A Redefinition of Social Phenomena: Giving a Basis for Comparative Sociology

John Fordyce Markey
University of Minnesota


Social phenomena are considered as including all behavior which influences or is influenced by organisms sufficiently alive to respond to one another. This includes influences from past generations. Developments in social study which furnish a basis for this concept are the behavioristic trend and the emphasis upon the objective nature of social life, study of groups, and group life, environmental, and ecological study. The validity of the concept which limits social phenomena to the interaction of human beings is questioned. The outstanding basis for this distinction is the psychological one of the so-called "conscious" or "consciousness." Conscious activity, or consciousness used as a general term, is not limited to human organisms, and does not furnish a basis. Conscious interaction, in the sense of "thinking" or conceptual activity, is questioned as a scientific basis for such limitation of the social. First, we are unable to determine with sufficient scientific accuracy how much and what part of collective behavior is of this reflective type. Second, human beings exert between themselves a large number of influences of which they are unaware. Further, psychological evidence indicates more and more that these differences between man and the other animals are of degree, rather than of kind. At best, with our present knowledge, they are rather vague, indefinite, and insecure differences. Admitting the validity of these distinctions, the validity of marking off the social at this point is questioned. Man has apparently become human, i.e., developed self-consciousness, meaning, ideas, society as a consensus, etc., on account of the fact that he has been a social animal. The problem is one involving the material to be studied by sociology and social psychology. It not only indicates ecological and environmental study, but primarily the study of the processes and organization of collective behavior among organisms. It probably means a much larger development of comparative sociology and social psychology. At present this development is very meager.

The purpose of this article is to consider some of the facts which are becoming increasingly evident in regard to the meaning of social phenomena. Evidences from many sources indicate that the limitation of this term to so-called "conscious" behavior and "consciousness" is unsatisfactory and confusing. Its scientific value is questionable when so defined. This evidence also indicates that the restriction of the term social to the behavior of human animals is open to similar objections. A more articulate statement of the problem and some of the facts involved appears timely and useful.

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Do social phenomena include more than the interstimulation of persons? As a matter of fact, there never has been a unanimity of opinion that they are so limited. Do other animals have a social life or only a biological existence? Is man the only social animal? It has often been assumed that man is the social animal and some (Ward, for example) have even argued against the concept that man himself is naturally a social animal. Is the social limited .to "conscious" behavior? The proposal here advanced is consideration of social phenomena as the interaction of organisms which are sufficiently alive to respond to each other, including all behavior which influences or is the result of other behavior. This includes the influences from the behavior of past generations. The point of interest is not terminological but factual; although, of course, it has implications for terminology. Terms are not so important as long as the facts are understood. The purpose is to present a viewpoint with facts, to be tentative where it is easy to be dogmatic, to raise questions rather than settle them.

First, it might be well to indicate some phases in the development of sociology which have a bearing on the concept just mentioned, and which will help to define and explain the nature of it.

Probably one of the most significant recent trends in sociology is the behavioristic tendency. Recent books indicate this-for example, Park and Burgess, Blackmar and Gillin, Giddings, and others. In spite of some of the absurdities of the behavioristic movement, so cleverly indicated by Faris at the recent meeting of the American Sociological Society, this movement must be recognized as an important one, particularly for its emphasis upon objective and scientific procedure. It has caused us to reinspect our accepted categories. Such reinspection is usually beneficial. Closely allied with this movement is the emphasis now placed upon the objective nature of social life and upon attempts to get a quantitative statement of social phenomena. By the objective nature of social life is meant the fact that social behavior is outwardly observable to a large degree, and not so completely contained within the individual as was formerly supposed. The viewpoint of these two movements certainly would demand consideration of the in-

( 735) -teraction of all organisms to determine the possibility of social phenomena existing therein, unless some were. excluded a priori, which, in this case, appears to be a rather questionable scientific procedure.

The third development is one showing the importance of the group and group life. Evidences of this are seen in a large number of current articles and books. Some examples are the writings of Cooley; Ellwood; Bogardus' recent edition of Introduction to Sociology, which takes as its center the group concept; Park and Burgess; Bodenhafer; etc. If the group is a center of study, then clearly we have a large number of groupings among plants, animals, and other organisms which might well be studied under this group concept; unless, of course, we arbitrarily limit the study to human groups or contend that man's group relations are unique, of a different kind from those of other organisms; that human groups represent fundamental qualitative distinctions; that "nothing like us ever was."[1] Possibly this is true, but it seems that it is to be proved and not assumed. One of the main developments of science has been the process of turning such differences of kind into varieties of degree.

Fourth, environmental study in sociology would apparently give a basis for an extension of the term social to include more than it formerly has. For example, Bernard, who has been particularly prominent in emphasizing the environment, in a recent classification of the social environment includes under it the "bio-social" or the other organisms which have interacted with and been transformed by man.

Fifth, a trend which is closely related to the fourth, or might be a part of it, is shown in ecological study which has been developing in sociology. This indicates clearly the tendency toward the extension of sociological study to much more than human organisms. Park and Burgess have particularly emphasized the importance of ecological study. Consideration of this type of investigation is appearing in sociological writings. There is already

( 736) considerable literature on plant communities and animal societies, and the sociology of plants and animals. Some of the significance from a sociological standpoint of the comparative study of plants, lower organisms, and higher organisms, including man, has been brought out in Park and Burgess (chap. iii and Bibliography). Apparently we have here the beginning of a comparative sociology.

The theoretical possibility of the extension of social psychology to include the responses of other organisms has been indicated by Thomas and Znaniecki in The Polish Peasant (Vol. I, Meth. note). Allport, in his recent text, Social Psychology, rejects the definition of social which limits it to human behavior and "conscious" behavior (p. 12). He extends the field to include all forms of animal life in which we find reactions of individuals to one another. The enhanced scientific worth and enriched study resulting from the treatment of social behavior in the broader sense is clearly evident in his book. Gault also assumes social reactions in animals.

The foregoing brief statement should indicate a basis in present social studies for data broader than anthropological processes. The second task is to consider the possible validity of such a conception, and some of the factors involved in such a view.

In the past we have been almost hopelessly anthropocentric. Man has considered himself the center of the universe. He has been pleased to think himself unique-a thing apart-a special creation. I suppose this tendency for man to be concerned with himself and his problems is a natural one. Sciences have developed around these problems of human life. Thus sociology has developed. And it has developed primarily as a study of human society. But just as we have discovered that man is not unique and not a special creation, that he is after all an evolutionary creation or product, along with the other animals and organisms, so we are learning that other animals are social and have a social life-it seems almost superfluous to say it-and that we may add much to our knowledge by study of them as such social beings.

But the more specific problem is: What is the basis for limiting the.notion "social" to the influences of human beings upon each other? Space will not permit a discussion of all the various concep-

( 737) -tions about the differences between man and the other animals, or of all the particular theories limiting the social to human interaction. The only conception which I wish to consider here is one which appears to be most valid if we are to make such a distinction.

The outstanding basis for limiting the social to human relations is psychological. A considerable number of sociologists limit social data to conscious interaction. Social phenomena are often defined as psychic interstimulation. This leaves us on a similar basis. When pressed for a definition of "psychic" it generally turns out to mean "mind," "mental," "consciousness," etc. Or if, as is more rare, psychical is used in a broad sense, somewhat synonymous with psychological, it extends far into the infra-human field. The problem immediately arises as to what is meant by conscious. Conscious and consciousness may be used in two ways: first, as a general term, including in addition to reflective (thought) responses, unreflective response, tropisms as well as responses of the distance receptors; second, in a restricted sense referring particularly to reflective responses. If we apply the first meaning to conscious activity, it is not limited to human beings. Other organisms respond in this manner. Obviously, if sociology and social psychology study such interstimulation their field extends over a large range of different types of organisms.

Used in the second sense, conscious behavior does seemingly furnish a distinction between man and the other animals. Man, so far as we have been able to discover, is the only animal that has been able to develop reflective behavior. He represents in this respect a much more complex psychological integration and co-ordination. By reflective behavior is meant what is ordinarily called "thinking" in the sense of conceptual thought. In general, it is the broad category known as language habits. Human beings have built up in this manner a large significant environment by which they represent to themselves absent objects and indicate to themselves the meaning of their activity. Thus society, while not physically present, is psychologically present in the form of these signs, symbols, words, gestures, etc., which are used as substitutes for the absent parts. Hence society might be said to exist in this common

( 738) product of communication and thought, which is meaningless to an organism without society, but becomes freighted with significance when associated with others. It is through, and in, this kind of interstimulation that man becomes a person-that man becomes human. Here the concepts of the self and of others, which seem to be at the basis of reflective behavior, become realities. It has been said that society consists more of such a consensus than of anything else. I suppose this is the social par excellence. It is a beautiful theory and very satisfying except that it does not appear to fit the facts when it places its peculiar limit on the "social."

Now the question arises: Is there a scientific basis for limiting the social to this category? The answer appears to be in the negative. The first difficulty is to determine just how much and what part of collective behavior is of this reflective type. What is to be done with all the acts of human beings that were once thoughtfully performed, but have become habitual, unconscious, and unthinking? These are very powerful influences in human behavior. If these are to be considered non-social, when do they become so, how much and how little in them is social? At the extreme on this basis we should have a large number of acts jumping back and forth from social to non-social, as this intangible thing, consciousness, fluctuates. If these are to be called social, then we begin to put a strain on our criterion of consciousness as a basis for the social. It might be said that they are social on account of their origin. This appears to be the best statement for the case, but it is hardly satisfactory. Besides this, however, the larger problem of determining what activity is conscious or unconscious seems to be one which we cannot solve with sufficient accuracy to make it an a priori limit upon the social.

Another difficulty is that human beings are unaware of a large number of very potent influences which are exerted upon them by other human beings who are also unaware of these influences. If the study of these is to be excluded from sociological investigation, then we restrict very materially our knowledge of social processes and collective behavior. Fortunately, in practice, this type of data is admitted, to some extent, although with violence to verbal defini-

( 739) -tions. For example, in a recent text which, by the way, is probably the best text which has appeared in sociology, despite some curious inconsistencies, we find the conception that one of the four major social processes, the economic process in its pure competitive form, is interaction without social contact; the idea being that these powerful economic interactions between persons are not social until they become "conscious" or develop "meaning." Obviously, this is a social process in its pure form, and we have therein social contact, which is a "free competitive" and unconscious type of contact. In addition, it might be well to point out that apparently a considerable number of people merely live a vegetative existence. Then again our psychologists are disclosing to us the irrational man. Persons are motivated by powerful drives and Habits of which they are unaware. Man's meager set of language and thought reactions may not play such a major role in collective behavior as has sometimes been supposed.

A further problem regards the kind of difference which exists between man and other organisms. If we attempt to use subjective criteria, such as a subjective consciousness for example, to explain this difference, we find that our scientific technique is not equipped to handle successfully this subjective evidence, unless it is objectively expressed in some manner. Furthermore, consciousness is not an explanation, but merely a short-hand description which we apply to organisms (or posit in them) when they act in a certain manner. In order to explain the differences, we must go back to the actual behavior of organisms, the responses, and the operation of the response mechanisms. The most satisfactory scientific explanation of consciousness appears to be such a behavioristic explanation. As a matter of fact, our empirical, everyday method of determining whether a person is "conscious" or "unconscious" is this type of behavior, i.e., communication or verbal reactions. From this objective basis, all organisms might be said to be conscious in the sense that they respond or "pay attention" to stimuli. For example, heliotropic insects or chemotropic infusoria may be called conscious in this sense. But there are differences in the type of response. Now the principal objective difference between man

( 740) and other animals which we find in the type of response is that which is given in delayed reactions which are initiated by substitute stimuli for absent objects-the process which we ordinarily call language habits and communication.[2]

Now the experimental data of the psychologists furnish more and more evidence that these differences between organisms, between man and other animals, are differences of degree rather than of kind. Of course, we cannot be dogmatic here. But man's behavior appears to be of the same kind as that of other organisms if we allow for differences in its co-ordination, integration, and development. Other organisms apparently operate, in this respect, on the same principles as man. Language reactions are merely one type of behavior. But in addition to this, we cannot say dogmatically that other animals cannot develop language habits and thought. Neither can we say that they do not think, although, if they do, it may be other than conceptual thought which occurs. Other animals may have to a limited degree developed self-consciousness. We certainly cannot deny them consciousness, interpreting the term broadly.

These differences are apparently too indefinite, insecure, and vague to be used as a basis for such a fundamental distinction as has been assumed in limiting the social to human animals. It is legitimate to study intensively human behavior as such, but it should be recognized that this is only a part of similar data to be found in the behavior of other organisms.

Further, admitting that this distinction is valid, that man is the only animal which is human with society as a consensus, with a significant or conceptual environment, is this a valid basis for the limitation of the social? A consideration of the facts does not seem to point toward such a limitation. Man apparently has become human by virtue of the fact that he was a social animal. It has been on account of the social co-operation among animals that they have evolved the interchangeability of receptor-effector mechanisms

( 741) which makes possible the development of this human consensus and community as exemplified in the unity of human groups. This co-operation has furnished a basis for the "bio-social" responses, to use Weiss' terminology. Ellwood rightly emphasizes the fact that human beings have had their evolutionary development from animal associations and groupings. Man as human evidently developed from a pre-human social existence.

In conclusion, it might be well to repeat that this is not merely a matter of terminology, it is a matter of phenomena to be studied by the social psychologist or sociologist. The methodological implication is an important consideration. Of course, if we wish to limit arbitrarily the term sociology to anthropological processes or homo-sociology, I suppose that this is legitimate. We may mark off our charmed circle, get inside, put up a "no trespassing" sign, and proceed to enjoy our protected inclosure, pleasantly ignoring the fact that our scientific museum is filled with warnings of what occurs when science lays its profane hand upon "sacred" territories. The progress of human thought might be defined as a process of knocking one fetish over the head with another. However, if sociology is so defined, it should be realized that all social data are not included. Particular care must be taken or generalizations will be made violating the logical laws of adequacy by leaving out of consideration a large mass of similar social uniformities in other organisms. Generalizations are apt to be made upon too few data. It is possible that sociologists might profit well by the example furnished by psychology, which has developed from a limited study of the mind and the soul to a much more inclusive study of a large range of psychological processes which occur in man and other organisms.

If it is said that, after all, what has been indicated is a task for ecology, the answer then is that the student of the social processes must be an ecologist. It probably is not important whether it is called ecology or sociology. I see no advantage in making another fetish of terms. Pursuing the foregoing line of attack, we might say that most, if not all, that is scientific in sociology is social psychology. The warning of Dr. Small might be apropos here when

( 742) he said that we should be careful of considering social psychology "the last scream" in sociology. But, as a matter of fact, collective behavior, the heart of sociology, is really social psychology interpreted broadly. As one teacher of sociology said, "The child of sociology, social psychology, has come to be much more of a science than the mother, and may even supersede it."

It might further be objected that all that is indicated is the importance of ecological and environmental influences; but that these are merely hitting around the edges as far as sociology is concerned, since sociology studies primarily the group processes. This is begging the question.

In the first place, the environment seems to vary with the viewpoint. From the standpoint of the whole social aggregate there is a physical environment for it, but to speak of a social environment would hardly be accurate. From the standpoint of the group, there could, of course, be a social environment for it. From the standpoint of the individual, the social environment would have its largest expanse relatively. Thus the environment fluctuates with the viewpoint, or frame of reference. The large social viewpoint gives us the process of social interaction in the physical environment, the individual or less restricted group viewpoint gives us a social environment besides the physical environment. Hence the interaction of organisms, if environmental from an individual standpoint, is not necessarily environmental from a larger standpoint. This should also effectively answer the statement that the environmental study is only hitting around the edges. The edges for the individual are a part of the larger group process. But even so, it is important to find the edges. Things are defined by edges, as well as interiors.

In the second place, the basis for the existence of the social, as indicated above, was primarily the process of interstimulation as such. Clearly, there are group processes, some very elaborate, among other organisms.

This concept of social phenomena as the interaction of organisms which respond to each other, or all behavior which influences or is influenced by the behavior of other organisms, means an

( 743) analysis as well as a synthesis. All the distinctions between organisms which have been pointed out, as well as others not indicated, are not to be done away with or ignored. Scientific procedure has tended to break up our concepts into smaller and more minute categories, has tended toward a more and more detailed analysis.

It appears, then, that if sociology and social psychology are to be limited to the so-called "conscious" or self-conscious behavior of human beings, their scope of study is incomplete and arbitrarily restricted. This type of activity is important and should be studied carefully, however. Further, if these disciplines limit their scope to human interaction alone, they rob themselves of comparative study. On the other hand, if social interaction and the study of it is extended to include the interstimulation or influences between organisms which respond to each other, then sociology and social psychology would study collective behavior, group activity, and the responses of organisms to collective behavior and social situations wherever found. Comparative sociology with comparative social psychology would thus present much valuable material. This field is now developed so little that it cannot be said to exist in any well-organized form.


  1. I do not know how many sociologists read that "blasphemer," Carl Sandburg, but it is refreshing material.
  2. A more complete statement of this appears in an article by the writer, "The Place of Language Habits in a Behavioristic Explanation of Consciousness," Psychological Review, September, 1925.

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