The Concept of Social Attitudes

Ellsworth Faris
The University of Chicago


WITHIN the past five years the concept Social Attitude has been used by a number of writers with a content sufficiently consistent to warrant the serious consideration of this term. Thomas,[1] Dewey,[2] Park and Burgess,[3] Williams,[4] Koffka,[5] Allport,[6] and Bogardus,[7] among others, have employed the concept, though not with identical meanings. For an even longer period the writer has had a graduate course with this title, originally offered by W. I. Thomas.

One would not need to be hypercritical to find inconsistencies and incompatibilities in the various definitions (Thomas, for example, defines attitude as a conscious process) yet the emphasis on behavior and the ultimate expression in movement runs through them all. Important nuances of behavior are distinguished in the use of marginal conceptions such as Disposition, Impulse, Habit, Instinct, Reflex, and even Wish and Desire but it is possible to use the term attitude as a general notion to describe the tendency to perform actions of a describable and identifiable sort.

The logical significance of the concept lies in the change of emphasis from sensation to behavior, from receptivity to spontaneity and innate or acquired motor tendencies.

( 405) This distinguishes the approach from that of traditional psychology and from some aspects of behaviorism where the problem is to describe the "reaction" to a "stimulus" and where the sense organs are described as "receptors." But there is another logical difference which is essentially a shift of emphasis from a timeless principle or force to a concrete events. This marks off the Attitude psychologists from the "Instinctivists." An attitude may variously be designated as a gesture, an incomplete act, or a tendency to act. Some attitudes are overtly motor and muscular though we also speak of "mental attitudes," where the behavior is delayed or only expected, yet always possible.

Approached in this general way, one may speak of attitudes under certain broad dichotomies. Thus we may divide attitudes into the hereditary and the acquired. Some tendencies are inherited, as the tendency of the duckling in respect to water, or the grasping and sucking reflexes of children. Thomas speaks of these as "temperamental attitudes." Other attitudes are acquired under social pressure and definition, as the vegetarianism of Hindus or Polynesian cannibalism. These are social attitudes, though they are individual phenomena.

Another dichotomy is that of conscious and unconscious attitudes. For there are unconscious attitudes. Williams in the work cited discusses judicial attitudes as seen in the five-to-four decisions of the supreme court, made consistently over a long period, and explicable only on the assumption of an unconscious bias or attitude. Other attitudes are conscious, such as my attitude toward carrots, or the Ku Klux, or Coolidge.

A third division may not be quite so obvious but is valuable and even essential to make, namely, the distinction between group attitudes and individual attitudes. Both are "social attitudes" in the sense above indicated, but the

( 406) group attitudes also exist. This is probably what the French writers mean by réprésentations collectives. Perhaps the two other invaluable French notions, morale and esprit de corps also refer to certain phenomena which we may call attitudes, that is, to collective ,phenomena which are not mere summations. By individual attitude we may designate not merely the subjective aspect of any group tendency or cultural element but more particularly and more usefully the divergent and differentiated tendencies. The individual manifestation of race prejudice cannot be understood apart from a consideration of group attitudes. In collecting data it often happens that the investigator finds cases of the acquisition of a prejudice with astonishing suddenness and as the result of a single experience. But this could only happen in a milieu where there was a pre-existing group attitude. One who has no negro prejudice may acquire it from a single unpleasant encounter but it is the group attitude that makes it possible for him to acquire it. An exactly similar experience with a red-headed person would not result in the same sort of red-head-prejudice in the absence of any defining group attitude. Moreover, in the United States, prejudice against mulattoes means always prejudice against black people. In South Africa and in Brazil where mulattoes are not classed with black people, the outcome would be very different owing to the different group attitude.

With regard to any attitude it is helpful to observe that it may be either latent or kinetic. These familiar words from physics are perhaps self-explanatory. All attitudes are not always active. We may call a girl's liking for ice cream an attitude but it is not active or kinetic most of the time. An attitude is kinetic if there is actual motion or tension, for the test or criterion is to be found in motor behavior. An attitude may be kinetic without any observ-

( 407) -able or objective motion. Consider the difference between the two types of habit represented, respectively, by the ability to write and the tendency to excessive drinking of liquors, which we may call a "bad habit." Both these habits are attitudes but the first is (in Dewey's words) a tool to be used when needed and active only then, while the second is not so. A bad habit intrudes and breaks in. It is like a compressed spring or a pneumatic pressure-cylinder. The tendency arises and determines the attention, but may be the occasion of much disturbance even when unrecognized. The unconscious kinetic attitudes are the chief concern of the psychoanalysts.

A central problem in this field is the relation of attitudes to objective phenomena. Thomas states this as reciprocally causal, and sequential. "The cause of an attitude is always a value and a pre-existing attitude." This is stated to be equivalent to saying that every individual phenomenon has both individual and social causes. This is undoubtedly true but there is another relation which this statement leaves out of account. It is the relation between the subjective individual tendency and the external value (object is a better term). Now this relation is not causal or sequential but denotes rather the double aspect of one phenomenon. The attitude is toward an object and the object is, in some sense, the externalization of the attitude. Neither causes the other either with or without help. They appear together in experience.

It follows that attitudes are just as social as objects and that objects are just as individual as attitudes. Both objects and attitudes have both individual and social antecedents and both are aspects and results of organization. This relation is assumed in the investigation of attitudes which takes the form of questionnaires, concerning not attitudes but objects, and yet which reveal attitudes as coun-

( 408) -terparts. To ask a man whether he is a reactionary, conservative, progressive, radical, or revolutionary is to demand information which may, be difficult even if the subject is willing. But to ask such a one to give his estimate of Coolidge, Wilson, Davis, Gompers, Foster, and Debs is to ask not for his attitudes but for his objects and to get information on both. A man's world is the external aspect of his character; his personality is the subjective aspect of the culture of a group.

The problem of the genesis of attitudes is one aspect of the general problem of emotional disorganization and rational reorganization concerning which there is a very large literature. New objects do not arise merely as effects of social values and preceding attitudes but as a result of conflict, crisis, and reintegration, wherein social and individual forces and antecedents are in some form of opposition. The present need here for investigation is the study of types of crises and the collecting of new attitudes in their genesis. But the new phenomenon is always an attitude-object or object-attitude. When the draft law made the declaration of war mean something, millions of people redefined the United States. The results were a new country (new object) and a new patriotism (new attitude).

Defined in this way, social attitudes may be spoken of as the elements of personality. Personality consists of attitudes organized with reference to a group into a system more or less complete. A social attitude is not the mobilization of the will of the person but the residual tendency that has resulted from such a "mobilization" and the subsequent campaign.

This brings up the relation of attitudes to wishes and particularly to The Wishes. Here there is at present some confusion. It is a good field for research and analysis. Some writers speak of attitudes composed of smaller or

( 409) simpler elements called wishes (Park) while others use the words in a way difficult to distinguish. The most obvious and to me the most useful distinction seems not to have been clearly stated. A wish is obviously an incomplete act, a forward-looking movement with a future satisfaction as an essential characteristic. An attitude is, on the other hand, the result of organization, the residuum of activity, coming at the end of the satisfaction of some wishes and remaining to initiate other wishes but not related to wishes as whole to parts. Those who write of "The Four Wishes" apparently mean types of attitudes, or perhaps classes of satisfactions, or something.

Space forbids the discussion of appreciative and descriptive attitudes (following Royce) and of the value of such classifications as are inherent in complex group organization and the division of labor. The concrete and factual nature of the concept has already resulted in valuable researches. This is in marked contrast with the paralyzing sterility of the instinct concept which dominated this field for so long but which is, fortunately, being very rapidly discarded.


  1. The Polish Peasant.
  2. Human Nature and Conduct.
  3. Introduction to Sociology.
  4. Foundations of Social Science.
  5. "Gestalt Psychology:" Psy. Bull., 1922.
  6. Social Psychology.
  7. Fundamentals of Social Psychology.

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