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Social Laws

( Originally Published 1915 )

To one accustomed to the use of the term " law " in physical sciences, a word of caution is necessary with respect to the term when it is used in sociology. By the term " social law " we mean a statement of the relation which exists between social phenomena; between orders of social phenomena; or between social phenomena and other phenomena. This relation may be one of coexistence, one of sequence, or one of cause and effect. These laws, however, differ from the laws, for example, of physics in that they are less exact ; for, since human beings possess thought and will, their actions are not so definitely determined as are those of atoms. Human beings exercise purpose; they act with reference to perceived ends. Thus, while they react to given stimuli with more or less regularity, there is less certainty that all will act in the same way than there is in the case of atoms subjected to some one of the simple forces.'

While it is an easy matter to discern the operation of the social forces that have brought about the origin and growth of society and caused its activities, it is difficult to discover the laws according to which these forces act ; that is, the social laws. That there are laws which describe the movement and results of social forces is evident from the recurring regularity of social movements ; but to define and formulate these laws is, indeed, a difficult matter. Considerable progress, however, has been made by some of the more recent writers on sociology.

Laws of M. Tarde. — M. Tarde, in his work on Social Laws, has tried to show that the laws which describe the action of the social forces may be reduced to the following three great movements : " repetition, opposition, and adaptation." He proceeds to show that it is through the repetition of phenomena in a given group that the law or rule of action appears ; that it is through opposition that comparison evolves ; and, finally, that it is by the adaptation of ideas and ideals, customs and traditions to others that homogeneity is brought about.

The scientist, no doubt, lays the foundation for a new truth when he discovers repetitions of the phenomena under consideration. He observes, for instance, a certain movement of the heavenly bodies. If it is not repeated, he can make no deductions ; but by means of a series of repetitions, he discovers that the process is not accidental, but in accordance with certain laws. Again, the scientist is quick to observe in all organic life, differences or oppositions ; the struggle for existence presents a constant differentiation. Finally, in studying the adaptation of one part to another, the scientist takes the third step toward the formation of a new law. In the same way, the initial step in the shaping of social laws, is the discovery of constantly recurring phenomena. The first view of society, it is true, shows a heterogeneous mass of phenomena in which there appears little order ; it is only by careful study and observation that an orderly arrangement and movement are discovered. But just as the whole universe at first seems to be a mass of unrelated objects and phenomena and subsequently yields to order and symmetry, so the whole mass of apparently unrelated social phenomena discloses an orderly arrangement to the scientific mind. Thus, while no one can doubt the constancy of " repetition, opposition, and adaptation," there are, within these three great fundamental movements, more specific kinds of action, operating within more limited areas. Some of these will be briefly discussed.

Laws of Individual Choice. — These laws are universal and thoroughly demonstrated by practical life. Beginning with the simplest principles relating to individual life, we have the following : Each individual seeks the largest return for the least sacrifice. What is meant by this is that whether we consider wealth getting or wealth using, religion or art, culture or learning, or, indeed, life in any of its various important phases, the individual is seeking his highest good or best interests so far as his powers or capacities will permit. The laborer seeks the highest wage he can command ; the professional man strives for the position that will yield him the largest return for his efforts ; and the business man enters the field which will most rapidly increase his wealth. The expression " largest return " includes, to be sure, a number of things ; it involves physical health, mental development, material welfare, and social well-being. But the truth is a universal one and manifests itself in all our services ; even a man engaged in missionary work would endeavor to seek the largest results possible from the smallest amount of work in order that he might do the most possible for those for whom he was laboring.

Another of these laws is : Each individual has a schedule of choices ranging from the most desirable objects to the least desirable. This law, observed primarily in economic life, serves as the basis for market valuation, and furnishes the opportunity for exchange. The demand schedule for articles of utility is manifested in the practical affairs of life; but the law operates with no less exactness in other departments of human activity, for individual motives vary in proportion to their valuations of the various objects of life. Of two men, both laying stress on the material objects of life, one may put food first and then clothing, books, works of art, and furniture, while another may, under different circumstances, give the following order : books, works of art, food, furniture, and clothing. Again, others may make schedules like this : wealth, virtue, learning, public approbation, and leisure ; or like this : virtue, learning, wealth, leisure, and public approbation.'

This leads to another well-established principle ; namely, that Individual minds respond similarly to the same or like stimuli.' This law is a recognition of the universality of certain characteristics of the human mind; but it must not be carried too much into detail, or it will conflict with the one previously stated. Nor is it best to presume too much upon the constancy of human nature ; for, while the stimulus of hunger or cold may in general affect individual minds in the same way, the actions resulting from these may be of entirely different nature. One may labor in order to reach given results, whereas another may steal to satisfy his wants. Or if a flood renders many people homeless, most of those not afflicted will respond, in one way or another, to a call for help ; but there are, at times, some who will give no assistance whatever.

The Laws of Social Choice. — Similar to the laws of individual choice are the laws of social choice, for the latter are only the generalization and unification of the former. There is, there fore, a schedule of social choices by means of which the social mind chooses its ideals and types and establishes the bases of social action.

According to Giddings, the most important ideals of social choice, in their relative order of influence, are as follows : (r) force or power, (2) utilitarian virtues, (3) integrity, and (4) self-realization.' That the public mind values force or power above all other things, seems, at first, to be untrue; but a little reflection on the judgments of society will convince one, albeit against one's will, that such is the case. While the utilitarian virtues, that is, the quality of usefulness, generally precede integrity in the schedule of the normal society, there are communities which choose integrity as a higher ideal. There can be no doubt that self-realization is properly the last in the category ; for, while society recognizes the importance of the individual and his prosperity, his well-being, as a direct aim, is not uppermost in the social choice.

It may be inferred from the foregoing that whether the choices of a society are radical or conservative depends, in a large measure, upon the variety of interests of such a society and the degree of harmonious combination of the same. The society having a variety of interests will be radical in its choices, and the society that has harmonized its interests will be conservative. Hence it is that " only the population that has many, varied, and harmonious interests is consistently progressive in its choices "; 2 for, where the radical and conservative element is nearly balanced, society is likely to be freed, on the one hand, from impulsive action, and, on the other, from inertness.

The Laws of Social Aims. — Primarily, normal progress, rather than a perfected system, is the social ideal. The constant changes of society make it highly probable that an automatic system which acts with perfect precision will never appear. The perfect society is always just beyond, in the next century or centuries. But when the next century comes, the plan is changed ; and what was formerly desired is now found to be useless. Hence if a society is normal in its parts and if it is progressive, — that is, if it is constantly moving toward its ideals, even if these ideals are constantly undergoing change, — then that society is fulfilling the highest aims.

The greatest good to the greatest number, or social well being, is the aim of social action. This aim, according to Benjamin Kidd, looks to the future as well as to the present. In his Western Civilization' Kidd has elaborated this idea under what he terms " Projected efficiency." He shows that in our attempts to realize the present we are living for future good; in building the social structure, we are looking always to the superstructure which is to be built in the future. Hence the greatest good to the greatest number must apply even to generations yet unborn. It is probable, however, that " projected efficiency " — when it occurs at all —is largely an unconscious by-product of society's effort to survive under the difficulties of the here and now.

The Laws of Imitation. M. Tarde has shown us how important, in the development of social life, is imitation. Perhaps there is no other medium through which we receive more than we do through this practice of imitation. In the first few years of its life the child acquires nearly all of its habits, and a considerable part of its knowledge, by means of imitation, and it is the imitative child that makes the most rapid advancement. Among primitive races, too, the beginnings of civilization are marked by this influence ; nor have we ever, for that matter, lost sight of it in the higher development of civil life. The customs and habits of a single people are soon imitated the world over; the spread of the industrial arts, the advancement of science and learning, and the use of modem appliances, all point to the importance of imitation in the practical affairs of life.

M. Tarde has given us two laws which seem to be thoroughly established in all processes of association. The first one, " In the absence of interferences, imitation spreads in geometrical progression," assumes that there must be social contact. If an individual imitates another, there are two sources for the spreading of the idea. If one individual imitates each of these, there are four sources, then sixteen, and so on in geometrical progression. In a large social group where many may imitate the one, imitation may proceed very rapidly ; the psychology of the mob demonstrates the rapidity in which social action proceeds through imitation. This law is important in accounting for the rapid spread of news, the adoption of new customs and language — especially of slang phrases.

The other important law is that " Imitations are refracted by their media." The term, borrowed from physics, is very appropriate in its application. The individual who attempts to imitate his neighbor in walk, speech, dress, and personal habits, will never exactly represent the original ; the nation that attempts to use the civilization of another will yet find differences between itself and the original differences for better or for worse. These differences demonstrate that the individual or community that attempts to imitate is, in itself, an original source of power and will change what it borrows to suit its own accepted ideas or its own environments. If one hundred people, standing just close enough together for each to hear what his next neighbor says, should attempt, one after another, to recite a given passage, each one getting his version from the one who has last spoken, the passage would frequently become so changed as to be unrecognizable. In the same way, the degree to which the tales of the neighborhood enlarge or become distorted depends upon the character of the media through which they pass.

The Law of Sympathy. — The degree of sympathy increases as the resemblance increases? Sympathy is strongest among those groups that have many activities in common. For example, there is, in general, more sympathy of man for man than of man for the dumb animals. Common interests, common sentiments and feeling, draw people close together and increase their sympathy with one another. The races that have the same degree of culture develop a common interest and hence a common sympathy. And among individuals who associate on the same plane, or are engaged in the same pursuits, the bond of sympathy is much stronger than it is when differences in character, culture, or occupation are clearly recognized.

The Law of Conscious Resemblance. — The consciousness of resemblance and of sympathy causes people to be mutually attracted. The recognition that people are like ourselves in feeling, thought, tastes, and sympathies, causes us to draw near them and to be attracted to them. To know that people feel as we feel and think as we think is the foundation of socialization. Giddings has named this principle " consciousness of kind." In his explanation he has attempted to show, though not always quite conclusively, it is true, that consciousness of kind is the primal social force by which people are attracted to one another, and through which they become socialized. While we may object to its being called a primal social force, it is true that groups of people are joined in social union by sympathy and a recognition of like-mindedness. Yet, however strongly people are attracted by mutual likeness, we must recognize the importance of mutual interests of various kinds for the perpetuation of the association. And as the individual instinctively chooses his companions upon the recognition of some common thought or feeling, some material or social condition, so the religious societies, fraternal orders, clubs, and social gatherings, are all influenced in their development, by this principle. In-deed, the stability of our nation depends upon the consciousness that we advocate certain principles concerning the rights, duties, and privileges of citizens — that we hold the same ideals of freedom, liberty, and public order. This consciousness is a universal condition of all social processes.

Laws of Impulsive Social Action. — " Impulsive social action tends to extend and to intensify in a geometrical progression." 1 There is a similarity between this law and the first law of imitation. While imitation and impulsive social action may be widely different, they have a tendency to act at the same time and, to a large extent, in the same way. The social mind is made up of individual minds which think, feel, and will together. Impulsive social action, therefore, must occur from the instantaneous movements in the same way and for the same purpose, of the individuals of a group ; but how rapidly these impulses may be transmitted from one to another through imitation cannot be measured. A glance of the eye, a movement of the hand, may communicate an impulse from one mind to another. The utterance of a single sentence may not only bring every mind to the same attitude, but it may cause the immediate action of all.

"Impulsive social action, as a rule, varies inversely with the habit of attaining ends by indirect and complex means." i The more complex society becomes, the less it is subservient to impulsive action. The child has a simple and direct method, — action follows at once upon suggestion, — while the adult tends more often under ordinary circumstances to deliberate and arrives at a conclusion and attains results by a circuitous path. The society which has no deliberative assembly of ten will be stampeded into action by an impulsive individual ; that society which has developed deliberative devices like parliamentary rules, will give time for further reflection before it acts. Here, as else-where in social life, changes always move from a center in every direction ; hence the ratio of change will be by squares. But it must be remembered that social forces seldom move in a straight line, but are always deflected by other forces.

Laws of Tradition. — Tradition had, in primitive society, a wonderful influence over the lives of men, and to some extent, it continues to exercise this influence ; but as the world becomes scientific, the power of tradition declines. This fact may be reduced to the following law : " Tradition is authoritative and coercive in proportion as its subject matter consists of belief rather than of critically established knowledge." It is a long road from tradition to critical history, but it is a very sure one in the destruction of the authority of tradition. Again, " Tradition is authoritative and coercive in proportion to its antiquity."' The ancient good is that which appeals to the minds of people who are not ready or willing to submit to the rιgime of critical knowledge. Belief in traditions will not yield readily to the formal test of rational processes ; but conceptions of things that happened last year are much more easily eradicated from the social mind than are those concerning things that happened thousands of years ago — conceptions which have received the sanction of succeeding generations through centuries. The chief service of science to the modern world consists, therefore, in bringing people to accept things which can be demonstrated to be true either by rational deductions or by a formidable array of facts. Just as, in the words of the poet, " Time makes ancient good uncouth," science makes much of tradition valueless.

The Law of the Development of Social Structures. — One phase of this law has been pointed out by both Gumplowicz and Ratzenhofer. As they stated the law, it ran something like this : Whenever two societies conjugate, through a process of con-quest of one by the other, a great and rapid evolution of structure succeeds. This law needs very little elucidation ; it is based upon historic induction. Famous examples of its working are to be found in the subjugation of the Canaanites by the Israelitish tribes and in the Norman Conquest of England. And always when victorious people face the question as to what they shall do in the new circumstances which a conquest has forced upon them, they at once begin to make some adjustment of relations between the conquered and themselves. In the first place, sovereignty is imposed, and the sovereign commands the conquered. It is not long, however, before questions of relationship must be enacted into law. At first the will of the conqueror, then later the will of the conquering people, regulates the life of the conquered. As the relationships become increasingly complex, more and more adjustments have to be made. The amalgamation of the two peoples, begun, as a rule, by the conquerors, who took the women of the conquered as wives and concubines, creates many difficulties religious as well as industrial. At first the conquered are a servile class attached to the land ; but when the half-breeds come to the age when work must be done by them, the early regulations become unsatisfactory, and adjustments must be modified. Moreover, the children of the conquerors by the women of the conquered usually follow the religion and language of the mothers. This fact necessitates regulations concerning the use of language and the practice of religion as between the two peoples. In all these ways, therefore, and for these and other obvious reasons, the social structure becomes increasingly complex.

But is not this law, as stated, only a part of a wider generalization? Not only in case of conquest do structures multiply and social regulation and institutions rapidly increase ; but whenever there is a conflict between different cultures, or when classes with widely different interests clash with each other, the same thing occurs. Witness the tremendous increase of social structure in Great Britain, in the days since the Industrial Revolution ; yet there was no conquest as in the days of William the Norman and his successors. But conquest or no conquest, the last century has witnessed a most remarkable increase of social machinery for adjusting the relations between classes of Great Britain's population whose interests have come to be recognized as antithetical to each other as never before. Laborer and Capitalist, and, to a less degree, Landowner and Tenant, have become class conscious. The one has endeavored to exploit the other as truly as ever Norman king or baron tried to exploit the conquered Saxons. But as a result, there has followed that remarkable series of laws and institutions which has, in the last century, made England the pioneer, in many ways, in the adjustment of social relations. Consider, too, the great increase of social machinery in this country — machinery for making possible what we call social justice. At first the railroads and every kind of industry were favored ; the laborer and the public were given no rights by the law. Gradually the interests of the laboring and consuming classes became more and more prominent ; and recently there has been great activity in remaking laws and institutions in the interests of these classes. Another illustration of the same sort, but in a different realm, is to be found in the growth of tenement-house regulation following upon the influx of great hordes of Europeans into our Eastern cities. Sanitary regulations are due, in part, at least, to an arousal of class consciousness by this contact with unfamiliar peoples. An even more striking illustration is supplied by the laws by which California aimed at the regulation of the Japanese in that state. Can we not say, therefore, that whenever two or more peoples, or class-conscious groups, come into contact with each other in one geographic unity, social structures and institutions will experience rapid development, provided one party struggles to dominate the others?

The Law of Spiritual Development. This law, formulated by Tiele and cited by Ross, points out the importance to mental and social progress, of the mental contact of people in different stages of development. Leaving out of account, then, the natural capabilities of men and peoples, we may say that all development in spiritual matters depends on the stimulating effects of contact with a different stage of culture upon the self-consciousness of a people.' Illustrations of this law can be found in abundance. It has often been remarked that, as soon as the Civil War was over, a new spirit manifested itself in both the North and South, but especially in the North. The soldiers of the North had been living for a term of years in the South. There they had become acquainted with a slightly different culture and stage of social development there they had found social institutions which had grown up out of slavery. To those who returned, therefore, the war was a liberal education. They had traveled and had observed new scenes ; they had come in contact with new social and industrial situations and had had their minds stirred by contrasts. A similar thing happened after our recent war with Spain. Travel over seas and among strange peoples, contact with new institutions, have had a most wonderfully stimulating effect upon our people. Immigration has done the same thing. It is no accident that a country receiving a constant supply of new immigrants;, provided they are not too dissimilar, comes to have a plastic mind. Our tolerance of European dances and foods, our interest in such European political and social experience as the various social insurance schemes, are due, in great part, to our acquaintance with European institutions, either through the immigrants or through our tourists and writers. Every one who has traveled appreciates how new scenes and new customs stir the mind and generate tolerance.

The Law of Survival and Progress. — That law of survival which applies to the physical development of the individual animal structure, we can extend to social institutions as follows : Institutions become strong through use, and become weak or extinct through disuse. The track of social progress is strewn with the ruins of social institutions that have lost their usefulness. When a society at a given stage of progress adopts certain customs, habits, or institutions, it retains these only so long as they perform normal functions of social life; when they are no longer useful, they are cast off. The statute books are filled with laws once alive, now dead ; the habits of life to-day are far different from those of centuries past ; and as society unfolds itself in human progress, there is a constant elimination of the unfit. Old forms and functions give way to new ones; those that are inadaptable to the normal life of society will pass away through non-use, just as biological forms or functions have become extinct through atrophy.

The increasing importance, in social progress, of the developing human mind is indicated by a law formulated by Ward. It is, in essence, that the spontaneous progress which one finds in the more undeveloped societies gives way to telic or purposive progress, and individual telesis or direction of progress gives way, on the whole, to collective telesis.1

The foregoing laws are not, by any means, all that have been formulated ; but so far as they have been presented, they may be assumed to be general. And they may be taken as typical of the social laws thus far formulated.


ELLWOOD, C. A. Sociology in its Psychological Aspects, pp. 74 -81. FAIRBANKS, ARTHUR. Introduction to Sociology, pp. 108—118.

GIDDINGS, F. H. Principles of Sociology; Inductive Sociology, pp. 400—419. Ross, E. A. Social Control, pp. 41—88; Foundations of Sociology, Chap. III.

SPENCER, HERBERT. First Principles, pp. 381—396; Principles of Sociology, Vol. I, pp. 745—761; Vol. II, pp. 568—667.

TARDE, GABRIEL. Les lois de l'Imitation, pp. 158—212; Social Laws, passim. WARD, LESTER F. Psychic Factors of Civilization, pp. 125—130.


1. What is the difference, if any, between a physical law and a social law? See Ross, Foundations of Sociology, pp. 43—48.

2. State the difference between a law and a principle in sociology. See Ward, Pure Sociology, pp. 169 ff.; Ellwood, Sociology in its Psychological Aspects, pp. 74—81.

3. Read Ross, Foundations, pp. 43—44, and criticize the statement that each individual seeks the largest return for the least sacrifice.

4. Of what value to the student of society is the law that each individual has a schedule of choices ranging from the most desirable objects to the least desirable?

5. Give an illustration of the law that individual minds respond in the same way to like stimuli. What is the importance of this law to the student of society?

6. What bearing upon the law of social preference has the fact that you can get more people out to see what promises to be a "good" prize fight or a football game than to hear the discussion of a welfare project?

7. If it is true that a society made up of diverse elements of population is likely to be radical in its choices, what are likely to be the social choices of a population like that on the East side of New York?

8. The slit skirt first appeared on Fifth Avenue. Within a year or two a modified form of it might be seen, worn by the poor, on the street cars of Second Avenue. What social law does that fact illustrate?

9. In accordance with what law do deliberative societies forbid the passing of a law with one reading, or the passing, on the day it is proposed, of an amendment to an important instrument like a constitution?

10. What illumination does the law of the development of structures throw upon the fact that "grandfather clauses" occur only in the constitutions of the Southern States of the United States of America?

Outlines Of Sociology:
Theory And Function Of The State

Social Phases Of Production And Consumption Of Wealth

Exchange As A Social Function

Evolution Of Ethics

Social Origin Of Religion

Development Of Religion

Processes Of Socialization

Social Forces

Social Laws

Social Mind

Read More Articles About: Outlines Of Sociology

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