The Psychology of Social Institutions

Charles Hubbard Judd
University of Chicago

SOCIAL psychology has suffered throughout its history from two defects. First, it has never established itself in method or content as distinct from individual psychology. McDougall's earlier work was nothing more than a description of individual instincts. The influence of this work has been so great that many of the more recent writers have been equally content to look upon society as nothing more than an aggregation of individuals held together by the instinct of gregariousness.

Perhaps the most explicit statement in the literature of the view that social psychology is nothing but a phase of individual psychology is that which appears in Professor Allport's recent volume.[1] He says (p. 4) :

"The standpoint of this book may be concisely stated as follows. There is no psychology of groups which is not essentially and entirely a psychology of individuals. Social psychology must not be placed in contradiction to the psychology: of the individual ; it is a part of the psychology of the individual, whose behavior it studies in relation to that sector of his environment comprised by his fellows. His biological needs are the ends toward which his social behavior is a developed means. Within his organism are provided all the mechanisms by which social behavior is explained."

The second defect of treatises on social psychology is that they are very vague in their descriptions of the mechanism by which individuals are united into social groups. The concept of imitation employed by 'Tarde and the concept of suggestion used by Ross are mere names for the fact that individuals are in some way affected by their fellow-beings. Both imitation and suggestion are wholly inadequate as principles for the explanation of modern civilization, and there can he no satisfactory social psychology which does not make clear the method by which human minds have produced through co÷peration the institutions which are collectively called civilization.

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The need for a. new type of social psychology was never more clearly recognized than at the present time. We live in a period when the sciences of economics, of government, of history and education are maturing rapidly. All these sciences which deal with human nature acting in groups are calling upon psychology to supply the foundational principles needed for the explanation of the facts with which they deal. There is no type of individual psychology which satisfies this demand, and the vague abstract principles of imitation and suggestion have proved to be wholly unusable.

It is the thesis of this paper that the required reform of social psychology can be effected through the consideration of social institutions. Language and literature, money and economic values, government and social conventions are facts in the world just as truly as are, trees and mountains and climate. These social institutions are objective in the sense that they exist outside of individuals. They are no less objective than the facts of physical nature. While social institutions have extraindividual and super-individual reality, they owe their origin, as contrasted with the realities of the physical world, to the action of minds. Language, for example, is the product of co÷perative effort on the part of intelligent beings. Government is a creation of men living in groups. Money is a material device evolved through long periods of racial experience and now so influential in controlling conduct that one sometimes forgets that money is a human invention and regards it as a thing.

These social creations epitomize in their present forms all the intelligence which has entered into the social evolution which brought them Forth. Language is the crystallized result of the discriminative thinking through which the race has passed. Each new member of the race who is born into civilized society finds language present in a highly perfected form ready to influence and guide his behavior just as he finds paved highways and climate present to his senses and influential in directing his life.

It is these social institutions which constitute the appropriate subject-matter for social psychology. One does not need to resort to any vague concepts like imitation and suggestion when one recognizes the fact that tools and language and social conventions are the influences which surround the individual who lives in a civilized community. Nor can one ever be satisfied to limit one's thinking about mental life to instincts and individual traits when

( 153) one has come to recognized how vastly the sweep of social thinking is wider than the range of individual mental life.

Let us follow l or purposes of illustration one concrete case. Civilized men have learned to be punctual. Think of the extent to which each once of us is dependent on the devices by which time is measured and by means of which engagements are pre-arranged for definite points in the future. Take, for example, our meeting here. From a great variety of different centers we came on trains which started on scheduled time and avoided accidents by taking the right of way as determined by train-dispatchers who operate chiefly by dictating the time of train movements. After we reached our destinations we followed the dictates of certain cunningly devised mechanisms with which social evolution has provided each of us in the form of our watches; we came here and are prepared to respond to the pointed demands of our program committee that at a certain hour we shall one after the other deliver ourselves of series of ideas carefully limited to fifteen minutes. Lei addition to all. these elaborate timings of our intellectual lives we have acted on certain other schedules. We foregather for our meals, we meet our intimate friends, all according to the modern civilized scheme of being on time.

So accustomed are we to the practice and idea of punctuality that it is difficult for us to realize that punctuality and the precise measurement of tine are not natural to the untrained individual. Primitive man is controlled in his behavior by certain gross happenings, such as sunrise and sunset, by winter and summer, but it required long periods of social evolution before the sun-dial or the water-clock or the pendulum and spring came into existence. These mechanical devices were perfected by intelligent men. They are not primarily physical objects. They are appliances made up of physical substances, but their essence is the intelligent application of materials to the satisfaction of human demands. Men invented clocks because they wanted to snake their human relations precise. They found that living together was and is facilitated by punctuality and so they evolved all that is necessary to establish punctuality as a social control of individual behavior.

Once clocks and the social recognition of punctuality were brought into the world, we find that individual behavior is guided into channels whirr. it would not otherwise have followed. There are cultivated in every social community habits of regularity on the part of the members of the community which are emphatically

( 154) not instinctive or inherited. These acquired habits of regular conduct become so fixed through long practice that ultimately they are indistinguishable from the habits which grow out of instincts. Anyone who has seen a man impatiently waiting for a belated train or still more for a belated meal will realize how firm a hold the habit of punctuality may take on a civilized being and how completely emotional life may be dominated by a form of reaction which has nothing to do with instinct.

Not only is the habit of punctuality sufficiently powerful when once it is established to control individual thinking and emotions, but the person who has learned to be punctual promptly becomes a center for social propaganda in favor of punctuality in others. Social institutions spread through the vigorous promotion of these institutions by those who have come under their sway.

Innumerable examples might be added to this which has been described. Consider the institution of weights and measures. There is a long history behind our grain and pound. It is only in very modern times that the foot and the yard have been taken up by science and established by precise methods.

Or think of such a custom as passing on the right. There is no reason except convention why we should pass on the right. In fact, we know that peoples no less intelligent and civilized than we pass on the left. This is not an instinctive mode of passing. It is not-natural. It is conventional, acquired by the individual because the social group to which he belongs predetermined his modes of behavior in the interests of social harmony.

There is a very proper sense in which tools may be regarded as social institutions. Each generation profits by the mechanical acquisitions of its predecessors until finally we each use freely machines which are so complex that we cannot understand their structures. We do not find it at all unnatural to take advantage in this way of intellectual creations which the animals never think of employing. We are content to regard ourselves as parts of a civilization for which we have sympathy but for which we frequently have no comprehension.

How anyone who has given even superficial attention to the facts of civilization can hold with Professor Allport that social psychology is nothing but a subdivision of individual psychology, I confess I do not understand. How anyone can be content with McDougall to spend long hours discussing instincts and omit all reference to trade and literature, to laws and religion, to music and painting, passes my understanding. The essence of social

( 155) existence is not to be found in the instincts of isolated individuals but in those accumulations of intellectual capital which make it impossible for the individual to live except as he becomes a part of the co÷perating group which has brought this intellectual capital into being aid is now devoting a vast amount of its energy to solidifying its holdings. If there is any order of importance in the world, the social group with its possessions must surely be thought of as enormously more significant than the individual; and social behavior and social institutions must be recognized as more permanent than any individual traits.

The proposal of this paper is that social psychology be re-named psychology of social institutions. This will at once free us from the vagueness which has up to this time attached to the general term social' psychology. The name psychology of social institutions defines both the content and method of explanation to be used by this most fundamental of the social sciences. When social institutions are studied, one immediately gets away from the sense organs and muscular reactions of particular individuals. One gets away from the instincts and biological adaptations which have been so sadly overworked of late. One has a new and fruitful field for psychological analysis. Not only so, but one finds as a result of study of institutions a method of explaining civilization. Civilization is nothing more nor less than a complex of social institutions. It is the general matrix in which individual life is imbedded and from which individual life derives its major tendencies and its most important characteristics.

Incidentally it may be pointed out that this conception of civilization will prove enormously productive, not only for psychology but for the individual social sciences. At the present time these sciences are floundering because they fail, for the most part, to understand that the institutions with which they deal are products of human intelligences acting co÷peratively. Consider, for example, the way in which the science of economics discusses money. Many of the phrases used by the economists leave the impression on the reader's mind that money is a thing. Money is explained by the fact that mental is permanent, divisible, and always available in the trades. There is little or no consideration in economics of the minds which have co÷perated in developing money.

The science of philology treats language in like fashion as though words were objects. The very objectivity of language and its super-individualistic character have inhibited the students of

( 156) language from seeking an explanation of the phenomena with which they deal in such a science of human thinking as the psychologists have been able up to this time to supply. The result is that psychology has been little interested in language because its origin lies outside of individual mental life, and the philologist has been very little interested in psychology because that science has concerned itself exclusively with individual mental abilities and traits.

For my own work in educational psychology the name and concept psychology of social institutions is most suggestive. Education is a process of inducting pupils into social modes of expression and thought. There is a vast amount of shallow reasoning ,abroad in the educational world as a result of the cur-rent interest of individual psychology in instincts and personal traits. There is too often a neglect of the fundamental fact that the individual must become a part of civilized society by acquiring certain social arts. What education needs to-day is a sure foundation in a new type of psychology, the psychology of language, of number, of weights and measures, of government and of trade and industry—in short, a psychology of social institutions.


  1. Floyd Henry Allport. Social Psychology. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1924. Pp. xiv+454.

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