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Nature Of Social Pathology

( Originally Published 1915 )

Normal Distinguished from Abnormal Society. It is difficult to determine and define a perfectly normal society. Possibly the difficulty rests chiefly in the fact that there is no universally acknowledged standard of correctness. A society with all of its functions perfect, with all of its structure complete in every part, is in the nature of things an ideal society ; for the real society is never completed. The same difficulty occurs, though perhaps to a less degree, when we search for an individual who is perfect physically, intellectually, and morally. Physical perfection, of course, although difficult enough to determine, is much more readily measured than mental or moral excellence. If, for example, in gauging a man's moral capacity, we accept the Golden Rule for our guide, how shall we deter-mine who comes the nearest to its observance? And since, on the other hand, even when we have a general standard of perfection, we find that different intellects display different characteristics of strength, it is difficult to test the powers of mind in sufficiently accurate manner to determine whether one mind is more perfect than another.

Nevertheless, there is a normal body, a normal mind, and a normal moral nature which we are able to distinguish from the abnormal; and just as there are abnormal individuals, so is there an abnormal society. We have learned that society is composed of many interdependent parts, each with its particular function. It is easy to see, therefore, that, if one of these component units in any way fails in its normal function, thus forcing extra burdens upon other portions of society, such society is abnormal. In such a condition of affairs, however, the whole structure is not necessarily defective, but only those parts which fail to perform their legitimate or normal functions. When, on the other hand, men have learned to live together in harmony and so to cooperate that, in the exercise of his own peculiar powers, each has all the freedom consistent with the same degree of liberty on the part of every other individual, society may be said to be, not only normal, but well-nigh perfect.

Standards of Social Activity Differ in Different Communities. There is such variety in social life that a minimum of requirements is to be expected in a normal society. Means of subsistence should be assured by fairly close connection with the soil and the resources of nature in general. There should, on the one hand, be cooperation of all individuals in the production and distribution of wealth, no group of individuals being relieved from the privilege and responsibility of performing its share of the service ; and on the other, the wealth created should be sufficient to afford leisure for other than industrial pursuits. Furthermore, not only should each individual feel secure in person and property, but there should be universal opportunity for the most socially useful intellectual development, as well as means for promoting and perpetuating a high degree of morality. These are, perhaps, sufficient to indicate the necessary characteristics of a normal society ; yet the highest type of society, in addition, would be conspicuous for its religious and aesthetic culture, for its absence of poverty, pauperism, vice, and crime, and for the exclusion of such defective classes as fail to respond to the demands of social life. These latter conditions, however, can only be approximated ; for defects are incidental to social development.

Characteristics of Social Pathology. Social pathology may treat of a general defect which spreads throughout the entire social structure ; but more frequently the term applies to a particular class of people within a social group or to a defective function of government.

There are, in the first place, the unbalanced conditions of wealth and poverty. An excess of wealth may render some individuals useless to the community, just as its lack renders others dependent. These two groups, therefore, each failing to perform its normal service to society, become social parasites. Poverty, when its victims are slaves to the conditions which it imposes, is one of the worst forms of social disease ; for, stunted in body and mind as are the hopelessly poor, they can receive but small return for their meager services. The prevention of poverty, on the one hand, and on the other, the utilization of wasted effort, have long been problems for reformer and social philosopher. In the case of the idle rich the opportunity for service is, of course, more apparent than in that of the inefficient poor ; yet both groups are inefficient in social cooperation because of a failure rightly to understand and use opportunities, or because of social maladjustment which permits idleness to the rich and forbids employment or permits parasitism to the poor.

Pauperism. Following closely upon poverty is pauperism, which, passing beyond a mere pathological condition, is a social disease having its seat in the individual ; hence it cannot, like poverty, be cured by changing conditions, although, to be sure, a change of conditions is among the means for preventing pauperism. Pauperism, when it seizes the social body, is like a parasite receiving its sustenance from the animal on which it lives and returning no service for its life. And normal society, while attempting to check the growth of pauperism that it may not become a curse, has learned to treat the pauper like a parasite, and to place absolutely no dependence upon him in carrying out its legitimate functions. But pauperism is even worse than it appears; for, because of the various diseases, defects, and evils which it engenders and supports, it tends to weaken society by destroying not only its productive, but its moral force, and is, in reality, one of the worst forms of social pathology. Pretending to want to be respectable members of society, but at heart unwilling to pay the price, paupers may well be designated as pseudo-social.

Crime. Crime is the very worst phase of social pathology ; for, of all defects in society, it is the most directly abnormal. Openly attacking the fundamental idea in social life cooperation in the interests of the whole group the criminal becomes the deliberate enemy of social order; for he attempts to take without giving service in return, to destroy the individual with whom he should cooperate, or at least to live from the products of his toil. Not only does crime fall heavily upon its victims, whose property and means of service are destroyed, but since it costs much to provide the machinery for the prevention and punishment of crime, the burden is also heavy on society as a whole. And although it is true that the tendency in recent years has been to cause criminals under punishment to engage in productive labor, they are still, to a large degree, non-cooperative, and they never quite pay to society the cost of their care.

Vice. Vice works as a slow disease in destroying the vital energy of society ; no matter what form it takes, it develops a pathological condition. Primarily it affects the individual ; yet the whole social fabric may become so tainted with vice as to have its normal activity destroyed. Vice and crime go hand in hand ; and laws are usually so carefully framed that vice shades off into crime. It is difficult to cure vice; for, insidiously laying hold of elemental passions and perverting them, as it does, it contaminates by degrees all who come in contact with it, so weakening them that they cannot carry on the normal activities of society.

Defectives. The large number of defectives, such as imbeciles, such as the deaf, dumb, blind, and insane, must be considered from the social standpoint, because their existence concerns society at large. Not only are they dependent upon society for their support, but in a large measure, society is responsible for the increase of these classes. The defects become social diseases and their prevention a social necessity. In fact, many of the most grievous problems of social improvement have to do with these classes of defectives. In another chapter, the treatment of some of them will be handled more in detail.

The Pathology of the Family. As has been stated before, the family is, both historically and structurally, the primary social group. Its fundamental purpose is to provide a place where the offspring may be reared under favorable conditions; but incidentally it represents many different phases of social life, such as the biological, the economic, and the educational. And even when it is more or less defective in all of these, the family life may still be normal. The abnormal or pathological condition of society arises from imperfect social relations between man and wife, between parents and children, and among children themselves.

Perhaps the first requirement for a normal household is that the parents be in good mental and physical health. Lack of health in one or both parents often leads to pathological conditions, not only in the children, but in the home relations. Similar results arise from those who, by moral nature and temperament, are " unequally yoked," for incompatibility is as fatal as bodily or mental disease. There is, indeed, perhaps no other phase of social life in which defects have such lasting consequences, and are so difficult to overcome or prevent. The fact is that family life is so sacred and the customs of matrimony and matrimonial life so delicate and of such long standing that it is difficult to make any general law controlling them. However, a step has been taken in the direction of regulating matrimony by those of our states which have within recent years introduced bills into legislatures forbidding the issuance of marriage certificates to those seriously afflicted with disease ; and without doubt, it would be to the benefit of the community at large to have yet more stringent legislation in the matter. Indeed, as part of an ideal system which might be gradually approximated, the following provisions might be suggested : No persons shall be permitted to marry who have not sound minds; thus will the insane and the imbecile be excluded. All persons shall be required to show health certificates stating that they are not afflicted with certain hereditary diseases. Persons having no assurance of means of support shall not be granted marriage certificates. Persons shall not receive marriage certificates who have not attended certain courses of lectures on physiology and hygiene, the lectures being provided for in each county by the properly constituted authorities, either in regular or special evening school. A system of instruction for prospective home-makers, both men and women, shall be established in connection with our public school system. The subjects covered shall not merely be those now given in the courses on home economics, which are intended for only one sex and which cover only one class of duties, but shall include training in the duties of husband and wife, in the technique of mental and moral adjustment in the home, in the rearing of children, and for the men, in the economics of household management as it relates to their share of the task. Finally, there shall be kept in every county a system of registration for all residents, said registration including statistics of age, birth, occupation, ancestry, and so forth. It would require great care to put such provisions into operation ; but if it were possible to have them satisfactorily administered, they could not fail to improve present conditions.

Divorce, because of the division it creates in families, indicates a pathological condition. Nor is it easy to see how it can be improved without improving the conditions which are antecedent to and attendant upon the marriage relation. The highest and best form of matrimony is, of course, a cooperative companionship. In a spirit of love, sympathy, and helpfulness man and woman agree to live together for life ; and in this spirit they build a hallowed place, called home, for the rearing and culture of children. But there are many baser motives in matrimony. Some men, for example, marry to gratify passion; some, desiring a good housekeeper or servant, secure a wife much as they might a horse ; some, in their advanced years demand a nurse ; and some marry for money. On the other hand, many women marry merely for the sake of gaining a home or support, regardless of what the man may be or of their attitude toward him ; some marry because it is considered unfashionable or unfortunate to remain single ; and still others marry against their will because of the pressure of relatives. Finally, there are many who, dazzled by the glamour of romantic love, enter the bonds of matrimony hastily and lightly, only to repent of their folly when it is to late for any assistance but that to be gained from loose divorce laws. For conditions such as these a uniform divorce law throughout the United States, neither weak nor excessively stringent, would be of immense service ; but for remedying this phase of family pathology, final dependence must be placed upon education in home economics and home sociology and upon carefully developed laws regulating matrimony.

Again, inadequate support of the family, inadequate shelter, an insufficient amount of wholesome food, improper sanitation, and bad family discipline lead to pathological conditions. Where the moral status is not high and the socialization is not perfect, the evil tendency of the home is so great as to be over-come with great difficulty. It is, in fact, almost impossible to train children for the discipline of the larger social life when they have been corrupted by their home influences or at least have been allowed to go undisciplined.

Pathology of the State. Turning our attention to the state as it exists in a federal republic like the United States, we find that there is a great departure from the ideal government, that the real practice is far from what it ought to be. Many of the defects of government are due, of course, to an imperfect socialization ; liberty is at best an expensive thing, and a government by the people an unwieldy government difficult to establish and difficult to maintain. There is no science of legislation, not even a well-learned art. Only a few states have adopted the plan of a legislative reference library, with a department devoted to drafting bills by a comparative study of legislative experience. The authority to make the laws is delegated, for the most part, to an inexperienced body ; and before the members of one legislature have fairly learned how to provide for the needs of the people, they are turned out to make room for others. As a result our statute books are covered with obsolete laws laws that have been of little or no benefit to the public, as well as some that are a positive injury. And when, in addition to the other difficulties, are added the evils of political corruption and the machinations of the demagogue, the imperfections and misrule are sufficient to warrant us in complaining of decided maladjustment in politics and government.

Pathology of Education. Again, our educational systems, forgetting to adapt means to ends, frequently fail to provide for a wide citizenship. Much of our training in the schoolroom is imperfect, unbalanced, and on account of its evil social results, decidedly pathological; for, by overtaxing the intellect, such training develops a highly nervous people without sufficient bodily support. Moreover, there are many positive defects, such as bad methods of instruction, an incompetent teaching force, a poorly coordinated system, and curricula that fail to produce the desired results.

The education provided by literature is also pathological. From all the various books which are published and placed at the disposal of the public, it chooses those which interest and amuse. And since much of our cheap literature is positively bad ; since in its character of communication of knowledge it sets forth falsehood for truth and generally wrong ideals of life ; and since, by arousing uncouth or irrational desires, it causes people to deceive themselves, its perusal leads to degeneration. The pipe line may be perfect, but it may carry germs of disease.

The newspaper, because of like imperfections, has its pathological side. Pretending to be a leader of thought and a teacher of men, it frequently sells its services, becomes commercial, and publishes that which pleases its patrons, regardless of the truth or the evil effects on a community. The newspaper has, there-fore, become to a large extent a purely commercial affair, which seeks to supply the demands of the news market ; and some of the viler sort go to the length of depending upon a species of blackmailing, through which they receive advertising material as a sort of " hush money." Hence, while we concede the great service and great usefulness possible to the newspaper, we have to acknowledge that it has unguessed possibilities of evil.

Many newspapers publish sensational material which gives incorrect impressions and wastes time with its long explanations about unimportant events ; and some color news to suit their purposes. It is really difficult to point out a remedy for these conditions ; for, since the present feverish state of society demands lively news, a dull paper will not be read. The attempt of Charles H. Sheldon to remodel the modern newspaper on a Christian basis was a failure. It had many good features, such as the reduction of descriptions of crime to a bare statement of fact, and the elimination of spurious advertising material ; yet, as a newspaper, it did not satisfy the public. A modern newspaper must, to succeed, be bright, racy, and " newsy "; if it fail to be interesting, few will want it. After all, the proprietor of a paper furnishes the kind of wares that are salable in the market ; and nothing but a thoroughly socialized public opinion can regulate the educational influence of the newspaper. Nevertheless, each succeeding year shows fewer newspapers of the baser sort evidence of the improving moral tone of the community ; and it must be acknowledged that there are some fearless newspaper editors who are voices crying in our social wildernesses.

The Non-social Group. One of the less obvious conditions of social pathology is to be found in the non-social groups. There are, of course, some individuals who would spend all their time and thought for the welfare of others ; with natures practically devoid of selfishness they are always solicitous for the success and happiness of individuals or earnestly working for the highest well-being of society. They are, in fact, so extremely social as to be almost pathological. But there is the other extreme case, that of individuals so selfish that they take no interest in their fellow-men. The lives of such are one perpetual struggle for survival and advancement ; nor do they hesitate to advance their own interests at the expense of others. But a perfect social group demands cooperation and harmonious activity ; it is easy to assume, therefore, that this non-social class is pathological, or that at least it presents a case of arrested development.

Again, in our large cities, where there is a dense population of different nationalities, where, on account of the differences of language, habits of life, customs, traditions, and ideals, cooperation is slight and socialization imperfect, we have evidence of social defects which, from their intensity, amount to social disease. As a matter of fact, the social condition of our large cities demands a constant warfare with vice and degeneration in all its forms. Nor is the country always pure ; for, while it supplies the cities with vigorous manhood, it contributes also its quota of vice and crime.

These various social maladjustments by no means exhaust the list that might be made of what constitutes pathological conditions in our social structure. And since it would be impossible to discuss all the various forms of social disease, three have been selected for discussion within the limits of this treatise namely, poverty, crime, and degeneracy. These will serve to give concrete illustration of the nature of the problems with which society must deal in her efforts to secure a more perfect adjustment of her machinery for producing the social individual; and they will serve to indicate some of the methods which experience has shown may be used in securing that adjustment.


DEVINE, EDWARD T. Principles of Relief, Chap. I; Misery and Its Causes, Chap. I.

ELY, R. T. Studies in the Evolution of Industrial Society, Chapter on "Race Improvement."

HENDERSON. Dependents, Defectives, and Delinquents, 1901, Chap. II.

HUNTER, ROBERT. Problems of Poverty.

SMALL AND VINCENT. Introduction to the Study of Society.

SMITH, SAMUEL G. Social Pathology, Chap. I.

WARNER, AMOS G. American Charities, Revised Edition, Chap. I.


1. Define biologically a normal individual.

2. Criticize the following definition of a normal member of society, or a socius : A member of a social group who functions in his social relationships so as to forward the social aims of the group.

3. Would a normal member of a society of savages necessarily be a normal member of a civilized society? Why?

4. Give reasons why a society in the Middle Ages might be considered normal, and one with the same ideals, organization, and methods might be abnormal in this century.

5. Apply your conclusion to the criticism of a society organized on a military basis to-day. Apply it to one organized on the basis of the doctrine of laissez faire.

6. Since brigandage was once an honorable occupation, why is it called a crime to-day?

7. Why is pauperism considered an indication of social pathology?

8. Vice was once such a normal condition that it was attached to the temples of the gods; why is it looked upon to-day as antisocial?

9. What light does the position of this chapter throw upon the contention that crime is an atavism, i.e. that it is a sign of reversion to an earlier type of conduct?

10. A man once had as many wives as he could afford to support; why is it that now the polygamous family is looked upon as abnormal?

11. Why is it that the recent war is looked upon by the conscience of our country as dangerous to the welfare of the world, when, until recently, war was the usual thing between nations?

Outlines Of Sociology:
Psychical Activities

Social Control

Aims Of Society

Ideals Of Government

Control By Force

Educational Method

Social Inequalities

Ideal Of Justice

Estimation Of Progress

Nature Of Social Pathology

Read More Articles About: Outlines Of Sociology

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