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Sociology and Modern Social Problems By Charles A. Ellwood Characters: 33071

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03

What is Society?-Perhaps the great question which sociology seeks to answer is this question which we have put at the beginning. Just as biology seeks to answer the question "What is life?"; zo?logy, "What is an animal?"; botany, "What is a plant?"; so sociology seeks to answer the question "What is society?" or perhaps better, "What is association?" Just as biology, zo?logy, and botany cannot answer their questions until those sciences have reached their full and complete development, so also sociology cannot answer the question "What is society?" until it reaches its final development. Nevertheless, some conception or definition of society is necessary for the beginner, for in the scientific discussion of social problems we must know first of all what we are talking about. We must understand in a general way what society is, what sociology is, what the relations are between sociology and other sciences, before we can study the social problems of to-day from a sociological point of view.

The word "society" is used scientifically to designate the reciprocal relations between individuals. More exactly, and using the term in a concrete sense, a society is any group of individuals who have more or less conscious relations to each other. We say conscious relations because it is not necessary that these relations be specialized into industrial, political, or ecclesiastical relations. Society is constituted by the mental interaction of individuals and exists wherever two or three individuals have reciprocal conscious relations to each other. Dependence upon a common economic environment, or the mere contiguity in space is not sufficient to constitute a society. It is the interdependence in function on the mental side, the contact and overlapping of our inner selves, which makes possible that form of collective life which we call society. Plants and lowly types of organisms do not constitute true societies, unless it can be shown that they have some degree of mentality. On the other hand, there is no reason for withholding the term "society" from many animal groups. These animal societies, however, are very different in many respects from human society, and are of interest to us only as certain of their forms throw light upon human society.

We may dismiss with a word certain faulty conceptions of society. In some of the older sociological writings the word society is often used as nearly synonymous with the word nation. Now, a nation is a body of people politically organized into an independent government, and it is manifest that it is only one of many forms of human society. Another conception of society, which some have advocated, is that it is synonymous with the cultural group. That is, a society is any group of people that have a common civilization, or that are bearers of a certain type of culture. In this case Christendom, for example, would constitute a single society. Cultural groups no doubt are, again, one of the forms of human society, but only one among many. Both the cultural group and the nation are very imposing forms of society and hence have attracted the attention of social thinkers very often in the past to the neglect of the more humble forms. But it is evident that all forms of association are of equal interest to the sociologist, though, of course, this is not saying that all forms are of equal practical importance.

Any form of association, or social group, which may be studied, if studied from the point of view of origin and development, whether it be a family, a neighborhood group, a city, a state, a trade union, or a party, will serve to reveal many of the problems of sociology. The natural or genetic social groups, however, such as the family, the community, and the nation, serve best to exhibit sociological problems. In this text we shall make particular use of the family, as the simplest and, in many ways, the most typical of all the forms of human association, to illustrate concretely the laws and principles of social development. Through the study of the simple and primary forms of association the problems of sociology can be much better attacked than through the study of society at large, or association in general.

From what has been said it may be inferred that society as a scientific term means scarcely more than the abstract term association, and this is correct. Association, indeed, may be regarded as the more scientific term of the two; at any rate it indicates more exactly what the sociologist deals with. A word may be said also as to the meaning of the word social. The sense in which this word will generally be used in this text is that of a collective adjective, referring to all that pertains to or relates to society in any way. The word social, then, is much broader than the words industrial, political, moral, religious, and embraces them all; that is, social phenomena are all phenomena which involve the interaction of two or more individuals. The word social, then, includes the economic, political, moral, religious, etc., and must not be thought of as something set in opposition to, for instance, the industrial or the political.

Society and its Products.-Beneath all the forms and processes of human society lies the fact of association itself. Industry, government, and civilization itself must be regarded as expressions of collective human life rather than vice versa. Industry, for example, is one side or aspect of man's social life, and must not be mistaken for society itself. Industry, government, religion, education, art, and the like, are all products of the social life of man. Among these co?rdinate expressions of collective human life, industry, being concerned with the satisfying of the material needs of men, is perhaps fundamental to the rest. But this must not lead to the mistaken view that the social life of man can be interpreted completely through his industrial life; for, as has just been said, beneath industry and all other aspects of man's collective life lies the biological and psychological fact of association. This is equivalent to saying that industry itself must be interpreted in terms of the biology and psychology of human association. In other words, industrial problems, political problems, educational problems, and the like must be viewed from the collective or social standpoint rather than simply as detached problems by themselves. We must understand the biological and psychological aspects of man's social life before we can understand its special phases.

The Origin of Society.-From the definition of society that we have given it is evident that society is something which springs from the very processes of life itself. It is not something which has been invented or planned by individuals. Life, in its higher forms at least, could not exist without association. From the very beginning the association of the sexes has been necessary for reproduction and for the care and rearing of offspring, and it has been not less necessary for the procuring of an adequate food supply and for protection against enemies. From the association necessary for reproduction has sprung family life and all the altruistic institutions of human society, while from the association for providing food supply have sprung society's industrial institutions. Neither society nor industry, therefore, has had a premeditated, reflective origin, but both have sprung up spontaneously from the needs of life and both have developed down to the present time at least with but little premeditated guidance. It is necessary that the student should understand at the outset that social organization is not a fabrication of the human intellect to any great degree, and the old idea that individuals who existed independently of society came together and deliberately planned a certain type of social organization is utterly without scientific validity. The individual and society are correlatives. We have no knowledge of individuals apart from society or society apart from individuals. What we do know is that human life everywhere is a collective or associated life, the individual being on the one hand largely an expression of the social life surrounding him and on the other hand society being largely an expression of individual character. The reasons for these assertions will appear later as we develop our subject.

What is Sociology?-The science which deals with human association, its origin, development, forms, and functions, is sociology. Briefly, sociology is a science which deals with society as a whole and not with its separate aspects or phases. It attempts to formulate the laws or principles which govern social organization and social evolution. This means that the main problems of sociology are those of the organization of society on the one hand and the evolution of society on the other. These words, organization and evolution, however, are used in a broader sense in sociology than they are generally used. By organization we mean any relation of the parts of society to each other. By evolution we mean, not necessarily change for the better, but orderly change of any sort. Sociology is, therefore, a science which deals with the laws or principles of social organization and of social change. Put in more exact terms this makes sociology, as we said at the beginning, the science of the origin, development, structure, and function of the forms of association. We may pass over very rapidly certain faulty conceptions of sociology. The first of these is that it is the study of social evils and their remedies. This conception is faulty because it makes sociology deal primarily with the abnormal rather than the normal conditions in society, and secondly, it is to be criticized because it makes sociology synonymous with scientific philanthropy. It is rather the science of philanthropy, which is an applied science resting upon sociology, that studies social evils and their remedies. This is not saying, of course, that sociology does not consider social evils, but that it considers them as incidents in the normal processes of social evolution rather than as its special matter. A second conception of sociology which is to be dismissed as inadequate is the conception that it is the science of social phenomena. This conception is not incorrect, but is somewhat vague, as there are manifestly other sciences of social phenomena, such as economics and political science. Such a conception of sociology would make it include everything in human society. A third faulty conception is that it is the science of human institutions. This is faulty because it again is too narrow. An institution is a sanctioned form of human association, while sociology deals with the ephemeral and unsanctioned forms, such as we see in the phenomena of mobs, crazes, fads, fashions, and crimes, as well as with the sanctioned forms. A fourth conception which might be criticized is that sociology is the science of social organization. This makes sociology deal with the laws or principles of the relations of individuals to one another, and of institutions to one another. It is to be criticized as faulty because it fails to emphasize the evolution of those relations. All science is now evolutionary in spirit and in method and believes that things cannot be understood except as they are understood in their genesis and development. It would, therefore, perhaps be more correct to define sociology as the science of the evolution of human interrelations than to define it simply as the science of social organization.

The Problems of Sociology.-The problems of sociology fall into two great classes; first, problems of the organization of society, and second, problems of the evolution of society. The problems of the organization of society are problems of the relations of individuals to one another and to institutions. Such problems are, for example, the influence of various elements in the physical environment upon the social organization; or, again, the influence of various elements in human nature upon the social order. These problems are, then, problems of society in a hypothetically stationary condition or at rest. For this reason Comte, the founder of modern sociology, called the division of sociology which deals with such problems Social Statics. But the problems which are of most interest and importance in sociology are those of social evolution. Under this head we have the problem of the origin of society in general and also of various forms of association. More important still are the problems of social progress and social retrogression; that is, the causes of the advancement of society to higher and more complex types of social organization and the causes of social decline. The former problem, social progress, is in a peculiar sense the central problem of sociology. The effort of theoretical sociology is to develop a scientific theory of social progress. The study of social evolution, then, that is, social changes of all sorts, as we have emphasized above, is the vital part of sociology; and it is manifest that only a general science of society like sociology is competent to deal with such a problem. Inasmuch as the problems of social evolution are problems of change, development, or movement in society, Comte proposed that this division of sociology be called Social Dynamics.

The Relations of Sociology to Other Sciences. [Footnote: For a fuller discussion of the relations of sociology to other sciences and to philosophy see my article on "Sociology: Its Problems and Its Relations" in the American Journal of Sociology for November, 1907.]-(A) Relations to Biology and Psychology. In attempting to give a scientific view of social organization and social evolution, sociology has to depend upon the other natural sciences, particularly upon biology and psychology. It is manifest that sociology must depend upon biology, since biology is the general science of life, and human society is but part of the world of life in general. It is manifest also that sociology must depend upon psychology to explain the interactions between individuals because these interactions are for the most part interactions between their minds. Thus on the one hand all social phenomena are vital phenomena and on the other hand nearly all social phenomena are mental phenomena. Every social problem has, in other words, its psychological and its biological sides, and sociology is distinguished from biology and psychology only as a matter of convenience. The scientific division of labor necessitates that certain scientific workers concern themselves with certain problems. Now, the problems with which the biologist and the psychologist deal are not the problems of the organization and evolution of society. Hence, while the sociologist borrows his principles of interpretation from biology and psychology, he has his own distinctive problems, and it is this fact which makes sociology a distinct science.

Sociology is not so easily distinguished from the special social sciences like politics, economics, and others, as it is from the other general sciences. These sciences occupy the same field as sociology, that is, they have to do with social phenomena. But in general, as has already been pointed out, they are concerned chiefly with certain very special aspects or phases of the social life and not with its most general problems. If sociology, then, is dependent upon the other general sciences, particularly upon biology and psychology, it is obvious that its relation to the special sciences is the reverse, namely, these sciences are dependent upon sociology. This is only saying practically the same thing as was said above when we pointed out that industry, government, and religion are but expressions of human social life. In other words, sociology deals with the more general biological and psychological aspects of human association, while the special sciences of economics, politics, and the like, generally deal with certain products or highly specialized phases of society.

(B) Relations to History. [Footnote: For a discussion of the practical relations between the teaching of history and of sociology, see my paper on "How History can be taught from a Sociological Point of View," in Education for January, 1910.] A word may be said about the relation of sociology to another science which also deals with human society in a general way, and that is history. History is a c

oncrete, descriptive science of society which attempts to construct a picture of the social past. Sociology, however, is an abstract, theoretical science of society concerned with the laws and principles which govern social organization and social change. In a sense, sociology is narrower than history inasmuch as it is an abstract science, and in another sense it is wider than history because it concerns itself not only with the social past but also with the social present. The facts of contemporary social life are indeed even more important to the sociologist than the facts of history, although it is impossible to construct a theory of social evolution without taking into full account all the facts available in human history, and in this sense history becomes one of the very important methods of sociology. Upon its evolutionary or dynamic side sociology may be considered a sort of philosophy of history; at least it attempts to give a scientific theory which will explain the social changes which history describes concretely.

(C) Relations to Economics. Economics is that special social science which deals with the wealth-getting and wealth-using activities of man. In other words, it is concerned with the commercial and industrial activities of man. As has already been implied, economics must be considered one of the most important of the special social sciences, if not the most important. Yet it is evident that the wealth-getting and wealth-using activities of man are strictly an outgrowth of his social life, and that economics as a science of human industry must rest upon sociology. Sometimes in the past the mistake has been made of supposing that economics dealt with the most fundamental social phenomena, and even at times economists have spoken of their science as alone sufficient to explain all social phenomena. It cannot be admitted, however, that we can explain social organization in general or social progress in terms of economic development. A theory of progress, for example, in which the sole causes of human progress were found in economic conditions would neglect political, religious, educational, and many other conditions. Only a very one-sided theory of society can be built upon such a basis. Economics should keep to its own sphere of explaining the commercial and industrial activities of man and not attempt to become a general science dealing with social evolution. This is now recognized by practically all economists of standing, and the only question which remains is whether economics is independent of sociology or whether it rests upon sociology.

The view which has been presented thus far and which will be adhered to is that economics should rest upon sociology. That economics does rest upon sociology is shown by many considerations. The chief problem of theoretical economics is the problem of economic value. But economic value is but one sort of value which is recognized in society, moral and aesthetic values being other examples of the valuing process, and all values must express the collective judgment of some human group or other. The problem of economic value, in other words, reduces itself to a problem in social psychology, and when this is said it is equivalent to making economics dependent upon sociology, for social psychology is simply the psychological aspect of sociology. Again, industrial organization and industrial evolution are but parts or phases of social evolution in general, and it is safe to say that industry, both in its organization and evolution, cannot be understood apart from the general conditions, psychological and biological, which surround society. Again, many non-economic forces continually obtrude themselves upon the student of industrial conditions, such as custom, invention, imitation, standards, ideals, and the like. These are general social forces which play throughout all phases of human social life and so show the dependence of industry upon society in general, and, therefore, of economics upon sociology. Much more might be said in the way of concretely illustrating these statements, but the purpose of this text precludes anything but the briefest and most elementary statement of these theoretical facts.

(D) Relations to Politics. We have already said that the state is one of the chief forms of human association. The science which treats of the state or of government is known as political science or politics. It is one of the oldest of the social sciences, having been more or less systematized by Aristotle. The problems of politics are those of the origin, nature, function, and development of government. It is manifest that politics, both on its practical and theoretical sides, has many close relations to sociology. While the state or nation must not be confused with society in general, yet because the state is the most imposing, if not the most important, form of human association, the relations of politics and sociology must be very intimate. On the one hand, political scientists can scarcely understand the origin, nature, and proper functions of government without understanding more or less about the social life generally; and, on the other hand, the sociologist finds that one of the most important facts of human society is that of social control, or of authority. While political science deals only with the organized authority manifested in the state, which we call government, yet inasmuch as this is the most important form of social control, and inasmuch as political organization is one of the chief manifestations of social organization, the sociologist can scarcely deal adequately with the great problems of social organization and evolution without constant reference to political science.

An important branch of political science is jurisprudence, or the science of law. This, again, is closely related with sociology, on both its theoretical and practical sides. Law is, perhaps, the most important means of social control made use of by society, and the sociologist needs to understand something of the principles of law in order to understand the nature of the existing social order. On the other hand, the jurist needs to know the principles of social organization and evolution in general before he can understand the nature and purpose of law.

(E) Relations to Ethics. [Footnote: For a full statement of my views regarding the relations of sociology and ethics, see my article on "The Sociological Basis of Ethics," in the International Journal of Ethics for April, 1910.] Ethics is the science which deals with the right or wrong of human conduct. Its problems are the nature of morality and of moral obligation, the validity of moral ideals, the norms by which conduct is to be judged, and the like. While ethics was once considered to be a science of individual conduct it is now generally conceived as being essentially a social science. The moral and the social are indeed not clearly separable, but we may consider the moral to be the ideal aspect of the social.

This view of morality, which, for the most part, is indorsed by modern thought, makes ethics dependent upon sociology for its criteria of rightness or wrongness. Indeed, we cannot argue any moral question nowadays unless we argue it in social terms. If we discuss the rightness or wrongness of the drink habit we try to show its social consequences. So, too, if we discuss the rightness or wrongness of such an institution as polygamy we find ourselves forced to do so mainly in social terms. This is not denying, of course, that there are religious and metaphysical aspects to morality,-these are not necessarily in conflict with the social aspects,-but it is saying that modern ethical theory is coming more and more to base itself upon the study of the remote social consequences of conduct, and that we cannot judge what is right or wrong in our complex society unless we know something of the social consequences.

Ethics must be regarded, therefore, as a normative science to which sociology and the other social sciences lead up. It is, indeed, very difficult to separate ethics from sociology. It is the business of sociology to furnish norms and standards to ethics, and it is the business of ethics as a science to take the norms and standards furnished by the social sciences, to develop them, and to criticize them. This text therefore, will not attempt to exclude ethical implications and judgments from sociological discussions, because that would be futile and childish.

(F) Relations to Education. Among the applied sciences, sociology is especially closely related to education, for education is not simply the art of developing the powers and capacities of the individual; it is rather the fitting of individuals for efficient membership, for proper functioning, in social life. On its individual side, education should initiate the individual into the social life and fit him for social service. It should create the good citizen. On the social or public side, education should be the chief means of social progress. It should regenerate society, by fitting the individual for a higher type of social life than at present achieved. We must have a socialized education if our present complex civilization is to endure. Social problems touch education on every side, and, on the other hand, education must bear upon every social problem. It is evident, therefore, that sociology has a very great bearing upon the problems of education; and the teacher who comes to his task equipped with a knowledge of social conditions and of the laws and principles of social organization and evolution will find a significance and meaning in his work which he could hardly otherwise find.

(G) Relations to Philanthropy.[Footnote: This topic is more fully discussed in my article on "Philanthropy and Sociology" in The Survey for June 4, 1910.] The great science which deals directly with the depressed classes in society and with their uplift may be called the science of philanthropy. It may be regarded as an applied department of sociology. The science of philanthropy is especially concerned with the prevention, as well as with the curative treatment, of dependency, defectiveness, and delinquency. That part which deals with the social treatment of the criminal class is generally called penology, while the subdivision which treats of dependents and defectives is generally known as "charities" or "charitology."

It is evident that there are very close relations between the science of philanthropy and sociology. The elimination of hereditary defects, the overcoming of the social maladjustment of individuals, and the correction of defective social conditions, the three great tasks of scientific philanthropy, all require great knowledge of human society. The social or philanthropic worker, therefore, requires thorough equipment in sociology that he may approach his tasks aright.

The Relation of Sociology to Socialism.-Curiously enough sociology is often confused with socialism by those who pay but little attention to scientific matters. This comes from the fact that some of the adherents of socialism claim that socialism is a science. As a matter of fact, socialism is primarily a party program. It is the platform of a social and political party that has as the main tenet of its creed the abolition of private property in the means of production. Socialism, in other words, is a scheme to revolutionize the present order of society. It cannot claim to be a science in any sense, though it may rest upon theories which its adherents believe to be scientific. Sociology, on the other hand, is a science, and is concerned not with revolutionizing the social order, but with studying and understanding social conditions, especially the more fundamental conditions upon which social organization and social changes depend. As a science it aims simply at understanding society, at getting at the truth. It is no more related logically to socialism than to the platform of the Republican or the Democratic party.

The theories upon which revolutionary socialism rest may be proved or disproved by scientific sociology. It is perhaps too early to say finally whether sociology will pronounce the theoretical assumptions of socialism correct or incorrect; but so far as we can see it seems probable that the theories of social evolution advocated by the Marxian socialists at least will be pronounced erroneous. In any case, there is no logical connection between sociology as a science and socialism as a program for social reconstruction.

Nevertheless, there has been a close connection between sociology and socialism historically. It has been largely the agitations of the socialists and other radical social reformers which have called attention to the need of a scientific understanding of human society. The socialists and other radical reformers, in other words, have very largely set the problem which sociology attempts to solve. Practically, moreover, the indictments and charges of the socialists and anarchists against the present social order have made necessary some study of that order to see whether these charges were well founded or not. In this sense sociology may be said to be a scientific answer to socialism, not in the sense that sociology is devoted to refuting socialism, but in the sense that sociology has been devoted very largely to inquiring into many of the theoretical assumptions which revolutionary socialism makes.

The further relations of sociology to socialism will be taken up later. Here we are only concerned to have the reader see that there is a sharp distinction between the sociological movement on the one hand, that is, the movement to obtain fuller and more accurate knowledge concerning human social life, and the socialist movement, the movement to revolutionize the present social and economic order. Moreover, it may be remarked that while socialism seems to be mainly an economic program, it involves such total and radical reconstruction of social organization that in the long run the claims of socialism to a scientific validity must be passed upon by sociology rather than by economics.

The Relation of Sociology to Social Reform.-From what has been said it is also evident that sociology must not be confused with any particular social reform movement or with the movement for social reform in general. Sociology, as a science, cannot afford to be developed in the interest of any social reform. Certain social reforms, sociology may give its approval to; others it may designate as unwise; but this approval or disapproval will be simply incidental to its discovery of the full truth about human social relations. This is not saying, of course, that social theory should be divorced from social practice, or that the knowledge which sociology and the other social sciences offer concerning human society has no practical bearing upon present social conditions. On the contrary, while all science aims abstractly at the truth, all science is practical also in a deeper sense. No science would ever have been developed if it were not conceived that the knowledge which it discovers will ultimately be of benefit to man. All science exists, therefore, to benefit man, to enable him to master his environment, and the social sciences not less than the other sciences. The physical sciences have already enabled man to attain to a considerable mastery over his physical environment. When the social sciences have been developed it is safe to say that they will enable man not less to master his social environment. Therefore, while sociology and the special social sciences present as yet no program for action, aiming simply at the discovery of the abstract truth, they will undoubtedly in time bring about vast changes for the betterment of social conditions.


For Brief Reading:

WARD, Outlines of Sociology, Chaps. I-VIII.

ROSS, The foundations of Sociology, Chaps. I and II.

DEALEY, Sociology, Its simpler Teachings and Applications, Chap. I.

For More Extended Reading:

GIDDINGS, The Principles of Sociology, 3d edition.

SMALL, General Sociology.

SPENCER, The Study of Sociology.

STUCKENBERG, Sociology: The Science of Human Society.

WARD, Pure Sociology.

American Journal of Sociology, many articles.

For a fairly extensive bibliography on sociology, consult Howard's

General Sociology: An Analytical Reference Syllabus.

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