Source Book for Social Psychology


95 Sociology; Social Psychology


21. The Definition of the Situation by the Group1

This chapter deals with group controls: how they arise out of crises or new, untested situations, how they become organized through the "definition of the situation" into folkways and mores. It treats of the place of ritual and formalism, the place of authority in reference to custom, the relation of law to custom, and finally the nature of our culture ethos.

The first paper, by Thomas, discusses the importance of studying crises in social situations. The formation of habits, more or less common to a group, leads to custom. This is shown to rest upon some standardized method of solving a critical social situation. Such situations are those of birth, puberty, marriage, war, famine, and old age. Then, too, there is the relationship between crises and the rise of division of labor and function. This is evidenced by the special social functions of priest, warrior, medicine-man, trader, and so on. Williams’ paper indicates that during crises the individual motives come to awareness. This phase of reaction is, perhaps, relatively recent. Many of the alleged motives turn out, on examination, to be rationalizations for deeper incentives lost to the individual and to the group. The paper by Prince on the Halifax disaster shows the social disorganization arising from a violent social catastrophe. Here, since the crisis is obviously one of unusual severity, it reveals in a more extreme manner social behavior under great strain. Both the profound physiological and psychological alterations are noted. The disintegration of morale and the enhancement of social attitudes is well shown, indicating the factor of individual differences in meeting unusual situations. A more careful study should be made of other disasters: floods, famines, hurricanes, earthquakes. Naturally, the basic problem of relief has overshadowed the more theoretical but scientifically valuable need for investigation of social changes under crises. Yet, social workers are becoming ever more aware of the social-psychological effects of these crises upon personality traits and upon the morale of communities.

A crisis leads to some method of delimiting, or defining, or finding the boundaries of the situation. That is to say, in solving any problem one attempts to circumscribe it in such a way that he can react to it successfully. Thomas’ paper of the "Definition of the Situation" is a very valuable statement of the place of the group: family, neighborhood, gang, trade union, etc., in defining the situation for the individual. Moreover, the definition is carried largely in verbal form. Throughout this book we shall observe the ever-present place which language plays in social intercourse. In defining the situation for the individual it is of primary significance. As one of my students puts it, "speech is an essential to social control."

Sumner’s volume The Folkways and Sumner and Keller’s The Science of Society are classics in social science. The selections included here may well be supplemented by further reading in these works. The folkways and the mores furnish the basis for the definitions of all types of situations with which the individual comes into contact. Failure to conform to the folkways marks one as eccentric and queer; failure to conform to the mores marks one as anti-social and leads to various sorts of social pressure—ridicule, ostracism, punishment by pain, imprisonment, banishment, even death. The folkways and mores are the backbone of our cultural heritage. Taboo is a term employed to describe the forms of acts prohibited by the mores.

Associated with the folkways—a part of them in fact—one finds social rituals. Ritual, which is more or less unconscious, plays an important rô1e in developing and establishing the mores. It is, in short, the most highly standardized form of definition of a situation. It is nicely seen in the ritualism of the Hebrew peoples described by the Tharauds in that interesting book The Shadow of the Cross. The selection from Dewey and Tufts reveals the place of authority behind the customs (mores and folkways) of a group. The luck interest in the formation of custom is also stressed. One may consult Sumner’s writings for material on this matter. Luck has played a large part in establishing and rationalizing custom. Events fall out contrary to the best laid plans of individuals. This is attributed to luck. (We say chance.) Or the chance configuration of events leads to an association of these events in the minds of persons (magical thinking). Out of this grows a definition which controls one’s attitude and action in regard to some event. Finally, Dewey and Tufts summarize the means of enforcing custom and discuss briefly taboo and ritual.

Cooley in his paper on formalism in society describes a phase of this whole ritualistic tendency. He shows the ill effects of undue formalism in the group and in its effect on the personality. There is some question, however, as to whether Cooley is quite correct in doubting the ill effects of ritualism in present Western society. In the twenty years since Cooley’s book was written there has been considerable drift toward the standardization of morals, life interests, and behavior which may bode ill for democratic culture. Machine culture may produce many comforts and increase the general average of wealth, but through its standardization it may "starve" the higher life of the personality quite as much as a thoroughly formalised, ritualistic religion may do.

Two papers, one by Hobhouse and one by Sumner, indicate in brief statements the relationship between custom and law. The latter is more formal, more conciously arrived at. And yet laws not resting upon mores have little efficacy, as we see everywhere about us today.

Particular cultures in time come to take on features which set them off rather sharply from other cultures. Thus we easily separate Occidental from Oriental culture in terms of certain traditional conceptions of difference: differences in philosophy, in life organization, in modes of thinking as well as in action. Sumner has applied the Greek word "ethos" to this totality of characteristics. His paper and the one following it by Sombart, furnish a key to an understanding of the present ethos of the Western World. What Sombart calls "modern ’values’ " are the very things which mark our culture and give it its distinctive ethos. Size, quantity, hurry, belief in progress, etc., all these are part and parcel of our ethos. Since we are participants in it we find it difficult to realize any other form of cultural organization as quite "right" or "natural."

Preliminary to any self-determined act of behavior there is always a stage of examination and deliberation which we may call the definition of the situation. And actually not only concrete acts are dependent on the definition of the situation, but gradually a whole life-policy and the personality of the individual himself follow from a series of such definitions.

But the child is always born into a group of people among whom all the general types of situation which may arise have already been defined and corresponding rules of conduct developed, and where he has not the slightest chance of making his definitions and following his wishes without interference. Men have always lived together in groups. Certainly the wishes in general are such that they can be satisfied only in a society. But we have only to refer to the criminal code to appreciate the variety of ways in which the wishes of the individual may conflict with the wishes of society. And the criminal code takes no account of the many unsanctioned expressions of the wishes which society attempts to regulate by persuasion and gossip.

There is therefore always a rivalry between the spontaneous definitions of the situation made by the member of an organized society and the definitions which his society has provided for him. The individual tends to a hedonistic selection of activity, pleasure first; and society to a utilitarian selection, safety first. Society wishes its members to be laborious, dependable, regular, sober, orderly, self-sacrificing; while the individual wishes less of this and more of new experience. And organized society seeks also to regulate the conflict and competition inevitable between its members in the pursuit of their wishes. The desire to have wealth, for example, or any other socially sanctioned wish, may not be accomplished at the expense of another member of the society,—by murder, theft, lying, swindling, blackmail, etc.

It is in this connection that a moral code arises, which is a set of rules or behavior norms, regulating the expression of the wishes, and which is built up by successive definitions of the situation. In practice the abuse arises first and the rule is made to prevent its recurrence. Morality is thus the generally accepted definition of the situation, whether expressed 96 in public opinion and the unwritten law, in a formal legal code, or in religious commandments and prohibitions.

The family is the smallest social unit and the primary defining agency. As soon as the child has free motion and begins to pull, tear, pry, meddle, and prowl, the parents begin to define the situation through speech and other signs and pressures: "Be quiet," "Sit up straight," "Blow your nose," "Wash your face," "Mind your mother," "Be kind to sister," etc. This is the real significance of Wordsworth’s phrase, "Shades of the prison house begin to close upon the growing child." His wishes and activities begin to be inhibited, and gradually, by definitions within the family, by playmates, in the school, in the Sunday School, in the community, through reading, by formal instruction, by informal signs of approval and disapproval, the growing member learns the code of his society.

In addition to the family we have the community as a defining agency. At present the community is so weak and vague that it gives us no idea of the former power of the local group in regulating behavior. Originally the community was practically the whole world of its members. It was composed of families related by blood and marriage and was not so large that all the members could not come together; it was a face-to-face group.

A less formal but not less powerful means of defining the situation employed by the community is gossip. The Polish peasant’s statement that a community reaches as far as a man is talked about was significant, for the community regulates the behavior of its members largely by talking about them. Gossip has a bad name because it is sometimes malicious and false and designed to improve the status of the gossiper and degrade its object, but gossip is in the main true and is an organizing force. It is a mode of defining the situation in a given case and of attaching praise or blame. It is one of the means by which the status of the individual and of his family is fixed.

The community also, particularly in connection with gossip, knows how to attach opprobrium to persons and actions by using epithets which are at the same time brief and emotional definitions of the situation. "Bastard," "whore, "traitor," "coward, "skunk," "scab," "snob," "kike," etc., are such epithets. In "Faust" the community said of Margaret, "She stinks." The people are here employing a device known in psychology as the "conditioned reflex." If the word "stinks" is associated on people’s tongues with Margaret, Margaret will never again smell sweet. Many evil consequences, as the psychoanalysts claim, have resulted from making the whole of sex life a "dirty" subject, but the 97 device has worked in a powerful, sometimes a paralyzing way on the sexual behavior of women.

Winks, shrugs, nudges, laughter, sneers, haughtiness, coldness, "giving the once over" are also language defining the situation and painfully felt as unfavorable recognition. The sneer, for example, is incipient vomiting, meaning, "you make me sick."

And eventually the violation of the code even in an act of no intrinsic importance, as in carrying food to the mouth with the knife, provokes condemnation and disgust. The fork is not a better instrument for conveying food than the knife, at least it has no moral superiority, but the situation has been defined in favor of the fork. To smack with the lips in eating is bad manners with us, but the Indian has more logically defined the situation in the opposite way; with him smacking is a compliment to the host.

In this whole connection fear is used by the group to produce the desired attitudes in its member. Praise is used also but more sparingly. And the whole body of habits and emotions is so much a community and family product that disapproval or separation is almost unbearable.

(Consult section 11)

1 Reprinted by permission from W. I. Thomas, The Unadjusted Girl, pp. 42–44; 49; 49–50. Boston. Little, Brown & Company, 1923.


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Chicago: "Source Book for Social Psychology," Source Book for Social Psychology in Source Book for Social Psychology, ed. Young, Kimball, 1893-1972 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1927), Original Sources, accessed August 14, 2022,

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