The Concept "Social Forces" In American Sociology

Section VIII: Institutions, Groups and Persons Seen as Social Forces —The Social Workers' Point of View

Floyd Nelson House
University of Chicago

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Types of writers emphasizing concrete factors as social forces.--Historians, economists of the modern "historical" and "institutional" schools, and certain types of social workers, particularly community organization workers, and social reformers are all inclined to think of the social forces in terms somewhat more concrete than the sociologists' categories of motives, desires, or interests. Many historians have thought of the main trends of change taking place in a period as social forces; the other classes of writers mentioned think of the more conspicuous institutions, groups, organizations, and persons which appear to have active or potential influence upon a particular situation or problem as "social forces" There is probably no logical incompatibility between these concrete conceptions of social forces and the sociologists' use of the term to designate general classes of human nature tendencies or motives.

Up to this point in our study we have been concerned primarily with the use of the term "social forces" by writers who have classed themselves as sociologists. As we have seen, there has grown up and persisted among these writers a usage according to which the term

( 783) "social forces" is applied as a rule to general classifications of human desires or motives, made for the purpose of rendering the comparison and analysis of group phenomena simpler. During the same period in which this very abstract use of the term has been in vogue among the theoretic sociologists, however, the term "social forces" (or, alternatively, "historical forces," "community forces," or simply "forces") has been in use by other groups of writers who assign to it connotations of two sorts, both of them mare or less clearly distinguishable from those assumed by the sociologists.

The historians, together with same of the economists who have favored the historical or "institutional" method for dealing with their problems, have used the term variously, in same cases to refer to main trends of change which they have believed themselves able to distinguish in the life of epochs in which they were interested, and in other instances to refer to influential institutions, to commonly accepted beliefs and ideas, and to powerful interest groups. The trends of change which the historians have perhaps most commonly wished to identify as "social forces" or "historical forces" they have conceived of as having a momentum which made them somehow self-perpetuating. Somewhat more recently, as the social workers and reformers have arrived at a substantial degree of professional consciousness, they have used the term "social forces" to refer to the various elements—kinship cliques, business groups, organized vice, political parties, gangs, churches, and prominent persons—which they have found it necessary or desirable to take into account in administering social work or in promoting programs of social betterment in particular communities and neighborhoods. Now it does not appear that the historians' conception of social forces has had any very great direct influence upon the development of sociological theory down to very recent times. Such an influence may be developing through the agency of the writings of Professor Harry Elmer Barnes. He is striving to gain recognition for the study of "the new history" and the related discipline of "historical sociology." That propaganda has appeared too recently to be surveyed at length in the present study, the early instalments of which had been sent to the editor for publication before Profes-

( 784) -sor Barnes's writings had appeared. Similarly, it does not appear that the economists' conception of social forces, or "economic forces," has exerted any great direct influence upon the development of sociological theory, with one important exception, to be dealt with presently. Consequently, in this paper, which was intended primarily for sociologists, it has seemed best to omit any extended survey of the historians' and economists' treatment of the social-forces concept.

The social workers' conception of social forces, an the other hand, appears to have had a considerable influence upon the development of sociological theory, and there is some reason to believe that it may further influence sociological theory in the future. Although the relations of professional social workers and academic sociologists have not been entirely free from antagonism and professional rivalry, still a great many persons have been active in both fields, and careful study of the literature of theoretic sociology will reveal at least that the funded experience of the social workers has constantly enriched and revised the vocabulary and the connoted conceptual equipment of the academic sociologists. Social analysis is gradually gaining recognition as one of the fundamental divisions of theoretic sociology, and in this division—the analysis of particular concrete situations and problems, either for practical purposes or for the correction of our theory—the social workers' conception of social forces promises to be extremely useful. Time and experience may help us to arrive at a nicer discrimination of terms, so that the same term may not he used now in one sense and now in another, but meanwhile we must recognize and use the terminology which exists, in so far as it proves itself serviceable for our purposes. It is the principal purpose of this section, therefore, to study the nature of the social-forces concept as it is used by social workers. This purpose can be subserved best by paying some attention to the actual historical development of the social workers' conception of social forces.

The one contribution by an economist to the development of the social-forces concept which has had an important influence upon the sociologists' use of the concept is to be found in Professor

( 785) Simon N. Patten's monograph, The Theory of Social Forces.[30] The present writer confesses his inability to cite any direct evidence of influence exercised by this monograph upon the sociologists, but such evidence could probably be discovered by sufficiently thorough examination of the writings and correspondence of the early American sociologists, and, indeed, one can hardly believe that a study of this title by so eminent an economist as Patten would have passed without examination by the sociologists.[31] This is the more unlikely since sociological literature was not at that time by any means voluminous. It seems to the writer particularly significant that this monograph by Professor Patten appeared in print during the winter when Washington Gladden was delivering the lectures which he incorporated a year later in a little book which he called Social Facts and Forces. We shall refer again to the meaning which Gladden seems to have intended to give to the term "social forces." The book bears no obvious marks of having been influenced by Patten's monograph. Whether there was such an influence in that case or not, however, there are in Patten surprisingly close adumbrations of both the socio-psychological doctrine of attitudes and values which Thomas set forth in his Polish Peasant over twenty years later, and of the conception of social forces which the social workers and social reformers began immediately afterward to shape for their own purposes.]32]

We may profitably include here, first, a passage which serves fairly well in a short space to give an indication of the fundamental theory which Patten sought to develop:

It is upon this supposition that the reasoning of the present essay is based. It is assumed that there are certain simple elements of thought dis-

(786)     -tínguished by introspection, and certain elements of the nervous system discovered by a physical analysis of the brain; and that by different arrangements of these elements the various forms of mental activity are secured. If these assumptions are even in a measure correct, a new type of psychology arises which concerns itself solely with the mechanism of the mind.

Sociology furnishes a useful illustration. Suppose one who had no knowledge of the individuals that compose the society to be observing the operation of certain social institutions such as the church, the factory, the city, the nation. It would be impossible for him to explain any one of these phenomena in terms of the others. Churches do not, when aggregated, become factories; factories do not constitute cities; nor are cities the elements out of which nations are made. When, however, it is recolonized that the unit from which all the institutions are formed are men, then it is easy to see the relations that exist between the institutions formed by aggregations of men on various principles. These institutions are merely the mechanism of society, and the problems of this mechanism are distinct from those which relate to the qualities of the individual members of society.[33]

Other passages in Patten's essay, however, give a better clue to the denotation which he intended to attach to the particular term "social forces," a term which he nowhere formally defines, although one would expect such a definition in view of the title of the study. in this respect his essay affords us one mare illustration of the way in which certain concepts are finding their way into the technical equipment of sociologists from the vernacular, being used at first, apparently, simply because they appeal to some writer as suggestive of points they have desired to bring out. The following, then, are passages in which Patten uses the term "social forces" in such a way as to make fairly clear the connotations which he wishes to attach to it:

Economic motives become a determining force only after the evils of a pain economy are sufficiently removed to allow a conscious pursuit of pleasure. The aesthetic motives which normally, should follow after the economic motives do not acquire sufficient importance to become requirements for survival . . . .

The normal order of social forces must depend upon the order in which the mental powers of man develop. Institutions, beliefs, and ideals which depend an complex mental states and on the union of many areas of knowledge should follow the more simple forms of the subjective environment which demand a less complex development of the mental mechanism for their visualization. [34]

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Race ideals are the highest type of social forces. . . [35]

All other social problems are civic. They include everything relating to the preservation and perfection of the best type of man far the one general environment that our planet affords. There are no elementary civic forces. All the forces are moral, aesthetic, and economic, combined and blended in many complex forms to meet the peculiar conditions demanded by human progress.

The civic forces are largely made up of three elements, civic customs, civic ideals, and civic instincts . . . .[36]

Washington Gladden's little book, Social Facts and Forces, to which we have referred above, signalizes the development of the social workers' and social reformers' conception of social forces much mare definitely than does Patten's rather abstruse and academic essay, which, indeed, as we have seen, was more in the Ward tradition, though Patten gives no credit to Ward for his ideas, and may not have been consciously influenced by him, if he had ever read Dynamic Sociology at all. Apparently, if one may judge from the content of Gladden's book, all that he did was to select the title "social forces" as an apt and appealing term from the vernacular with which to christen the somewhat rambling ideas concerning social conditions of the day which are collected together between its covers. One is inclined to think, however, that there must have been in his mind, in choosing this title, some more-or-less vague perception that these institutions, social movements, and conditions which he was attempting to describe, and, in a measure to analyze, constituted so many interacting factors in that total milieu which he would probably have called "society." A few items from the contents of the book will help to show the author's point of view, and make it possible for the reader of this study to judge for himself of the exact place of Gladden's contribution in the development of the contemporary social-forces concept. In the introduction which the author wrote for the published form of his Lectures he said:

The pages which follow are devoted to an elementally study of a few of the more important of those social questions which are forcing themselves upon the attention of all intelligent and patriotic Americans. Every generation has social questions of its own, because in every generation of a progres-

(788) -sive people "the old order changeth, giving place to new," and new adjustments of thought and life are constantly demanded. But the day in which we live is one in which the movements are more rapid and the changes more radical than the world has ever before witnessed, and the obligation laid upon us of watching those movements and guiding those changes is correspondingly stringent. For I suppose that we have some control over these social forces; that we may check them, and direct them to beneficent ends. There is a materialistic doctrine of political economy which represents them as unchangeable, inexorable, irreversible; which assumes that human will can do nothing to modify human conditions. The doctrine is false and mischievous.

It will be seen that the author uses the term "social forces" here almost casually, in a matter-of-fact way, as if anyone might be expected to appreciate as a matter of course what he intended by it. This is characteristic, in fact, of the development of the vocabulary of theoretic sociology. Nothing is, after all, more natural than that in a science, better, in the attempt to establish a science, which should deal with the material and problems of ordinary human experience, terms should be used which were familiar from ordinary human intercourse. Small has pointed out, in a discussion of the development of the category "process" into a formal sociological concept, that the term was absorbed in this same manner. It can also be noticed in the foregoing passage that the author uses the term "social forces" in a sense not unlike that which we have noted as the historians' conception. It seems not unlikely that the term may have been suggested to him for this purpose by his reading in historical writings of the time.

What Gladden understood "social forces" to be is further brought out by the chapter headings of his book, which were as follows: í, "The Factory"; ii, "The Labor Union"; iii, "The Corporation"; iv, "The Railway"; v, "The City"; vi, "The Church." Probably he recognized that to place these topics side by side under the general heading "social forces" was not a practice which would commend itself to critical thought, but his lectures were addressed to popular audiences, and he was making no attempt to be scientific.

When we turn to the main text of the book, we find that Gladden has introduced still another idea into his concept "social forces": social forces are taken to be those which draw and hold people together in effective social organizations; forces which make

( 789) for disorganization are "unsocial forces." We have already noted that some tendency to use the term in this sense appears in the literature of sociological theory:

Thus we see that while the factory is a social. force in one way, it may become, and in fact is becoming, an unsocial force in another; it draws together in close relations people of the same class, but it tends, at present, to separate classes—to dig chasms and build barriers between the capitalists and the laborers, the employers and the employed.[37]

It is not certain just how much influence Washington Gladden's little book and its title had, either upon sociologists or upon social workers; but that it helped to make the term "social forces" familiar to those interested in concrete social questions and problems one can scarcely doubt. Park and Burgess have recorded a later appearance of the term among social workers:

Beginning in October, 1906, there appeared for several years in the journal of social workers, Charities and Commons, now The Survey, editorial essays upon social, industrial, and civic questions under the heading "Social Forces." In the first article E. T. Devine made the following statement: "In this column the editor intends to have his say from month to month about the persons, books, and events which have significance as social forces . . . . Not all the social forces are obviously forces of good, although they are all under the ultimate control of a power which makes for righteousness."

Ten years later a group of members in the National Conference of Social Work formed a division under the title "The Organization of the Social Forces of the Community." The term community, in connection with that of social forces, suggests that every community may be conceived as a definite constellation of social forces. In this form the notion has been fruitful in suggesting a more abstract, intelligible, and at the same time sounder, conception of the community life.

Most of the social surveys made in recent years are based upon this conception of the community as a complex of social forces embodied in institutions and organizations.[38]

It is, after all, not the "social workers" in the narrowest conventional sense, i.e., the case workers attached to the social agencies of the large cities, and their immediate supervisors, who have been

( 790) given to talk of "social forces in the community," or "community forces." The social case workers, in this narrow sense of the term, have their attention focused upon problems of "helping people (and families) out of trouble." But there are other types of workers in the general field of social practice : those employed in one capacity or another in the new profession of "community organization," settlement workers, and persons, often of great talent and vision, who have risen to positions where they are responsible for the fundamentals of administration and planning of the work of social agencies. These people, forced by the very nature of their work to seek for materials of social construction, have been naturally receptive to the conception of "social forces" which are more or less subject to control by social workers and reformers, and can be mobilized in constructive programs for community organization and community betterment.

Now the social case worker of today does not think of her cases as existing in a social vacuum or desert; an the contrary she knows very well that social case work consists in large part in readjustment of the person or family with reference to the social environment. But in diagnosing such a case the worker quite naturally and automatically enumerates and evaluates the factors of the social environment which are or may be significant in this case, in terms which serve to emphasize their meaning for this case, and these terms are quite likely to be different from those the community organization worker or the maker of a community survey would use in listing social forces in that community. Also the social case worker has a natural tendency to think of the forces having meaning for a particular case as "personal" forces, or as factors in a personal situation; hence the term "social forces" does not occur so frequently in their reports and literature.

With this explanation of the social case worker's point of view, it is not difficult to see in the following selections from a handbook for social case workers abundant content far the concept "social forces" in the concrete sense in which we are taking it in this section, although the expression "social forces" does not itself appear at all:

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It should not be called “interpreting" a ease merely to select out from the recorded items any one or two factors. This is rather the preliminary step toward interpretation. What has just been called the "conception" to which the facts in the case point is simply the idea of the whole network of cause-effect items which constitute it a "case," . . , , The social diagnosis must include this whole nexus of causal factors which make up its explanation, [Author illustrates with records of a case in which wife's failure to appreciate seriousness of husband's state of health, and her fear that the family would be separated, had been designated by the case worker as causal factors—better terms for the "key concepts," in the opinion of the author, would have been "wife and mother ignorant of health laws," and "ignorance of social resources"] [39]

In the following there is rather more than a bare suggestion of the probable value to social workers of the classification of recurrent types of factors which occur in their cases:

Since any interpretation of facts relates them to a key concept, the interpretation of social facts, which in case work lie in many relations of the client's life, relates them not to one concept, but to what might be described as a constellation of concepts. Some of these meanings may be economic, same medical, same psychological and social . . . . It is possible that these constellations of meanings, or of causally interwoven factors—different names for the same things—are recurringly constant. That is, more knowledge and study may show that a certain type of sex misconduct in a girl is accompanied by other fairly constant characteristic social relationships and economic situations; that a given sort of mental makeup is found again and again in conjunction with the same social maladjustments.[40]

Probably no better summary of the present frontier of advance ín social case work could be found than the following passage, which designates clearly enough the ground an which social worker and sociologist should be able to establish common conceptions of social forces:

The advance of knowledge in our field entails on the one hand a less simple idea of character than that which gets recorded in mere enumerations of traits. We must recognize it as a system of forces in which primary instincts are wrought upon by impulses deriving from man's innate social sensitiveness, so that a client's adjustment, from a "moral" point of view, is to be sought in part in motivations of which the client is unconscious. Our growing knowledge entails on the other hand a view of the social environment as

(792)     something less external to the personality involved in it. Its claims operate as strong suggestions operating within a socialized mind. The case worker, therefore, will be increasingly an expert engaged in mobílizing remedial influences by establishing relationships in her client's life: relationships that energize salutary motives among all the related parties. To this end she needs identified types of conduct and situation in order to control. She will, accordingly, so write her case histories as to clarify her own social concepts and to leave documents contributing something to the integrated insight of social science.[41]

Thomas has expressed very much the same ideas in the following:

The problem of the individual involves in its details the study of all the social influences and institutions—family, school, church, the law, the newspaper, the story, the motion picture, the occupations, the economic system, the unorganized personal relationships, the division of life into work and leisure time, etc. But the human wish underlies all social happenings and institutions, and human experiences constitute the reality beneath the formal social organization and behind the statistically formulated mass-phenomena. Taken in themselves, statistics are nothing more than symptoms of unknown causal processes. A social institution can be understood and modified only if we do not limit ourselves to the study of its formal organization, but analyze the way in which it appears in the personal experience of various members of the group, and follow the influence which it has in their lives. And an individual can be understood only if we do not limit ourselves to a cross-section of his life as revealed by a given act, a court record or a confession, or to the determination of what type of life-organization exists, but determine the means by which a certain life-organization is developed.[42]

In other words, when it is a question of dealing with concrete cases and problems, but also of developing an increasingly scientific technique for doing so, the methodological propositions of theorist and social worker converge.[43] Park has said, "Sociology seems now in a way to become, in some fashion or other, an experimental science. It will become so as soon as it can state existing problems in such a way that the results in one case will demonstrate what can

( 792) and should be done in another.[41] Even as the sociological research worker makes it his business to build up sound general categories and theories of lines of causal development, so the social workers, if they are to improve their practice through profiting by experience, are finding themselves constrained to generalize and classify their findings; and this means, among other things, apparently, a need for the formulation of general categories of human motives. So far as is known to the writer, no social agency has yet instructed its workers to use any particular classification of human nature cravings—interests, wishes, or desires—as a basis for the diagnosis of cases, but there appears to be no good reason why this should not soon be tried.

E. T. Devine, who by reason of the nature of his work and contacts has had his attention strongly drawn to some of the more universal and fundamental aspects of the problems of social work, has expressed his conviction of the need for a body of social science as a foundation for improved practice in the field of social work, in the opening chapter of his recent textbook of social work:

Social economics deals with social needs and with the institutions through which they are met; with the need for education, for example, and the schools; with the need for justice and the courts; with the need of children for parental care and the family. Smoothly organized households may seem to the stranger to present no problems of household management. So prosperous and well-managed communities may appear deficient in social problems. The social economist, theoretically, would deal equally with the normal operation of social forces working advantageously and equitably and with the pathological conditions which are evidence of friction or failure

Seeking first to understand social conditions and to become able to distinguish between such as are favorable to social welfare and progress and such as, on the contrary, are socially destructive, the social economist does not rest content with this analysis, but attempts to estimate also the social forces operating in the community, his purpose being to furnish the information, the principles, and the methods, which will enable socially minded, public-spirited citizens to work with others of similar aim.[45]


  1. Published as a supplement to the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science far January, 1896.
  2. When, and to what extent, Professor Patten later tended to regard himself as a sociologist rather than an economist is a question of fact upon which the present writer does not venture to enter.
  3. Besides the passages quoted here, see also op. cit., pp. 18-19, 22-23. Patten's theory in the passages quoted, and still more in those referred to, will seem quite erroneous in many particulars when viewed in the light of the findings of recent psychological research, but he had an astonishing intuition of matters which psychological research has since confirmed.
  4. Op. cit., p. 20.
  5. Ibid., p. 569.
  6. Ibid., p. 119.
  7. Ibid., p. 133.
  8. Loc. cit., p. 25. See also pp. 52-53: "The instinct of self-preservation was the force that drew them together"; .also pp. 194–95, distinction between 'centrifugal force" and "centripetal force."
  9. Robert E. Park and Ernest W. Burgess, Introduction to the Science of Sociology, pp. 491–92; see also the context, and chap. vii, passim—the quotation is taken from the concluding section of the chapter.
  10. Ada Eliot Sheffield, The Social Case History (1920), pp. 144-45.
  11. Ibid., pp. 148-49; see also p. 201.
  12. Sheffield, loc. cit., pp. 218–pg.
  13. W. I. Thomas, The Unadjusted Girl, p. 244.
  14. Miss Sheffield represents, of course, the social worker's point of view. W. I. Thomas is primarily interested in reaching theoretic conclusions; he considers himself a worker in the field of sociological research, although he has worked with very concrete materials and problems.
  15. Robert E. Park, Sociology and the Social Sciences, А. J. S., Vols. XXVI–XXVII, quoted in Park and Burgess, Introduction to the Science of Sociology, p. 45.
  16. E. T. Devine, Social Work (1922 ), pp. 1-2.

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