General Sociology

Chapter 40: The Initial Problems of Social Psychology [1]

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On the basis of the propositions in chap. 39, we proceed to point out that the task of scholars who undertake to explain the social process as a system of psychical causes and effects is to restate the social process as an evolving hierarchy of purposes.

Assuming a fairly complete descriptive analysis of the social process, along the lines drawn in Parts IV and V, progress toward causal interpretation of the same phenomena must depend on success in making out the purposes entertained by the individuals at each stage of the process.

The task of explanation in this sense may be likened to that of an expert in general physics, set down in the town of Essen with the problem of accounting for the evolution of the Krupp plant as an organization of mechanical forces. Why physical agents, whose universal properties physics explains, should have become correlated as they appear in the Krupp establishment, is a question that physics alone cannot solve. Physics can speak merely of the phenomena that are fundamental to one prime factor in the operation. The question of the purposes in the minds of the men who made the plant goes back to the causes which, for our present use, must be regarded as ultimate. The whole explanation turns then upon ability to understand the scale of specific desires in the minds of the different persons who contribute to the result.

From the setting up of the first forge in Essen, to the turning out of the last propeller shaft or monster gun, the psychic element of the explanation must begin with the reactions, in the form of purpose, which occurred in the minds of indi-

( 641) -viduals, in view of the relation between conditions and desires in the experience of the individuals from situation to situation.

We have no present concern with the question : Why are valuations followed by volitions in the general direction of the valuations? This is a sub-sociological problem which we need not undertake. We begin with the fact of valuations, and the certainty that choices of some degree of energy correspond to them. Serious interpretation of any social occurrence, or of a great combination of social occurrences, must therefore consist primarily of formulation of the individual purposes, or of the socialized concert of purposes, of which the occurrences are the expression.

For instance, to explain why members of the French Chamber of Deputies fight alleged duels, and members of the American House of Representatives do not, we must go back at last to a comparison of those things which the two types of men hold to be worth doing, and of the means which they respectively believe to be adequate to accomplish those things. To explain why Americans will the separation of Church and State, while Englishmen will the persistence of the Establishment, we have the problem of making out two complex systems of valuations, one of which requires a voluntary system, and the other a governmental system of means for attaining its end.

The two widely different orders of illustration just used are indexes of the universal problem of social explanation. Whether we are seeking the reason for a custom in a savage tribe, for an institution in Greece or Rome, for one of the great historic revolutions, or for the conflict of interests in a modern State, in so far as we assume that a sentient factor was involved at all, our primary task is to make out how the persons concerned represented their situation to themselves, what purposes they formed with respect to their situation, and what means seemed to them available for accomplishing their purposes.

It is true that every writer of history, from Herodotus

( 642) down, has in a way acted upon this assumption. Everybody who tries to explain human actions tries to account for the actions by motives. At the same time, it. is true that, until a quarter-century ago, the idea of stating problems of regularity in the operation of motives in form for inductive investigation is not known to have presented itself distinctly to anybody's mind. We have therefore as yet no accepted generalizations of the operations of motives in concrete situations.

It would be presumptuous to claim that we shall ever have such generalizations, supported by a sufficient induction to make them convincing. A respectable number of men, however, who have earned the right to an opinion by diligent study of the social process, think it is not Quixotic to believe that important generalizations in this field may gradually be reached; i. e., that, by following valid methods of research, we may advance from everyday knowledge of human nature to theorems of regularities in human choice which will be approximately exact, and will cover large areas of social action.[2]

When we attempt to explain the social process—i. e., to go back one step beyond the statement of human experience in terms of process, to restatement of it in terms of purpose—our problem is, in a word, to generalise the purpose-reactions that occur in typical situations. The most general classification of cases is into two groups; i. e., first, cases in which mass-valuations are adopted by the individual ; second, cases

( 643) in which individual valuations are communicated to the mass.[3] We have accordingly the main questions : Through what appeal to interest does a group-purpose come to be adopted as an individual purpose? and, Through what appeal to interest does an individual purpose conic to be adopted as a group-purpose? [4]

As we have intimated above, the task of working out a psychological restatement of the social process inductively calls for isolation of actual cases of individual modification by the group, and of group-modification by the individual. If generalization of what actually takes place in such cases proves to be possible, it will give to the phrase "social psychology" a real content.

Professor Giddings has published a series of brilliant generalizations in social psychology.[5] Whether they are valid or not, they do not purport to be formulas in terms of purpose, which we assert to be necessary to satisfy the demand for psychological explanation. They are formulas of sequences to be explained. That is, they are all expressions of social regularities about which our present aim is to know, not what occurs—this is stated in the formulas—but why it occurs, in terms of the purposes that account for regularities. Our comment does not challenge the value in principle of the generalizations cited. We simply urge that, supposing they stand, and many more are added to them, they after all merely present the problem of interpretation; they contain nothing that expressly alleges an explanation, although several of them

( 644) suggest a thesis that might be proposed in terms of purpose by way of interpretations.[6]

Not to go so far afield as Galileo's swinging lamp, or Newton's apple, or Franklin's kite, or Stephenson's tea-kettle, the analogy of most of the productive work in the exact sciences should warn us that progress in social psychology is likely to appear after we are humble enough to learn from the trivial and the commonplace. The clue to the whole range of psychological interpretation may be found, for instance, in such a homely occurrence as the change of a country boy into a city man, or of an Oxford master of arts into an Arizona cowboy. Through what succession of situations, and what variation of choices in view of the situations, did the one type merge into the other? So of a preacher becoming a gambler, and vice versa; a college professor ending as a farmer; a lawyer graduating into the practice of medicine; a capitalist turning into a socialist, and vice versa. In each case successive alternatives presented themselves for choice. What is the formula of the choices which each individual made, and toward what more general formula of the relation of situation to choice do these cases point?

We may illustrate the other class of cases in equally commonplace instances. Through what combinations of appeals to interest does a free-rum town or state adopt high license or prohibition, or vice versa? How, in terms of converging choices, does it come to pass that a teamsters' union assimilates some thousands of isolated drivers? How does a town decide to admit or exclude Sunday theaters or baseball games? How does a town resolve upon definite change of group-action with reference to sanitary, or artistic, or educational, or economic, or political improvement? Toward what formulas of relations between the different objective and subjective factors involved in the consensus of many individuals do such cases point? It would be worse than useless to claim that precise answers to such questions are in sight. Social

( 645) psychology is at present a desideratum rather than a reality. It is by no means certain that it can ever be more than a formal expression of relations between individual and social ends, on the one hand, and choices, on the other. Possibly the relations can never be reduced to formulas of approximate regularity, or to theorems that will be of value in judging probabilities of conduct, or lines of least resistance in applying social forces.

On the other hand, it would be a confession of unfit in the universality of cause and effect in the world, if we doubted that every human choice has an explanation, as an effort to adapt means to ends. It does not seem altogether chimerical to hope that regularities in human choice may, in time, be sufficiently made out to constitute approximate explanations and predictions of considerable fractions of social action.

Meanwhile, it would tend to clear needless obstacles from the path of this progress, if common consent could be gained to co-operate, so far as feasible, in dispelling the mistiness that surrounds the phrase " social psychology." Sociologists and psychologists have thus far failed to reach the sort of understanding about border problems, and division of labor, which would best economize the work of both.

As in every such case, approximate statements of marginal problems between psychology and sociology have been made, and ambitious explanations have been offered, by thinkers who may not have had the confidence of trained investigators in either field. The situation might be described by the unconvinced as an attempt to make something out of nothing. On the one hand is unauthorized sociology; on the other hand, amateur psychology. The fusion of the two is supposed to deserve scientific recognition as the superior of both.

The situation is hardly improved in the cases in which scholars competent on one or the other side of the line have seemed to attempt to stretch their credit so as to cover claims beyond their proper competence. While the psychologists have rightly enough declined to respect apparent attempts to

( 646) make sociological evidence answer psychological questions, and while the sociologists have been right in saying that there is a whole range of psychical relations in the social process which the psychologists do not seem to have discovered, co-operation between psychologists and sociologists in working this border territory has been postponed.

The ambiguity of the phrase "social psychology" has doubtless had something to do with this arrest of development. On the one hand, it has been suspected of standing for a misdirected ambition to create a quasi-psychological something to occupy a place which psychology alone could fill. On the other hand, it has beguiled some men into contentment with mere description, in terms of mental processes, while the phenomena described threw no new light upon psychological analysis of the processes, nor, on the other hand, did the processes referred to do much toward explaining the phenomena.

A mere name may easily be rated either above or below its actual significance. Use or disuse of a phrase does not solve a scientific problem. If, however, a phrase in any way embarrasses formulation of problems, or employment of the most appropriate methods for approaching solutions, the phrase cannot be too soon dropped from use.

If this proves to be the case with the phrase "social psychology," there is no sufficient reason for insisting upon retaining it. The main thing is the progress of knowledge, not the vindication of a label. If it would in any way promote positive investigation of social cause and effect to abandon the term " social psychology," there should be no hesitation between the substance and the shadow.

Suppose we should go back to Lester F. Ward's phrase, and, without attempting to delimit and name a science before it exists, should say that, when we undertake explanation of the social process, we encounter the task of making out " the psychic factors" in the process. This statement of the situation involves no prejudgment of the method or of the division

( 647) of labor that will be involved in solving the problems presented. Phenomena of the transmission and transformation of psychic force are to be observed throughout the social process. Work for both psychologist and sociologist is evidently ahead, and the technical problems encountered in the task, not squatter sovereignty over the territory in which the tasks are found, will at last determine the actual division of labor in reaching explanations.

In either type of social reaction referred to above,[7] two distinct factors are present. When, for instance, Count Tolstoi exchanges his career of an aristocratic soldier for that of a democratic doctrinaire, or when the American people turn from isolation to expansion, the occasion is a social situation confronting one mind or many minds; and choices are made by the one mind or the many minds with reference to the situation. It is perfectly clear that these two elements in the phenomena are not of co-ordinate interest to psychologist and sociologist. Social situations as such do not interest the psychologist ; and the mental series, as such, between the image of reality which the mind forms, and the choice or volition which presently follows, does not interest the sociologist. But everybody, irrespective of label, has at least a latent interest in knowing, if possible, why a particular choice, either of one person or of many persons, occurs in view of a particular situation. How much of the explanation will ultimately be found on the side of the external situation, and how much on the side of the subjective reaction, nobody can foretell. What ratio of contribution to the explanation will be macle respectively by psychologist and sociologist, it would be impertinent to guess. At all events, is should be perfectly plain that the present frontier of sociological inquiry reaches this problem : What are the laws of cause and effect between social situations and the minds that encounter the situations?

The sociologist takes it for granted that consciousness of an interest, of any sort, is presently followed by a choice that

( 648) has reference to that interest. He does not concern himself with the process of transmutation in consciousness from the perceptive to the volitional attitude. He does not care, professionally, whether the consciousness series is one and the same or widely different in the cases of a burned child dreading the fire, and of an oppressed nation uniting for revolution. He starts rather with the assumption that perception of conditions is always followed by choices of some sort; and his interest is in discovering what variations in social situations have to do with human choices.

The sociological interest at this point, then, is in the content rather than the subjective process of choice. The question why there is any choice at all in view of a social situation would lead far beyond sociological competence. Since men do choose and will, however, the sociologist confronts the task of generalizing social situations in such a way that observed phenomena of choice may be expressed in terms of the human interests in reaction with the situations.

Thus the question which the sociologist raises is, on the one hand, strictly sociological; on the other hand, it involves the teleology of the actors in social situations, and this is really the undivided middle ground which might or might not with advantage be turned over to a sub-science not yet proposed; while at the other end the problem necessarily becomes at last purely psychological, when it calls for comparison of reactions in different persons under similar conditions. Causal explanation of the social process, as far back as the sociologist tries to carry it, would consist of supplying concrete values for the symbolic terms in a proposition of this form : The effective interests (purposes) of the actors being such and such, and the situation, as they viewed it, being so and so, their action was this and that, because, in their belief, it would tend to modify the situation thus and thus.

We might avoid some of the vagueness for which the phrase " social psychology " has been in part responsible, if we could be content to formulate our problems of causal explana-

( 649) -tion in accordance with this schematic proposition, and let questions of scientific privilege take care of themselves. At all events, the appropriate order of procedure, from the sociological point of approach, is analysis of social situations, in connection with analysis of purposes of the persons involved in the situations, to the end of arriving at generalizations of regularities and uniformities of sequence between types of social situations and types of human volitions.


  1. Cf. Ellwood, " Prolegomena to Social Psychology," American Journal of Sociology, Vol. IV, pp. 656, 807; Vol. V, pp. 98-220. 640
  2. Professor Durkheim's studies of suicide may be noted as strictly legitimate projects of research in this direction. The method which he illustrates may well be set down as calculated to yield important material for social psychology. The same may be said of Professor Giddings' attempts to make out marks of social classes (Inductive Sociology, Part IV, chap. 3). As this classification stands, it looks entirely static. The classification would not have been made, however, without some calculation of dynamic factors, and the more it is analyzed, the more certainly will it pass into measurement of the functional action of purposes. Equally important in application to another kind of material are the studies of the savage mind, primarily from the standpoint of occupation, by Professors Dewey and Thomas.
  3. Cf. Kistiakowski, Gesellschaft and Einzelwesen, pp. 144 f.
  4. Professor Ross's Social Control is a first-rate contribution to analysis of the former situation. Each of the forms of social control which he discusses presents its own type of problems in social psychology. In the American Journal of Sociology, Vol. XI, p. 49, Professor Ellwood deals with a typical problem of this order, under the title " A Psychological Theory of Revolutions." The most ambitious attempt at psychological interpretation of actual modifications of institutions is Tarde's Les transformations du pouvoir.
  5. Elements of Sociology, pp. 128, 137, 139, 140,154, 168, 171, 192, 215, 219, 221, 230, 352.
  6. E.g., pp. 168, 215, 219, 221, 352.
  7. Pp. 642, 643.

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