friendship has become familiar.

Mr. Westermarck, than whom there is no better authority on a question of this sort, has filled several chapters of his work on the Origin and Development of Moral Ideas with evidence of the universality of kindness and the kindly ideal. After showing at length that uncivilized people recognize the duty of kindness and support from mother to child, father to child, child to parent, and among brethren and kinsmen, he goes on to say:[5] "But the duty of helping the needy and protecting those in danger goes beyond the limits of the family and the gens. Uncivilized peoples are, as a rule, described as kind toward members

(41) Of their own community or tribe. Between themselves charity is enjoined as a duty and generosity is praised as a virtue. Indeed their customs regarding mutual aid are often much more stringent than our own. And this ap plies c`-cn to the lowest savages."

Beginning with the Australians, he quotes the statement of Spencer and Gillen that their treatment of one another "is marked on the whole by considerable kindness, that is, of course, in the case of members of friendly groups, with every now and then the perpetration of acts of cruelty." Concerning the North American Indians he cites many writers. Catlin says " to their friends there are no people on earth that are more kind." Adair that "they are very kind and liberal to every one of their own tribe, even to the last morsel of food they enjoy"; also that Nature's school "teaches them the plain, easy rule, Do to others as you would be done by." Morgan reports that "among the Iroquois kindness to the orphan, hospitality to all, and a common brotherhood were among the dockines held up for acceptance by their religious instructors." An Iroquois " would surrender his dinner to feed the hungry, vacate his bed to refresh the weary, and give up his apparel to clothe the naked."

And so Westermarck goes on, in the exhaustive way familiar to readers of his works, to show that like sentiments prevail the world over. Kropotkin has collected similar evidence in his Mutual Aid a Factor in Civilization. The popular notion of savages as lacking in the gentler feelings is an error springing from the external, usually hostile, nature of our contact with them. Indeed, a state of things, such as is found in our own cities, where want

(42) and plenty exist side by side without the latter feeling any compulsion to relieve the former, is shocking and in comprehensible to many savages.

Ordinarily the ideal of kindness? in savage and civilized societies alike, applies only to those within the sympathetic group; the main difference between civilization and savagery, in this regard, being that under the former the group tends to enlarge. One reason for the restriction is that kindness is aroused by sympathy, and can have little life except as our imaginations are opened to the lives of others and they are made part of ourselves. Even the Christian church, as history shows, has for the most part inculcated kindness only to those within its own pale, or within a particular sect; and the modern ideal of a kindness embracing all humanity (modern at least so far as western nations are concerned) is connected with a growing understanding of the unity of the race.

Every intimate group, like every individual, experiences conflicting impulses within itself, and as the individual feels the need of definite principles to shape his conduct and give him peace, so the group needs law or rule for the same purpose. It is not merely that the over-strong or the insubordinate must be restrained, but that all alike may have some definite criterion of what the good member ought to do. It is a mere fact of psychology that where a social whole exists it may be as painful to do wrong as to suffer it—because one's own spirit is divided—and the common need is for harmony through a law, framed in the total interest, which every one can and must obey.

This need of rules to align differentiated impulse with

(43) the good of the whole is nowhere more apparent than on the playground. Miss Buck, the author of an instructive work on Boys' Self-Governing Clubs, suggests that the elementary form of equity is " taking turns," as at swings and the like; and any on who has shared in a boys camp will recall the constant demand, by the boys themselves, for rules of this nature. There must be a fair distribution of privileges as to boats, games, and so on, and an equal distribution of food. And we learn from Robert Woods that gangs of boys on the streets of cities generally have a " judge" to whom all disputes are referred if no agreement is otherwise reached.[6]

No doubt every one remembers how the idea of justice is developed in children's games. There is always something to be done, in which various parts are to be taken, success depending upon their efficient distribution. All see this and draw from experience the idea that there is a higher principle that ought to control the undisciplined ambition of individuals. " Rough games," says Miss Buck, "in many respects present in miniature the conditions of a society where an ideal state of justice, freedom and equality prevails."" Mr. Joseph Lee, in the paper quoted above, expounds the matter at more length and with much insight.

You may be very intent to beat the other man in the race, but after experience of many contests the fair promise of whose morning has been clouded over by the long and many-worded dispute terminating in a general row, with indecisive and unsatisfying result, you begin dimly to perceive that you and the other fellows and the rest of the crowd, for the very reason that you are contestants and prospective

(44) contestants, have interests in common—interests in the establishment and maintenance of those necessary rules and regulations with out which satisfactory contests cannot be carried on.... The child's need of conflict is from a desire not to exterminate his competitor, but to overcome him and to have his own superiority acknowledged. The boy desires to be somebody but being somebody is to him a social achievement. And though there is temptation to pervert justice, to try to get the decision when you have not really furnished the proof, there is also a motive against such procedure. The person whom you really and finally want to convince is yourself. Your deepest desire is to beat the other boy, not merely to seem to beat him. By playing unfairly and forcing decisions in your own favor, you may possibly cheat the others, but you cannot cheat yourself

But the decisions in most of the disputes have behind them the further, more obviously social, motive of carrying on a successful game. The sense of common interest has been stretched so as to take the competitive impulse itself into camp, domesticate it, and make it a part of the social system. The acutely realized fact that a society of chronic kickers can never play a game or anything else, comes to be seen against the background of a possible orderly arrangement of which one has had occasional experience, and with which one has come at last to sympathize; there comes to be to some extent an identification of one's own interests and purposes with the interests and purposes of the whole. Certainly the decisions of the group as to whether Jimmy was out at first, as to who came out last, and whether Mary Ann was really caught, are felt as community and not as individual decisions.[7]

No doubt American boys have more of the spirit and practice of this sort of organization than those of any other country, except possibly England: they have the constant spectacle of self-government among their elders, and also, perhaps, some advantage in natural aptitude to help them on. But it is doubtful if there is any great difference among the white peoples in the latter regard. American children of German and Irish descent are not

(45) inferior to the Anglo-Saxons, and among the newer immigrants the Jewish children, at least, show a marked aptitude for organization. The question might profitably be investigated in our great cities.

Of course the ideals derived from juvenile experience are carried over into the wider life, and men always find it easy to conceive righteousness in terms of fair play. " The Social Question," says a penetrative writer, " is forever an attack upon what, in some form, is thought to be unfair privilege."[8]

The law or rule that human nature demands has a democratic principle latent in it, because it must be one congenial to general sentiment. Explicit democracy, however—deciding by popular vote and the like—is not primary and general like the need of law, but is rather a mechanism for deciding what the rule is to be, and no more natural than the appeal to authority. Indeed, there seems to be, among children as among primitive peoples, a certain reluctance to ascribe laws to the mere human choice of themselves and their fellows. They wish to assign them to a higher source and to think of them as having an unquestionable sanction. So far as my own observation goes, even American boys prefer to receive rules from tradition or from their elders, when they can. Nothing is easier than for a parent, or mentor of any kind, to be a lawgiver to children, if only he has their confidence, and if the laws themselves prove workable. But the test of law is social and popular; it must suit the general mind. If, for instance, a man takes a group of boys camping, and has their confidence, they will gladly receive

(46) rules from him, expecting, of course, that they will be good rules. But if they prove to be unreasonable and troublesome, they will soon cease to work.

Freedom is that phase of the social ideal which emphasises individuality. The whole to which we belong is made up of diverse energies which enkindle one another by friction; and its vigor requires that these have play. Thus the fierce impulses of ambition and pride may be as organic as anything else—provided they are sufficiently humanized as to their objects—and are to be interfered with only when they become destructive or oppressive. Moreover, we must not be required to prove to others the beneficence of our peculiarity, but should be allowed, if we wish, to "write whim on the lintels of the door-post." Our desires and purposes, though social in their ultimate nature, are apt to be unacceptable on first appearance, and the more so in proportion to their value. Thus we feel a need to be let alone, and sympathize with a similar need in others.

This is so familiar a principle, especially among English and Americans, to whose temperament and traditions it is peculiarly congenial, that I need not discuss it at length. It is a phase of idealism that comes most vividly to consciousness when formal and antiquated systems of control need to be broken up, as in the eighteenth century. It then represented the appeal to human nature as against outworn mechanism. Our whole social and political philosophy still echoes that conflict.

The bearing of this view of human nature may perhaps be made clearer by considering its relation to the familiar

(47) but now somewhat discredited doctrine of Natural Right. This is traced from the speculations of Greek philosophers down through Roman jurisprudence to Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, and others, who gave it its modern forms and through whose works it became a factor in modern history. It was familiar to our forefathers and is set forth in the Declaration of Independence. According to it society is made up, primarily, of free individuals, who must be held to create government and other institutions by a sort of implied contract, yielding up a part of their natural right in order to enjoy the benefits of organization. But if the organization does not confer these benefits, then, as most writers held, it is wrong and void, and the individuals may properly reclaim their natural freedom.

Now in form this doctrine is wholly at variance with evolutionary thought. To the latter, society is an organic growth; there is no individual apart from society, no freedom apart from organization, no social contract of the sort taught by these philosophers. In its practical applications, however, the teaching of natural right is not so absurd and obsolete as is sometimes imagined. If it is true that human nature is developed in primary groups which are everywhere much the same, and that there also springs from these a common idealism which institutions strive to express, we have a ground for somewhat the same conclusions as come from the theory of a natural freedom modified by contract. Natural freedom would correspond roughly to the ideals generated and partly realized in primary association, the social contract to the limitations these ideals encounter in seeking a larger expression.


Indeed, is it not true that the natural rights of this philosophy—the right to personal freedom, the right to labor, the right to property, the right to open competition —are ideals which in reality sprang then as they do now largely from what the philosophers knew of the activities of men in small, face-to-face groups ?

The reluctance to give up ideals like those of the Declaration of Independence, without something equally simple and human to take their place, is healthy and need not look far for theoretical justification.

The idea of the germinal character of primary association is one that is fast making its way in education and philanthropy. As we learn that man is altogether social and never seen truly except in connection with his fellows, we fix our attention more and more on group conditions as the source, for better or worse, of personal character, and come to feel that we must work on the individual through the web of relations in which he actually lives.

The school, for instance, must form a whole with the rest of life, using the ideas generated by the latter as the starting-point of its training. The public opinion and traditions of the scholars must be respected and made an ally of discipline. Children's associations should be fostered and good objects suggested for their activity.

In philanthropy it is essential that the unity of the family be regarded and its natural bonds not weakened for the sake of transient benefit to the individual. Children, especially, must be protected from the destructive kindness which inculcates irresponsibility in the parent. In general the heart of reform is in control of the conditions

(49) which act upon the family and neighborhood. When the housing, for example, is of such a character as to make a healthy home life impossible, the boys and girls are driven to the streets, the men into saloons, and thus society is diseased at its source.

Without healthy play, especially group play, human nature cannot rightly develop, and to preserve this, in the midst of the crowding and aggressive commercialism of our cities, is coming to be seen as a special need of the time. Democracy, it is now held, must recognize as one of its essential functions the provision of ample spaces and apparatus for this purpose, with enough judicious supervision to ensure the ascendancy of good play traditions. And with this must go the suppression of child labor and other inhumane conditions.

Fruitful attention is being given to boys' fellowships or "gangs." It appears—as any one who recalls his own boyhood might have anticipated—that nearly all the juvenile population belong to such fellowships, and put an ardent, though often misdirected, idealism into them. " Almost every boy in the tenement-house quarters of the district," says Robert A. Woods, speaking of Boston, "is a member of a gang. The boy who does not belong is not only the exception but the very rare exception." [10] In crowded neighborhoods, where there are no playgrounds and street sports are unlawful, the human nature of these gangs must take a semi-criminal direction; but with better opportunities and guidance it turns quite as naturally to wholesome sport and social service. Accordingly social settlements and similar agencies are converting gangs into

(50) clubs, with the best results; and there is also coming to be a regular organization of voluntary clubs in affiliation with the public schools.

It is much the same in the country. In every village and township in the laud, I suppose, there are one or more groups of predatory boys and hoydenish girls whose mischief is only the result of ill-directed energy. If each of these could receive a little sympathetic attention from kindred but wiser spirits, at least half of the crime and vice of the next generation would almost certainly be done away with.


  1. Thoreau, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, 283.
  2. Charities and the Commons, Aug. 3, 1907.
  3. Antica lupa, Che piu che tutte l'altre bestie hai preda. Purgatorio, xx, 10.
  4. 1 Samuel, 15: 33.
  5. Vol. i, 540 ff.
  6. The City Wilderness, 116.
  7. Boys' Self-Governing Clubs, 4, 5.
  8. Charities and the Commons, Aug. 3, 1907, abridged.
  9. John Graham Brooks, The Social Unrest, 135.
  10. The City Wilderness, 113.

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