Social Organization

Chapter 18: The Hereditary or Caste Principle

Charles Horton Cooley

Table of Contents | Next | Previous


SPEAKING roughly, we may call any persistent social group, other than the family, existing within a larger group, a class. And every society, except possibly the most primitive, is more or less distinctly composed of classes. Even in savage tribes there are, besides families and clans, almost always other associations: of warriors, of magicians and so on; and these continue throughout all phases of development until we reach the intricate group structure of our own time. Individuals never achieve their life in separation, but always in cooperation with a group of other minds, and in proportion as these cooperating groups stand out from one another with some distinctness they constitute social classes.

We may say of this differentiation, speaking generally, that it is useful. The various functions of life require special influences and organization, and without some class spirit, some speciality in traditions and standards, nothing is well performed. Thus, if our physicians were not, as regards their professional activities, something of a psychological unit, building up knowledge and senti-

(210)-ment by communication, desiring the approval and dreading the censure of their colleagues, it would be worse not only for them but for the rest of us. There are no doubt class divisions that are useless or harmful, but something of this nature there should be, and l have already tried to show that our own society suffers considerably from a lack of adequate group differentiation in its higher mental activities.

Fundamental to all study of classes are the two principles, of inheritance and of competition, according to which their membership is determined. The rule of descent, as in the hereditary nobility of England or Germany, gives a fixed system, the alternative to which is some kind of selection—by election or appointment as in our politics; by purchase, as formerly in the British army and navy; or by the informal action of preference, opportunity and endeavor, as in the case of most trades and professions at the present day.

Evidently these two principles are very much intermingled in their working. The hereditary distinctions must have a beginning in some sort of selective struggle, such as the military and commercial competition from which privileged families have emerged in the past, and never become so rigid as not to be modified by similar processes. On the other hand, inherited advantages, even in the freest society, enter powerfully into every kind of competition.

Another consideration of much interest is that the strict rule of descent is a biological principle, making the social organization subordinate to physical continuity of life,

(211) while selection or competition brings in psychical elements, of the most various qualities to be sure, but capable at the best of forming society on a truly rational method.

Finally it is well to recognize that there is a vast sum of influences governed by no ascertainable principle at all, which go to assign the individual his place in the class system. After allowing for inheritance and for everything which can fairly be called selection (that is, for all definite and orderly interaction between the man and the system), there remains a large part which can be assigned only to chance. This is particularly true in the somewhat tumultuous changes of modern life.

When a class is somewhat strictly hereditary, we may call it a caste—a name originally applied to the hereditary classes of India, but to which it is common, and certainly convenient, to give a wider meaning.

Perhaps the best way to understand caste is to open our eyes and note those forces at work among ourselves which might conceivably give rise to it.

On every side we may see that differences arise, and that these tend to be perpetuated through inherited associations, opportunities and culture. The endeavor to secure for one's children whatever desirable thing one has gained for oneself is a perennial source of caste, and this endeavor flows from human nature and the moral unity of the family. If a man has been able to save money, he anxiously invests it to yield an income after his death; if he has built up a business, it is his hope that his children may succeed him in it; if he has a good handicraft, he wishes his boys to learn it. And so with less tangible

(212) goods—education, culture, religious and moral ideas— there is no good parent but desires his children to have more than the common inheritance of what is best in these things' It its, perhaps, safe to say that if the good of his children could be set on one side and the good of all the rest of the world over against it on the other, the average parent would desire that evil might befall the latter rather than the former. And much of the wider social spirit of recent times comes from the belief that we cannot make this separation, and that to secure the real good of our children we must work for the common advancement.

That this endeavor to secure a succession in desirable function is not confined to the rich we may see, for instance, in the fact that labor unions often have regulations tending to secure to the children of members a complete or partial monopoly of the opportunities of apprenticeship. In Chicago, not long since, only the son of a plumber could learn the plumber's trade.

As being the actual possessor of the advantages in question, the parent is usually in a position either to hand them over directly to his children, or to make their acquisition comparatively easy. Wealth, the most obvious and tangible source of caste, is transmissible, even in the freest societies, under the sanction and protection of law. And wealth is convertible not only into material goods but, if the holder has a little tact and sense, into other and finer advantages—educational opportunities, business and professional openings, travel and intercourse with people of refinement and culture. Against this we must, of course, offset the diminished motive to exertion, the lack of rough-and-tumble experience, and other disad-

(213)-vantages which inherited wealth, especially if large, is apt to bring with it; but that it does, as a rule, perpetuate the more conventional sorts of superiority is undeniable.

And such intangible advantages as culture, manners, good associations and the like, whether associated with wealth or not, are practically heritable, since they are chiefly derived by children from a social environment determined by the personality and standing of their parents.

Indeed, irrespective of any intention toward or from inheritance, there is a strong drift toward it due to mere familiarity. It is commonly the line of least resistance. The father knows much about his own trade and those closely related to it, little about others; and the son shares his point of view. So when the latter comes to fix upon a career he is likely, in the absence of any decided individuality of preference, to take the way that lies most open to him. Of course he may lack the ability to carry the paternal function; but this, though common enough, does not affect the majority of cases. The functions that require a peculiar type of natural ability, while of the first importance, since they include all marked originality, are not very numerous, sound character and training, with fair intelligence, being ordinarily sufficient. Even in the learned professions, such as law, medicine, teaching and the ministry, the great majority of practitioners hold their own by common sense and assiduity rather than by special aptitude. To the best of my observation, there are many men serving as foremen in various sorts of handicraft, or as farmers, who have natural capacity adequate for success in law, commerce or politics. A man of good, all-round ability will succeed in that line of work which

(214) he finds ready to his hand, but only a few will break away from their antecedents and seek a wholly different line. And if their work affords them health, thought and mastery, why should they wish to change it if they could ?

I would not have it supposed, however (because I dwell thus upon opportunity), that I agree with those whose zeal for education and training leads them to depreciate natural differences. I do not know how to talk with men who believe in native equality: it seems to me that they lack common sense and observation. How can they fail to see that children in the same family, even twins, as Mr. Galton has shown,[1] are often widely divergent in ability, one destined to leadership and another to obscurity ?

The two variables of personality, " nature and nurture," are without doubt of equal diversity and importance, and they must work together to bring about any notable achievement. Natural ability is essential; but, no matter how great, it cannot know or develop its power without opportunity. Indeed, great natural faculty is often more dependent on circumstance than is mediocrity—because of some trait, like extreme sensitiveness, that unfits it for miscellaneous competition. Opportunity, moreover, means different things in different cases, and is not to be identified with wealth or facile circumstances of any sort. Some degrees and kinds of difficulty are helpful, others not.

And yet, leaving out, on the one hand, unusual talent or energy, and, on the other, decided weakness or dulness, the mass of men are guided chiefly by early surroundings and training, which determine for them, in a general way

(215) what sort of life they will take up, and contribute much to their success or failure in it. Society, even in a comparatively free country, is thus vaguely divided into hereditary strata or sections, from which the majority do not depart.

If the transmission of function from father to son has become established, a caste spirit, a sentiment in favor of such transmission and opposed to the passage from one class into another, may arise and be shared even by the unprivileged classes. The individual then thinks of himself and his family as identified with his caste, and sympathizes with others who have the same feeling. The caste thus becomes a psychical organism, consolidated by community of sentiment and tradition. In some measure the ruling class in England, for example, has hung together in this way, and the same is partly true of the lower orders. No doubt there is generally some protest against a hereditary system on the part of restless members of the lower castes—certainly this was always the case in Europe —but it may be practically insignificant.

And out of caste sentiment arise institutions, social, political and economic—like the mediaeval system in Europe, much of which still survives—whose tendency is to define and perpetuate hereditary distinctions.

I have, perhaps, said enough to make it clear that an impulse toward caste is found in human nature itself. Whether it spreads through and dominates the system of life, as in India, or remains subordinate, as with us, depends upon the strength or weakness of other impulses which limit its operation. As certain types of vegetation,

(216) like the ferns, which at one time were dominant in the forests, are now overshadowed by plants of higher organization, so caste, which we must, on the whole, reckon to be an inferior principle, tends to be supplanted by something freer and more rational.


  1. See the memoir on the subject in his Inquiries into Human Faculty.

Valid HTML 4.01 Strict Valid CSS2