The Group as a Valid Concept

Professor of Sociology, Washington University, St Louis

IN A former article an attempt was made to show that one of the characteristics of contemporary sociology in this country was the assumption of a group as a point of departure for its thinking.[1] It was pointed out that in making that assumption sociology is somewhat symptomatic of thought in other departments of philosophy and science, as well as expressive of a more or less blind but real trend in the folkways. This paper will attempt, in briefest fashion, to direct attention to two things: first, some of the aspects of the group point of view; second, a suggestion or two as to the validity of that assumption.

Broadly described the group conception means that the student of social phenomena, who proceeds from that standpoint, may direct his attention to two types of endeavor at least. In the first place he may seek to deal with the fact of human behavior in its individual aspects. In the second place, he may seek to study groups of individuals which assume such relations of more or less permanence that they become, for this particular purpose, entities. A word or two ought to be said concerning each of these two possibilities of study and thought.

As to the first of these it may be said that it is an environmental point of view in that it involves the notion that the conduct or behavior of an individual implies relationships with a social milieu. The person is always in a setting of relationships or of stimuli and therefore the latter are al-

( 161) -ways logically a part of the statement of his behavior. This view of the problem includes, of course, two phases; the problem of the genetic account of personality and behavior, and the problem of the immediate conduct of any individual in so far as it is a result of more contemporary relationships with other persons. The first phase is the core of a great deal of the literature which has appeared in sociology and social psychology. It is also the phase, unfortunately, which seems to be least in the consciousness of many writers in other fields. In some quarters, among the sociologists, this phase has developed a somewhat mystical concept which we may call the "self." It may, however, be stated in terms more consonant with a behavioristic and mechanistic psychology. In terms of the latter type of psychology the genesis and behavior of a person may be stated from the standpoint of stimuli or patterns existing in the social milieu. The mechanist may state the case in this way: given an individual with a mechanism of such and such a nature, we may interpret his behavior in terms of the stimuli or patterns impinging on him; just as we may interpret the behavior of a billiard ball in terms of the external forces bearing upon it, once we have posited an internal structure of defined or known type. It seems then the concept is capable of application by sociologists with varying philosophies of psychology, and such is being done.

The second possibility mentioned above, namely, that of analysis of social phenomena in terms of groups conceived as entities is in reality but a corollary of the first. Here, however, the primary objective is not individual behavior but the larger aspects of collective life which we may deal with under such terms as institutions, mores, folkways, crowds, etc. This likewise has led to mystical conceptions as revealed in the more extreme and exaggerated examples of the use of such concepts as group mind, social organism,

( 162) the Hegelian state; but these exaggerations are not necessarily inherent in the view at all, as has long been evident to more temperate writers using those same concepts. Fundamentally, a common ground in all such views is the idea of groups as conceivable entities in which the individuals temporarily are not in the focus of attention.

A suggestion may be hazarded as to the methodological validity of the group as a center of interest in sociology. One may, it seems, take any aggregate as a pragmatic working base for scientific purposes. Popularly there is a disposition to think of certain aggregates as realities which are contrasted with systems of relationships which are supposed to be rather mystical and intangible. Thus we consider the desk on which we are writing as something stable and real, as contrasted with some larger aggregate, such as the solar system or a group of people not in immediate contact. As a matter of fact the table appears motionless and stable because of our defective sensory apparatus. We delude ourselves when we consider the table anything more than a system of relationships in which motion, not rest, is the reality. Were we equipped with a more powerful sensory mechanism we should be able to see motion in the table as clearly as when we see a football team executing a play in which every member is a part of a definite system of relationships.

In the same way one who is an individualist in social science is so, perhaps in part, because he assumes the person as something real, as a thing in itself, rather than as a system of relationships among still indefinitely divisible particles, each of which, in turn, is a system in itself. From the standpoint of the chemist and physicist, the person may appear a hopelessly complex and gross thing. The individual, of course, is a convenient stopping place for one kind of thinking and of science, just as the cell is for another, and the molecule and electron for another. But

( 163) to get into the habit of assuming any one system of relationships as exclusively real; to conceive of the individual as a bit of datum that is quiet, fixed, and definite in any unique sense is merely to fall prey to one's own defective sensory apparatus. Such a pleasant dream is quickly dissipated when, for example, the visual powers are increased by scientific aids, such as the microscope.

In view of the apparent endlessness of the atomizing process, at least pending discovery of the ultimate in the world of matter or energy, may we not assume any aggregate anywhere along the line as a convenient pragmatic resting place in a world of ceaseless motion, from which we may pursue our plan of understanding? As applied to sociology, is there not sufficient validity for taking the group of human beings as a system of relationships which possesses sufficient cohesion of relationships to make it an observable phenomenon, capable of scientific exploitation? If this be granted, one may say it seems to be valid methodologically to proceed from the group to a lower order of relationships, the person, especially in a culture world. One might indeed have much to say for the view that a complete interpretation of the individual must be so conducted. At any rate such is the opinion of much of our sociology and anthropology.


  1. American Journal of Sociology, Vol. XXVI: 273, 425, 588, 716.

Valid HTML 4.01 Strict Valid CSS2