Social Process

Chapter 25: Valuation as a Social Process

Charles Horton Cooley

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The idea of valuation, familiar to all of us in the buyings and sellings of every-day life, and to students in its elaboration as the science of political economy, has been extended beyond this field of tangible exchanges until we hear discussion of values with reference to almost any kind of human activity. Painters use the word in connection with light and color, moralists in questions of conduct, and so on. Any man or group of men, in any sphere of life, it appears, may be presumed to act according to a scale of values.

This broad use of the term seems to rest on the feeling' that the judgment of worth is of much the same character, whether you apply it to a choice between a dozen eggs and a pound of beef in the market-place, or between shades of color or lines of conduct: it is a matter of ascertaining how much the alternatives appeal to you.

In short, a system of values is a system of practical ideas or motives to behavior, and the process of valuation by which we arrive at these ideas is presumably that same process of social and mental competition, selection and organization that we have all along been considering. Take a simple example: suppose I wish to drive a nail. and have no hammer by me. I look at every-

(284)-thing within reach with reference to its hammer-value, that is, with reference to its power to meet the special situation, and if the monkey-wrench promises more of this than any other object available, its value rises, it fits the situation, it is selected, it "works," and becomes a more active factor in life. And it is by analogous processes that men, nations, doctrines, what you will, come to have various degrees and kinds of value.

It would seem that the essential things in the conception of value are three: an organism, a situation, and an object. The organism is necessary to give meaning to the idea; there must be worth to something. It need not be a person; a group, an institution, a doctrine, any organized form of life will do; and that it be conscious of the values that motivate it is not at all essential. Anything which lives and grows gives rise to a special system of values having reference to that growth, and these values are real powers in life, whether persons are aware of them or not; they are part of the character and tendency of the organism. The growth of language, for example, or of forms of art, is guided by valuations of which the people concerned in it commonly know nothing. The idea might easily be extended to animal and plant life, but I shall be content with some of its human applications.

The organism, whatever it may be, is the heart of the whole matter: we are interested primarily in that because it is a system of life, our system so long as we attend to. it, and in the values because they function in that life. The situation is the immediate occasion for action, in view of which the organism integrates the various values working within it (as a man does when he "makes up his mind") and meets the situation by an act of selection,

( 285)which is a step in its own growth, leading on to new values and new situations. Valuation is only another name for tentative organic process.

The various classifications of value are based in one way or another on that of the objects, organisms, or situations which the general idea of value involves. Thus, taking the point of view of the object, we speak of grain-values, stock-values, the values of books, of pictures, of doctrines, of men. Evidently, however, these are indeterminate unless we bring in the organism and the situation to define them. A book has various kinds of value, as literary and pecuniary, and these again may be different for different persons or groups

As regards the forms of human life to which values are to be referred, it seems to me of primary importance to make a distinction which I will call that between human-nature values and institutional values.

The first are those which may be traced without great difficulty to phases of universal human nature. The organism for which they have weight is simply man in those comparatively permanent aspects which we are accustomed to speak of as human nature, and to contrast with the shifting institutions that are built upon it. The objects possessing these values differ greatly from age to age, but the tests which are applied to them are fundamentally much the same, because the organism from which they spring is much the same. A bright color, a harmonious sound, have a worth for all men, and we may also reckon the more universal forms of beauty, those which men of any age and culture may appreciate through merely becoming familiar with them, as human-nature values.

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Values of this kind are as various as human nature itself and may be differentiated and classified in a hundred ways. There are some in which particular senses are the conspicuous factors, as auditory and gustatory values. Others spring from the social sentiments, like the values of social self-feeling which underlie conformity, and those of love, fear, ambition, honor, and loyalty. Of much the same sort are the more universal religious and moral values, which, however, are usually entangled with institutional values of a more transient and special character. The same may be said of scientific, philosophical and ethical values, and lasting achievement in any of these fields depends mainly on the creation of values which are such for human nature, and not merely for some transient institutional point of view.

The second sort of values are those which must be ascribed to an institutional system of some sort. Human nature enters into them but is so transformed in its operation by the system that we regard the latter as their source, and are justified in doing so by the fact that social organisms have a growth and values that cannot, practically, be explained from the standpoint of general human nature. The distinction is obvious enough if we take a clear instance of it, like the distinction between religious and ecclesiastical values. Such general traits of religious psychology as are treated in William James's Varieties of Religious Experience, give rise to values that we may call values of human nature; the values established in the Roman Catholic Church are a very different matter, though human nature certainly enters into them. In the same way there are special values for every sort of institutional development-legal values, political values, military values, university values, and

(287) so on. All technical values come under this head. Thus in every art there are not only human-nature values in the shape of phases of beauty open to men at large, but technical values, springing from the special history and methods of the art, which only the expert can appreciate.

This distinction, as I have remarked, rests upon the fact that there are forms of social life having a distinct organic growth, involving distinct needs and values, which cannot be understood by direct reference to universal human nature and the conditions that immediately influence it. I am aware that it may be difficult to make in particular cases. It resembles most psychological distinctions in offering no sharp dividing-line, being simply a question of the amount and definiteness of social tradition and structure involved. All human values are more or less mediated by special social conditions: they might, perhaps, be arranged in a scale as to the degree in which they are so mediated; some, like the taste for salt, hardly at all; others, like the taste for poetry, a great deal. In dealing with the latter kind we come to a point on the scale where the social antecedents take on such definite form and development as to constitute a distinct organism, which must be studied as such before we can understand the value situation. In moral values, for example, there are some, like those of loyalty, kindness, and courage, which spring quite directly from human-nature; others, like the obligation to go to church on Sunday, are evidently institutional.

I need hardly add that human and institutional values often conflict, or that reform consists largely in readjusting them to each other. Nor need I discuss in detail the familiar process by which human-nature values,

( 288) seeking realization through a complex social system, are led to take on organization and an institutional character, which carries them far away from human nature and in time calls for a reassertion of the latter, through the initiative of individuals and small groups. Any one may see such cycles in the history of the Christian church, or of any other institution he may prefer to study.

The various human-nature and institutional values differ among themselves as the phases of the human mind itself differ: that is, however marked the differences, the values are after all expressions of a common organic life. There is no clean-cut separation among them and at times they merge indistinguishably one into another. An organic mental-social life has for one of its phases an organic system of values. For example, the aesthetic and moral values may seem quite unconnected, as in the case of a man with a "fair outside" but a bad character, and yet we feel that there is something beautiful about perfect goodness and something good about perfect beauty. It is agreed, I believe, that the best literature and art are moral, not, perhaps, by intention, but because the two kinds of value are related and tend to coincide in their completeness. Alongside of these we may put truth-value, and say of the three that they are phases of the highest form of human motive which often become indistinguishable.

The institutional values are also parts of this organic whole, and merge into the. human-nature values, as I have suggested, so that it may be hard to distinguish between them. An institution, however, seldom or never corresponds so closely to a phase of human nature that the institutional values and the immediately human val-

( 289) -ues on the whole coincide. An idea, in becoming institutional, adapts itself to the whole traditional structure of society, taking the past upon its shoulders, and loses much of the breadth and spontaneity of our more immediate life. There are no institutions that express adequately the inner need for beauty, truth, righteousness, and religion as human nature requires them at a given time: no church, for example, ever was or can be wholly Christian.

Because of this organic character, values vary with the time, the group, and the special situation. Every nation or epoch has its more or less peculiar value system, made up of related parts; any one can see that the system of the Middle Ages was very different from ours. Values are a part of the ethos, the mores, or whatever you choose to call the collective state of mind.[1] Each individual, also, has a system of values of his own which is a differentiated member of the system of the group. And these various group and individual aspects hang together in such a way that no one aspect can be explained except by reference to the whole out of which it grows. You can hardly understand how a man feels about religion, for example, unless you understand also how he feels about his industrial position and about other matters in which he is deeply concerned; you must, so far as may be, grasp his life as a whole. And you will hardly do this unless you grasp also the social medium in which he lives. Amy searching study of any sort of values must be the study of an organic social life.

It is apparent that the same object may have many kinds of value, perhaps all of those that I have mentioned.

(290) It is conceivable that man may turn all phases of his life toward an object and appraise it differently for each phase. Consider, for instance, an animal like the ox, of immemorial interest to the human race. It may be regarded as beautiful or ugly, may arouse the various emotions, as love, fear, or anger, may give rise to moral and philosophical questions, may be the object of religious feeling, as in India, and may have a value for the senses of sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste. It has also, especially among the pastoral peoples, notable institutional values; plays a large part in law, ceremony, and worship, and, in our own tradition, has an eponymous relation to pecuniary institutions.[2]

The process that generates value is mental but not ordinarily conscious; it works by suggestion, influence, and the competition and survival of ideas; but all this is constantly going on in and through us without our knowing it. I may be wholly unaware of the genesis or even the existence of values which live in my mind and guide my daily course; indeed this is rather the rule than the exception. The common phrase, "I have come to feel differently about it," expresses well enough the way in which values usually change. The psychology of the matter is intricate, involving the influence of repetition, of subtle associations of ideas, of the prestige of personalities, giving weight to their example, and the like; but of all this we commonly know nothing. The idea of punishment after death, for example, has been fading for a generation past; its value for conduct has mostly gone, yet few have been aware of its passing and fewer stiff can tell how this has come about. This trait of the growth

( 291) of values is of course well understood in the art of advertising, which aims, first of all, to give an idea weight in the subconscious processes, to familiarize it by repetition, to accredit it by pleasing or imposing associations, to insinuate it somehow into the current of thought without giving choice a chance to pass upon it at all.

If the simpler phases of valuation, those that relate to the personal aims of the individual, are usually subconscious, much more is this true of the larger phases which relate to the development of complex impersonal wholes. It is quite true that there are "great social values whose motivating power directs the activities of nations, of great industries, of literary and artistic 'schools,' of churches and other social organizations, as well as the daily lives of every man and woman-impelling them in paths which no individual man foresaw or purposed."[3]

The institutions, we may note in this connection, usually have rather definite and precise methods for the appraisal of values in accordance with their own organic needs. In the state, for example, we have elaborate methods of electing or appointing persons, as well as legislative, judicial, and scientific authorities for passing upon ideas. The church has its tests of membership, its creeds, scriptures, sacraments, penances, hierarchy of saints and dignitaries, and the like, all of which serve as standards of value. The army has an analogous system. On the institutional side of art we have exhibitions with medals, prize competitions, election to academies and the verdict of trained critics: in science much the same, with more emphasis on titles and academic chairs. You will find something of the same sort in every well-organized

( 292) traditional structure. We have it in the universities, not only in the official working of the institution, but in the fraternities, athletic associations, and the like.

It is also noteworthy that institutional valuation is nearly always the function of a special class. This is obviously the case with the institutions mentioned, and it is equally true, though perhaps less obviously, with pecuniary valuation.


  1. The human-nature values, of course, vary much less than the institutional values. Thus fashions vary infinitely, but conformity, the human. nature basis of allegiance to fashion, remains much the same.
  2. Pecunia, from pecus, cattle.
  3. B. M. Anderson, Jr., Social Value. p. 116.

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