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Conformity-Deviation and the Social Control Concept

Author(s): Roger Nett

Source: Ethics, Vol. 64, No. 1 (Oct., 1953), pp. 38-45
Published by: The University of Chicago Press
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H ISTORYof inquiryteachesus that much

depends upon the starting point of any
analysis. The early tie of American social
control theory to social psychology is an
example. The observation by writers in the
century preceding this one of the operation
of irrational mechanisms in social context
was not without social control implications.
When at the turn of the century the late
E. A. Ross produced a volume on the subject, he did, as he said, make social control a
branch of the then emerging social psychology. Especially, he was able to show the
significancefor social control of the works of
Tarde and Le Bon,' whose mechanisms
were at that time in contrast with overworked doctrines of rational2 social structure, and as such, they were enlightening.
In the various forms of imitation and suggestion there was a means of perpetuating
society (with, it must be said, tendencies
toward instability) at a subrational level.
But Ross, who had had a liberal nineteenth
century education, saw these processes
largely as a complement to rational behavior, perceiving man as, in the last analysis, the measure of the social situation. He
concluded that "one who learns why society
is urging him into the straight and narrow
will resist its pressure. One who sees clearly
how he is controlled will thenceforth beemancipated. To betray the secrets of ascendancy is to forearm the individual in his
struggle with society."3
The emerging tradition of a social-psychological interpretation of social control
was almost immediately given strong impetus by a careful observer of individual
human behavior, C. H. Cooley. Such con-

cepts as the "looking-glass self"4 and "primary groups"5were easily recognizable as

fruitful in understandingthe relationship of
the individual to the collectivity and have
for that reason attracted the attention of
students to this day. The processes of suggestion and imitation could be shown not to
be mechanical, as in the presentation of
Tarde and Le Bon, but rather a dramatic
interactionaryprocess in which the individual found a purposeful place in his society.
While, in keeping with his time, Cooley was
an optimist and conceived man as basically
rational' and therefore moral (to the extent
that he used his rationality to calculate his
behavior in terms of social welfare), the result of Cooley's observations could as easily
be interpreted to indicate a condition of an
entirely different nature. To the extent that
the self was social it could be looked upon as
determined by society. The social environment in which persons behaved "voluntarily," without noticeable coercion-in fact
by using the individual's own energy-was
continuously making the individual a product of itself.
At approximately the same time another
American, W. G. Sumner, in words most
explicit, described characteristics of "folkways" and "mores" which were, by a process of genesis, irrational and unconscious.
Thus was introduced a social control that
was impersonal and naturalistic. Sumner,
unlike Ross, had not supposed that exposing
the irrationalforces acting on the individual
might cause him to supplant them with
varying amounts of rationality. Social control was the natural action of culture upon
a human being whose " 'faiths'-are not
affected by scientific facts or demonstra-

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tion."7 This pessimism of Sumner was, it

may be noted, a clean break with Victorian
Notwithstanding either their differences
or the intentions of each (in fact, contrary
to their intentions), the works of both Sumner and Cooley served in a roundabout way
to establish pragmatically that society had
provided a broad basis for the individual to
conform. The person who did not conform,
the social deviant, could be regarded as
spurious to a process-a failure of socialization. The extent, in ethnological instance
and in typical group organization, to which
the conformity aspect of persons8 could be
shown quantitatively to exceed the deviation aspect of persons made the latter appear almost too small to warrant major
When Park and Burgess9wrote their now
classic sociology text, social control was assigned to the area of problems of "administration," of "policy and polity," and of "social forces and human nature," the latter
(they said) being the specific function of the
sociologist to discern. On a basis of what had
gone before, social control processes were
established in which the individual was controlled. Emphasis was put on forms of control of men singly by men collectively.
These included elementary irrational, public opinion, and institutions, or essentially
those elements given meaning by Sumner.
The introduced concepts of "administration" and "policy and polity" (undiscussed)
and the fully developed concept of processes
of interaction were, however, considerably
more than the naturalism of Sumner. With
their inclusion, social control was to be also
a science of strategy not entirely divorced
from what Machiavelli had said it was some
four hundred years before)YIThe inclusion
was in part only an abbreviated one, for
Park and Burgess had, as was mentioned,
chosen to relegate much of the interpretation of the rational to political scientists (to
students of administration and policy and
polity) and, as sociologists, to talk about the
social-psychological behavioral items, the
understandingof which is dependent largely


on perceiving irrationals. This, it can be

noted, was not an inefficient division of
labor, as fruitful results have shown, but it
helped establish for American sociologists a
precedent to circumvent extensive analysis
of the rational or strategic in social control."'
A variation of the line of thought occurred in the work of Lumley,'2who either
had not understood Sumner or chose to redefine "mores" for non-naturalists. He
found that by a rational process, "the mores
are those folkways which have been examined, judged useful and beneficial and made
into approved activity-patterns"'13(italics
mine). Around this concept he presented his
"means of social control." Lumley's "effective will transference"was a control strategy
specifically of a Machiavellian type. A difference is that Lumley, instead of outlining a
rational means whereby a selfish Prince
could keep control over the masses of people,
outlined means whereby the masses of people "trudging along half awake and fairly
comfortableaccordingto an age-old pattern
which is measurablyacceptable" could control "those personswho for countless reasons
go astray." His interpretation places the
deviation aspect of persons in direct opposition to social organization. He finds that
"they diverge from the general course by
reason of selfishness, greed, love of adventure, timidity, stupidity and what not; they
manifest this divergence by stealing, murder, uttering heresy, refusing to work,
boasting, strutting, breaking contracts, and
doing many other things."'4
Subsequent writers on social control,
Landis and Bernard, have synthesized different parts of the above heritage. Landis,6
in his textbook on the subject, followed
largely the leads of Cooley, but he went beyond Cooley to analyze problems of change
and especially problems relating to secondary-group morality. Bernard'6retained the
anthropological naturalism of Sumner, enlarging upon the social control meaning of
More recently, unified theories of social
control have all but been abandoned in
favor of studying specific aspects17of social

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control under such diverse headings as (to hunting," in which the nonconformer is
name a few) "structureand function," "col- constrained ostensibly for degeneracy (hislective behavior," "role and status." In gen- torically, extra-human). It is true, as writers
eral these emphasize the conformity tend- have indicated, that many social deviators
encies of men.
are no more than pathological failures or inadequates (in complex societies a significant
number), and that these, on first observaBefore discussing relationships between tion, cannot always be separatedfrom other
the deviation aspect of persons and social types of deviators. Logical linking of such
organization, it is necessary to make clear categories, however, is arbitrary, for as a
what meanings of "deviation aspect of per- rule the factor "pathological" can be kept
sons" are reasonably possible. Once these discrete, both for purposes of study and
are determined it will be pertinent to at- (ideally) in social control practice. If such a
tempt to show the relative significance of separation were not possible in order to
each to social control theory. Whereverpos- clarify concepts, it would be necessary to
sible, standardized terms are used with an introduce a frame of reference in which
attempt to pinpoint their meaning. Addi- there could be discernedother oblique relational types are presented, however, which tionships. For example, no one has atfor the moment escape orthodoxy.
tempted to ascertain what percentage of
First, it is pertinent in social control the- conformersare also pathological failuresand
ory to distinguish two types of social devia- how being pathological affects conformity.
tion: social and social-organic personality (Especially one might suppose that the confailure and inadequacy which is discernibly dition of inadequacy favors simple condegenerate and which we can therefore in formity.18) This is to say that it is likely that
good usage call "pathological," and devia- the element, pathological failure, is not retion discernibly falling outside of this cate- ducible to social deviation except in regory which is "nonpathological."It is here stricted reciprocal usage. Since the society
implied that the area of confusion between (i.e., peers of the individual) determines the
the two is smaller than is sometimes con- degeneracy or constructiveness of a specific
tended. The terms pathological and non- act of deviation, the simple pathological
pathological simply indicate conditions of deviator does not ordinarily produce an
persons individually or segmentally and are effect of any serious consequence for social
not intended to carry loose implications as control and is only a part of calculated sodo such analogical terms as "pathological cial or social-organic personality failure.19
There may be found a proportion of conWhile the first of these, pathological structive deviates represented by such hisdeviation, is causally related to areas of so- torical figures as Gibbon, Nietzsche, etc.,
cial problems and is important to applied who have coincidentally suffered pathosociology, it can, as far as social control logical circumstance, and in such cases the
theory is concerned, largely be dismissed as
two conditions might be shown to have a
a calculable entity. Quantitatively it occurs
connection, but, pertinent to this
as either a constant or an easily discernible
the product of their efforts is
(hence predictable) linear function, subject
for inadequacy. Most detaken
to numerical manipulation, including (as seldom
patterns well known to a
will later be suggested) cancellation. The
is, therefore, accepted as
one instance where it can be made to affect
social control is where a confusion or a false
identification of it is made with
of deviation. In practice this would produce Columbus or a Galileo can be "mistaken"
in a society a condition known as "witch for a fanatic carriesa message to the student

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of social control, but it does not affect the

everyday world of the pathologist.
Nonpathological deviation, i.e., social
nonconformity due to psychological and
sociological causes which fall outside of any
area of degeneracy, may be reduced to a
numberof discerniblefactors which by contrast vitally affect social control. A list of
these would include deviation caused by
such generally understood conditions20as
minority attachments, marginality to the
group, and specific ambiguities in the culture, any of which are objective conditions
to which individuals so affected will have
additional, that is, more than ordinary, adjustments to make. Such a list would also
include conditions invoked more directly by
the individual, such as, imagination or intelligence exceeding that called for by the
social situation, moral equivocation, and,
more generally, pursuit of ideals and strategies.21It is these last categories which have
seen the least of convincing sociological
generalization. By the fact that they place
emphasis on a diversity inherent in nonconformity they do not satisfy the qualifications of mass behavior so familiar to the
sociologist and the social psychologist. Far
from readily calculable entities, their ramifications may be supposed to be as complex
as the strategies which they subsume. It is
also true, as has been noted, that there has
been a tendency to consign them to others,
to political scientists, economists, etc., or
else as C. Wright Mills22more radically suggests, we leave discernment of them to the
"practical" as distinguished from the "professorial"man. Yet the writer would submit
that they are ones most laden with implications to social control theory.


sis that a problem of regulating a society is

to tap, organize, and adapt its creative
strength. A major differenceis that the first
of these propositions emphasizes the functionality of social conformity as a product of
social organization, while the second emphasizes that of divergence in generating
continuous social organization. Since the
creative strength of a society must be sought
in the capacity of individuals to evaluate,
extend, correct, and ultimately to alter existing definitions and understandings (a
process which is, in effect, deviation), the
problem of ordering a society becomes one
of utilizing the vital element-deviation-in
social-organizational context. Whereas no
rigid identificationof creatorswith deviators
can be made, to invent, to extend, to correct, and, summarily, to perform actively
and constructively in the social world as we
know it imply a rational character and a
freedom which in each instance fall outside
of conformity. That such is the case is not an
idea of recent attainment; it has long been
implied in theories rangingfrom doctrinesof
progress to doctrines of individual freedom
and rights. Methodological reasons why
more extensive consideration of the constructive character of deviation has tended
to escape the frameworkwithin which American social control theory developed are
suggested in the first section of this paper,
which is an account of what are now historical observations by social control writers. Such traditional questions as "how is
conformance brought about and maintained" may, in social control theory, be
misdirected. They seemingly carry unanalyzed assumptions concerning the nature
and desirability of conformity, especially in
condoning a most singular failing of mankind, his shortsighted tendencies growing
out of inertia. At the same time they have
What then is the relationship of control- drawn attention away from broader meansignificant categories of the deviation aspect ings of social deviation, not infrequently alof persons to effective social organization? lowing the deviation aspect of persons to be
Social control most frequently has been in- seen as an antithesis of conformity, a threat
terpreted as a problem centering on how to the existence of social organization, or
society orders, conditions, and controls its "chaos threatening the social order." They
membership.Equally tenable is an hypothe- can hardly lead to a discovery of when and
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under what circumstances the deviation

aspect of persons is responsible to social
One is therefore led to ask what, more
exactly, is the tie of conformity/deviation to
social organization/disorganization? And
also, is the "problem" of social control an
inherited one of bringing about and maintaining "order," or is it one of carrying on
effective human social life within the limits
of available understandings of social man
and temporal sequence? Let us approach
the matter as if it were the latter.
It is thought to be true that the deviation
aspect of persons is more active in times of
social disorganization. During such times
persons are not only under more stress but
they are seemingly under more obligation to
think independently, a process which (although often regressive) favors, as against
collective "thinking" (inertia), rationality.
Social disorganization implies that institutional definition is not interpreted by persons to be adequate to their needs and that
customaryy behavior has given way to expediency. In such circumstances the individual is likely to attempt self-preservation
by devious means, one of which is original
thinking. The same recourse 'to insight
would occur during periods of intense organization, reconstruction, or in general
when social change is rapid. At the same
time it would be misleading to suppose that
the deviation aspect of persons is causal to
social disorganization.It would even be misleading to suggest that it is outside of the
effective organization of society, for it cannot be, if by a social organization we mean
to include the whole of a society.
In this connection it may be noted that in
at least two ways societies are brought to
ruin by conformersratherthan by deviators,
that is to say, by the resistance-to-thinkingfor-themselves aspect of persons, or what
Sumner called the irrational.23First, social
deviation is by definition not a common denominator of a type which could stand
against organized society; deviators may introduce ideas which are revolutionarywhen
and only when they have gained the support

of masses of conformingpeople. There is indeed an assumption among political realists

that most demagogues simply play the
known areas of conformity and do not
reckon truly with social deviators at all.
Second, interpreting the history of mankind
even conservatively, there is too much evidence that persons in the role of conformer
fail to revitalize society and sustain a
healthy social organization. Under conformer dominance, institutions lose their
vitality,24neglecting needs of individuals, or
satisfying them only in token fashion. Concentric tendencies eventually overcome the
institutions and sometimes with them the
sustaining societies.
If then, deviation, from the nature of its
independent issue, is (unlike conformity)
not of sufficient homogeneity to rise and
threaten organized society, how can we account for the hostility which societies are
capable of showing innovators? For seemingly in this respect, man improves his general welfare, wherever he does, in spite of
much or most of his society.25With reference
to our previous illustration, this is the same
as asking what message does the life history
of a Columbusor a Copernicushold for the
student of social control. It is suggested that
this can only be understood as a problem of
change. An object of social control systems
has usually been to set up a finite numberof
action alternatives for the individual which
in turn could be controlled. These alternatives could be labeled good, worse, and bad,
but they were, when exercised by individuals, almost never a threat to the social
control system. Individuals who took the
"lesser" alternatives might have been considered pathological, weak, or even unscrupulous, but they usually strengthened
the whole system by providing a background of contrast for the "better" alternatives. In such systems, however, the social
deviate had to be regarded as a much more
basic threat in that he did not cast his role
among the alternatives. He was to the
otherwise finite system an unpredictable.
His actions were not as devastating as his
example. Whereas the fallen one in the

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"lesser-alternative" category provided an
example which could, with referenceto preexisting understandings, be recognized as
wrong and therefore as emphasizing what
was right, the deviator could only leave in
his path bewilderment and "disorganization." The strength of the much lauded
''primary-groupmorality" lay in reducing
the number of alternatives to action to a
most "practical"minimum and then guarding them jealously. In such systems prediction tends to be at a maximum and security
of the system is correspondinglyassured. In
such systems the social deviator is conveniently seen as a threat to the controlling
factions and will be shown something approaching maximum hostility.26One might
generalize that he is therefore "dangerous"
in inverse proportion to the number of accepted alternatives to action, and that those
who most want conformity want it as a
means of consolidating a social control position, an always incomplete process since
"socialization" of the individual is never
complete and new individuals are being
born constantly.
The genius of "democratic"27social organization, where and to the extent that it
exists, lies in its utilization of the deviation
aspect of persons within its organizational
context. In such an instance the deviator,
since he is potentially productive (going
back to our proposition that a problem of
regulating a society is to tap, organize and
adapt its creative strength), can expect
maximum acceptance and is dangerousonly
to select minority elements or "fasces"
Such a (hypothetical) society, in which
the deviator is not kept in marginal status,
optimizes the society's chance of applying
its own criticisms and correctives to the
social process in a somewhat constant (i.e.,
controllable) manner. It does so by substituting a relatively smooth change continuum for more violent processes such as the
radical change function of the history of
human societies brought to our attention in
different ways by Sorokin,28 Spengler,29


Hegel,30 et al. From this it can be seen that a

social organization which could adequately
utilize the creative capacity of the persons
who make up that society would be one
which in the long run would have a maximum chance of survival; that others would
fail relatively sooner. It is thus no paradox
that ability of persons to deviate can preserve a society which conformity-inertia in
critical times would be unable to sustain.
Obstacles to effecting a social organization
which can apply its own correctives may, of
course, never be overcome; but, pertinent to
the study of social control and in order to
give social control the broadest possible
definition, it would be well to apprehendthe
manner in which conformity demands can
reduce the effectiveness of the deviation
aspect of persons in meeting social change.
To summarize, certain conditions appear
to be in evidence. First, the role of the deviator, or the deviation aspect of persons,
suffers no real lack of pertinence to social
control theory since it is an active ingredient
in social organization-in the dynamics of
change perhaps the only one. Only the deviator can introduce fundamentally new ways
into the culture, since the introduction of
new ways is deviation. Second, it is possible
that one of the reasons why in social control
theory analysis of rational or strategic control has so frequently been deterred is that
rational behavior, if it occurs, of necessity
has to occur not only as deviate behavior,
but deviate behavior of a type which is
usually too complex (has too many variables) for easy generalization. This is to
suggest that the level of human behavior at
which rationality occurs is less easily stereotyped than are the levels of human behavior
which are irrationally determined. Finally,
instead of asking how society orders and
controls the individual, students of social
control might ask how society takes its
organization and momentum from its behaving individuals.

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1. Gabriel Tarde, Laws of Imitation, trans.

E. C. Parsons (New York: Henry Holt, 1903).
Gustave Le Bon, The Crowd;a Study of the Popular
Mind (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1896).
2. The term "rational," used several times in this
paper, is each time partially defined in the context of
the specific paragraphs in which it occurs. More
generally it here refers to individual man's capacity
to calculate courses of action optimum to the welfare
and hence survival of himself or his species. Its antithesis is found in the numerous determinism (biocentric drives, inertia, circumstance) which operate
to make his actions fortuitous to the above-mentioned capacity.
3. E. A. Ross, Social Control (New York: Macmillan, 1901), p. 441.
4. Charles H. Cooley, Human Nature and the
Social Order(New York: Scribner's, 1902), pp. 152 f.
5. Charles H. Cooley, Social Organization (New
York: Scribner's, 1909), pp. 23 f.
6. Charles H. Cooley, Social Process (New York:
Scribner's, 1918), pp. 382 f, 406.
7. William Graham Sumner, Folkways (Boston:
Ginn & Co., 1906), p. 98. It is true that Sumner
excepted an intellectual "elite" where the society
permitted the existence of one (pp. 103, 206).
8. The terms "deviation aspect of persons" and
"conformity aspect of persons" are used in recognition that conformity and deviation are as concepts
subject to the limitations of ideal-typology; that
empirical individuals are in their behavior composites of both; therefore, to separate them is arbitrary to a particular discussion.
9. R. E. Park and E. W. Burgess, Introduction to
the Science of Sociology (Chicago: University of
Chicago Press, 1921).
10. N. Machiavelli, The Prince and The Discourses (New York: Modern Library College Editions, 1950). Machiavelli, a political realist, had
quite anticipated the meaning of "folkways" and
"mores,")cautioning the Prince not to operate crosscurrent to the biases of the people (pp. 8, 19, 21,
103). His, in the large, was a science of rational control through knowledge of irrational.
11. Compare, for example, American social control theory with the "planning" theory of Karl
12. Frederick E. Lumley, Means of Social Control (New York: Century, 1925).
13. Ibid., p. 6.
14. Ibid., p. 29.
15. Paul H. Landis, Social Control (New York:
Lippincott, 1939).
16. L. L. Bernard, Social Control in its Sociological Aspects (New York: Macmillan, 1939).
17. See for example: Herbert Blumer, "Collective Behavior," ed. Alfred McClung Lee, New Outlines of the Principles of Sociology, Part IV, (New
York: Barnes and Noble, 1946); Richard T. La-

Piere, CollectiveBehavior (New York: McGraw-Hill,

1938); Robert K. Merton, Social Theory and Social
Structure (Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press, 1949); Ralph
Linton, The Study of Man (New York: AppletonCentury-Crofts, 1936); George P. Murdock, Social
Structure (New York: Macmillan, 1949).
18. L. G. Brown, in his Social Pathology (New
York: Crofts, 1942), points out that approved
(ordinarily conformance) patterns in the culture can
be held pathologically by the individual as easily as
disapproved cultural patterns (pp. 70 f.). Substantiating this, the present writer found in mental hospitals that those obsessive psychotics who are characteristically fanatic, contrary to popular assumption, rarely select original data but simply take "too
literally" the more generally accepted orthodoxies
in the culture. Such patients will elucidate with
great animation quite common religious or political
sentiments, seldom sentiments of radical content.
Since most such persons are outside of mental hospitals, their contribution is mostly in the direction of
maintaining conventionality in a society.
19. The exceptional instance (witch hunting) we
have just mentioned exists when the peers are bent
on seeking conformity to the extent that other types
of deviators are logically (by a process of either
rationalization or direct intention) included.
20. Known especially through such studies as
The Polish Peasant, Pilgrims of Russiantown, the
Chicago ecological studies, and the works of later
21. While it is desirable to enlarge upon the
meaning of these categories, to do so is beyond the
immediate range of this paper. Readers will perhaps
perceive without assistance their most general pertinence. They are subsumed in virtually all higher
learning theory, regardless of lesser differences in the
epistemological slant of the latter. An example of one
type of analysis in this area is a discussion of strategy
in restricted interaction situations which is presented by John von Neumann and Oskar Morgenstern in their Theory of Games and Economic Behavior (2d ed.; Princeton: Princeton University
Press, 1947).
22. C. Wright Mills, White Collar; the American
Middle Class (New York: Oxford, 1951).
23. Op. cit., p. 473, "There is logic in the folkways, but never rationality."
24. In Ogburn's frame of reference "vitality"
could be substituted with "effective relationship
with other institutions." (W. F. Ogburn, Social
Change [New York: Viking Press, 1922, 1950].)
Cooley, in his concept of "formalism," spoke of this
tendency. (C. H. Cooley, Social Organization [New
York: Scribners, 1909], pp. 342 f.)
25. Sumner noted non-progress in societies which
exterminate elites (op. cit., p. 103). LaPiere notes in
describing individual initiative and social change
that only a failure of socialization can invent: "To

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the extent that the group has failed to induct him
into the social ways, the individual is 'free' to work
out his own individual ways; and there is the possibility, however small, that . .. he may devise a
mode of action that will be adopted by others. ..."
(Richard T. LaPiere, Sociology [McGraw-Hill: New
York, 1946], pp. 53-4.) Weiss notes that man can
deviate because there is a time gap between the
cause and effect of what would be otherwise social
determinism. (Paul Weiss, Nature and Man [New
York: Holt, 1947], pp. 6 f.) Linton says, "Thus the
origination of new forms of behavioral response
seems to be a function not of the society as a whole
but of some one, or at the most a few." (Ralph
Linton, The Cultural Background of Personality
[New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1945], p.
26. A clear example of this tendency in operation
is found in Arensberg and Kimball's description of
rural Ireland (Conrad Arensberg and Solon Kimball, Family and Community in Ireland [Cambridge:
Harvard University Press, 1940]), an instance where
the controllers are the top-extreme male age group.


Examples would be found in virtually all so-called

static communities.
27. "Democratic" is here used to refer only to a
social organization with a high coefficient of protection of the individual from arbitrary abuse by organized factions, minorities or majorities. Such is of
course not a complete definition, but is probably
basic to concepts of democracy as held by English
speaking peoples today. MacIver speaks of "fundamental liberty of opinion" as essential to the concept. (Robert M. MacIver, The Web of Government
[New York: Macmillan, 1947], p. 182.) Bryce's
classic definition finds the condition necessary to the
concept. (James Bryce, Modern Democracies [New
York: Macmillan, 1921], I, 20.)
28. Pitirim A. Sorokin, Society, Culture, and
Personality; Their Dynamics and Structure (New
York: Harper, 1947).
29. Oswald Spengler, The Decline of the West
(New York: Knopf, 1926).
30. G. W. F. Hegel, Philosophy of History, trans.
J. Sibree (New York: Collier, 1902).

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