Social Organization

Chapter 20: The Outlook Regarding Caste

Charles Horton Cooley

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A VERY pertinent question is that of the part which the hereditary or caste principle is likely to play in the coming life; whether it is probable that caste, other than that due to race, will arise in modern society; or that the hereditary principle will, to any degree, have increased ascendancy.

The answer should probably be that the principle is always powerful, and may gain somewhat as conditions become more settled, but certainly can never produce true caste in the modern world.

As regards the power, in general, of the inheritance tendency, I have perhaps said enough already. The inheritance of property, notwithstanding the perennial agitation of communism, is probably as secure as any institution can be—because there is apparently nothing practicable to take its place as a means to economic stability. And with inheritance of property goes, in all prosperous countries, a class of people who come without effort into wealth and all its advantages: their number I and riches are certainly on the rapid increase. The less I formal inheritance of culture, opportunity and position is I equally real.


As to occupation, even now a census would perhaps show that the majority of young men follow that of their father, or one cognate to it. Most farmers' sons probably remain farmers (in spite of the well-known drift to the towns), most mechanics' sons become mechanics, and a large proportion of the children of professional men enter the professions. The child of a well-to-do parent is given, as a matter of course, the education, often long and expensive, which is required for entrance upon a profession, and is coming to be necessary also for commerce. Not only this, but he is made to feel from childhood that success in achieving a professional or business position is expected of him; he must get it or lose the respect of his family and friends. In the majority of cases—though the minority on the other side is no small one—these opportunities and incitements, together with the power to wait and choose which judicious paternal support gives him, are effective in drawing out his energies and directing them continuously upon the desired point. Certainly they will not make a good lawyer or a captain of industry out of a fool, nor will the lack of them keep decisive natural ability from exercising these functions; but with the common run of men, having fair capacity not very definitely inclined in a special direction, they are potent. Paternal suggestion and backing must be used with great discretion and often fail entirely, but no man of the world, so far as I know, regards them as unimportant.

If we ask whether the influence of inheritance is likely to increase or diminish, we find, on studying the situation

(231) as a whole, a conflict of tendencies the precise outcome of which can only be guessed at.

As favoring the growth of the principle and the crystallization of classes, we have chiefly two considerations: the probability of more settled conditions, and the influence of that sharper differentiation of functions which modern life involves.

Social change, as already pointed out, is a main force in breaking up the inheritance of function, and to this must largely be attributed the comparative weakness of the principle in the United States. The changes incident to the settlement of a new country, coinciding with those incident to an economic revolution, have set everything afloat and brought in a somewhat confused and disorderly sort of competition. Our cities, especially, are aggregates of immigrants, most of whom have broken away from early associations, and a large part of whom are performing functions unheard of by their fathers. It is hardly possible that trades should become hereditary when most of them endure less than one man's lifetime. And something of the same uncertainty runs through commerce and the professions.

Without predicting any great decline in the pace of invention, we may yet expect that the next fifty years will see a great deal of the consolidation that comes with maturity. The population will be comparatively established, in place at least, and the forces making for inheritance will have a chance to work. An immense body of transmitted wealth will exist, and democratic influences will have all they can do to keep it from generating an aristocratic spirit. Industries, professions and trades can hardly

(232) fail to be more stable than they have been, and the rural population, as always, will be a stronghold of the forces that favor inheritance.

The sentiment of regard for ancestry, of which caste is the extreme expression, is likely to increase in this and in all new countries. As communities grow older the family line comes more and more under public observation. It is seen and displayed in memory, wherever any sort of continuity is preserved, and, being seen, it is judged, and the individual shares the credit or discredit of his kin. While this influence is now weak in the United States, on the whole, and is almost absent in the recent and confused life of our cities, it is gaining rapidly wherever—as is generally the case in the East and Southeast outside of large towns—the conditions are settled enough to make the family as a whole a matter of observation. And there can be little doubt that it is increasing in the West wherever it has a similar chance.

In some ways this greater recognition of descent is wholesome. A sense of being part of a kindred, of bearing the honor of a continuing group as well as of a perishing individual, tends to make one a better man; and from this point of view our somewhat disintegrated society might well have more of it.

As to the sharper differentiation that goes with modern life, we see it on all hands. The city is more clearly mark' off from the country, in its functions, and is itself broken up into quarters the inhabitants of which have often little or no intercourse with those of other quarters. Trade and professions subdivide into specialties, and, a mo elaborate training being demanded, it is more necessary

(233) than formerly that a man should know from the start what he wants to do and assiduously prepare himself to do it. Not' forgetting that there is another side to this, a side of unification implied in these differences, one may yet say that ill themselves they tend to separate people more sharply into social groups which might conceivably become hereditary.

The forces antagonizing inheritance of function come chiefly under two heads, the opposition of ambitious young men and the general current of democratic sentiment.

Caste means restriction of opportunity, and consequently lies across the path of the most energetic part of the people. Its rule can prevail only where individual self-assertion is restrained by ignorance and formal institutions. Under our flexible modern conditions, it is safe to say, no system can endure that does not make a point of propitiating the formidable ambition of youth by at least an apparent freedom of opportunity. Even the inheritance of property is constantly questioned in the minds of the young, and nothing but the lack of a plausible alternative prevents its being more seriously assailed. And since this stronghold of inequality can hardly be shaken, there is all the more demand that it be offset by opening every other kind of advantage, especially in the way of education and training, to whomsoever may be fit to profit by it.

Somewhat vaguer but perhaps even more effective than the resistance of young men is the opposition of the general current of sentiment to any growth of inheritance at

(234) the expense of opportunity. To abolish extrinsic inequalities and give each a chance to serve all in his own fit way, is undoubtedly the democratic ideal. In politics this is expressed by doing away with hereditary privilege and basing everything on popular suffrage; in education it is seeking an expression quite as vital by striving to open to every one the training to any function for which he may show fitness. But the spirit of unity and brotherhood is far from satisfied with what has been achieved in these directions, and aspires to bring home to every child that fair access to the fruits of progress which, in spite of theoretical liberty, is now widely lacking. It calls for social democracy, the real presence of freedom and justice in every fibre of the social fabric. To this spirit any increase of the privileges, already unavoidably great, which come by inheritance, is evidently hateful.

In America at least this sentiment is not that of a struggling lower class but of, practically, the whole community. With reference to so vital a part of our traditional ideal there are no classes; all the people feel substantially alike; and there is no public purpose for which wealth is so freely spent as in the support of institutions whose purpose is to keep open the path of opportunity from any condition of life to any other.

There is also, back of this sentiment, a belief that equal opportunity makes for the general good, since that system of society will be most efficient, other things equal,: in which each individual is required to prove that he has more fitness than others for his special function. Every one can see, at times, the deteriorating effect of family

(235) influence—as upon business establishments when a less Competent son succeeds his father, or upon military service, as in the British army at the outbreak of the Boer war.

On the other hand, the results of a confused competition may be worse than those of order, even if the latter rests upon an artificial principle

Thus it is said with some truth—and this is perhaps the most considerable argument for caste in modern life— that a class having hereditary wealth and position, like the English aristocracy, makes a permanent channel for high traditions of culture and public service, and that it is well to preserve such traditions even at the cost of a somewhat exclusive order to contain and cherish them. De Tocqueville, himself imbued with the best traditions of the old French aristocracy, held this view, and ascribed the lack of intellectual distinction in the America of his day largely to the fact that there was no class "in which the taste for intellectual pleasures is transmitted with hereditary fortune and leisure, and by which the labors of the intellect are held in honor."[1]

The answer, of course, is that there are other means than caste for securing the continuity of special traditions, and, more particularly, that voluntary associations are capable of supplanting inherited wealth as channels of culture. In the various branches of science, for example, we have vigorous and continuing groups, with plenty of esprit de corps, by which the labors of the intellect are held In honor. If libraries, associations and educational institutions can do this for one phase of culture, why not for others?


It would be unfair, however, not to acknowledge that great services are constantly rendered to society by persons whom inherited wealth enables to devote themselves earlier and more independently to high aims than would otherwise be possible. There is certainly something favorable to originality in an inherited competence, without which one is more apt to be coerced into seeking a kind of success already in vogue, and so having a market value And the movement to foster originality by endowments depending upon merit rather than birth will be most difficult to make effectual, since such endowments almost inevitably fall into the control of an institutional sort of men who cannot be expected to subsidize heresy. Funds for this purpose will probably aid only those sorts of originality already recognized, and in a manner established; not the radical innovations from which important movements usually start. It is hard to see how they can do much outside of experimental science, in which there is a sort of conventional test of originality.

On the whole, whatever is good in the principle of descent may be appropriated by a democratic society without going back to formal rank or exclusive opportunity. Freedom offers no bar to continuity of function in the family, so long as efficiency is maintained, but merely requires this, like everything else, to meet the test of service. There is no adequate reason why a hereditary group, transmitting special culture and fitness, should not continue their functions under a democratic system—as is actually the case to a certain extent with the political families of England. They will do their work all the

(237) better for not being too sure of their position. I see nothing but good in the fact that a military career has become traditional in a number of American families who have rendered distinguished service of this sort. The more special family ambitions we have, of a noble kind, the better for the country.

No sober observer will imagine that the opposing forces are to abolish the power of inheritance; they merely set reasonable limits to its scope. When the way of ambition is opened to the most energetic individuals, the sharpest teeth of discontent are drawn, and the mass of men very willingly avoid trouble to themselves and to society by keeping on in the paternal road. The family is after all too natural and too convenient a channel of social continuity not to play a great part in every phase of organization, and there seems little reason to depart from the opinion of Comte that it must ordinarily be the main influence in determining occupation.

I am inclined to expect that, owing to somewhat more settled conditions of life, inheritance of function will be rather more common, and the tendency to see the individual as one of a stock rather greater, in the future than in the immediate past. On the other hand it is nearly certain that educational opportunities will become more open and varied, making it easier than now for special aptitude to find its place. These things are not inconsistent, and both will make for order and contentment.

Also much more endeavor will be directed to the welfare of the less privileged classes as classes—that is, of those who are content to remain in the ancestral status instead

(238) of trying to get into one more favored. Heretofore we have given too much thought, relatively, to the one man who aims at distinction, and too little to the ninety and nine who do not.


  1. Democracy in America, vol. i, chap. 3.

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