Social Attitudes

The Concept of Social Attitudes

Ellsworth Faris
Professor of Sociology, University of Chicago

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IT may well be that the future historian of social psychology in America will record that the concept of social attitudes came into general acceptance in response to an unwitting search for some release from a sterile absolutism. The quest for the innate and universal tendencies went on for thirty years as an attempt to discover the exact list of the human instincts. The major premise of that search was the assumption that, just as the ant, the bee, the beaver, and the wild ox of Damaraland showed fixed and ineradicable behavior patterns that could be described in picturesque words, so also with man. In 1890 James wrote that nothing was commoner among psychologists than the assertion that human life is governed by reason while the lower animals are controlled by instincts. Twenty years later every psychologist recognized the central importance of a list of instincts and a long and persistent effort was made to determine what the exact predispositions might be.

But by 1920 the earnest attempt to secure some fruitful list had become so discouraging that doubt was cast on the theory itself. A short-lived tendency to name these invariable units by some other noun was far less successful. The reflexes, potent, prepotent, and impotent, were too thinly disguised and failed to secure any enthusiasm. In vain was it contended that those reflexes could be modified by social experience; for the instinct-psychologist had long since retreated from his criterion of "specificity."

That the effort to find the unalterable list of elements was still continued by writers on social psychology only reveals the difficulty with which men part with the predilections of their early years. The presidential address of the American Psychological Association one year was delivered by a social psy-

(4) chologist [1] who had given up the older instinct doctrine but substituted an equally neat list of "desires." It was so difficult to break away from individualistic conceptions and become truly social in the initial assumptions that few men saw the issue. The sociologists had been emphasizing the group, and the growth of a sociological consciousness had already affected ethics, economics, political science, and religion, but to psychology the sociologist seemed to go with his hat in his hand, not presuming to carry out the logic of his own premises.

Even when Thomas first introduced in an impressive way his concept of attitudes and values, the full significance of the change had not penetrated. For at first the attitude represented chiefly an insistence on the dynamic and moving aspect of all experience, in contrast to the "states of consciousness" of traditional psychology. There still remained the instinctive equipment and an arresting quartet of wishes which set the young graduate students in sociology by the ears.

One of the men who saw the issue plain and clear was J. M. Williams. His books appeared in rapid succession, though they were written with becoming leisure and with careful and painstaking method. To Williams, social psychology was the science of attitudes and in his excellent work, Our Rural Heritage, he gives an account of the attitudes of the New York farmers, deriving them from the social experiences and showing how changing conditions in the second period of farm life brought about new attitudes.

When Znaniecki published his Laws of Social Psychology, he preferred a different terminology but revealed plainly his insight that the acts and experiences are the determining antecedents beyond which it was not profitable or even possible to seek any stable elements or absolutes.[2]

But the first thoroughgoing and unequivocal statement of the logical outcome of the new movement was made by John Dewey in his Human Nature and Conduct. It was a conscious break with the older view and a clear statement of the relation between institutions and cultural forms and the attitudes (hab-

(5) -its) of individual persons, the attitudes which are the self, the habits which are the will. "The instincts do not make the institutions: it is the institutions that make the instincts." The old units are thoroughly repudiated and the new ones are shown to be formed afresh in every concrete readjustment of a man and his fellows.

It is well for changes to come slowly but it would seem that sociologists have been over-slow to grasp the liberating significance of this concept of social attitudes which has so much of value for their work. The concept of the mores with the emphasis on their mutability and their power has influenced other fields. But the stubborn individual yet remained, and the fluid character of social life congealed against the absolutes of his inborn equipment. Yet social attitudes, once they are grasped in their full significance, become the counterpart, in individual equipment of the richly varied customs of the peoples of the world-differing as customs differ from land to land, and changing as the mores change, from age to age. For the social attitudes of individuals are but the specific instances in individuals of the collective phenomena which the sociologists have labored for a century to bring to the consciousness of their colleagues in social science.

Now the nature and growth of the mores has been made known to a satisfactory degree by the work of Germans like Wundt and Ratzenhofer, by Frenchmen like Durkheim and Levy-Bruhl, by Englishmen like Marett and Frazer, and by Americans like Sumner and Small, and much has been learned that the present generation can use.

No longer are we compelled to puzzle and confuse ourselves with a set and fixed scheme of social evolution with fixed stages and inevitable sequences. We are free from the dogma of economic determinism or any determinism. We know that culture is neither in the blood nor in the germ-plasm and that race means nothing as compared with the experience and activities of the group we are to study. Gone is the ancient doctrine of child-races, the infantile picture of primitive man is obsolete, and the mind patterns of a people are known to result from what they do and say, from what is said and done to them by man and nature.

Institutions are not produced by the instincts. Warfare

(6) makes men warlike and churches make men religious. It is clear that culture precedes particular individuals, that cultural patterns were ancient when you and I were young, and that the key to the varying attitudes is to be sought in culture history, culture contact, and social change.

The logic of this compels attention to the dilemmas that older men of another day encountered. It was assumed that man has, universally, a fighting instinct. It was discovered that some peoples are peaceful-war being unknown among them. What can be said, then? Only one thing-such peoples are defective. Just as a monster might be born with one eye, or with no arms, so some defective peoples appeared as sports, without the fighting instinct. The weakness of the argument is on the surface. The instincts were not discovered or even formed in the antecedent equipment at all-they were but psychological pilferings from the sociological treasure-house.

And the refutation of all this follows quickly upon that comparison in time and place which results in a study of social origins.

We find art to be universal in human societies but it is not difficult to show that artistic activities; practices, and products arose from activities that were not artistic.

Religion is ubiquitous (if we are careful to define religion in broad enough terms) but none of the differentia of religion were religious when they began.

Likewise morals are everywhere, but the mores can make anything right, and can prevent condemnation of anything and the private individual consciousness is the still small voice of one's people giving its warning in words and precepts that are never at variance with the highest ideals of the time and the area.

It is to the group, then, that we turn for the genesis of social attitudes which are profitably studied in the separate members of these groups. The social psychologist is interested in personality and personality might almost be defined as the organization and ordering of one's attitudes. The group attitudes are selected in the individual person; public opinion 1s represented in individual opinion; and personality is the subjective aspect of culture.

It will be very unfortunate if the discussion of social atti-

( 7) -tudes degenerates into a quarrel over terminology, for there is no more certain symptom of the immature state of a science than a persistent and bitter logomachy. Thomas, in collaboration with Znaniecki, secured the adoption of the term attitude, but when the latter wrote "on his own" he gave careful reasons why this term is not a good one. Attitudes seemed to Znaniecki too static a term and he preferred to call them tendencies. And this in spite of the fact that the chief argument for the new view by Thomas was that the older states of consciousness of traditional psychology seemed too objectionable on account of their static implications. Graham Wallas suggested that we compromise on the term dispositions as a sort of neutral word since what we are talking about represents a disposition to act or think in a certain way. For the attitudes are dispositions; they are more, they are predispositions and on account of the existence of attitudes of a given sort we are predisposed to act and to think in a certain way. Dewey likes to call them habits, with the caution that some habits which have become automatic and mechanical are mere inert tools to be used in the service of some more dynamic urge. Habit is thus a trifle ambiguous but it is easier to see clearly what is indicated if we think of the analogy of bad habits, which do not rest quiescent till we want to use them but intrude upon our consciousness and insist on initiating their type of action. (This is a figurative statement but the figure is a good one.) But whether we speak of attitudes, of habits, of tendencies, or of dispositions is no great matter. In fact it is utterly irrelevant if so be that we are careful to know just what we are talking about. The world would be impatient with a physicist who should arise to remark that the x-rays are not really x-rays at all. They are Röntgen rays. If the physicists were as much obsessed with logomachies as are some social psychologists we might even have some scholar write a whole chapter insisting that they are not x-rays but that really and in truth they are a-rays, since they came at the beginning of the knowledge of radioactivity, and that it Would be well to suspend work on then them till we could agree on the matter of terminology.

It is then of small moment, indeed it is utterly unimportant whether we refer to these as one thing or another if only we

(8) are clear as to the phenomena in human experience and behavior that we are indicating. It is the denotative aspect of a word that is important. The necessity of concepts is not minimized by the insistent demand that we should think of what the term stands for and not lose time in arguing about the symbol. The true sciences, the logico-experimental scientists, as Pareto says, "never dispute about words." We shall have arrived where we long to be when we can just as conveniently substitute numbers or letters of the alphabet for the concept and feel that we have lost nothing in the shift. For it is a disadvantage when the concept itself carries an emotional aura in its word-association and we should free ourselves from this easily-transcended limitation.

If, then, thinking denotatively, we inquire into the nature of an attitude it appears that it is "an acquired predisposition to ways or modes of response, not to particular acts except as, under special conditions, these express a way of behaving."' An attitude of devotion to one's mother is something which can be investigated and concerning which confident and demonstrable assertions can be made in particular cases. But we cannot know what particular act will be performed toward one's mother on account of the existence of this attitude. The attitude is a way of conceiving an object; it is the mental counterpart of an object. There is no confusion in calling it mental in the light of our knowledge that mental processes are integrally related to actions, are the result of delayed completion of actions, and are the preconditions of subsequent actions.

To illustrate further: we can investigate and learn to make confident assertions as to the existence of attitudes of individuals and groups of individuals on war, the church, and prohibition. Thurstone has produced laborious but effective devices for the determination of these three classes of attitudes in a group of chosen individuals. In these cases as in most attitudes there is a positive or negative affective tone. The attitude is "for" or "against" the church, war, or prohibition. But the exact and specific act which any individual will perform is not known by knowing his attitude. All we can say is that when the time comes to act the attitude will enter in as an es-

(9) -sential factor in the outcome. But in a crisis the attitude may change and the action be different.

There is one type of situation that has received much attention from social psychologists in which the attitude and the act bear a closer relation. I refer to the picturesque phenomena of crowd psychology and mob psychology. Once we discovered the fallacy of the older imitation psychology we were prepared for the insight that made it clear that in the psychological crowd which acts under the excitement of a leader the unity of the crowd depends on the possession of a common attitude which is brought into the focus of consciousness and made kinetic. Hatred of race, in an angry mob, is evoked and intensified; other attitudes are thrust into the background, and the suggested acts are in harmony with the attitudes to which the appeal is made. The psychology of persuasion and of salesmanship is due to a similar mechanism. The extreme form of this same condition is found in hypnotism.

Attitudes are, then, causally related to action but many acts are strangely at variance with attitudes which the actor can be shown to possess. This is due, of course, to the simultaneous possession of many and even conflicting attitudes and the varying way in which situations are defined so as to bring one attitude or another into the focus of attention and thus into kinetic operation.

The exact relation of attitudes to actions is of such importance that we must inquire somewhat more carefully into the subject. And this leads us to inquire into the genesis of attitudes. Thomas' formulation has influenced all writers on the subject. To him the cause of an attitude was never another attitude but always depended on another attitude and a "value" which was the term he preferred for the objective existences in the world. The series is typically, for him: attitude--value--attitude, or, value--attitude--value.

Thus, if we have as a starting-point an attitude a and as a result an attitude m, the evolution may have gone on in such a way that out of a, under the influence of a value B, is evolved the attitude d; out of d, under the influence of J, the attitude k and k, under the influence of a value N, was changed into the attitude m. But it might have happened also that a was influenced not by B, but by C, and

(10) the result was a different attitude e, which again under the influence not of F, but of G, gave i, and i, when influenced by L, also produced m. And the same can be said of values .[4]

The utility of this scheme, depending as it does on the separation of attitudes and values, or objects, and linking them together in a causal series seems to prove disappointing in experience when an effort is made to discover the genesis of any particular attitude in any particular person or group. In the first place the sequence is not convincingly apparent. The attitude and the value, or object, seem to exist always as two aspects of a single unity of organization. Thus if a man confesses to a prejudice against the Negro race there is to be distinguished an attitude (of prejudice, hostility, withdrawal) toward an object which is the Negro race. The object or value is as much a part of the individual experience as the attitude. It is, in effect, the externalization of the attitude just as the attitude is the subjective counterpart of the object. For there seems to be the necessity of recognizing that objects or values are not the same to two people who have different attitudes. The church is not the same object to one who hates it as to one who loves it. The flag is not the same to the devoted patriot as to the conspiring traitor. The value and the attitude are two aspects of the same experience.

It follows from this that one cannot experience a new object without experiencing at the same time a new attitude. The object is that toward which the attitude is directed. The attitude is the tendency toward a mode of response, toward the object in question.

If, now, we inquire as to the changes in attitudes and the formation of new ones we are assisted when we recall that attitudes, like habits, represent the stable and organized aspects of a personality and that these tend to persist so long as they work well and allow our conduct to proceed in a satisfactory way. The key to our problem lies, it seems to me, in the concept of crisis, which Thomas himself has made so prominent in his earlier writings. A crisis is to be found just in those situations where existing attitudes fail to apply and where existing objects fail to satisfy our expectation.


A student once wrote an account of the relatively sudden acquisition of a new racial prejudice, due to two unpleasant experiences with the members of the race in question. He had approached the experience with a favorable attitude toward an object which he defined in a certain favorable way. When the critical events occurred which changed his attitude, what happened was a brief period of confusion, surprise, and mental uncertainty. After he had reflected on the unpleasant and disturbing events, the result in this case was the simultaneous acquisition o f a new and unfavorable attitude toward an object which he had never had before and which was now repulsive where it had formerly been attractive. The experience is then always Attitude-Object or Object-Attitude. It is sometimes possible to get information about the attitudes of a person by merely asking him what his attitude is. But experience has proved that sometimes it is more exact and fruitful to inquire how a man defines particular objects; for the definition of the object may be a better revelation of the attitude than any attempt to describe it directly. One example of this is furnished by an attempt to discover the relative liberalism or conservatism of a series of informants. Subjects were asked to define a list of men as to whether they were liberal or conservative or radical. And it was clear that, when one man insisted that the late Samuel Gompers was a radical and another put him down as a conservative, much relevant information was received about the attitudes, even more than if another type of approach had been attempted. Such judgment gives little information about the "real" Gompers but it does reveal that he is a different person to a conservative business man, on the one hand, and to a communist agitator, on the other. The value does not "cause" the attitude. Both value and attitude arise when a former value-attitude proves impossible of adequate functioning.

Every attitude is, then, the resolution of a crisis, the solution of a difficulty, the end of a period of chaos, the termination of a moment of disorganization. The marvel is, not that attitudes differ but that they are so often alike or at least so similar that common action is possible, and the reason for this seems to be that a man who is puzzled and uncertain is usually humble enough to receive help where he can find it and that in

( 12) the absence of a solution which he vainly seeks he is ready to accept the help of others. For thinking is a hard task, the outcome is uncertain, and the human mind at its best barely works.

Thus the new convert to a sect is often one who puzzled and confused at the diversities of the world, accepts the solution that is given to him with convincing assurance, and he is ready to define his world as he is taught even if this means taking on new attitudes that earlier he would have regarded as absurd or impossible. When medical science fails or blunders, and no relief is in sight, the doctrine that sickness and pain do not exist is better than no doctrine at all. Uncertainty and suspense are hard to endure, and any organization is better than none.

This is why the knowledge of an attitude will never enable us to predict what a man will do in a crisis. For a crisis is just that situation in which the man is so confused that he does not know what to do. If there is an impending emergency and a man has a complete plan to meet it, there is no crisis, for the emergency has really been foreseen. A crisis defined in advance and adequately prepared for, is not a crisis.

The subjective or hidden nature of an attitude has given much concern to those writers who have a leaning toward behaviorism and who hesitate to admit the relevance of any data which are not immediately accessible to sense. Attitudes are not acts, they are predispositions. If they were predispositions to specific and definite acts the difficulty would be less, but attitudes are tendencies toward modes o f action, and do not have any one-to-one correspondence to specific responses to stimulations. And thus a difficulty arises since, in strict phrase, an attitude, however real, must always be inferential.

The early reaction to the doctrine of attitudes obscured this fact by assuming that attitudes are immediately revealed in the opinions and statements which are easily obtained by direct approach. And this inaugurated a questionnaire era of research on attitudes. Subjects checked off prepared statements, or filled in dotted lines, or responded to interviewers, the statement recorded being assumed to have an immediate and unequivocal relation to the attitudes. The results being very disappointing, there was a reaction against the concept, but the error was not due to the mistaken notion of the existence of

(13) attitudes, but rather to an inadequate position concerning the psychology of opinion. We must turn briefly to this point.

An expression of opinion is clearly an act. The act is, just as clearly, the result of the play of attitudes. But it is not true that the particular attitude that is sought has been involved. For there are other aspects in the total situation which may and often do call out attitudes quite different from the object of the investigation. One's response to a question may be indicative of his real attitude toward the object involved, or it may be determined not by that attitude at all but by the attitude toward the questioner, or by still other objects which are important and determinative.

A question about one's attitude toward sex may be answered entirely with reference to the attitude toward the questioner. A question about religion may be answered under the operation of an attitude toward the group in which he lives. It is only in those relatively infrequent moments when we are caught "off our guard" that attitudes and statements of opinion correspond. We get a perfect correspondence in those situations where a man "gives himself away."

Expressed opinions are actions, since they require us to write or to speak; and to ask a man to express his opinion on a given issue is to introduce into his experience at the moment an indefinite number of potentially active attitudes. When a given expression of opinion is found to be inconsistent with the "real" attitude, it only means that the psychologist has been guilty of a misinterpretation. For every act is the expression of existing attitudes and these sometimes occur in simultaneous multiplicity.

Nor is it any serious objection to the concept of attitudes to insist that they are subjective and hidden, for much of human life is inner, and unless we can formulate some scientific account of the processes that are inaccessible to the eye of the observer, we shall fail to have a science of human nature. Cooley's insight was never more profound than when he wrote that the solid facts of our human life exist in the imagination. A jury may be called upon to decide the question of whether a given act was suicide or accidental death or whether a defendant is guilty of first degree murder or of accidental homicide. The data on which their decision is based are objective

(14) but the decision concerns the presence or absence of motives, the existence or non-existence of attitudes. Social psychology might conceivably limit its field to the overt and observable but in that event we should need another science that would investigate just these facts that are so important and so difficult.

The importance of the insight that attitudes are the acquired modes of response lies in the reality that it lends to the problems of personality and to the liberation that comes when the mutability of social life finds its counterpart in individual change. The old absolutisms are seen to be ex post facto devices reversing the causal relation between the Individual tendencies and the cultural facts. We are free to investigate the attitudes of Bolsheviks and of Fascists, of labor leaders and capitalists, of newspaper reporters and farmers, of judges and business men with none of the misleading impediments that formerly blinded men to the facts of human life and experience.

And the research in this field has already been important and promising. Thomas and Znaniecki found the attitudes of Polish peasants possible of statement and made them convincing when presented.[5] Williams [6] has set forth the attitudes of judges, ministers, and other professional men and followed this work with a monograph on the farmers of northern New York.[7] Atkins and Lasswell made a convincing study of the attitudes of laborers,[8] and in the University of Chicago studies in the making of citizens, edited by C. E. Merriam, a whole series of volumes is presented on the subject of the systematic attempts of governments to produce desired attitudes in the children.[9]

Specific researches have been carried on to discover the existence of attitudes, and scales of measurement have been produced notably by Thurstone. [10]

The controversial literature on attitudes is extensive and

(15) leads gradually to a consideration of types, traits, and opinion, with abundant promise of more accurate methods than have been hitherto available. The problems studied are sometimes unimportant and perhaps often irrelevant but the gain in an objective attitude toward human nature is real and the promise for a science of personality is enough to encourage those whose lives are devoted to the quest.

It seems to have been inevitable that the Greek injunction to know thyself should be the last of scientific achievements to be realized. We are yet far from a complete realization of it. But we are confidently at work and, when the story is at last told, it will be recorded that the insight provided by the concept of social attitudes, for which we are indebted to W. I. Thomas, came when it was needed and furnished an interesting and usable tool of analysis.

When we shall be able to state completely how and why our attitudes occur, and how and why they are modified, we shall be in a better position to understand human life, and social psychology will begin to pay back its debt to society.


The starting point is the discussion is the "Methodological Note" in Thomas and Znaniecki, The Polish Peasant in Europe and America, Vol. I (1st edition, 1918-1920). Znaniecki modified slightly his position in his Laws of Social Psychology, Chicago, 1925. Besides the references cited in this article the subject is treated at length in Bernard, Introduction to Social Psychology, New York, 1927; in House, The Range of Social Theory, New York, 1929; in Lundberg, Anderson and Bain, Trends in American Sociology, New York, 1929; and K. Young, Social Psychology, New York, 1930.

The literature on social attitudes has already run into hundreds of titles but the following alphabetical list will give the student of the subject an introduction to the issues which are matters of current controversy and hence of current interest.

Ashdown, Margaret, "The Attitude of the Anglo-Saxons to Their Scandinavian Invaders," Saga-Book of the Viking Society for Northern Research, 1928, Vol. X (1), pp. 75-99.

Bain, R., "An Attitude on Attitude Research," American Journal of Sociology, 1928, Vol. XXXIII, pp. 940-51.

Bernard, L. L., "A Theory of Rural Attitudes," American Journal of Sociology, 1917, Vol- XXIL pp. 630-49.

Bogardus, E. S., Immigration and Race Attitudes, New York, 1928.

Bogardus E. S., "Personality and Occupational Attitudes," Sociology and Social Research, 1927, Vol. XII, pp. 73-79.

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Bogardus, E. S., "Sex Differences in Racial Attitudes," Sociology and Social Research, 1928, Vol. XII, pp. 279-85.

Clark, W. W., "The Measurement of Social Attitudes," Journal of Applied Sociology, 1924, Vol. VIII, pp. 345-54

Faris, Ellsworth, "Attitudes and Behavior," American Journal of Sociology, 1928, Vol. XXXIV, pp. 271-81.

Faris, E., "The Concept of Social Attitudes," Journal of Applied Sociology, 1925, Vol. IX, pp. 404-09.

Faris, E., "Racial Attitudes and Sentiments," Southwestern Political and Social Science Quarterly, 1929, Vol. IX, pp. 479-90

Faris, E., "The Natural History of Race Prejudice," in Ebony and Topaz: A Collectanea. Published by Opportunity, Journal of Negro Life, National Urban League, 17 Madison Ave., New York, 1927, pp. 89 :94.

Glueck, B., "The Significance of Parental Attitudes for the Destiny of the Individual," Mental Hygiene, 1928, Vol. XII, pp. 722-41.

Lasker, Bruno, Race Attitudes in Children, New York, 1929.

McLennan, W. E., "Wrong Attitude to Law as Cause of Crime," Survey, 1911, Vol- XXVI, pp. 442-45.

Reuter, E. B., "The Social Attitude," Journal of Applied Sociology, 1923-1924, Vol. VIII, pp. 97-101.

Smith, W. C., "The Rural Mind: A Study in Occupational Attitude," American Journal of Sociology, 1927, Vol. XXXII, pp 771-86.

Thomas, W. I. and Thomas, D. S., The Child in America, New York, 1928.

Thurstone, L. L., "Theory of Attitude Measurement," Psychological Review, 1929, Vol. XXXVI, pp. 222-41.

Thurstone, L. L., "An Experimental Study of Nationality Preference," Journal of General Psychology, 1928, Vol. I, pp. 405-25.

Thurstone, L. L., "Attitudes Can Be Measured," American Journal of Sociology, 1928, Vol. XXXIII, pp. 529-54.

Trout, D. M., "The Development of the Religious Attitudes," Abstracts of Theses, University of Chicago, Humanistic Series, 1923-1924, Vol. II, pp. 499-504

Wickman, E. K., Children's Behavior and Teachers' Attitudes, New York, 1928.

Znaniecki, F., "The Object Matter of Sociology," American Journal of Sociology, 1927, Vol. XXXII; pp. 529-84.


  1. Knight Dunlap. The same position was taken in his Social Psychology, 1925.
  2. See also W. E. Atkins and H. D. Lasswell, Labor Attitudes and Problems, 1924.
  3. John Dewey, Human Nature and Conduct, 1922, p. 42.
  4. The Polish Peasant in Europe and America (2nd edition), 1927, pp. 1839-40.
  5. The Polish Peasant in Europe and America (2nd edition), 2 vols., 1927.
  6. The Foundations of Social Science, 1920.
  7. Our Rural heritage, 1925.
  8. Labor Attitudes and Problems, 1924.
  9. There are ten volumes, treating of Russia, England, Austria, Italy, Germany, Switzerland, and the United States. University of Chicago Press.
  10. See references at end of chapter.

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