Review of F. H. Allport's "The Group Fallacy and Social Science"

Alexander A. Goldenweiser
New School for Social Research

In discussing Professor Allport's paper I want to simplify my task by drawing a few distinctions. (I) It is unjustifiable to identify the organic or organismic theories of society with the notion of a social psyche. Neither Bagehot nor Hobbes, who adhered to the organic theory, believed in a social super-soul, while Herbert Spencer, perhaps the leading exponent of the organic theory,

( 705) never used the concept of a social psyche; in fact, all of his causal interpretations work with the individual, as the ultimate creative psychic unit. (2)A discussion of the theory of a social psyche at this time is strictly speaking an anachronism. Two generations ago men like Steinthal and Lazarus had held this theory. They were violently attacked by Wundt, who was himself at times accused of entertaining the conception he was combating. While this is not the place to pursue the subject, I believe this accusation to be unmerited and based on a misunderstanding of Wundt's meaning.

However this may be, at the present time no sociologist or social psychologist, within my knowledge, entertains the theory of a social psyche except in a purely functional sense. Society acts as if it had a psyche, but as a matter of fact, all psychic processes take place in individual minds—where else could they take place ?

Apart from this, Professor Allport's paper contains the following two assertions: (I) All causes in history are lodged in individuals: only individuals originate things; and, (2) while it is possible to describe social phenomena in purely social terms, any attempt to explain social phenomena necessarily requires a psychological technique. Similarly, psychological phenomena can only be explained in physiological or neural terms and biological ones in physicochemical terms.

I do not think that it is either theoretically justifiable or methodologically serviceable to regard the individual as the only cause of historic change. It is true that every element of culture, whether material or otherwise, at some time or other found its beginning in an idea, originated in an individual mind. Therefore, if only we had the knowledge we could trace all elements of culture back to such psychological beginnings in the minds of individuals. On the other hand, if what we are interested in are the changes in culture or in individuals at any given time and place, social and cultural factors at once emerge as having causal significance. A great individual like Napoleon or Lenin or Homer may be treated as an historic cause or a complex of historic causes, in so far as he has originated a legal code or won battles or written a great epic or conceived and carried out a social revolution. But such an individual himself is of course the product of his time, that is, his education and social setting. Whatever his inborn abilities may be, the specific content of his mind is contributed by the existing culture. He is therefore caused by it. Similarly, one cultural factor, while of course working through psychological channels, will causally affect or transform other cultural factors.

It is therefore merely a question of drawing a line through the historic process at the point on which our interest is centered. If what we are interested in is the individual as a causal factor in history, then we grant the individual, however produced, and he henceforth becomes a source of cultural transformation. If, on the other hand, we are bent upon exploring the possibilities of cultural or social causation, then we postulate these factors as given at any particular time and place and may utilize them as units which themselves cause

( 706) further transformations in the cultural process. As contrasted with the absolutistic views of history which explain all happenings either through the individual or through the group and then follow up these explanations as far back as possible in search of "first causes," the view of history here indicated may be designated as relativistic.

As to the distinction between description and explanation, as drawn by Professor Allport, I cannot regard it as justifiable. Modern science conceives of explanation as conceptualized description. Also, it tends to substitute the question how? for the question what? When Carl Pearson tells us that matter is non-matter in motion, this revelation impresses one as somewhat shocking if what one purports to inquire is what matter is. But if one's interest is directed toward how matter behaves or toward the behavior of "something" which might account for the known properties of matter, then Pearson's statement seems no longer confusing.

If so much is granted, it still remains true that two ways of describing or explaining phenomena are always open: either social facts are described or explained sociologically, psychological ones psychologically, biological ones biologically, and physicochemical ones physicochemically, or, social facts are described or explained psychologically, psychological ones biologically, biological ones physicochemically, and physicochemical ones of necessity still physicochemically, if not in terms of pure conceptual abstraction. Now, both of these modes of approach seem theoretically justifiable and have certain advantages as well as defects. If a fact in one level is explained in unit terms of the same level, the advantage of the procedure lies in the fact that the autonomy of the level is preserved and the mystery (or at least puzzle) of the transformation of its terms into those of another level avoided. Again, this mode of procedure preserves a conceptual diversity in the universe. This is hailed by some as desirable and rejected by others as reprehensible. If, on the other hand, a fact in one level is explained by unit factors from another level, this leads to an ultimate conceptual unification of the universe, to a monistic world-view. This also is welcomed by some and abhorred by others. Again, this mode of procedure has the disadvantage, or what to some at least seems such, of not only explaining but explaining away. Thus, when a social fact is explained in purely psychological unit terms, there is no more social fact left, and when a psychological one is explained in biological unit terms, there is no psychological fact left, and when a biological one is explained in physicochemical unit terms, there is no biological fact left.

Differences of taste apart, it seems fairly obvious that both methods of procedure are theoretically justifiable and are likely to bring in the future as they have brought in the past ever richer insight into the nature of phenomena and of our thinking about them.


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