Introduction to the Study of Society

Book I Chapter 5
 The Organic Conception of Society

Albion Small and George Vincent

Table of Contents | Next | Previous

§ 38. This general introduction to Sociology would be incomplete without a brief explanation of the place which the conception of society as an organism occupies in our method of interpretation. Professor Franklin H. Giddings, who has been among the pioneers of sociological thought in the United States, has said, in substance, that modern Sociology may be distinguished from previous social doctrine by the prominence which it gives to the fundamental idea of the social organism.

It is certainly true that a student who is not thoroughly familiar with the biological and the sociological use of the term "organism " roust grow more and more bewildered if he attempts to follow recent social discussions. The third and fourth books of this volume will seem meaningless and purposeless to students to whom the fact of social interrelation-ship is so vague that it affords no help in coördinating social phenomena. This manual aims to place students in possession of the organic hypothesis of society, as a working tool, and a useful instrument. The method of study required by this outline is defensible only on the basis of the conception which the formula " Society is an organism " expresses.

It is neither desirable nor possible to define the phrase " social organism " in such precise terms that it may be made a premise for deduction of a system of social doctrine. Such mechanical use of the term has been attempted by persons

( 88) incapable of dealing inductively with the material of social knowledge. They have succeeded only in getting Sociology charged with reasoning after the form : " Man is an organism ;society is an organism ; therefore society is a man."

§ 39. The sociological concept "organism" is a wider generalization of the term already generic in Biology. From definitions of the biological term " organism " the following will serve to explain the sociological usage : "An organized being, a living body, either vegetable or animal, composed of different organs or parts, with functions which are separate, but mutually dependent and essential to the life of the individual."

The first trait of an organism implied in this description is that it is not dead or inert, but living and active. The second trait is that it is not homogeneous substance, but composed of distinguishable parts. The third trait is that these distinguishable parts are capable of coöperating with each other. The fourth trait is that the complete life of the whole is realized if coöperation of the parts is complete, and conversely, the life of the whole is diminished in so far as coöperation of the parts is incomplete.

The formula does not include, but expressly excludes, restriction of the concept to any special order of life. The Alga or the Fungus is an organism as truly as the Oak or the Orchid ; the Amoeba as truly as the Elephant or Man. The radical ideas in the concept " organism " are interrelation and interdependence of parts, in accordance with principles of immanent economy to which all the parts and the composed whole are subject. Wherever those relations are found, the use of the generic term is appropriate. Assertion that the series "vegetable organism," "animal organism," may be extended by addition of the term " social organism," no more involves the assertion that society is an animal, than

( 89) the previous series implies that animals are vegetables. The proposition means, most abstractly, that there are, in society, certain principles of coherence, which bind society into a unity that constitutes a distinct order of organism.

The enlarged concept " organism," which omits traits peculiar to vegetable or animal organisms, and contains only relationships common to these and also to societies of human beings, has been most clearly described by Mr. J. S. Mackenzie in the following formula: "A whole whose parts are intrinsically related to it, which develops from within, and has reference to an end which is involved in its own nature."

Discovery that these traits actually inhere in human society, and that human personality develops partly in contributing to the integration of such a unity, partly through adaptation to the conditions of that unity, is the initial step in modern Social Philosophy.

§ 40. Those modern sociologists who have employed the organic conception of society to the best purpose have used it as an instrument of discovery or exposition, not as a means of exhibiting social facts in fanciful arrangements, in conformity with forced analogies. Critics of the organic interpretation of society are apt to treat it as though the social interpretation which uses such analogies were related to genuine Sociology, as catalogues of the stars in arbitrary constellations are to Astronomy. There is nothing in the analysis of society as an organism which remotely resembles the construction of the heavenly bodies into Draco and Cygnus and Pegasus and Andromeda.

The organic interpretation of society is not a method of placing social facts in artificial groupings, so that they may be conveniently discussed. It is an attempt to discover the relations of reciprocity in which the components of society stand to each other and no language is so appropriate to

( 90) the purpose as that of Biology. When biological terms are used in social interpretation, it is because the social facts which we observe manifest themselves in action and reaction with each other in ways which at once suggest facts of physical organisms previously observed, between which there are similar relations. The likeness of relations, not the identity of terms, promotes the meanings of familiar biological words to a social significance, as in the case of the term "organism," with which we are especially concerned.

Thus, when we speak of "Social Anatomy," we do not in-tend to embarrass social analysis by an attempt to divide societies into Radiates and Mollusks and Articulates and Vertebrates. It may be possible to classify governments, and to discover certain relations between types of government and the structure of the societies in which the various governments operate ; but the use of the term "Anatomy" does not compel us to find analogies between societies and different kinds of animals where none exist, or between every part of society and some part of an animal body.

The fact is that, compared with physical organisms, society is amorphous. Of societies belonging to essentially the sane variety, the head of one may be in a newspaper office ; of another, on a tobacco plantation ; of a third, in a temple of religion ; of a fourth, in the brains of the free citizens. The nature of societies is such that geometrical boundaries do not essentially differentiate them, and morphological types, if they could be made out, would not have relatively the importance which they have in Zoölogy. Nevertheless, there is a necessary discrimination of part from part in society — a distinction of group from group, of process from process, which is preliminary to more searching inquiry into social relations, and can be compared with nothing more precisely than with Anatomy, as distinguished from Physiology.

( 91)

Again, when we speak of the " life " of the social body, we do not imply that, in addition to the stomachs and hearts of the individual members, there is a physical organ to digest food for society, and another to force blood into social arteries. We mean that there is discoverable among associations of human beings that " continuous adjustment of internal relations to external relations," which is an analogue.of the life of a man ; which, however, presents complexities that distinguish it as life of a still more mysterious order.

Once more, when we assert that the social body " grows," we do not mean that it secretes layers of fiber around a central nucleus, as in the case of a tree ; or that it adds cubits to its stature, like the children of men. We mean that society exhibits a real, though unique, process of development. It is visible in the activities of industry, of politics, of science, of art, of religion. This growth cannot be ac-counted for by the action of the same energies which secure the growth of plants and animals. It is the operation of factors additional to those which Physiology, or even Psychology, can discover. It is the emergence of the ultra-psychical energies in the reaction of many minds upon each other.

Thus, while we distinctly repudiate a literalism which identifies the social body with physical organisms, as known to Biology, we assert that society is such a combination of individual human organisms that the resulting phenomena compose an organism of a higher order. We are thus far unable to analyze the social body as minutely as physiologists have examined animal bodies, and we are, therefore, unprepared to assert positively how far actual analogies hold between social and physiological relations. We must consequently guard ourselves by making it very clear that, in the use of biological language, we allege primarily only similarities, not identities. Our conception never reduces

( 92) the more complex social phenomena to a lower place in the hierarchy of phenomena. We never mean to imply that because we observe one similarity between social and physiological relations, there must necessarily be in society duplicates of every other physiological relation. In short, the organic conception of society must claim rights under the homely rhetorical principle : " No analogy goes on all fours."

§ 41. The fact that, in developing the organic interpretation of society, biological terms are often used in a figurative sense, must not conceal the fact that there are certain relationships precisely parallel, as such, with certain relationships in animal bodies. In the working portion of this manual, a large number of illustrations will be cited. The abstract proposition may be repeated here in the words of Mr. Spencer : —

" Figures of speech, which often mislead by conveying the notion of complete likeness where only slight similarity exists, occasionally mislead by making an actual correspondence seem a fancy. A metaphor, when used to express a zeal resemblance, raises a suspicion of mere imaginary resemblance; and so obscures the perception of intrinsic kinship. It is thus with the phrases ' body politic,' 'political organization,' and others, which tacitly liken a society to a living creature. They are assumed to be phrases having a certain convenience but expressing no fact—tending rather to foster a fiction. And yet, metaphors are here more than metaphors in the ordinary sense. They are devices of speech hit upon to suggest a truth at first dimly perceived, but which grows clearer the more carefully the evidence is examined. That there is a real analogy between an individual organism and a social organism, becomes undeniable when certain necessities determining structure are seen to govern them in common."

No better illustration could be desired, to show how the organic interpretation of society is misconstrued both on its figurative and its literal side, than was furnished in a late

( 93) magazine article by Professor Simon N. Patten. The case is the more notable because whatever Professor Patten writes is worthy of attention. His failure to do justice to the organic conception proves that its expounders have not made themselves understood. If our leading thinkers have not fairly apprehended the conception, it is evident that too great plainness in explaining its bearings is impossible. In a note, Professor Patten says: —

" It is a common sociological concept to think of a society as an organism. This concept is, however, defective. The members of a society act together, not because they are parts of an organism having an independent vital farce, but because they project and visualize the same subjective environment."

Professor Patten might just as well have objected to the organic conception of society, on the ground that society has no independent lungs, or liver, or legs ; or that society has neither teeth, nor hair, nor skin. The organic conception of society does not involve the assumption that society has an independent "vital force " in any biological sense. If the phrase is used, it would be in a sense entirely figurative, so far as biological facts are concerned ; but the phrase, " social vital force," would apply properly to a psychical force, which performs in society a function of preserving the relation of social part to part, closely analogous with the function which "vital force," as conceived biologically, per-forms among the particles that compose the animal body.

In the very passage to which the above note is appended, Professor Patten unconsciously adopts the organic conception, because he is reporting a fact which illustrates the organic character of society, as explained in § 39. He says there is a kind of knowledge

"which may be called race knowledge, because it is either a part of the common inheritance of all, or might be made so, if sufficient care

( 93)

were taken to put it in the proper form and to impress it upon the public.... Like the panorama, which combines a bit of real scenery near at hand with a painted background, so as to give the effect of reality to the whole picture, so the visualized race knowledge, creating the national character, becomes as real and objective to the citizen, as the soil, mine, or shop from which he earns his living."

A literalist might turn Professor Patten's own style of criticism against this representation and declare : " The concept `race knowledge' is defective, because no race has an independent brain." If any one is so lacking in imagination that he cannot apprehend approximate expressions of more complex truth in terms of simpler analogies, he should not attempt the " thinking things together " involved in social interpretation.

In the case presented by the above quotation, a mental phenomenon is involved, in which thoughts shared by people of a race have an effect upon the persons composing the race, analogous with the effect which thoughts in the mind of a single man have upon the acts which the man performs. It is, therefore, entirely correct to speak of " race knowledge." Study of society, with a view to discovery of real relations, will result in the apprehension of a sum of real relations which are not biological ; which can be adequately expressed, however, only as Social Anatomy, Physiology, Psychology, and Pathology.

§ 42. Study of society under the guidance of the organic conception is simply perfecting perceptions which are, in principle, as old as attempts to explain the universe. It would be a bold historian who would venture to declare which of the Greeks first thought of the world as in some degree organic, in the sense described above. Paul certainly applied the conception to Christian society, at least, in the twelfth chapter of the letter to the Romans, and also

( 95) in the twelfth chapter of the first letter to the Corinthians. Traces of the idea are found in the writings of historians, theologians, poets, and philosophers, at intervals throughout mediaeval and modern literature.

Modern interpretations of social activities are not attempts to find curious analogies to correspond with superficial aspects of society. They endeavor to express, in terms most nearly adequate to the purpose, the precise facts of inter-relation which social activities present.

Beginning with the individual, where biological and psychological observation ends, we discover that the individual cannot be understood in isolation. He is not only side by side with other individuals like himself, but in a thousand ways these other individuals singly and collectively deter-mine the quantity and the quality of his life. The individual is a factor of a larger self, and that larger self is the object of Sociology.

Using the vital relations which Biology has investigated, not as limitations of knowledge, but as spurs to discovery, we assume that every act in society, like every process in the animal organism, has a causal explanation, and a functional significance. We treat society just as we might imagine the anatomist treating the human body, if all the vital processes could be exposed to simultaneous view. He would at once proceed to verify hypotheses about vital cause and effect, about physiological process and method ; and he would watch for facts about which opinions were unformed. Sociological analysis, by use of the organic conception, is not an attempt to construct social facts into conformity with conventional ideas. It is a method of examining social facts so critically that their essential relations with all other social facts will be detected.

The kind and amount of social interpretation which this manual will outline should result at least in ability to render

( 96) the general facts of society in terms of their functional values. It should sharpen the perception that social activities are to be judged according to their causal relations to the proper aims of the social whole and of the individual parts. It should so mature social judgment that discrimination will be easy between programmes of action which deal with social symptoms alone, and those which amount to radical treatment. It should develop ability to analyze accurately the physical and psycho-physical mechanism of society, as preparation for study of the statical conditions which social potencies are fitted to realize.

The student who uses this manual should understand at the outset what the method proposes and what it positively disclaims. The utmost possible use of this introduction to Sociology would not authorize a student to declare ex cathedra, upon general principles, the precise action which individuals or the whole society should take in connection with the next strike, or lockout, or tariff schedule, or task of municipal reform. Careful and protracted use of the method to be outlined will, on the contrary, do for the sociologist precisely what clinical experience does for the physician. It will qualify him to study concrete cases and to form opinions worthy of respect.[1]


Topics involving the subject matter of Chap. V. will be suggested in connection with Books III., IV., and V.



  1. Since this chapter was in type, Professor Patton has published, under the title Failure of Biologic Sociology, along with strong words of wisdom as an economist, still more startling misconceptions of the method both of Physical Science and of Sociology

Valid HTML 4.01 Strict Valid CSS2