The Life-Study Method As Applied to Rural Social Research[1]

Charles Horton Cooley

The aim of all our study, I suppose, is a more adequate perception of life, to see better what is going on, and for this purpose we must in some way break up the social complex and examine it by parts. There seem, in general, to be two ways of doing this : We may study closely actual persons or groups, and use the perceptions thus gained as a core upon which to build an understanding of other persons and groups, and eventually of the whole complex. In somewhat the same way a naturalist hidden in a tree-top with his camera watches and records the nesting behavior of a pair of birds, hoping by a series of such studies to understand those of the species. This is the method of intensive observation, known in general as case study. When it takes the form of life-like description covering a period of time it may be called more specifically the life study method; and it is this term which I shall use to-day.

On the other hand we may observe on a large scale and at-tend to the individual case only to see whether it does or does not manifest certain standardized traits, the object being to arrive at averages, scales, graphs and the like which may for certain purposes be regarded as representative of the social complex. This method is like that of the naturalist who shoots his birds and describes them on the basis of measurable characters, like the length of the bill, or the number of primary, secondary and tertiary wing feathers, proceeding then to classify them in species and varieties, in order to study their distribution, movements and evolution. This is the method of

( 332) extensive abstract observation, commonly known as the method of statistics. It has well known advantages upon which I need not dwell, but has the defect of always remaining abstract and schematic, of never grasping life in its organic reality. It has numerical precision (which is by no means the same as truth to fact) but does not attempt the descriptive precision which may be attained by the skilful use of language, supplemented, perhaps, by photography, phonography and other mechanical devices.

There are those who depreciate description on the ground that it is not quantitative and hence does not permit exact measurement and comparison; but they overlook, it seems to me, two facts : first, that distinctively human or social behavior, being a phenomenon of patterns rather than quantities—patterns of facial expression, gesture, voice, words and the like,--can be stated in quantitative terms only by a fiction of some sort, which is often useful and hence justifiable, but removes the procedure from the sphere of exact science; and, second, that the idea of the quantitative having an exclusive claim to be the true or perfect form of knowledge, or the only one which makes science possible, flows from an obsolescent philosophy from which it would seem desirable to escape.[2]

All the natural sciences are primarily descriptive, and sociology is that natural science in which description is more various and difficult than in any other. What should we think of a zoology which failed to give a life-like account of the animals?

On its affirmative side the quantitative ideal—Measure every-thing you can—is admirable; on its negative side—Deal with nothing that you cannot measure—I believe it to be obstructive.

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I venture to think that we can expect no satisfactory insight into any social complex without making life studies of the chief social agents involved in it. This is the only way to make a living as distinct from an anatomical analysis. We are seeking, I presume, to get at the human meaning of our institutions and processes as they work out in the lives of men, women and children. How can we expect to succeed without perceiving in human terms what is not going on?

We notice constantly that it is hardly possible to interest even intelligent people in social exposition that does not take a life-like form, and that statistics, except as an adjunct to some-thing more human, are commonly regarded as unreadable. Of the millions who read eagerly about Gopher Prairie, Zenith City and Winesburg, Ohio, few, probably, will attend to a statistical survey of those places. Is this merely an effect of the slothfulness of the human mind, or has it some justification in common sense and the rational search for knowledge? The latter, I should say. The basis of reality for our knowledge of men is in sympathetic or dramatic perceptions; without these we are all in the air. No wonder, then, that common-sense demands, first of all, that we be enabled to form such perceptions. The novelist gives us something human, dramatic, real; colored, no doubt, by his temperament and point of view, but far nearer the truth than any numerical description. He is a behaviorist who portrays people in action and shows minds and bodies functioning together in organic process. We cannot wholly scorn his method if we hope to put across sociology as a science of life.

In looking over examples of recent research in the rural field I have admired the ability and ardor of the investigators and have noted that some of them were seeking to animate their work by searching case-studies. On the whole, however, it seemed to me that the workers, somewhat obsessed by the idea that they must offer nothing unquantitative, have been timid about attempting a lifelike portrayal of behavior. I have in mind, for example, a recent study of rural villages, admirable in most respects, published in several volumes by the Institute of Social and Religious Research. The information has been faithfully collected, intelligently organized and clearly pre-

(334) -sented, but it certainly does not leave the reader with the feeling that he has seen deeply into the life of these villages. There would seem to be a fixed purpose, especially remarkable in a quasi-religious investigation, to stay on the outside of things —religion included—and to be quantitative at all costs. Thus, regarding leadership, I read : [3]

No scale could be devised within the scope of this investigation to evaluate leadership, to analyze its quality, or even to isolate the factors that accounted for the leadership attributed to the individual; and no previously devised methodology to do this was ready at hand. Leadership was evidently a fact of vital importance in these villages but to study it in any precise way is a task for the future.

The lifelike portrayal of typical leaders by competent biographic or autobiographic description of their behavior in critical situations was apparently considered either unscientific or impracticable.

Unimaginative observation is superficial observation, no matter what the method may be. All science calls for imagination, and in our subject it largely takes the form of an insight into motives which makes possible a penetrating description of behavior.

A more satisfactory inquiry from our present standpoint, is that of Kolb and Wileden into special-interest groups in Wisconsin. This is based on case-studies of 351 groups, the material obtained from schedules being skilfully digested by statistical and other methods, including the presentation of a composite or generalized life cycle of the kind of organizations studied. There are also eight selected case-histories illustrating processes of especial interest. I think highly of this report, and will only ask, by way of criticism, whether the case histories would not have been more lifelike if given in narrative form instead of by detached paragraphs.[4]

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Let me say a word in praise of that almost classic study, Williams' An American Town. I would not call it a model of method; it is good because Williams was thoroughly possessed of his material, had brooded over it and worked himself into it until he deeply understood the people about whom he wrote.He is dramatic, not in form but in essence by virtue of an in-sight into behavior which the reader is enabled to share.

The aim of a descriptive technique in rural sociology should be, I take it, so to picture the essential functional behavior of rural persons and groups that their life can be understood in as much of its dramatic reality as possible. It seeks to give "revealing instances" about which the reader may build a life-like and just conception of what is going on. This involves a judicious selection of those events that are essential, that revealthe critical functions, the high spots as it were. There must be nothing lax or superfluous in scientific description, any morethan in a play. Only the indispensable must be shown ; but that must be shown so deliberately and graphically as to be convincing. Just what the revealing instances are which should be selected in connection with projects of rural research now under way,—studies of the standard of living of farm families, of young people's organizations, of the rural church, rural migration, rural leadership and so on,—I will not attempt to say, but it seems to me that all of them might and should be illuminated in this manner. Why should a standard of living be set forth merely in statistics, and not also by some description of how it works out in life?

I am not sure that there are any models that one could un-reservedly commend to rural sociologists as guides to their descriptive technique; we need something new, something that combines the insight of literature with the disinterestedness and factual truth of science. Helpful examples may, however, be found in various quarters.

First and most important of these sources of suggestion is the good work already done in the rural field, as in the investigations I have mentioned. And a wider survey of sociology will show many instructive examples of the use of auto-biographies, diaries, interviews and other life-study materials.

A branch of literature nearly related to sociology from which

( 336) we might learn not a little is the portrayal of the social psychology of nations other than our own. Although most such studies are far from scientific there are some good ones; for example a recent study of Germany by Professor Danton of Peking. His manner of seeing is sociological and penetrating, while the facts he gives are not less convincing for being with-out formal arrangement. He has as it were, psychoanalyzed many types of Germans with notable fairness and skill, thus making possible a real understanding of their behavior.

A more formal use of psychoanalysis may be found in the science of psychiatry which has developed a searching kind of case-study by interviews, of which the investigation of juvenile delinquency, as in the Judge Baker studies by Dr. Healy, offers perhaps the best examples. This instrument might well be focussed upon representative persons in the rural scene. It is a subjective method in the sense that it depends for its data on the insight and judgment of the observer, rather than on any-thing independent of his personality. It is therefore hard to check and liable to be swayed by preconceptions, but may be trustworthy when we have confidence in the observer and when we have other means of confirming his results. Training in this technique may be had at the schools of social work and at some universities.

Another technique which one may well make himself familiar with is that of anthropology, found in good descriptive monographs. As matter for scientific observation a primitive tribe is not wholly unlike an unfamiliar aspect of our own society, and in a competent work, such as that of W. H. R. Rivers on the Todas, we can see how it may be described. As good examples could probably be found in American anthropology.

A marked feature of anthropological technique is the ex-tended use of photography to show typical persons, both in re-pose and as functioning in the customary processes of the tribe. And I may add that the field of mechanical record of social process through motion pictures, phonography and the like is one in which fruitful development may be expected. I have remarked elsewhere that social life, in its sensible aspect, presents itself as patterns rather than quantities, and if so the

( 337) techniques by which patterns may be recorded are full of scientific promise.

As regards literary technique in general, the sociologist should study it if only because it is one of the most exact and searching forms of communication, itself a social process of the greatest interest. In using it as a means of social description he will not aim at anything so brilliant as to divert his own attention or that of the readers from the sober truth. And yet it is his duty to give a living transcript of his perceptions. I am inclined to think that the chief and perhaps the only rule to follow is first to make sure that he himself sees clearly what he wishes to describe, and then to try patiently to express it; taking care to work only when his mind is fresh and his vision clear. The best writers have, I believe, no other method; any formal rule or any imitation of a model will prove a delusion. I recently made a rather careful study of an excellent contemporary novel with a view to discovering just how the author succeeded so well in portraying character.[5] My chief conclusion, after examining many passages, was that her description was so varied, so elusive, so subtly suggestive, that it seemed probable she had no formal technique at all, but, having the character vividly before her mind, merely indicated its behavior in each situation as she saw it. Visual description was less frequent than I expected to find it; in fact there was an avoidance of the overtly dramatic in favor of a finely indicated drama of thought and sentiment. And yet this is no esoteric work but a best seller.

In any case the technique of descriptive social science can hardly be that of the novelist, because the latter is seeking to communicate something of his own device, the actuality of which is not in question; he aims only to convince the reader that it might be true. The scientist, on the other hand, aims to describe an event and also to substantiate it by an array of fact. Thus he has reason to lean rather heavily on the sensible, to introduce verifiable details when they are relevant, and to convey verbal behavior in part by direct quotation. But after all his own vision of the fact must be the dominant thing;

( 338) if he does not convey this he will convey nothing worth while. To pass on to the reader unselected and unorganized facts is simply to make himself unintelligible.

It may be worth while to linger for a moment before concluding to consider the question whether social description should confine itself to reporting overt behavior, including speech, or whether it should also report states of mind which the observer perceives by an insight for whose truth he can give no tangible evidence. Clearly such insights should be offered and received with caution and checked constantly by something more verifiable. If we had at hand a perfect technique for seeing and recording all overt behavior it would perhaps be possible for the observer merely to select and present what he thought most significant without further comment. But even this would involve interpretive insight, and in view of the actual inadequacy of our means of record I conceive that the attempt to describe human events from the outside only is visionary, and that science as well as common-sense justifies us in supplying some measure of interpretation. The truth is that our every-day perceptions of a man's behavior are a mixture of the visible or audible with imaginations of the psychic process going on behind it; without the latter we couldn't follow him at all, should lose track of him and over-look what was most significant even in what we could see and hear. Our whole interaction with one another is of this kind. We perceive the other person's behavior, ascribe to him a corresponding state of mind, respond to this state of mind by our conduct, and note whether his further behavior shows that we understood him rightly. Mostly it does, and so we come to know empirically that we can and do understand his mental process enough to respond successfully to it and to elicit de-sired responses in return. The ascription of a course of mental behavior is, then, in the nature of a working hypothesis which guides and sharpens our observation of a course of overt behavior. If you observe the outside only you will observe that superficially. Who, for instance, would notice the subtile but expressive differences in the lines about the mouth and eyes, if he had not, by a process involving introspection, learned

(339) to associate them with interesting states of feeling. A merely external behaviorism would be a shallow behaviorism, and if those who profess to ignore the inside are not always shallow, it is, I suspect, because they do not always adhere to their principle.



  1. This paper was read at the 1928 meeting of the American Sociological Society and appeared in the Society's Publications, XXIII (1929), pp. 248-54.
  2. A modern view may be found, for example, in A. N. Whitehead's Science and the Modern World (1925) ; R. W. Sellar's Principles and Problems of Philosophy (1926) ; K. Koffka's The Growth of the Mind (1925), and in a recent pamphlet by Wm. E. Ritter on The Organismal Conception, Its Place in Science and Its Bearing on Philosophy (1928), published by the University of California Press. Whitehead's position is especially interesting, since he is an eminent physicist who advocates abandoning the atomistic and mechanical conception of nature hitherto held by physicists and substituting an organic conception, which, since it answers to the evident facts of society, is largely used in sociology. Some of our colleagues would apparently have us "ape physics" by putting on the old clothes which the physicists themselves are beginning to discard.
  3. Brunner, Village Communities, p. 93.
  4. I should like more incidents as telling as the story of the meeting of the Sunnyside Community Club.
  5. I question whether the use of detached paragraphs with captions in a different type is not carried to excess all through this report. It is hard to read consecutively. To give it more flow I would suggest collecting the captions to form outlines at the beginning of chapters or relegating them to the margin. It seems to me, also, that a readable concluding chapter is needed to sum up the report.
  6. Death Comes for the Archbishop, by Willa Cather.

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