The Uses and Limitations of Behaviorism in Sociology

Charles A. Ellwood
University of Missouri


There is a strong tendency to confine the social sciences to the physical science method of making use only of sense data. The social sciences have always employed behavioristic methods up to a certain point. The dispute is over their adequacy. There are several minor objections to pure behaviorism in sociology. But the main reasons why purely behavioristic interpretations of human society must be inadequate are: (1) they do not show the true nature of the human social process, which is essentially a process of intercommunication; (2) they do not show the true nature of adult human behavior, which is essentially cultural; (3) they fail to show the true nature of human institutions, which are essentially based upon values and valuing processes. Not compromise, but a synthesis of behavioristic methods with methods of studying human desires, beliefs, emotions, and imagination is what is needed.

Much would-be social science seeks to dodge the mental and emotional processes in which society consists, to circumvent them, find them superfluous, arrive at social truth without them. This is pseudo-science; in the end it will not work; these phenomena are nature; there is no substitute; if we are to have a science, it must advance through them, not around them.[2]

These words, bequeathed to us by Professor Charles Horton Cooley in his last book, deserve the careful attention and consideration of all students of sociology. The task, moreover, is imperative at the present time; for an increasing number of sociologists are claiming that the logic of the social sciences, that is to say, their methods of approach in the study of their problems, is the same as that of the physical sciences; that very little written in the social sciences, with few exceptions, until the advent of such objective methods is worthy of serious consideration; and that the social sciences, if they are to be sciences, will have to be rewritten in physical, objective terms or symbols, stating their conclusions in quantitative measurements, at least hypothetically, if not actually. If this is true, it is important that all interested in the social sciences should know about it.

The pure behaviorist holds that all subjective terms, or names of mental processes, such as ideas, beliefs, desires, wishes, values, have

( 75) no place in science except as they may be temporarily tolerated on account of the lack of objective terms for such processes. The physical alone has real existence, and since social processes are physical, the use of any terms which imply mind or consciousness, while of popular and literary value, is out of place in science, be-cause science deals with facts which are verifiable and hence which can be observed by many witnesses. Mental processes are not observable. Only physical processes are observable. Therefore, the gradual exclusion of all subjective terms from the social sciences is the only way in which these disciplines can be made true sciences, capable of advances in the measurement of the processes which they describe. So far as sociologists appeal to ideas, emotions, and conscious values to explain collective human behavior, they destroy, according to the pure behaviorists, the objectivity which is the basis of scientific knowledge, and some would say also the principle of the continuity and uniformity of nature.

This position is not entirely new. It was foreshadowed by Durkheim, and some would say by Comte. However, it made little head-way in the social sciences until Pavlov, in Russia, demonstrated the reality of conditioned reflexes and John B. Watson, in this country, came forward with his doctrine that consciousness can have no place in a scientific description of natural phenomena, as it is not available for observation and verification and cannot be made so. Human behavior, therefore, must be studied like animal behavior, which is adequately explained by reference to physiological conditions and stimuli, without appeal to mind or conscious processes.

It is not the purpose of this paper to pass judgment upon behaviorism in individual psychology, but rather to consider its applicability in the social sciences, and particularly in sociology. Let us note, first of all, that the social sciences have always preferred objective terminology in the studies which they have made. Al-most necessarily they have done so, because their interest is in explaining social conditions. When they have appealed to the subjective, they have done so in order to explain objective conditions, which is precisely what the behaviorist says they must not do if they are to be scientific. Thus the psychological school of economists

( 76) has explained the prices of commodities as due to the subjective value of these commodities to individuals. In the main, scientific social studies along anthropological, historical, economic, and political lines have always been objective and behavioristic, without ignoring the subjective as representing an important set of modifying factors. The question of behaviorism in the social sciences is not, therefore, the question of the dominance of the objective point of view in these studies. It is rather the question whether subjective terms have a legitimate place in the social sciences or whether they should be excluded altogether.

The behavioristic approach to social problems must not be con-fused, therefore, with behaviorism. The behavioristic approach, the approach from the standpoint of objective behavior, is now common to all sociologists and to most other social scientists; but it does not necessarily exclude all references to conscious processes. Thus the most violent antibehaviorist among sociologists today would probably object to a description of institutions or collective action in purely subjective terms. While he would hold that conscious values are necessarily involved, he would also hold that a purely subjective description is, to say the least, out of date. Behaviorism also must not be confused with "functionalism," the doctrine that mental processes are inner activities developed to mediate and control overt actions. The behaviorists themselves, at least among psychologists, have vehemently denied that they are "functionalists." Finally, the appropriation of the label "behaviorist" by some of our younger sociologists must not be taken too seriously. The social sciences, like other social processes, are subject to fads and fashions, and, as Professor Stuart Rice has pointed out, behaviorism is now becoming the fashion and it is popular to attach its labels to one's work. For the most part, those sociologists who have labeled themselves "behaviorists" are no more entitled to be so called than some of those whom they denounce as "subjectivists."

That behaviorism, in the strict sense, may be a fruitful method in the social sciences, and hence worthy of development, hardly any sociologist would deny. "The study and measurement of behavior, the outside of life, is a fruitful and promising method," says Professor Cooley, but he adds, "the idea of a human science consisting

( 77) wholly of such study, without sympathetic observation of the mind, is, I think, only mystification. Outside and inside, consciousness and behavior, mutually complement and interpret each other. They cannot be disjoined without denaturing both."[3] Therefore, the only objection which anyone has to behaviorism in the social sciences is when it sets itself up as an adequate method in itself, without acknowledging its limitations. Like many other methods it may be valuable, but it is not adequate.

Before taking up the chief limitations of a pure behaviorism in the study of human society, however, let us first note certain objections of a minor or methodological character. The first of these minor objections is that a purely behavioristic method does not pre-serve the experimental attitude in the matter of scientific methodology. It would put a bar to the development of sociology by any other than behavioristic methods. Now, we have no right to assume that our methodological knowledge is complete any more than any other part of our knowledge, and it is quite as important that the experimental attitude be preserved in methodology, as in other aspects of scientific work. This is the scientific spirit. Behaviorists assume the crude theory of knowledge accepted by the physical sciences of the nineteenth century, but they seem unaware that they are traditionalists in science and in scientific method. The scientific student of human social behavior should be willing to use any method which promises results in the way of trustworthy knowledge.

This brings us to a second minor objection to behaviorism; and that is that if it claims adequacy, it must adhere to some metaphysical or methodological dogmatism. Now science is a movement toward knowledge of all reality, and it cannot be built upon any dogmatism. It cultivates the open mind. Behaviorists seem to hold that science is not simply adequately tested knowledge, but that it is a special kind of interpretation, namely, an interpretation in terms of mechanistic causation. The philosophical assumption of behaviorism is that only the physical exists and that mechanism of a rigid sort pervades all nature and is adequate to explain all that occurs even in human behavior. The methodological assumption of

( 78) behaviorism is, accordingly, that science must be built upon physical facts and upon a philosophy of mechanistic determinism. It is curious to note that just as the physical sciences seem about to give up a rigid mechanistic determinism, the behaviorists are trying to introduce it into the social sciences. May we not suspect that they are the victims of a traditional orthodoxy in science, just as the fundamentalists are the victims of a traditional orthodoxy in religion?

Now if there be non-physical, teleological, or indeterminate elements involved in social behavior, scientific method should be. broad enough to recognize the fact. For the scientific spirit is no respecter of orthodoxies either in science or elsewhere. It is always willing to revise theories or hypotheses to accommodate facts. The pure objectivist in the social sciences is attempting the old trick of oversimplification. He has no right; however; in the name of science to attempt such oversimplification for the sake of conformity to some scientific or philosophical tradition; for science is a movement toward knowledge of all reality, and not a particular view of reality from some one angle. The same observations will apply to the attitude of behaviorism toward internal conditions and factors. Just as biological science must make use of both environment and heredity in explaining the organism, so sociology must make use of both inner conditioning by feelings, ideas, and values and outer conditioning by the physical environment in explaining the behavior of individuals and groups. There is no scientific justification for a methodology which attempts to ignore or belittle either set of conditions, or which rests upon the sheer dogmatism of the non-existence of the non-physical.

Behaviorism, in the sense in which we have defined the term (as an explanation or description wholly in terms of objective stimuli and responses or of purely physical processes), is inadequate in the study of human society for three main reasons: the first reason is that such interpretations or descriptions do not show the true nature of the human social process, which is essentially a process of intercommunication. The second reason is that they do not show the true nature of adult human behavior, which is essentially cultural. The third reason is that they do not show the true nature of

( 79) human institutions, which are essentially based upon values and valuing processes. Let us take up briefly these main objections to a purely behavioristic interpretation of human social phenomena in the order in which they have just been stated.

In the first place, the social process among human beings is essentially a process of mutual adjustment through the exchange of conscious experiences, by means of articulate speech and other forms of intercommunication. Now the exchange of conscious experiences is impossible unless meanings, values, are conveyed from one mind to another. There can be no intercommunication between the individuals of a group without the sharing of certain subjective states or processes. As Professor Sorokin has insisted,[4] "meaning" as the essential element in true intercommunication is not capable of being described in strict physical or behavioristic terms, as it is not a phenomenon which can be observed in any bodily change of which we have knowledge. If group behavior is possible without true intercommunication, it is only possible on the low level of collective reflexes, conditioned or direct, which are shared by a whole group of individuals. Such collective reflexes may suffice to explain the group behavior of most animals, but they can-not explain the intelligent, purposive changes in human group behavior. These are possible only through the exchange of conscious experiences. We do not know whether the exchange of conscious experiences goes on in the world of animal life below man; but we do know that it goes on in the human world, that it is the real con-tent of the process of interaction between human individuals, and the method by which they co-ordinate their actions and act as one.

The second reason for the inadequacy of a purely behavioristic interpretation of social behavior is that adult human behavior is essentially cultural. So far as we can discover, ordinary adult behavior, and so also the behavior of human groups, is an effect of group culture. The behaviorists have claimed that this perception is favorable to them, since they claim that culture is but a series of conditioned reflexes. But the essence of culture is invention, or "creative mental synthesis." This means that every element in culture, if analyzed, may be traced back historically to the individual

( 80) human mind. As Dr. Goldenweiser says, "The whole of civilization, if followed backwards step by step, would ultimately be found re-solvable without residue into bits of ideas in the minds of individuals.[5] All culture is therefore a product of the human mind, and of its distinctively human attributes, its powers of imagination and reasoning. The sociologist would miss the significantly human phenomena in man's social life if he adhered to a strict behavioristic view; for behaviorism has thus far shown itself totally unable to deal with the "culturalism" which is the chief factor in human social behavior.

The reason for this is clear. The most careful anthropological re-search has shown that the first element in culture is articulate speech, or word-making and word-using, which the behaviorists term "verbal behavior." But since every word is the symbol of a concept, culture is essentially concept-making and concept-using. So far as we know, there is nothing approaching this use of symbols in the animal world below man; but even if there were, it would in no degree lessen the importance of the fact that man uses, first of all, the concept and the spoken word as his chief social tools. In-deed, his physical tools, too, are found always to be objectifications of concepts or mental patterns. But behaviorism throws no light upon the nature and origin of concepts except to say that they are represented by verbal behavior or vocal gestures,

The making of inventions and the diffusion of inventions in human groups is obviously a process of learning by individuals and groups. We have no right to believe that the process of learning can be reduced in human beings to a conditioning of reflexes. We know that in human beings meanings and imagination play a part. Practically everything in the process of learning is missed by the behaviorist except the modification of habits or reflexes. If it be said that this is the important thing, it must be said that other things, such as imagination, sympathy, and understanding, are equally important when it comes to human interactions. Hence the whole structure of human culture, which includes not only language and physical tools, but all human institutions, government, morals, religion, art, and science, behaviorism is powerless to help us to un-

( 81) -derstand except as a series of conditioned reflexes which have arisen in some mysterious way. The creative mental synthesis by which man builds up new concepts, which he symbolizes in words and objectifies in tools and institutions, is left out of account.

We now come to the third and final reason why purely behavioristic methods must fall short of scientific adequacy in sociology; and that is that they fail to show the true nature of human institutions, which are essentially based upon values and valuing processes. Sumner said that human institutions involve concepts as well as structures. This alone shows that he was far from a behaviorist; but he should have added that institutions always involve values. Perhaps he nearly said this when he said, "Institutions begin with the mores," for the mores are habits or customs considered important for social welfare. Every institution, therefore, involves values which the community has reflected upon and approved. The latest student of institutions emphasizes that the sanction and authority of institutions are the result of group valuation. Hence, the special sciences of institutions, such as economics, political science, and ethics, all in one way or another treat of values. Whether these special sciences treat of markets, of government, or of religion, if they enter upon the work of explanation, they find themselves forced to treat of these phases of culture in terms of values. Even the very quantitative measurements which they attempt are very largely measurements of values. The social life of man is a life of values in practically all of its phases. This results, as we have seen, because the social life of man involves the exchange of conscious experiences. Any study of human society, except the most superficial, must take the valuations of individuals and groups into account. But as values are the creation of the human mind, and attach them-selves to situations or objects because of human wishes or desires, pure behaviorism in the social sciences becomes mere external social description.

Perhaps the whole objection to behaviorism in sociology may be summed up in a single sentence, namely, that sociology is much more a science of culture than of nature. It is difficult to see why any sociologist, if he accepts this as a fact, should permit himself to be labeled either as a behaviorist or a subjectivist, for the reality

( 82) which he investigates is much too complex to yield to either set of methods. It is particularly difficult to understand why any sociologists should believe that the professed behaviorists have a monopoly of sound scientific method, when the obvious need of sociology at the present moment is a synthetic method which will bring together all insights into the social process. It is a hopeful sign, perhaps that the most scientific survey of an American community yet carried out, that of "Middletown," does not despise the study of the beliefs, opinions, ideals, and values of the population, but places such data as of equal scientific worth alongside of the description of external social conditions and behavior.


  1. Paper discussed by Read Bain, Miami University.
  2. Cooley, Life and the Student, p. 154.
  3. Op. cit., p.151.
  4. Contemporary Sociological Theories, p. 624.
  5. Goldenweiser, Early Civilization, p. 15.

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