The Concept "Social Forces" In American Sociology

Section IX: Conclusion: Summary of Findings

Floyd Nelson House
University of Chicago



The emergence and persistence of the social-forces concept in American sociology has been due fundamentally to a logical need for the concept, arising out of other phases of the development of sociology, rather than to the prestige of this or that writer who is used and emphasized the concept. The ultimate survival of the concept, and its form or forms if it does survive, will be similarly determined. The main drive in economic theory today appears to be in the direction of the survey and study of existing institutions and other culture facts, which is in fact, if not in logical necessity, more or less opposed to the use and development of general categories of human motives. Those sociologists who adhere to some form of the social forces concept conceive of their classifications as (1) instruments of research, (2) tools of diagnosis in particular problem situations, and (3) bases of social evaluation.

We have seen that the concept "social forces," taken as one of the stock tools of sociological analysis and explanation, had its origin more particularly in two contributions to early sociological theory: Herbert Spencer's outline of the "factors of social phenomena" set forth in the opening chapters of his Principles of Sociology, and Ward's outlines of "social forces" in his Dynamic Sociology and later works. We have noted also the appearance of the term "social forces" in the title and text of a popular book on current social questions published for Washington Gladden in 1897; an episode which probably helped to suggest to sociologists the possible utility of the concept. We have taken note also of the general probability that the sociological concept "social forces" was determined in part by historical writers' use of such terms as "forces," "historical forces," and even "social forces" to designate main trends and influential conditions and institutions of a given historical period. The writer is greatly indebted to Professor Small's studies of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century origins of the sociological movement as such, in certain developments which went on among historians, political scientists, and economists in Europe,[46] but the present study is not based on sufficient examination of European sources to make possible the tracing of the social-forces concept through those origins to any great degree. Professor Small himself, in his General Sociology, gives Ratzenhofer credit,

( 795) as we have seen, for the "interest" concept, but as we have also noted above, a comparison of Small's presentation of the interest concept with Ratzenhofer's use of the term reveals that it became practically a new concept in Small's hands.

What this paper has tried to show is that the social-forces concept has found its way into American sociology, not so much, fundamentally, because of the influence of any one writer's use of the term—Ward's conception of social forces was as strongly attacked as favored by particular writers—as it was because some of the other developments of sociological theory and method which were taking place in the latter part of the nineteenth century rendered the appearance of something like the social-forces concept logically necessary and inevitable. The various concepts, categories, and hypotheses which make up the methodological equipment of social science are constantly being subjected to a pragmatic test—a process of adjustment with one another—the issue of which, up to a given time, is determined largely by the value of one combination of such concepts and hypotheses, as compared with others which are being experimented with, as an organ of further sociological research and discovery. It is undoubtedly true to some extent that the accident of early appearance of certain terms as candidates for a place in the vocabulary of social science, or even of certain features of sociological method in a more fundamental sense, will account for the prestige of those terms and those methods among sociologists some years afterward. But in the long run we can scarcely avoid the assumption that the utility of certain concepts as instruments for research and explanation in a certain science is measured by their power of survival in competition with others. The social-forces concept, and its different variations—wishes, interests, desires, attitudes, instincts, and so on—are presumably just passing through that process of competition and selection. The writer has taken occasion, in passing, to indicate some of the reasons which lead him to believe that some variant of the concept is likely to endure indefinitely, but in the last analysis the greatest service that can be performed by a study like the one herewith presented is to enable students of a given field to see, by having the materials brought into immediate juxtaposition, just what some of

( 796) the variants of a given concept are, in order that the selective judgment and experimental efforts of as large a number as possible of interested persons may be brought to bear upon them.

In the process of competitive selection and elimination of categories for the uses of social science that has gone on in the last fifty years in the United States, several variants of the social-forces concept have been proposed or experimented with, as we have seen, as well as several systems of sociology which make no provision for a classification of social forces, desires, or motives. Besides the various classifications of fundamental human motives formulated by Ward, Ellwood, Blackmar and Gillin, Ross, Thomas, and Rushee, Park and Burgess have suggested a classification of attitudes as such—approaching, withdrawing, subordination, superordination —we have found the social workers assuming as social forces the immediate, concrete persons, organizations, groups, agencies, and institutions which have meaning as factors affecting a particular case or a particular program of reform; several sociologists and others have proposed, following the lead of Spencer, to include the universal types of geographic and physical factors as social forces; other theorists have tended to recognize as social forces only those which promote group activity, as compared with forces which disorganize or encourage individual activity; and, finally, we observe the historians clinging to their use of the term "forces" to denote trends of evolution or change, and a certain school of economists treating the institutions of a given culture group at a given time as the significant factors affecting human behavior.

This last-mentioned group of theorists, the proponents of "institutional economics," have been allowed to remain without specific representation in the present study up to this point. Since the movement is not only interesting per se, but is also illustrative of a certain type of critique of the social-forces concept, in the sense in which we have primarily taken it in this paper, it may not be out of place to quote one of the most authoritative recent expressions of the doctrine by an eminent American economist:

The significance of institutions in economic behavior.—From all that we know about the history of our race it seems probable that the equipment with which men are born alters little, if at all, through millenniums. Our reflexes,

(798)     instincts, and capacity to learn are believed to be substantially the same as those of our cave-dwelling ancestors. If our lives are radically different from theirs, it is because we have developed, through a long process of cumulative change, more effective ways of training our native capacities. We have acquired certain ways of dealing with each other and with material things that are roughly standardized and taught to our children—ways of behaving that have their aspects of feeling, thinking, and willing. It is these widely prevalent social habits, learnt afresh with modifications by each generation, that make our behavior so different from that of our ancestors, and that will make the behavior of our descendants different from ours.

Accordingly, it is in these habits that the student of economic behavior finds his chief problems when he studies the past or the present, and his chief hope when he thinks of the future. "Institutions" is merely a convenient term for the more important among the widely prevalent, highly standardized social habits. And so it seems that the behavioristic viewpoint will make economic theory more and more a study of economic institutions The generation that is rising will accept as "scientific" only those theorists who make the cumulative change of institutions their chief concern. [47]

For those who believe that institutions, culture facts, "social habits" are the significant data of social science, and the only significant data in that field of thought and research, it appears, as we have noted in earlier sections of this study, that there can be no social science in the older, formal conception of science; that is, there can be no universal, permanent generalizations. For institutions and culture generally are, as the author hints in the above selection, involved in a process of cumulative change. If these assumptions are valid, the scientific categories which are useful today may be quite misleading when we have to deal with the problems of a hundred years hence, and the classification of human wishes and activities in the attempt to expose basic universal cravings which must be taken into account is essentially futile, except perhaps for temporary purposes. We might, nevertheless, arrive, by a process of classification of human activities and the wishes of persons as declared by them or inferred from their actions, at a list of motives which were not deeply ingrained in "original nature," but are active in the "human nature" of our time and place, and which must, therefore, be taken into account in constructive and remedial

( 799) measures by which we might hope to change the present order; but we might not assume, with any certainty of being right, that our list of motives was valid for the future indefinitely, nor for other quite different culture groups.

That is, then, one of the issues concerning the use and meaning of the social-forces concept. Doubtless Thomas, Small, Park and Burgess, Rushee, and any other authors who have proposed classifications of "social forces" are willing to admit that the particular classifications they have made may be erroneous in some respects, that they may have included desires or interests which would have no existence in some perfectly normal, wholesome groups, and that they may have failed to give separate recognition to desires or interests which, in fact, should be separately specified. But that they are not on the right track in trying to formulate universally valid classifications, the present writer believes they would not admit. To emphasize the issue let us examine a passage, repeated in part from Section VI, preceding, in which Park and Burgess express their understanding of the function of Thomas' fourfold classification of wishes:

The fundamental value of the classification inheres in the fact that the wishes in one class cannot be substituted for wishes in another class. The desire for response and affection cannot be satisfied by fame and recognition, or only partially so. The wholesome individual is he who, in some form or other, realizes all the four wishes. The security and permanence of any society or association depends upon the extent to which it permits the individuals who compose it to realize their fundamental wishes. The restless individual is the individual whose wishes are not realized even in dreams.

This suggests the significance of the classification for the purposes of social science. Human nature, and personality as we know it, requires for its healthy growth security, new experience, response, and recognition. In all races and in all times these fundamental longings of human nature have manifested themselves; the particular patterns in which the wish finds expression and becomes fixed depends upon some special experience of the person, is influenced by individual differences in original nature, and is circumscribed by the folkways, the mores, the conventions, and the culture of the group.[48]

In order to forestall possible criticism, the writer would like to place himself on record once more as believing that it is not at all

( 800) impossible to develop a sociological method by expansion of the "institutional" theory of economics, as set forth in the passage quoted above, which would be entirely compatible with the use also of a classification of fundamental human motives in the manner indicated by Park and Burgess. The primary purpose of the present study is to survey current sociological and related literature with reference to the social-forces concept, and we should observe simply that in fact it appears that those writers who emphasize the importance of cultural factors—institutions and social habits—in the determination of social behavior are also as a rule apparently disposed to make little of any classification of fundamental motives. Perhaps it is also true, conversely, that those who emphasize such a classification of motives do not as a rule pay enough attention to the influence of existing cultural forces.

To summarize now the findings of this study with respect to that phase of the social-forces doctrine upon which we have placed the greatest emphasis: It can be said, in the first place, that it appears that several different types of classification of fundamental human nature, or "behavior," tendencies are possible, according to the point of view assumed and the purpose with which the classification is made. Small's "interests," Thomas' fourfold classification of "wishes," and Park's fourfold classification of attitudes are made on different bases, and may conceivably all be valid [49] In the second place, those who have attempted to form such classifications appear to expect that they will serve at least three distinguishable purposes—not all these purposes being equally of interest to all the writers who have made classifications: (a) they are expected to serve as instruments of sociological research, to aid in the advancement of other phases of the science of sociology; (b) they are intended to be useful as tools of social diagnosis, for social work and social reform; and (c) some authors, at least, have thought of them as affording bases for social evaluation, i.e., fundamental social values are those which realize fundamental interests.


  1. A . W. Small, Origins of Sociology (1923). The writer has also been privileged to examine Professor Small's unpublished manuscript on the American sociological movement since 1885.
  2. Wesley C. Mitchell, "The Prospects of Economics," in The Trend of Economics (1924), edited by Rexford Guy Tugwell, p. 25.
  3. Park and Burgess, loc. cit. (1924), pp. 442-43.
  4. Professor Ellsworth Faris is engaged at the University of Chicago, with the aid of his graduate students, in perfecting and testing a classification of motives which is still of a different order from the three mentioned; it attempts to classify the original, organic tendencies more closely than do the others.

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