Introduction to the Study of Society

Book V Chapter 2
 Social Consciousness—The Phenomena of Authority

Albion Small and George Vincent

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§ 169. Psychology tells us that many activities of the human body are carried on as a result of reflex influences of which the individual is unconscious. The physiological functions of digestion, respiration, circulation of the blood, and the like, are normally performed in this way. Almost without exception, adjustments to external conditions, how-ever, are conscious or reasoned acts. Since all social functions are combinations of individual activities, it follows that so far as the social unit is concerned every social act is consciously performed. It will be remembered that Social Psychology has been defined as a higher product of Individual Psychology. Is there, then, a social consciousness as distinguished from that of the individual? May an act be conscious from the standpoint of the social unit, and, nevertheless, unconscious on the part of society as a whole? As before, we shall rely upon an inspection of reality rather than upon formal argument to show that these questions should be answered in the affirmative.

We believe that the distinction between individual and collective consciousness is clearly observable in the most familiar of social phenomena, and is fully recognized in practice, if not in theory, by those who are trying to modify social arrangements.

A given farmer is consciously performing the tasks of agriculture, but the farmers of a region, state or nation, do not communicate with

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each other, estimate the demand for their crops, decide upon certain plans and proportions of production and thus make their combined activities socially conscious. If they did, each man would not only know what he himself was doing, but what relation his tasks bore to the collective labor.

While the World's Fair was being built, hundreds of hotels were erected in the vicinity to accommodate expected visitors. Large numbers of men who owned land, or had capital, or could form a stock company, engaged in hotel enterprises. Each one was conscious of what he himself was doing, yet there was almost no common or social consciousness as to the aggregate hotel capacity of the World's Fair region. One Sunday in April, before the opening of the Exposition, a daily paper printed a list of Fair hotels with the capacity of each and the sum total of rooms available. The public and the proprietors were astonished, and the latter dismayed, at the figures. Social consciousness was aroused, but too late to be of service to many speculators.

The socialists make a great point of the unconsciousness of production, the absence of reasoned, coördinated, economic activity, and they urge the immense benefit to be derived from socialized management which would collect accurate information and carefully plan the quantities of different commodities needed during a given period.

Agitators of social reform aim primarily to create a social consciousness of certain arrangements and activities which they deem dangerous to society. They collect facts, show relations, make inferences and in many ways publish these results until a common body of knowledge and opinion is produced, which in turn arouses feeling and leads to action. Public consciousness is a prerequisite of social reform.

§ 170. Unconsciousness is a conspicuous characteristic of social activities and institutions.. Individuals seek the satisfaction of their own desires with little or no thought of the relations which their acts sustain to the total life of society. Although in performing social tasks individuals usually avoid infringement of each other's spheres of activity, and thus conform to a certain system of coöperation, they do not, in most things, have a reasoned and conscious plan of collective action. From this it follows that many institutions are largely unconscious social growths, which have developed

( 319) through long periods of time. The family institution, the industrial system, language itself, have been produced gradually and not according to preconceived ideals.

Social unconsciousness, as De Greef has pointed out, characterizes the phenomena which are connected with the lower human wants, and find expression in propagation and in production and distribution. The functions of sociability, education, and discipline display a certain degree of social consciousness, while in politics society at last assumes a more or less reasoned control of its own activities and at-tempts to direct them toward a definite goal.

There forming enthusiast is prone to bewail the unconsciousness of society, but this very trait is manifestly one of the economies of nature. If it were not for this more or less reflex character of social functions, if collective reason were compelled constantly to deal with the manifold and complex conditions which society presents, irresolution and anarchy would prevail. Yet, as we shall see in the next section, consciousness has an important part to play in social progress.

The family is an outgrowth of the gregarious instinct. Men did not establish the institution because they foresaw that the family relation would be characterized by ever higher forms of affection, and would exert subtle socializing influences upon offspring. The family is chiefly the product of unconscious social evolution.

The attempt to found the universal language, Volapük, is an unsuccessful effort to arouse social consciousness. From the standpoint of pure reason, language, with its countless divisions, dialects, and inconsistencies, is an absurd institution. Rationality would demand a uniform and universal medium of communication, and yet society is so persistently unconscious in this regard, that even the reformers of spelling are making slow progress.

The agitation (luring the summer and autumn of 1893, for the repeal of the silver-purchasing clause of the Sherman bill, was a phenomenon of social consciousness. For several years the provisions of the act had been carried out by government officials who were conscious of their

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individual conduct, but gave little or no thought to the wide relations involved. In like manner the nation as a whole was engaged in daily tasks, and for the most part (lid not know what was going on. Suddenly a commercial crisis appeared. Its causes, and measures for averting its threatened dangers, were immediately sought. Among others, the monthly purchase of silver was fixed upon and by a large 'section of the country accepted, as the chief source of the trouble. On certain grounds, as to the justice of which we express no opinion, the immediate repeal of the purchasing clause was urged as a measure of vital importance. Alleged effects upon credit, investments, the currency, and prices were depicted and reiterated until a vast body of some-what reasoned social conviction was created. The people believed certain things to be true, and were convinced that repeal would be the part of wisdom. Whether it was intelligent or unintelligent, social consciousness was aroused and was expressed in feeling and action.

§ 171. The development of society exhibits a succession of states of consciousness which, finding expression in written or unwritten laws, or in modifications of institutions, fade away. The changes in activities, arrangements, and standards once consciously made, are soon consolidated and become points of departure for still further readjustments. The economy of such a procedure is manifest. Reflex, unreasoned actions are promptly performed with the mini-mum of effort. Consciousness serves to modify and improve the nature of structure or function, then gives place to reflex action.

Thus it is evident that the stimulation of social consciousness is a matter of great concern to those who are engaged in tasks of social amelioration or reformation. In the last analysis, it is by this means only that important and genuine changes can be effected. Yet the difficulties and limitations in creating social consciousness may be easily underestimated and cause serious disappointment to sanguine philanthropists. 

The standards of judgment in the United States as to social drinking customs represent a consolidation of successively conscious states, each

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of which has reverted to unconsciousness. Fifty years ago wine drinking was very generally practiced even by ministers and church members. Gradually facts were collected, as to the use of liquor, its effects on individuals and on social arrangements. A public consciousness of the part played by this custom in the collective life, and a conviction that its influence as a whole was dangerous, were little by little created. As a result, criteria of conduct were modified: total abstinence was accepted by great numbers as a rule of life, and practiced until it became a habit. Children were trained to conform with this ideal, and the possibility of returning to the old order was not even admitted. Within a generation, this socially conscious change of practice became largely unconscious or reflex. In a similar way the principle of " local option " is rapidly passing through the phase of a collectively conscious phenomenon and becoming an accepted standard or social policy.

The passage of the " factory acts " in England affords admirable examples of the point here involved. In the rapid industrial development of the early part of the century, men, women, and children were sacrificed to the immense forces of progress. Individuals over all England knew that human beings, young and old, of both sexes, were working under conditions which doomed many to disease, moral degeneration, and premature death, but society, as such, was unconscious of the situation. Isolated complaints grew in numbers and vehemence until Parliament felt compelled to appoint a commission to examine carefully the actual condition of wage earners in English mines and factories. The report of this body filled the three kingdoms with dismay and indignation. Society became conscious of the abnormal and revolting condition of so many of its members, and through the duly constituted organ of government took measures to correct the evils. Public opinion on this matter was sustained until the "factory acts" were enforced. After a time the new arrangements were so generally accepted and firmly established that danger of reverting to the former status wholly vanished. To-day we wonder that such conditions could ever have been tolerated. Social action with regard to most of these old abuses has become reflex. The new evils must enter the social consciousness before they can be ameliorated or removed.

§ 172. At a first superficial glance, society seems a mere mass of independent individuals, moving freely as suits the whim of each, certainly without physical coherence and

( 322) apparently lacking a unifying principle. We know, however, that there are psychical forces which maintain the structures and motive the activities of the social organism. What system of correlation makes possible the approximately harmonious coöperation of these countless social units?

The student will remember that our analysis (Bk. III., Chap. IV.) of the social communicating structure discovered an arrangement of channels about a series of nuclei, each in subordination to successively higher centers. Since these lines of transmission are created for psychical service, it follows that there is a corresponding grouping of individuals about centers of influence or authority. By this arrangement social units sustain orderly relations to society as a whole, and come under the control of coördinating agencies. The term "authority" is here employed in its widest sense to describe any influence or person having recognized psychical power over social groups, large or small. It is by no means to be limited to politically constituted officials.  

A mob of citizens and a regiment of soldiers present a contrast of structure. The one is an unorganized, unwieldy mass moved, perhaps, by a vague common purpose, but unable to adjust itself promptly to external conditions or to carry out any plan efficiently. The regiment, on the other hand, exhibits a structure of a high type; it is capable of rapid and exact evolutions, and can render a given service with promptness and precision. Ignoring for the present the important element of discipline, the difference between these two collections of men is primarily one of organization. The mob has one or two leaders who harangue, suggest, and urge. They issue no definite orders, the men jostle and push in a wild rush this way or that. Real control does not exist.

In the regiment, soldiers are primarily grouped about sergeants, who are themselves subordinate to lieutenants and captains; they, in turn, look to the colonel for commands. Thus we see a succession of authorities, through whom impulses are quickly communicated from the chief officer to the private in the ranks. If each soldier were to have a personal interview with the colonel, and receive instructions from

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him, or were to march in accordance with an independent personal plan, the regiment would quickly lose its efficiency. Subordination and unquestioning obedience to immediate authority constitute the essential principle of military movements.

While society, this side of a socialistic regime, cannot be arranged with military precision, it does display, in principle, the same grouping about centers of authority.

§ 173. In view of the increasing aggregate of social knowledge, and the growing demand for further research and discovery, a regular division of observation and study has taken place. Specialization is a conspicuous characteristic of our time. We find one man devoting all his energies to one department of Biology, another to Optics, a third to a single period of History. By a natural process specialists of preëminent ability are acknowledged as such by their colleagues, and, after a time, are recognized by larger and larger circles of individuals, until a few win national, and even international, fame. Such men are authorities in their respective departments. Their dicta are accepted unquestioningly by great numbers, and are incorporated as a part of social knowledge and feeling.

The economy of such an arrangement is manifest. Only by specialization can the vast psychical work of society be accomplished. Only by accepting the results of differentiated individual efforts can a body of social knowledge be organized. Faith in authority is absolutely essential to progress in social intelligence. The man who would know everything for himself must first discover the " elixir of life."

Anything which Edison may say about electrical phenomena finds wide acceptance. Koch's opinions on tuberculosis carry with them great weight. Weismann's theories of heredity influence many students.

The sociologist, of all men, must exercise faith in authority. His task is largely one of synthesis. He must accept the results which the biologist, the psychologist, the anthropologist, the historian, the economist, and the statistician offer to him. When authorities disagree,

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the student of society may weigh arguments and judge between conflicting views; but for facts and primary generalizations, he must depend upon others.

The phenomena of authority are conspicuous in the educational system, and are among the most familiar manifestations of psychical activity.

§ 174. The main sources of general authority in society are individual mental ability, reputation, personal or inherited, and the hold of social groups and organs on popular favor. Authority in a technical sense is duly constituted in the social regulative system, whether it be the management of a factory or the government of a nation. Personal leadership is a well-known phenomenon of authority. Certain individuals, by virtue of their known attainments, the strength of their personalities, the fame which these elements have won for them, sometimes by reason of their very names, gather and influence larger or smaller groups of followers.

Again, newspapers, and the expressed opinions of societies, parties, churches, and other aggregates and organs not only largely control their immediate constituencies, but often wield power in much wider circles. The authority exercised by directors, managers, foremen, bosses, etc., in economic activities, and by various officials of political government, is of a more clearly defined and generally recognized character.

It is worth noting that Authority, originally based on a certain definite claim, often becomes after a time vaguely universal, so that men whose opinions on one particular subject deserve respectful attention and possibly unquestioning acceptance, gradually assume the position of oracles on many different questions, about which they really know little or nothing.

Mr. Gladstone's review of Robert Elsmere had so marked an influence upon the sale of Mrs. Ward's first novel, that English paragraph-

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-ers humorously advise young authors to give the ex–premier a retainer, and then make haste to write a book.

The device of quoting authorities, living and dead, is a practice of scholars, preachers, editors, politicians, and especially lawyers. Sermons often abound in extracts from the opinions of famous theologians. Newspaper editorials contain quotations from prominent political leaders. The average stump speaker alludes frequently to views held by men high in the councils of the party.

Resolutions passed by national and provincial conventions of many kinds have varying degrees of influence. Every such gathering is beset by individuals who want the indorsement of the body for some particular plan of social or political action. The platforms of national parties are in one respect means for gaining the maximum of votes, and in another they are official approvals of certain policies in which influential parts of the organization are interested.

Letters of recommendation and "press notices," the ammunition with which lecturers, actors, readers, musicians, and entertainers of all kinds storm bureaus, managers, and committees, are doubtless in part evidences of good faith, but in larger measure they are appeals to authority. " Rev. Dr. Blank [a divine noted for his work on Systematic Theology] says that I am the best drawing-room whistler in the profession, therefore, pray give me an engagement, " is often the logical process of the petitioner. "Recommendations " and " indorsements" in private notes and advertising columns present very interesting phenomena of authority.

§ 175. Authorities exert positive influences upon groups of individuals and give direction to social knowledge, feeling, and volition. Generally, the initiative comes from the side of authority. The fact of leadership involves domination and control, and usually implies the use of such power for some definite purpose. In all departments of life, especially in politics, leaders are easily distinguished. Leadership is not always personal, but is often exercised by social organs. The important part which the press plays in the communicating structure is significant in connection with the facts of authority. Personal contact may be possible between minor leaders and their followers, but more important authorities cannot

( 326) exert direct and constant influence upon their greater publics. Even the structure of speaker and audience (§ 108) has its limitations.

The press, therefore, is the chief medium of communication between the greater authorities and their followers. Scholars present the results of their researches in books and journals ; theological leaders have papers of their own, and also gain admission to the general press ; statesmen and politicians often control personal newspapers ; while parties, factions, syndicates, and other groups either manage their own organs or exert influence upon other journals. The authorities of fashion communicate impulses by means of special newspapers, as well as through the general press.

The immense influence of the press will be recognized more and more fully as analysis of society advances. In reality, the impulses communicated by this organ, regarded as a whole, give stimulus and direction to social activities of every kind. The fact that large numbers of individuals are not reached directly by the newspaper does not materially weaken this statement. The press influences all, at least, who are capable of exercising leadership, and through them makes itself felt to the very limits of the psychical organism.

Authorities, then, are manifestly a source of power, which, through the medium of the press, is brought to bear upon various special publics, and, from time to time, is exerted upon the whole body of citizens, or the general public. Those who seek to begin a social movement by winning the confidence and convincing the reason of the appropriate authorities pursue the most direct, although not always the easiest, method.

A scholar, after careful investigation, is convinced that a certain theory, heretofore generally accepted, must be abandoned in view of the discovery of certain new facts. Having formulated another hypothesis, which, to his own satisfaction, explains all the phenomena, he

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publishes a clear and accurate statement of the whole case, thereby bringing a positive force to bear upon his peculiar public.

A group of prominent and respected citizens, in a small city, resolve to put an end to certain forms of municipal corruption. They quietly effect an organization, make investigations, present the facts at a public meeting, and offer a definite plan of reform. The local press gives support to the movement, and a psychical force, originating, so far as the town is concerned, with these guiding authorities, is exerted on the community. (The Cosmopolis City Club, Washington Gladden.)

A theologian of conspicuous ability, and a recognized authority, becomes convinced that certain modifications of belief are rendered necessary by the progress of knowledge, and he formulates changes in the creed which he thinks ought to be accepted. By making public his views, he sets at work: an important force.

A political leader decides, that for many reasons, personal and partisan, a given man would make a useful official. Forthwith, the paper, or group of papers, which the manager controls, begins to put the chosen protégé forward as a candidate. The "bosses," immediately under the thumb of the leader, are instructed to "boom"the same individual, and other influences are exerted to bring about the desired result. The original impulse has its source in an authority who knows what he wants and how to get it.

A subscription book agent begins his campaign in a village or town, by seeking to get at the hear of his list the names of prominent citizens, knowing full well that these authorities will influence the decisions of humbler folk.

The loyalty of the subscriber to his favorite newspaper is well-known, and is reckoned upon by political managers. The influence of the journal upon the subscriber is of the greatest social significance. It is probably safe to say that the majority of reading citizens in the United States take regularly only one general newspaper, or the news-papers of only one party. In political affairs the vast majority of readers are mere echoes of their newspapers. It is through the press that chief authorities make themselves felt and exercise the greatest influence.

Local authorities, professional men, leaders of society and fashion, and sportsmen come in personal contact with their followers, but are themselves in subordination to greater leaders from whom they receive impulses through the press.

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§ 176. The much-abused and in itself dubious phrase, " keeping in touch with the public," implies another aspect of authority which deserves careful study. Not only is authority positively exerted upon its peculiar public, but that public in turn reacts upon and modifies the authority itself. By this process of mutual reaction, social knowing, feeling, and willing are produced. The successful leader is he who is constantly in such close and sympathetic relations with his public that they are always responsive to his suggestions and recommendations. Those who, elated by a sudden elevation to leadership, imagine that they have only to issue commands, will be speedily chagrined. The reaction of public opinion upon authority makes social control a most delicate and difficult task. The disciplined organization of an army is not a type of social arrangements in general.

The initiative in social movements does not always come from the side of authority. When the leader fails to recognize the existence of conditions which demand action, he is spurred to effort by the influences which his public bring to bear. The social reformer, if repulsed by authority, turns to the public and attempts to arouse consciousness and thus to exert pressure on the incredulous or remiss leader.

Let us look at another aspect of the several illustrations just given under § 175.

A scholarly paper presenting a new scientific theory is subjected to rigid criticism even by those who acknowledge the authority of the writer, and, in consequence, the scientist makes certain modifications in his views. The final product is a result of both positive authority and the reaction of a special public.

A company of municipal reformers presents a definite plan of campaign carefully worked out and apparently sure to set in motion the better psychical forces of the community. Yet, as the scheme is put in operation, more or less modification is rendered necessary by the attitude which various groups or the general public assume. The ultimate measures differ from the original plans; they are the joint product of authority and public opinion.

A political manager decides to nominate for office a "worker " whose reputation is not of the best. Through the party organs - feelers" are

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sent out, suggestions are made as to possible candidates, etc. If there is no pronounced opposition developed, the scheme is pushed through; but should there be a well-defined public reaction against the plan, the leader is likely to hesitate, and unless something of prime importance is involved in the success of the "deal"he will probably abandon it, for a time at least. No class is better versed in the phenomena of social reaction than the professional politicians.

Even the usually autocratic dictators of fashion are sometimes compelled to yield to popular pressure. The recently reported effort to restore the absurd crinoline to feminine favor aroused such a storm of opposition from press and people, that the plan was abandoned, if, indeed., it was ever seriously entertained.

Letters to newspapers, petitions and personal communications to officials, mass meetings, etc., are among the means employed by the public to influence authority. The bombardment of the United States Senate last autumn (1893), for and against the repeal of the purchasing clause, is a case in point. The present agitation for stringent national legislation against lotteries displays this same effort to coerce authority.

The reaction of the public upon the press is a subject for careful special study. There is much irrational talk about the duties and responsibilities of newspapers, as though they were independent forces in society (§ 162). In reality, they are a vital part of the social fabric, and exhibit all the phenomena of interdependence that characterize other organs. Undoubtedly economic considerations have great influence upon the press. The newspaper which cannot maintain its subscription list and advertising business at a certain point, j e. an organ which fails to secure adequate sustenance, must perish. Hence the first question with any newspaper is, in the nature of things, economic. The art of obtaining and holding subscribers is an application of the principles of authority and reaction. It is sometimes rather cynically said that the press is as good as the public will permit. There is an important truth in this remark. The newspaper may lead its public positively, but it must adapt itself, in a measure, to that public's opinions, tastes, and prejudices. The sentiments expressed on the editorial page of the newspaper are only in rare cases individual opinions of its chief editor or of its staff as a group. They are super-psychical phenomena, products of authority in politics, art, literature, finance, etc., reacted upon by the vaguely collective opinion of readers.

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No one will deny that the press exhibits pathological phenomena (§ 159); but, as we have insisted more than once, the responsibility must be distributed throughout the whole organism, not fixed upon the newspaper as the ultimate source of the evils.

Social consciousness is a phenomenon clearly displayed by certain forms of collective activity, although, for the most part, such movements are not thus rationally conceived by society as a whole. States of consciousness, having once resulted in structural and functional change, soon fade away. All individuals in society are arranged about centers of authority, which are related to each other, in a series of progressive subordination. Authority exercises a positive influence, or leadership, upon those under its control, who, in turn, react upon and modify the forces originally exerted.


1. The stock exchange as a stimulator of social consciousness.

2. An examination of the proposition that economic action is largely unconscious, from the standpoint of society as a whole.

3. The " trust " as an example of socially conscious production.

4. Observed facts of social unconsciousness in a given community.

5. The observed progress from unconsciousness to consciousness, with regard to certain conditions, in a given community. Sanitation, street cleaning, etc.

6. The observed progress from unconsciousness to consciousness in the use of telephones, electric street cars, etc.

7. The progress from consciousness to unconsciousness in the growth of vocabularies; the coining and adoption of new words.

8. The authorities of a given community and their relation to other external authorities.

9. An observed instance of successfully exerted authority (other than that of a regularly recognized official).

10. An observed instance of authority successfully opposed by public opinion.

11. The observed reaction of a congregation on a preacher.


12. The observed reaction of a jury on a lawyer.

13. An analysis of authority and reaction as displayed by a given newspaper.

14. An examination of the proposition that "the press is as good as the public will permit."

15. Arguments for and against the " endowed " newspaper.


No notes

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