Social Process

Chapter 3: Cycles

Charles Horton Cooley

Table of Contents | Next | Previous


IT is a familiar observation that there is a cyclical character in all the movements of history. Every form of organization has its growth, its vicissitudes, and sooner or later, probably, its decline and disappearance. The mob assembles and disperses, fashions come in and go out, business prosperity rises, flourishes, and gives way to depression, the Roman Empire, after centuries of greatness, declines and falls.

This is a trait of life in general, and the explanation does not pertain especially to sociology. Still, if we assume that social process is made up of functional forms or organisms working onward by a tentative method, we can see that their history is naturally cyclical. Any particular form represents an experiment, conscious or otherwise, and is never absolutely successful but has constantly to be modified in order to meet better the conditions under which it functions. If it does this successfully it grows, but even in the growing it usually becomes more complex and systematic and hence more difficult to change as regards its general type. In the course of time the type itself is likely to lose its fitness to the conditions, and so the whole structure crumbles and is resolved into elements from which new structures are nourished. The parties,

(31) the doctrines, the institutions of the past are for the most part as dead as the men.

Where institutions, like Christianity, have survived for a millennium or two, it is commonly not their organization that has endured, but a very general idea or sentiment which has vitalized successive systems, each of which has had its cycle of prosperity and decay.

It does not follow that a social cycle is in any way mechanical or predetermined, any more than it follows that the individual life is so because each of us sooner or later declines and dies.

The word "rhythm" which has been used in this connection by Herbert Spencer and others is questionable as implying a mechanical character that does not exist. When we are told that a movement is rhythmical we generally infer, I think, that certain phases recur at stated times, and can he predicted on this basis, like the ebb and flow of tides.

But if this is what the word means then the idea of rhythm in the social process appears to he a fiction. I doubt if any examples of it can be given, except such as are immediately dependent upon some external phenomenon, like our going to bed at night, or else are artificially established, such as the cessation of work every seventh day, or the celebration of the Fourth of July.

The course of the fashions, or of the periods of prosperity and depression in business, are fair examples of the kind of phenomena supposed to be rhythmical; but it does not appear, upon examination, that these movements are mechanical or can be predicted by simple rules of any sort. Can any one foretell the fashions more than two or three months ahead, or by any method save that

(32) of inquiring what has already got a start in London or Paris? Studies of their genesis show that even the most expert are unable to tell in advance what designs will "take."

Many have the impression that business cycles follow a regular course, which can be plotted beforehand on curves, and some, I believe, put sufficient faith in such curves to invest their money accordingly, but I doubt if they are especially successful. My impression is that the few men who succeed in speculation do not trust to any law of rhythm, but make an intensive study of the actual state of the market, guiding themselves somewhat by past records, but not forgetting that the present condition is, after all, unique, and must be understood by a special intellectual synthesis. I take it that those who trust to mechanical formulas are much in the same class as those who expect to get rich at Monte Carlo by the use of an arithmetical " system."

A scientific study of business cycles, such as that carried out with large scope and exhaustive detail by Professor Wesley C. Mitchell, shows that they are complex organic movements, belonging to a common general type -as indicated by successive periods of confidence and depression, of high and low prices, and so on-but differing greatly from one another, altering fundamentally with the development of business methods, and showing no such pendulum-like regularity in time as is often supposed. "The notion that crises have a regular period of recurrence," it seems, "is plainly mistaken." "These cycles differ widely in duration, in intensity, In the relative prominence of their various phenomena, and in the sequence of their phases."[1] Professor Mitchell's work is

( 33) an excellent example of what a scientific study of social process, in the economic sphere, should be, and of the uses and limits of the statistical method.

The same sort of objection holds good against the idea that social organisms of any sort, and more especially nations, are subject to a definite law of growth and decay, which enables us to predict their fate in advance. No doubt they must all "have their closes" sooner or later, but the process is complex and in part within the sphere of will, so that there is no exact way of predicting how it will work out. So far as nations have decayed in the past it has been because their systems became too rigid for change, or took on a form which demoralized the people, or proved unable to resist conquest, or in some other way failed to work effectually. These dangers are difficult to avoid, and it is not surprising that most nations have succumbed to them, but sound institutions intelligently adapted to change might avert them indefinitely. It may even be said that there are nations which have lived throughout historical time. The Jews, for example, have kept their national consciousness and their fundamental ideas. Some modern nations, as France and England, have endured many centuries and show no lack of vigor.

Predictions based on a supposed law of this nature are constantly proving false. At almost any time during the last three centuries English writers could be found likening the condition of their country to that of imperial Rome, and predicting a similar downfall; and recently America has been threatened with a like fate. Many have judged France and Spain to be hopelessly on the downward path, and have elaborated theories of the causes

( 34) of their decay, which have proved somewhat supererogatory.

My own impression is that the freer and more intelligent forms of national life arising under modern conditions are likely, when well established, to have a much longer life than older forms, the reason being that they are plastic and capable of rational adaptation. There will be ups and downs, but the actual dissolution of a self-conscious modern nation is hard to conceive.

The idea that history repeats itself is similar to that of social rhythm. Certain principles of human nature and social process operate throughout history, and their working may be traced in one age as in another. Thus when one nation is believed to be trying to dominate others it is human nature that the latter should combine against it; and in this sense it may be said that the Entente of 1914 was a repetition of the league against Napoleon. But such resemblances are accompanied by essential differences, so that the situation as a whole is new, and you cannot predict the course of events except on the basis of a fresh synthesis. It is easy to discover resemblances, and to overestimate their importance.

I take it that life as a whole is not a series of futile repetitions, but an eternal growth, an onward and upward development, if you please, involving the continual transformation or elimination of details. Just as humanity lives on while individuals perish, so the social organization endures while particular forms of it pass away.


  1. W. C. Mitchell, Business Cycles, 581.

Valid HTML 4.01 Strict Valid CSS2