The Social Attitude

E.B. Reuter
The University of Iowa

THE NEEDS, capacities, and wishes of the various peoples of the world appear everywhere to be much alike and, in the presence of similar situations, have given rise to similar culture facts. Everywhere man has developed the same cultural patterns and organized similar institutional forms for the expression of the organic needs and for the regulation of the human wishes. There are, of course, wide and marked differences in detail. The conditions of life are not everywhere the same and each group has, as a result of its unique life-experiences, evolved a set of social practices and developed a group of institutional arrangements peculiar to itself.

This fund of values—the institutions, practices, beliefs, etc., the sum and coordination of which makes up the objective culture of any group comprise any and all data that have a meaning for human activity. The fund of values differs from group to group and more or less from person to person. An object, whether the content be sensual or imaginary, may be an object of desire to one group, an objection of aversion to a second, and to a third remain indifferent—that is, be not a value at all. And to the same person, an object that is one time indifferent may take on either a positive or a negative value. The fund of social values is thus subject to change; a thing that at one time occupies a place in the culture of the group may presently disappear or be replaced by a different value. Within a century dueling has disappeared as a value in Western so-

(98) -ciety. In the present decade, prize fighting has been reintroduced as a moral value into American culture.

Whatever the nature of the social values—the content of the culture complex—the members of the group are responsive to them. The values are objects of human desire. This appreciation of the social value is an attitude. If it is general in the group, as a result of communication, it is a social attitude. It is, indeed, as a result of this human responsive reaction that any object becomes a value. The attitude may be one of desire or one of aversion but in no case may it be one of indifference else the object drops out of the culture of the group and ceases to be a value. The attitude is thus the subjective element in the culture; complex, the individual counterpart of the social value. It is the individual tendency to react, either positively or negatively, to a given social value.

Certain of the human behavior tendencies appear to be natural in the sense that they are the expression of general human need or the sublimate of racial experience. They correspond to something stable and uniform in the physical conditions of life. Some fear responses, for example, appear to be of this nature. Certain disgusts appear to be of the nature of organic attitudes, and a limited number of other behavior tendencies appear to have their origin in the complex of heritable characters. These, as a result of experience, tend to become defined into social attitudes. Attitudes of this type may be general in the group without being social. They are of concern in the study of the individual but interest the sociologist only in so far as they are culturally conditioned or result in behavior of cultural significance. For example, disgust as an organic attitude is not of direct interest to the student of social behavior. It comes within the orbit of his interest to the extent that it is an element of importance in determining attitudes that are social. The attitude of society toward women is

( 99) a social attitude. But the peculiar nature of this attitude, in at least some of its historic expressions, appears not to be susceptible of explanation without the aid of the natural organic disgust reaction toward things unclean. Again, racial prejudice is a cultural attitude and, in the main, to be explained in historic and cultural terms. But if, and to the extent that, the characteristic body odor of one race is offensive to persons of a different race and arouses a disgust reaction, the natural attitude becomes a thing of social significance and of interest to the sociologist since it is then a vital element in the determination of social behavior.

It is of course true that variations in temperament play some part in the determination of attitudinal differences. But the biological disposition of individuals is in general subject to indefinite modification through conformity to the social code. The human being is the most plastic of organisms. He is born into a social order with relatively fixed and definite behavior patterns to which he must conform. Whatever his original individuality of wish and temperament, he is moulded by the social framework into which he must fit and the social order becomes a part of him as he becomes a part of it. Society provides the code of behavior, a definition of the situation that covers all phases of life and has become fixed as a result of experience, and from this social code, rather than from original nature, the individual values and attitudes have their rise. The code does not correspond to the natural disposition of any person and to the extent that persons react alike to the stimuli set. by the society it is because of social training, because of their assimilation to the traditional rules of behavior. Most of the attitudes are fixed below the region of consciousness and are passed on by the social inheritance.

The importance of the attitude lies in the fact that it

( 100) determines the behavior of the person and provides the mechanism of social control. It is by definition a tendency toward activity. Toward any value in the society there are possible or actual a variety of attitudes. The actual attitude always represents an effort on the part of the individual to get some sort of recognition in the group organization. Life organization demands membership in a group and the attitudes are the expression of a desire for status. The attitude is thus vital from the point of view of social control. The overt activity of the individual not only expresses a preexisting attitude, it arouses on the part of the group an attitude of approval or of condemnation according as it is in conformity with or in violation of the social code. The approval and recognition of his fellows reenforces conventional behavior and so the attitude of conformity. The social disapproval of the non-conformist person operates as the strongest and generally as the only effective inhibiting force to the repetition of a type of activity socially unacceptable.

When the social code lacks uniformity, as is usual in the larger societies of complex organization, the behavior of the person may provoke on the part of some an attitude of approval and on the part of others an attitude of disapproval. The subsequent activity of the person' is then determined by the group in which he desires status and recognition. Acts of vandalism express preexisting attitudes; they arouse on the part of the organized group attitudes of condemnation. But they may bring applause and coveted recognition from the fellow members of the gang. Subsequent behavior is here determined by whether the individual is more desirous of status in the one group or in the other. Any effective control depends upon so changing the attitudes that they will lead to activity in conformity with the social code; by so modifying them that the incipient criminal will desire the approval of the social group rather than that of the criminal group.

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Changes in attitude are accompanied always by the appearance of new values. The changes may be slight or profound, gradual or abrupt, concern a single or a few attitudes or a large related group. An abrupt change that involves a radical modification of many attitudes is commonly spoken of as a conversion. It is a radical departure made in order to secure recognition and approval in a new group and is followed, if the change is to be permanent, by the gradual habituation and accommodation of the person to the fund of values characteristic of the new group. But the acceptance of most attitudes lies in the region of the unconscious, and changes usually and normally go on by the imperceptible modifications of a single or a few attitudes rather than by a sudden and violent reorganization of the whole system.


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