Social Process

Chapter 8: Opportunity and Class

Charles Horton Cooley

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ALL societies are more or less stratified into classes, based on differences in wealth, occupation, and enlightenment, which tend to be passed on from parents to children; and this stratification creates and perpetuates difference in opportunity. No one needs to be told that extreme poverty may mean ill-nurture in childhood-resulting perhaps in permanent enfeeblement-impaired school work, premature leaving of school, practical exclusion from higher education, stunting labor in early years followed by incapacity later, a restrictive and perhaps degrading environment at all ages, and a hundred other conditions destructive of free development. A somewhat better economic situation may still involve disadvantages which, though not so crushing, are sufficiently serious as bars to higher function.

Professor H. R. Seager, a careful economist, has suggested that the population of the United States may be roughly divided into five classes or strata, which are largely non-competing, in the sense that individuals are in great part shut off from opportunities in classes above their own. The highest class, enjoying family incomes of more than three thousand dollars a year, has the

(79) fullest opportunity. In the second class, with incomes of from one thousand five hundred dollars to three thousand dollars, the boys begin work at sixteen or seventeen years, and are handicapped in starting by lack of resources and outlook. They are too apt to choose work which pays well at once, but does not lead to advancement, and only a very small per cent rise above the condition of their parents. A third class, with incomes of from six hundred dollars to one thousand five hundred dollars, is marked by early marriages, large families, early withdrawal from school, and lack of outlook. Its members are rarely able to compete for the better positions with classes one and two. A fourth class, of wage-earners at from one to two dollars a day (at the time the book was published), shows the same conditions accentuated. Their necessarily low standard of living and its mental and social implications bar a rise in the world, and they compete, as a rule, only for that grade of work to which they axe born. The fifth is a misery class, in which the most destructive and degrading conditions prevail.[1]

I am not sure that this analysis is not somewhat one-sided, especially in allowing too little influence to the relaxing effects of ease upon those born in the upper class, but it is certainly nearer the truth than the optimistic dogma that in this free country every one has an equal chance.

And lack of pecuniary resource is by no means the only thing that restricts opportunity and confines one within a class. To grow up where the schools are poor and the neighborhood associations degrading, to Wong to a despised race, to come of an immigrant group not yet assimilated to the language and customs of the country,

(80) or simply to have vicious or unwise parents, may prevent healthy development irrespective of economic resources.[2]

The existence of inherited stratification is due to the fact that the child is involved in the situation of the family. As long as the latter surrounds him, determining his economic support and social environment, there must be a strong tendency for the condition of the parents to be transmitted. And this merging of the child in the family is in itself no evil, but arises naturally out of the functions of the family as the group charged with the nurture of the coming generation.

In other words, there is a certain opposition between the ideal of equal opportunity and that of family responsibility. Responsibility involves autonomy, which will produce divergence among families, which, in turn, will mean divergent conditions for the children; that is, unequal opportunities. We all recognize that individuals will not remain equal if they are allowed any freedom; and the same is true of families; even if they started with the same opportunities they would make different uses of them, and so create inequalities for the children. And we might go further back, and say that so long as communities and occupation-groups have any freedom and responsibility there will be inequalities among them also, in which families and children will be involved. A state of absolute equality of opportunity is incompatible with social freedom and differentiation.

As society is now constituted, it recognizes the responsibility of the family, in an economic sense at least, and makes the desire to provide well for one's children a chief

(81) inducement to industry, thrift, and virtue in general. Unless we are prepared to change all this we must allow a man to retain for his children any reasonable advantages he may be able to win. It is only a question of what advantages are reasonable.

No one who thinks in full view of the facts will imagine that anything like identity of opportunity is possible. There must be diversities of environment, whether due to family or to other conditions, and these will diversify the opportunities of the children. Equality is only one among several phases of a sound social ideal, and must constantly submit to compromise. There is much to be said for the view that we need to work toward more definitely organized special environments and traditions, because of the higher and finer achievement which these make possible; and if we do, these can hardly fail to impress a greater diversity upon those born into them.

It is on this ground of the need of special environments and traditions to foster the finer kind of achievement that inherited privilege has been most plausibly defended. Thus it is argued that the people who gain wealth and power have, as a rule, ability above the average, and that the inheritance of their wealth and position, and often of their ability, makes possible the growth of a really superior class, with high traditions and ideals, suitable for leadership in politics, art, science, philanthropy, and other high functions which do not offer a pecuniary reward. Certainly we need such a class, and if this is the way to get it no petty jealousy ought to hinder us. There is no doubt that the upper classes of Europe have grown up in this way, and have largely performed these higher functions; and even in American democracy we owe much of our finer leadership to inherited privilege.

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This will probably continue to be the case, and yet there is no good reason why we should relax our endeavors to make opportunity more equal. If, through these endeavors, one kind of upper class becomes obsolete, we may expect the rise of another, based on a freer principle.

The finer kinds of training and ideals may be secured otherwise than through inherited privilege; namely by having them organized in continuing groups and institutions to which individuals are admitted not through privilege, but freely, on the basis of proved capacity, the institutions providing them with whatever income they need for their function. In this way, for example, talented men and women, without inherited advantage, work their way to careers in art, science, and education, supported by fellowships and salaries. The fact that an occupation-group is not hereditary does not at all prevent it from having an effective class spirit and tradition, as we may see in the medical or engineering professions. This is the method of open classes, the ideal one for a modern society, and ought to be developed with the aim of making all the higher kinds of service sufficiently paid, and so capable of drawing the talent they need from wherever it may be found.

It the environment of a specially cultured family is at present essential to the finest culture development, this is perhaps because the general conditions of culture and early opportunity are not at all what they might be. When the misery class is abolished and a more discerning education fosters talent in children from all classes, the value of special privilege will be reduced.

If opportunity were made as nearly equal as possible, consistently with preserving the family, we might reason-

(83) -ably expect that the higher functions of society would be better performed, because there would be a wider selection of persons to perform them, and also that they would be cheaper, because of the broader competition. Indeed many hold that we might come to get the services of the best lawyers, doctors, business men, and others whose, work requires elaborate training, at prices not much above what are now paid for skilled manual labor.

I think, however, that the latter expectation would be disappointed, and that no conceivable equalization of opportunity would prevent great differences in salaries and other gains. Such differences would arise not only from unlikeness in ability, but also from the incalculable nature of the social process, which is sure to act differently upon different persons and result in diverse fortunes.

As regards the professions, even if the requisite education were made accessible to all, successful practitioners would still, probably, command large pay. A long technical preparation, such as is necessary for law or surgery or metallurgy, would still be a difficult and speculative enterprise, involving foresight, resolution, and risk of failure, and this barrier would make competent practitioners comparatively scarce. One cannot be sure that his abilities are of the right sort, and while many make the venture who are not qualified to succeed, so, without doubt, many who are qualified do not make it. It is often a matter of mere luck whether a man discovers what he is fit for or not, and it is not likely that vocational guidance can altogether obviate this. The result is that only a part of the potential competitors actually enter the field, and in the case of the less settled professions this is apt to be a very small part.

And then such matters as the place where a man be-

(84) -gins to practise, and the connections he makes early in his career, are largely fortuitous and have results beyond his foresight. One course of circumstances may lead him into a position where his services are indispensable to a group of wealthy clients, while another may result very differently. Men with an ill-paying practice are not necessarily men of less ability than those who are getting rich.

Still less can we expect that exorbitant gains in business could be obviated by any possible equality of opportunity. In general such gains imply not only ability but a fortunate conjunction of circumstances which could not have been foreseen with any certainty when the man was making his start. There is an element of luck and speculation in the matter, the result of which is that of a thousand who started with equal abilities and opportunities, perhaps only one or two will be on hand at the right place and time, and with the right equipment to make the most of an opening. When it appears there is commonly a small group of men in range of it who are there rather by good fortune than foresight. Of these the ablest, by endowment and training, will grasp it.

So long as the movements of life are free and unanticipated in anything like the present measure, the individual will be like a swimmer upon the surface of a torrent, able to make headway in this direction or that according to his strength, but still very much at the mercy of the stream. If he finds himself near a boat he may reach it and climb aboard, but ninety-nine others who can swim just as well may have all they can do to keep their heads above water.

This is fairly obvious in common observation. At a gathering, which I was privileged to attend, of the prin-

(85) -cipal men of a neighboring commercial city, it seemed that the prevailing type was quite commonplace. They appeared kindly and of a good business intelligence, but hardly in such a degree as one might expect in the leading men of a leading community. Apparently the city had grown and these men attached, as it were, to the growing branches, had been lifted up accordingly.

I take it that large gains, and even gains that are unjust, so far as individual merit is concerned, are inevitable, though some of the more flagrant inequalities might be reduced by social reform. We must, then, deal with them after they are made, and this points to a policy of drastic taxation, the revenue to be used for the common welfare, and also to moral control of the use of wealth through public opinion and social ideals.

It is probably true that the poor, of a scattered and sporadic sort, will always be with us; but organized poverty might be abolished. I mean that the misery class, now existing at the bottom of the economic scale and perpetuating itself through lack of opportunity for the children, might be eliminated through minimum standards of family life and cognate social reforms. For those who, for whatever reason, fall below the standards there should be a special care designed to prevent their condition becoming established in misery environments, and so passed on to another generation. As it is now, lack of opportunity perpetuates misery, which in turn prevents opportunity, and so on in a vicious circle. The general result is a state of social degeneracy through which ignorance, vice, inefficiency, squalor, and lack of ambition are reproduced in the children. Families not far above the misery line also need special care to prevent their being

( 86) crowded over it. While it seems likely that, in spite of all our precautions, misery will continue to be generated, we ought to he able to prevent its organization in a continuous class.

To do this we shall certainly have to proceed with the delicate task of supplementing family responsibility without essentially impairing it. We have already come far in this direction, with our compulsory education, restrictions on child labor, removal from parents of abused or neglected children, probation officers, mothers' pensions, visiting nurses, medical inspection in the schools, and so on. We need to do much more of the same sort, and the question just how far we can go in a given direction without doing more harm than good must be decided by experience.

I think that equal opportunity, though not wholly practicable, is one of our best working ideals. We are not likely to go too far in this direction. There is a natural current of privilege, arising from the tendency of advantages to flow in the family line, and any feasible diversion into broader channels will probably be beneficial. The unfailing tendency of possessors to hold on to their possessions and pass them to their children is guaranty against excessive equalization.

Although dead-level equality is neither possible nor desirable, we may hope for equality in the sense that every child may have the conditions of healthy development, and a wide range of choice, including, if he has the ability, some of the more intellectual occupations. There is such a thing as a human equality-as distinguished from one that is mechanical-which would consist in every-

( 87) -one having, in one way or another, a suitable field of growth and self-expression. This would be reconcilable with great differences of environment and of wealth, but not with ignorance or extreme poverty.


  1. See 138 of his introduction to Economics.
  2. If the reader cares for my view as to whether social stratification tends to increase or diminish, I beg to refer to the discussion of that subject in part IV of my Social Organization.

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