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Social Life In General

( Originally Published 1915 )

Dependence of the Individual. — How dependent is the individual upon others, in spite of the fact that he often assumes that he can do as he pleases. He feels that his will is free to choose his course. So strong is this feeling of self-sufficiency that in moments when it most completely masters him he acts with a total disregard of the facts of his material environment and of the thoughts and feelings of his fellows. If physical material is in his way, he has but to remove it, his success being measured by his power to do so. If his fellows attempt to thwart his plans, he has but to thrust them aside and his purpose is accomplished. This ever present, persistent, self-assertive ego of man is constantly reminding him that he alone is to be consulted about his course of action. He considers, " Shall I do this or shall I do that? " or " I will do this," or " This is the most profitable for me," just as if he had the final settlement of the affairs of life which concern him. Yet the fact is that in the complex social life of our day his actions, — indeed, even his thoughts and feelings, — are influenced in large measure by a social life which surrounds him like an atmosphere. This conquering bent of man's nature, developed through long-continued race habits of conquest over both the material world, the world of savage beasts and of more savage men, deceives man by making him believe at times what is only partly true. It is true to a degree that man can bend things to his will. Human achievement is marked by his ability to do so to a more remarkable degree than any other animal. However, the converse is also true, that no man really acts independently of the influences of his fellow men.' Everywhere there is a social life setting limitations and pre-dominatingly influencing individual action. In government, in religion, in industry, in education, in family association — in everything that builds up modern life, men are cooperating. They work together, combine, and organize for specific purposes, so that no man lives to himself. It is this unity of effort that makes society.

Forms of Social Coöperation. If an individual considers that he is managing his own business, regardless of others, let him pause to think of the people upon whom he is immediately dependent for the conduct of his business. If he claims to be an independent farmer, still he depends upon the miner, the manufacturer, the merchant, and the transporter, for his implements. He depends upon the cooperation of his fellow citizens for the protection of home and property, for the education of his children, for the building of roads, and the establishment of social order. His household furnishings and his clothing largely come from the toil of others. His whole surplus wealth is dependent upon the consumption of his products by others.

If a man assume that religion, the most sacred of all motives, is his individual affair, still we find him associating with his fellows to build a church for worship and employing a teacher paid by the membership. More than this, he meets with his fellows to worship and subscribes to a creed and ritual not established by himself but by thousands of his predecessors, directly or indirectly, and over which he has little individual control.

If he says, " I will educate myself," he begins by reading books written by others, containing the accumulated knowledge of centuries, or he enters a school supported by the contributions of thousands of his fellow men. The determination, the will, the ego, in this counts for much, but it is hedged in on all sides by the social life.

If a western farmer owes a man in Chicago for goods, he does not take a back-load of corn or beef, the products of his toil, and walk to Chicago, but he sells his corn and his cattle to others and accepts money made by the combined action of thousands. If he wishes to pay a bill in Chicago, he might board a train made and operated by others, and carry the gold to Chicago, but he accepts the alternative and goes to a bank conducted by the cooperative work of others, buys exchange, and sends his money by an express company or by the postal service, two evidences of social cooperation. So that, turn whichever way he will, the ego finds another superior ego over which he has little personal control. Assuming that he is independent, he goes about doing as others do, thinking what others think, cooperating with them consciously and unconsciously in the work of life, frequently yielding to the will, or obeying the command of a general psychic force called society. He cannot escape it, except by searching in ships made by others for an uninhabited island of the sea, there to spend the remainder of his threescore years and ten, alone, until he perish and his works with him.

Forms of Society. — In considering any material body we recognize it by its physical properties and, if living, by its activities. For example, so familiar are we with the form and life of the tree or the horse that we require no description to separate it from other organisms. Recognition of the social body is more difficult ; for while we realize that there is some-thing called " society," it is not easy to determine its characteristic marks or to define its activities. But this is essential before we can have any scientific notion of society. How then shall we recognize society when we see it? Will it be by its form or its function, or both, or is society merely an abstract generic term used to give collective expression to a large number of diverse things which men do in common?

(a) The Political Life.— We shall find on examination that the most prominent characteristics of an organized group of people are present in the politically organized body. The institutions of the State afford a typical example of all social institutions. Executive, legislative, and judicial bodies, fulfilling the chief functions of political control, and each representing a large number of individuals, bring together all people within a given territory, uniting them into an interdependent membership for the purposes of protection, justice, and progress. From township trustee, policeman, and police judge, to senate, chief executive, and chief justice of the supreme bench we find a group of men with well-defined relations, representing and carrying out the will of the people, not the will of any single person. There is a regularity in which they act and a universality of organization which is conclusive evidence that the whole community is united with definite bonds and that its parts are interdependent.

(b) The Economic Life. — From the foundation of human society man has cooperated with his fellows in obtaining food, shelter, and material comfort. This process is called the economic life. Perhaps there is no clearer evidence of the co-operative existence of society than in the organized efforts of man to satisfy his material wants. Here are groups of men engaged in agriculture supporting other groups, and in turn being supported by them. Here are giant corporations for the manufacture of material goods ; here are great organizations for the transport of goods and men, and other great organizations for trade, commerce, and banking. Attendant upon these and growing out of them, are the labor organizations for the conservation and promotion of the common interests of the groups of wage earners. How helpless is the individual who strives alone, and how increasingly helpless as industrial organization continues to improve ! The man out of bread and out of work quickly realizes how important is the organization of industrial life and the dependence of group on group as well as of the individual on the whole.

(c) Voluntary Associations. — If we take another view of the collective operations of men, we shall see large numbers forming themselves in voluntary associations for specific purposes. These organizations contribute to the general scheme of society and add particular lines of activity. Such are church societies, fraternal orders, benevolent and charitable associations, and social clubs. They bear less distinct relations to the whole mass than do the political groups, and unite only a part of the whole general group. Yet they have special services to perform and represent a large body of people working, thinking, and toiling in concert.

(d) Educational Association. — There are educational processes which have much to do with the well-being and progress of humanity. Our public school system from the primary grade to the university represents another phase of the organic reality of society. This system aims to educate the child, not as a separate, independent individual, but as a member of society. It is supported by all propertied citizens, and in most instances by all who are not paupers. There are private schools of large foundations managed by voluntary associations, whose influences are less universal than the public schools but are essential to the organized community, and these schools bear well-sustained relations to the whole. There are scientific societies whose ultimate purpose is the extension of human welfare, which are, however, great forces as well in social control for social unity. These, and all educational institutions, give form and solidarity to society, help it to consider present needs, and to think and plan for future development.

(e) Methods of Communication. — Closely allied to education, political, religious, economic, and the purely social institutions, supporting and strengthening them all, are our various methods of communication : the postal service, the telephone, and the telegraph. These draw individuals closer together and give them convincing proof of their daily and hourly interdependence. No other phases of modem life have so quickened the activities of society and contributed to the oneness of purpose and to the common thinking, feeling, and willing together as these.

(f) The Family.' — Nor must there be omitted from this category the family life, the center from which flow many impulses of social life. Here is the vital institution for the propagation and perpetuation of the race. Genetically it is the whole social world in epitome evincing some of the elements of control, of industry, of education, of religion, and of benevolence. It has had its historical growth and is bound together by the most exact and rigid rules of social order. It is the most complete and perfectly organized group, the hearth at which are forged the strongest sympathies and the most finely tempered impulses of life. It is the center of the larger brotherhood of humanity.

The Nature of Society. — All these groups are forms or manifestations of society, but are they society itself? They are various organizations showing us somewhat of the morphology of society, but they are only the body in which society incarnates itself. As biology studies life in all its forms in order to out what the principle of life is, and to make practical use of that knowledge, as the science of religion studies the manifestations of religion in every rite and ceremony, every creed, every trace of devotional or controversial literature among all the peoples of the earth, so sociology in order to understand society, studies that spirit which manifests itself in political, economic, religious, educational, cultural, and domestic organization; in public and private corporations, in customs and costumes, in imitations and oppositions, — briefly, in all the multitudinous ways in which men and women living in social relations manifest their social attitudes.' Society therefore may be said to be humanity, or any certain part of it, in its social relations. If men have certain definite economic relations with each other, we call them an industrial or economic society. If their relations are political in nature, we call the group a political society. If the motives of their relations are religious, we call the group a religious society. Or, if we think of the extension of relationship to all men, we call it a world society. Society then may be defined as any group of sentient beings who are more or less alike, who recognize more or less clearly that fact, and who have recognized common interests in their social relationships?

So there is society and there are societies. The two terms belong to different categories. The one is a general term, the other a special. The one denotes the most general aspects of all kinds of societies, the necessary attributes of any society, the other suggests that there are various organizations belonging to this genus society which differ from each other in certain particulars. For example, the term " society " denotes all kinds of groups which are based on any kind of social interests the other term, " societies," at once implies that an adjective is needed to convey to the mind a definite idea of what is meant. The same difference is suggested by the contrast between the term " society " and " a society." The term " society " therefore connotes in the most general way men in any kind of associative relations.

Types of Societies. — Societies may be classified in various ways. Basing them upon their most significant characteristics, the psycho-social, Giddings has suggested eight different kinds of human societies. The following is an epitome of these eight types, with an indication of the social bonds which create them, and with concrete examples of each type :

1. Broadest groupings animal and human.

2. Human societies.

(a) Ethnic — based on kinship.

(b) Civil — based on propinquity.

3. Groupings more instructive for the sociologist.

(a) Instinctive.

(b) Rational.

These two general types combined in varying degrees give us the following classification :

1. Sympathetic blood relatives, e.g., the clan of an ethnic tribe.

2. Congenial like spirits, e.g., Pilgrim Fathers, OR Latter-Day Saints, Amana Society.

3. Approbational —lawless elements drawn together by economic opportunity, e.g., frontier mining camps. A general approbation of qualities and conduct practically the only social bond.

4. Despotic — combination of elements of unequal strength. Social bonds, despotic power and servile, fear-inspired obedience, e.g., Norman England immediately following Conquest, or the South in early Reconstruction days.

5. Authoritative— despotic power long enough established to be identified with tradition and religion. Social bond, reverence for authority. Examples: England of the Tudor and Early Stuart periods ; France of Louis XIV ; Russia from days of Peter the Great up to a recent period.

6. Conspirital results of the disintegration of a preexisting social order. Adventurers become the leaders by means of bribery, patronage, and special privileges. Social bond, intrigue and conspiracy. Examples: Italy of the time of Dante ; France of the Reign of Terror (to a less degree).

7 Contractual — result of perception of the utility of association, leading to the conscious betterment of the general welfare. Social bond, a covenant or contract. Examples: League of the of Iroquois ; Achaean League of Greece ; American Confederation ; Federal Union ; Confederate States of America ; Australian Commonwealth ; Dominion of Canada.

8. Idealistic — result of a population collectively responding to great ideals and thus forming a society. Social bonds, mutual understanding, confidence, fidelity, and unselfish spirit of social service. Examples: U. S. of America (to a degree) ; some of our states ; the Sylvania Association; the Theosophical Society at Point Loma, California.

Complexity of the Social Order. — Is it possible in this complexity of the social order to discover any constant social forces working for the building of the social structure? Can we formulate general laws which operate for the control of society? It is the study of this complex social order that constitutes the chief aim of the science of society. There are social phenomena more or less frequently recurring, and movements more or less regular which admit of study and classification. There must be some order in this process of society building. It could not all be referred to accident. Through it all runs a constant purpose, a social trend. There are laws controlling the movement of human society; there are forces in continual action impelling it forward in well-defined lines; there is a mass of phenomena which can be reduced to classification.

Need of Scientific Study. — Common as are the facts of society which we observe about us, the knowledge of their real natures and their reduction to system and order are difficult tasks. If there are forces at work, the laws controlling and limiting their action are not readily discovered. But there are many reasons why it is essential to human welfare that a systematic study of society be encouraged. First, because the social life of man has been less carefully studied than other natural phenomena. It represents the class of phenomena last to be considered. Again, there is nothing which concerns human welfare more than the study of man in his social relations. The scientific and practical mastery of the lower forms of nature is in comparison far more advanced. We know much concerning the external world and its adaptation to our service. We have learned to adjust ourselves to the conditions of our physical environment whenever it is impossible to change the environment. But scientific knowledge of how men have learned to live together in harmony, each seeking his own interest, is very difficult to acquire. The art of social life is the most difficult of all arts to master and to comprehend. Witness the long lists of wars of tribes, nations, and races, caused by not knowing how to settle their social differences properly and justly ! Consider the long struggle of man with his fellows for survival, a struggle continued in the competitive business world where it is a struggle, not so much for existence as for wealth. Observe the other numerous attempts that have been made in the world for a better system of justice. All these examples testify to the difficulties of social adjustment.

Formulation of a Science of Society. — Yet when we attempt to bring system into our knowledge of human society, we find that it is difficult to collect sufficient data to furnish the ground-work of science. There is not a sufficient number of generalizations proven to be universally true upon which might be established readily a well-defined body of principles of sociology. The laws that control society and the forces that operate it are not sufficiently understood to make the science of sociology easily determined or quickly mastered. Yet it is the task of sociology to compass within well-defined bounds a mass of social knowledge, to classify it, showing its order and logical sequence, to discover the forces that generate and move society and to deter-mine and define the laws that control it. Its duty as a science is not done if it fails to point out the extent and manner in which society can be forced into certain lines of development or progress by the combined choice and action of mankind.


COOLEY, CHARLES H. Human Nature and the Social Order, Chaps. V, VI; Social Organization, Chaps. I, II.

ELLWOOD, CHARLES A. Psychological Aspects of Sociology, pp. 9–15. ELY, R. T. The Evolution of Industrial Society, pp. 3–119.

GIDDINGS, F. H. Principles of Sociology, pp. 3–20; Descriptive and Historical Sociology, Chaps. II, III.

SMALL, ALBION W., and VINCENT, GEORGE E. Introduction to the Study of Society, pp. 15–20.

WARD, LESTER F. Dynamic Sociology, " Introduction."


1. Compare Cooley's and Fite's contentions and state whether you can find any common ground.

2. Analyze the respective parts played by your individuality and by the various social influences around you in your determination to get an education.

3. Name all the characteristics which the following groups have in common: The state in which you live; a bank; a college; a sewing society; a dancing party; a political party; a church; a lodge; a railway company.

4. Discuss the following definitions of society : "The word society is used scientifically to designate the reciprocal relations between individuals." ELLWOOD, Sociology and Modern Social Problems, p. 7.

"The concept here outlined is that of society as a continuing adaptation, with instinctive and other physiological, subconscious processes at its beginning, and a self-conscious and self-determining mind, a group mind in the only real sense of the term, at its apex." DAVIS, Psychological Interpretations, p. 79.

5. Criticize Giddings's classification of societies given in his Descriptive and Historical Sociology, in the light of his exposition of the stages in the evolution of society in his Elements, pp. 231–330.

6. Classify according to Giddings's scheme the following groups : The James gang of outlaws; the German Confederation; Japan of today; the Christian Science Church; the Amana communistic society; a national bank; England of today.

Outlines Of Sociology:
Social Life In General

Definition And Scope Of Sociology

Purpose And Method Of Sociology

Social Origins

Land And Its People

Social Activities

Social Organization

Organization And Life Of The Family

Disorganization Of The Modern Family

Origin And Development Of The State

Read More Articles About: Outlines Of Sociology

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