The Concept "Social Forces" In American Sociology

Section I: Introduction

Floyd Nelson House
University of Chicago



Two values for sociological method. The present study is intended to promote two methodological values, recapitulation of what has already been done in a certain direction, and standardization of an equipment of concepts with corresponding terms, the latter the more important for sociologists since they cannot use the strict laboratory method. The term "social forces" illustrates the need for standardization, since it is used in at least three quite different meanings. Method of the present study. The materials brought together here have been arranged chiefly in topical, not chronological order. A formal definition of the term "social forces" as primarily understood here is given. Origins of the social-forces concept. The sociologists' use of the social-forces concept can be traced apparently to two writers, Herbert Spencer and Lester F. Ward. Small gave evidence of discriminating appreciation of the value of the concept in 1897.

In the conception of the present writer, the study set forth in the following pages derives its value from the truth of two theses. The first can be very simply stated. It is that for the development of adequate sociological method there is considerable utility in the making of surveys of what has already been done, in the field of sociology generally, and in its various subdivisions, including both those developments which have survived and enjoy current favor, and those which have seemingly proved abortive. Conviction of

( 146) the value of studies in the history of the sciences to the workers in those sciences appears to be growing, on the whole, not only in those disciplines which are most nearly related to sociology, such as economics, political science, and psychology, each of which has its history now embodied in a considerable and reputable literature, but also in the so-called "natural" and mathematical sciences. In the latter field, there appears to be a growing tendency in the various universities to introduce graduate courses in the various departments dealing with the histories of the subjects in question, where such courses were not previously given. In the particular field of sociology, Professor Small has done valuable and scholarly pioneer work in collecting and publishing studies concerning the development and origins of sociological theory as such; and Professors Lichtenberger and Bogardus have written books dealing especially with the history of social thought down to the time when sociology became differentiated from the main trunk of social science. But for the comparatively short period during which sociology has had a substantial following in its own right, we have as yet comparatively little historical literature.

The second thesis upon which the present study is based has to do with the importance to sociological method of an equipment of fundamental concepts or categories, with corresponding terms of general acceptance, as tools of research and explanation. It is probably true that such sets of fundamental concepts and agreed terms by which they are labeled constitute an important part of the methodological equipment of any science or intellectual discipline. The sciences dealing with human behavior are particularly dependent upon their basic concepts for their own further development.[1] The social sciences are in the nature of things permanently debarred from any extensive use of the laboratory method in the most rigorous sense of the term, and are compelled therefore to devise for themselves substitutes. Certain types of statistical procedure promise to yield valuable results and may perhaps be grouped together as one type of substitute for the laboratory method which is available for the social scientists. Most of the other research procedures which now appear to be possible can be sum-

( 147) -marized as "the statement of historical and existing social situations in such a way that the results in one case will demonstrate what can and should be done in another."[2] Such a statement of social situations which are a matter of satisfactory record, or are subject to present or future observation, as will enable the sociologists to derive from them generalized conclusions which can be applied to subsequent situations, is evidently dependent upon the existence and common acceptance among sociologists of general concepts and corresponding terms which can be used for the description, classification, and explanation of the given cases.

Before sociologists can assert that their science is in a reasonably mature condition, it is evident that the equipment, of concepts and the vocabulary which is understood in the same sense by all members of the guild must be expanded to very considerable dimensions. The first task, however, is and has been the definition through a slow process of tentative formulation and criticism and a consequent selection, of a relatively short list of concepts and terms of the most fundamental necessity. Down to the present time, it could not readily be shown that there are more than a half-dozen concepts of this sort which are accepted in about the same sense by sociologists in the United States generally. Probably the leading sociologists in this country would agree fairly well upon the importance and meaning of the following terms: "social group," "social process" or "interaction," "social control," "collective behavior," and "social forces." As we shall see, the term "social forces," which it is the especial purpose of the present paper to study in its historical setting, is still far from receiving the same emphasis or the same definition by all of the various leading sociological writers today.

In general, the concept "social forces" is used as a special case within the broader notion of social causation. No sharp lines of demarcation, therefore, separate the social-forces concept from the

( 148) concepts "social control" and "social process." As will be brought out in the remainder of this paper, various sociologists have emphasized quite widely different and sometimes contradictory or inconsistent doctrines as of primary importance within their general explanations of social causation; and some of them have found little or no use for the concept "social forces." Nevertheless, the term and the conception persist both in academic and in popular discussion, and there is reason for believing that the concept is one naturally adapted to our intellectual capacities and tendencies.[3] It seems therefore worth while to study the meanings which have been attached to the term "social forces" in the sociological and popular literature in the past, for the purpose of arriving at a better understanding of the purpose it has served.

A survey of the literature of sociology, social science generally, and social work and social reform reveals that the term "social forces" has been employed in at least two, perhaps three, quite divergent meanings. To the social worker and the social reformer, the social forces have been the persons, institutions, and groups which they have felt it necessary to take into account, either as obstacles to be circumvented or as resources to be mobilized in connection with their particular and concrete problems. From this use of the term it is possible, and would be considered by some students helpful,[4] to distinguish the meaning which historians have been disposed to attach to the term "social forces," or to the term "historic forces," which they frequently use in preference. To the historian, the expression "social forces" is likely to mean the main lines of change which he thinks he can distinguish in the history of a particular state, continent, or region, through a given period in which he may be interested. He thinks of these lines or currents of change as having a tendency to continue in the same general direction after a particular date which they can be shown to have had before it, except as they may be impelled by interference with one

( 149) another or by the mounting to larger dimensions of a new factor to change their directions. Naturally, the historians' conception of social forces is not marked off by any hard-and-fast line from the social workers' and politicians' conception. But a number of writers in the field of sociological theory, starting with Spencer and Ward, have asserted and used a quite sharply distinguishable meaning for the term. To these latter thinkers, as we shall see, the fundamental social forces have been universal human-nature tendencies, desires, cravings, and interests, postulated as the underlying motives of all human behavior, social as well as individual.[5] It is this last-mentioned meaning of the term "social forces" and its variants with which the present study is primarily concerned. We shall have occasion, however, to consider more carefully in a later section the distinction between it and the social workers' conception.

The attempt to trace the history of any particular doctrine or concept in American sociology is certain to be attended with substantial difficulty. It is a matter of common knowledge among students of our field that the development of sociology in the United States has been an extremely complicated process. To be sure, there is a sense in which modern science and philosophy have made it apparent that all processes are complex, but it is possible to discuss some types of developmental processes in a simplified and abstract form which does no serious violence to the facts, and which yields useful generalized representations. The history of American sociology, and likewise of most of the concepts and doctrines found within the science, presents a complexity which is particularly hard to unravel without serious perversion of the facts. One can say with approximate accuracy that American sociology has arrived at its present degree of sophistication within four and a half decades. In 1880, there was no separately existent discipline of sociology, in this country or anywhere else. Within two decades after that date there existed, not a science of sociology, but at least a half-dozen different doctrines consisting of attempted answers to the ques-

( 150) -tion, What is sociology? drawn from as many divergent sources: from Darwinism, Comtean positivism, paleobotany, from Tarde's rather offhand generalizations concerning the communication and imitation process, from Ratzenhofer and the ethical permutation of economic theory, and from ethnographic data. Since then, these different streams of sociological or near-sociological thought have mingled and fertilized one another, until today one can almost say that there are as many sociologies as there are sociologists; while the number of sociologists is constantly increasing. Indeed, there are at the present time signs of integration in sociological thought; but this integration process is only beginning, and it is still possible for any sociologist or teacher of sociology to appropriate one idea here and one there, to the end that his sociology is more or less original as a synthesis; while, at the same time, if he has moderate powers of systematizing his own thought, he can cause his doctrine to present a degree of internal unity and coherence which compares favorably with that of his contemporaries.

In the face of these circumstances, the task of reducing the history of one of the doctrines which has been conspicuous in American sociology to a concise statement necessarily involves an arbitrary treatment of the data. Two courses of procedure were most evidently possible for the purposes of this paper: (1) to set down what each sociologist has said that is pertinent to the problem, with the attempt to show his thought in historical sequence with the sources from which he may have drawn; or (2) to classify the material under the smallest number of headings which would be reasonably discriminating from a theoretic point of view, and to attempt to exhibit these doctrinal variations in their sequence with antecedent doctrines and in their interaction with contemporary doctrines. With some hesitation, the writer has followed a modification of the latter method in the present study. It may be added in apology for the obvious gaps in the treatment that the lack of a type of biographical data much to be desired makes it impracticable to present as fully as would be otherwise in order the relation of the theories and concepts of the various writers in their relation to probable antecedent sources. It is not to be supposed that any American sociologist has been more strikingly originative than sci-

( 151) -entists in general are, in the formulation of his theories; but it is by no means easy to determine in many cases what the ingredients were which entered into the synthesis which we know his work must have been in large part.

In the sense of the term "social forces" which was mentioned above as sociological, in distinction from the social workers' and the historians' conceptions, we shall understand, in general, some variation of a certain abstract doctrine to be implied—a doctrine which may be stated as follows: It is possible to enumerate in terms of relatively few class names or categories, causal factors, tendencies, motives, or pressures, which are more or less universally at work in the social process and in all self-contained group processes, or in all group processes in the measure that they are self-contained. These general categories of causal forces are understood to be such that we may reasonably hope to be able to interpret a given concrete social situation A, for example, in terms of so many units of factor M, so many units of factor N, and so on; and that we may expect to be able to interpret situation B, or any other reasonably comprehensive social situation, in terms of different intensities of the same basic types of factors. As we shall see, although most of the attempts which have been made to formulate such lists of general social forces have been severely criticized, and none has found very general acceptance, it is a conspicuous fact of the history and present trend of sociological thinking and writing in the United States that the attempts to formulate such categories persistently recur.

Although it is the intention of the writer to confine the study arbitrarily to the writings of American sociologists, there is evident justification for beginning the examination of most lines of development in American sociology with Herbert Spencer. Certainly this is true of the social-forces concept. There is no easy method by which one can discover how many of the American sociologists were consciously or unconsciously influenced in their formulation of outlines of social forces by Spencer's example, but it is certain that Spencer was universally read by students of sociology in the last decades of the nineteenth century. An examination of his scheme of the "factors of social phenomena" shows at once that we

( 152) have here a conceptual outline which, in general form at least, is a prototype of all later analyses of social forces which were developed in the United States. The following is a redaction to brief outline form of the substance of the second chapter of Spencer's Principles of Sociology:

The factors of social phenomena.—"Be it rudimentary or be it advanced, every society displays phenomena that are ascribable to the character of its units and to the conditions under which they exist."

A. Original factors

I. Extrinsic factors: climate, surface, fertility of soil, configuration of surface, vegetal productions, fauna

II. Intrinsic factors: physical traits, emotional traits, degree of intelligence of the individual and his peculiar tendencies of thought

B. Secondary or derived factors

I. "The progressive modifications of the environment, inorganic and organic, which societies effect": culture of desirable plants and animals, destruction of forests, of noxious plants and animals, drainage, irrigation

II. The increasing size of the social aggregate, accompanied, generally, by increasing density

III. The reciprocal influence of the society and its units—the influence of the whole on the parts and of the parts on the whole

IV. The influence of the super-organic environment—the action and reaction between a society and neighboring societies

V. The accumulation of super-organic products: material appliances, language, science, systems of laws, aesthetic products

As we proceed to examine passages from later writings in which the concept "social forces" is discussed, it will become apparent that Spencer can be placed only in a general sense in the line of development which runs through Lester F. Ward. He is as much the intellectual forerunner of those who did not accept ín any sense, or at least did not make use of, Ward's dictum that the desires are the fundamental social forces as he is of those who did follow that lead with more or less qualification. The foregoing analysis which Spencer laid down is as much an attempt at a formal analysis of "social process" as it is a schedule of underlying forces which might be supposed to operate in that process. Indeed, it is more the former than the latter. Nevertheless, with this outline,

( 153) and particularly with his phrase, "the factors of social phenomena," it seems very likely that Spencer must have contributed to the hypothesis which subsequently had wide currency among American sociologists—that it should be possible and helpful to list the fundamental, universal factors of social phenomena in such terms as to promote the development of a generalizing, "scientific" sociology. It was at about that time, whether it still is or not, the general conviction of scientists in every field that it is essential to the very existence of a science to have a relatively short list of basic elements and relations, with reference to which all of the phenomena under examination may be explained. A "science," they thought, must consist from one point of view of a body of general laws, and of course general laws presuppose general elements, forces, and relations.

The fact that Spencer was accused of divers high crimes against the inductive method does not destroy the fact that in the chapter we have summarized above he did help to define what came to be regarded as one of the basic problems of sociology. How that problem was successively redefined is shown by the following passages, which constitute a chronological series of exhibits of the thought on the topic of a leading American sociologist:

So with the explanation of social phenomena. They are the point of intersection of many factors which we need to know, first in general, as typical and constant social forces. Then they must be known in particular, as they emerge in the special case under consideration. The process of deriving these insights into social forces in general is so independent and peculiar that its distinctiveness from the process of getting the generalized results should be beyond question.[6]

My interpretation of the social movement .... makes it, with all its faults, a proof that the natural force of humanity is not abated, that social virility is not exhausted. The social movement is today's form of the same vital facts which have always been the impulse of human advancement.[7]

When Professor Small wrote the foregoing passages in 1897, Ward had already published his first version of his social-forces

( 154) doctrine in Dynamic Sociology (1883), but it was Ward's manner to lay down what he conceived to be the truth in quite didactic fashion. He had simply enunciated his conclusion that the desires are the social forces, and enumerated what he conceived to be the fundamental human desires, without discussing particularly the rôle which the concept of social forces had to play in sociology as an objective, research science. Small's articles in the early issues of the American Journal of Sociology from which the foregoing quotations are taken are among the earliest critiques in which sociologists engaged in the United States, whereby they sought to make their projected science a method as well as a body of a priori, speculative generalizations about the way in which human beings behaved, or should behave, in their relationships with one another. The point in which we are interested here is that by 1897 at least one sociologist had become self-conscious and critical with respect to the use of the social-forces concept toward the definition of which Spencer had made some sort of essay in his Principles, and which Ward had made more definitive in Dynamic Sociology. It is further of interest that Small had at the time a favorable critical opinion of the social-forces concept; he felt that it was possible and desirable that "general social forces" be discovered and labeled.

It will be interesting at this point to compare the comments of a general methodological character upon the social-forces concept and its place in sociological theory which Small embodied in his General Sociology, published eight years after the foregoing passages were written:

Every social incident whatever, be it the daily experience of an individual within a restricted group, or the secular career of a continental society, is determined by forces not wholly within itself. It is a function of a great number of variables, working within conditions that are constant in essence, but changeable in their manifestation in particulars. Every social situation is the product of everything else that exists in the world. To change the situation, it is necessary to break down the equilibrium of forces that preserve the status, by setting free some new factor. The dependence of each and every social element, whether larger or smaller, upon outlying elements of which it is a part, requires this first step in every process of understanding the social situation,

(155)     namely: the effort to determine precisely what the particular conditions are that exert a significant influence upon the element in question .[8]

Our problem is to discover all the actual oneness in human affairs, and to find the meanings of parts of experience by making out their relation to this common element.

Prime factors—or, as Spencer would say, data—of the problem are, first, the essential similarity of the individuals concerned; second, the essential similarity of the conditions within which the individuals act; third, the continuity of relationships from individual to individual and from situation to situation. The generations of men have been linked together from the beginning in a common work. This work may be described in bulk as discovery and control of the conditions that set the limits to satisfaction of essential human interests.[9]

At this date Small was arriving at insights concerning the relation of what we have taken as the particular problem of social forces to other aspects of the broader problem of social causation. The factor of "continuity" is seen as one of those other aspects, and Small has discussed at greater length the significance of this factor in more recent publications.[10] Here we are more concerned with the fact that in the light of that broader conception of social causation, Small still felt the need of a doctrine of "essential human interests," which concept has been ever since his publication of General Sociology, his variant of the social-forces concept.[11] The attitude toward the problem of social causation and the narrower problem of social forces which is exhibited in the quotations given above can also be found in other passages of General Sociology.[12]

In this introductory section the intention has been, first, to distinguish from other phases of the developing body of theories of social process, social causation, and social control the specific doctrine of social forces, in the meaning which the latter concept

( 156) was first given by Ward in Dynamic Sociology. Second, we have noticed some of the evidences to be found in early American sociological literature that those who were trying to build up the science and clarify its terminology had the growing conviction that among the fundamental conceptions of which they would have need was this one—the concept of basic, universal social forces, in the sense of human desires, interests, or "drives" of behavior. What the vicissitudes and suggested permutations of that conception have been in the hands of different thinkers who have contributed to American sociology since 1885, it will be the task of the remaining sections of the paper to explain.


  1. Cf. Small, Origins of Sociology, pp. 330-33.
  2. Adapted from Sociology and the Social Sciences, by Robert E. Park, reprinted from the American Journal of Sociology in Introduction to the Science of Sociology, by R. E. Park and E. W. Burgess, p. 45.
    Thomas and Znaniecki have developed at some length a somewhat similar methodological thesis in The Polish Peasant in Europe and America; see particularly the Methodological Note in Vol. I and the Introduction in Vol. III.
  3. Cf. Park and Burgess, op. cit., p. 435.
  4. The distinction between the social workers' or reformers', the historians', and the strictly sociological conception of social forces is discussed at somewhat greater length than above in Park and Burgess, Introduction to the Science of Sociology, chap. VII, pp. 435-37.
  5. As will appear in the course of the present paper, not all the sociologists who have formulated social-forces doctrines would think of the social forces as primarily determinative of individual behavior.
  6. A. W. Small, "The Sociologist's Point of View," American Journal of Sociology, III (1897), 262-63. In the remainder of this paper the American Journal of Sociology will be cited as A. J. S.
  7. Small, "The Meaning of the Social Movement," ibid., p. 345.
  8. A. W. Small, General Sociology (1905), pp. 579-80.
  9. Ibid., pp. 104-5.
  10. See his article on Sociology in the Encyclopedia Americana, edition of 1919; also his recent volume on the nineteenth-century origins of sociology, especially chap. ii, The Thibaut-Savigny Controversy.
  11. Small's presentation of his `interests" concept will be reviewed in detail in a later section.
  12. Cf. op. cit., pp. 104; 177.

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