The Concept "Social Forces" In American Sociology

Section IV: Instincts as Social Forces

Floyd Nelson House
University of Chicago

 Next | Previous


The earlier classifications made by the sociologists, of human desires as social forces, involved little attempt at reconciliation of their postulates with the then current theories of the psychologists.

The influence of McDougall's Social Psychology.—The appearance of McDougall's Social Psychology in 1908 focused the attention of sociologists upon the psychological concept "instincts," although before this time sociologists had used the term in an uncritical way. The work of Ellwood and of Ross bears definite marks of influence by McDougall; and in Giddings' Studies in the Theory of Human Society, there is some evidence of his having been influenced by the psychologists' recent discussion of instincts, if not definitely by McDougall. Contemporary American sociologists can be classified under three headings with reference to their use of the instincts concept; those accepting and emphasizing it, those not accepting it, and those attempting to maintain a middle position.

For some time there has recurred in the literature of American sociology, and particularly in the marginal specialty that has grown up under the name of "social psychology," the suggestion that the basic social forces are the human instincts. When we analyze carefully the "desires" theory of Ward and those who have patterned their doctrines of social forces most closely after his, and the "interests" variant of Small and others, we see that these hypotheses involved no particular attempt to come to terms with whatever the professional psychologists might have to say about the inborn nature of man. The method by which the "desires" formulae and classifications were shaped by their proponents seems to have been in principle this: It had long been a platitude of many moralists and quasi-philosophers that "human nature is everywhere pretty much the same." The early American sociologists were doubtless familiar with this axiom, and they believed they found it confirmed by their comparative studies of superficially divergent cultures. Several passages quoted in the preceding sections tend to bear out the assumption that such convictions were in their minds. It was then a comparatively simple matter for them to shape, by a process of informal induction and intellectual experimentation, sets of class terms for the activities which they seemed to find people everywhere carrying on, and to state these classificatory terms as the desires which are universal components of human nature, or as the "interests" by which all men are moti-

( 358) -vated. This they did, and laid the lists of forces which they had so formulated before their readers, presumably to be tested by their utility as conceptual instruments for the interpretation and analysis of human behavior. Manifestly these lists of putative "social forces" had not been forged in any sharply critical procedure, though indeed, as we shall see, much the same thing can be said for the alternative suggestions made by the psychologists.

For, while these developments had been taking place in sociology as such, a shift had been going on in psychology. In place of the "association psychology" of Locke and his disciples, and the slightly divergent "faculty psychology," William James and others had given the science a push in the direction of the restatement of its doctrines and concepts with reference to inborn tendencies to action, or behavior patterns, which were supposed to be given as the "instincts" of man, even as some of the lower organisms, particularly the insects, had been observed to possess at birth ready-made mechanisms which operated in mating, nest-building, the care of offspring, and in other activities essential to the survival of the species. It had previously been vaguely assumed that human beings did not have such "instincts," that they were creatures of "free will." James startled the world of scientists by his assertion that there were some thirty human instincts; and since he published his Principles of Psychology this general conception has had widespread vogue among the professional psychologists, although it is even yet not effectively integrated with the findings or dogmas of the older psychology; and Watson's behaviorism may be regarded as an attempt to formulate a new psychology which should avoid or reconcile the difficulties.

There can be little doubt that McDougall's Social Psychology was the principal agent in bringing the instinct hypothesis to the attention of sociologists. First published in 1908, it served, on account of its title and the direction of the author's attention, to suggest the possible importance of James's instinct doctrine for the interpretation of social behavior. Since McDougall's writings are not reckoned as sociological in the strictest sense, and since his treatment of instincts is at the same time familiar and is not widely accepted in its original form, we may economize space by refrain-

( 359) -ing from the examination in detail of his theory. It is significant that the book has, however, gone through a long series of reprints. Meanwhile, on the other hand the sociologists, even before McDougall's book appeared, had not been entirely unaware of the possibility that "instincts" might be a useful concept for their purpose.

We shall take notice of four quotations from sociological writings which appeared before McDougall's Social Psychology. The writer believes that, taken collectively, they give a fair picture of the half-conscious way in which sociologists were using the term "instincts" and its derivatives at the time. Professor Cooley, from whom we quote below, has never been considered a follower of the instinct psychology, but it is interesting to note that he did not entirely avoid using "instinct," or an analogous concept, as a matter-of-fact assumption:

It would seem that the repression of non-conformity is a native impulse, and that tolerance always requires some moral exertion. We all cherish our habitual system of thought, and anything that breaks in upon it in a seemingly wanton manner is annoying to us and likely to cause resentment. So our first tendency is to suppress the peculiar, and we learn to endure it only when we must, either because it is shown to be reasonable, or because it proves refractory to our opposition. The innovator is nearly as apt as anyone else to put down innovation in others. Words denoting singularity usually carry some reproach with them; and it would perhaps be found that the more settled the social system is, the severer is the implied condemnation.[15]

The proper social functions are the activities through which the essential human wants are evolved, gratified, balanced, adjusted between person and person, and then started on their next evolutionary cycle. These functions are by no means identical with operation of the structural machinery which we call institutions. The essential social functions are promotion of the primarily individual functions of securing sustenance, controlling nature, establishing working relations between man and man in the common use of opportunity, acquiring knowledge, developing aesthetic activity, and realizing religion. The forms and combinations of these functions vary indefinitely with variations in the stage of social advancement and innumerable minor circumstances. They must never be confounded with the routine operation of economic, civic, social, scientific, artistic, or religious structures. These routine performances are functions in the narrow, mechanical sense, but not necessarily in an intelligent human sense.[16]

( 360)

Sumner, in his Folkways, was primarily interested in developing an entirely different theory of social causation—at least an entirely different aspect of the theory of social causation—from that implied by the "social forces" doctrine as formulated by Ward, and one still further removed from any dependence upon the concept "instincts." In a very real sense and degree the folkways and mores are social forces, from Sumner's point of view, rather than the product of desires or instincts. He apparently thinks of the mores as indefinitely variable from group to group, and not as tending to fall into universal classes determined by inborn human tendencies. Nevertheless, in the following passage in Folkways, there is a recognition of the usefulness of something much like the conception of instincts as a point of departure for the explanation of social phenomena and of the formation of folkways. Since Folkways appeared in 1907, the year previous to the first publication of McDougall's Social Psychology, it is not unlikely that this appeal to inborn human motives in the opening, theoretic chapter of a book destined to become so influential contributed something to the later interest which developed in the instinct concept among sociologists and social psychologists.

There are four great motives of human action which come into play whenever some number of human beings are in juxtaposition under the same life conditions. These are hunger, sex passion, vanity, and fear. Under each of these motives there arise interests. Life consists in satisfying interests, for "life," in a society, is a career of action and effort expended on both the material and the social environment. However great the errors and misconceptions may be which are involved in the efforts, the purpose is advantage and expediency. The efforts fall into parallel lines, because the conditions are the same. It is now the accepted opinion, and it may be correct, that men inherited from their beast ancestors psychophysical traits, instincts, and dexterities, or at least predispositions, which give them aid in solving the problem of food supply, sex, commerce, and vanity. The result is mass phenomena, currents of similarity, concurrence, and mutual contribution, and these produce folkways.[17]

An especially interesting change in one sociologist's attitude toward the instinct concept, due presumably in part to the appear-

( 361) -ance of McDougall's book, can be traced through the successive publications of Ellwood. In his first published paper, the Prolegomena to Social Psychology, there is some reference to instincts, but in very indefinite terms, as in the following passage:

If it be asked with what portion of the psychical nature of the individual social psychology will particularly deal, when the group is regarded as individual elements rather than as a unity, the answer is, with the instinctive, impulsive, affective side of the individual. The reason for this reply is plain. The intellectual side of the individual represents the choice of means, and can, therefore, without danger to the group, be individual; but the impulsive affective side represents the choice of ends, and therefore must be, and is, organized more fully into the life of the group.[18]

In his Sociology in Its Psychological Aspects, written after the appearance of McDougall's Social Psychology, we find that, in contrast to the rather uncertain reference to the "instinctive, impulsive, affective side of the individual" in the above selection, the author has undertaken definitely and at some length to defend the theory that the instincts of man are the original human factors of social phenomena. He follows in the main the analysis of McDougall, and insists that instincts are not in the human species the rigid and invariable mechanisms which such writers as Lloyd Morgan have described.[19]

In his Introduction to Social Psychology, Ellwood carries his defense of the instinct theory still farther. We quote at some length, since Ellwood appears to be the most outstanding example of a writer, known primarily as a sociologist, who has embodied the instinct concept in a theory of social causation.

The general point of view of this text .... remains the same as that of the former work, namely, that the explanation of social phenomena is to be sought in the underlying traits and disposition of the individual, in the influences of the environment which act upon his plastic nature, and in the resultant aims and standards which he develops [20]

We may emphasize that if psychology is to be based upon biology we cannot escape, in any psychological view of society, the concept of instinct or its equivalent. We have seen that the nervous system has a relatively definite

(362)     hereditary structure, and corresponding to this structure there are relatively definite preorganized activities which need only some appropriate stimulus to set them off. The only questions which may reasonably be raised by the social psychologist regarding instinct are those . ... which concern the number, variety, and modifiability of the human instincts.

Now, while there is no exact agreement among psychologists as to the number of different human instincts, it seems certain that the number of instinctive reactions in man are greater than in any other animal, simply because his nervous system is so much further evolved, and its hereditary structure so much more complex.[21] For this reason human instincts are more plastic and modifiable than in any other species of animal. They are, indeed, but little more than a complex series of native reactions which are modified by experience and built up into habits through the influence of successful adjustment. The part which they play in the social life is that of furnishing certain primitive or original tendencies which make for adjustment between individuals and their environment, whether the environment be physical or social. They furnish, therefore, the simplest co-ordinations or adaptations between individuals, such as those of sex, parents and children, imitator and imitated. For understanding the real springs of activity in social life they are all-important; for no matter how complex our social life becomes, it is all based upon the modification of hereditary nervous structure, that is, upon instinct.

When we take the simpler forms of the social life we have no difficulty in seeing this. The family, for example, is a typical institution in which the instinctive element is very pronounced. Here we have at work not only such typical instincts as sex and parental love, but also such as imitativeness and acquisitiveness. These examples are sufficient to show that human instincts have to be taken into account by the social psychologist and sociologist at every step, and that they need not be conceived of in the simple, hard-and-fast way in which popular natural history has pictured the workings of instinct in such lower forms of animal life as the bees and ants. Rather, human instincts are always modifiable, and sometimes vague and indefinite. They have to do, however, with the beginnings of practically all forms of relationships. Being the original motor tendencies of human nature, they may, from the point of view of social psychology, be considered the primary forces in the social life.[22]

In another chapter in the same volume [23] Ellwood expands the same point, emphasizing his thesis that human instincts are plastic and modifiable; that "they are the raw material out of which hab-

( 363) its are formed"; and contending that "the whole emotional life is instinctive." Perhaps the most inclusive brief statement of his position is that "human instincts are the raw material for human institutions in the same sense that they are for habits in the individual."

It is evident here that the most that intelligence and social order can ever do to control such instincts will never free human society from their dominance in one sense; the most that can be done is to regulate their expression in ways which will work to social advantage. A wise society will, indeed, work with, rather than against, such fundamental instincts of human nature.[24]

Without exhibiting any very definite proof of his attitude, Ellwood defends the theory that the instinctive tendencies are not absorbed by the habits of which they are the raw material, as some other writers—Dewey, for example—have held; he thinks that they tend to reassert themselves in their crude and primitive forms of expression in times of emotional excitement, as in mobs.[25]

Ross also, in his Principles of Sociology, accepts the theory that instincts are the prime factors of social causation. The following passage is indicative of his attitude:

Another error consists in identifying social forces with human needs rather than human wants. Usually need means what we think people ought to want; but human nature, including its follies, vanities, and lusts, is in the members of society and must be reckoned with. Nothing is more foolish than to imagine that all the defects in people flow from defects in society and will vanish if only we reorganize society on right lines. Some of the traits developed in man a hundred centuries ago make trouble now and will have to be allowed for aeons hence

To contemporary psychology, man comes into the world with a rich endowment of dispositions or instincts, which, in the word of McDougall, "are the mental forces which maintain and shape all the life of individuals and societies." Without them the human organism would lie inert "like a wonderful clock whose mainspring had been removed, or a steam engine whose fires had been withdrawn."[26]

We shall consider Giddings later as a type of the sociologist committed to the explanation of social processes in terms of one fundamental variety of causation—with some qualifications suggested in one of his later works. In this later book, however, his

( 364) Studies in the Theory of Human Society, he gives fairly definite recognition to the rôle of instincts as original or fundamental factors of social phenomena. The first of the following passages states as definitely as does any in the volume his general attitude toward the instinct concept; the second seems to carry the implication of an innate disposition as a logically necessary element in the explanation of the process with which he is concerned.

The original wants of the organism .... are those of energy-supplying substance, and of stimuli provocative of energy discharge. The wants of the former class can be differentiated to a very slight extent only. Those of the second class can be varied indefinitely. The multiplication of wants and of satisfactions is mainly a multiplication of activities and of stimuli.[27]

When ... . masses of men simultaneously respond to a party cry or symbol, the action for the moment is merely a like responsiveness to the same stimulus. An instant later, when each man perceives that, in this respect, his fellow-beings are resembling himself in feeling and in action, his own emotion is enormously intensified. It is this which gives to all symbols and shibboleths their tremendous practical importance.[28]

The question of the instincts of man, their nature, their number, their modifiability, and even their very existence, is very much in the field of controversy, along with other phases of the theory of social forces.[29] In his recently published Social Psychology, Floyd H. Allport has devoted his efforts to the elaboration and explanation of human social behavior from a point of view which may fairly be called individualistic, and in the course of that analysis he has naturally taken up the question of the inborn motives of human activity. His general disposition is to abandon the "instinct" concept and to substitute for it, on the one hand, the conception of simpler elements of innate behavior—"reflexes," and on the other hand, a notion of "prepotent drives" which are in some general sense determinative of individual and social behavior. It is not easy to see, however, how Allport's "prepotent drives" differ materially, except in detail, from McDougall's "in-

( 365) -stincts," as the latter writer wishes to define the term, and in Allport's unwillingness to name so long a list of "prepotent drives" as McDougall has given of instincts. It is to be admitted, nevertheless, that the term "instincts" has been made so ambiguous by the disposition of various psychologists and social psychologists to use it with different connotations that the introduction of a new term to be used in reference to postulated inborn human tendencies is perhaps in order.

It would be possible to classify all theories of social causation propounded by American sociologists and social psychologists into three groups, with reference to their attitude toward the instinct concept: (I) those which assert and use the concept "human instincts" quite frankly and directly as an instrument for the explanation of social behavior; (2) those which repudiate or avoid the instinct explanation altogether; (3) and those which attempt to steer a middle course in some manner between the two extremes. We have attempted to show that the first-mentioned type of theory is of comparatively recent origin; it does not date from the beginnings of American sociology. The writers who definitely attack the use of "instincts" as an explanatory concept useful for sociological purposes have evidently been stimulated into taking their attitude quite specifically by the use of the concept by others. The third, or intermediate, type of attitude toward the instinct theory might therefore be explained as one lying in the direct line of development of American sociological theory as such; it is in the nature of a gradually evolving doctrine which had its origins in the early uncritical handling of psychological concepts by sociologists. It has been the natural disposition of sociologists to treat their own peculiar problems as primary, and to use such technical psychological concepts and hypotheses as they found ready to hand, in so far as these seemed useful for their purposes. It should be superfluous to say that in making this rough classification we have subsumed under the third heading a number of sociologists who have been classified in this paper primarily with reference to some other aspect of their theory of social forces.

[To be continued]


  1. Human Nature and the Social Order (1902 ), p. 264. Italics supplied.
  2. Small, General Sociology (1905), p. 174.
  3. Loc. cit., pp. 18–19; see also pp. 2-7. It is interesting to compare Sumner's use of vanity as one of the four fundamental motives with Thomas' later conception of a fundamental "desire for recognition."
  4. Loc. cit. (Amer. Jour. Sociol., V, 105).
  5. Loc. cit., chap. ix.
  6. Loc. cit., Preface, p. v.
  7. This theory of the large number of human instincts is characteristic of William James's Principles of Psychology, rather than of McDougall.
  8. Loc. cit., pp. 60-61.
  9. Ellwood, Introduction to Social Psychology, chap. ix.
  10. Ibid., p. 196.
  11. Ibid., pp. 202-3.
  12. Loc. cit., pp. 41-42.
  13. Op. cit. (1922 ), p. 25.
  14. Ibid., pp. 165-66.
  15. See in this connection Faris, Ellsworth, Are Instincts Data or Hypotheses? Amer. Jour. Sociol., September, 1921; also McDougall, William, The Use and Abuse of Instinct in Social Psychology, Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, December, 1921—March, 1922.

Valid HTML 4.01 Strict Valid CSS2