The Laws of Social Psychology

Chapter 5: Changes of Social Object

Florian Znaniecki

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In the course of a social action the social object, once chosen and defined, remains essentially identical in the eyes of the subject ; that is, the subject ignores or treats as secondary any modifications which may occur in the individual or group upon whom he acts or any previously unknown aspects of them which he may discover, provided these changes do not prevent him from satisfying his tendency under the given conditions. The subject is willing to make adjustments between the social object and other elements of the situation, and these adjustments within certain limits will not be considered as affecting essentially the action. But the social object may change, independently of any other element of the situation, in such a way that the situation can no longer be adjusted to it without essentially modifying the tendency. This is obviously the case when the object is removed from the sphere of the subject's present activity and the latter can no longer exercise the purposed influence upon him by means of the instrumental process as planned; or when another object, another individual or group, is substituted for the original one.


The removal of the social object who thereby becomes inaccessible to the intended. action of the subject. is a familiar phenomenon; physical separation, the death of the individual, dissolution or dispersion of the social group,

(173) severance of social relations which were the basis of the social action are the most common forms of this process. Such a removal does not make the given individual or group absolutely and essentially inaccessible to all activity; even death, while it objectively prevents the subject from obtaining any actual reaction, leaves still the possibility of experiencing imaginary reactions or believing in a future personal contact after the subject's death. This is an important point, for it means that the individual or group who is no longer actually accessible to a certain particular form of activity remains still a potential social object for actions; the impossibility of satisfying the specific tendency with regard to him does not close the way for all other tendencies.

There are cases in which the sphere of actions made impossible by removal of the object is really much smaller than the sphere of actions which still remain possible; thus, when a man has resigned his membership in an association, he is no longer accessible to such actions of other members as are connected with the purposes and organization of the association, but they still may deal with him in many other connections. In short, removal of the social object must be considered only with regard to its effects on a specific definite action— the problem is, what is the effect of the fact that a social object has been withdrawn from the subject's influence as exercised in a certain action by the methods of this action, thus making the satisfaction of the given social tendency through this action impossible. As will be demonstrated by typical cases the effect is always relative idealization.

We may state at once the law which manifests itself in all processes of this kind and call it the law of idealization.

LAW 7. If the object of a social action becomes inaccessible to this action, the tendency of this action becomes less sensualistic and more idealistic.


A social tendency may be described as sensualistic when it expects an unequivocal, definite, and immediate social reaction to the subject's act — which expectation, of course, can be adequately fulfilled only if the object is sensually present before the subject.[1] On the other hand, a social tendency may be considered idealistic if it is temporarily or permanently satisfied with a reaction which is partly or completely imaginary, in which objectively real facts are in some measure supplemented or even completely supplanted by "ideas" of the subject. An idealistic tendency does not demand, therefore, necessarily that its object be actually given as a fully real being: it can bear upon beings that are partly or even entirely mental constructions; and even when the object is sensually present and experienced in its social reality ,it adds imaginary characters. For this very reason the expectations of an idealistic tendency are much wider and more indefinite than those of a sensualistic one; the field being open for a play of imagination, the subject sees many more possibilities than any limited social reaction can ever materialize.

However, the distinction between an idealistic and a sensualistic tendency is a purely relative one: the same tendency which seems idealistic when compared with one tendency may appear sensualistic when compared with another one. Taking the desire of a mother to kiss her newborn child as an illustration of the lower limit, tendencies may be graded relatively to each other in an ascending scale of ideality until the upper limit is reached, as exemplified in Plotinus's love of God as The Absolute

(175) Beauty. The law of idealization, therefore, unlike some of the preceding laws — Laws 3 and 4 — does not determine changes of tendencies into their opposites, but merely the process by which a tendency acquires a higher degree of ideality than it possessed before.[2]

We shall draw our typical cases from various successive stages of idealization, showing in each case the relation between cause and effect.

The lowest degree of idealization is that which follows the temporary physical withdrawal of a person from the immediate reach of the social action, though an actual direct reaction may still be expected upon his return. We may characterize this as postponed reaction. For instance, a man whom his interlocutor hopes to persuade to take a certain political step leaves him in order to reflect or to consult with somebody before giving a definite answer. The interlocutor's tendency undergoes a slight change; he cannot make any further efforts to obtain the expected and desired reaction; unless some other problem interferes and takes his attention, he begins instead to speculate as to the various possibilities of the future reaction. As long as he was able to follow immediately the impression which his plea made upon his social object, he knew or thought he knew at every moment what reaction he expected and what steps were necessary to insure it; but now his social object may be swayed by influences which the subject cannot exactly calculate, and thus the range of indetermination with regard to the final result is correspondingly wider. Pending this final result, the tendency has to. be provisionally satisfied with what desirable probabilities the subject can remember or imagine.

In social interaction between groups a parallel case is that of a political faction in parliament whose bill, though

(176) proposed and discussed, was not voted before adjournment, but laid over to the next session. The promoting group knew or thought it knew the arrangement of parliamentary forces and hoped to carry its motion, but the adjournment disturbs its certainty. In the interval new interests may appeal to the members of parliament, a new combination of political' parties may arise, and the reaction of the next session cannot be exactly foreseen. During the period of adjournment the political tendency of the promoting group must be satisfied, apart from efforts to influence individual members or factions, with attempts to calculate the probabilities of the future behavior of parliament in response to its motion.

The next important stage of social idealization is found when the social object becomes permanently inaccessible to a certain kind of direct action, but may still be influenced indirectly through the medium of communication carried on by symbols or by social intermediaries. The departure of a friend interrupts the direct exchange of personal confidences, but the exchange can be continued by letters. A political leader is prevented by sickness from attending a meeting, but he sends a written proposal to be read aloud by any one of his adherents. A body of striking workmen will not be received in corpore by the board of directors of the industrial corporation which employs them, but they can send delegates to the board. A group of social reformers forced into exile by the government of their country may continue to influence the country through books and pamphlets, secret emissaries and personal contact with their fellow-citizens travelling abroad.

At this stage social reaction also is temporarily uncertain every time communication is suspended, that is, in the periods during which the symbol or the intermediary is bearing a message to the social object and the return message is on the way to the subject. Moreover, even

(177) when the reaction has been obtained, it lacks that definite and unequivocal character which it is apt to possess in direct social intercourse. Messages have to be interpreted, and in common life interpretation attains a high level of certainty only in so far as the message bears upon objective things and relations; human attitudes and the meaning which values have in the eyes of the conscious subject are seldom satisfactorily conveyed by the usual channels of indirect communication. The subject can never be sure how his own message will be interpreted by the recipient, and on receiving a return message he has always a certain range of possible and varying interpretations to give it. Thus, his social tendency must supplement actual experience by mental construction, and be satisfied with a reaction in which a kernel of reality is more or less wrapped up in a web of ideas.

Here already we notice clearly the other essential feature of idealization which has been mentioned before and is well known to popular thought: the partly ideal character which absent social objects acquire. Not only the deficiencies of the social reaction, but also the insufficient data concerning the object himself are supplemented by imagination based upon the memory of past experiences of this object and by comparison with other objects. The mental picture of the absent friend grows more and more fanciful with every real or merely intended action of which this friend is the actual or possible object; the mental construction of his country which the émigré builds upon the foundation of his memories assisted by the communications received from home becomes increasingly arbitrary the more his absence is prolonged, if his active interests remain absorbed in the future of his nation. Frequent and easily understood social, reactions of the friend or of the people correct, indeed, these imaginary structures, make them closer to reality; but even then, as we have seen,

(178) they are not devoid of intellectual and emotional additions made by the subject. Thus, we see how the permanent removal of the object from the range of direct action modifies the tendency by forcing it into the way of indirect action, making it both supplement the actual reaction by imaginary possibilities and mental interpretations and substitute a half-ideal construction for the actual social object, as it would have appeared to the subject had it been directly experienced.

The following stage is reached when the object disappears from the domain even of indirect social interaction by the death of the individual or the dissolution of the group. In this case obviously, no actual social reactions can be expected; there is no real material in the form of messages or symbols to supplement or to interpret. Nor are there any new data furnished to rebuild and to correct the mental structure of the object — except, of course, in the form of some fresh information about the object's past; memories, direct or indirect, are the only basis upon which this structure can be raised. And yet the dead individual or the dissolved group does not cease to be an object of social interest, though this interest may gradually yield its place in the subject's attention to other active systems, with other objects and tendencies. The tendency of any activity which has been interrupted by death or social dissolution persists and demands satisfaction.

The latter is obtained, however imperfectly, first by assuming that the social object has not been absolutely destroyed, but subsists still either actually or potentially in some other temporarily inaccessible domain of actuality, and will return some day within the reach of the subject. The belief in the continued existence of one's dead friends and enemies in some other world or in their future resurrection in this world expresses this assumption with regard to individuals. With regard to groups, an interesting example

(179) of a similar social postulate is found in the history of Polish religious thought after the partitions of Poland. The Polish nation had ceased to exist actually as a political body; potentially, however, in the eyes of many Polish patriots it continued to subsist in a way which could be adequately expressed only by mystical concepts and parallels from the life and death of Christ. The resurrection of Poland was expected and prophesied as absolutely predetermined in the ideal order of historical becoming.

Furthermore, even during the period of absence or merely potential existence the social object is seldom explicitly thought quite inaccessible to social action: only by imperceptible degrees does the belief in a reaction to be actually performed by the object in his transcendent state (though not immediately experienced by the subject) dwindle into the imagining of a reaction which the subject knows to be entirely unreal. This gradation of belief in the reality of the reaction is exemplified by the evolution of the cult of the dead, which from substantial offerings and magical ceremonies to ensure a favorable and to prevent an unfavorable interference of spirits with the affairs of the living has become a fond speculation as to how the beloved dead would react if they could see and know what the living are doing.

We need not emphasize the familiar phenomenon of the person of a dead man being subjected to an ideal reconstruction which, though originally based on memory, gradually becomes more unreal until it reshapes entirely even those reminiscences which were at first most vivid and matter-of-fact. When this process is performed collectively, it results in an apotheosis of the dead as divinities and heroes. Groups ere even more subjected to such ideal reconstructions than individuals, for the materials are richer and at the same time only partially known to each member. The Poland of the national mystics in the middle of the

(180) last century bore little resemblance to Poland as it really was before the partitions in spite of their great historical lore; and at the present moment we seem to detect a similar process of ideal reconstruction in the dispossessed upper classes of Russia and Germany who begin to throw a veil of illusion over the "ancient régimes" of their respective countries.

A type of idealization which is perhaps even more familiar, for it lies at the foundation of the whole modern complexity of secondary-group relations, is the one which permits the subject to act indirectly upon entirely unknown, though real persons or groups, and to be satisfied with their partly indirect, partly only supposed reactions. Writing a letter to the unknown head of a firm; voting for a candidate whom we have never met personally and about whom we know nothing except that he is supposed to be an honest man (sometimes not even this), and belongs to a party whose program we endorse; addressing the readers of a newspaper by an article or an advertisement; applying to an anonymous governmental official for a permit — all these acts presuppose a degree of idealization even higher than the cult of dead persons or of dissolved groups, for whereas our past experiences of those persons or groups and their reactions form the concrete basis of present behavior, here such a concrete basis is entirely lacking. Though we "know" that the persons or groups we are addressing exist and can react, whereas we only "believe" in the continued existence of the dead, yet not only is the limit between knowledge and belief difficult to draw, but the very knowledge of this type implies a power of representing as real the objects which have not been experienced — that is, a high idealizing power. Therefore, we find idealization of the dead achieved at a stage of cultural development when indirect relations with unknown persons, and particularly with anonymous institutions and with an even more anonymous public, are hardly possible.


This kind of idealization sometimes progresses owing to the gradual complication of social life, which step by step withdraws from the reach of the average member of society those institutions with which he still continues to be connected by vital interests. When a merchant has been dealing with a firm whose manager he knew personally, he will be forced to idealization if this firm changes into an anonymous corporation and he still keeps his connection with it. A man who has left a city, and after many years wants to obtain some documents from the city office, must deal with an unknown person or the impersonal institution instead of the old city clerk whom he used to know.

However, the process is not simple; there is a combination of idealization with the substitution of one social object for another —which, as we shall see presently, leads to generalization. Thus an individual who cannot obtain direct social recognition from known persons, but happens to get it from strangers learns to consider strangers in general more proper objects of his tendency than acquaintances, and thus to appeal from his primary social environment to the anonymous public.

A combination of idealization and substitution of objects is also found in the interesting phenomenon of working for future generations. The head of a family who begins by providing for his children, after the latter have been properly settled in life and their future assured, transfers his social interests to his grandchildren yet unborn; thus, purely imaginary persons, whom the subject nevertheless expects to come into being, become the objects of his activity. Or the thinker who. considers that the present generation is not prepared to receive his ideas writes them down for future generations.

The objectivation of a social group, such as the nation, which includes in the eyes of the subject not only the living members, but also the dead for centuries past and

(182) the unborn for centuries to come, is a combined product of the idealization and generalization of social objects no longer accessible and of those not yet accessible to social action. The former are included in the group at a quite early stage of cultural development, whereas it is only in highly civilized societies that the future generations are actually taken as rightful objects of present national interests and activities. Such cases can be fully understood only in connection with the process to which the next section of this chapter will be devoted.

The evolution of religious conceptions (apart from the deification of the dead) manifests progressive idealization by the removal of the object in a very striking way. The divinity is at first a sensual object, living or inanimate, but in either case endowed with magical powers and a partly or fully social character, from whom immediate reactions are expected. The gradual realization of the vanity of these expectations forces the subject (individual or collective) to conceive the divinity as in some measure removed from the range of direct action. The divinity becomes spirit, at first still half-material but invisible, existing beyond the visible reality and with ways of behavior which cannot be calculated and relied upon as definitely as those of visible objects. Prayers or offerings may reach him or not, provoke the expected reaction or a different one: the subject is not sure and does not know. Action becomes necessarily indirect, performed by means of symbols endowed with religious meanings, and through intermediaries — priests. But a continued critical reflection, assisted perhaps by some other factors, forces the subject to remove the divinity still further from his social reach. With the development of a natural order of becoming particular natural phenomena can no longer by interpreted as products of special actions of the divinity performed in response to the actions of men trying to influence the divine being. The connection between

(183) man and his god becomes purely supernatural and does not consist in definite social actions and reactions, but in a spiritual contact by which the human subject is merged into the divine subject and human will is made a part of divine will. Empirical social behavior no longer reaches the divinity at all; only a trans-empirical mystical power of spirit "talks to the spirit". If the subject loses the consciousness of this mystical contact, the divinity becomes entirely inaccessible, an infinite and absolutely ideal entity, object of a purely intellectual contemplation, like the God of Spinoza.

In this evolution the implicit and later explicit postulate that the idealized object is real remains through all the stages. But at any stage this postulate may be dropped, just as it often is under the influence of historical criticism with regard to heroes, demigods and mythical ancestors. The ideal social object then appears in the eyes of the subject as a mere product of fancy; the myth becomes a tale. In consequence of this, the social tendencies bearing upon this object undergo a new change. Their idealistic character with regard to the social object and the expected reaction extends to the action as a whole. The imaginary person of a tale, novel, or drama is still the object of admiration or contempt, of sympathy or emotional aversion, of envious antagonism or the desire for cooperation. These tendencies, however, do not express themselves in the actual behavior of the subject, but either in imaginative constructions of actions which the subject himself would have performed if this person were real, or in a reconstructive identification of the subject's active aspirations with the behavior of another person represented in the tale, novel or drama. In this way fiction becomes an imaginary substitute for real life.


The study of idealization suggests the existence of an opposite process when a remote social object, accessible

(184) only to indirect or to imaginary social action and responding only by indirect or by fictitious reactions, draws closer, becomes more accessible and responds more definitely and more directly. This process is also well known and has attracted much attention because of its oftentimes striking effects. It need not, however, occupy us long, for it is relatively simple and lacks that social and generally cultural importance which the process of idealization eminently possesses..

Take the following cases: a friend returns from a long absence; a girl after being wooed from a greater or less distance, social if not spacial, becomes the wooer's wife; the hero of some past exploit who has been worshipped by the public comes and mixes with his worshippers; a nation's cherished dream of political resurrection is realized. The subject, individual or group, had idealized this object and its reactions, had drawn a more or less fanciful picture around the bare sketch furnished by the memories and information he possessed, and had supplemented the real experienced reactions by more or less imaginative interpretations or had even imagined possible reactions to which no reality corresponded. He will attempt now, when the object has drawn nearer, to materialize all those imaginary possibilities, to provoke actually the reactions he saw in his fancy, and will search in the real object for all those perfections which his ideal object possessed. But the actual reactions will be, of course, very different from the imagined ones — more definite, less suggestive and less adaptable to the subject's prepared situations, sometimes the very opposite of those he expected. And the real object, though it may possess numerous valuable features the subject did not include in his picture, when tested merely by the latter must of course fall short of the ideal, since it does not and cannot possess all those specific characters which have been ascribed to the idealized object.


The bearing of this change upon the subject's tendencies may be complex; for, if the real reactions are axiologically contrary to the expected reactions, the positive tendency will change into a negative one and the object will become a negative value, according to Law 3. But whether this particular effect does or does not occur, the tendency becomes sensualistic, that is, its expectations are reduced to that one among the many indefinite, imaginary possibilities which the subject finds within his actual reach, and the practical definition of the object of this tendency narrows to that minimum which the subject considers actually given to him. The man who has been disappointed in his desire for emotional harmony' with his returning friend checks his emotional expansion and limits his intercourse to the mere exchange of news. The husband who finds that his idealized bride is only an ordinary girl ceases to expect any romantic community of souls, but limits his claims to demands for an orderly house, good dinners and the satisfaction of the sexual impulse. The admiring public, on finding that in everyday life the hero is quite a commonplace personality, begins to treat him as an ordinary man, perhaps even as a bore. The patriotic dreamer who sees that his politically resurrected nation is not an embodiment of perfect justice, internal harmony and cultural idealism, but an average group swayed by egotism, dissensions, ignorance, laziness and graft, vents his bitter disappointment in reproaches and ceases to expect from it anything but perhaps the minimum amount of security necessary to pursue his own social and cultural purposes.

Such cases can be subsumed under the following law of sensualization:

LAW 8: If the object of a social action becomes more accessible to the tendency of this action, the tendency becomes more sensualistic, less idealistic.


Usually the limitation of social expectations and the depreciation of the social object go further in these cases than the subject himself would consider justifiable, had there been no previous idealization but a more permanent and closer relationship with the object; for the previous idealization makes him ignore many possibilities and many features of the object merely because they were not included in the imaginary picture, and it may take him a long time in the light of his disillusionment to discover these possibilities and features.

Of course, idealization does not necessarily involve a growth of positive appreciation nor is sensualization always a change toward a more negative valuation of the object. An absent enemy, a dead tyrant, a distant hostile nation may be idealized with regard to their axiologically negative features and reactions; while, on the other hand, it has been often found that the devil on closer acquaintance is not as bad as he is painted.


The second important kind of change of the social object which produces a fundamental change of the tendency is, as mentioned in the beginning of this chapter, the substitution of one social object for another in a social situation whose remaining elements are unchanged.

Such a substitution may have various sources. It may be operated by the individuals themselves .who are the objects of the action: a man who was to meet the subject by appointment is prevented from coming and sends his friend instead. Or it may be achieved by the subject who, for whatever reason, comes to the conclusion that the given individual or group is not the proper object of his action and therefore transfers the latter to another individual or group — as when a man searching for sympathy sees the unrespon-

(187) -sivenes of his interlocutor and turns to somebody else, or when a thinker who realizes that his contemporaries may not appreciate his ideas decides to write for the future generations. The most frequent and important source of substitution is the institutional organization of certain activities under which many individuals or small groups may succeed one another in carrying on the same social function thus, the place of an individual who has left a social institution is taken by another who continues to realize the orders given by the superintendent to the first individual. Finally, a very frequent case is that in which a certain action is intentionally repeated many times in succession, but each time with a different social object, because the subject has in view a wider and more general result which can be achieved only by accumulating many essentially similar particular results. For instance, a scandalmonger who wishes to disgrace a certain person in public opinion repeats some story about this person to everyone he meets with the expectation of provoking every time a similar reaction; or a political agitator who wants his party to be victorious at the election travels from town to town and addresses in an essentially similar way a series of public meetings.

The investigation of these various reasons for the substitution of social objects in an active system does not belong here; the substitution must be taken as a fact and its effects upon the social tendency studied. It should be mentioned at once that these effects, just as in the case of the removal of a social object from the reach of present action, are relative and gradual. There is no immediate and complete change of one tendency into another of the opposite type, but a progressive transformation of the tendency, which acquires a certain character it did not posses at first. Tendencies may be graded with regard to the relative development of this character. This development,

(188) other things being equal, progresses with every substitution of a new object for the preceding one, and therefore it can be fully understood only by studying repeated performances of an action upon different objects.

In essence, the effects of substitution depend upon the bearing which each new social object has upon the situation as compared with the preceding object. The analogy or the contrast between the objects is more or less clearly realized by the subject in the course of each actual performance; for the objects with which previous performances of the action have dealt are in some measure still remembered or are known by the observation of other performers. This memory does not even need to take the form of a clear actual representation; nor is a fully conscious comparison indispensable. The effect upon the tendency will be the same if the subject in dealing with his new object has simply a consciousness, however vague, that this object behaves in the situation in a way similar or dissimilar to the behavior of some past object.

Take the simple example of a member of an association who wishes to persuade other members individually to vote in favor of a certain project which will be presented at the next meeting of the association. Some will agree; others will not be persuaded, either actually opposing the project or in any case not promising to support it. With regard to the purpose of this action, all those who have reacted in the desired way are ranged into one general class of "prospective supporters" of the motion, all those who did not agree to the proposal are outside of it as "non-supporters". The problem of the subject when starting to persuade a new member will be somewhat different from what it was when he began his action for the first time. It will be not merely a matter of inducing this particular individual to accept his project, but also a question of gaining one more prospective supporter, of adding one more vote to the votes already

(189) collected. The increase of the class of supporters stands out more and more distinctly as compared with the persuasion of a particular person; and the subject may drop his attempt with regard to this person if he sees that time is short and that he might persuade somebody else much quicker and easier.

A political agitator touring the country, after his first few public speeches and discussions, classifies the meetings that he addresses as friendly or unfriendly (which may mean either indifferent or hostile), according to the dominant attitude toward him and his party which is manifested by the assembled crowd in its responses to his ideas and arguments. The response of each particular meeting becomes significant not so much for its own sake as because it is another instance of a class, another indication of the attitude which prevails in the country in general toward the agitator's party, or perhaps as another test proving or disproving his own political ability. Soon he learns to distinguish at the very beginning of each meeting certain marks which make him put the meeting into the friendly class or exclude it from this class; moreover, his decision in this point affects his interest, in the meeting and influences his methods.

In these two examples the classification is simple. The reactions are distinctly either in accordance with the purpose of the subject or not in accordance with it; and consequently the social objects are clearly separated and divided into classes. The first class, that of supporters or of friendly meetings, is positively defined: it is the class of objects which are fitted for the attainment of the definite purpose that the subject has in view. The other class in defined only by exclusion from file first: the non-supporters, the unfriendly meetings are those social objects which for some reason or other are not fitted for that purpose. The first class, A, has certain limited and definable characteristics; the second

(190) class, non-A, has none except that of not possessing the characteristics of A.

Usually, however, classification is more complex. Well-known historical examples show that social objects which cannot be put into a class defined positively with regard to the subject's purpose are not merely excluded as an indefinite class, non-A, but qualified as constituting another definite class, B, which is treated as the opposite of A; it is the famous principle, "who is not with us, is against us". On St. Bartholomew's night, 1572, all those who did not wear the white badge and the cross of the League were in danger of being killed as Huguenots. During the Bolshevik revolution those who were unwilling to join the mob were classed as bourgeois and enemies of the proletariat to be killed, imprisoned, or at least placed under surveillance. The use of certain revolutionary formulas, red colors, violence of speech, roughness of behavior, and even drunkenness and illiteracy have at various periods been considered positive tests of actual or prospective adherence to revolutionary movements, marks distinguishing the sheep from the goats. Similarly, when there is "trouble brewing" in a factory after a cut in wages, the manager who knows the workmen individually classifies them into "quiet" and "troublesome" according as they seem likely to work on peaceably under the reduced remuneration or to become dissatisfied, protesting and preparing to strike; and the "troublesome" class is at least as definite for practical purposes in the eyes of the manager as the "quiet" class.

Clearly, in these cases we have two distinct social tendencies, one positive, one negative, and two kinds of correlative social actions, The characters which make a category of social objects unfit for one action — participation in the massacre of the Huguenots, cooperation in the revolutionary upheaval, organized factory labor —are

(191) supposed to qualify them as proper objects of another social action, that is, the Huguenots to be killed, bourgeois to be imprisoned, troublesome workers to be dealt with by special methods. There is a double, parallel and correlative process of substitution and classification going on; the problem which the subject puts with regard to every new object is not merely: is this a fit object for the action but: is this object fit for the action A or the action B?

Another and a different complication arises when, after having divided the objects successively substituted into two classes, A and non-A, the subject further makes a distinction among the non-A's: those who with some efforts or by certain methods can be made to fit into his situation, and those who cannot. The former then cease to be mere non-A's, and acquire a positive characteristic C; while the latter remain non-A's. Subdivisions may be made also within class A; for instance, those who can be judged at once as belonging to this class may be separated from those who are found fit only after the action has progressed for some time. Class A is then represented as composed of class A1 and class A2. Thus, the agitator will distinguish among the unfriendly crowds the merely indifferent ones whose members have as yet no definite political adherence and therefore may be persuaded into approving his policy, from those which are already dominated by some antagonistic influences, whatever these influences may be, and therefore are not to persuaded. The teacher at first divides his pupils into those who seem willing to learn and those who do not; however, later on he finds that among those willing to learn some learn easily, others only after extra assistance, whereas among those who are not willing some are able to learn if forced to it by the proper means, whereas nothing avails with the rest.

Classification of social objects does not necessarily depend upon whether the social object shows a positive

(192) or negative attitude toward the subject's behavior. This is not a matter of absolute valuation of social objects, but merely one of relative, comparative qualification with regard to their fitness for the given practical situation. An individual may be very willing to cooperate with the subject for the attainment of his purpose and thus far appear as an intrinsically positive social object, but still spoil the situation by incapacity or blundering and thus be classed among the undesirable objects from the point of view of this action. On the other hand, an individual or group may perhaps be socially indifferent toward the subject and yet, when treated by the proper method, behave in a way which permits the subject to reach his aim. A superior may prefer for his purpose subordinates who obey his orders grudgingly but efficiently to those who are full of eagerness and personal attachment but incapable of understanding what they are expected to do. The difference between the kind of social valuation which we discussed in a preceding chapter and the classification of social objects as fit or unfit for the purpose of a particular action is clearly manifested when the action involves a negative social tendency. Thus, a domineering personality who wishes to satisfy his desire for mastery by attaining a prominent position and crushing the resistance of others has a negative social tendency with regard to those who offer any resistance; and yet from the point of view of his purpose he may class them among the proper social objects of his action as compared with those who do not resist but merely avoid all connection with him.

The effect of the substitution of new social objects for those which were originally dealt with in the course of the course of the social action or during preceding performances the same action is thus a modification of the tendency in such a way that the latter, which at first dealt only with each particular social object as it was given, begins

(193) to generalize these objects with regard to their fitness for the purpose of this action and to bear upon a whole class of them. After the first object has proved or promised to prove such as the tendency requires for its satisfaction, the next object that takes its place is judged in advance as promising, if it seems otherwise similar to the first, as unpromising if it appears dissimilar; vice versa, general similarity to an object which was unfit prejudices the subject against a new object of the same type, whereas dissimilarity in this case seems .to augure a favorable result. In the subsequent cases of substitution certain features of the objects gradually become connected with favorable expectations as to the role which objects possessing these features will play in this particular kind of social actions; in other words, these features become more or less consciously abstracted as criteria of fitness for this particular kind of purpose. Such criteria are then applied to every new object which comes under consideration for the same or a similar purpose; though further experiences may still modify them, yet after a number of experiences they become fixed as a practical definition of that class of objects which are fit for the given kind of action. In short, the tendency which was originally applied to individuals and concrete persons or groups applies now to a certain social concept under which are included an indefinite number of persons or groups possessing the same abstract characteristics which qualify them as fit objects of this tendency when it is expressed in specific actions. The tendency has become a general tendency, and the process here described may be called social generalization.

This explicit generalization accompanied by the formation of 'a social concept must be well distinguished from that determination of a social object by its similarity to other previously experienced objects which, as has been shown before (in Chapter II), takes place whenever a social

(194) situation is defined. Every given social object is treated from the point of view of past experiences; the features which the subject distinguishes in it are mostly such as it possesses in common with other objects already known. And yet it would be, of course, preposterous to assume that in every case when a social object is determined for the purposes of a certain action, there is generalization going on and a social concept being implicitly formed or applied. Small children, even animals know how to assimilate present to past experiences without being able to think in general terms or to deal with abstract classes of objects. The formation of a social concept must therefore involve and require something more than this determination of each given object by analogy with other objects. And, indeed, there is a very marked difference. Generalization in the exact sense does not merely treat separate particular objects as similar to one another, but also puts all these objects together into one abstractly defined class, subsumes them under one general concept of which they are merely instances. As long as the plurality of concrete data are not embraced within one concept, there is no generalization, however clearly the similarity of the objects is experienced.

Now, this unification by means of a concept is easy to account for in the cases quoted here. It arose out of the continuity, sometimes the unity of the general purpose which each series of repeated actions was meant to serve. The man who canvassed the members of his association in favor of his project had ultimately the passing of this project in view, and each particular action of persuading a member . thus was or became a part of the general scheme. The agitator meant to help his party win the pending election, and each speech before a meeting was a part of this wider activity. The adherents of the League Who instigated the Massacre of St. Bartholomew's intended.

(195) to extirpate the Huguenots generally; the Russian revolutionary mob wished to overthrow and destroy the whole bourgeoisie. In other cases continuity, though not exactly unity of purpose is involved in the institutional organization of activities. The school teacher has a permanent educational function entrusted to her, and the action of teaching any particular child any particular thing is just a part of this function. The office superintendent or militarv chief who deals with his subordinates has also one definite function to perform, however diversified may be the special purposes which this function involves at various times.

Thus, in all those cases the particular performances of a certain action which the subject repeats, each time with a different object, are not disconnected in his eyes. They are kept together by a more general purpose, however vague, or by a continuity of social function; they are for him a real series of performances, separated from the rest of his behavior. And only in so far as these actions do constitute such a series, their objects become actually generalized and subsumed under a social concept.

The law of social generalization may be induced from the above cases:

LAW 9. If during a series of performances of a social action new social objects are substituted for those which were previously included in it, the tendency becomes relatively general, that is, directed toward a social concept rather than toward particular objects.

The results of generalization are familiar to social psychology. The complexity of modern civilized life forces us continually to use social concepts and teaches us to deal with most human beings only as representatives of some class or other. Particularly professional and political activities lead to generalization. A physician, a school teacher, a salesman, the manager of a big factory, after professional contact with hundreds, perhaps even with

(196) thousands of persons, learns inevitably to subsume each patient, pupil, client, workman under a concept and to treat him as a mere "case". And vice versa, "the man on the street" when asking advice of a physician or when buying from a salesman has a general specific tendency bearing upon all the members of that profession, and merely applies this in each case to the particular specimen with whom he deals. Politics in a democratic country must manipulate masses rather than persons, and consequently social abstractions take the place of concrete beings as objects of political actions.

Social concepts once formed spread from man to man and from generation to generation, embodying not merely the experiences of individuals, but of societies. Certain positive or negative tendencies even become specifically associated with abstract categories rather than with individuals, which means that all the specimens of a class and only such have been .found or are assumed to be fit objects of actions performed under the influence of those tendencies. Thus, the altruistic tendency to help an individual with gifts of money is for the most part strictly limited: large gifts are given only to "relatives", small ones only to the category called "the poor". Certain kinds of social antagonism are reserved in some societies for representatives of certain races — witness the Negro prejudice in the United States and anti-Semitism in Continental Europe. Other kinds of antagonism manifest themselves exclusively in relations between different classes. Specific forms of conduct are found only with regard to specific varieties of associations — economic corporations, sport clubs, religious groups, etc.

But the growth of social generalization is not only an effect of the complexity of modern life: it is also an indispensable psychological condition which makes the institutional organization of activities in this complexity

(197) possible. How could, for instance, any governmental activity be carried on unless its thousands or millions of objects were generalized, and abstract concepts substituted for concrete human beings? Moreover, in speaking of social idealization we quoted examples in which idealization combined with generalization, following the substitution of represented social objects for actually given ones. This combination always underlies the development of social ideals — for instance, national or humanitarian ideals of which some wide and complex collectivity is the object. Such an ideal involves a tendency or a set of tendencies bearing upon any member of the collectivity as representative —of an abstractly generalized class, and idealization extends these tendencies to unknown or even unexisting -members in past or future generations. At the same time not only particular members. but the collectivity as a whole, the "Nation" or "Humanity", is an object of the tendency. Though this whole cannot be actually given in its concreteness, it is a mental structure which centers around the social concept and is composed of various concrete memories of the past, of symbols in which the collectivity is sensually expressed, and of indefinite possibilities of collective behavior.


  1. A reaction from a distance, even if immediate, lacks some of the definite social characteristics which the reaction of a human being who is present possesses; it always leaves something to be supplemented by imagination. Take the case of a conversation by telephone or radio.
  2. For the significance of terms of gradation in social psychology, see p. 45-46.

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