Some Aspects of Small's Sociological Theories

Walter B. Bodenhafer
 Washington University

TO THE STUDENT of the development of systems of thought and of the assumptions and logical processes involved therein, there is peculiar interest in the origin and growth of sociology in this country. In such a study one cannot ignore the work of those one might class as pioneers, nor could one neglect the part played by Dr. Small in his various rôles as teacher, writer, critic, and associate. We have no very accurate technique of measuring such materials as systems of thought, their growth and influence, but we do, in course of time, frequently arrive at some consensus of opinion which serves as a partial substitute for a better accuracy than we now have.

Whether Dr. Small has left any permanent contributions to sociology is a matter which we cannot answer now, for we do not know enough about the possible ramifications of the future to be able to predict with any confidence. Some of us feel that he has. We can be sure that, as a factor in the development of discussion, as a stimulant of thinking, he occupied a most important place in our midst for more than three decades. His own conception of his rôle was a very modest one. He conceived sociology to be a veritable resultant necessity of modern thought as applied to social phenomena. In that naturalistic growth, he thought of himself and his contemporaries as instruments of a larger, inevitable movement. It seems quite

(204) evident, however, that we must credit him and them with a good deal in actually creating this thing we call sociology. Without Small, Ross, Giddings, Ward, Blackmar, Ellwood and others, most of us would be in greatly altered situations.

One who attempts to summarize in a few pages the theories of a prolific writer whose productions cover a span of more than a third of a century enters upon a hazardous undertaking. One is forced to adopt a very drastic method of limiting one's treatment. Possibly the simplest and safest method for the purpose here is that of frankly admitting a very personal, subjective selection which is, indeed, as much a reflection of the thought of the writer as of the theories reviewed. Accordingly we shall deal only with some of the theories which, for the moment, seem most clearly in the line of vision. The summary will be increasingly personalized since it will depend on certain impressions, conversations, and notes derived from personal contacts inside and outside the class room, which naturally find no exact reproduction in Dr. Small's printed pages.

I assume that most surveys of Dr. Small's theories would touch, among others, some of the following themes: the nature and place of sociology, the origins of sociology, the social process, the group concept, the drive toward objectivity, the unity of social science, the sociological approach to ethics, interests, the historical method applied to sociology, and sociological concepts as tools of thought. Others might be added, but these are more than sufficient for our purpose. Permitting our personal bias to direct our attention we may enlarge a little on some of the themes suggested.

It would be highly interesting to deal with these theories genetically in an attempt to trace their birth and subse-

( 205) -quent growth into living doctrines or discarded errors. This would, of course, bring into the range of our attention almost the whole movement of sociological thought in this country, for Dr. Small was in such close touch with every phase of it from the very beginning that his thinking was one pole of a bipolar situation in which neither can be understood apart from the other. We shall have to forego such an attempt, though it may be convenient from time to time to intersperse references to some of his earlier ideas.

In such an highly experimental and naïve adventure as the course of sociology in the United States from 1890 to 1925, one might easily have cause, as Dr. Small frequently did, to disavow some of his earlier views. In many respects, too, the recantation was complete, but it seems that one might have much ground for saying that certain fundamental characteristics of Dr. Small's thinking remained intact through the period, and that the change, that at first seems to be abrupt and clear, is but the outward dressing, the form embracing much the same content, the same essential philosophy. Not that there was no growth in his thought, for there was, but that in some respects, either by accident or by controlled and accurate reflection, Dr. Small's philosophy fitted in with some of the assumptions that continued to guide sociological discussion during those years.

By this I mean such characteristics as these: the ethical role of social science generally, and sociology in particular; the conception of sociology as social philosophy; the economic and historical background of sociology; the use of logical reflection rather than accurate and detailed investigation of concrete situations as a means of arriving at generalizations; the conception of unity, of wholeness characterizing social phenomena. These fitted in well with that phase of sociology which some have considered as the pre-

( 206) -research stage of the movement in this country, where "research" is confined to detailed investigation of actual concrete situations.

This reference to the shift of attention to research must not be construed to mean that any or all of these earlier characteristics have necessarily passed out of the sociological movement in this country, for it is quite apparent, for example, that some sort of system, explicit, or implicit, must constitute a background for the detailed studies. There can be no denying, however, that the trend, the emphasis, is toward what we may call research in the narrow sense indicated, excluding studies in social theory, social philosophy, and methods of thought. Dr. Small was well aware of this shift in emphasis and attention and was entirely sympathetic toward it. He did feel, however, as he often stated, that there was still room in sociology for a few persons whose interests and experience qualified them better for the rôle of methodologist and philosopher. Probably sociology in the future will vindicate his judgment on this point.

We must also guard against the impression that, because Dr. Small was philosophic in his approach, he was necessarily metaphysical. No note was sounded more often in his expressions than the necessity of persistent and constant attention to the actual social order itself as the source and proving ground for all thought,-the "drive toward objectivity," as he called it. His thinking permitted no institution, no agency, no academic subject to escape the actual tests of experience. He was, at heart, a thoroughgoing pragmatist. Some of his most eloquent passages were voiced in behalf of a philosophy of science as opposed to that of speculation.

Now to deal a little more specifically with some of his theories. First of all, how does he define the field of soci-

( 207) -ology? What is its nature and its rôle? These questions he was frequently called upon to answer, not only in controversial situations, but also by an inward restlessness with his own preceding earlier formulations. We shall confine ourselves chiefly to his later views on this matter.

I am not aware that Dr. Small ever deserted the thesis expressed in the following words:

The emphasis at this point is on the fact that sociology is primarily knowledge not action. It is detailed knowledge, analytical knowledge, it is all-around, inclusive, synthetic knowledge of the whole social reality. . . . The thought is not to frame a science that ends with knowing; for no knowledge is complete until it passes into action. The aim is science that will naturally pass into doing. In order to have such a science, the basis must be laid in knowledge which is as general, and as abstract, and objective, and disinterested as though mere statement of truth were the final thing to be desired.[1]

Nothing needs to be added to this to clarify it. It is worth noting, however, that he characteristically placed the immediate task as that of deriving knowledge and, as elsewhere more carefully expressed, deplored the premature attempts to apply something which had not yet been created. Unfortunately, we are still painfully aware of the almost complete failure to complete the task which he laid down as the first essential, namely, the development of a science.

To be able to frame a science in this respect, that is, to be able to develop a general science, demands that there be something general and abstract pervading the concrete, which may be observed, analyzed, measured. Hence Dr. Small was at all times occupied with the effort to arrive at a definition of this common element in social phenomena.

( 208) Despite the various terms in which he seemed to describe it at different times, I do not find significant changes in the motive of the quest for the general. So that, whether he dealt with "association," or "the social process," or the "group," he was interested in setting forth the general aspects of social phenomena. The uniformities independent of time and place, were logical objects of his quest, and sociology for him was the result of the attempt to find that essential uniformity. Once this is found, whatever we call it, it constitutes the field of thought and investigation not only for sociology but for all social sciences as well.

It was his quest for the general rather than the particular, that led him, in some of his earlier claims for sociology, to take the position characteristic of sociologists at the time, which he later discarded, namely, that sociology is the general to which the other social sciences are subject special sciences. Later he specifically defined its rôle as a much more humble one, when having abandoned its claims to the master position, he seeks to justify it as one of the co-ordinated "techniques" attacking the common problem, having a subject matter and a technique peculiar to itself. Whether the logic of his thought justified his later position is a nice question, but one which must be deferred to another time.

Taking our materials from his later thought (I am here relying largely on notes taken in his classes), how does he define sociology as a fellow among the other social sciences? First of all, Dr. Small never deserted the position set forth in the Meaning of Social Science, that social science is one. Within that general field, however, he observes varying "techniques," as he was fond of phrasing it, which were tools of analysis of the common reality. "Sociology is one of the many techniques which make up the equipment of social science as a whole." It has become that portion of

( 209) the whole which starts with the assumption that human phenomena are phenomena of groups. The analysis of group relations is the distinct contribution of sociology and this seems to be the only "justification for its claim to rank as an independent technique." Said Dr. Small, "This is the only thing that I can see that justifies sociology and puts it on a par with other social sciences."

In response to the logical demand for an exhibit of the tools, methods, devices, making up the special equipment of sociology, Dr. Small did not present a series of statistical devices, nor a plan of population study in a given area, nor a scheme for determining a community, nor a technique for measuring mobility of persons, nor a method of analyzing personality. On the contrary, he offered a series of categories,-tools of logic. His answer was the reply of a philosopher and logician, not that of an experimental scientist. This is not stated as adverse criticism, but as an apparent fact. It was his way of acting in the situation presented by social science in this country on the one hand, and his experience and training, on the other.

Concerning his use of such concepts as groups, social process, interest, it is apparent that they were related in his thinking. The fact that in some of his later writings he came to stress the importance of one or the other did not mean, necessarily, a deviation or desertion from a former position. As elucidated by him, the relation was a necessary one and was somewhat as follows: The observation of human reality reveals a constant movement, a complex interrelated whole which he designated the social process. Further observation discloses that this mass may be broken up into several aspects for the purposes of analysis, although such analysis usually tends to destroy the essential unity and wholeness of the pattern. In this sense we can then discern certain "units of experience," or groupings of

( 210) human beings. These units, or groups, constitute the essential realities with which sociology is concerned. Now what of the interests? These, he stated, do not constitute a part of the true sociological unit. They are but means of analysis as applied in terms of explanation of the groups themselves. They are the assumed elements in the formation and maintenance of the groups. They might be considered as the elements of the group reality in the sense that they motivate the persons observed. The origin of such wants, he continued, is a problem for psychology and biology, not for sociology, since the latter begins only where persons are found in groups. Concerning Dr. Small's concept of interests it may be observed that some such device has been a constant refuge for all types of students of human behavior, as Bernard, Faris, and others have pointed out. Its form changes, but the logical device persists in some form or other, in almost all contemporary social theory.

In regard to the concept of the group, which bulked so large in Dr. Small's later thought, it may be remarked again that it was not a sudden achievement of his. Fundamentally, it was a statement of a general idea which had animated his thinking for many years.[2] Dr. Small himself points out that as early as 1890, the group concept was present in his mind and cites a passage from his Introduction to the Science of Sociology in support of his position. Though a part of his early terminology, it did not become the core of his thinking until more recently. It was only after a lifetime of search that he reached the conclusion that "Sociology has become the first attempt to organize a technique for scientific interpretation of human experience upon the basis of the group hypothesis in contrast with the individual hypothesis."[3]

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Dr. Small felt that in the group concept he had found, not only the goal toward which the sociological movement had actually moved, but also the answer to his own quest for a logical and satisfactory definition of sociology. The closing pages of his Origins of Sociology reveal a sense of security after a troubled voyage started some forty years before when he set out from fairly well established boundaries of older philosophies and sciences. He had found in the concept of the group the subject matter which entitled sociology to a position, not at the head of the social sciences as he once hoped, but as a common laborer in the ranks, engaged in the common process of discovery of truth in the world of social phenomena. "At best," he says, "sociologists have found a clue by means of which social science as a whole closes in on the facts and meanings of human experience somewhat more adequately than our knowledge could extend without this addition to research equipment. That is all, and that is enough."[4]

Turning our attention for the moment from the group, as the proper subject matter of sociology, to the concept of the individual, we find that he reached the position that the individual was an inaccurate category (referring again to my notes). Not that he questioned the reality of the things observable as persons, but that, with the implications of the term given it by individualistic thinkers, it had become a misleading term, for which he would substitute the term personality to indicate what he intended in chapter 32 of his General Sociology. Adopted in its older atomistic sense, the term individual would logically entail the disappearance of sociology, he insisted.

On the other hand, the term personality involves the idea of the result of the group process, of the group life. As Dr. Small used the term, it meant what is sometimes covered by the use of the term self. In this sense, the term

( 212) individual can be safely used to designate the fact of personality as a resultant reality in a social world. Certain passages might be quoted from Dr. Small's older writings which are capable of the interpretation he deplored in his later thinking, but, on the other hand, it is easy to cite numerous passages which give exact expression of an adequate comprehension of the person as a social product. It is quite true that Dr. Small did not possess the means to set forth the mechanism of the creational process involved, but it is quite certain that he grasped the importance of it. It is hardly necessary to point out that this note has been consistently stressed by some sociologists and constitutes the basis of the environmental interpretation of individual behavior, upon which they have insisted. That some of the older thinkers had not grasped the significance of this idea was conceded by Dr. Small, but nevertheless, he conceived it to be fundamental to the existence of sociology.

What has now become of the concept of association, which played so prominent a part in the sociological terminology of an earlier period? How would Dr. Small fit it into his later concepts? His answer was quite simple. The term group, he explained, is a concept of existence; association is a category of movement. The latter calls attention to the activity of the group and the movements of the members thereof. It is a convenient expression used to cover all reactions between persons, whatever they may be.

One might easily conclude from Dr. Small's discussions of the concept of the individual and the group, that his argument is lacking in a clear analysis of the process by which the personality is produced out of a social situation. That is true; he does not bridge that important gap, but, for that matter, it was long ago pointed out by Mead [5] that this was cardinal weakness in social psychology and it must be admitted that the various social psychologies

( 213) which have appeared since Mead's stricture have helped to clarify the defect without adding much to the solution of the problem. The development of the self, the person, the personality, whatever one may call it, is the center around which much discussion in social psychology has revolved, but, even among those devoting themselves to the problem, there is no agreement, even in the conception of the issue involved. Dr. Small did not claim to do more than to insist that an adequate understanding of the person, the self, demanded, among other things, the adequate valuation of the groups within which the person lived from birth.

Dr. Small's contributions to the history of sociology are so well known that but a few observations are necessary on that point. It was his conception that such a history was not only valid as an object of research but that it also was the best practical method of beginning the serious study of sociology. In accordance with this conviction he arranged his courses at the University of Chicago so that the History of Sociology preceded his General Sociology. In applying the historical method to sociology, Dr. Small was guided by some very definite beliefs as to the way in which any science comes into existence. In general, his belief was that the process is a naturalistic one. A science does not develop in conformity with the predetermined logical systems worked out in advance by its advocates. It is a process of discovery, of trial and error, a growth. "Science," he said, "is predetermined by the relations of cause and effect which operate in the reaches of reality in question, not by any definition of scope or method which can be arrived at before those reaches of reality have been explored."[6] Sociologists themselves had furnished a good example of the wrong method of procedure. They persisted in defining their science, Dr. Small thought, "before they had been taught what their procedure must be by

( 214) hard experience with their phenomena." He did not consider the mistake a fatal one for sociology had gradually unburdened itself of its defective method as soon as the mass of its erroneous preconceptions manifested its inadequacy.

Dr. Small's thesis in regard to the origin of sociology was that it "has a venerable ancestry." It was a phase of the development of social science as a whole. It is "merely one of the latest articulations of this completer self-expression by the great body of students of human experience." In tracing sociology's "venerable ancestry" back he came to the following general conclusions: First, that the reputed origin from Comte was a "myth"; second, that the fertilizing ideas came from German sources, although the early sociologists in this country were familiar with both Comte and Spencer; third, that sociology was a natural result of the narrowness and inadequacy of the older social philosophies and social sciences.

Among the shortcomings of the older social sciences and philosophies, Dr. Small enumerated several, among which are the following: the lack of an adequate comprehension of the subject matter of social science; concern with only a phase or part of the whole social reality; an inadequate apprehension of the interrelatedness of their respective fields of interest; their smug sectarianism; and the absence of a co-ordinating philosophy of social reality. It was these defects, in Dr. Small's opinion, which both in Germany and the United States, made inevitable something which, in the course of time, came to be called sociology.

In his account of the development of sociology he was primarily interested in tracing the development of a social philosophy or a logic of the social sciences. He dealt with methods, scope, logical assumptions, views of relationships, concepts, etc. He was not tracing the changes tak-

( 215) -ing place in the natural sciences, particularly in biology and psychology, which, perhaps, more than any other influenced the trends in sociology in this country. The steady process of carrying over from biology and psychology has been a very important influence in shaping the terminology, concepts, methods, and subject matter of sociology. I do not assume for a moment that Dr. Small was unaware of this or ignored it. He was merely tracing one line of influence which, by reason of his knowledge in the field of the history of social sciences, particularly the German, was congenial to his interests and his training. More than any one else in this country, perhaps, he was qualified to write that chapter in the story of the rise of sociology in this country. I do not find any indication that he implied that his chapter was to constitute the whole volume that might be written.

Now that sociology has become established on a stable foundation, what, asks Dr. Small, are its achievements, other than those already suggested? First of all, there are the results in the form of benefits to those who have had a part in the movement. Secondly, there is the enormous "mass of insights into specific group reactions collected by local surveys, by social analysis, by the case methods, by the anthropological and ethnological sociologists and by social psychologists." Finally, in his own particular field of effort, he discerned a distinct contribution to objectivity in method, to constructive criticism of technique, namely, the development of more adequate categories of social inquiry in the form of concepts. Not that the list of categories is complete, but that this fundamental step in the formation of a science has been taken, for "working toward such an equipment is the most fundamental merit of general sociology thus far." To the achievement of such a task Dr. Small devoted the best of his intellectual life and it was his reward to feel that it was not in vain.


  1. General Sociology, pp. 34-35.
  2. Origins of Sociology, pp. 344-345.
  3. Origins of Sociology, p. 346.
  4. Origins of Sociology, p. 351.
  5. Psychological Bulletin, December 15, 1909.
  6. Origins of Sociology, p. 340.

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