The Concept of Social Process

Read Bain
Miami University, Oxford, Ohio


A scientific vocabulary for sociology can be produced in two ways: by inventing new terms, by re-defining common-sense words. The second method is most widely used with resulting confusion to both sociologists and the public. But common conceptual orientation is a necessary preliminary to research in a natural science.

Social process is used with many shades of meaning and is often treated as if it were a natural science concept. This view is denied by the paper. When used singularly, it merely denotes the existence of societal activities that are continuously changing. Many other terms, such as social interaction, social change, social dynamics, social organization, etc., convey much the same meaning. Social process is too ambiguous, too indefinite, too inclusive, to be useful as a natural science concept.

Historically, it has served to indicate the dynamic as opposed to the static nature of societal phenomena as well as to emphasize the non-normative nature of them. But these usages are philosophic and methodologic, not natural scientific. There are fundamental differences between the concepts of natural science, philosophy, and methodology. Social process belongs in the last two categories.

Used plurally, "the social processes" concept is indefinite because the processes are too numerous, and each is specific. The emphasis should be upon the kinds of activities involved, not upon the fact that they occur. To add "process of" to integration, assimilation, conflict, etc., does not add anything to the meaning and so is tautological. The conceptual content is not in "process of" but in the governed noun.

Methodologically, "the social processes" is a convenient term to designate a number of social processes without enumerating them, but such a usage is no more a natural science concept than is a-b. Hence, to treat process or processes as if it were a natural science concept is very confusing. A sociological concept must generalize specific, observable, repetitive, societal phenomena.

A. H. Lloyd used to say poets and philosophers have one thing in common, to wit, their licentious use of language. In this respect, sociologists are partly poets or philosophers, or both, for we certainly take liberties, if not license, with language.

In our attempt to create a natural science vocabulary for sociology, that is, a system of concepts having identical meanings for all, at least for all sociologists, two courses are open. One, we can invent terms, usually constructed from Latin or Greek, or both, to describe typical forms of social behavior. This is the narrow way of neologism, often used by the physical and biological sciences. It is logically and scientifically the best method, but it has the disadvantage that the public, and even scientists in other fields, do not understand the terms until they have been popularized. This usually corrupts their original logical purity. Socius, telesis, mores, and consensus are

( 11) sociological examples. Two, we can attempt to put the new wine of scientific[1] precision into the old verbal bottles of common sense. This has the twofold disadvantage that the public never understands the terms, and sociologists themselves seldom exhibit a high degree of agreement. This is the broad way of slowly evolving consensus to which we seem committed. Culture, human nature, isolation, competition, attitude, wish, etc., are examples. It invites endless word-wars and terminological disputes.

However, if sociologists can agree upon the meanings of concepts as a means to, or as a result of, significant research, we shall eventually gain as much popular understanding for our technical terms as now exists for such concepts as heredity, ignition, radio activity, blood count, contagion, and so on. But such a desirable consummation cannot be achieved unless and until we can define our concepts with sufficient clarity and precision to make them useful tools for significant research. The conception of science without concepts, that is, without hypothetical generalizations, is nonsense.[2] It is equally nonsensical to suppose that we can derive significant concepts by mere word-spinning. We must test them in the hot fires of actual research if they are ever to attain scientific validity, as Ogburn has said.[3] But there must be some tentative conceptual agreement as a preliminary to comparable research. Without repetition of research on the same problem, there can be no valid scientific concepts. Without clearly defined concepts there can be no identical problems and hence no comparable research. This criticism and clarification of concepts in the light of accumulating research findings is one of the functions of the theorist. Of course he may suggest hypotheses, synthesize and interpret facts and findings, but he must also criticize concepts, logic, and methods, disagreeable task though it be.

It is my purpose to examine a term that has become widely used in recent years. It appears in all kinds of connotations and combina-

( 12) -tions, singular and plural, definite and indefinite, governed by all kinds of nouns, modified by all kinds of adjectives, and finally has attained the apparent conceptual dignity of titling our program. I shall try to avoid mere word-juggling by analyzing the meanings involved rather than by criticizing the words by which these meanings are conveyed. Yet it is very important that language should be used with nicety and precision in verbalizing scientific concepts.

"Process" and seventeen derivatives are listed by Eubank in his sociological vocabulary. [4] Almost every recent writer devotes some space to these terms. "Process" occurs almost as frequently as "social," and is usually as indefinite and ambiguous. Social is used with several different shades of meaning. It may refer to instinctive adjustments that result in corporate action, as in "social" animals and insects; to human behavior regarded as good, in contrast to asocial; to similar responses to a given stimulus, as in crowd action; to adjustive behavior based upon interaction of mechanisms acquired through communication, and so on.

It has become a commonplace with sociologists that the social sciences deal with a fourth order of natural phenomena, superimposed upon the inorganic, organic, mental triad, or derived from it, either by emergent or non-saltatory evolution. If this be true, it is evident that "social," for sociologists, should refer to societal, cultural, superorganic, or sociological phenomena, the fourth of the usages mentioned above.[5] In discussing the concept of social process we shall use this sociological definition of the social. Mead has defined "social" in a somewhat different way' which I think depends for

(13) its validity upon the fact that human beings are capable of acquiring sufficiently similar action patterns to permit reciprocal behavior.

Etymologically, "process" merely means "the fact of going on or being carried on: progress, course." Murray mentions thirteen main substantive usages. Some sociologists adhere to the etymological implication of progressive action or advance, but the more common usage emphasizes the dynamic, changing characteristics of social phenomena without any commitment on the normative nature of the activities or occurrences. There is also the implication that the goings-on are regular, continuous, and repetitive.

Stripped of verbiage, then, the social, or societal, process means social or societal interaction; the kind of activities, movements, or occurrences that go on between culture-making animals in their corporate capacities. As a concept, it merely means that natural phenomena of the fourth order, like those of the other three orders, are characterized by change; that it is a universal trait of socii and groups of socii in contact to interact, to influence each other reciprocally. As a scientific concept, this tells us precisely nothing. It does not differentiate types of social interaction, or add to, or extend, or clarify the common-sense observation that human beings can and do react to each other. It is as barren as the universally valid (or invalid) concept that all things exist. Hayes says, "The social process is composed of all the activities that go on in association", Park and Burgess, "Social process is the name for all the changes which can be regarded as changes in the life of the group. "[7]

These, and many similar statements, show conclusively that "the social process" can never tell us anything about societal interaction, except that it exists. Hence, "the social process" can lay no claim to being a natural science concept since it does not and cannot, by its

( 14) very nature, aid us in observing and classifying similar societal phenomena so that uniformities not obvious to common sense may be ascertained. It is true that Cooley's idea of social process as relatively unconscious, unplanned organic growth does add something to the common-sense idea of social interaction (vid., note 6, supra), but it is significant that even the penetrating insight of a Cooley could not say anything very illuminating about "the social process" in general. His real contribution is his discussion of certain typical forms of societal behavior. This is equally true of all who attempt to discuss societal phenomena in a way that goes deeper than the superficial observations of common sense. Case well says,

To appreciate the larger units of life requires the synthesizing work of art, religion, and philosophy, all of which aim to grasp the meaning of the whole. To understand the smaller units we have recourse to the analyzing, abstracting methods of science, which splits the world of phenomena into separable, countable, measurable, and ever more minute parts, and takes no thought for the whole.[8]

The social process concept was a protest against both static, descriptive sociology and the normative implications of progress and social evolution. This was decidedly necessary thirty years ago, and is still, especially with reference to normative implications. But in both these senses, it is a philosophic and methodological, not a natural science, concept. Regularity and continuity of change is a necessary philosophic assumption for natural science. The non-normative nature of these changes is both a philosophic and methodological concept. The concept of social process has done yeoman service in both respects. One of the commonest errors in scientific thinking is the reification of philosophical and methodological concepts with the futile and confusing consequence of treating them, or trying to, as if they were conceptualizations of sense experience. They are scientific concepts, of course, if we mean by science any systematized body of knowledge, but they are not natural science concepts if natural science means a system of conceptual knowledge derived from observable, natural phenomena by means of methodological devices. In this broadest sense of the term, there are three kinds of

( 15) science: 1. Natural. 2. Philosophic. 3. Methodological. The first consists of physical, biological, and societal sciences; the second, of synthetic and normative; the third, of logical and mathematical. "The social process" concept belongs in philosophy and methodology. As a philosophic concept it is useful to indicate the relatively regular on-going-ness of societal phenomena; as a methodological concept it is useful to indicate the non-normative nature of societal phenomena; as a natural science concept it is useless and meaningless.

Instead of the social process concept, one might equally well use such terms as social interaction, socialization, organic social growth, social evolution, social organization, social dynamics, social change, or, if normative-minded, social progress. These terms are so inclusive and indefinite that all social data are implicit in them. All social activities could be discussed equally well under each term. All have the common element of suggesting change, but none of them denote any specific societal data that can be observed. Hence, they are philosophic rather than scientific concepts. All are equally useless and equally meaningless for natural science until they are broken up into definitive concepts by which we may observe, classify, symbolize, and generalize actual societal phenomena.

And this is precisely what all the writers do. When "the social process" becomes "the social processes," something is gained, but something is also lost, namely, the illusion that social process is a natural science concept. I have shown that it is too inclusive, too ambiguous, too indefinite, to have any value or validity for natural science. It is pseudo-science, a pretentious verbalism that adds little or nothing to common-sense observation. It is an elaborate conceptualization of the very obvious. All that is contended here is that it is useless for a natural science whose concepts must denote actual, sense-observable objects and occurrences. Its philosophic and methodological value is granted.

When "the" social process is pluralized, we get such phrases as processes of selection, industrialization, history, assimilation, social change, valuation, projection, imitation, communication, and so on, indefinitely. It is evident at once that the conceptual content of these multitudinous phrases is the type of interaction, or behavior,

( 16) or activity, and not the fact that the activity occurs or proceeds. Competition, conflict, accommodation, assimilation, etc., are activities, are kinds of observable and possibly mensurable behavior that can be defined, identified, classified, and possibly generalized. Hence, they may be, or may become, scientific concepts. It is mere tautology to add "process of." In all the literature I have read dealing with "processes of" this and that, "process of" could be deleted without causing confusion or obscuring any shade of meaning. It is clear that one could not deal so cavalierly with a legitimate natural science concept. So we must render a verdict of pseudo-science alike for the singular and plural form of social process.

It should be mentioned here that Professor Hayes makes a very nice distinction between social processes, or specific activities, and social relations, or the modes by which social activities are causally influenced. He would call competition, conflict, and accommodation, etc., relations, and dispense altogether with assimilation. While I agree that social processes must designate specific kinds of activities, I think the weakness of his position lies in the fact that the above concepts may refer to specific and observable societal behavior. He tacitly admits this when he says, "Communication is used either as a name for a relationship which may be unintended, or for an activity intended to establish that relationship. Most of the words for social relationships unfortunately have this double signification. "[9]

Hayes made a real contribution by insisting that activities are the essence of the scientific data of sociology and that descriptive concepts must be based upon observation of these. The processes are activities, and the conceptualization must deal with the relatively stable uniformities exhibited by these activities. Whether his contention that the relation-concept of condition-consequent is "the most important of all realities for scientific explanation" and is "the pons asinorum of social theory" is sound, [10] I do not know, but I have my doubts. I am not Sure that anything is necessary for scientific explanation beyond the determination of unexceptional, repetitive

(17) uniformities under defined conditions. Any so-called explanation beyond this strikes me as unnecessary verbal meringue upon the pie of scientific procedure.

It is obvious that the kinds of societal activities that can be designated are almost innumerable. The number of valid scientific concepts would equal the number of such activities exhibiting enough repetitive uniformity to permit prediction of sufficient accuracy to be useful in making societal adjustments. Doubtless such uniformities are appearing and disappearing all the time. Whether there are concepts of sufficient generality to be universal and of sufficient definiteness to be scientifically valid, I do not know, nor is it the purpose of this paper to inquire. My guess is that whenever any concept is defined rigidly enough to describe societal variables accurately enough to permit valid prediction, such prediction will be found applicable only to limited areas over limited periods of time. I do not know whether there are one (Tarde), or two (Binder), or three (Case), or four (Park and Burgess), or eleven (Hayes),[11] or eleven hundred "fundamental" social processes. I would be inclined to guess the

(18) latter figure if by "fundamental" one means types of societal behavior possessing sufficient stability to permit valid prediction.

One should not conclude that the writer thinks "process" and "processes" are words too licentious and illegitimate to be used by sober sociologists. When used to indicate mere occurrence, they do no harm, as in "conflict is an intermittent process." It is clear that conflict is the concept. Such phrases as "behavior processes," "the process of integration," etc., are all right if one writes that way. They are merely tautological. But such forms as "process of" assimilation, opposition, and so on, are worse than tautological; they are confusing because of the assumption that the process is the concept instead of the societal behavior designated by assimilation and opposition. "Social processes" is useful as a methodological device when one needs a generic term to designate a number of types of societal behavior without enumerating them, but it is not a sociological concept any more than x y z is. Both are methodological concepts, not concepts of natural science.

It is unfortunate that this paper must end on such a negative note, but no other conclusion is possible if the foregoing analysis is sound. Kimball Young has well said,[12] "When we get away from carefully circumscribed situations, scientists and laity alike tend to talk glibly in scientific jargon. They find a substitution of sacred, but exact sounding words for precise understanding." It is my contention that social process and social processes are generally used in this dereistic sense; they are pseudo-scientific jargon. The concepts of natural science must be carefully defined to denote sense-observable data. They must be as clearly distinguished from methodological concepts as from normative ones. Many so-called sociological concepts are still tainted with normative connotations, and some are also infected with the verbal disease of reifying methodological concepts. Social process, when not tautological as in "process of," is often an attempt to make a natural science concept out of a methodological or philosophical concept. The result is confusion, since confusion always follows the licentious use of language.


  1. The adjective "scientific" refers to natural science unless otherwise indicated.
  2. H. Blumer, "Science without Concepts," American Journal of Sociology, Jan., 1931, pp- 515-33.
  3. W. F. Ogburn in Essays on Research in the Social Sciences (Washington, D.C., 1031), "Considerations in Choosing Problems of Research," pp. 163-64.
  4. E. E. Eubank, "The Vocabulary of Sociology," Social Forces, Mar., 1931, p. 316,
  5. A. L. Kroeber, "The Superorganic," American Anthropologist, N. S. 1917, Vol. XIX. pp. 163-213; W. D. Wallis, "The Independence of Social Psychology," Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, Vol. XX (1925), pp.147-59; and C. M. Case, "Culture as a Distinctive Human Trait," American Journal of Sociology, May, 1927, pp. 906-20, have recently given illuminating expositions of this view, which is found with increasing clarity in Comte, Spencer, and Ward. P. Sorokin "Sociology as a Science," Social Forces Oct., 1931, pp. 21-27, shows the logical basis and methodological need for sociology as a special general social science and its relation to the other social sciences. He also shows the logical and methodological necessity for special sociologies to study the interstitial phenomena deriving from the special social sciences.
  6. G. H. Mead, "The Mechanism of Social Consciousness," Journal of Philosophy, Vol. IX (1912), pp. 401-406; same journal, "The Social Self," Vol. X (1913), pp. 374-80.
  7. E. C. Hayes, Sociology (2d ed., New York, 1930), p. 339; R. E. Park and E. W. Burgess, A it Introduction to the Science of Sociology (2d ed., Chicago, 1924), p. 51; cf. also C. H. Cooley, Social Process (New York, 1918), pp. 3-4. "Human life is thus all one growing whole, unified by ceaseless currents of interaction, but at the same time differentiated into those diverse forms of energy which we see in men, factions, tendencies, doctrines, and institutions"; A. W. Small, "General Sociology," American Journal of Sociology, Sept., 1912, p. 210, "The social process is a tide of separating and blending social processes .... in a continuous evolution of types of persons and of associations"; M. P. Follett, The New State (New York, 1920), p. 59, "The social process is one allinclusive, self-sufficing process."
  8. C. M. Case, Social Process and Human Progress (New York, 1931), p. 33. See chapters III and IV for an incisive analysis of social process.
  9. Sociology (New York, 1930), p. 342. See also all of chapter XIII in Sociology, "Some Social Relations Restated," American Journal of Sociology, November, 1925, pp. 333-46 (a most stimulating article); and "Representative Concepts in Sociology," Sociology and Social Research, Sept.-Oct., 1927, pp. 12-17.
  10. Sociology, p. 338.

  11. "G. Tarde, The Laws of Imitation, tr. E. C. Parsons (New York, 1903); R. M. Binder, Principles of Sociology (New York, 1928), p. 252 (destructive and constructive); C. M. Case, Social Process and Human Progress (New York, 1931) (utilization, equalization, appreciation), esp. pp. 62-68; R. E. Park and E. W. Burgess, op. cit., pp. 51-55 (economic, political, historical, cultural); E. C. Hayes, "Some Social Relations Restated," American Journal of Sociology, Nov., 1925, p. 344 (language, ethics, religion, technic acts, economic exchange, government, fine arts, games, education, domestic customs, science-philosophy). All of these authors say or imply that there are many social processes, but seem to regard the ones stated as "fundamental." Binder states specifically, "there are hundreds," but all may be classified as above. H. Becker, in his Systematic Sociology (New York, 1932), an adaptation from L. von Wiese's Beziehungslehre and Gebildelehre, says there are two fundamental social processes, association and disassociation, both being subdivisions of sociation, the social process (chapter VII, sections 1, 2, 3; fig. 1, chapter III). Association is subdivided into Advance, Adjustment, Accordance, Amalgamation; Disassociation, into Competition, Contravention, Conflict. There is a list of over five hundred specific processes classified under these heads, together with Differentiation, Integration, Destruction, Construction, which are associative and disassociation aspects of plurality-patterns or groups. The only observable data are, of course, the activities in the list of the five hundred processes, which is not presented as complete. This is the most systematic study of social processes yet undertaken, but I doubt whether valid scientific concepts can be derived by this method. It may be a necessary preliminary to scientific research, but is scarcely more than that.

  12. "Language and Social Reality," in Social Attitudes (New York, 1931), p. 131.

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