Case Study of Small Institutions As a Method of Research[1]

Charles Horton Cooley

All science, I suppose, proceeds by analysis, that is, by intensive study of what appear to be the more essential and lasting constituents of nature, by penetrative observation of limited, manageable, representative phenomena. If we can understand these we may hope to extend our knowledge to larger wholes.

Now in the realm of life the representative phenomena are themselves life-processes. What else can they be? Life is always life, not an assemblage of other things. If we study facts of mere structure it is always in the hope of getting light on the life facts to which they are related. In sociology we do much work whose relation to vital process is indirect and may not be apparent, but is there if the work is worth doing. It is back of our study of attitudes, for example; a research concerning the attitudes of immigrants has in view, I suppose, a better eventual understanding of the life-changes which come with the mingling of races, nationalities, and cultures.

Another way of putting what I have in mind is to say that the object of our study is always behavior, not forgetting that it may be an indirect object, and that groups and institutions behave as well as individuals. A common-sense meaning for behaviorism would seem to be the study of life from the stand-point of organic process, and in this sense we are all, I sup-pose, behaviorists. We see life as adaptation, survival, evolution, and are interested in acts as they bear on these processes. That some behaviorists desire to exclude consciousness from such study is a notable fact, but hardly gives them the right to monopolize an expressive word.

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It seems to me that this organic or behavioristic point of view involves some revision in our criteria of scientific knowledge. We are accustomed to think of scientific exactness as a matter of measurement in small units of space and time. But behavioristic knowledge is essentially organic, must exist in wholes or it does not exist at all. Even in its simplest forms it deals with conformations, patterns, systems, not with mechanical units. For this reason the phenomena of life are often better distinguished by pattern than by quantity. Those who are striving to make sociology an exact science might well give more attention to the method of pattern comparison. Starting, perhaps, from the use of finger prints to identify criminals, it might conceivably be carried, by the aid of photography and phonography, into very subtle regions of behavior. Measurement is only one kind of precision. What could be more precise, as a record of visible behavior, than a motion picture? Yet it is not quantitative. Its precision is total, not incremental, a matter of patterns rather than of minute differences in space. Our instruments of precision should be such as record living wholes, not such as reduce them to lifeless units. If we had a film of George Washington, with phonograph accompaniment, taken when he was conducting the raid on the British at Germantown, it would add more to our precise knowledge of him than all the measurements imaginable. The insistence on the quantitative where it is out of place is one source of that laborious futility not uncommon in certain lines of research.

And yet I would not wish to abate that ardor for measurement that is so healthy a trait of recent work. Many kinds of observation must be quantitative in order to be precise, and the statistical processes by which we ascertain whether an ob-served act is typical or not are quantitative in their nature. We must use discrimination.

The statistical method cannot take us very far in subjects like education or criminology, where understanding of persons is the main thing. It does not deal with the organism as a whole, but with traits or functions of some sort which are artificially separated and treated as numerical units. What is a trait apart from a man? Does it not get its reality from

( 315) being an aspect of a concrete human organism? And if you take that away, what is left? Statistics of traits are useful as an indication of mass tendencies, but they give us no human reality, and should, in such fields, be subsidiary to the study of whole persons.

What, then, is the aim of behavioristic science? I take it to be the complete preception, record, and understanding of fundamental acts, with the consequent ability to foresee them.[2] This calls, first, for an exact and comprehensive technique of observation and comparison, and then for all the constructive imagination we can bring to bear. How would this apply to animal life, to the behavior, let us say, of mallard ducks? I suppose that adequate science must require, for one thing, a moving-picture record of all the essential functional acts of the species, their modes of feeding, of coition, of nesting, brooding, concealment, attack, defense, and so on. When our technique permits, this should include the functioning of colors and cries, and should embrace, not only the birds themselves, but what is essential in the environment. One must also, no doubt, make records of weight and dimensions, of the number and length of the wing feathers, and other details having some bearing on function. Statistical inquiries regarding the numbers and movements of the birds may well be undertaken, be-cause these reveal large-scale functional activities. If we had all this observed, recorded, and digested, not merely in detail, but as a living whole, so assimilated by the imagination that we could understand how the species adapts itself and has adapted itself to the conditions of life, and could predict what a given member of it will do in a given situation, we should perhaps know as much about the behavior of mallard ducks as a mere man can expect to.

In the case of a more intelligent and social species, like the chimpanzees studied by Köhler, the behavior record will em-brace the social and intelligent acts, including the rudiments of language. There may be people so devoted to the statistical idea who, watching the wonderful motion pictures of Köhler, will say, "This is interesting, but it is not exact science. It

(316) wouldn't do at all for a Doctor's thesis." I would think that it compared well in scientific quality with the best statistical work, and is an example of the organic or total way of recording behavior which we need also in the study of human life.

I take it that the ideal for sociology is to extend the behavior record to all the essential acts of man, making them intelligible, imaginable, predictable. We aim to see human life as an actual dramatic activity, and to participate also in those mental processes which are a part of human function and are accessible to sympthetic observation by the aid of gesture and language. We must see it not only from the standpoint of individuals, families, and nations, but also from that of the functional groups and processes into which human life is differentiated. Conceived in this way the technique of sociology will consist partly in some sort of description, at once exact and dramatic, analogous to the motion pictures of Köhler. Perhaps much may be done with actual pictures. Professors Odum and Johnson have already taken photo-phonographic records of Negro singing,[3] and one can readily think of other directions in which research of this kind would be in order, in child study, for ex-ample, or in recording the proceedings of a mob. The social behavior of man is, however, for the most part so subtle, so complex, and so little confined to time or place that the only technique adequate to describe and record it is that of language. Language is itself a form of social behavior, one of the latest achievements of evolution, and as indispensable as the brain itself to the higher kinds of life. Its function is to define, record, organize, and guide the subtler forms of human activity, and it is natural that social science, which aims to ex-tend and perfect this function, should find in language its main instrument.

A language record may be used as objective data for the study of personal and group behavior, as are the letters printed by Thomas and Znaniecki in their study of The Polish Peasant. Or language may be used as the instrument by which qualified observers define and record traits of behavior which could not be otherwise preserved.

It has been customary, under the influence of physical science,

( 317) to think of "scientific" and "literary" as antithetical terms. I believe that we shall have to get this idea out of our heads, and come to see that a literary technique, exact, disciplined, responsible, and yet vivid and imaginative, is indispensable to social description. Even in the sciences of animal behavior the literary powers of such naturalists as W. H. Hudson and William Beebe are not merely ornamental, but a part of their scientific equipment. In psychology some writers, notably William James, have made use of dramatic passages, original or quoted, to describe typical human conduct ; and we have in sociology a growing output of serious descriptive literature which is not less scientific because the animal whose habits it describes is man. Such work cannot be done well without mastery of the instrument.

Much of the prevailing skepticism regarding the possibility of a science of human life arises from a conception of science which would exclude those vivid and dramatic aspects without which life would not be human. Behaviorism promises to put the dramatic where it belongs, at the center.

The behavior processes that we study may be vast, complex, and difficult of access, like the procedure of our government in levying and collecting taxes, or they may be on a small scale and rather easy to get at, like those of many individuals and families. In the latter case it is possible for a student to comprehend them, to identify himself with them, and to present them to others in a fairly complete and lifelike biography. This is what I understand by case study : a direct and all-around study of life-histories, as distinguished from the indirect, partial, and somewhat abstract information bearing upon such histories with which we often have to be content.

We all feel, I think, that there is something peculiarly real and stimulating about case study, even when its contribution to theory is not apparent. It deepens our perceptions and gives us a clearer insight into life. It is truly behavioristic in that it gets at behavior directly and not by an indirect and abstract approach. If we can have enough of it and of sufficiently varied types to be representative of the social process, it will go far to enable us to understand that process, and perhaps to foresee its course,

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While persons and families are the usual objects of case study, the method may be extended to other constituents of the social process, to the life-histories of groups and institutions not too large to be treated in this direct and total fashion. These also are live things, and offer a field of behavioristic study which, though by no means unknown, has been relatively neglected. Nothing else can take its place; it is a distinct and indispensable method.

Perhaps I should explain the difference, as I see it, between an institution and a group. It is largely in the point of view. A group is primarily an aggregation of persons, like a family, a regiment, a congregation, a board of directors. A group may or may not be participating in an institution, that is, in a continuous organic activity with a social heritage of its own and with methods of co-operation which it imparts to the persons who enter into it. Even if they are so participating, much of their personality may have little to do with the institution; they belong to it by certain habits and interests ; and on the other hand, the institution is more than a group; its vitality consists in an organic whole of transmitted ideas which has the power to enlist the activities of a group, but does not, for the most part, originate with the group, and cannot be explained as a mere product of their personalities. It must be seen as a distinct organic process.

Anyone who has tried his hand at social research will be likely at this point to ask how far it is possible to pick out for analysis simple, distinct, and representative institutional processes. Is it not a fact that the whole institutional complex is so intricately interlaced that you cannot separate anything from the rest without destroying its reality? Can you hope to understand such a whole by building it up from supposed elements? This is quite just, but applies to the study of per-sons as well as of institutions. No analysis of a personality is possible apart from that social complex of which it is an aspect. What the analyst does is to get such knowledge of the social complex as seems to be most pertinent, and with this back-ground to go ahead with intensive study of the person, perhaps seeking more knowledge of the complex as the need for it arises. And so with our analysis of the institutional process :

( 319) we must select for study elements that are as distinct, typical, and manageable as we can hope to find, and subject them to intensive study in a setting of such knowledge of the milieu as we can get, expecting that an increase of this knowledge will be one result of our study.

But just what is it that we want to know about the behavior of small institutions? Suppose that we have captured one and have it under observation: What shall we observe? I presume that our aim is to understand what part the form of life we have before us plays in the social process, and also, perhaps, to foresee its operation, know how to influence it, and, by comparison, extend our knowledge to other forms more or less similar. A mature science of such forms should apparently include the ascertainment of types and an intimate knowledge of the distinctive working of each.

I suppose that every institution holding its own in the world must have a special character and function which explains its power to live. Perhaps our first aim should be to ascertain this character and function, to find out how it appeals to human nature and is enabled to enlist a share of human vitality in its service. Commercial institutions, for example, have in general obvious functions, but an adequate characterization of a successful institution of trade would have to include also those subtle traits of organization and spirit which explain just how and why this institution is viable while others, if they are viable, are so in a different way. I have had to do, for instance, with several publishing concerns, and am of the opinion that their distinctive behaviors would make an instructive study. And even general functions are not always obvious. In the case of the Ku Klux Klan research might be required at the out-set to see why such an institution should exist at all. Or consider college football, an institution that has had a rank growth under our own eyes. There is something more in it than the obvious athletic functions; you could not explain it without going into crowd psychology, its exploitation by an organized athletic interest attached to the educational system (a "cancerous growth" as some hold), and the use of the game by college officials as a means of mobilizing alumni. And so patriotic institutions, like the National Security League;

( 320) political, like Tammany Hall; religious, like the Salvation Army; juvenile gangs, already an object of notable studies—these and many others would probably yield curious fruits to the searching investigator.

This intimate and distinctive character of an institution might be compared to the theme of a symphony, continually recurring, and of which the whole organism of the music is a various unfolding. Like that it is a pattern running through the web which this particular loom turns out. To ascertain this and set it forth may call for as much imagination and in-sight as to distinguish and describe the ego of a person. And like that it becomes, when we have grasped it, the focus of our study.

After ascertaining its character or theme we may, I suppose, go on to inquire just how the institution develops and works under various conditions, how it acts and reacts and is modified, how its character may, in time, come to be transformed. It will have mechanisms of attack and defense, methods of recruiting and training, and, so far as its processes are conscious, some provision for investigation, discussion, valuation, planning, and propaganda. There will also be interactions within the institution between its heritage and the persons who carry it on, as in the case of leaders and experts; also discipline and an equipment of suitable mores. All this the student must enter heartily into if he is to understand how the life of the institution is sustained and enhanced.

It so happens that without any plan on my part, but on the initiative, chiefly, of the students themselves, there have recently been carried out at the Michigan Graduate School several investigations more or less of the sort I have indicated. Among these the best example of a completed study is the dissertation of Read Bain, presented in 1926, entitled, "The Growth of an Institution: A Sociological Interpretation of the Tillamook County Creamery Association of Tillamook, Ore-gon." This is a whole-hearted study of the life-history of a farmers' organization old enough to have had a well-defined and successful institutional development. Dr. Bain writes in no abstract or merely academic spirit, but with a hearty par-

( 321) -ticipation in his subject, manifest in the descriptive parts, which include a sympathetic chapter on "The Cow." The specific character, life-processes, and transformations of the institution are convincingly set forth and illuminating comparisons made with other institutions of somewhat similar type. The whole subject of producers' co-operation is brought into clearer view, and this view extends, in some measure, to the wider theory and practice of co-operation and to its probable future. A consideration of this cheese-producing association has suggested to Dr. Bain the possibility of a rural county becoming an integrated social organization built around the dominant agricultural interest. This may or may not be practicable, but to suggest such possibilities and investigate their practicability is surely one of the higher aims of research.

Another completed study of somewhat similar nature is the investigation of student association at Michigan by Robert C. Angell, which will appear as a book, under the title The Cam-pus, during the present winter. This is a study, not of a single institution, but of a limited institutional complex, of very re-cent growth, remarkably open to observation, and of much significance for education and for the social process at large. The author may be called a "participant observer," to use Mr. Lindeman's term, relying quite as much upon his own recent familiarity with campus life as upon the statistics he has collected, and so is able to animate his facts by authentic interpretation. When we have a number of such studies, as we doubt-less shall have, they will considerably illuminate American education.

A third study is still going on; and of studies still going on the less said, perhaps, the better. They should be allowed to retain that. embryonic seclusion and indetermination which a premature publicity would impair. But probably no harm will be done by saying that it is concerned with an institution de-voted to a specific social reform, and presumably more or less typical of institutions of that sort. Such a study, if competently carried out, should give us some insight into those processes of social leadership and control with which such institutions deal.

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The type of research which I have been discussing seems to me to be quite as promising as others which are more in favor. At least it is one way by which we may hope to extend our knowledge of what is going on in the world and our power to control the process.


  1. This paper was read at the 1927 meeting of the American Sociological Society and appeared in the Society's Publications, XXII (1928), pp. 123-32. It was reprinted in Personality and the Social Group (E. W. Burgess, Ed.), pp. 181-91.
  2. I have found stimulating the discussion of behaviorism by Grace A. de Laguna in her work on Speech.
  3. See Negro Workaday Songs, chap. xv.

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