The "Social Concept" Bugbear

Albion Small

In the Quarterly Journal of Economics for November, 1913, Professor L. H. Haney has the first of two papers on "The Social Point of View in Economics." The discussion is a highly technical critique of four different types of interpretation of the "social" reality: viz., (1) the social-contract theory, (2) the social organism theory, (3) the common-consciousness theory, and (4) the conscious-commonness theory.

It would rouse suspicions of insincerity or of jealousy if a sociologist should object to such a discussion in itself. If it stood alone, as a contribution to pure sociological theory, we should refer to it with great appreciation, although we should take issue with some of its positions. Our present point is that Professor Haney starts with an entirely indefensible and confusing assumption about that in "asocial point of view" which need be taken into account by economics, or anything else outside the confines of pure sociology.

Interest in running down remote implications of the concept "social"

( 654) has occupied the writer of this paragraph a large part of his time for more than twenty-five years, and he hopes to do further work in the same line. He is happy to confess, however, that not least among the things that he values, as the upshot of all this study, is his ability to testify, with a clear mind and a clean conscience, that nobody, except the professional sociologist or the student who is getting a part of his education from pure sociology, need bother his head a moment about the range of conceptional subtlety to which Professor Haney refers. This is not a concession that the higher sociology—to coin a convenient phrase—is of no further use. On the contrary, the relations of "the higher sociology" to men's affairs are closely analogous with the relation of "the higher mathematics" to everyday reckonings. On the one hand, the most abstruse mathematical reasonings have bearings and values beyond the immediate interests of mathematicians. On the other hand, it is not necessary to have taken sides on mooted questions in the logic of mathematics, in order to be a good bookkeeper.

The elements of everything. that the most penetrating search can find from "a social point of view" are on exhibition in every family, or schoolroom, or workshop, or playground, or other everyday meeting-place of two or more persons. It is these literal elements that are important in all judgments of conduct, not the elaborations and refinements and generalizations through which these elements become material for philosophical systems. The latter, as we have said, have their uses, but they are not uses that justify dragging them into connections where they embarrass more immediate concerns.

Professor Haney is quite within the truth in hinting that the adjective "social" covers a multitude of squints. Some of these may be clearer, and in a straighter line, than others. At all events, it is hard to know what the term means in the mouth of a given person. Attempts to show what it ought to mean have been more or less responsible for wide variations in sociological theory.

On the other hand, we repeat that, except in details which need not concern anyone but the sociological specialist, there is no important difference among sociologists about the substantial matter referred to by the word "social." Moreover, everything essential in the concept "social" may be fully taken into account for all practical purposes, out-side of technical sociology, without bothering in the least about the types of philosophical construction to which Professor Haney refers as the leading social conceptions.

The plain matter of fact with which all our sociologizings start is

( 655) that no person exists in a moral vacuum. Contradiction of everything like a moral vacuum conception of the lot of persons is the sum and sub-stance predicated in all accurate sociological uses of the term "social." That is, every person's life touches other persons' lives. These contacts with others receive or transmit influences, and usually they do some quantity of both. Any "social point of view" is merely away of trying to visualize this rudimentary fact on some large scale intended to insure distinctness and proportion in all surveys of that give-and-take relation-ship in actual life. Whatever their preferences among the types of general exhibit that have been proposed, the sociologists regard each and all of these efforts at symbolization as so many algebraic formulas, so to speak, for the terms of which we must find the quantitative and qualitative values whenever we are dealing with an actual situation. In other words, whether we have in the backs of our heads one of the technical schemes of sociological analysis or not, if we are trying to under-stand the factors involved in a real human experience, say the break-up of a family, the strike in the Calumet district, or our relations with Mexico, we face the fact that the crisis as it stands is the result of a combination of gives and takes between people, and any resolution of the crisis whatever will be another combination of gives and takes between people. If our purpose is merely to understand how the crisis came about, or how a given settlement works, our task is to ferret out, on the one hand, as many as possible of the influences which culminated in the crisis, with as much as we can learn about the relative force of each, or to discover the different lines of influence set in operation by the settlement. If we are personally concerned with either situation, and if our problem is what to do under the circumstances, then "asocial point of view" means consideration of the whole problem as an affair of the effect upon all the persons concerned of each possible alternative, and choice of action in accordance with the estimated balance of interests. In other words, taking problems of conduct as the illustrations, "a social point of view" means keeping the questions always open: What specific lines of influence will spring from the possible alternatives? and What do these prospective effects of action indicate as to obligation, in view of all the interests depending on the decision ? In a nutshell, this is all there is in any "social point of view," no matter how ambitious the amplifications to which it leads.

Otherwise expressed, "a social point of view," as related to present problems, is an outlook upon life which, in every situation, keeps the question to the fore: Just what different human interests are concerned

( 656) here; how will each of them be affected by the different lines of action that are possible in the situation; and what does the weighing of all these influences with one another show about what is just and reason-able, considering all the circumstances?

"A social point of view" does not turn out then to be anything mystical or metaphysical or schematic or even novel. In its essence it is merely paying due attention to the most obvious commonplace in human life.


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