Social Organization

Chapter 29: Institutions and the Individual (continued)

Charles Horton Cooley

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THE time-worn question of conservatism as against change has evidently much in common with that of personality as against institutions. Innovation, that is, is bound up with the assertion of fresh personality against mechanism; and the arguments for and against it are the same as I have already suggested. Wherever there is vigor and constructive power in the individual there is likely to be discontent with the establishment. The young notoriously tend to innovation, and so do those of a bold and restless temperament at any age; the old, on the contrary, the quiet, the timid, are conservative. And so with whole peoples; in so far as they are enfeebled by climate or other causes they become inert and incapable of constructive change.

What may not be quite so obvious, at least to those who have not read M. Tarde's work on the Laws of Imitation,[1]


is that innovation or the opposite may be a public habit, independently of differences in age or vigor. The attitude toward change is subject to the same sort of alteration as public opinion, or any other phase of the public mind. That a nation has moved for centuries in the deepest ruts of conservatism, like China or India, is no proof of a lack of natural vigor, but may mean only that the social type has matured and hardened in isolation, not encountering any influence pungent enough to pierce its shell and start a cycle of change. Thus it is now ap parent that lack of incitement, not lack of capacity, was the cause of the backwardness of Japan, and there is little doubt that the same is true of China.

Energy and suggestion are equally indispensable to all human achievement. In the absence of the latter the mind easily spends itself in minor activities, and there is no reason why this should not be true of a whole people and continue for centuries. Then, again, a spark may set it on fire and produce in a few years pregnant changes in the structure of society. The physical law of the persistence of energy in uniform quantity is a most illusive one to apply to human life. There is always a great deal more mental energy than is utilized, and the amount that is really productive depends chiefly on the urgency of suggestion. Indeed, the higher activities of the human mind are, in general, more like a series of somewhat fortuitous explosions than like the work of a uniform force.

There may also be a habit of change that is mere restlessness and has no constructive significance. In the early history of America a conspicuous character on the frontier was the man who had the habit of moving on

(329) He would settle for two or three years in one locality and then, getting restless, sell out and go on to another. So at present, those whom ambition and circumstance, in early manhood, have driven rapidly from one thing to another, often continue into old age the habit so acquired, making their families and friends most uncomfortable. I have noticed that there are over-strenuous people who have come to have an ideal of themselves as making an effort, and are most uneasy when this is not the case. To " being latent feel themselves no less " is quite impossible to them.

In our commercial and industrial life the somewhat feverish progress has generated a habit, a whole system of habits, based on the expectation of change. Enterprise and adaptability are cultivated at the expense of whatever conflicts with them; each one, feeling that the procession is moving on and that he must keep up with it, hurries along at the expense, perhaps, of health, culture and sanity.

This unrest is due rather to transition than to democracy; the ancient view that the latter is in its nature unstable being, as I have said, quite discredited. Even De Tocqueville, about 1835, saw that the political unrest of America was in minor affairs, and that a democratic polity might conceivably "render society more stationary than it has ever been in our western part of the world." [2] Tarde has expounded the matter at length and to much the same effect. A policy is stable when it is suited to prevailing conditions; and every year makes it more apparent that for peoples of European stock, at least, a

(330) polity essentially democratic is the only one that can permanently meet this test.

A social group in which there is a fundamental harmony of forces resulting in effective cooperation may be said, I suppose, to be solidaire, to adopt a French word much used in this connection. Thus France with its comparetively homogeneous people has no doubt more solidarity —notwithstanding its dissensions—than Austria; Eng land more than Russia, and Japan more than China.

But if one thinks closely about the question he will find it no easy matter to say in just what solidarity consists Not in mere likeness, certainly, since the difference of individuals and parts is not only consistent with but essential to a harmonious whole—as the harmony of music is produced by differing but correlated sounds. We want what Burke described as " that action and counteraction, which in the natural and in the political world, from the reciprocal struggle of discordant powers draws out the harmony of the universe."[3]

So far as likeness is necessary it is apparently a likeness of essential ideas and, still more, of sentiments, appropriate to the activity in question. Thus a Japanese writer explains the patriotic unity of his countrymen by their common devotion to the Mikado and the imperial family.

"When a Japanese says 'I love my country,' a great or even the greater part of his idea of his 'country' is taken up by the emperor and the imperial family . . . his forefathers and descendants are also taken into account." "In joy and in sorrow he believes that they (his own ancestors) are with him. He serves them as if they were living. And these ancestors whom he loves and reveres were

(331) all loyal to their emperors in their days; so he feels he must be loyal to his emperor.

" Nothing is so real to him as what he feels; and he feels that with him are united the past, the present and the future generations of his countrymen." "Thus fully conscious of the intense sympathy `of his compatriots, both dead and living, and swelled with lofty anticipations of his glorious destiny, no danger can appall and no toil can tire the real Japanese soldier."[4]

In America unity of spirit is intense, and yet singularly headless and formless. There is no capital city, no guiding upper class, no monarch, no creed, scarcely even a dominating tradition. It seems to be a matter of common allegiance to vague sentiments of freedom, kindliness and hope. And this very circumstance, that the American spirit is so little specialized and so much at one with the general spirit of human nature, does more than anything else to make it influential, and potent in the assimilation of strange elements.

The only adequate proof of a lack of solidarity is inefficiency in total action. There may be intense strife of parties and classes which has nothing really disintegrating in it; but when we see, as was apparently the case in Russia not long ago, that the hour of conflict with an external enemy does not unite internal forces but increases their divergence, it is clear that something is wrong.

It is sometimes said that France has more solidarity than Great Britain or the United States, the ground being that we have a less fluent unity of the social mind, a more vigorous self-assertion of the individual. But this is as

(332) dubious as to say that the contention of athletes among themselves will prevent their uniting to form a strong team. Yet there does seem to be an interesting difference in kind between the sort of unity, of common discipline and sentiment which exists among the French and that of English or Americans—these latter, however different, being far more like each other in this respect than either to the French. The contrast seems to me so illuminating, as a study of social types, that I will spend a few pages in attempting to expound it.

French thought—as to this I follow largely Mr. Brownell's penetrating study*—seems to be not only more centralized in place, that is, more dominated by the capital, but also, leaving aside certain notorious divisions, more uniform, more authoritative, more intolerant, more obviously solidaire. There is less initiative, less aggressive non-conformity. French sentiment emphasizes equality much more than individual freedom and is somewhat intolerant of any marked departure from the dominant types of thought. There is more jealousy of personal power, especially in politics, and less of that eager yet self-poised sympathy with triumphant personality which we find in England or America. There is, in fact, more need to be jealous of a personal ascendancy, because, when it once gains sway, there is less to check it. And with all this goes the French system of public education, whose well-known uniformity, strictness of discipline and classical conservatism is both cause and effect of the trend toward formal solidarity.


There is also an intolerance of the un-French and an inability to understand it even greater, perhaps, than the corresponding phenomenon in other nations. The French are self-absorbed and care little for the history of other peoples. Nor are the sympathies with contemporaries "In Paris, certainly," says Mr. Brownell, "the foreigner, hospitably as he is invariably treated, is invariably treated as the foreigner that he is."[6]

The relative weakness of individuality in France is due, of course, not to any lack of self-feeling, but to the fact that the Frenchman identifies himself more with the social whole, and, merged in that, does not take his more particular self so seriously. It is rather a we-feeling than an I-feeling, and differentiates France more sharply from other nations than it does the individual Frenchman from his compatriots. "He does not admire France because she is his country. His complacence with himself proceeds from the circumstance that he is a Frenchman; which is distinctly what he is first, being a man afterward." [7] "One never hears the Frenchman boast of the character and quality of his compatriots as Englishmen and ourselves do. He is thinking about France, about her different gloires, about her position at the head of civilization." [8]

As there is less individuality in general, so there is a happy lack of whimsical and offensive oddity, of sharp corners and bad taste. Mr. Brownell finds nothing more significant than the absence in France of prigs. "One infers at once in such a society a free and effortless play of the faculties, a large, humorous and tolerant view of

(334) oneself and others, leisure, calm, healthful and rational vivacity, a tranquil confidence in one's own perceptions and in the intelligence of one's neighbors."[9]

With this partial irresponsibility, this tendency not to take one's private self too seriously, goes a lack of moral extremes of all kinds. Their goodness is not so good, their vice not so vicious as ours. Both are more derived from immediate intercourse. " What would be vice among us remains in France social irregularity induced by sentiment. [10] "

These traits have an obvious connection with that more eager and facile communicativeness that strikes us so in the French: they have as a rule less introspection, live more immediately and congenially in a social stream from which, accordingly, they are less disposed to differentiate themselves.

France is, no doubt, as truly democratic in its way as the United States; indeed, in no other country, perhaps, is the prevalent sentiment of the people in a given group so cratic, so immediately authoritative. Such formalism as prevails there is of a sort with which the people themselves are in intelligent sympathy, not one imposed from above like that of Russia, or even that of Germany. But it is a democracy of a type quite other than ours, less differentiated individually and more so, perhaps, by groups, more consolidated and institutional. The source of this divergence lies partly in the course of history and partly, no doubt, in race psychology. Rooted dissensions, like that between the Republic and the Church, and the need of keeping the people in readiness for sudden war, are

(335) among the influences which make formal unity more necessary and tolerable in France than in England.

The French kind of solidarity has both advantages and disadvantages as compared with the Anglo-Saxon. lt certainly facilitates the formation of well-knit social groups; such, for instance, as the artistic "schools" whose vigor has done so much toward giving France its lead in "esthetic production. On the other hand, where the Anglo-Saxon type of structure succeeds in combining greater vigor of individuality with an equally effective unity of sentiment, it would seem to be, in so far, superior to a type whose solidarity is secured at more expense of variation. It is the self-dependence, the so-called individualism, of the Teutonic peoples which has given them so decided a lead in the industrial and political struggles of recent times.

Perhaps the most searching test of solidarity is that loyalty of the individual to the whole which ensures that, however isolated, as a soldier, a pioneer, a mechanic, a student, he will cherish that whole in his heart and do his duty to it in contempt of terror or bribes. And it is precisely in this that the Anglo-Saxon peoples are strong. The Englishman, though alone in the wilds of Africa, is seldom other than an Englishman, setting his conscience by English standards and making them good in action. This moral whole, possessing the individual and making every one a hero after his own private fashion, is the solidarity we want.

Tradition comes down from the past, while convention arrives, sidewise as it were, from our contemporaries; the

(336) fireside tales and maxims of our grandparents illustrate the one, the fashions of the day the other. Both indicate continuity of mind, but tradition has a long extension in time and very little, perhaps, in place, while convention extends in place but may endure only for a day.

This seems a clear distinction, and a great deal has been made of it by some writers, who regard "custom imitation" and "fashion imitation," [11] to use the terms of Tarde, the brilliant French sociologist, as among the primary traits that differentiate societies.

Thus mediaeval society, it is said, was traditional: people lived in somewhat isolated groups and were dominated by the ideas of their ancestors, these being more accessible than those of their contemporaries. On the other hand, modern society, with its telegraphs, newspapers and migrations, is conventional. Thought is transmitted over vast areas and countless multitudes; ancestral continuity is broken up; people get the habit of looking sidewise rather than backward, and there comes to be an instinctive preference of fashion over custom. In the time of Dante, if you travelled over Europe you would find that each town, each district, had its individual dress, dialect and local custom, handed down from the fathers. There was much change with place, little with time. If you did the same to-day, you would find the people everywhere dressed very much alike, dialects passing out of use and men eager to identify themselves with the common stir of contemporary life. And you would also find that the dress, behavior and objects of current interest, though much the same for whole nations and having a great deal in common the

(337) world over, were somewhat transient in character, changing much with time, little with place.

There is, truly, a momentous difference in this regard between modern and mediaeval life, bul to call ilt a change from tradition to convention does not, I think, indicate its real character. Indeed, tradition and convention are by no means the separate and opposite things they may appear to be when we look at them in their most contrasted phases. It would be strange if there were any real separation between ideas coming from the past and those coming from contemporaries, since they exist in the same public mind. A traditional usage is also a convention within the group where it prevails. One learns it from other people and conforms to it by imitation and the desire not to be singular, just as he does to any other convention. The quaint local costume that still prevails in out-of-theway corners of Europe is worn for the same reasons, no doubt, that the equally peculiar dress-suit and silk hat are worn by sophisticated people the world over; one convention is simply more extended than the other. In old times the conforming group, owing to the difficulty of intercourse, was small. People were eager to be in the fashion, as they are now, but they knew nothing of fashions beyond their own locality. Modern traditions are conventional on a larger scale. The Monroe Doctrine, to take a dignified example, is a tradition, regarded historically, but a convention as to the manner in which it enters into contemporary opinion.

In a similar manner we may see that conventions must also be traditions. The new fashions are adaptations of

(338) old ones, and there are no really new ideas of any sort, only a gradual transformation of those that have come down from the past.

In a large view, then, tradition and convention are merely aspects of the transmission of thought and of the unity oi social groups that results from it. If our mind is fixed upon the historical phase of the matter we see tradition, if upon the contemporary phase we see convention. But the process is really one, and the opposition only particular and apparent. All influences are contemporary in their immediate origin, all are rooted in the past.

What is it, then, that makes the difference between an apparently traditional society, such as that of mediaeval Europe, and an apparently conventional society, like that of our time? Simply that the conditions are such as to make one of these phases more obvious than the other. In a comparatively small and stable group, continuous in the same locality and having little intercourse with the world outside, the fact that ideas come from tradition is evident; they pass down from parents to children as visibly as physical traits. Convention, however, or the action of contemporary intercourse, is on so small a scale as to be less apparent; the length and not the breadth of the movement attracts the eye.

On the other hand, in the case of a wide-reaching group bound into conscious unity by facile communication, people no longer look chiefly to their fathers for ideas; the paternal influence has to compete with many others, and is further weakened by the breaking up of family associations which goes with ease of movement. Yet men are

(339) not less dependent upon the past than before; it is only that tradition is so intricate and so spread out over the face of things that its character as tradition is hardly to be discovered. The obvious thing now is the lateral movement; influences seem to come in sidewise and fashion rules over custom. The difference is something like that between a multitude of disconnected streamlets and a single wide river, in which the general downward movement is obscured by numerous cross-currents and eddies.

In truth, facile communication extends the scope of tradition as much as it does that of fashion. All the known past becomes accessible anywhere, and instead of the cult of immediate ancestors we have a long-armed, selective appropriation of whatever traditional ideas suit our tastes. For painting the whole world goes to Renaissance Italy, for sculpture to ancient Greece, and so on. Convention has not gained as against tradition, but both have been transformed.

In much the same way we may distinguish between traditionalism and conventionalism; the one meaning a dominant type of thought evidently handed down from the past, the other a type formed by contemporary influence—but we should not expect the distinction to be any more fundamental than before.

Traditionalism may be looked for wherever there are long-established groups somewhat shut out from lateral influence, either by external conditions or by the character of their own system of ideas—in isolated rural communities, for example, in old and close-knit organizations like the

(340) church, or in introverted nations such as China used to be. Conventionalism applies to well-knit types not evidently traditional, and describes a great part of modern life.

The fact that some phases of society are more dominated by settled types, whether traditional or conventional, than others, indicates, of course, a certain equilibrium of influences in them, and a comparative absence of competing ideas. This, in turn, is favored by a variety of causes. One is a lack of individuality and self-assertiveness on the part of the people—as the French are said to conform to types more readily than the English or Americans. Another requisite is the lapse of sufficient time for the type to establish itself and mould men's actions into conformity; even fashion cannot be made in a minute. A third is that there should be enough interest in the matter that non-conformity may be noticed and disapproved; and yet not enough interest to foster originality. We are most imitative when we notice but do not greatly care. Still another favoring condition is the habit of deference to some authority, which may impose the type by example.

Thus the educated classes of England are, perhaps, more conventional in dress and manner than the corresponding classes in the United States. If so, the explanation is probably not in any intrinsic difference of individuality, but in conditions more or less favorable to the ripening of types; such as the comparative newness and confusion of American civilization, the absence of an acknowledged upper class to set an authoritative example, and a certain lack of interest in the externals of life which

(341) our restlessness seems to foster.[12] On the other hand, it must be said that the insecurity of position and more immediate dependence upon the opinion of one's fellows, which exist in America, have a tendency toward conventionalism, because they make the individual more eager lo appear well in the eyes of others. It is a curious fact, which may illustrate this principle, that the House of Commons, the more democratic branch of the British legislature' is described as more conventional than the House of Lords. Probably if standards were sufficiently developed in America there would be no more difficulty in enforcing them than in England.

Perhaps we should hit nearest the truth if we said that American life had conventions of its own, vaguer than the British and putting less weight on forms and more on fellow-feeling, but not necessarily less cogent.


  1. Gabriel Tarde, Les lois de 1'imitation, English translation The Laws of Imitation.
  2. Democracy in America, vol. ii, book iii, chap. 21.
  3. The Works of Edmund Burke (Boston, 1884), vol. iii, p. 277.
  4. Amenomori in the Atlantic Monthly, Oct., 1904.
  5. French Traits. P. G. Hamerton's works, especially his French and English, are also full of suggestion.
  6. French Traits, page 284.
  7. Page 295.
  8. Page 295.
  9. Idem, page 304.
  10. Page 64.
  11. Imitation-coutume and imitation-mode.
  12. Americans should notice that what they are apt to call the snobbishness of the English middle class—their anxiety to imitate those whom they regard as social superiors—has its good result in producing a discipline in which many of us are somewhat grossly lacking. It may be better, in manners for instance, that people should adopt a standard from questionable motives than that they should have no standard at all. The trouble with us is the prevalence of a sprawling, gossiping self-content that does not know or care whether such things as manners, art and literature exist or not:

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