Social Organization

Chapter 30: Formalism and Disorganization

Charles Horton Cooley

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Too much mechanism in society gives us something for which there are many names, slightly different in meaning, as institutionalism, formalism, traditionalism, conventionalism, ritualism, bureaucracy and the like. It is by no means easy, however, to determine whether mechanism is in excess or not. It becomes an evil, no doubt, when it interferes with growth and adaptation, when it suppresses individuality and stupefies or misdirects the energies of human nature. But just when this is the case is likely not to be clear until the occasion is long past and we can see the matter in the perspective of history.

Thus, in religion, it is well that men should adhere to the creeds and ritual worked out in the past for spiritual edification, so long as these do, on the whole, fulfil their function; and it is hard to fix the time—not the same for different churches, classes or individuals—when they cease to do this. But it is certain that they die, in time, like all tissue, and if not cleared away presently rot.

It has been well said that formalism is "an excess of the organ of language."* The aim of all organization is

(343) to express human nature, and it does this through a system of symbols, which are the embodiment and vehicle of the idea. So long as spirit and symbol are vitally united and the idea is really conveyed, all is well, but so fast as they are separated the symbol becomes an empty shell, to which, however, custom, pride or interest may still cling. It then supplants rather than conveys the reality.

Underlying all formalism, indeed, is the fact that it is psychically cheap; it substitutes the outer for the inner as more tangible, more capable of being held before the mind without fresh expense of thought and feeling, more easily extended, therefore, and impressed upon the multitude. Thus in our own architecture or literature we have innumerable cheap, unfelt repetitions of forms that were significant and beautiful in their time and place.

The effect of formalism upon personality is to starve its higher life and leave it the prey of apathy, self-complacency, sensuality and the lower nature in general. A formalized religion and a formalized freedom are, notoriously, the congenial dwelling-place of depravity and oppression.

When a system of this sort is thoroughly established, as in the case of the later Roman Empire, it confines the individual mind as in a narrow cage by supplying it with only one sort of suggestions. The variation of ideas and the supplanting of old types by new can begin only by individuals getting hold of suggestions that conflict with those of the ruling system; and in the absence of this an old type may go on reproducing itself indefinitely, indi-

(344)-viduals seeming no more to it than the leaves of a tree, which drop in the autumn and in the spring are replaced by others indistinguishable from them. It "breeds true" on the same principle that wild pigeons, long kept to a fixed type by natural limitations, are less variable than] domestic species, in whose recent past there have been elements of change.

Among the Hindoos, for instance, a child is brought up] from infancy in subjection to ceremonies and rites which stamp upon him the impression of a fixed and immemorial system. They control the most minute details of his life, and leave little room for choice either on his part or that of his parents. There is no attempt to justify tradition by reason: custom as such is obligatory.

Intolerance goes very naturally with formalism, since to a mind in the unresisted grasp of a fixed system of thought anything that departs from that system must appear irrational and absurd. The lowest Chinaman unaffectedly despises the foreigner, of whatever rank, as a vulgar barbarian, just as Christians used to despise the Jews, and the Jews, in their time, the Samaritans. Tolerance comes in along with peaceful discussion, when there is a competition of various ways of thinking, no one of which is strong enough to suppress the others.

In America and western Europe at the present day there is a great deal of formalism, but it is, on the whole, of a partial and secondary character, existing rather from the inadequacy of vital force than as a ruling principle. The general state of thought favors adaptation, because we are used to it and have found it on the whole beneficial.

(345) We expect, for example, that a more vital and flexible ; form of organization will supplant the rigid systems of Russia and the Orient, and whatever in our own world is analogous to these.

But dead mechanism is too natural a product of human conditions not to exist at all times, and we may easily find it to-day in the church, in politics, in education, industry and philanthropy; wherever there is a lack of vital thought and sentiment to keep the machinery pliant to its work.

Thus our schools, high and low, exhibit a great deal of it. Routine methods, here as everywhere, are a device for turning out cheap work in large quantities, and the temptation to use them, in the ease of a teacher who has too much to do, or is required to do that which he does not understand or believe in, is almost irresistible. Indeed, they are too frequently inculcated by principals and training schools, in contempt of the fact that the one essential thing in real teaching is a personal expression between teacher and pupil. Drill is easy for one who has got the knack of it, just because it requires nothing vital or personal, but is a convenient appliance for getting the business done with an appearance of success and little trouble to any one.

Even universities have much of this sort of cant. In literature, for instance, whether ancient or modern, English or foreign, little that is vital is commonly imparted. Compelled by his position to teach something to large and diverse classes, the teacher is led to fix upon certain matters—such as grammar, metres, or the biographies of the authors—whose definiteness suits them for the didac-

(346)-tic purpose, and drill them into the student; while the real thing, the sentiments that are the soul of literature, are not communicated. If the teacher himself feels them, which is often the case, the fact that they cannot be reduced to formulas and tested by examinations discourages him from dwelling upon them.

In like manner our whole system of commerce and industry is formal in the sense that it is a vast machine grinding on and on in a blind way which is often destructive of the human nature for whose service it exists. Mammon—as in the painting by Watts—is not a fiend, I wilfully crushing the woman's form that lies under his hand, but only a somewhat hardened man of the world, looking in another direction and preoccupied with the conduct of business upon business principles.

A curious instance of the same sort of thing is the stereotyping of language by the cheap press and the habit of hasty reading. The newspapers are called upon to give a maximum of commonplace information for a minimum of attention, and in doing this are led to adopt a small standard vocabulary and a uniform arrangement of words and sentences. All that requires fresh thought, either from reader or writer, is avoided to the greater comfort of both. The telegraph plays a considerable part in this, and an observer familiar with its technique points out how it puts a premium on long but unmistakable words, on conventional phrases (for which the operators have brief signs) and on a sentence structure so obvious that it cannot be upset by mistakes in punctuation.[2]

(347) In this way our newspapers, and the magazines and books that partake of their character, are the seat of a conventionalism perhaps as destructive of the spirit of literature as ecclesiasticism is of the spirit of Christianity.

The apparent opposite of formalism, but in reality closely akin to it, is disorganization or disintegration, often, though inaccurately, called " individualism." [3] One is mechanism supreme, the other mechanism going to pieces; and both are in contrast to that harmony between human nature and its instruments which is desirable.

In this state of things general order and discipline are lacking. Though there may be praiseworthy persons and activities, society as a whole wants unity and rationality, like a picture which is good in details but does not make a pleasing composition. Individuals and special groups appear to be working too much at cross purposes; there is a "reciprocal struggle of discordant powers" but the " harmony of the universe " cloes not emerge. As good actors do not always make a good troupe nor brave soldiers a good army, so a nation or a historical epoch— say Italy in the Renaissance—may be prolific in distinguished persons and scattered achievements but somewhat futile and chaotic as a system.

Disorganization appears in the individual as a mind without cogent and abiding allegiance to a whole, and without the larger principles of conduct that flow from such allegiance. The better aspect of this is that the lack

(348) of support may stimulate a man to greater activity and independence, the worse that the absence of social standards is likely to lower his plane of achievement and throw him back upon sensuality and other primitive impulses: also that, if he is of a sensitive fibre he is apt to be overstrained by the contest with untoward conditions. How soothing and elevating it is to breathe the atmosphere of some large and quiet discipline. I remember feeling this in reading Lord Roberts' Forty-one Years in India, a book pervaded with one great and simple thought, the Anglo-Indian service, which dominates all narrow considerations and gives people a worthy ideal to live by. How rarely, in our day, is a book or a man dominated by restful and unquestioned faith in anything!

The fact that great personalities often appear in disordered times may seem to be a contradiction of the principle that the healthy development of individuals is one with that of institutions. Thus the Italian Renaissance, which was a time of political disorder and religious decay, produced the greatest painters and sculptors of modern times, and many great personalities in literature and statesmanship. But the genius which may appear in such a period is always, in one point of view, the fruitage of a foregoing and traditional development, never a merely personal phenomenon. That this was true of Renaissance art needs no exposition; like every great achievement it was founded upon organization.

It is no doubt the case, however, that there is a spur in the struggles of a confused time which may excite a few individuals to heroic efforts and accomplishment, just as a fire or a railroad disaster may be the occasion of heroism;

(349) and so the disorder of the Renaissance was perhaps one cause of the men of genius, as well as of the demoralization which they did not escape.

It looks at first sight as if formalism and disorganization were as far apart as possible, but in fact they are closely connected, the latter being only the next step after the former in a logical sequence—the decay of a body already dead. Formalism goes very naturally with sensuality, avarice, selfish ambition, and other traits of disorganization, because the merely formal institution does not enlist and discipline the soul of the individual, but takes hold of him by the outside, his personality being left to torpor or to irreverent and riotous activity. So in the later centuries of the Roman Empire, when its system was most rigid, the people became unpatriotic, disorderly and sensual.

In the same way a school whose discipline is merely formal, not engaging the interest and good-will of the scholar, is pretty certain to turn out unruly boys and girls, because whatever is most personal and vital in them becomes accustomed to assert itself in opposition to the system. And so in a church where external observance has been developed at the expense of personal judgment, the individual conforms to the rite and then feels free for all kinds of self-indulgence. In general the lower "individualism" of our time, the ruthless self-assertion which is so conspicuous, for example, in business, is not something apart from our institutions but expresses the fact that they are largely formal and unhuman, not containing and enlarging the soul of the individual.

(350) The real opposite of both formalism and disorder is that wholesome relation between individuality and the institution in which each supports the other, the latter contributing a stable basis for the vitality and variation of the former.

From one point of view disorganization is a lack of communication and social consciousness, a defect in the organ of language, as formalism is an excess. There is always, I suppose, a larger whole; the question is whether the individual thinks and feels it vividly through some sort of sympathetic contact; if he does he will act as a member of it.

In the writings of one of the most searching and yet hopeful critics of our times [4]we find that "individualism" is identified primarily with an isolation of sentiment, like that of the scholar in his study, the business man in his office or the mechanic who does not feel the broader meaning of his work. The opposite of it is the life of shoulder-to-shoulder sympathy and cooperation, in which the desire for separate power or distinction is lost in the overruling sense of common humanity. And the logical remedy for "individualism" is sought in that broadening of the spirit by immediate contact with the larger currents of life, which is the aim of the social settlement and similar movements.

This is, indeed, an inspiring and timely ideal, but let us hold it without forgetting that specialized and lonesome endeavor, indeed even individual pride and self-seeking, have also their uses. If we dwell too exclusively upon the

(351) we-feeling and the loss of the one in the many, we may lapse into a structureless emotionalism. Eye-to-eye fellowship and the pride of solitary achievement are both essential, each in its own way, to human growth, and either is capable of over-indulgence. We need the most erect individual with the widest base of sympathy.

In so far as it is true of our time that the larger interests of society are not impressed upon the individual, so that his private impulses cooperate with the public good, it is a time of moral disintegration. A well-ordered community is like a ship in which each officer and seaman has confidence in his fellows and in the captain, and is well accustomed to do his duty with no more than ordinary grumbling. All hangs together, and is subject to reason in the form of long-tried rules of navigation and discipline. Virtue is a system and men do heroic acts as part of the day's work and without self-consciousness. But suppose that the ship goes to pieces—let us say upon an iceberg—then the orderly whole is broken up and officers, seamen and passengers find themselves struggling miscellaneously in the water. Rational control and the virtue that is habit being gone, each one is thrown back upon his undisciplined impulses. Survival depends not upon wisdom or goodness—as it largely does in a social system—but upon ruthless force, and the best may probably perish.

Here is "individualism" in the lowest sense, and it is the analogue of this which is said, not without some reason, to pervade our own society. Old institutions are passing away and better ones, we hope, are preparing to take their

(352) place, but in the meantime there is a lack of that higher discipline which prints the good of the whole upon the heart of the member. In a traditional order one is accustomed from childhood to regard usage, the authority of elders and the dominant institutions as the rule of life. "So it must be" is one's unconscious conviction, and, like the seaman, he does wise and heroic things without knowing it. But in our own time there is for many persons, if not most, no authoritative canon of life, and for better or worse we are ruled by native impulse and by that private reason which may be so weak when detached from a rational whole. The higher morality, if it is to be attained at all, must be specially thought out; and of the few who can do this a large part exhaust their energy in thinking and do not practice with any heartiness the truths they perceive.

We find, then, that people have to make up their own minds upon their duties as wives, husbands, mothers and daughters; upon commercial obligation and citizenship; upon the universe and the nature and authority of God. Inevitably many of us make a poor business of it. It is too much. It is as if each one should sit down to invent a language for himself: these things should be thought out gradually, cooperatively each adding little and accepting much. That great traditions should rapidly go to pieces may be a necessary phase of evolution and a disguised blessing, but the present effect is largely distraction and demoralization.

In particular, we notice that few who have burdens to bear are much under the control of submissive tradition,

(353) but every one asks "Why must I bear this?" and the pain of trying to see why is often worse than the evil itself. There is commonly no obvious reason, and the answer is often a sense of rebellion and a bitterness out of which comes, perhaps recklessness, divorce, or suicide.

Why am I poor while others are rich ? Why do I have to do work I do not like ? Why should I be honest when others are unscrupulous ? Why should I wear myself out bearing and rearing children ? Why should I be faithful to my husband or wife when we are not happy together, and another would please me better ? Why should I believe in a good God when all I know is a bad world ? Why should I live when I wish to die ? Never, probably, were so many asking such questions as this and finding no clear answer. There have been other times of analogous confusion, but it could never have penetrated so deeply into the masses as it does in these days of universal stir and communication.

How contemptible these calculations seem in comparison with the attitude of the soldier, who knows that he must suffer privation and not improbably death, and yet faces the prospect quite cheerfully, with a certain pride in his self-devotion. In this spirit, evidently, all the duties of life ought to be taken up. But the soldier, the seaman, the fireman, the brakeman, the doctor and others whose trade leads them into obvious peril have one great advantage: they know what their duty is and have no other thought than to do it; there is no mental distraction to complicate the situation. And as fast as principles become settled and habits formed, people will be as heroic in other functions as they are in these.

(354) We may apply to many in our own time the words of Burckhardt in describing the disorganization of the Renaissance: "The sight of victorious egoism in others drives him to defend his own right by his own arm. And, while thinking to restore his inward equilibrium, he falls, through the vengeance which he executes, into the hands of the powers of darkness." That is, we think we must be as selfish as other people, but find that selfishness is misery I notice that many men, even of much natural sympathy and fellow-feeling, have accepted " every man for himself " as a kind of dogma, making themselves believe that it is the necessary rule of a competitive society, and practicing it with a kind of fanaticism which goes against their better natures. Perhaps the sensitive are more apt to do this than others—because they are more upset by the spectacle of "victorious egoism" around them. But the true good of the individual is found only in subordinating himself to a rational whole; and in turning against others he destroys himself.

The embittered and distracted individual must be a bad citizen. There is the same kind of moral difference between those who feel life as a rational whole, and so have some sort of a belief in God, as there is between an army that believes in its commander and one that does not. In either case the feeling does much to bring about its own justification.

The fact that the breaking up of traditions throws men back upon immediate human nature has, however, its good as well as its bad side. It may obscure those larger truths that are the growth of time and may let loose pride,

(355) sensuality and scepticism; but it also awakens the child in man and a childlike pliability to the better as well as the worse in natural impulse. We may look, among people who have lost the sense of tradition, for the sort of virtues, as well as of vices, that we find on the frontier: for plain dealing, love of character and force, kindness, hope, hospitality and courage. Alongside of an extravagant growth of sensuality, pride and caprice, we have about us a general cult of childhood and womanhood, a vast philanthropy, and an interest in everything relating to the welfare of the masses of the people. The large private gifts to philanthropic and educational purposes, and the fact that a great deal of personal pride is mingled with these gifts, are equally characteristic of the time.

And, after all, there is never any general state of extreme disintegration. Such as our time suffers from in art and social relations is chiefly the penalty of a concentration of thought upon material production and physical science. In these fields there is no lack of unified and cumulative endeavor—though unhuman in some aspects —resulting in total achievement. If we have not Dante and gothic architecture, we have Darwin and the modern railway.. And as fast as the general mind turns to other aims we may hope that our chaotic material will take on order.


  1. The Poet. Emerson. 342
  2. See the article by R. L. O'Brien in the Atlantic Monthly, Oct., 1904.
  3. Inaccurately, because the full development of the individual requires organization
  4. Jane Addams

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