Social Process

Chapter 33: Social Science

Charles Horton Cooley

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WE have seen that social intelligence is essentially an imaginative grasp of the process going on about us, enabling us to carry this forward into the future and anticipate how it will work. It is a dramatic vision by which we see how the agents now operating must interact upon one another and issue in a new situation. How shall we apply this idea to social science? Shall we say that that too is dramatic?

There would be nothing absurd in such a view. All science may be said to work by a dramatic method when it takes the results of minute observation and tries to build them into fresh wholes of knowledge. This, we know, takes creative imagination; the intelligence must act in sympathy with nature and foresee its operation. The work on the evolution of life for which Darwin is most famous may justly be described as an attempt to dramatize what mankind had come to know about plants and animals. He took the painfully won details and showed how they contributed to a living process whose operation could be traced in the past, and possibly anticipated for the future. And, indeed, so homogeneous is life, the phases he found in this process--divergence, struggle, adaptation-are much the same as have always been recognized in the drama.


Darwin regarded the study of fossils as a means to the better understanding of life upon earth, as a way to see what is going on, and in like manner the precise observation of individuals and families in sociology is prepara. tory to a social synthesis whose aim also is to see what is going on.

The routine conception of science as merely precise study of details is never a sound one, and is particularly barren in the social field. If we are to arrive at principles or have any success at all in prediction we must keep the imagination constantly at work. And even in detailed studies we must dramatize more or less to make the facts intelligible. An investigator of juvenile delinquency who was not armed with insight as well as schedules would not report anything of much value.

There are marked differences, however, between biology and sociology, considered as studies of process, of which I will note especially two. One is that in biology essential change in types is chiefly slow and not easily perceptible. For the most part we have to do with a moving equilibrium of species and modes of life repeating itself generation after generation. It took a Darwin to show, by comparing remote periods, that nature was really evolving, dramatic, creative.

In social life, on the other hand, change is obvious and urgent; so that the main practical object of our science is to understand and control it. The dramatic element, which in biology is revealed only to a titanic imagination, becomes- the most familiar and intimate thing in experience. Any real study of society must be first, last, and nearly all the time a study of process.

Again, the sciences that deal with social life are unique

(397) in that we who study them are a conscious part of the process. We can know it by sympathetic participation, in a manner impossible in the study of plant or animal life. Many indeed find this fact embarrassing, and are inclined to escape it by trying to use only "objective" methods, or to question whether it does not shut out sociology and introspective psychology from the number of true sciences.

I should say that it puts these studies in a class by themselves: whether you call them sciences or something else is of no great importance. It is their unique privilege to approach life from the point of view of conscious and familiar partaking of it. This involves unique methods which must be worked out independently. The sooner we cease circumscribing and testing ourselves by the canons of physical and physiological science the better. Whatever we do that is worth while will be done by discarding alien formulas and falling back upon our natural bent to observation and reflection. Going ahead resolutely with these we shall work out methods as we go. In fact sociology has already developed at least one original method of the highest promise, namely that of systematic social surveys.

The reason that students of the principles of sociology (as distinguished from those whose aim is immediately practical) are somewhat less preoccupied with the digging out of primary facts than with their interpretation, is simply that, for the present, the latter is the more difficult task. We have within easy reach facts which, if fully digested and correlated, would probably be ample to illuminate the whole subject. It is very much as in political economy, whose principles have been worked out mainly by the closer and closer study and interpre-

( 398) -tation of facts which, as details, every business man knows.

Knowledge requires both observation and interpretation, neither being more scientific than the other. And each branch of science must be worked out in its own way, which is mainly to be found in the actual search for truth rather than by a priori methodology. Sociology has as ample a field of verifiable fact as any subject, and it is not clear that the interpretations are more unsettled than they are elsewhere. The chief reason why it has developed late and still appears uninviting to many is the very abundance and apparent confusion of the material, which seems to take away the hope of simple, sure, and lasting results. One purpose in our study of principles is to restore this hope and give order to this abundance. And while there are certainly special difficulties, as in all sciences, our own is coming to afford, I think, as great intellectual attraction as can be found in other studies, along with a human and social character peculiar to itself. It will be strange if an increasing proportion of good minds do not give themselves to it.

While I ascribe the utmost importance to precision in preparing the data for social science, I do not think its true aim is to bring society within the sphere of arithmetic. Exact prediction and mechanical control for the social world I believe to be a false ideal inconsiderately borrowed from the provinces of physical science. There is no real reason to think that this sort of prediction or control will ever be possible.

Much has been made of the fact that human phenomena, when studied statistically on a large scale, often show a marked numerical uniformity from year to year; and some

( 399) have even inferred that human spontaneity is an illusion, and that we are really controlled by mathematical laws as precise as those which guide the course of the planets. But I take it that such uniformities as are to be observed in births, marriages, suicides, and many other human phenomena do not indicate underlying principles analogous to the laws of gravitation or chemical reaction. They merely show that under a given social condition the number of persons who will choose to perform certain definite acts within the year may remain almost the same, or may be increased or diminished by certain definite changes, such as the advent of war or economic hardship. They no more prove that human conduct is subject to numerical law than does the fact that I eat three meals a day, or that I shall spend more money if my salary is raised, and less if it is diminished.

In other words statistical uniformities do not show that it is possible to predict numerically the working of intelligence in new situations, and of course that is the decisive test. Where exact prediction is possible the whole basis of it I take to be the fact that the general social situation remains the same, or is changed in ways which do not involve new problems of choice in the field studied. In short, the more the question is one of intelligence the less the numerical method can cope with it.

Uniformity in the suicide rate, so far as it exists, shows that the causes of suicide, whatever they may be, are operating in about the same degree from year to year, that the social situation is static, or rather in moving equilibrium. It reveals no law of suicide beyond the fact that it is connected in some definite way with the social situation in general. It does not help you to understand why Saul Jones killed himself, or to predict whether Jonathan

( 400) Smith will or not. All you know is that if the general current of human trouble goes on about the same, the number of cases is not likely to vary much.

Serious attempts to understand suicide and to predict its prevalence under various conditions are based, if they are intelligent, upon psychological theories of an imaginative character. Thus Durkheim, in his book upon the subject, develops the idea of "altruistic" Suicide, and enables us to understand how a disgraced army officer, for example, might be driven to it by social pressure. To such studies statistics is only an adjunct.

In the case of marriage you may be able to predict with some accuracy the effect of the simpler sort of economic changes, such as larger or smaller crops, but, if so, it is because marriage is a familiar problem, settled in much the same way by one generation after the other, on the basis of lasting instincts or conventions. You cannot, in the same way, anticipate the outcome of the next presidential campaign, or of any other transaction in which the human mind is confronting a fresh situation.

The only instrument that can in any degree meet the test of prediction, where new problems of higher choice confront the mind, is the instructed imagination, which, by a kind of inspired intelligence, may anticipate within itself the drama of social process, and so foresee the issue. That this supreme act of the mind, never more than partly successful, even in the simplest questions, can ever become, on a large scale, sure, precise, and demonstrable before the event, there is no evidence or probability. So far as we can now see or infer, social prediction, in the higher provinces, must ever remain tentative, and 1 suspect that all the sciences which deal with the life process are subject to a similar limitation. Darwin's suggestion

regarding the "free-will,, of the dinosaur would seem to indicate that this was his opinion.[1]

Intelligent social prediction is contradictory to determinism, because, instead of ignoring the creative will, it accepts it and endeavors by sympathy to enter into it and foresee its working. If 1 predict an artistic or humanitarian movement, it is partly because 1 feel as if 1 myself, with whatever freedom and creative power is in me, would choose to share in such a movement.

The possibility of social science rests upon the hypothesis that social life is in some sense rational and sequent. It has been assumed that this can be true only if it is mechanically calculable. But there may easily be another sort of rationality and sequence, not mechanical, consistent with a kind of freedom, which makes possible an organized development of social knowledge answering to the organic character of the social process.. The life of men has a unity and order of its own, which may or may not prove to be the same in essence as that which rules the stars. It seems to include a creative element which must be grasped by the participating activity of the mind rather than by computations. How far it can be known and predicted is a matter for trial. The right method is the one that may he found to give the best results. Apparently it is not, except in subordinate degree, the numerical method.

A sociologist must have the patient love of truth and the need to reduce it to principles which all men of science require. Besides this, however, he needs the fullest sympathy and participation in the currents of life. He can no more stand aloof than can the novelist or the poet,

( 402) and all his work is, in a certain sense, autobiographic. I mean that it is all based on perceptions which he has won by actual living. He should know his groups as Mr. Bryce came to know America, with a real intimacy due to long and considerate familiarity with individuals, families, cities, and manifold opinions and traditions. He cannot be a specialist in the same way that a chemist or a botanist can, because he cannot narrow his life without narrowing his grasp of his subject. To attempt to build up sociology as a technical tradition remote from the great currents of literature and philosophy, would, in my opinion, be a fatal error. It cannot avoid being difficult, but it should be as little abstruse as possible. If it is not human it is nothing.

I have often thought that, in endowment, Goethe was almost the ideal sociologist, and that one who added to more common traits his comprehension, his disinterestedness and his sense for organic unity and movement. might accomplish almost anything.

The method of social improvement is likely to remain experimental, but sociology is one of the means by which the experimentation becomes more intelligent. I think, for example, that any one who studies the theory of social classes-the various kinds, the conditions of their formation and continuance, their effect in moulding the minds of those who belong to them, and the like-using what has been written upon the subject to stimulate his own observation and reflection, will find that the contemporary situation is illumined for him and his grasp of the, trend of events enhanced.

By observation and thought we work out generalizations which help us to understand where we are and what

( 403) is going on. These are "principles of sociology." They are similar in nature to principles of economics, and aid our social insight just as these aid our insight into business or finance. They supply no ready-made solutions but give illumination and perspective. A good sociologist might have poor judgment in philanthropy or social legislation, just as a good political economist might have poor judgment in investing his money. Yet, other things equal, the mind trained in the theory of its subject will surpass in practical wisdom one that is not.

At bottom any science is simply a more penetrating perception of facts, gained largely by selecting those that are more universal and devoting intensive study to them -as biologists are now studying the great fact of hereditary transmission. In so far as we know these more general facts we are the better prepared to work understandingly in the actual complexities of life. Our study should enable us to discern underneath the apparent confusion of things the working of enduring principles of human nature and social process, simplifying the movement for us by revealing its main currents, something as a general can follow the course of a battle better by the aid of a map upon which the chief operations are indicated and the distracting details left out. This will not assure our control of life, but should enable us to devise measures having a good chance of success. And in so far as they fail we should be in a position to see what is wrong and do better next time.

I think, then, that the supreme aim of social science is to perceive the drama of life more adequately than can be done by ordinary observation. If it be objected that this is the task of an artist -- a Shakespeare, a Goethe, or a Balzac -- rather than of a scientist, I may answer that

( 404) an undertaking so vast requires the co-operation of various sorts of synthetic minds; artists, scientists, philosophers, and men of action. Or I may say that the constructive part of science is, in truth, a form of art.

Indeed one of the best things to be expected from our study is the power of looking upon the movement of human life in a large, composed spirit, of seeing it in something of ideal unity and beauty.


  1.  Quoted ante, p. 29.

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