The Concept "Social Forces" In American Sociology

Section V: The "Interest Concept"

Floyd Nelson House
University of Chicago

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With the publication of his General Sociology in 1905, Small advertised a new type of classification of human motives, designated by the term "interest." He gave Ratzenhofer credit for the term and for the general idea, but Small's interests concept seems to be something quite different from anything he found in Ratzenhofer's writings. Ellwood, Blackmar and Gillin, Ross, and Southard and Jarrett have referred with approval and with varying degrees of emphasis to the interests concept as developed by Small; most of these writers treat it as a term designating a class of social forces which subsist alongside of the more elementary social forces. The interest concept is one which is still at the time of writing involved in a process of competition with several others for prestige and utilization.

We have embodied in numerous passages in other sections of this paper discussions of Small's attitude on the social forces question, together with quotations displaying his point of view. We have also quoted classifications of social forces by Blackmar and Gillin[1] and Ellwood[2] which make use of the interest concept; it will not be necessary to repeat them here. We have also quoted a passage from Ross' Moot Points in Sociology,[3] which embodies a classification of what he called "interests," but without any particular emphasis upon the term. Ross had published this article in the American Journal of Sociology before Small's General Sociology appeared in print. Small contends, however, that he was not influenced in his use of the interest concept by any other writer except Ratzenhofer, and an examination of Small's summary of Ratzenhofer's presentation of "interests," in General Sociology, will convince anyone that he took the suggestion he received from Ratzenhofer and manufactured something quite different out of

( 508) it. Extended deliberation over the precise assignment of credit which should be made to each of several writers in connection with a particular idea is indeed a futile occupation for the historians of a science, and we may, without further preliminaries, proceed to devote one section of the present paper to the examination of the interests concept, taking Small's presentation in General Sociology as the principal exhibit. It is the impression of the present writer, based on his general reading in the literature of sociology and related fields, that it is especially Small's formulation of the interest concept which has given to that concept the considerable prestige which it now enjoys, not only with academic sociologists, but with social workers and others.[4]

It has been possible to select a series of passages from General Sociology which set forth Small's conception of "interests" so clearly that comment by the present writer is largely superfluous. We therefore reproduce these passages with very little comment. It should be stated by way of preface, however, that Professor Small gives the fullest credit, in his General Sociology and in other writings, to Ratzenhofer for the general concept "interests" as a tool of sociological analysis and explanation. Just where the ideas furnished by Ratzenhofer leave off, and where Small's own developments of the interest concept begin, would require a close and extended comparison of the writings of the two men to determine. The writer has not made such a comparison, but it may be remarked that Small has laid before us the most important data for such a study in his General Sociology. In any case it appears to be from the parts of General Sociology which are epitomized in the following paragraphs that the term "interests" found its way into familiar use among American sociologists.

One does not observe any type of man long without beginning to suspect that one may find in it every other type of man more or less disguised. One gets hold of the idea that all of these men are alike; that the one is doing what all are doing, and that all are doing what the one is doing. We get the

(509)     notion that, if we could look below the surface of these lives in turn, we should find that the conduct which on the surface seems so unlike and unrelated is really the same essential activity, with variations to be accounted for after slight attention to the surroundings in which they occur.[5]

All men, .... from the most savage to the most highly civilized, act as they do act, first, because of variations in the circumstances of their environment, both physical and social; second, because of variations and permutations of their six elementary interests. I name these, for convenience, health, wealth, sociability,[6] knowledge, beauty, and rightness.

Of course, this analysis of human interests is from the standpoint of the observer, not of the actor. Real human beings are not such prigs as to start saying: "Go to now. I propose to secure health, wealth, sociability, knowledge, beauty, and rightness." It is only the rare individual, even in relatively advanced society, whose powers of abstraction are so developed that he can say: "I want food." Most men know simply that they are hungry and want the particular food that will satisfy today's cravings; or they want work, because its wage will buy today's dinner. still less do men want the other groups of interests, but all men act for reasons which the few reflective men may trace back to combinations of motives conveniently classified in our six groups. The precise type and balance of motive is a distinct problem in each social situation.[7]

The above sixfold classification seems to have been original with Small, and he has apparently developed it as a logical generalization from which Ratzenhofer's more concrete categories of "interests," which are the ones he uses in the second passage we shall quote below, could be derived. The following transitional reasoning is also apparently Small's own:

Two general propositions are pertinent with reference to the whole subject of the differentiation of interests within the state:

1. The various institutions, political, ecclesiastical, professional, industrial, etc., including the government, are devices, means, gradually brought into existence to serve interests that develop within the state.

2. Each of these devices, and even their accidental variations and subordinate parts, are likely to be transformed, in the minds of the persons who get their status in society by working with them, into ends, to be cherished and defended and perpetuated on their own account.[8]

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We enter now upon discussion of the subordinate interests which always array themselves in varying forms against the national or common interest. We are not attempting at this point to classify the interests that are active in a particular society, past or present. We are not now referring to any special stage of civic development, early or late. We are presenting a schedule of interests that are not necessarily all present in an appreciable degree in all states. They are merely typical of situations in states sooner or later.


A. The universal interest; sustenance

B. The kinship interest

C. The national interest

D. The creedal interests

F. The class interests

   1. Extraction

   2. Artisanship

   3. Manufacture

   4. Wage labor

   5. Trade

   6. Professional and personal service

   7. Parasitism

   8. The pseudo-classes

   a) Massed capital

   b) Capital

   c) Massed industry

   d) Massed agriculture

G. The rank interests

H. The corporate interests [9]

The passages from General Sociology which we have taken above would perhaps serve to present the essence of Small's conception of the "interests." A few other quotations, however, will be useful to show more clearly the meaning which he attaches to the concept.

The latest word in sociology is that human experience yields the most and the deepest meaning when read from first to last in terms of the evolution, expression, and accommodation of interests [10]

The social process is a drama of human endeavors to express the whole gamut of interests, while every effort toward expression tends incessantly to impart to each new interest a new variant force .[11]

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Without pushing the analysis too far, and without resting any theory upon the analogy with the atom of physical theory, it is necessary to find some starting-place from which to trace up the composition of sentient beings, just as the physicists assumed they found their starting-place in the atom. The notion of interests is accordingly serving the same purpose in sociology which the notion of atoms has served in physical science. Interests are the stuff that men are made of. More accurately expressed, the last elements to which we can reduce the actions of human beings are units which we may conveniently name "interests." It is merely inverting the mode of expression to say: Interests are the simplest modes of motion which we can trace in the conduct of human beings.[12]

In general, an interest is an unsatisfied capacity, corresponding to an unrealized condition, and it is predisposition to such rearrangement as would tend to realize the indicated condition. Human needs and human wants are incidents in the series of events between the latent existence of human interests and the achievement of partial satisfaction. Human interests, then, are the ultimate terms of calculation in sociology. The whole life-process, so far as we know it, whether viewed in its individual or in its social phase, is at last the process of developing, adjusting, and satisfying interests.[13]

It is the essence of the findings brought together in the present paper that the term "interests" and the concept for which it stands in the work of Small are still at the time of writing involved in a process of competition with several alternative schemes of classification of fundamental human motives or "social forces," and that it does not yet appear which terms or which conceptions will finally survive and become a part of the generally accepted equipment of sociological science. What is probably most likely is that several of these terms, with corresponding conceptions for which they stand, will survive side by side and come to be used for slightly different kinds of analysis. Be that as it may, it is certainly true that the interest concept as worked out by Small shares with the desires concept of Ward—in practical independence of which the former was formulated—the honor of having introduced into the current of sociological thought the perception that some list of universal classes of human motives or behavior tendencies would prove a useful tool of analysis and explanation in both practical and theoretic social problems.

It is to be noted before we dismiss this topic that, besides the

( 512) authors whom we have mentioned at the beginning of the present section, Professor Ross has adopted in his Principles an interest concept much like that of Small. We quote the most pertinent passage from that work.

There are certain great complexes which contribute to satisfy a number of our innate cravings. Among them are wealth, government, religion, and knowledge. Each of them appeals to so many sides of human nature that for most men it becomes an object of abiding concern and desire. These derived social forces may be called interests. They so mightily determine the attitudes and exertions of men that the interests of a people or an age give it its distinctive stamp. The forces which alter from time to time the relative strength of interests are among the veritable makers of history.[14]


  1. A. J. S., November, 1925.
  2. Ibid., XXXI (September, 1925), 169.
  3. Ibid., p. 166.
  4. See, for example, the extended passage in Southard and Jarrett, The Kingdom of Evils, pp. 402-6, in which the authors express their approval of Small's definition and use of the interests concept.
  5. Op. cit., pp. 178-79.
  6. In later years Small substituted the term "prestige" to stand for the content of this interest.
  7. Loc. cit., 197-98.
  8. Ibid., 233-34. Italics supplied by the writer.
  9. This list is Ratzenhofer's, loc. cit., pp. 251-55. Cf. loc. cit., p. 393.
  10. Ibid., p. 282.
  11. Ibid., p. 284.
  12. Ibid., pp. 425-26.
  13. Ibid., p..433.
  14. Principles of Sociology, p. 51.

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