The Concept "Social Forces" In American Sociology

Section III: Geographic Factors as Social Forces

Floyd Nelson House
University of Chicago

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Two methods of handling geographic and physical factors.—From the time of Spencer and Ward there have been two fundamentally different attitudes displayed toward the problem of geographic and material factors in social causation each typical of one of these two men. Spencer treated psychic and physical factors as if they were of co-ordinate importance, the one balanced against the other. W. I. Thomas, in his earliest writings, and Blackmar and Gitlin more recently, have followed Spencer's lead. Ward, being a monist, believed the psychic factors were evolved out of the physical, but once evolved, were of primary importance. Small, Thomas, in his later writings, Ellwood, Hayes, Ross, and Giddings have followed approximately the lead of Ward, treating the geographic and material factors as conditioning forces, rather than as forces co-ordinate with the desires.

In the literature of American sociology from Ward to the present time there is visible an interesting divergence of treatment of geographic and material factors considered in relation to social causation. As we have noted, it is desirable to trace the development of sociology in the united States, not only in general, but with reference to most special phases, from Ward and from Spencer, since it is evident that their work was widely read by the men who made the earliest contributions following the time of publication of Ward's Dynamic Sociology and Spencer's several sociological works. using this approach, then, what we find is that, after Spencer and Ward, there were injected into the stream of American sociological thought two quite different attitudes toward the problem of geographic and material influences in social processes. We have examined Spencer's outline of the "factors of social phenomena" in an earlier section and have seen that he takes the attitude that there are two basic sets of such factors: internal factors and external factors; or, there are human beings an the one hand, and the factors of environment on the other hand. This

( 348) attitude was, of course, quite consistent with Spencer's interest in biological evolution theory. When we turn to Ward's Dynamic Sociology we find that he has seemingly followed Comte rather than Spencer and, while he insists so strongly that psychic and social phenomena are generated out of physical phenomena that he was often rated as a materialist, still there does not appear in his writings that setting of environmental factors over against psychic factors as if the two were logically co-ordinate, which is implied by Spencer's outline of the factors of social phenomena. Rather, Ward attempts an interpretation of social process in purely monistic terms; he derives the psychic factors from the physical factors, but thinks of the psychic and social factors as operative on a plane of their own, once they have appeared in the course of the general cosmic process of evolution. When one keeps in mind the scope and detail of Ward's writings, it does not need to be emphasized that his analysis of the topic of geographic and material factors is more elaborate than the foregoing few sentences can show. Thus, he has a chapter in Dynamic Sociology with the heading, "Reciprocal Relations of Man and the Environment," but the fact remains, as our last section has shown, that Ward has not included geographic or physical factors in his outline of "social forces."

Since the publication of Ward's Dynamic Sociology, most other writers in this country have followed, on the whole, his lead in the treatment of the question of physical forces, rather than that of Spencer; however, exceptions may be mentioned. An early paper by Professor Thomas seems to embody, in form at least, the attitude of Spencer:

For working purposes we take the individual as "the simplest part of nature," or rather as the unit on which the sum of all the parts of nature act, and which are acted upon in turn by him, and it will be convenient to set over against him the variables which condition this acting. The order in which these variables ace considered is not all-important, since they coexist in varying proportions at every stage. A convenient working schedule is the following:

1. Habitat. Food conditions. Anthropogeography (conditioning temperament and aptitude).

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2. Somatic anthropology: laws of growth and variation; effects of crossing and interbreeding heredity, atavism, etc,

3. Reproductive life; love and marriage; the psychology of sex; sex as a social stimulus.

4. Technology: the useful arts; science.

    5. Aesthetic.

6. Animism (religion, myth, superstition).

7. jurisprudence, politics (formal control).[1]

We continue the quotation beyond the point where it bears especially upon the topic of geographic and material factors, because it shows the place of the latter in a general scheme of social causation as Thomas would have conceived them at this time. He evidently thought of tendencies to action located within the person as social forces in a more basic sense than the environmental factors:

Food and sex, like the foci of an ellipse, are the points about which the whole process turns. These were the great original stimuli to action and culture, and "making war, making love, and making things" have aptly been called by Miss Símcox man's chief occupations . . . . A statement of life in terms of food and sex is as crass, when applied to culture conditions, as the chemical definition of man as "forty pounds of carbon and nitrogen scattered through two pailfuls of water," But it is important to recognize that food and sex are the irreducible factors of social life; and beginning with these, we may hope to understand the meaning of the different variables of society: ideas, institutions, beliefs, sentiments, language, arts, literature--and to trace the "red thread" of consciousness through them.[2]

Blackmar and Gíllin, in their Outlines of Sociology, reported to have been widely used as a college text in the United States for some years past, in a series of editions, afford the only other outstanding example in American sociological literature of a classification of social forces in which external conditions are treated as co-ordinate with psychic factors. The main headings in their outline of social forces are as follows: (I) External conditions of the psychical environment affecting man's impulses, feelings, thoughts, and actions. (2) External social factors affecting man as a social being, (3) Forces in man's psychical nature. (4) Interests growing out of combinations of human desires, in large part socially

( 350) conditioned and directed toward the objects presented by physical stimuli and the external social factors.[3] Even in this classification made by Blackmar and Gitlin there are traces of the tendency which arose to predominant influence in later American sociology, and which is exhibited in passages we quote elsewhere: the tendency to rank physical and geographic factors as social forces in a special and qualified sense only; they term them "conditions" and "factors," it will be noticed, and not "forces."

Although the following passage from his General Sociology might suggest that Small would count geographic and physical factors among the social forces, in other passages which we quote in other sections it is shown quite clearly that he shared, at the date of publication of the volume in question, the opinion and attitude which has since become prevalent, that physical and geographic factors influence the social process only indirectly, and that they may be counted as social forces only as they become embodied in

the attitudes, interests, or customs of persons.

Any competent theory of human associations must be a theory of something mare than human associations. It must be able to connect itself with the facts antecedent to human associations, both in time and in thought. It must square with knowledge about those physical and vital relationships upon which the later social phenomena rest. In a word, some Of the social forces are not social at all. The paradox merely has ín view the antecedent conditions, physical and vital, which fix the limits and influence the direction of sentiment and social action, while themselves phenomena neither of consciousness nor of association. A complete theory of human association must accordingly include a full account of all physical and vital forces in their action upon the conditions and incidents of association.[4]

Ву 1909 Thomas had changed his emphasis in his discussion of geographic factors, as is manifested in the following passage from his Source Book For Social Origins:

After all, culture is mare fundamentally concerned with the operations of the human mind than with the aspects of nature. Nature may affect the arts and particular form of progress and limit its degree, but human society takes

(351) the same general form everywhere; every people has its laws, its commandments, its religion and superstitions, its marriage, its art, its property, etc. The paper on the Vakuts shows the effect of a very cold climate on social life, but we are struck mare by the resemblance of the culture of the Vakuts to that of Central Europe than by its difference. Their practices are harder, because life is harder, but they are not harder than the practices of the central European peasant, and in many respects strikingly resemble them,[5]

This passage from Thomas's Source Book is typical of the treatment of the physical and geographic factors in recent American sociological literature. This tendency is manifested in the following passages from Ellwood and Ross:

Every factor which has some degree of active influence in shaping and molding the forms of active association, the interactions of individuals is, then, a social force. While the preceding chapters have argued that the mind in all of its aspects enters as a unity into the social life, and that all phases of mind are active factors of forces in shaping the social life, yet the question remains whether these are the only forces with which the sociologist has to deal. What about the physical factors of sail, climate, geographical conditions? Are not these also true social forces? What about such factors as heredity, variation, and natural selection? Are not these also active factors at work in molding human society?

It has lately been held generally by sociologists that these physical factors are not direct forces in human society; that they are only the conditions under which society lives, since it is only through the psychological elements that we find any kind of social life maintained. As long as we adhere to a psychological view of society .. . that is a convenient and sufficiently accurate way to view the matter. But ít may be doubted whether this is anything more than the mental bias of the psychological sociologists. It is true that at any moment the physical factors do not shape and mold the forms of the social life. At any particular moment these farms are seemingly quite dependent upon the psychological elements of impulse, feeling, and intellect in individuals. But when one surveys human groups over long stretches of time, through many generations, the influence of physical factors is more evident it is certain that most physical factors under normal conditions, and particularly within short periods of time, modify the forms of human association only indirectly and remotely, since they influence society only through influencing the psychic nature of the individual. Physical factors in general, therefore, affect human society only indirectly, and by the psychological sociologist they can be, in a sense, disregarded, that is, they can be lumped together under the gen-

(352) eral head of stimuli from the environment, which more or less modify the in-terstiniulation and responses between individuals.[6]

At the time of writing the foregoing, Ellwood was evidently stilt in process of feeling his way toward a workable treatment of the problem of physical and geographic causation in relation to social processes. One of the clearest statements of the modern or recent point of view is contained in the following words of Ross:

The immediate causes of social phenomena are to be sought in human minds. After such phenomena have been accounted for in terms of motive, nothing is gained by viewing them as manifestations of cosmic energy. Why account far a current of migration on the principle that motion follows the line of least resistance when it is so explicable on the principle, men go where they can most easily satisfy their wants? . . . .

In view of the great role of the geographic environment in social destiny, thinkers often explain social phenomena by the introduction of two sets of factors—one internal, the other external. Under such terms as "race and locality," "man and environment' "folk and land," this dualism is always cropping out. The fact is, however, migrations and colonizations, the territorial distribution of population, its occupational choices, the location of cities, the routes of communication, and the lines of investment have human volition as their proximate causes, not geographic features. It is only when, pressing farther back, we seek the causes of these volitions that we come upon considerations relating to climate, contour, topography, and soil. For example, all the causes of the location of a settlement are in the minds of the settlers. Geography enters into the case only as affecting the motives which determine their decisions.[7]

Perhaps mast thoroughgoing and logical of all the theoretic explanations of the relation of geographic and physical factors to social processes is that developed by Hayes as a part of a general theory of causation which he develops in his Introduction to the Study of Sociology (1915) . In a somewhat extended passage in this book, too long to be quoted here, he suggests that each of the "higher sciences" has to deal with three sets of phenomena: (1) its problem phenomena, the explanation of which constitutes its own particular province, (2) the conditioning phenomena, "which are the terms in its explanations," and (3) the elements into which

( 353) its problem phenomena must be analyzed. The problem phenomena must all belong to the same (logical) class; while both the conditioning phenomena and the elements of the problem phenomena may be of classes distinct from the problem phenomena. Failure to distinguish between problem phenomena and their elements leads, in the case of sociological research or reasoning, to confusion of sociology with psychology; failure to distinguish between problem phenomena and conditioning phenomena leads to denial of the existence of sociology as a separate field of study.[8] Hayes continues with a discussion of "Kinds of Conditioning Phenomena," which may be reduced to the following outline:

1 . Geographic conditions: (1) aspect, (2) climate, (3) soil, (4) water supply, (5) other mineral resources, (6) flora, (7) fauna, (8) topography.

2. Technic conditions—"the material products of human work, which, once having been produced, are conditions of further activities': (1) wealth, varying as to (a) forms, (b) amount, and (c) distribution of its ownership or use. (2) Population, varying in (a) numbers and (b) distribution in space.

3. Psychophysical conditions: (i) Congenital: (a) age, (b) sex, (c) race, (d) psychic predisposition, (e) hereditary disease or defect. (2) Acquired: (a) acquired diseases and defects, (b) developed strength and skill, (c) psychic dispositions.

4. Social conditions, "the already prevalent ideas and sentiments by which each individual and each generation is surrounded."[9]

The foregoing citations, then, are representative exhibits of what appear to be the predominant tendencies in the treatment of the problem of physical and geographic factors in recent sociological literature in the united States. A point of view similar to that of Hayes, but one which shows at the same time an interesting variation in the details of interpretation, is set forth in one of Giddings' latest books:

Among the stimuli that all living bodies react to are phenomena of the surface of the earth, including its life-sustaining resources, and of the atmosphere, including variations of temperature and precipitation. All these are unevenly distributed. Geography is a variegated thing For brief periods of time the physical environment is normally static.—approximately—but if its permutations throughout long periods are observed, it is seen to be highly

(354)     kinetic . . . The relative advantageousness of physical environments for sustaining, energizing, and stimulating pluralistic life is a factor of all social phenomena.[10]

If the foregoing propositions are undeniable, the physiographic or "environmental" theory of history is true, as far as it goes. It is an unsatisfactory and inadequate philosophy, however, because it fails to perceive and to explain the media through which a physical environment acts upon conduct. We are creatures of circumstance.

For among the stimuli that incite and sustain behavior are various annoyances, hardships, dangers, and adversities that bear so heavily upon individuals living in isolation or unaided by fellow-beings that they constrain great numbers of animals of various species and great numbers of men to live in aggregations, and constrain great numbers of group-dwelling men to overlook many of their differences, to minimize many of their antagonisms, and to combine their efforts. These constraining circumstances may be conceived as constituting a circumstantial pressure upon living beings.[11]

The term "circumstantial pressure" used in this passage is, as the context further shows, one which Giddings suggests as a formal label to be used in reference to the influence of physical, environmental factors upon social process. He evidently thinks the consistent use of some such term might help to clear up the difficulties of the problem, which, indeed, seem to be to a large extent purely verbal, due to confusion among writers concerning the meaning in which the terms used are to be taken.

Giddings' theories of social causation have altered considerably since the publication of his Principles of Sociology in 1896. We shall give some attention to this shift in a later section. Here we may note a brief passage from the Principles which serves as an index to his attitude at the time toward the question of environmental forces, an attitude which, as the concluding sentence clearly shows, is derived in part at least from Spencer's First Principles:

In both biology and psychology, phenomena within the organism are regarded as effects, and relations in the environment as causes. On turning to social phenomena it is discovered that activities within the organism have become conspicuous as causes. They have created a- wonderful structure of ex-

(355)     ternal relationships, and have even modified the fauna and the flora and the surface of the earth within their environment. The progressive adjustment between internal and external relations has thus become reciprocal.[12]

The shifts in formulation which can be traced between the passage just quoted from Giddings' Principles and those quoted above from his more recent book are in general representative of the difficulties which American sociologists have experienced in their attempts to fit into their general doctrines of social causation an account of the rôle of the environment, taken as an external, physical, material force. In substance, it is the old metaphysical problem of mind and body which it seems to be impossible to avoid in our thinking. On the whole, it appears that contemporary sociologists are fairly well agreed upon an account of the facts concerning the influence of physical and biological factors upon social processes, and that the need is, as we have hinted above, to agree upon definitions of terms which shall enable them to discuss the matter without misunderstanding when it comes up in connection with more strictly sociological problems. The attempt which Buckle and other writers of the nineteenth century made to explain human social behavior in terms of a theory of direct physical and social causation has been largely abandoned, and it is generally accepted that the data of experience and observation with which sociologists are concerned can be better explained in terms of the indirect conditioning of social phenomena by physical factors.

In the judgment of the present writer, Giddings has contributed materially to this clarification. As evidence we may cite two passages from his recent book, Studies in the Theory of Human Society, from which we have previously quoted. The following paragraphs embody the most essential ideas of the passage from which they are taken:

A scientific theory of social causation must first give full recognition and weight to the facts (I) that regional influences of the static sort usually stimulate behavior (when they do stimulate it) through a medium of Circumstance rather than immediately, and (2) that all stimuli of the primary order, including regional changes, usually stimulate behavior (when they do stimulate it) through a medium created by antecedent stimulation.[13]

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I suggest that the really significant phenomenon is found in the relation of a physical environment to the composition of its population. My propositions are, first, that the character of the environment determines the composition as more or less heterogeneous, more or less compound; and second, that the composition of the population determines the character, the complexity, and the range of its reactions to stimulation.[14]

The whole question of population, touched upon in the last-quoted paragraph, is of course one of the topics which is marginal or tangent to those with which the present study is concerned. Evidently, the subject of "population," in the sense in which the term has been used among social scientists since Malthus, would come in for more careful review in any exhaustive survey of theories of social causation; but, as we have pointed out in our introduction, the subject of social causation, in its broadest sense, is the same as the whole of sociology, if it is not equivalent to some undefined field broader than sociology in the technical sense. It is the intention of the writer in the present study to review only the development in American sociology of that particular phase of theory or social causation for which Ward gave the most definite original impulse in his discussion and classification of desires as social forces, together with some of the most closely related and the more conspicuously contradictory theories. From such a study, considerations of space and the limitations of the declared purpose exclude anything more than passing mention of population theory.

With this we conclude our brief survey of the history of the conception of physical and geographic factors as social forces. We have seen that, in general, in the early American sociological writings, the physical factors were included within the meaning of the concept "social forces." Since then, the general tendency has been to relegate them to a different category.


  1. William I. Thomas, "Scope and Methods of Folk Psychology," Amer. Jour. Sociology (1895), I, 444-45.
  2. Loc. cit., pp. 444-45.
  3. Loc. cit. (edition of 1915; compare also Blackmar's earlier text of l905), pp. 287-88.
  4. Loc. cit., p, 420.
  5. Loc. cit. (1909), p. 130.
  6. Charles A. Ellwood Sociology in Its Psychological Aspects (1912), pp. 278-9.
  7. E. A. Ross, Principles of Sociology (1920), p. 41. See also ibid., pp, 67, 73.
  8. Hayes, loc, cit., pp. 22-23; see also the reference to Hayes's article, "The Socíal-Forces Error," in a later section of the present paper.
  9. Loc. cit., pp. 24-25.
  10. F. H. Giddings, Studies in the Theory of Human Society (1922), p. 253.
  11. Loc. cit., p. 254.
  12. Loc. cit., p. 256.
  13. Op. cit., p. 145.
  14. F. H. Giddings, op. cit., p. 147.

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