Social Process

Chapter 2: Organization

Charles Horton Cooley

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A PROCESS of adaptive " working " such as 1 have described is a process also of organization, because it tends to bring about a system of co-ordinated activities fitted to the conditions, and that is what organization is. If a theory, for example, is making its way into the minds of men, and at each point where it is questioned or tested arguments and experiments are being devised to support it, then it is in course of organization. It is becoming an intricate whole of related parts which work in the general mind and extend its influence. The theory of evolution has its organs in every department of thought, the doctrine of eugenics, for example, being one form in which it functions.

The same is true of any living whole. Whenever a person enters upon a new course of life his mind begins to organize with reference to it; he develops ways of thinking and acting that are necessary or convenient in order that he may meet the new conditions. In this way each of us grows to fit his job, acquiring habits that are in some way congruous with it. A farmer, a teacher, a factory worker, a banker, is certain to have in some respects, an occupational system of thinking. So a group, if it is lasting and important, like a state, or a church, or a political party, develops an organization every part of which has arisen by adaptive growth.

(20) A university, if we look at it from this point of view, appears as a theatre of multiform selective organization. The students, already sifted by preparatory schools and entrance examinations, are subject to further selection for membership in the various academic groups. They must pass certain preliminary courses, or attain a certain standing before they can take advanced courses or be admitted to honor societies. The athletic, dramatic, and debating groups have also selective methods whose function is to maintain their organized activities. And the university as a whole, and especially its various technical departments, acts as an agent of selection for society at large, determining in great part who are fit for the different professions. It is also a centre for the organization of ideas. Intellectual suggestions relating to every branch of knowledge, brought from every part of the world by books and periodicals as well as by the cosmopolitan body of teachers and students, are compared, discussed, augmented, worked over, and thus organized, presumably for the service of mankind.

This organization, of which we are a part, like the process that creates it, is more largely unconscious than we are apt to perceive. We see human activities co-operating ingeniously to achieve a common object, and it is natural to suppose that this co-operation must be the result of a plan: it is the kind of thing that may be done by prevision, and it does not readily occur to us that it can be done in any other way. But of course organization is something far more extended than consciousness, since plants, for example, exhibit it in great intricacy. Indeed one of the main tasks of Darwin was to overcome by a great array of facts the idea, accepted

(21) by his contemporaries, that the curious and subtle adaptations of animal and vegetable life must be due to the action of a planning intelligence. He showed that although even more curious and subtle than had been perceived, they might probably be explained by the slow working of unconscious adaptation, without any plan at all. No one deliberately set out to color the small birds like the ground so that the hawk would not see them, but by the production of birds of varying colors, and the survival and propagation of those that had in some degree a protective resemblance, the latter was gradually perfected and established. The same principle of unintentional adaptation is at work in human life, and we need to be reminded of it because the place of the will at the centre of our personal consciousness leads us to exaggerate the sphere of its activity. The social processes, though they result in a structure which seems rational, perhaps, when it is perceived, are for the most part not planned at all. Consciousness is at work in them, but seldom consciousness of anything more than some immediate object, some detail that contributes to the whole without the actor being aware of the fact. Generally speaking, social organisms feel their way without explicit consciousness of where they want to go or how they are to get there, even though to the eye of an observer after the fact their proceedings may have an appearance of rational prevision.

This is true in a large measure even of persons, though less true of them than of the more impersonal wholes. We are seldom conscious of our personal growth in any large way; we meet details and decide as best we can, but the general flow of our time, our country, our class, our temperament, carries us along without our being

(22) definitely aware of it. It is hardly possible for us to know what is taking place in us until it is already accomplished: contemporary history, in an individual as in a nation, eludes our comprehension. A country girl finds work in a city office, and presently discovers that she has taken on the hurry and excitement of the town and cannot do without it; a student enters college and at the end of the year finds himself a different man, without having intended it, or knowing how it came about. We take one rather than another of the paths opening before us: they do not seem to diverge much, but one leads around to the west and another to the east. We do not know what choices are important and what are not. In only a few matters do we think out a policy, and in much fewer do we carry it out. As Emerson said, there is less purpose in the careers of successful men than we ascribe to them; and one could soon fill a note-book with testimony that the man and his work often find each other by mere chance. A man is hungry and plans how to get a dinner, in love and schemes to get a wife, desires power and racks his brain for ways to get it; but it can hardly be said that our intelligence is often directed to the rational organization of our character as a whole. With some men it is, certainly, but even they often find that they have failed to understand their own tendency. Martin Luther declared that " No good work comes about by our own wisdom; it begins in dire necessity. I was forced into mine; but had I known then what I know now, ten wild horses would not have drawn me into it."

Although we are a part of the growth of impersonal forms of life we seldom know anything about it until it is well in the past. We do not know when—for obscure 

( 23) reasons that even the psychologist can hardly detect—we use one word rather than another, or use an old word in a new sense, that we are participating in the growth of the language organism. And yet this organism is vast, complex, logical, a marvel, apparently, of constructive ingenuity. It is the same with tradition and custom. We never tell a story or repeat an act precisely as we heard or saw it; everything is unconsciously modified by passing through us and the social medium of which we are a part, and these modifications build logical structures which human intelligence, in the course of time, may or may not discover. The students of folk-lore and primitive culture deal chiefly with such material. The working or vitality of one element of a tradition over another consists in some power to stimulate impulses in the human mind, which is, therefore, a selective agent in the process, but we are no more aware of what is going on, usually, than we are of the selective action of our digestive organs. The folkways and mores which Professor Sumner has so amply discussed are almost wholly of this nature.

The commercialism of our time offers a modern instance. Nobody, I suppose, has intended it: it has come upon us through the mechanical inventions, the opening of new countries and other conditions which have stimulated industry and commerce, these in turn imposing themselves upon the minds and habits of men at the expense of other interests. An epoch, like an individual, has its somewhat special functions, and a mind somewhat subdued to what it works in. Such a development as that of the Italian painting of the Renaissance, or of a particular school, like the Venetian, is a real organism, fascinating to study in the interactions and sequences of its activity, waxing and waning under the spur of immediate influences with-

(24) -out thought of the living whole which history now discovers.

A city is a different sort of organism whose development is, for the most part, equally unconscious. A frontier settlement, we will say, is fortunately situated with reference to the growth of the country, its water-power, its port facilities, or something of the sort making it a functional point. The settlers may or may not perceive and co-operate with this advantage, but in any case the town grows; trade and manufactures increase, railroads seek it, immigration pours in, street-railways are laid, the different elements segregate in different localities, and we presently have a complex, co-ordinated structure and life which, however faulty from the point of view of the civic reformer, is a real organism, full of individuality and interest. Think of Chicago or New Orleans, not to speak of the riper development of London, Venice, or Rome. Here are social organisms with only gleams of general consciousness, growing by tentative selection and synthesis. The case is much the same with nations, with the Roman Empire, Spain, and Britain.

Any one who follows the large movements of history must perceive, I think, that he is dealing mainly with unconscious systems and processes. At a given time there is a social situation that is also a mental situation, an intricate organization of thought. The growth of this involves problems which the mind of the time is bound to work out, but which it can know or meet only as details. Thus the history of the Christian Church in the Middle Ages presents itself to the student as the progressive struggle, interaction, and organization not only of specifically Christian ideas and traditions, but of all the ideas and traditions of the time working upon each other

( 25) in this central institution. Whatever beliefs men came to were the outcome of the whole previous history of thought. Vast forces were contending and combining in an organic movement which we can even now but dimly understand, and which the men involved in it could no more see than a fish can see the course of the river.

Feeling has an organic social growth which is, perhaps, still less likely than that of thought to be conscious. The human mind is capable of innumerable types and degrees of sentiment, and the question what type shall be developed or how far it shall be carried depends upon social incitement. If certain ways of feeling become traditional and are fostered by customs, symbols, and the cult of examples, they may rise to a high level in many individuals. In this way sentiment, even passion, may have an institutional character. Of this too the various phases of mediaeval Christianity afford examples. Its emotions were slowly evolved out of Roman, oriental, and barbarian, as well as Christian, sources.

It is notable that not only may the growth of a movement be unintended by the persons involved in it, but it may even be opposed to their wills. The oncoming of a commercial panic, with the growing apprehension and mistrust which almost every one would arrest if he could, is a familiar example. The mental or nervous epidemics which sometimes run through orphan asylums and similar institutions are of somewhat the same nature. They propagate themselves by their power to stimulate a certain kind of nerve action and live in the human organism without its consent.

Indeed, are not all kinds of social degeneration-vice, crime, misery, sensualism, pessimism—organic growths

( 26) which we do not intend or desire, and which are usually combated by at least a part of those afflicted?

There has been much discussion regarding the use of such words as "organic," "organization," and "organism" with reference to society, the last appearing specially objectionable to some persons, who feel that it suggests a closer resemblance to animal or plant life than does in fact exist. On the other hand, "organism" seems in many cases a fitter word than "organization," which is usually understood to imply conscious purpose. It matters little, however, what term we use if only we have a clear perception of the facts we are trying to describe. Let us, then, consider shortly what we mean by such expressions.

If we take society to include the whole of human life, this may truly be said to be organic, in the sense that influences may be and are transmitted from one part to any other part, so that all parts are bound together into an interdependent whole. We are all one life, and its various phases-Asia, Europe, and America; democracy, militarism, and socialism; state, church, and commerce; cities, villages, and families; and so on to the particular persons, Tom, Dick, and Harry—may all be regarded, without the slightest strain upon the facts, as organs of this whole, growing and functioning under particular conditions, according to the adaptive process already discussed. The total life being unified by interaction, each phase of it must be and is, in some degree, an expression of the whole system. My thought and action, for example, is by no means uninfluenced by what is going on in Russia, and may truly be said to be a special expression of the general thought of the time.

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But within this great whole, and part of it, are innumerable special systems of interaction, more or less distinct, more or less enduring, more or less conscious and intelligent. Nations, institutions, doctrines, parties, persons, are examples; but the whole number of systems, especially of those that are transient or indefinite, is beyond calculation. Every time I exchange glances with a man on the street a little process of special interaction and growth is set up, which may cease when we part or may be indefinitely continued in our thought. The more distinct and permanent wholes, like nations, institutions, and ruling ideas, attract peculiar study, but the less conspicuous forms are equally vital in their way. As to persons, they interest us more than all the rest, mainly because our consciousness has a bias in their favor. That is, having for its main function the guidance of persons, it is more vivid and choosing with reference to the personal phase of life than to any other. We know life primarily as persons, and extend our knowledge to other forms with some difficulty.

Another notable thing about this strange complex is the overlapping and interpenetration of the various forms, so that each part of the whole belongs to more than one organic system-somewhat as in one of those picture-puzzles where the same lines form part of several faces, which you must discover if you can. Thus one's own personality is one organic system; the persons he knows are others, and from one point of view all human life is made up of such personal systems, which, however, will be found on close inspection not to be separate but to interpenetrate one another. I mean that each personality includes ideas and feelings reflected from others. From another point of view the whole thing breaks up

(28) into groups rather than persons—into families, communities, parties, races, states. Each has a history and life of its own, and they also overlap one another. A third standpoint shows us the same whole as a complex of thoughts or thought-systems, whose locus, certainly, is the human mind, but which have a life and growth of their own that cannot be understood except by studying them as distinct phenomena. All are equally real and all are aspects of a common whole.

Perhaps the first requisite in the making of a sociologist is that he learn to see things habitually in this way.

If, then, we say that society is an organism, we mean, I suppose, that it is a complex of forms or processes each of which is living and growing by interaction with the others, the whole being so unified that what takes place in one part affects all the rest. It is a vast tissue of reciprocal activity, differentiated into innumerable systems, some of them quite distinct, others not readily traceable, and all interwoven to such a degree that you see different systems according to the point of view you take.[1]

It is not the case, as many suppose, that there is anything in the idea of organism necessarily opposed to the idea of freedom. The question of freedom or unfreedom is rather one of the kind of organism or of organic process, whether it is mechanical and predetermined, or creative and inscrutable. There may be an organic freedom, which exists in the whole as well as in the parts, is a total as well as a particular phenomenon. It may be of the

(29) very nature of life and found in all the forms of life. Darwin seems to have believed in something of this kind, as indicated by his unwillingness to regard the dinosaur as lacking in free will.[2]

The organic view of freedom agrees with experience and common sense in teaching that liberty can exist in the individual only as he is part of a whole which is also free, that it is false to regard him as separate from or antithetical to the larger unity. In other words the notion of an opposition between organism and freedom is a phase of the "individualistic" philosophy which regarded social unity as artificial and restrictive.


  1. Professor Albion W. Small puts it as follows: "Described with respect to form rather than content, the social process is a tide of separating and blending social processes, consisting of incessant decomposition and recomposition of relations within persons and between persons. in a continuous evolution of types of persons and of associations." (American Journal of Sociology, 18, 210.)
  2. "I rather demur to Dinosaurus not having 'free will,' as surely we have." (More Letters of Charles Darwin, vol. 1, 155.)

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