General Sociology

Chapter 39: The Elements of Social Causation

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Among pioneers in the field of social psychology no one attracts more attention at present than Gabriel Tarde. During the past decade his theories have provoked increasing interest among both sociologists and psychologists. His recent death (December, 1903) has stimulated study of his books. While I am obliged to dissent from his most characteristic views, it is convenient to make his chief theorems an occasion for formulating certain elementary considerations to be respected in carrying on investigation in social psychology.[1]

Tarde's theory may be epitomized as follows :

First: Human association is a species under the genus animal association.[2]

Second : The process in animal association in general, and in human association in particular, is the imitation of invention.[3] The social being, in the degree that he is social, is essentially imitative.[4] To innovate, to discover, to awake for an instant from his dream of home and country, the individual must escape, for the time being, from his social surroundings. Such unusual audacity makes him super-social rather than social.[5] Every act of imitation is preceded by hesitation on the part of the individual. Now, as long as a man hesitates in this way, he refrains from imitation, whereas it is only as an imitator that he is a part of society.[6] Society

( 627) is imitation.[7] This body of "simian" proclivities constitutes the potential energy of a society.[8]

The theory thus epitomized is more generally under consideration today than any other as a basis for social psychology.

Before proposing an alternative theorem, we must expose two cardinal weaknesses in Tarde's system. In the first place, Tarde acknowledges that he has taken the liberty of using the term "imitation" in a sense peculiar to himself. What that sense is he describes in the statement : "By imitation I mean every impression of an interpsychical photography, so to speak, willed or not willed, passive or active." [9] A moment's

reflection will impeach the term, if this is its content, of incapacity to explain anything. When we have said that a given act is a social act, if the above formula is to be taken as our guide, we have simply said that it is one of the innumerable varieties of acts in which any sort of "impression of an interpsychical photography" plays a part. That is, we have not explained the act at all, beyond placing it in the whole class of acts which we distinguish from non-social acts. I will not now ask whether Tarde's line between the social and the non-social is correctly drawn, but will assume so much, for the sake of the more important part of the argument. As distinguished, then, from a mechanical act, like falling from a precipice, or a physiological act, like taking refuge from the sun's rays under the shade of a tree, a social act, we will agree for the nonce, is one in which there is some real or constructive exchange of mental impressions. But Tarde takes that much for granted before he begins to offer explanations. Accordingly, giving the naive "imitation" to all the acts in the class so constituted simply provides a term for an identical proposition. That is, the formula "a social act is an act of imitation" turns out to mean simply "a social act

( 628) is a social act;" it is one of the acts which have the marks that we have by definition identified with the concept " social."

But Tarde was too acute a thinker to be satisfied with such an obvious fallacy. This definition of "imitation"was an afterthought, in reply to objections; but unfortunately it cannot be made to cover his use of the term. On the contrary, it is very plain that the word has not merely one, but several specific shades of meaning in different parts of his argument, and it is never clear which of them is in his mind at a given stage of the discussion.[10] In general, the word is used, first, as a term of sociological description. For instance, a given portion of a religious ritual is an "imitation;" i. e., it is identical with ritual acts that have been performed up the line of ancestry for a long time. Then the word is used, second, as a term of psychological explanation ; i. e., the reason why the ritual act recurs again and again is because the mental process of imitation is supposed to be performed. This latter is pure hypothesis, and the strength of the hypothesis appears to be derived chiefly from the fallacy of the ambiguous middle in the use of the key-term "imitation." Thus, there are recurrences in society. We will call them imitations. But imitation is the name of a psychological process. Hence, presto ! this name that we have applied to objective fact must be taken without further inquiry as fixing on the fact a meaning which the name elsewhere signifies as a subjective process!

In the second place, Tarde entangles himself, and his readers still more, in an abstraction, and in an essentially dialectic argument, viz., in his use of the different forms of the term " social." He confesses at one point that his definition of " society " is properly a definition of " sociality." [11] Now, it is one thing to describe the area of social phenomena as

( 629) that circumference within which intermental photography occurs, and it is quite another thing to allege that the acts performed within that area are essentially imitative. The one statement is merely an attempt to locate phenomena to be explained. The other is an attempt to explain the phenomena. But in the second case the reference is to acts, not to an abstracted quality of acts (" sociality"). There is therefore a double non sequitur involved in assuming that the term of description applied to an abstraction furnishes the psychological explanation of a concrete process.

The dilemma amounts to this : If Tarde meant to offer the clue " imitation " in the psychological sense, as an explanation of the essential element in the process of human association, the case rests simply upon his dictum. If he did not mean to use the term "imitation" in the psychological sense, but simply transferred it to descriptive uses, his system does not even purport to be what it has been accepted as being, viz., an adventure in social psychology. It is merely a variation of descriptive sociology, and a very attenuated variation at that.

From the amount of analogical and metaphorical expression in his argument I infer that Tarde at first used the term " imitation " in a sense loosely distributed between the ordinary psychological meaning and the peculiar descriptive content in the definition above cited. He seems almost to have persuaded himself that his favorite term was fatally vague, and he almost exchanged it for " suggestion " when he wanted a term for the original act of social psychology. [12]

Whether this surmise is correct or not, it would be nearer the truth to formulate the relations with which Tarde deals, along these lines:

First: So far as the elements of the subjective process are concerned, there is no line to be drawn between acts that are social and those that are non-social in their origin. It makes no difference whether it is the burned child dreading the fire, with which he has had no occasion to associate any

( 630) other human, being, or a workman carrying out the directions of his boss. In either case the sentient series begins with a mental image induced by the stimulus. We may trace back every sentient act, whether the immediate occasion is a condition of the agent's own body, or some communication set up between his body and the inanimate world, or some stimulation of his senses by another person, to the elementary experience, which is essentially the same in all cases, viz., the formation of an image. What the mind does with the image in different cases depends upon a great many circumstances.[13] Tested by the mind's capability of proceeding from a mere passive experience into a complete active experience — i. e., through the combined processes of knowing, feeling, and willing—no distinction need be made between stimuli arising from experience with inanimate nature and those that come from contact with persons. We might name the whole process of calling up a mental image, whether the occasion be animate or inanimate, " suggestion." The primary forms of mental action do not vary with the origin of the stimuli which occasion the action. If we thought the classification necessary or useful, we might express more correctly what Tarde seems to have tried to formulate, by saying that society is the realm in which suggestion originates in persons, as distinguished from the realm in which suggestion is originated by things.

Whether such a formula would be worth making, for any other purpose than to correct a false step in Tarde's reasoning, need not be argued. At all events, our substitute for his formula leaves us without any share of his illusion that our mere delimitation of society explains anything which takes place in society. We have simply narrowed the field of inquiry from the whole range of experience to that portion of experience in which suggestion comes from persons rather than from things.

Second : Within the range of experience in general, the act that follows a suggestion does not necessarily bear any

( 631) resemblance to the source of the suggestion; nor, if it does, is it necessarily an act of imitation. Today I suddenly become aware that an angry cloud covers the sky. I run for shelter. Yesterday I saw a man with an umbrella in his hand, and I returned to my house for my umbrella. The two acts were psychologically similar. Each was an act the motive of which was self-protection. Each is to be accounted for as a use of the most available means to an end, not as essentially marked by the fact that the same means may have been used before. In the former case, the running had no resemblance to the cloud. In the latter case, my carrying an umbrella was like the other man's carrying the umbrella ; yet under another sky the sight of a man carrying an umbrella would not have been followed by my carrying an umbrella, but by my guying the man for taking needless trouble.

Whether in the case of animate or inanimate suggestion, the possible variation of the act following the suggestion, from the occurrence stimulating the suggestion, points to an entirely different interpretation from Tarde's of the relation between social experiences. The alternative explanation follows this clue : A sentient act does not necessarily have any essential reference to the occurrence as such which suggested it —the cloud, or the man carrying the umbrella. This occurrence may be merely a means of starting a stream of association with some object of attention—the threatened rain — with reference to which the person concerned is interested in ordering his conduct. The consequent acts are therefore not willed with reference to the stimulus, but with reference to a situation quite independent of the stimulus. In a word, we do not imitate when we duplicate the act of carrying an umbrella; we judge a relation of means to ends, and act accordingly. If the reverse were the case, the act which stimulates would be the Alpha and the Omega of the suggested act. This is impossible in the case of many suggestions, and probable in merely a few. In the real cases the stimulus may have all degrees of remoteness from the end suggested. The consequent action

( 632) will have a resemblance to the stimulus only in the degree in which the range of choice is limited between acts similar to the one that conveyed the suggestion, and alternative means for attaining the corresponding ends.

Accordingly, we may substitute for Tarde's theorem, " Society is imitation," the formula : The social process, psychologically considered, is, in the first instance, cumulative experience in deriving knowledge of means fit to serve ends. Knowledge of such means, once derived, is passed from individual to individual, and from generation to generation, by various processes which may be reduced to some common denominator, say, "tradition." Action upon a stimulus, whether social or non-social in origin, whether the action is the first or the nth of its kind, is not necessarily imitation at all, in the psychological sense. It is rather the sign of a judgment, perhaps original, perhaps borrowed, recapitulated or abbreviated, of the value of conduct with reference to an implicit purpose.

Our variation from Tarde avoids both of the ambiguities that we pointed out above. We talk, not about the abstraction "sociality," but about the concrete social process; and we avoid confounding the objective similarity of means with the subjective process which determined choice of the means.

For instance, take the case of buying a hat. Why buy it at all? First, for the sake of comfort; second, to satisfy prevailing conventional standards. I should be "queer" if I did not wear one, and to be "queer" is to lose my personal rating, which would be inconvenient. My end, with reference to that class of transactions, is to be both comfortable and not-queer.

I ask the dealer to show me the hats that are " in style." Why do I buy one of these? The explanation "to imitate other people" is too simple. The mere fact that ten thousand other people wear such hats is not the irreducible factor that impels me to join the number. Belief that this is the hat that,

( 633) at least inconvenience to me, will attain the double end for which I am considering hats, is the more ultimate explanation.

My implied reasoning during the transaction is this : First (assuming that the comfort element is negligible), it is expedient to "fix"public opinion, by showing that I am up to date in clothes ; second, I have reason to believe that this is the up-to-date hat; ergo, this is the hat with which I can gain my end.[14]

That there is a large element of reasoning in the supposed cases of imitation—even in case of the most slavish conformity to fashion— must be inferred from such considerations as the following : No dictator of fashion, not even the King, could get people to duplicate his pattern by an open and direct: "Here, imitate me ! " If he attempts anything bizarre, like the double-creased trousers or the bell-crowned white silk hat, a few professional imitators will follow his example. The rest of the world will demand : " Cui bono ? Is there any sense in the innovation?" Unless it appears that the proposition meets some sense of utility, there will be rejection rather than adoption of it.

In short, objective repetition of acts does not prove the subjective phenomena of imitation as their cause. The more general cause is a judgment of utility pointing to choice of the external act as a means to an end. Psychologically the process is essentially the same, whether the particular judgment involved is immediate and original and conscious, or whether the act follows acquiescence in the judgment of intermediate authorities.

For example, when I use the multiplication table, the presumptions prompting me to the action are not exhausted by the mere cumulation of precedent. I do not use it simply because other people before me have used it, but because it has been sufficiently tested so that I can afford to assume that it

( 634) serves its purpose of summing up accurate calculations. I may rest assured once for all that the truth of the multiplication table has been irrefutably established; and it would be a waste of time for me to treat it as an open question. I use the multiplication table as a means of getting results. It is a logical rather than a " simian " procedure, as distinctly as it would be if I should find myself in the heart of China, and should be obliged to invent a sign-language to express my wants. The code that I might hit upon would be a rational adaptation of means to ends, no less than the devices were by which northern and southern prisoners, during our Civil War, exploited unheard-of methods of escape.

Tarde has not merely failed to find the distinctively social phenomenon, but in attempting to do so he has introduced confusion into the elements of psychology. So far as the mere mechanism of mental action is concerned, it makes no difference whether the object of attention is a mountain range or a court of law. The ground-plan of the mind's action is one and the same, whether the suggestion that rouses the action comes from things or persons. The variations in the mind's action are due to variations of relation, of which the mind is conscious, between itself and the objects of attention. If Crusoe had landed on his solitary island without retaining a memory of his fellow-men, but with his mental traits otherwise unchanged, his mind, in knowing and feeling and willing in adjustment to his surroundings, would have gone through the elements of all the processes that the Kaiser's mind goes through in adjusting himself to his social environment. The knowing and feeling and willing that we do in the social process differ in their content, not in their method, from our mental actions when stimulated solely by things.

Accordingly, it is a mistake to base social psychology upon a supposed antithesis between the forms of mental process concerned in social and non-social actions. Psychical reactions incident to the social process are radically the same reactions that occur in the purely individual process, so far as the latter

( 635) ever occurs. Permutation of the prime factors of mental action occurs, both in the individual and in association of individuals, through the conflict or conjunction of valuations and of purposes. The social process is a co-operative formation of judgments of value, and a continuous reckoning between persons whose purposes, because of similar or dissimilar judgments of value, more or less conflict. The questions of social psychology begin therefore with the phenomena of actual judgments. What judgments about their situation are passed by the persons in a given association; i. e., what are the standards of value that are held? How does it come about that such judgments exist? What alternative or modifying judgments are represented in the association? What do the actions of the members of the association show about these judgments, both as causes and effects? What conditions, either physical or psychical, are tending to confirm or to weaken these judgments? Why do some of the members of the association entertain exceptional judgments of value? What are the comparative effects of the similar and the dissimilar standards held by different members of the association? How, and to what extent, are the standards of value prevalent in this association affected by the standards of other associations ?

In one respect Tarde has performed an invaluable work. He has shown, more clearly than anyone else, that the social process assimilates enormous quantities of valuations passed by predecessors, and acted upon as fixed conclusions and prescriptions while experience sufficient to warrant other conclusions is being gathered. The name which he has given to this universal fact — "imitation"— is an impertinence, so far as it purports to be a psychological explanation. The real explanation must be found in the laws of human judgment with reference to relations, not in a prevalence of some single mental process. The beginnings of this real explanation have hardly been made. We are fairly stating the problems, and it is to be expected that the immediate future will show more

( 636) progress toward solutions than has been made in the whole previous history of the social sciences.

We have given so much time to Tarde, not because he is destined to hold the permanent place in sociological theory which premature admiration has assigned, but because his most original hypothesis is a first-rate case of a type of interpretation to be shunned, and because it may be used as a foil to set off the principle which we have to suggest as a base-line in social interpretation.

The mistake of Tarde in locating the essential social factor in a single form of mental action, instead of in some total assertion of personality, is sufficiently conspicuous to serve as a perpetual injunction upon similar ventures. There is no visible sanction for the hope that a clue to the social process will ever be found in a simple mental reaction.

Doubtless both things and persons sometimes stimulate consciousness so imperfectly that no complete mental action follows, but the experience of men in society is not bounded by occurrences of that abortive type. Men do not, as a rule, tread the stage of life in a dream. If they are not socially conscious, they are at least self-conscious. They act for reasons, although not necessarily for good reasons, socially considered, nor with far-reaching vision of the scope of the reasons. In contrast with Tarde's hypothesis, and with the whole genus of single-reaction explanations of which it is a type, we urge that the characteristic factor in the psychological element of the social process, as distinguished from the biological element, is selection of ends. Every effort to locate the distinctively social factor in a state or motion of consciousness less complex and complete than acts of combined attention, valuation, and choice, foolishly tempts fate.

Sentient action is action directed toward ends. Explanation of the social process in terms of stimulus alone, or of reflex action alone, or of subjective change alone, without reference to purpose and volition in view of a purpose, is irresponsible speculation. The observable actions of men are

( 637) exhibits of their choices, and circumstantial evidence of the purposes behind the choices. The metaphysical question, Why do men posit purposes ? is beyond the scope both of sociology and of psychology. Without attempting to go behind the apparent purposes which observed men cherish, a division of labor between sociology and psychology may succeed in assigning sufficient reasons for choices related to those purposes. At all events, this is the interpretation of the social process toward which positive analysis presses. Our knowledge converges in the direction of the questions: What purposes are in the minds of the persons concerned? and, What is the meaning of the choices they make with reference to those purposes?

The social process is not an automatic response to stimulus. It is a perpetual adjustment of persons to each other incidental to their choices of means to promote their individual purposes. Since we cannot answer the question, Why do persons have purposes at all? our limit in explaining the social process is generalization of regularities in the phenomena of human choice. When we talk of social psychology, then, we do not refer to supposed facts of mind, the elements of which escape the ken of psychology proper. We refer to observed uniformities of objective choices in typical concrete situations. In other words, the only conceivable function for social psychology, in distinction from psychology proper, is calculus of variations of ultimate purposes, and of specific choices, in the actual conditions of human life. The problem of social psychology is to generalize the situations in which choices have to be made, and to generalize the corresponding choices. That is, after human experience is formulated in terms of structure, and of function, and of process, we have only formulations of effects. The causes of these effects, so far as we can trace them, are the volitions that register the resultant of purpose and feeling and choice. The restatement of the social process in terms of purpose and choice is social psychology.[15]

( 638)

A passage occurs in Professor Münsterberg's latest book which seems to imply precisely the view that we are trying to express. It is an account of a talk with a man not named, but apparently the speaker was John Fiske. We quote :

I remember still every word of a fine talk which he and I had last June on a beautiful summer evening at the seashore. He had just been reading much of Buckle and Spencer and Comte and of the more modern positivists and sociologists. He had needed the material for an address he wanted to deliver on the task of the historian, and he came to me to talk it all over. Oh, he felt so wearied, he said, as if he had walked through a desert into which the flourishing landscape of history had been transformed. No doubt, he exclaimed, we can treat the whole world's history, and the struggles of the nations, and the development of individual great men, as if it were all nothing but a big causal mechanism, wherein everything is understood when it is explained, and wherein the natural factors of race-disposition and climate, of market and food, determine fate. Of course, for certain purposes we must do so, and must demand of dry, stubborn laws that they express the richness of five thousand years of history. Then it is necessity which turns the crank of the historical machine to produce ever new repetitions. But all this is after all merely natural science; the spark of history is quenched.

To the eye of history man is not a thing which is moved, but a creator in freedom, and the whole world's history is a story of mutual will influences. If I study history, I am doing it to understand what the will-demands of living men mean. I stand before an endless manifoldness of political and legal and social and intellectual will-demands from the people with whom I come in contact. Each one compels acknowledgment, each one demands agreement or disagreement, obedience or combat; and my whole historical life is just the chain of my attitudes toward those will-demands. I have to respect the laws of my country, the political existence of other nations, the customs and convictions of my time; I have to choose between political parties and scientific theories and aesthetic schools and religious denominations ; I have to sympathize with reforms and to fight crimes. And yet those individuals who represent the claims of the country, or the rights of other people, or the theories of the schools, have not invented the demands with which they approach one. Each one of their demands refers again to the demands of their predecessors and their ancestors. The whole historic configuration of our politics and law and science and art and religion is thus a system of will-demands which asks for our free decision, but which in itself points backward at every point to

( 639)

other subjects of will, and these others again refer to others. This whole mighty system of will-reference is what we call human history.

Thus we talked it over for hours, and it was a delight to listen to his enthusiasm for the thoughts of such men as Carlyle and Emerson, and above all of the great Fichte, as he contrasted it with the positivistic superficiality which he had found in the sociological books. I remember how he, late that night, left my piazza with the laughing words : " Believe me, from the pair in Paradise of old to the eighty millions in our new Paradise, the world's history means the will-connections of free personalities." [16]

We do not by any means admit that the interpretation of recent sociology, implied in the depreciating epithets in the passage, is just. On the whole, the sociologists have done their part to show that the most significant factors of life are the work of mind, not the grinding of machinery. At the same time, we must protest against the tendency to accept interpretations in terms of mental action which is merely a process analogous with a mechanical process. The real explanation must be found in the spiritual initiative which is superior to mechanical causation.


  1. In the order of publication, his most important books for our purpose are : (i) Les lois de l'imitation (1890—95) ; (2) La logique sociale (1895) ; (3) L'opposition universelle (1897) ; (4) Les lois sociales (1898). In this chapter the references, with a single exception, are to the American translation of the first work.
  2. Laws of Imitation, p. 3.   
  3. Ibid., p. 4.
  4. Ibid., p. 11,   
  5. Ibid., p. 88. 626
  6. Ibid., p. 165.
  7. Ibid., p. 74.
  8. Ibid., p. 107.
  9. Ibid., Preface to second edition, pp. xiii, xiv.
  10. For instance, in the preface to La logique sociale he says : " In my view, imitation is the social memory." The two terms " social memory " and " any intermental photography " are surely not interchangeable !
  11. 'Laws of Imitation, p. 69.
  12. Ibid., pp. 79, 204, 205.
  13. Cf. Royce, Outlines of Psychology, chaps. 5 and 6.
  14. It would seem that Tarde himself would have reached this same explanation, if he had not been held back by allegiance to the imitation hypothesis (e.g., ibid., pp. 193-212).
  15. Cf. chap. 14.
  16. The Eternal Life, p. 30.

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