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Volume 2

Expanded Contents


1. Introduction and Summary
2. The Concept of Field
3. Reality and the Intentional Field
4. Freedom and Intentional Humanism
6. Intentions, Attitudes, and Interests
7. Perceiving and Behaving
8. Behavior
9. Social Behavior and Interaction
10. Types of Social Interaction
11. The Equation of Social Behavior
12. The Transition to a Sociocultural Field
13. The Sociocultural Space
14. The Field of Social Forces
15. The Sociocultural Field
16. Distances
17. Status Distance
18. Status Distance and Behavior
19. The Fundamental Nature of Power
20. Social Power
21. The Family of Power
22. Social Fields and Antifields
23. Groups and Antifields
24. Class
25. Social Class And the Class-Literature
26. Conflict
27. Conflict in the Sociocultural Field
28. The Elements of Social Conflict
29. The Process of Conflict
30. Social Fields and Types of Societies
31. The State and Political System
32. Societies, Politics, and Conflict
33. Societies in Empirical Perspective
34. Testing for the Existence of Exchange, Authoritative, and Coercive Societies
35. Is Conflict Manifest as Theorized?

Other Volumes

Vol. 1: The Dynamic Psychological Field
Vol. 3: Conflict In Perspective
Vol. 4: War, Power, Peace
Vol. 5: The Just Peace

Other Related Work

The Conflict Helix: Principles and Practices...


Chapter 5

Perceiving Another*

By R.J. Rummel

These changes [in the body of the other person which render his action visible to the observer] function as indications of the other person's inner life, for his body is no mere physical object, like a stick or stone, but a field of expression for the life-experience of that psycho-physical unity we call the other self
---- Schutz, 1967

We exist as a power affecting others. We are a part of reality, a force among forces comprising the outside world.

Our initial problem is to understand this interaction between individuals who are each a distinct universe, a separate psychological field. This and Chapter 6 and Chapter 7 will focus on the subjective perspective within which we view others and behave towards them. I will first consider perceiving another and the perspective this entails; then deal specifically with perceiving another's intentions; and finally, how this perception is transformed into behavior. The concern throughout is with the field of expression through which social relations and order develop.

These chapters, largely based on The Dynamic Psychological Field, will expand the summary given in Chapter 3. The purpose here, however, is not to simply elaborate what is given elsewhere, but rather to focus on social interaction and to meld together the psychological, social, and cultural levels. To comprehend and apprehend social behavior, interaction, and conflict requires beginning with the actor, his individual perspective, and his behavior. No two people are exactly alike, think alike, or totally share the same interests. How then are order, harmony, and peace between us possible? Let us first consider the actor's perception of others.


A person rubs his nose and is perceived. What does this perception involve? For the percipient, another's behavior is part of his external reality, consisting of potentialities (the biophysical limits of human actuality), dispositions (such as abilities, habits, roles, attitudes, and needs), determinables (such as income, age, occupation, and education), and powers. Others are regions of potentialities, dispositions, and determinables with powers to become specific, determinate, manifest. As a person comes into our sensory range, his actuality is a force trying to command our attention, to focus our perception, to transform a disposition or determinable into a specific or determinacy.

This is not a mystical or extraordinary process, but an everyday experience. Consider the impact when a baby screams. His cries are empowered to become specific--to be transformed to the center of our perceptual attention and to catapult him into our consciousness. A diffuse configuration of (determinable) colors and lines, a barely focused baby now is seen in some specific detail. It has become, say, John's baby: arms thrown wide, fist clenched, eyes screwed together, nose puckered, and with a gaping mouth demanding his due in the only way babies can.

And similarly, a naked women running towards us, a man wielding a knife, or an accident victim beside a wrecked truck exemplify the powers others can have to seize our attention, to force our perception to focus on them, and to compel us to see them as concrete reality. Compare such examples with people walking by on a crowded city street. They are shadows; momentary images on our consciousness; fleeting potentialities, determinables, and dispositions passing through our perception. They have little power towards specificity and determinacy; that is, unless there is an especially lovely girl in a mini skirt or some other powerful attraction in the crowd.


The behavior of others comprises powers bearing upon the percipient. They are determinable stimuli from a particular direction: to the right or left, above or beneath, or close in front. Thus, the percipient has a point of view, a physical station from which he perceives another's behavior.

This station is the first aspect of the perspective transformation of another's behavior into specific detail, and we. can see readily what is involved. We all are familiar with the effect of the angle of vision on the tale told in court by a witness to a crime. Behavior is a complex of potentialities and determinables, and which ones are transformed into manifestations depend in part on the direction from which they are perceived.

This is obvious, and theories of reality as a complex of perspectives have been built on just this fact. However, station is only one aspect. Another is that stimuli are selected and altered by the percipient's sensory receptors. What bears on us from reality can be only partially transmitted (some sound frequencies are out of our hearing range, for example) and what is transmitted is physically transformed in the process. In the words of Bertalanffy (1968),

the organizational and functional plan of a living being determines what can become "stimulus" and "characteristic" to which the organism responds with a certain reaction. According to von Uexküll's expression, any organism, so to speak, cuts out from the multiplicity of surrounding objects a small number of characteristics to which it reacts and whose ensemble forms its "ambient" (Umwelt). All the rest is non-existent for that particular organism. Every animal is surrounded as by a soap bubble, by its specific ambient, replenished by those characteristics which are amenable to it. If, reconstructing an animal's ambient, we enter this soap bubble, the world is profoundly changed: Many characteristics disappear, others arise, and a completely new world is found.1

Thus, a second aspect of our perspective transformation of reality, or in this case another's behavior, is our physical ability to receive and transmit stimuli. This fact is neither new nor startling, and is certainly an unstated assumption in theories of social interaction and perception. Now I come to the more interesting aspects.


The most basic is that there is no such things as "experience" in the abstract, as a mode separate and distinct from culture. Culture is neither derived from experience nor held up to the mirror of experience. Moreover, it cannot be tested against some mystical thing thought of as experience. Experience is something we project upon the outside world as we gains it in its culturally determined form.
---- Hall, 1959, p. 111

Whatever stimuli, however transformed, that reach the mind go through an unconscious investiture process. They are imbedded in a cultural matrix which invests them with basic meanings and values and an orientation. In the very act of directing our gaze towards another we infuse the stimuli thus bearing on us with meaning, values, and orientation. We see a "man," dressed in "blue clothes," with a "gun," "rubbing" his "nose." Automatically, unconsciously, all this is transformed into the perception of a policeman.

Moreover, through the cultural matrix stimuli are given orientation for us. Another may be seen as close or distant, as high or low, as north or south, or behind or in front, and so on. The stimuli also become oriented in regard to our cultural conventions, the rules or norms that provide meaning to perceived reality. Stimuli of two people moving towards each other with hands outstretched become "shaking hands"; stimuli of a piece of paper turn into "money"; stimuli of a checkered board with chess pieces turn into a "black king under attack"; stimuli of a loud wailing sound mean "stay clear of the emergency vehicle"; and so on.

Finally, the cultural matrix endows stimuli with values, an immediate evaluation of their goodness or badness, rightness or wrongness. This is not a conscious weighing, but an unconscious investiture intrinsic to perception and evolving from our acculturation and socialization into the family, group, society, culture and subcultures. For some, a peace symbol is immediately perceived as good, a swastika as bad, an American flag as good, a policeman as bad, a burp as wrong, a prayer at the dinner table as right, and so on. For all of us, there is a right distance for a person to stand from us in talking (Hall, 1959), proper etiquette in greeting or eating, an acceptable amount of time to be late for an appointment. And stimuli are accorded value subservient to such unconscious norms.

Empirical reality becomes "culture" to us because and insofar as we relate it to value ideas. It includes those segments and only those segments of reality which have become significant to us because of this value-relevance. Only a small portion of existing concrete reality is colored by our value-conditioned interest and it alone is significant to us. It is significant because it reveals relationship which are important to us due to their connection with our values.
---- Weber, 1968, p. 88

In sum, whatever stimuli are transformed through our station and receptors then are interpreted through our cultural matrix. They are endowed with meaning as external objects, events, or processes; with meaning regarding our cultural schema, conventions, and norms; and with meaning in terms of our fundamental values.2 Thus, "meaning" is the total complex of interpretations we automatically, unthinkingly, give to stimuli which differentiates them as external objects, events, or processes. We thus see a person with a knife as a "surgeon," a line on a map as a "road," or a piece of cloth as a "flag." This is what Alfred Schutz (1967) calls objective meanings, the world of public and common meanings, and is at the level basic to Pitirim Sorokin's treatment of cultures as a causal-functional integration of meanings, values, and norms.3


When it was suggested to the wren and cicada that there are birds that fly hundred of miles without alighting, both quickly agreed that such a thing was impossible. "You and I know very well," they said, "that the furthest one can ever get even by the most tremendous effort is that elm tree over there; and even this one can not be sure of reaching every time. Often one finds oneself dragged back to earth long before one gets there. All these stories about flying hundreds of miles at a stretch are sheer nonsense."
---- Author unknown

So far, I have specified three aspects of a percipient's perspective transformation of another's behavior, which are his station, receptors, and cultural matrix. A fourth most important aspect is the percipient's dynamic psychological field. Once stimuli are given cultural interpretation, they become part of the psychological field comprising the percipient's needs and drives, attitudes and beliefs, sentiments and roles, temperaments and abilities, and moods and states. This is a field of psychic energy and forces, of dynamic balance, within which the self integrates beliefs, attitudes, needs, expectations, behavioral dispositions, and perceptions. The central forces of this field and their major direction of orientation are towards the enhancement, development, and maintenance of the percipient's self-esteem. This is a teleological orientation, for the percipient's self-esteem is bound up in a future goal around which he organizes and unifies his needs and superego.4

The percipient is thus a more or less integrated personality, a consistent cognitive structure, a dynamic field into which the stimuli now comprising cultural meanings, values, and norms are projected. Let me call these projections perceptibles. In this field perceptibles are forces in their own right; they can have the power to preempt conscious attention, as an explosion, a woman's scream, or a gun pointed at you. But as powers weak or strong, they must contest the integrated cognitive structure and goal-directed orientation of the field. Perceptibles inconsistent with this integrated field will be interpreted to make them consistent. A basic characteristic of the psychological field is that its forces work towards consistency, towards maintaining a balanced cognitive, goal-oriented, structure.

We see the operation of these dynamic forces in everyday life. Conservatives or radicals will interpret reality in ways consistent with their personality; those whose central goals are world government versus saving the world from communism will perceive reality differently; those who hate blacks, whites, Jews, or the rich or poor will perceive what is consistent with such prejudice. In other words, we tend to see what we want to see.5

Perceptibles are thus transformed within the psychological field into conscious perceptions of reality consistent with our personality (which includes our self-esteem) and future goal. I will call this final conscious perception the situation, for in actuality we perceive not a single, discrete object with whatever meaning, but a unitary complex of specific manifestations, dispositions, and determinables.

At a glance the situation may comprise a person drinking beer. We apprehend this event as a unitary but unfocused "picture," seen all at once, although it consists of separable determinables and dispositions (such as the color of his shirt, or the shape of his chin, none of which we really notice at a glance) which could be made determinate if we focus on the person. Or while engaged in conversation the situation may be another's face, which we perceive partly in specific details (usually the eyes) from which the face shades off into various dispositions.

The point is that we simultaneously perceive a complex of manifestations, dispositions, and determinables, which I call a situation, and that what is perceived as a situation is the result of a dynamic interaction between our personality and those stimuli which have been transformed by our station, receptors, and cultural matrix.

There is thus a second kind of meaning, which is that the perceptible has as a situation in the percipient's psychological field. This meaning comprises our conscious perception of another and his behavior. It is the field of expression that the other becomes for us.6

At this level, however, we see not only two people running, but one chasing the other; not only a white police officer holding a black, but a white suppressing blacks; not only a driver with his arm out of a car's window, but a person signaling a left turn; not only a person's face, but a person smiling. That is, at this level, we not only perceive others as objects, events, or processes, but also as motives and powers. There is, therefore, yet a third kind of meaning involved.

Now this last idea demands clarification, but beforehand I want to be sure the total act of perception is clear as I have discussed it. Other people as aspects of our external reality are potentialities, and an actuality of dispositions and determinables. This actuality at any one moment is also a configuration of powers bearing on us as percipients. These powers are demands on our attention, forces compelling us to be aware of the other and make his dispositions and determinables specific and manifest. However, our perception is itself a process which selects, alters, and interprets this actuality. Our station, receptors, cultural matrix, and psychological field thus transform this reality. I will say more about this later, especially in linking the actuality of the other with this perspective transformation. For now, however, I should consider in more detail the perceived situation. 


* Scanned from Chapter 5 in R.J. Rummel, The Conflict Helix, 1976. For full reference to the book and the list of its contents in hypertext, click book. Typographical errors have been corrected, clarifications added, and style updated.

1. The internal reference is to Jacob von Uexküll (1929). Referring to the same view, Cassirer (1944, p. 23) says of Uexküll that he "evolves a new general scheme of biological research. As a philosopher he is an idealist or phenomenalist. But his phenomenalism is not based upon metaphysical or epistemological considerations; it is founded rather on empirical principles. As he points out, it would be a very naive sort of dogmatism to assume that there exists an absolute reality of things which is the same for all living beings. Reality is not a unique and homogeneous thing; it is immensely diversified, having as many different schemes and patterns as there are different organisms. Every organism is, so to speak, a monadic being. It has a world of its own because it has an experience of its own. The phenomena that we find in the life of a certain biological species are not transferable to any other species. The experiences--and therefore the realities--of two different organisms are incommensurable ,with one another. In the world of a fly, says Uexküll, we find only 'fly things'; in the world of a sea urchin we find only 'sea urchin things.'"

2. "Selective screening of sensory data admits some things while filtering out others, so that experience as it is perceived through one set of culturally patterned sensory screens is quite different from experience perceived through another. The architectural and urban environments that people create are expressions of this filtering-screening process. In fact, from these man-altered environments, it is possible, to learn how different peoples use their senses. Experience, therefore, cannot be counted on as a stable point of reference, because it occurs in a setting that has been molded by man" (Hall 1959, p. 2).

3. This is not to imply that I accept Sorokin's symbolic definition. For him the meaning of something is that which it symbolizes. See Sorokin (1969). Meanings are not signs, but a perspective transformation of reality. We do not perceive an object as a symbol for a rose, or cup, or table. Rather, in the act of perceiving we transform what are only indeterminate dispositions into objects of perception which are roses, cups, or tables. The initial objects are thus these very meanings and not their signs or symbols.

4. Clearly, I am compressing into a few sentences much that demands elaboration, clarification, and supporting evidence. For this, see The Dynamic Psychological Field.

5. "In regard to sentiments this implies that we tend to have an overall like or dislike of a person. Where several sentiments can be distinguished, they tend to be alike in sign. For instance, liking and admiring go together; the situation is unbalanced if a person likes someone he disrespects. In other words, the unit of the person tends to be uniformly positive or negative. This is known as the halo phenomenon. To conceive of a person as having positive and negative traits requires a more sophisticated point of view; it requires a differentiation of the representation of the person into subparts that are of unlike value" (Heider, 1958, p. 182).

The basic idea is that our needs, interests, perceptions, and personality tend to balance. Imbalance (dissonance) provokes forces towards balance. As Festinger (1970, p. 3) hypothesizes, "l. The existence of dissonance, being psychologically uncomfortable, will motivate the person to try to reduce the dissonance and achieve consonance. 2. When dissonance is present, in addition to trying to reduce it, the person will actively avoid situations and information which would likely increase the dissonance."

6. What I call a field of expression could, in reference to science and knowledge, be called a paradigm--a scientific upon reality comprising our theories and associated methods. It is a filter selecting certain aspects of reality to be called facts and a point-of-view on them. On paradigms in science, see Kuhn (1962) and Butterfield (1959).

For citations see the Vol. 2: The Conflict Helix REFERENCES

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