The Psychology of Social Rule: Pioneering Sociologist Elsie Clews Parsons’s Prophetic Century-Old Study of Power, the Rise of Divisiveness, and Why We Classify Ourselves and Others
By Maria Popova
Years before Walter Lippmann explored stereotypes and the psychology of prejudice, rooted in the disquieting fact that “we do not first see, and then define, [but] define first and then see,” and decades before Hannah Arendt observed that “society has discovered discrimination as the great social weapon by which one may kill men without any bloodshed” before she drew on this insight to illuminate the relationship between loneliness and tyranny, the trailblazing anthropologist, sociologist, and folklorist Elsie Clews Parsons (November 27, 1875–December 19, 1941) took up these deep-rooted, interleaved questions in her prolific and prescient body of work.
A graduate of Barnard College, Parsons used her family wealth to fund the anthropology department at Columbia University during its wartime downturn and helped found The New School — New York’s iconic haven of intellectual freedom and progressive thinking. Greatly influenced by Margaret Fuller, Parsons not only advocated for but modeled women’s equal intellectual participation in culture, seeing difference not as a point of weakness but as a fulcrum of strength. In an era when social science was still emerging from the primordial waters of metaphysics onto the firm ground of methodology and was often tainted with the pseudosciences that gave rise to eugenics, in an era when very few women were accredited field researchers and published scholars, Parsons researched, wrote, and published more than a dozen deeply insightful works challenging many of the era’s damaging givens. Making Native American tribes the focus of her research, she saw native societies not as “primitive” cultures that had to be leveled with “civilization,” as the normative view of the era dictated, but as alternative models of social organization and cultural practices, valid in their own right and in many ways superior to those of her own society — cultures that had a great deal to teach, rather than be taught, about how to live.
Parsons was drawn to this inquiry into alternative cultural models by her early and growing skepticism about her own culture’s problematic tendencies and the trajectory on which they were setting society. She became a radical voice of dissent, writing critically, with tremendous psychosocial insight and foresight, about the early signs of what would fester into some of the most troubling, oppressive, and dangerous realities of our own time. Of her many then-controversial works, the one that now stands as nothing short of prophetic is her 1916 book Social Rule: A Study of the Will to Power (public library) — an unheard admonition bellowing in the gun barrel of time, presaging the exploitation of the psychological vulnerabilities of the human animal that gave rise to the various totalitarian regimes that came to plague the globe in the century since, spurred the most concentrated genocide in the history of our species, and the continues to foment the maladies of racism, sexism, and nationalism still fraying the fabric of our shared humanity.
Parsons begins with the elemental question of why we are so impelled to divide the world into categories and classes, and why we derive such pleasure from ranking our own above others, despite the enormous collective cost of these divisions:
In any study of the relations between personality and social classification the queries arise why the social categories are alike so compulsive to the conservative-minded and so precious, why they are given such unfailing loyalty, why such unquestioning devotion? To offset the miseries they allow of or further, the tragedies they prepare, what satisfaction do they offer? Do they serve only as measures against change, as safeguards to habit, — this raising barriers between those most apt to upset one another’s ways, the inevitably unlike, the unlike in sex, in age, in economic or cultural class?
Well before Lippmann observed that “the systems of stereotypes may be the core of our personal tradition, the defenses of our position in society,” Parsons locates the answer to the paradox in precisely this self-securing social function of labels:
The social categories are no doubt a safeguard against the innovations personality untrammelled would be up to, and this protection is by no means a trifling social function;… they are an unparalleled means of gratifying the will to power as it expresses itself in social relations.
The preeminent function of social classification appears therefore to be social rule… Classification is nine-tenths of subjection. Indeed to rule over another successfully you have only to see to it that he keeps his place — his place as a male, her place as a female, his or her place as a junior, as a subject or servant or social “inferior” of any kind, as an outcast or exile, a ghost or a god.
Classification, Parsons observes, is not just what we do with others but what we do with ourselves in our struggle for belonging and self-inclusion — a struggle that sometimes metastasizes into a tendency toward punitive exclusion directed at those we place outside the boundaries of our self-elected classifications. In a sentiment of chilling relevance to a common malfunction of twenty-first-century identity politics — a necessary healing of painful historical exclusions in many ways, but also one, like all compensatory advancements, in danger of over-compensating by veering into an unhealing direction of further divisiveness — Parsons adds:
Self-control is a means to controlling other people. So is self-classification. The feeling of having our class back of us gives us self-assurance… we enhance our sense of power. Similarly, by declassifying or demoting others or by suspending their regular classification, so to speak, we get a pleasurable sense of our own power.
With the eye to the history of civilizations, Parsons argues that “the bulk of our surplus energy, energy beyond that applied to sustaining life,” is exerted on subjugating others. Having long advocated for women’s equal inclusion in the intellectual, creative, and political spheres of society, she observes that even the classification feminist has been hijacked and contorted to work in a direction opposite to its intended purpose. Three years before women finally won the right to vote, and half a century after Walt Whitman insisted that “the sole avenue and means of a reconstructed sociology depended, primarily, on a new birth, elevation, expansion, invigoration of woman,” Parsons writes:
Even the woman movement we have called feminism has not succeeded by and large in giving women any control over men. It has only changed the distribution of women along the two stated lines of control by men, removing vast numbers of women from the class supported by men to the class working for them.
The main objective of feminism in fact may be defeminisation, the declassification of women as women, the recognition of women as human beings or personalities. It is not hard to see why the classification of women according to sex has ever been so thorough and so rigid. As long as they are thought of in terms of sex and that sex the weaker or the submissive, they are subject by hypothesis to control… The more thoroughly a woman is classified the more easily is she controlled.
Economic caste distinctions, Parsons argues, operate along similar lines of social function. Decades before the golden age of consumerism opened its post-industrial jaws into gaping income inequality and swallowed the century, she writes:
Through consumption a still greater measure of difference is achieved. This achievement is particularly characteristic of course in the class that can best afford to elaborate its consumption, the capitalist class, but within the labour class too different standards of living, i. e. of consuming make for caste demarcations.
Conspicuous consumption, conspicuous waste is in all classes a manifestation of the will to power.
In another passage of extraordinary prescience, penned in the midst of one World War, decades ahead the unfathomed next, and a century before the xenophobic border catastrophes of our own time, Parsons considers nationalistic tendencies and the social domination of immigrants as particularly perilous expressions of this destructive will to power:
Naturalisation, as it is called in political terms, or, more comprehensively, assimilation is a complex process of classification which has of course more than one end… Making citizens is an outlet for the energy of many groups of the native born. When the outlet is denied them, when foreigners are considered too disparate for assimilation to become possible or when immigrants have resisted assimilation en masse by living in segregated communities, the native born are gravely concerned. They feel thwarted and they look for relief. Restriction of immigration is one of their favourite self-relief measures.
With a condemnatory eye toward a harsh immigration bill that had just been proposed, aiming to bar Hindus from entering the United States and to require an English literacy test from other immigrants, Parsons observes that such efforts to legalize discrimination are not just a momentary flinch from the terrors of a war-torn world but emblematic of a deeper, darker human folly — an observation that the following century, with its Japanese internment camps and Mexican border wall, would prove grimly astute:
This campaign against hyphenated Americans is an outcome of a particular state of panic, to be sure, but it must also be viewed as a consistent, if acute, part of the ordinary American attitude towards the immigrant. Or, to speak more justly, of the articulate Anglo-Saxon American’s attitude.
Far ahead of her time, Parsons argued for the respect and inclusion not only of the various races and the two sexes, but also — long before homosexuality was declassified as a mental disorder, the term LGBTQ coined, and the trans identity proudly claimed — for the rights of gender-nonconforming persons: “men-women or women-men, the unsexed.” She widened the circle of empathy and creaturely dignity to non-human animals, inveighing against cruelty and slaughter, and correctly terming the captivity of wild animals in zoos, circuses, and royal courts a form of “enslavement.”
Finally, turning to the essential humanistic lens that must govern all science — for she had seen science warped and politicized in fueling the racist ideologies that set her world ablaze with war, hatred, and exclusion — Parsons ends the book with an admonition we are yet to heed and a vision we are yet to realize — a vision for a world where science becomes not a tool of subjugation and extractionism but an emissary of the wonder of nature and human nature; a world in which diversity becomes not a point of divisiveness but a crowning glory of our interconnected fates:
Unless our culture does develop along certain lines, principally along the line of a greater tolerance for the individual variation, a greater respect for personality, scientific applications to society may indeed prove unimaginable tyranny. Aside from this possible turn of culture, however, there is another social relief in sight. Applied science will be concentrated more and more upon nature. This diversion of energy from controlling the animate or the moral to controlling the inanimate or the non-moral is in fact in process; it is already one of the most characteristic features of modern life. Thanks to the mechanical inventions it resulted in, it has led to innumerable new fields of work and play — for children, for women, and for other subject classes. It is transforming child-bearing and the education of children. It has meant public hygiene. Some day it may mean social art. It has transformed belief in the mystical efficacy of staying home into concern over home conditions. It has meant improving neighbourhoods (rather than regulating neighbours). It has directed attention from the ethics of proprietorship to the ethics of use. It has meant the preservation of natural resources, substituting here as elsewhere the idea of collective ownership for the theory of natural rights and private property. It has meant a world-wide system of communication and transportation. Some day it will mean industrial democracy. Some day it will mean the disappearance of nationalisation as it is now understood and the disappearance of national wars. Through lessening interest not only in political boundaries but in all social boundaries it will force a condition of greater social tolerance in general, precluding the individual from masking an attitude of arrogance or tyranny under a social classification. In it, in the concentration of our energy upon bettering nature rather than upon bettering man, or, shall we say, in bettering human beings through bettering the conditions they live under, in such outlets for effort and ambition I find the opportunity par excellence for a greater measure of social freedom.
Complement with the great humanistic philosopher and psychologist Erich Fromm, a cultural descendent of Parsons, on the sane society and what will save us from ourselves, then revisit James Baldwin’s classic “Stranger in the Village,” exploring these complex issues along the tightrope between conviction and nuance the way only Baldwin can.
Published March 11, 2020