Social Process

Chapter 15: An Organic View of Degeneration

Charles Horton Cooley

Table of Contents | Next | Previous


THE words degeneracy and degeneration are rooted in the Latin word genus, and carry the idea of falling away from a type or standard; as when, for example, we say that a child is degenerate, meaning that he does not come up to the standard set by his ancestors. They are coming to be used as general terms for a state or process of deterioration, most of the words in more common use, such as wrong, evil, disease, and sin, having special implications which it is desirable to avoid.

It is the nature of the human mind, working through social organization, to form norms or standards in every department of life, and to stigmatize whatever falls below these. Such norms are applied with peculiar emphasis to human personality itself, and to the various kinds of behavior in which it is expressed, because these are the matters in which we are most interested. Whether our judgments will prove to be permanently right or only a kind of moral fashion, it is impossible to be sure. lt seems to be understood, however, that the word degeneration is used only with reference to standards which are believed to be of a relatively permanent or well-grounded kind, so that it is hard to imagine that the implied judg-

(154) -ment could be wholly reversed. A man would hardly be called degenerate for dressing in the fashion of ten years ago, however absurd he might appear; but feeblemindedness, disloyalty, cruelty, irresponsibility, or gross dissipation might be so called, since it would seem that these must always be detrimental to the common life.

It is useful to distinguish between definite and indefinite degeneracy, the former being such as is ascertainable in some recognized way, as by medical examination or legal process—for example, idiocy, crime, and alcoholism. The indefinite sort, such as dishonesty, selfishness, instability of character, and sensuality—of kinds within the law - may be strongly condemned although not ascertainable in the same way. Indeed this latter may well be the more harmful, because it is less stigmatized and isolated, more likely to mingle in the social current and exert a pernicious influence. A feeble-minded person who is legally recognized as such and put in a special institution is harmless compared with one not so recognized who remains in the world to demoralize others and breed a family of incompetent children; and in like manner the out-and-out housebreakers and assassins do far less harm than the men of ability and influence whose deeds are no better but who are clever enough to escape a definite stigma.

It is natural that under certain conditions growth should be downward rather than upward. For the most part our natural tendencies are morally indeterminate, not tendencies to do good things or bad things, but to strive for life and self-expression under the conditions which are offered to us by the environment. These conditions may be such as to appeal mainly to the lower trend and offer

( 155) little or no stimulus to the higher. Many children are depraved by sensual vices at an age when they have practically no power to refuse them. Or intellect and ambition may be aroused but led to work in directions opposed to the standards of society. Studies of juvenile delinquents have shown how their life is often such as to train good faculties in bad directions. Thus a boy may have a father so unjust that the boy feels justified in resisting and deceiving him. A little later a badly conducted school may make it natural for him to transfer this attitude to his teachers, and so continue to develop a spirit of resistance to authority. At the same time he not improbably finds that his natural intimates, the boys of the neighborhood, are banded together to thwart the police, who, at the bidding of a municipality which has provided no other playground, are repressing games on the street; and if he can help his fellows in this they will make him a leader. Thus the best traits of human nature, ambition, fellowship, self-expression, combine to urge him into what may presently turn out to be a career of crime.

In general our principles of selective growth and organization, while they are on the whole upbuilding and progressive, may easily work in an opposite sense. The current as a whole sets onward, but there are many eddies and stagnant places. And if a retrogressive movement is well developed and organized it has the same power as any other to force individuals and lesser movements to adapt themselves to it.

It is not necessary that an environment, in order to have a bad influence on a person, should be bad when considered by itself. It is rather a matter of the kind of interaction that takes place, and just as two persons, neither of whom is bad in himself, may have the worst

( 156) influence on each other, so what would be called a good environment and a good individual may make an unfortunate combination. A carefully brought-up boy sometimes goes wrong at the university because he has not developed self-control enough to make a good use of his freedom; or a man may be driven to drink and despair by getting into an occupation which to another would be quite congenial.

Degeneration, then, is part of the general organic process of life. Every wrong has a history, both in the innate tendencies of individuals and in the circumstances under which they have developed. We no longer feel that we understand crime and vice when we know who are practising them, and how, but we must trace them back to bad homes and neighborhoods, want of wholesome play, inadequate education, and lack of training for useful work. And we need to know also, if we can, what kind of a hereditary outfit each person brought into the world with him, and how it has reacted to his surroundings.

Moreover, the various kinds of wrong hang together in an organic whole; they are due largely to the same causes and each tends to reinforce all the others. Where poverty and apathy have become established we may expect to find drunkenness and other sensual vices, idiocy, insanity, pauperism, and delinquency.

There is no better illustration of this than the degenerate villages that may be found, probably, in all parts of the country, but are most common, perhaps, in regions which have been stranded outside the current of economic progress. In these the hereditary stock is usually impaired by the more enterprising people moving away, and also by the interbreeding of the inferior strains

( 157) that remain. Along with this goes a deterioration of the environment in the form of decay of enterprise, of wholesome public opinion, of health, decency, and morality. Drink, gambling, and prostitution flourish; whatever decent people are left tend to move out, and not uncommonly their places are taken by newcomers of a degraded class who find it easier to get a footing in a place like this than anywhere else. There may be another village five miles away that is in just the opposite condition, the only explanation of the difference being that in the former degeneracy in some way got started and a downward growth set in, while in the latter growth was the other way.

In the same way all real reform must be general, an advance all along the line. Each particular evil is interwoven with others and with the general process of life in such a way that if you treat it as a thing by itself your work will be superficial and usually ineffective. The method of reform that naturally follows from the organic view is one of team-work, under which each reformer devotes himself to a special line of effort, but always in co-operation with others working in different lines, and always with an eye to the unity of the process in which all are engaged. If one were to undertake the regeneration of such a village as I have described, be would no doubt have to begin at some definite point-with improvement in the school, say, or the church, or the introduction of a new industry-but he would need also to start work at as many other points as possible.

For similar reasons reform must be sympathetic, in the sense that it must be based on a real understanding, an inside view, of the minds of the people concerned. No social situation is understood until we can see truly how

( 158) the several parties think and feel at critical moments, and see also something of the process by which they come to think and feel in this way. In these states of the spirit we get the vital synthesis of the various factors that have been at work, the actual process of life here and now. If we have this basis we may hopefully take the next step of imagining something that will help the process on. Of social workers without imagination it may be said, as has been said of mediocre poets, that neither men nor gods have any use for them.

Much breath is wasted in discussing the question whether society or the individual is to be held responsible for social wrong. To clear thinking no such problem exists. That is, so far as responsibility exists, it is both social and individual, these terms merely indicating points of view. The active individual is responsible, and yet he only sums up the action of society at the given moment. On the other hand, society, which has provided the antecedents of the wrong, is responsible, but this only means a large number of individuals. If Sam Clarke grows up a criminal, and you say society is responsible, you mean that you, I, and others who might, among us, have provided better influences for him, failed to do so. And, after all, Clarke himself has his individual responsibility for what he does, like the rest of us. The essential change which the organic view calls for is that we should see all these individual responsibilities not as separable things, but as working together in one living whole.

Questions involving personal responsibility can always be treated so as to make it appear that this is the main factor, or, on the other hand, that the individual is dominated by impersonal causes. If, for example, we study

( 159) unemployment with reference to the fluctuating character of industry, the lack of rational adjustment between demand and supply, and the inadequacy of vocational education and guidance, we shall come to see it as a societal condition over which the individual has little or no control; but if we take statistics of unemployment with reference to steadiness, foresight, ambition, and thrift, we may find that the unemployed largely lack these traits. The two sets of facts are not contradictory; it is merely a matter of emphasizing one aspect or another of the same organic condition. Unemployment goes up and down with general conditions, but also selects the less competent.

Common sense usually recognizes, in practical matters, this many-sidedness of responsibility. If a boy has done wrong we usually insist, in talking to him, that his will is the cause, because we feel that this point of view ought to be impressed upon him. But in speaking to his parents we probably dwell upon their part in the matter, and exhibit the boy as an almost passive agent. And again, when we come to address the Civic Association upon juvenile delinquency, we shall take both the boy and his parents for granted, treating the whole matter as mainly one of better schools and playgrounds. This is a legitimate variation of emphasis quite in accord with the organic view.

I should say that under this view responsibility is not so much diminished or increased as reinterpreted and made a different kind of a thing; you have to think of the whole question in a new way, which is not less hopeful or animating than the old and much more in accord with the facts of life. Responsibility becomes a universal and interdependent function of mankind, in which each

( 160) individual and group has its own part to play, and must go ahead with this part, trusting that others will do the like. The whole matter must be conceived in a spirit of fellowship.

We may blame and even punish other people; but it must be done, if it is done rightly, with a kind of contrition, and a sense that we more or less share their guilt, somewhat in the spirit of a good father punishing his child. Treatment which involves the isolation or repudiation of any individual, no matter how degenerate, can never stand as right. We are all in one boat. Imprisonment, and perhaps even death, may be inflicted in a way which carries an acknowledgment of social membership, and makes it a kind of service.

It is well to emphasize this co-operative idea, because the minds of those engaged in reform have in the past been much ruled by the opposite view, which I call particularism, the view that there is some one reform which is the fundamental one, and that if we give our whole energy to effecting this the others will follow as a matter of course. As each group of reformers has a different conception as to what this fundamental reform is, the natural result is a number of groups working at cross-purposes, and each depreciating the others. Thus temperance reformers, of the old pattern, held that the radical ill was drink, and that when they had put an end to that, which they sought to do by the most obvious and repressive methods, there would be little else left to do. Others thought that the unjust distribution of wealth was the root of evil, seeking to remedy this by socialism or communism of some kind and depreciating other reforms as merely palliative. Another group, with biological ante-

( 161) -cedents, saw in bad heredity the primal ill, and advocated sterilization. Still others pinned their faith to religious conversion, woman suffrage, or the single tax. Reformers, in short, went to battle like one of the hordes of our Germanic forefathers, in small units, by tribes and clans, each leader with a band of followers about him as ready to fight their neighbors as the enemy, in a tumultuous, loosely co-ordinated crowd, and not at all with the ordered efficiency of a modern army.

It may be thought that narrowness of view is, after all, useful, because a man who believes that a particular thing is the only thing worth doing is likely to pursue that with more energy than if he took a broader view. The fact, however, is that people who see only one thing can never see that truly, and are not likely to act wisely with reference to it. The truth of a matter lies in its relations to a hundred other matters, and these are just what the particularist does not Perceive. Specialized effort is essential; it is a good thing that each reformer should devote himself with particular zeal to the cause which appeals to him; but it should start from a large understanding of the situation, and should proceed in a spirit of co-operation with others.

It is from a kind of particularism that when anything is wrong we assume there must be some one cause to which the whole or a definite part of the trouble can be ascribed. Thus we say that twenty-five per cent of poverty is due to drink, or sixty per cent of insanity to heredity; and if these figures are, possibly, not quite correct, we do not doubt that by more exact study we could find figures, equally definite, that are correct. We do not see that there is no such separation of factors as these calculations

( 162) imply, and that instead of contributing to precision of thought they impair it by introducing a false conception.

In social inquiries we are not dealing, usually, with distinct and separately measurable forces, but with a complex of forces no one of which can be understood or measured apart from the rest. Granting that drinking to excess is present in one-fourth the cases of poverty, other conditions will be present along with it, such as ill health, bad housing, lack of training, lack of enterprise, low wages, unwholesome work, and so on; and who shall define what part each of these plays, and how far drink is an effect rather than a cause? For the most part poverty is the outcome of a complex organic development, in the individual, his family, and his general environment.

Or suppose that we are investigating the causes of insanity and find that the ancestry show traces of it in sixty per cent of the cases. Who can say in how many cases ancestral weakness would not have manifested itself without the co-operation of such other factors as alcohol, drugs, venereal disease, or nervous strain? Evidently to ascribe sixty per cent to heredity alone would be misleading, and no real understanding of the case is possible without a synthetic study of all the chief factors.

Such questions are the same, in principle, as the question of the cause of the great European War. A dozen causes may be given-as the military traditions and ideals of Prussia, the commercial ambitions of Germany and England, the lack of international control the grudge of the French regarding Alsace-Lorraine, the struggle between democracy and autocracy, secret diplomacy, the Eastern Question-all of them essential aspects of a vast

( 163) and complex situation which, as a whole, was the real source of the outbreak.

This fallacy of "the cause" is so wide-spread and so insidious that it may be worth while to consider somewhat further the theory of the matter. Everything in life is dependent upon a complex system of antecedents without which it could not have come to pass; and yet it may often be proper, from a practical standpoint, to speak of "the cause" of an event. Commonly we mean by this the exceptional or variant factor in the course of things. There is a sound and regular process of some sort which is broken in upon by something irregular and abnormal, as when a man of habitually vigorous health is seized with weakness and chills which prove to be due to an irruption of the germs of typhoid fever. Something analogous is often found in social process, as when poverty and a sequence of other ills are brought upon a normal family by a quite exceptional event, like the failure of a bank, or an unforeseeable accident, and it is right to speak of this as "the cause."

Another example is where there is one and only one factor that we can control, and so interest centres upon this, and we regard it as "the cause" of things going one way or another. Thus, if a baby is sick and needs a certain kind of food we may say that the getting or not getting this food is the cause of its living or dying, although its natural vitality, its previous nurture, the character of the disease, and many other conditions enter. This might plausibly be given a—, a reason for ascribing drunkenness to the saloon; that is, it might be said that the other causes, such as moral weakness, discouragement, lack of better recreation, and the like, were obscure and

( 164) hard to get at, while the saloon is something that we can abolish.

Now what I wish to say is that personal and social degeneration is not ordinarily due to a wholly exceptional factor breaking in upon a sound process, nor is it often the case that all the factors but one are beyond our reach. Usually many conditions of a more or less unwholesome tendency co-operate, and usually all of these are directly or indirectly within our power to amend. The social process has a degenerate side that is an organic part of it, and tends to break out wherever the better influences are relaxed; and it has also a constructive energy that may be applied wherever we see fit. The man who takes to drink is never morally and physically sound, and it is within our power not only to abolish the saloon but to work upon the economic misery, the bad heredity, and other factors that are of equal importance. To attack one of these conditions and not the others might result in a measure of success, but it would be like the success an army may gain by piercing the enemy's line at only one point; an attempt to advance farther at this point would be exposed to flank attacks by the enemy on each side. If we repress degenerate factors at but one point they are pretty sure to appear at others, and the only hope of permanent conquest lies in an advance all along the line.

Recently the people of a neighboring city became alarmed at the growth of juvenile crime, and a leading social worker did me the honor to ask my opinion about the matter. He said that the chief of police laid it to idleness; Father L. of the Catholic Charities to unsupervised recreation; Mr. M. of the Boy Scouts to lack of recreation facilities, and Mr. E. of the Boys' Farm to wrong conditions in the home.

( 165)

It seemed to me probable that all these conditions and others also had a part in the trouble, and I suggested that a fundamental way to study the question would be to take, say, a hundred typical cases of boys coming before the courts, and have social workers, by gaining their confidence, make an intimate study of their life-histories, trying to see just how the conditions of the city had acted upon their development, and where and why they bad gone wrong. The cases would doubtless differ much from one another, and all together would be likely to indicate a whole system of improvements tending to make the community a better place for boys to grow up in. Nothing adequate would be accomplished by working upon any one cause.

I hold, then, that in all studies of degeneracy aiming to be thorough and suggest thorough remedies, the conception of "the cause" should give way to that of organic development. Even accidents, viewed largely, are not isolated causes but the outcome of events which we can understand and control.

It is easy for a person with a particular bias regarding causes of degeneration to present statistics which seem to confirm his view: he has only to display the facts in such a manner as to reveal the operation of the cause in which he is interested, unconsciously concealing the truth that others are equally operative. If he is a student of heredity he will so present matters-and quite honestly, too - that you will wonder you ever thought anything else of much importance; but the next mail, armed with facts just as cogent, will give you the same impression regarding education. I suppose there is nothing which more confuses and discourages the amateur student of society

( 166) than this illusive and contradictory character in what seem to be, and often are, quite trustworthy facts. Unless he can get a commanding and reconciling view, his case, as a thinker, is hopeless.

The practical truth, in all such cases, is that what we are to regard as the cause, if we are to single out any one, is not an absolute matter but relative to the special situation we have to meet. We are justified in selecting any factor which we may hope to control and thus bring about improvement, as the cause for the purpose in hand. If we are discussing eugenic marriage it may be quite proper to say that non-eugenic marriages are the cause of sixty per cent of insanity, provided we can show a probability that this per cent might be eliminated through the control of marriage. At the same time it might be true that sixty per cent could be eliminated by abolishing alcohol and venereal disease, and, again, that sixty per cent might be saved through better education and training-notwithstanding the fact that these three sixties added together are more than the total number of cases. To a great extent these are alternative methods of treatment, any one of which might be effective. It is on the same principle that a man who is suffering from illness brought on by heavy eating, lack of exercise, and hereditary weakness of the digestive organs, might be cured either by less food or more exercise, or, if it were practicable, by getting a better hereditary outfit.

I do not mean to depreciate the statistical study of degeneracy, believing it to be of the utmost value, but its legitimate purpose I take to be to contribute authentic details which the mind can use, along with other facts, to help in forming a true picture of the social process

( 167) leading up to the condition we are interested in. The particular facts and relations we get in this way are like the detailed studies a landscape-painter makes of trunks of trees, leaves, rocks, and water surfaces, which cannot be put directly into his painting, but which give him a perception of details by the aid of which his constructive vision can produce the whole which he strives to depict. The understanding of a social situation is always such a creative or artistic working of the mind and never a reproduction of statistics as such. I have before me the report of an investigation of the feeble-minded in a certain State, which contains carefully prepared tables and diagrams showing the number and grade of the mentally defective, their sex, age, nativity, ancestry, school progress, delinquency, physical condition, and many other pertinent facts. Such a report is of great value to a capable mind which already has a sound general understanding of the subject, and of its relation to other subjects, but in the lack of these it is of little or no use; it is a raw material which needs a trained imagination to give it form and meaning. If there is any kind of knowledge for which a highly specialized action of the mind suffices, it is not sociology, which always calls for a large synthesis of life.

I think I do not go too far in saying that most current interpretation of statistics is invalidated by inadequate views of the social process as a whole. There is evident need, in practical work, of clearer views of one's field and of its relation to other fields. The common complaint is of well-intentioned societies and institutions working ahead in a narrow and somewhat futile way for lack of ideas and methods broad as the facts themselves and adequate to effect co-operation.

( 168) Sometimes vast quantities of precise data are available which illuminate nothing for lack of organizing conceptions. The social process itself being organic, social knowledge must become so in order to deal with it.

If we aim at an understanding of any extended condition of degeneracy, such as the prevalence of crime, vice, and misery in a group, there is nothing adequate, I think, except a precise, sympathetic, and many-sided study of the evolution of the condition, both in individuals and in the group as a whole. All the main factors must be gone into, both in detail and in synthesis. For example, a survey might be made of a degenerate village, or quarter of a city, which should not only describe the actual condition from various points of view, but should trace its history in the same way. And it would not be complete without a collection of typical individual biographies. These should be sympathetic, and should enable us really to understand, in a human way, the course of personal life in its representative varieties. There is much of a kind of formalism which shuns the merely human as sentimental and prefers to rest in the external fact, not seeing that this is always barren without a human interpretation. We are far too complaisant, in my opinion, to that prejudice of the physical scientist which identifies the personal with the vague, and wishes to have as little to do with it as possible. Even psychologists are sometimes guilty of this, which for them is a kind of treason.


No notes for this document

Valid HTML 4.01 Strict Valid CSS2