The French philosopher and sociologist Jean Gabriel Tarde (1843-1904) made important contributions to general social theory and to the study of collective behavior, public opinion, and personal influence.
Jean Gabriel Tarde was born in Sarlat, the son of a military officer and judge. His father died when he was 7, and Jean Gabriel was raised by his mother. He attended a Jesuit school in Sarlat, obtaining a classical training, and read law in Toulouse and then Paris. From 1869 to 1894 he held several legal posts near Sarlat. Only after Tarde's mother died did he agree to leave Sarlat, and he accepted a position as director of criminal statistics at the Ministry of Justice in Paris. After 1894 he lectured in numerous peripheral institutions outside the university, and from 1900 until his death he held the chair of modern philosophy at the Collège de France.
In the last 2 years of his life Tarde confronted personally his rival Émile Durkheim in debate in Paris, climaxing a series of published exchanges in earlier years. Durkheim was the leading representative of sociology inside the French university system. His sociology embodied the rationality and impersonal discipline characteristic of university thinkers of the Third Republic. Tarde, in contrast, maintained a more supple and individualistic approach to social theory. Nevertheless, the two men were in agreement on fundamental conceptions.
These core elements of Tarde's thought constitute three interrelated processes. Tarde saw "invention" as the ultimate source of all human innovation and progress. The expansion of a given sector of society—economy, science, literature—is a function of the number and quality of creative ideas developed in that sector. Invention finds its source in creative associations in the minds of gifted individuals. Tarde stressed, however, the social factors leading to invention. A necessary rigidity of class lines insulates an elite from the populace; greater communication among creative individuals leads to mutual stimulation; cultural values, such as the adventurousness of the Spanish explorers in the Golden Age, could bring about discovery.
Many inventions, however, are not immediately accepted, hence the need to analyze the process of "imitation, " through which certain creative ideas are diffused throughout a society. Tarde codified his ideas in what he called the laws of imitation. For example, the inventions most easily imitated are similar to those already institutionalized, and imitation tends to descend from social superior to social inferior.
The third process, "opposition, " takes place when conflicting inventions encounter one another. These oppositions may be associated with social groups—nations, states, regions, social classes—or they may remain largely inside the minds of individuals. Such oppositions can generate invention in a creative mind, beginning again the threefold processes.
Tarde was firmly convinced of the necessity for quantifying his basic concepts and processes, and he sought to measure intensities of various opinions. He thus anticipated subsequent work on attitude measurement. He also urged the collection of information on industrial production, strikes, crime rates, church attendance, voting, and similar actions in order to gauge shifts in public opinion.
Tarde held that an elite was necessary to govern society and to maintain creative innovation, basic cultural patterns, and a minimal social and political stability. Crime, mental illness, and social deviance in general were seen by Tarde as frequent results of the disintegration of traditional elites. Migration, social mobility, and contact with deviant subcultures also further the tendencies toward deviance.
In opposition to Gustave Le Bon, who analyzed modern society in terms of crowds, Tarde emphasized the importance of the public. Crowds depend on physical proximity; publics derive from shared experiences of their members, who may not be in immediate physical proximity. Trade unions, political parties, and churches all support different publics, and Tarde saw these overlapping but distinct publics as major sources of flexibility in modern industrial societies.
Such technological developments as the telegraph, the telephone, mass-produced books, and the railroad were important in effecting the emergence of modern publics, but to newspapers fell a particularly crucial and independent role. Newspapers helped create public opinions and reinforce group loyalties. Unlike most later mass-society critics, Tarde was more optimistic about these developments for the maintenance of individual autonomy. This perspective derived in part from a greater emphasis on interpersonal contacts in channeling ideas and opinions in conjunction with the mass media. In this emphasis on personal contacts, Tarde anticipated subsequent work on the effects of mass communications.
Tarde had almost no immediate followers in France, with the exception of certain criminologists. In the United States, however, he exercised considerable influence on social psychologists, anthropologists, and sociologists.
A recent study of Tarde's work, including new translations from many of his works and a complete bibliography, is Terry N. Clark, ed., Gabriel Tarde on Communication and Social Influence (1969).