"Group" and "Institution" as Concepts in a Natural Science of Social Phenomena

Floyd Henry Allport
Syracuse University


"Group" and "Institution" as Concepts in a Natural Science of Social Phenomena.—This paper deals with the problem of whether it is possible to approach social phenomena with the methodology of natural science. An examination is made of social-science concepts, such as "group" and "institution," to discover whether these concepts themselves prevent the natural-science approach. The notion of the hierarchy of complexity of natural phenomena is employed, involving a plurality of levels.

The concept of group as denoting objects for natural science study is discussed in the light of the following natural-science criteria: (a) Explicit denotation. Phenomena studied by natural scientists obtrude themselves upon experience and are capable of being manipulated and reacted to by responses of discrimination and measurement no matter upon what level they are approached. Group phenomena and institutions do not obtrude themselves upon experience except at the immediately simpler level of their components, human individuals. (b) Reciprocal action of parts. In natural-science objects, the component parts at the simpler level have a reciprocal action, that is, their role or function and can be understood only in terms of the whole. This is particularly true of organisms. Certain kinds of social groupings satisfy this criterion fairly well, particularly the face-to-face community groups. Groups which are merely common segments of like responses (institutions) do not satisfy it, unless we consider society as a whole. (c) Uniqueness of formulation and laws. In spite of certain criteria common to all natural-science objects, each level of complexity, for example, the drop of water, the cell, the animal, etc., has unique properties and can be formulated in laws having terms different from those of every other level. Passing to social phenomena, however, we find no such uniqueness of formulation, but rather analogies which for the most part describe group behavior merely in terms of what the individuals in the group do under varying environmental conditions. The group is thus merely a repetition of the individual level, and in this sense is tautologous. (d) Dependent viability. Among the higher organic objects of natural science the component unit must depend for its continued life upon being a part of the whole organism. This in general is not true of social groupings. (e) Total inclusion. In objects which natural scientists study the parts are entirely included in the wholes. In many of the groupings of sociologists the whole does not totally include the parts, but is an abstraction of a feature of behavior common to all parts. An example of this is the concept of an institution.

The conclusion is suggested that the concepts of "group" and "institution" are incompatible with a natural-science approach to social phenomena if we take them as denoting objects to he studied. As orientation, however, of the investigator for purposes of describing the collective and interactive aspect of phenomena they ore useful. Their most usual significance seems to have been in connection with the telic approach, for purposes of social control. No fault is found with this usage; but those who maintain that the telic approach is the only one possible in social science have no logical ground for this assertion until they have re-examined their concepts in the light of a natural-science methodology.  



The possibility of reducing the complexity of social data to a natural science has been frequently called into question. Some scholars hold that social scientists should employ the same rigor of method and should strive toward the same objectivity and precision which characterize scientific work in general. Others assert that there exists between social science and natural science an intrinsic difference of aim and methodology, and that the work of social scientists should be not the discovery of laws, but the technique of applying scientific knowledge to the satisfaction of human needs. We are dealing, they say, not with objective units, but with the psychic activities of individuals in interrelation, and with values. Social science, according to some adherents of this school, is pre-eminently telic in character. It is the purpose of this paper to examine the position of those who make this latter claim, in so far as they assert that a natural-science perspective toward social phenomena is impossible. Two methods of attack are here open: either we may endeavor to state some actual formulations of social data in natural-science terms, or we may examine some of the substantive concepts of those who take the telic position, to see whether they may have defined them in such a manner as to preclude the natural-science approach. The writer has chosen the latter, and less direct, line of attack.

A few preliminary definitions are here in place. The term "natural science" is used to indicate the field studied by physicists, chemists, geologists, physiologists, psychologists, and students of related disciplines. By the "natural-science method" the writer means simply the way in which these scientists seem to him to work, that is, to select and to approach their objects of study. The term is here used in a restricted sense and includes but a portion of the activities of the natural scientist. We would exclude for our present purpose all applied science, all mere classification of natural objects where no new principle is discovered, and also the explanatory phases of geology and other disciplines involving a historic treatment. By natural-science method we indicate merely the kinds of objects selected (or definition of units) and the general manner in which they are treated. We mean that the investi-

(85) -gator looks at or into his material to see what is there and to discover invariable sequences between one identifiable happening and another. Such sequences as are found always to occur so long as other conditions can be kept constant are known as natural-science generalizations, or "laws." [1]

If one follows strictly the approach just described, the environmental objects one confronts will be found to have more than one level of complexity. A behavior psychologist, for example, looks at the human organism at first as a whole. He is interested in what people do and say, in other words, in behavior at the integrated, "human" level. If he looks more closely, however, with the purpose of discovering certain generalizations as a basis of understanding or prediction, he begins to see the parts of which the organism is composed, or at least to think in terms of these parts. He begins to interpret behavior through the generalizations which can be given him by the neurologist and the general physiologist. The physiologist, in his turn, describes the action of nerve and muscle fibers and then analyzes the cells of which they are composed, either actually or conceptually, into their organic, and finally into their inorganic, components. By the aid of generalizations in the fields of organic chemistry and physics the nerve impulse and muscle contraction are interpreted in the simpler and more universal terms of chemical dissociation, electrical polarization, and the like. The physical chemist, in his turn, peers into such phenomena as electro-magnetism and "ether conduction," seeking to identify a still more elementary plane upon which even broader generalizations can be discovered.[2]


Ascending this hierarchy to the field of the sociologist, the question is naturally raised whether we have not in societal phenomena, as the sociologist defines them, a level of experience fitting into the natural-science approach at the upper limit of the scale, and offering a logical starting-point for the analytic process. Is society, which is the most complex level of organic existence, still a natural object, and, as such, material for natural-science investigation? We shall return to this question presently.

It is well, in passing, to answer the possible objection that in explaining the more complex level in terms of its constituents we thereby explain it away. According to the Gestalt theory the whole is not fully explicable as the mere sum of its parts; it has a unique existence which is not discoverable through analysis. With this position we readily agree. But it should be observed that when the natural scientist looks further into his phenomena, passing from the more complex to the simpler level, he is in no sense denying the reality of the more complex level. He does not maintain that because he passes in study from the animal to the tissue and cell, and from these to the atom, that he has fully accounted for the animal as a combination of these elements. He makes only two assertions: (I) The cellular and other organic and inorganic constituents of the animal are the only facts which are present to his senses when he makes his analysis; and (2) from a knowledge of the laws of these components he is able to make predictions, otherwise difficult or impossible to attain, regarding the vitality and behavior of the animal conceived as a whole.

This again is not explaining the organic level in terms of the inorganic, but merely expressing a probability of concomitance, based on experience, between certain occurrences at the two levels. Nor is the comparative reality of any two levels called into question. So far as human knowledge is concerned, a table is just as real as the various particles of wood which make it up, and these particles of wood are as real as any molecules, atoms, or electrons to which they may be conceptually reduced. There is, therefore, no reason for going any further downward in the hierarchy of na-

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- tural-science levels than the practical need of prediction upon the level of our main interest requires.


Having defined what we mean by a natural-science approach, we shall now consider certain terms which are conspicuous in the social literature to ascertain whether they denote objects or situations capable of being studied by the natural-science method. In particular, we shall take the concept of the group in its several varieties, and shall add a brief analysis of the concept of social institution. For the purpose of testing such notions, the writer has attempted to find a number of criteria by which entities to which it is possible to apply natural-science method can be identified. Those which were finally chosen he believes to be fairly characteristic and definitive. Broadly speaking, no natural-science material is without them; and any material possessing them may become the object of natural-science study. To these criteria we have given the following names: explicit denotation, reciprocal action of parts, uniqueness of formulation, dependent viability, and total inclusion.

 a) Explicit denotation.—In order to understand our first criterion let us recall a distinction made by psychologists between explicit and implicit behavior. Explicit responses consist, for our purpose, of skeletal movements which are capable of manipulating or modifying things in our environment. Implicit responses, on the other hand, consist of abridged skeletal movements, verbal reactions, and postures which we substitute in our thinking process for explicit contacts with objects. The phenomena studied by the natural-science method are characteristically things toward which one can make some sort of explicit reaction. They are stimuli for our responses of denoting, manipulating, measuring, weighing, and other discriminatory and graded reactions. There occurs the possibility of some explicit response to a natural object as a beginning of every natural-science investigation. Such investigations never begin from purely implicit responses. Something, in other words, always obtrudes itself upon our experience and presents to us a problem for study. Natural-science material is thus more than that which we can see, hear, touch, or smell. There is also the possibil-

(88) -ity of doing something to it and thus altering and refining our impressions from it. This means, in the last analysis, that we can obtain from the situation a kinaesthetic (or motor) experience arising from our manipulation of the object of study. Connected with explicit denotation is the important factor of verification of our experience by others, a check which guards against hallucination in the sense fields already named, and which is made possible only by our capacity for explicitly denoting the phenomena concerned.

One may object here on the ground that scientists often seem to be concerned with implicit activities, or mere conceptualization. The chemist speaks of atoms, yet he never saw one or responded explicitly to one. We cannot manipulate the planets, and yet we have a science of astronomy. The physicist is not explicitly responding to a "rise in temperature" when he takes readings from his thermometer. To this we reply that no matter how much the natural scientist may conceptualize his experience, there were at the outset certain phenomena which were explicitly responded to, and which remain, moreover, as a permanent possibility of explicit response in the work of repeating the experiment, checking predictions, and verifying conclusions.[3] There is on the whole good ground for believing that the efforts of natural scientists universally begin and are verified by reference to an explicitly denotable situation.

Let us now inquire whether the notion of the group will satisfy the criterion of explicit denotation. Suppose that a behavior psychologist, a physiologist, and a physical chemist were out walking together upon a dark night. Let us further suppose that each is incapable of experiencing or understanding the immediately simpler elements into which his proper field of study can be reduced. In other words, the behaviorist cannot look beyond the level of the entire organism; he cannot see nor conceive of nerve cells, syn-

(89) -apses, glands, receptors, or motor organs. The physiologist, in turn, can view such structures and the cells of which they are composed, but he understands no principles of organic chemistry or electro-chemical action. The physicist sees only the phenomena of the latter field, and he in turn cannot try to analyze these phenomena further. Now let us imagine that these three companions encounter, without seeing him, a man stretched out upon the path. It is a safe assumption that all three will stumble over him. In spite of their peculiar limitations of scientific perspective, the body across the path would intrude upon the experience of all three, would become a stimulus for explicit denotation, and might become the subject of a natural-science investigation by each upon his own level.

Now let these three men be joined by a fourth, a sociologist, suffering from the same inability to penetrate below his own level. Assuming that level for the sociologist to be phenomena conceived in societal terms, such as culture patterns, customs, groups, and institutions, we should have the parallel condition that he would be unable to experience individual human beings, the components of groups and institutions at the immediately simpler level of analysis. We should now observe a strange result. Whereas his three companions would "bump into" the man in the path and would start on their respective methods of studying him, the sociologist would never encounter him at all. Nothing would have intruded upon his experience.

We may even suppose that the man on the path is an integral part of some societal relationship. For example, he may be an Indian youth fasting and dreaming of his totem in the forest, according to tribal custom; or he may be a sentry on the frontier in war time who is sleeping at his post. In this case our sociologist would remain entirely ignorant of the societal pattern. He could not discover tribal folkways, or the national group at war, because no phenomena would have intruded upon his experience to set him off by explicit behavior upon a course of investigation. He would be unable to develop any sociological formulations or laws. Should he set out to encounter and study a family, a chamber of commerce, a gang, or a church, he would be able to find none of them. With-

(90) out the capacity for experiencing its components (individuals) there would be no starting-point from which he could begin to discover and describe the phenomena of his own level. We thus see that groups, customs, and institutions lack the criterion of explicit denotation which is characteristic of other levels of natural-science investigation.

In order to clarify this illustration a little further it is necessary to consider the following objection. Suppose, the sociologist might argue, that we keep the limitations of one-level experience for the four scientists the same, but place upon the path a single cell, rather than an entire man. In this case the physiologist and physicist with suitable microscopic technique would be able to observe it and react explicitly toward it. The behavior psychologist, on the other hand, would by hypothesis never encounter it, and hence would be no better off than the sociologist. To this we assent. But we answer that it is within human power to take the cell away, and put back an entire organism, thus bringing back to the psychologist the possibility of explicit denotation. It would be impossible, however, to remove the sociologist's limitation, in a corresponding manner, by substituting something else for the individual organism, for the question at once arises, What shall we substitute? Even supposing that some superhuman agency could place before him, not individuals, but a group or institution, the sociologist, unless superhuman, would be unable to see or react to it in the absence of the experience of individual organisms. It would be possible of course to place before him cultural objects, material equipment, etc.; but these could never be understood by him, in the absence of individual human behavior, as expressions of group or institutional life. Cultural objects are not identical with societal groupings, a point which will be discussed later. The criterion of explicit denotation as we have now applied it reveals itself, not as direct intrusion upon experience, but through the possibility of so manipulating the environment as to set the conditions whereby some phenomenon will intrude.[4]

Our one-level sociologist may attempt to escape from his dilem-

(91) -ma by turning the tables upon the natural scientist. He might argue that only through the concept of the nation can we understand the role or specific function of such an individual as a sentry. We answer that if one could not encounter the sentry there would be nothing for one to understand or explain. But his assumption itself is unwarranted. It is quite possible to understand the sentry's behavior while still keeping upon a level of a purely explicit denotation. We should in that case pass from one individual to another in the environing population and examine the habitual attitudes and motivation, not only of the sentry, but of other individuals whose words he obeys, and behind them the behavior of the individuals called the "president," "congressmen," "newspaper editors," "journalists," and the like. We should find, no doubt, that each of these was using certain verbal symbols signifying a "nation," but such a term may be considered merely as the manner in which they conceptualize their own behavior. Our problem is not the most convenient form of conceptualization for human control, but the determination of phenomena which so intrude upon experience as to admit of explicit denotation. And in this qualification we find the notions of group and institutions to be completely lacking.[5]

b) Reciprocal action of parts.--Philosophers have defined an individual as an object in which the various parts exhibit a reciprocal action. In other words, it is a unity. Taken in a general sense this definition becomes our second criterion of natural-science objects. At the simpler levels, beginning for example with electrons and atoms, this theory would amount to a statement of the interdependence of all natural phenomena. In solid bodies of appreciable size it is theoretically manifested as the cohesion of molecular units. At a different level it takes the form of chemical combination, of agent and reagent. Processes within protoplasm and minute organs within the cell show this interdependence of action. It is clearest perhaps in the metazoa, and especially in the higher organisms. The action of each part or organ can be understood only in reference to the behavior of other parts.

When we survey the phenomena which are called groups, we must recognize that they display the criterion of reciprocal action often in a striking degree, though never perhaps as fully as zoölog-

(92) -ical organisms. There is, moreover, a wide difference in the degree to which this criterion is present in different types of groupings. In a pioneer community in which responses are of the face-to-face sort, and in which each individual provides some unique service for the benefit of all, the reciprocal action may approach that of a biological organism. In the so-called derivative groups, however, at the other end of the scale, such, for example, as a professional association or a trade union, the behavior, being mainly of the common-segment type, is unadapted to the give-and-take of reciprocal activities. When we pass still further to classes, races, and sex groupings, we find that reciprocal action is either absent or present only in sporadic form, and not at all characteristic of the grouping in question.

c) Uniqueness of formulation; (d) dependent viability.[6] --Our third criterion refers to the fact that objects at different levels of natural-science study are unique both in descriptive properties and in the terms in which their laws are formulated. Take, for example, a river. We may study the river bed and channel, and note the laws describing the action of flowing water upon the rock and soil. Approaching at another level, we may take a vessel of water from the river and study it. We should here describe such laws as fluidity, evaporation, and crystallization, conceiving the phenomena upon the plane of molecular action. Again we may pass to the level of conceptualized atomic motion and consider the properties of the gases, hydrogen and oxygen, into which the level of hydraulic phenomena may be analyzed. The laws upon this plane are those of combustion and chemical combination. Beyond this may be conceptualized still another plane in terms of etheric motions and having to do with such unique phenomena as electromagnetic waves, heat, and light. In each of the levels considered we are - dealing with an entirely unique set of laws and descriptive terminology. The phenomena of radio-activity, combusition, fluidity, and gravitation are in different realms of our qualitative experience. When we pass on still further to the organic levels the uniqueness is even more striking. The colloid substances, the phenomena of cell division, reproduction, and growth by assimilation are different from anything encountered in the inorganic series.

(93) Entering into the field of psychology and describing the organism as a whole, we have again a distinct form of experience in animal behavior and its modification.

Turning now to the sociological plane, we have to inquire whether it is possible to characterize such entities as group and institution in terms which are unique, which are distinct, that is, from all formulations of the behavior of individuals. There are two broad types of theory regarding social entities which must be considered from the standpoint of this criterion. The first is the notion that the group or society is not upon a plane above the objects of psychological or biological study; it is itself an organism among other organisms. The second view is that societal entities are not organisms, but are upon a level above, or more complex than, the organic. Professor Kroeber's theory of "the superorganic" falls within this class.

Now it is obvious that our requirement of uniqueness does not apply to the first type of theory, since a distinct level for societal phenomena is not postulated. But it does apply to the second. The advocates of the latter view are faced with the problem of describing the superorganic and stating its laws in terms wholly different from those of any of the infrasocietal levels. Professor Kroeber and others have made ingenious attempts in this direction. They have dealt, however, not with actual groups, but with cultural objects. Such objects have been conceived by some as an indirect index of a possible superorganic level. A number of laws have been tentatively worked out, such for example as Kroeber's and Chapin's notion of culture cycles, Ogburn's laws of culture growth, Park and Burgess' law of zone-distribution in the growth of cities, Gresham's law in economics, and the law of business cycles. These laws, which are cast in terms of explicitly denotable phenomena, do tend in a sense toward uniqueness of formulation. They must, however, be stated in purely volumetric units of size, number, and the like, in such a way as to eliminate all factors of human use and custom. One may also admit the possibility of natural-science taws in this field without being required to conceive them as laws belonging to a superorganic realm of being. Such an interpretation is possible; but it is also convenient to regard them merely as laws of human behavior stated, through behavior products, in terms of quantity,

(94) distribution, and change of such behavior. This view would perhaps be acceptable to some of the culture-sociologists mentioned above.

When we turn from these cultural formulas to frank postulations of the group as a datum of scientific study we see a clear failure to achieve a formulation which is both explicit and unique. LeBon's descriptions of the crowd, for example, are drawn in terms of individual psychology, as is shown by such words as "emotionalism," "credulity," and "intolerance." Tarde's law, stating that imitation proceeds from the higher social class to the lower, depends for its intelligibility upon our being able to distinguish between lower and higher classes. This distinction cannot be discovered in a groupwise approach, but only through observing the attitudes of submission or domination among the individuals. Mr. B. Warren Brown, in his Social Groups (pp. 134-35) announces twenty-two tentative statements which he considers to "serve as a starting-point" for a series of social laws. These statements are drawn in terms of what their author considers to be the elements of social groups. As soon, however, as we try to get some explicit connotations for Mr. Brown's terms, that is, to understand what such words as "structure," "contact," "homogeneity," and "membership" really mean, his laws descend to the realm of human behavior as exhibited by individuals.

The same type of criticism applies to the notion of "social control." Society is said to control individuals through folkways or institutions in the direction of conformity to a given type. But "power" and "control" are terms borrowed from the human plane of experience. Their use at the superorganic level fails to establish unique formulation at that level. These expressions are therefore tautologous; that is, they tell us nothing new as applied to groups.[7]


The matter of social control may be presented in another way. Let us state the influence of a group (B, C, D, E, F, etc.) upon an individual, A, as the fact that A responds to (is controlled by) B, C, D, E, F, etc. It may be true that he responds more quickly and vigorously to B and C, who, for example, may be judges or policemen, than to the other individuals; and that B and C derive their special ability to make A respond by the support of the attitudes of all the rest (A, D, E, F, etc.). So far we are on a purely individual-behavior level. Suppose, however, we draw a circle around B, C, D, E, F, etc., and say that it is not these individuals, but the group as such which is controlling A. In this case we violate both the criterion of explicit denotation (for it is impossible, vide .supra, to show how one explicitly responds to a group as such) and the criterion of uniqueness (for any statement of the controlling action exerted by B, C, D, E, F, etc., as a group seems to be intelligible only as the acts of individuals).

The reason for this failure to achieve for social groupings the uniqueness characteristic of natural-science data probably lies in the limitation of our point of view. We are, ourselves, the components of which our groups are made; hence we cannot detach from them our own attributes and purposes. Our appreciation of groups is therefore subjective and telic. Then, too, our receptors are too fine and our distance too near to receive impingements from so vast an entity as society, or even from special groups.

e) Total inclusion.--Our final criterion is closely related to those preceding. In any object studied by the natural-science method the parts are entirely included within the whole. In a drop of water, for example, there are, to our knowledge, no atoms of hydrogen or oxygen which are not used up in their combination into water. They seem to be totally absorbed in the phenomenon of water or not present at all. When we use the concept "water," moreover, we do not mean anything less than the integration or combination of these parts; nor do we include anything more. Similarly, the liver, stomach, skin, or other organs are entirely present in any organism where they are found at all. The organism includes them all, and it does not include any organs which are elsewhere or within other organisms.[8]


Turning now to the social groupings, we find almost no instance of a perfect or total inclusion of the parts within the whole. One may picture certain primitive, face-to-face groups as having practically all their activities in common and interdependent. Even such a grouping, however, does not include the individual's visceral responses of pleasure in taking a cool bath or viewing an impressive landscape. One may, of course, arbitrarily put a certain number of individuals together and say that we have a group including these entire individuals, together with all their activities, and nothing but them. But this is not what the sociologist means by a group; for in that case ten individuals, for example, selected at random from various parts of the world and suddenly placed together would answer as well as the most closely knit family or community. In almost every social group it must be recognized that the individuals have many interests and habits which are entirely without the scheme of the group life or organization. In closely knit community groups these activities may be relatively few; but in the so-called "derivative groups," such as a scientific association, a chamber of commerce, or a political party, more of the individual lies outside the group than within it.

In order to make the error of false inclusion clearer let us consider as an example the various connotations of the term "nation." We can derive from this word a suggestion of substantiality by thinking of one hundred million actual and entire individuals, completely or potentially interdependent, and reciprocal in their behavior. Our concept thus tends toward the ideal of total inclusion. Yet when the nation is thought of in any direct or functional sense we frequently find that the meaning has shifted, so that it is now regarded, not as the totality of the entire individuals acting reciprocally and in a face-to-face manner, but as a concurrence of certain limited, similar interests and feelings, or common segments of behavior, such, for example, as patriotism, directed toward some common symbolic object by millions of individuals who may in other respects be quite unco-ordinated. This altered concept, however, we still endow with properties characteristic of an organism at the level of total inclusion. We speak of the acts of our officials as representing the "policy" or "will of the nation." We state that

97) the nation "wages war," "concludes peace," and has certain "virtues," "ideals," "purposes," and "feelings" strictly human in character. Imperfect inclusion is here combined with tautology in giving substance to the notion of a super-individual being.


Looking backward over this analysis we must remark a wide discrepancy between the materials with which natural scientists begin their investigations and the entities implied by the terms "group" and "institution." The concept of group (if limited to certain primary forms) and of institution (if we conceive of all the institutions within society as a whole) tend, it is true, to fulfil the requirement of reciprocal action. Neither notion, however, satisfies the criterion of total inclusion; while the idea of the secondary group is peculiarly misleading from this standpoint. With the questionable exception of objective culture phenomena, these concepts fail to meet the test of uniqueness of formulation at their own level. Most significant of all is their complete failure from the standpoint of explicit denotation.[9] If group and institution are the only sort of concepts through which social phenomena can be defined, then we must conclude that social science is indeed in a sphere by itself, and that a natural science of social phenomena is impossible. The present writer, however, believes that a different approach, one which will fulfil natural-science conditions, is conceivable. There is no opportunity in the present paper for the development of this thesis.

While the group notion lacks the explicit character necessary

(98) for an object of natural-science investigation, may it not serve, as some have suggested, in the role of a hypothesis for explaining the social behavior of individuals? Other hypotheses, such as the atom and the ether, also depict entities which lie well beyond the range of our perception. To this we reply that the group theory does afford a consistent logical system into which certain aspects of human behavior may be conceptionally fitted. It seems to the writer, however, to be a rather sterile hypothesis from two standpoints. First, since it cannot be approached explicitly, there is no possibility of discovering how it operates in producing its control over, or conditioning of, individuals; or, to speak more exactly, how its laws are related to the remainder of our scientific conceptions. Secondly, there is no possibility of progress toward its verification or refutation. The group remains upon an implicit, metaphysical plane, assailable only by the tools of logical definition. We can, on the other hand, approximate a verification or refutation of the atomic hypothesis; and it is this process which continually enriches our knowledge of the world we live in.

A connotation of the terms "group" and "institution" which the writer would suggest as fruitful is that of subjective guideposts, directing the observer toward the interactive and distributive aspect of human phenomena, a phase which the biologist and psychologist, concerned mainly with a single and typical individual, would miss. These terms would thus serve as a kind of directional map, or concept, which, though not a natural-science object in itself, would produce in the investigator an orientation toward a special aspect of natural-science objects. A great deal of useful sociological investigation has already been carried out in this spirit.[10]

There remains to be mentioned a prevalent viewpoint referred to at the beginning of this paper, a usage which accounts largely for our present methodological confusion regarding the group. The group notion has often been used in a telic sense under the illusion that the sphere of discourse was that of natural science. In much of the literature of social science the group represents the manner

(99) of approaching ends to be achieved with a plurality of individuals as our working tools. To conceive of human beings as a group, and to have them so conceive themselves, is for this purpose a more efficient procedure than to view them as individuals and as material for analytic study. We do things with a group, but we do not do things to it in the sense of overt or explicit action. But here we reach a parting of the ways. We must decide whether our aim is one of telesis or of natural science. If we decide upon the former, our concepts of group, institution, social control, and the like are valuable; and, providing we keep within their limitations, the natural scientist has no ground to challenge them. But the telic thinker in his turn must refrain from restricting the scope of social science to a method compatible with his own conceptualization. He must acknowledge a sphere in which his terminology may be useless and perhaps even an obstacle. For there are some who believe that, methodologically, all science is one, and thus commit themselves to a view harmonious with natural science method. There remains for these the task of developing a consistent approach and of reviewing critically some of the earlier formulations.[11]


  1. Such laws are merely statements of a high degree of probability that a given phenomenon will recur under the stated conditions. More careful observations usually disclose exceptions; and these exceptions lead to further analysis and the making of altered and more widely applicable generalizations. Scientific laws are in no way forces or agents causing the particular phenomena which are said to illustrate or embody them. They are merely summaries of the experience of careful observers. We mean by the "natural-science approach" the taking of an attitude toward the material studied such as to yield these new generalizations. The moment such a generalization is secured, if one dwells upon it, makes deductions from it, or applies it to human purposes, the natural-science attitude, as we have defined it, at once disappears and a different attitude takes its place.
  2. An earlier and more detailed statement of this multi-level theory of natural science will be found in an article entitled "The Group Fallacy in Relation to Social Science," Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, XIX, 60-73, reprinted by the Sociological Press, Hanover, New Hampshire.
  3. Although one never reacts to an individual atom, one can put a piece of iron in the fire or subject it to electric disturbances, thus manipulating atoms en masse. Although one cannot respond explicitly to temperature, one does respond to stimuli from explicit experiences, such as a vessel of heated water, from which the implicit notion of temperature has been derived. As for the astronomer, although he cannot manipulate the heavenly bodies, he can react explicitly to his instruments as they show a star crossing meridian, and make finer motor determinations as a result of this experience.
  4. In connection with developing this portion of the argument the writer wishes to acknowledge a helpful criticism made by Mr. Dale A. Hartman.
  5. In connection with the criterion of explicit denotation, see footnote 11, p. 99.
  6. The criterion of dependent viability is here omitted owing to lack of space. It will be dealt with in a later paper. See footnote ii, p. 99.
  7. Cf. The following quotations: "An institution is a set of activities which society adopts as its deliberately accepted method of attaining a deliberately approved end" (E. C. Hayes, Introduction to the Study of Sociology, p. 405). ". . . . The power of the derivative groups, especially of the great abstract and relatively constant ones, such as the state, industrial, religious, educational, and scientific associations, is very great" (L. L. Bernard, Introduction to Social Psychology, p. 422).
    Power, control, social continuity, and social change are misleading if taken to indicate agent, or any conception other than mere description of phenomena. Natural scientists have long been hampered with anthropomorphic "forces" as principles of explanation, and have only recently begun to clarify these notions.
  8. There are a few exceptions to this rule, such as periods of conjugation among protozoa and certain cases of Siamese twins.
  9. Certain writers have argued that the social group has as much reality as other compounds, such as a human personality, a drop of water, or a molecule, which appear upon analysis to consist merely of simpler elements in a particular relationship. Cf. W. D. Wallis, An Introduction to Sociology (pp. 150-55). Such an argument, however, is based entirely upon the criterion of reciprocal action of parts, and ignores the discrepancies of the group from the standpoint of explicit denotation, uniqueness, and total inclusion. If such writers are to prove the objective reality of the group they must therefore draw their evidence from some other source than analogy with natural-science objects. It should be understood, however, that the present writer is passing no judgment upon the question of whether groups are real. They may be quite as real as individuals. We are here concerned solely with their possibility of serving as objects upon which one may begin a natural-science investigation. We furthermore hold no brief for the future. We are dealing only with the present forms of human groupings and sociological concepts.
  10. The possibilities of this viewpoint are well presented by Professor C. H. Judd in his Psychology of Social Institutions.
  11. Since this article has gone to press, there has been brought to the writer's attention a valid objection to the criterion of explicit denotation as used in our illustration of the man upon the path. The writer is, therefore, preparing a restatement of his thesis which, though retaining the importance of explicit denotation, will present this criterion in a different light. This restatement, together with certain amplifications which could not be included in the present article, will be published in one of the sociological journals in the near future.

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