Skip to main content

Tarde, Gabriel

Tarde, Gabriel



Gabriel Tarde (1843-1904) was one of the four leading nineteenth-century French sociologists. He was more concerned than Comte with the empirical validation of ideas, more systematic than Le Play in his theories, and more interested than Durkheim in the relationships of individuals and small groups to the broader society.

Tarde has had fewer disciples than any of the others, although his verbal brilliance was impressive and his ideas were remarkably fresh. His relative obscurity was partly a result of the fact that he spent most of his life outside of Paris and the French university system. Also, his reputation suffered because his work was out of harmony with the dominant intellectual temper of the time: Tarde was only mildly religious in an age of militant Catholic and anti-Catholic sentiment; he was politically uninvolved in an age of engagement; he was neither a true positivist nor an antipositivist when most intellectuals were one or the other.

Within France, Tarde is best known for his criminological work and his criticism of Durkheim. Abroad, his greatest influence was on Edward A. Ross and on Robert Park and Edward Burgess and their University of Chicago colleagues who are associated with the theories of social interaction and cultural diffusion. But, far too frequently, present-day sociologists know Tarde only as Durkheim’s whipping boy. His work deserves closer scrutiny.

Tarde was born in Sarlat, a small and rather isolated town about one hundred miles east of Bordeaux. He was descended from a noble family that had lived in the region since the Middle Ages. An only child, Tarde was raised by a sensitive and tender mother, his father, a judge in Sarlat, having died when Tarde was seven. He received a rigid classical education at the local Jesuit school and later maintained that a common classical education was a valuable mechanism for producing social integration among the elite groups of a country.

He obtained a secondary degree in the humanities and at first intended to pursue science and mathematics at the École Polytechnique. An eye disease made him change his plans. Following the family example, he prepared for a career in law, first at the University of Toulouse, and for his last year, at Paris. On completing his studies, he returned to Sarlat as a magistrate. From 1869 to 1894 he held a series of regional court posts in and around Sarlat, refusing to leave his mother or his native region and thereby forgoing the possibility of a more attractive position in Paris. His provincial legal career did provide adequate financial support and a good deal of free time, and Tarde devoted his energy to developing a system of social theory. The outlines of his system—influenced mainly by Leibniz, Hegel, Cournot, and Spencer—were completed by 1875, but he did not publish them for some time.

Between 1883 and 1890 he published La crimi-nalité comparée and La philosophic pénale, as well as dozens of shorter articles on criminology and penology; these works won him a reputation as one of France’s outstanding criminologists. After his mother’s death in 1894 Tarde became director of the criminal statistics section of the Ministry of Justice in Paris, a position he held until his death in 1904. Although he continued to participate in French and international advisory boards, councils, and congresses as a criminologist and served from 1893 as codirector of the Archives d’Anthropologie Criminelle, after 1890 the bulk of his work was sociological and philosophical. The three works central to his system, Les lots ¿.’imitation, La logique sociale, and Léopposition universelle, were published in 1890, 1895, and 1897, respectively. After 1896 Tarde taught a course every other year at the École Libre des Sciences Politiques and gave numerous lectures and courses at the College Libre des Sciences Sociales. In 1900 he was appointed to the chair of modern philosophy at the College de France and was elected to the Academic des Sciences Morales et Politiques.

The general theory

As magistrate and judge Tarde dealt constantly with repeated similar crimes, and this experience influenced both his choice of criminology as a topic for study and his development of a theory in which imitation plays a central role. For the most part he dealt with individuals rather than groups or large organizations. His emphasis on the individual put him in conflict with Durkheim, and the debates between the two men lasted for over a decade. But to label Tarde’s work “psychologism” (that is, psychological reductionism) is no more enlightening than to speak of Durkheim’s work as “sociologism,” although both men gave grounds for such oversimplifications of their positions.

Tarde’s point of departure was the process of social interaction, or as he termed it, “intermental activity.” He felt that human personalities evolve through the interaction of two psychic raw materials, beliefs and desires. At the core of his theory were three fundamental processes—invention, imitation, and opposition.

Invention . All human innovation and progress stem from creative associations originating in individual minds. Invention is a social form of the “adaptation” process described by Darwin: it is a pattern of activity devised by man to help him adjust to the changing environment. Man’s biological make-up, however, places a ceiling on his inventiveness. Citing Gallon’s work Men of Genius, Tarde suggested that the innovative capability of a people at a given time is limited by the range of abilities of its individual members. If all other factors are constant, the more numerous the population and hence the more numerous the interactions among its members, the more likely it is that original combinations of ideas will arise.

Imitation . Thousands of inventions are made, but only a small number are adopted and disseminated; Tarde described the processes that make an invention successful in his analysis of the laws of imitation (see 1890a).

One general principle is that inventions exhibit a general tendency toward a regular, unending, geometric progression. Represented graphically, imitations spread from their geometric center in concentric waves, like the ripples from the point where a rock splashes in a pond. And, just as light or sound waves are influenced by the material through which they travel, so imitations are “refracted” by the environment. Physical and biological factors influence the progress of imitations, but Tarde considered them less important than social variables.

Tarde distinguished logical and extralogical social factors affecting imitation. Inventions disseminate most effectively when they are logically consistent with the rational aspects of a culture. Thus, to be successful, a technical innovation should be at approximately the same level as a society’s existing technology: neither inventions that are too simple nor those that are too advanced will be adopted.

Tarde discussed three extralogical factors affecting the diffusion of innovations. First, imitation proceeds from “the internal to the external”; affect precedes cognition, which precedes behavior. Ideas may be transmitted before the words used to express them, doctrines before rites, ends before means. Second, the prestige hierarchy structures the paths of imitation: innovations introduced by social superiors are more likely to be imitated than those introduced by social inferiors. Third, in the same social system, receptivity to different kinds of innovations fluctuates: at times, what is old, traditional, and proved is the most likely to be accepted; at other times, it is the exotic and avant-garde that is most in favor. These shifts in perspective apply to all institutional areas of a society—language, religion, government, the economy, morality, and the arts. Tarde’s third extralogical principle parallels his principle cited above concerning the level of rational development: both predict that cultural innovations are most likely to be adopted when they resemble other institutionalized elements within the culture.

Opposition . With the publication in 1897 of his L’opposition universelle, Tarde added to his first two general processes the concept of opposition, or conflict. He examined physical conflict and its effects on the movement and energy of masses; he underlined the importance of biological conflict in contributing to the evolution of the species; and he asserted that psychological conflict—the clash of opposing ideas and motivations within the individual mind—may result in environmentally adaptive inventions. As for social conflict, he believed that it tends to occur when proponents of contrasting inventions come into contact with one another. The amount and intensity of resulting conflict varies with the institutional realm: as one moves from moral to economic to political matters, the generality of the issues about which conflict takes place tends to diminish, while the intensity of the conflict increases. This apparent anomaly is explained by the extent of the social adjustments required for innovation to occur in the domains of morality, economics, and politics. Morality is largely a personal matter, and a change does not necessitate major readjustments by the rest of society. Economic decisions for the most part involve only sub-sectors of a total society, but they have a broader impact than decisions of morality. Political matters, and especially international political matters, tend to have the broadest social consequences of all and therefore generate the most violent disagreements.

Operationalization and measurement

Unlike most system-building theorists, Tarde was continually seeking empirical indicators and, ideally, quantifiable ones, by which he might test his broader generalizations.

He felt it was almost impossible to examine scientifically the psychological variables involved in the process of invention. However, he considered it feasible to study, principally by means of archeo-logical techniques, the societies and historical periods in which various inventions were first made.

Imitation and opposition are better studied with large-scale statistics. Tarde’s systemic orientation led him to prefer the analysis of time series to static breakdowns by geographical region, sex, age, occupation, and so forth. The spread of an invention through homogeneous social surroundings, with no opposition in the form of conflicting inventions, may be represented by a geometric progression. Deviations from a fixed progression indicate the extent of “refraction” or opposition to which a given invention is subject.

Tarde deplored the inadequacy of most governmental statistics for social-scientific purposes: although figures on population movements, industrial and commercial matters, and crime were relatively abundant, there were very few quantitative measures of basic values, religious activity, scientific output, or linguistic change, let alone of the emotional and cognitive attributes of individuals. Tarde stated in The Laws of Imitation: “Psychological statistics alone, recording the rise and fall of an individual’s particular beliefs and desires, . .. would give, if they were practically possible, the deeper meanings behind figures provided by ordinary statistics” (1890a, p. 115).

Since he was writing more than a quarter century before public opinion studies were developed, much of the quantitative support that Tarde needed for his generalizations was lacking; still, he was a skillful analyst of the materials that were available to him, particularly criminal statistics, and he suggested measures by which more complete information could be collected.

To measure the effects of mass communications, for example, Tarde wanted more precise techniques for studying individual and public opinion. He argued that shifts in opinion might be gauged crudely, however, by behavioristic indicators, such as the number of persons attending church, the size of religious donations, the sale of books on different subjects, the circulation of newspapers of different political hues, and voting patterns. He also foresaw the need for a device that could quantitatively evaluate the psychic raw materials—beliefs and desires—and that would provide in aggregate form a measure of public opinion, thus anticipating the outlines of a program of attitude surveys.

Substantive contributions

The bulk of Tarde’s substantive writings falls under four headings—mass communications and personal influence, political sociology, the social psychology of economics, and criminology and penology.

Communication and personal influence . Tarde examined the social impact of such technological developments as the telegraph, the telephone, mass-produced books, even printed invitations and announcements, and most important of all, the mass-circulation newspaper. Since the very existence of the modern newspaper depends on innovations in transportation and communication, which are found only in industrialized societies, it is difficult to isolate the influence of newspapers from that of a variety of other aspects of industrialization. Nevertheless, newspapers were important for Tarde, first, as agents of integration and social control, which expand loyalties from narrow communal and corporate groupings to national and even international alliances, and second, as a civilizing and rationalizing force.

Before the development of the printing press, communication, integration, and social control took place largely within more or less fixed traditional social groups—the family, the occupational group, the village. Newspapers led to the emergence of “publics”—aggregates of separate persons who, exposed to the same communications, develop a certain degree of self-consciousness. Through publics, newspapers were a major force in the creation of secondary groupings, such as political parties, national occupational organizations, and religious bodies.

The implications of these extended loyalties are twofold: Tarde noted (as did Simmel) that as the size of a group increases, so does the freedom of its individual members; moreover, overlapping memberships permit groups to shift ideological perspectives and form coalitions and alliances with greater ease and flexibility.

But impersonal communication is not effective by itself. Tarde remarked in L’opinion et la foule: “If people did not talk, it would be futile to publish newspapers . . . they would exercise no durable or profound influence, they would be like a vibrating string without a sounding board” (1901, p. 83). Tarde’s formulation is close to what has come to be known as “the two-step flow of communication”: mass communications exercise influence largely through being “humanized” and adapted to the circumstances of individuals by “opinion leaders” (see Katz & Lazarsfeld 1955).

The idea of opinion leaders meshes with Tarde’s general theory: new ideas (inventions), initiated through impersonal communication, are diffused throughout society by the process of imitation. The principle of imitation most relevant in the area of personal influence is that imitation proceeds from social superior to social inferior.

Political sociology . In Les transformations du pouvoir (1899) Tarde viewed the political system as for the most part dependent on the same structures and subject to the same processes as those that operate within the total society. Interaction leads to the development of common norms that in turn provide the basis for power.

Innovations in any realm—economic, religious, military—can influence the political system through the persuasive pressure of a numerous and powerful group of supporters.

An elite group with specialized knowledge and performing specialized functions is essential for political change, as indeed for all innovation. Most political innovations are originally diffused through the economic, military, religious, and aesthetic elites and then spread throughout society. In accordance with Tarde’s general laws, diffusion tends to flow from capitals to smaller cities and rural areas and from powerful and prestigious nations to less advantaged ones: in this way the ideas of the eighteenth-century democratic theorists spread from France and England to the rest of the world.

In the political sphere, as in any other, imitation and adaptation often produce opposition and conflict. Diffusion of innovations is likely to meet less resistance, however, as improved transportation and mass communication stimulate the growth of large, overlapping publics, such as the modern political party.

The social psychology of economics . Tarde’s writings on the economic system, contained chiefly in his two-volume Psychologic économique (1902), deal with a number of the social conditions necessary for a viable economy. For instance, price setting, the functioning of markets, and investment decisions require a set of society-wide agreements on certain fundamental values. In order that such agreements be made, there must be sufficient leisure time, for it is leisure that permits informal social interaction, which in turn generates a system of shared values.

Leisure is also a prerequisite of economic innovation, which depends, like all social progress, on a creative elite with more leisure time than the rest of the population. Equalization of leisure would therefore impair the vigor and inventiveness of a nation (although Tarde cited the United States as a partial exception to this rule).

Tarde saw the rise of trade unions as part of the expansion of publics. While, especially in the short run, the rise of large unions might lead to an increase in conflict between labor and industry, Tarde felt that ultimately, as more and more numerous publics came to include workers, managers, and other members of society, there would be social harmony.

Criminology and penology . Tarde’s writings on criminology and penology predate the full-scale elaboration of his sociological theory and hence are less directly related than any of his other substantive work to his comprehensive system. In La criminalité comparée (1886) and La philosophic pénale (1890i>), as well as in a variety of articles, Tarde presented what was then probably the most forceful criticism of the biological theories of the origin of crime developed by Lombroso and the Italian school. Although, especially in his earlier writings, he did give some credence to racial characteristics as predisposing factors in criminal behavior, he argued that crime is essentially a social phenomenon, explicable according to general social laws.

As director of the criminal statistics section of the Ministry of Justice, Tarde was aware of the over-all statistical trends in the crime rate. It disturbed him deeply that almost every type of crime had increased continually since the early nineteenth century, when crime statistics were first systematically collected. Tarde considered this increase to be a demonstration of his general ideas on geometrical progression followed by imitation.

Although he believed in the social origin of crime, Tarde rejected Durkheim’s view that crime is a “normal” phenomenon, on the grounds that this view is morally irresponsible. Responsibility for criminal acts, Tarde affirmed, must remain with the individual perpetrator.

At an early stage of his work in criminology Tarde favored capital punishment and the expulsion of criminals to penal colonies, but he changed his mind upon finding virtually no statistical relationship between the rate of criminal activity and the severity of penal laws.


The objections of most earlier critics to Tarde’s work were largely ontological. He was criticized chiefly for his assumption that society is simply an aggregate of individuals and not, as Durkheim liked to say, a reality sui generis. When Tarde wrote, the majority of social scientists, especially in France, were occupied more with these ontological questions than with constructing a science of human behavior.

Today we are more inclined to examine Tarde’s actual sociological work than his philosophy of social science. From this perspective, a major weakness of his work lies in his tendency to explain away embarrassing data by tenuous interpretation in terms of his own theory (his facile literary style assisted him here); he was seldom moved to question the adequacy of his own formulations. Like so many of his contemporaries, Tarde accepted without criticism two concepts of his day—evolutionism and race. Tarde’s “transformationism” was a refined and qualified evolutionary theory, and near the end of his life he was willing to admit that he had resorted too frequently to biological explanations in earlier work.

As for method, Tarde consistently preferred the historical approach to comparative study, a preference reflecting his system’s emphasis on the dynamic and its disregard for collective factors. A greater comparative emphasis might have forced him to become more aware of certain systemic inadequacies.

Tarde’s enduring contributions fall into three categories—criminology, social interaction theory, and diffusion processes. His criminological writings have perhaps been subject to more continuing attention than any other part of his work; they still serve as a source of hypotheses for contemporary criminologists (e.g., Davidovitch 1963).

At a time when psychologists expressed an anti-sociological view of man and sociologists an anti-psychological one, Tarde’s formulations on social interaction and its influence on individuals, groups, and society as a whole provided essential foundations for the emerging discipline of social psychology. E. A. Ross, for example, credited Tarde with many of the basic ideas presented in his Social Psychology.

An astute observer of the complex ways in which innovations of all sorts are diffused throughout different types of social systems, Tarde developed a number of principles that are still useful to contemporary students of diffusion processes (e.g., Rogers 1962). For specialists in any area of the social sciences reading Tarde continues to be an instructive experience: his writings exhibit the versatility of what the French call an athletic mind.

Terry N. Clark

[See alsoCONFLICT, article on Social Aspects; Criminology; Diffusion; Imitation; Sociology, article on THE Early History OF Social Research; Suicide, article on Social Aspects; and the biographies ofBurgess; Comte; Durkheim; Galton; Le Play; Park; ROSS.]


(1886) 1902 La criminalite comparée. 5th ed. Paris: Alcan .

(1890a) 1903 The Laws of Imitation. New York: Holt. → Translated from the second French edition of 1895.

(1890b) 1912 Penal Philosophy. Boston: Little. → First published as La philosophic pénale. (1893) 1922 Les transformations du droit. 8th ed. Paris: Alcan.

(1895a) 1898 La logique sociale. 2d ed. Paris: Alcan.

1895b Essais et melanges sociologiques. Paris: Masson.

1897 L’opposition universelle. Paris: Alcan.

1898a Etudes de psychologie saciale. Paris: Giard & Briére. (1898b) 1899 Social Laws. Translated by Howard C. Warren, with a preface by James Mark Baldwin. New York: Macmillan. → First published in French. 1899 Les transformations du pouvoir. Paris: Alcan.

1901 L’opinion et la foule. Paris: Alcan. → See especially Chapter 2. The translation of the extract in the text was provided by Terry N. Clark.

1902 Psychologie economique. 2 vols. Paris: Alcan.

(1904) 1905 Underground Men. With a preface by H. G. Wells . London: Duckworth. → First published as Fragment d’histoire future.

Gabriel Tarde: Introduction et pages choisies par ses fils. Paris: Michaud, 1909. → Contains a biographical introduction and selections from his writings.


Barnes, Harry E. 1919 The Philosophy of the State in the Writings of Gabriel Tarde. Philosophical Review 28:248-279.

Boudon, Raymond 1964 La “statistique psychologique” de Tarde. Annales Internationales de criminologie [1964]:342-357.

BouglÉ, C. 1905 Une sociologie individualiste, Gabriel Tarde. Revue de Paris 3:294-316.

Clark, Terry N. 1966 Empirical Social Research in France, 1850-1914. Ph.D. dissertation, Columbia Univ.

Dagan, Henri 1901 Les sociologues contemporains: M. Gabriel Tarde. Grande revue 1:141-157.

Davidovitch, A. 1963 Remarques sur la criminologie de G. Tarde. Seminaire d’Histoire de la Sociologie Empirique en France. Document No. 6. Unpublished manuscript, Univ. of Paris.

Davis, Michael M. JR. 1906 Gabriel Tarde: An Essay in Sociological Theory. Ph.D. thesis, Columbia Univ.

Davis, Michael M. JR. 1909 Psychological Interpretations of Society. Columbia University Studies in History, Economics and Public Law. New York: Longmans.

Espinas, Alfred 1910 Notice sur la vie et les oeuvres de M. Gabriel de Tarde. Académie des Sciences Morales et Politiques, Seances et travaux 174:309-422.

Geisert, M. 1935 Le systéme criminaliste de Tarde. Paris: Editions Domat-Montchrestien.

Hughes, Everett C. 1961 Tarde’s Psychologic économigue: An Unknown Classic by a Forgotten Sociologist. American Journal of Sociology 66:553-559.

Katz, Elihu; and Lazarsfeld, Paul F. 1955 Personal Influence: The Part Played by People in the Flow of Mass Communications. Glencoe, 111.: Free Press.

Mahaim, E. 1903 L’économie politique de M. Tarde. Revue d’économie politique 17:1-34.

Matagrin, AmÉDÉE 1910 La psychologic sociale de Gabriel Tarde. Paris: Alcan.

rOCHE-Agussol, Maurice 1926 Tarde et 1’economie psychologique. Revue d’histoire économique et sociale 14: 68-114, 273-319.

Rogers, Everett M. 1962 Diffusion of Innovations. New York: Free Press.

Tosti, Gustavo 1897 The Sociological Theories of Gabriel Tarde. Political Science Quarterly 12:490-511.

Vierkandt, A. 1899 Gabriel Tarde und die Bestrebung-en der Sociologie. Zeitschrift fur Social-ivissenschaft 2:557-577.

Ward, Lester F. 1900 [A Book Review of] Tarde’s Socio! Laws. Science New Series 11:260-263.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Tarde, Gabriel." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . 27 Apr. 2017 <>.

"Tarde, Gabriel." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . (April 27, 2017).

"Tarde, Gabriel." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Retrieved April 27, 2017 from

Tarde, Gabriel

Tarde, Gabriel (1843–1904) A French criminologist, widely regarded as one of the founders of social psychology, a contemporary of Émile Durkheim who debated with him the nature of sociology. Tarde described the basic social processes as those of imitation (or repetition), opposition, and adaptation, and saw sociology as the attempt to discover the social laws that governed these processes. His analysis of the importance of imitation suggests that it is some sort of cosmic law, analogous to—but also offering an alternative to—laws of societal evolution, since imitation rather than a common evolutionary trajectory could explain cultural diffusion. Tarde was a social nominalist, for whom only individuals are real, and all social phenomena were ultimately reducible to relations between two persons exhibiting similar beliefs and desires and imitating each other through interaction. This explains his disagreement with Durkheim, a social realist who argued that social facts existed independently of individuals, and that external social constraint was the basis of social order. His major publications—The Laws of Imitation (1890) and Social Laws: An Outline of Sociology (1899)—are today of only historical interest, although attempts have been made to trace his influence in American interactionist sociology, and on the study of attitudes and collective behaviour.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Tarde, Gabriel." A Dictionary of Sociology. . 27 Apr. 2017 <>.

"Tarde, Gabriel." A Dictionary of Sociology. . (April 27, 2017).

"Tarde, Gabriel." A Dictionary of Sociology. . Retrieved April 27, 2017 from

Tarde, Gabriel de

Gabriel de Tarde (gäbrēĕl´ də tärd), 1843–1904, French sociologist and criminologist. During his years of public service as a magistrate, he became interested in the psychosocial bases of crime. In Penal Philosophy (1890, tr. 1912) and other early works he criticized the concept of the atavistic criminal as developed by Cesare Lombroso. Later he formulated a general social theory, distinguishing between inventive and imitative persons. Among his works are On Communication and Social Influence (tr. 1969) and The Laws of Imitation (1890, tr. 1903).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Tarde, Gabriel de." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . 27 Apr. 2017 <>.

"Tarde, Gabriel de." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . (April 27, 2017).

"Tarde, Gabriel de." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved April 27, 2017 from