The Sense of Social Unity — A Problem in Social Psychology

Robert H. Gault
Northwestern University

The members of the same family, club, profession, city, state or nation experience a sense of standing together in a peculiar relationship : they feel that they belong together : that they are in reality one body. So vivid is this experience on the part of the member of many a family, club, or profession that he cannot contemplate his actual or projected behavior at any critical juncture of his affairs without taking very earnestly into consideration the attitude or possible attitude of his confrères in reaction to his behavior. Inevitably, as a matter of course, he, at such junctures, has a very intense realization of the strength of the bonds by which he is bound to others. At times when a wave of public feeling spreads over the land, too, this same experience comes to the fore-ground vividly. In the ordinary course of events it is in the margin; but I believe it is a correct statement that, within no given period do we have a sense of aloofness from others in all our relations. There is, of course, a host of stimulus-response relations which are wholly outside the scope of our subject. The sun shines upon me through my window and I draw toward it with satisfaction; the horses' hoofs clatter loudly upon the brick pavement and I resent the disturbance ; the clock strikes eleven and I determine to hasten my writing so that I may be able to complete my task tomorrow. Such psycho-physical processes as these crowd every minute of our lives. They are not social experiences. They have nothing to do in the matter of determining a sense of social unity though they may indirectly suggest it. Thus the clattering hoofs may at once bring into my mind's view my newly arrived neighbor to whom I once described this as a quiet street. I am immediately brought to realize my responsibility for his discomfiture. In other words I realize that he and I stand in a

( 122) peculiar relation to each other; between us is a social unity or solidarity, as it is sometimes called. Illustrations of a similar felt relationship throughout a large group could be multiplied.

The question I am approaching in this paper is: Whence comes this sense of social unity; what composes it; how is it developed?

In the first place it does not emanate from a social mind[1] in the sense of a mind distinct from that of each individual in the group but similar to it, which is alleged to do for an assumed social organism what my mind seems to do for me, viz., to effect a synthesis which I call myself. Neither, secondly, does it come from the operation of a social soul. Psychological method offers no clue to the existence of such a mind or soul. In the third place this unity is not summed up in the possession by the group of a common language, common customs, common laws, art, literature, mental out-look, systems of political and religious thought, etc., etc. These surely are signs that there is a social unity, and once they have been developed they facilitate the further evolution of the sense of unity. But without at least a rudimentary consciousness of solidarity to begin with, it is doubtful whether a common language, etc., could ever develop. Nor, fourthly, is the principle of social unity to be found in the co-ordination of individuals in the activities of the work-a-day world.[2] These co-ordinations, just as language, art, law, custom, etc., are objective products of a psychological unity that antedates them. Once we have found the psychological core of the phenomenon we are investigating, we can, I believe, account for the objective appearance. As we have already said of language, art, etc., so here we can assert a reciprocal influence between our co-ordinations in everyday affairs on the one hand and our sense of belonging together on the other; but the co-ordinations are not primary. We must make our appeal to psychological analysis.

What then does analysis of the experience we have under

( 123) discussion reveal? Let each one take an illustration from his own experience as a member of a closely knit club, society, or family. I have again and again observed my fellow members in their reactions to a great variety of situations so that now even though far separated from them, when this feeling of belonging to them arises, I find that I have in my mind's eye an image of their behavior as it occurs in response to a situation with which I am confronted, or which I am creating, or I have an anticipatory image of their behavior as it will occur later in response to the situation that confronts me or to what I am at this moment thinking, saying or doing. Their imaged behavior I may approve or disapprove. It may be like or unlike my own in similar circumstances. I do not mean that this imagery need exist in great vividness nor detail ; it may be wholly marginal and in course of time as the group interrelations become more and more highly mechanized, the imagery may almost wholly fade away. But all the while it seems to be an essential feature of my sense of social unity or solidarity with the group. A second element that analysis reveals is a purpose or ideal, or a set of purposes and ideals and felt needs that I cherish, and evidences of which I observe in the behavior of other members respectively of the group to which I belong. The third and final essential element is affective or emotional. At those moments when my sense of belonging to others is most in evidence, there is at least a feeling of satisfaction, and it may be one of enthusiasm, that arises.

These elements are all illustrated in the experience of the Boy of '61 as he trained upon the village green. In his imagination he could see hundreds of thousands of other youths like himself at military drill from ocean to ocean (imagery of other's reactions) ; he realized that all were doing so in order that they might the more effectively obey the summons from Washington (Purpose), and with it all arose the great swell of enthusiasm within him (Emotional factor). He felt that he was a part of a great closely interlocked and co-ordinated group. Without that imagery of others and that realization of common purpose, there could have been no enthusiasm in his make-up ; no patriotism, no loyalty. He would have been merely an isolated drudge. This enthusiasm in each

( 124) individual expresses itself in easily recognized, easily imitated, and hence easily imagined signs. Consequently the emotional factor is an important contributor to the development of a sense of social unity. Indeed without at least a moderate emotional intensity, it is doubtful whether such a sense could persist at all.

From the foregoing, I believe it is justifiable to draw an analogy. There is primitive man surrounded on all sides by evidences of natural forces, no one of which he under-stands in the sense in which we say it is comprehended by the more enlightened age in which we live. To that extent, in primitive man, the anthropomorphic disposition is unbridled. He stands in awe before the wind, the river, disease, life and death. He reads his own dispositions, greatly magnified, into these evidences of unknown forces. He observes that his neighbors are doing likewise—a sign that they too are moved as he is. By this token a psychological kinship or unity is established as a matter of course. Once a considerable group is included in this unity, it is but a short natural step to co-ordination in institutions for worship, for punishment, etc. This follows upon the realization of a common purpose or a common need. I do not mean to imply that this felt and observed reaction to the mysterious is the only psychological root of primitive social unity, but that among other roots this one looms large. It does so, no doubt, because of the prominence of the emotional element that is associated with it. This element makes the reaction especially observable and contagious. It contributes therefore to the individual's readiness in imagery of others' reactions, as described above, and therefore to the felt unity of the group. The mere perception of a similarity in bodily form and color, too, contributes to the same end.

Thus far the discussion suggests the " consciousness of kind " which Giddings calls the primary element that makes for social solidarity.[3] Indeed, in the main, that is just what we are discussing. The consciousness of kind, is a consciousness of likeness of form, appearance, purposes, needs, behavior, etc., and as such it is a primary factor in the sense of social unity. It antedates the organization of groups and therefore

( 125) it precedes conflict among groups which Gumplowicz[4] describes as the elementary social phenomenon. But ere long, as organizations become more and more complex, conflicts become more varied and intense and then the consciousness of difference as well as of kind becomes an element in our sense of social unity. This comes about as a consequence of numbers of experiences in which we have failed to satisfy our needs or attain our purposes ; attainments which we have seen made successfully even by others whom we recognize as, at least in a psychological sense, very different from ourselves. From that moment we recognize the need for such persons and they, in our imagery, enter in with others, to the group of components of our sense of `social unity. In our mind's eye we see them, either as contemporaries or as belonging to a future generation, reacting to situations that we confront, in ways that we could not; responding to our behavior; coming to our aid and so contributing to the realization of our purposes and the satisfaction of our needs. Thus the imagery of others' reactions includes the consciousness of kind, antedates co-operation, organization and conflict, and later enters into reciprocal relations with all of these.

As the race has progressively gained control over the forces of nature, and specialization has followed upon specialization, social unities have multiplied within the group and we have the class consciousness of the commercial, the professional, the laboring sections, etc., and happily it may be, a larger unity including and superimposed upon all of these. But in every instance it is a unity that is made possible only by reason of such mutual familiarity or understanding on the part of the members of the group or sub-group that each one can and even does represent to himself the reactions by which others of his class would respond or are responding to a given situation. Obedient to the general law of automatization, the whole process, in course of time, becomes so highly mechan-

( 126) -ized that even the vaguest imagery suffices for the sense of unity which we have under discussion.

In all the foregoing we have had in mind a unity among contemporaries. Obviously, if our analysis is correct thus far, our principle applies as well to social continuity or unity between or among successive ages. As we peruse the history, literature and other products of the civilization of a by-gone generation, we become acquainted with the makers of that civilization ; we know their natural dispositions and other motives; their modes of thought, etc. Again and again we discover particulars in which they react as we do to similar situations. Our capacity for imaging them in one or another set of terms develops until we can put ourselves in their place and them in our place, so that our consciousness of unity with them is made up of precisely the same sort of components as those that enter into our sense of unity with our contemporaries. The continuity of laws and courts and other institutions or the modeling of institutions upon old copies is not in itself social continuity : it is an expression of a psychological continuity. That we do not feel a strong sense of unity with the Fijians of our time, nor a sense of continuity with the ancient Egyptians would-seem to be a corollary to the fore-going.

All this may appeal to many as over intellectualistic. I do not believe it is. Surely we could hardly describe by that term the unity among members of a profession. There is an of-course-ness about it that is not intellectualistic at all excepting that it rests in a vague shadowy lot of images of others with whom we are co-ordinated and so, as far as this is concerned, it is in the same category as each one's consciousness of one's self.

This is a distinctly individualistic psychological basis. It does not at all imply the direct transference of a psychic influence from one mind to another which Ellwood seems to fear the psychologist is approaching in a discussion of our subject.[5] Neither does it imply the mind of a social organism, nor anything of the sort, which co-ordinates and combines the individuals. Each and every member of the closely knit society to which I belong would be completely isolated men-

( 127) -tally; there would be no unity among us were it not for the fact that we are all responding to similar situations so that .in course of time each is able to represent the others and each knows approximately what to expect of the others.

What a student of psychology, in the light of the foregoing will have to say concerning the biological or race factor and the institution, organization or co-operation factor, to which Ellwood refers,[6] as determinative of a social unity or solidarity, is now apparent. In as far as we are of the same race, we can imagine one another with the greater facility; in as far as we co-operate in the same organization or institution our opportunities for observing one and another in action and for comparing reactions are enhanced. By reason of these associations, therefore, our anticipatory and other imagery of interactions among our confrères become more rich and complete and the emotional or affective components of the sense of unity grow apace. In short, then, the factors named merely furnish an opportunity for the development' of the elements that enter into the sense of social unity. These factors, with the exception of the biological or racial one are a consequence of a felt unity that antedates them, and with which, from the moment of their inception, they are in reciprocal relation.

As I have said above, this is a strictly individualistic position. The student of the philosophy of law may at first glance find nothing in it to support more than individual or private interests whereas he is seeking a basis for the public interest. Our answer to him on this point is that "public interest" is only a phrase. What he means by " public interest " is only a series, so to speak, of widely overlapping private interests, or interests, held largely in common, in the same outstanding objects such as the right to life, health, property, freedom of speech, or in occasional subjects of political discussion, etc., etc. Because each one of us judging by indubitable signs, realizes, or judges after immediate inference, that the people around him in the neighborhood or in the state at large cherish the same main interests that he cherishes we have a public interest—of the only sort that we need. The way is then open for the pursuit of these interests in co-operation.


  1. E. J. Urwick, A Philosophy of Social Progress, London, 1912, pp. 109f.
  2. Charles A. Ellwood, Introduction to Social Psychology, New York, 1917, p. 82.
  3. F. H.Giddings, The Principles of Sociology. New York, 1896.
  4. L. Gumplowicz, The Outlines of Sociology (English translation, by Frederick W. Moore, of Grundriss der Sociologie. Wien, 1895). Bulletin of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, No. 253. Philadelphia, 1899, pp. 145-150. See also L. Gumplowicz, Le rôle des luttes sociales dans l'évolution de l'humanité. Annales de l'institut international de sociologie, XI., 1907, pp. 131-143.
  5. Op. cit., p. 79.
  6. Op. cit., Chapter V.

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