December 11, 2017

Social disintegration: effects

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This is Chapter 21 of the book Can Britain Survive?, published by Tom Stacey, London, 1971, and Sphere Books, London, 1971 (paperback).

Most schoolteachers and social workers would agree that the children who give them the greatest trouble are those with family problems. Such children may have a father who, for various reasons, does not fulfil his fatherly functions – in all probability he will be simply displaying one of the many symptoms of anomie or egotely – or a mother with similar problems, or he may simply come from an incomplete, or one parent, family.

Whatever the exact situation, the child will have suffered from some form of family deprivation which is bound to affect him profoundly and colour every aspect of his behaviour throughout his life. Such children are often referred to as emotionally disturbed. However bright they may be, they will tend to find it very difficult to fit into their social environment, the reason being that the early and most important stages of socialization were badly impaired. The earlier family deprivation occurred, the more will this be the case, for as D. O. Hebb [1] shows, the effect of early experience on adult behaviour is universally correlated with age.

Sadly, it is rarely possible for socially deprived and emotionally disturbed children to be satisfactorily socialized. No amount of school education can do much for them.

Children who have grown up in isolation from their fellows are even further incapacitated. They are incapable of the normal familial and communal functions and sometimes seem indistinguishable from congenital idiots. This subject is treated in Zingg’s remarkable study, Wolf Children and Feral Man. [2] Experiments with animals, such as those conducted by Harlow with monkeys, lead one to the same conclusion. [3]

Emotionally disturbed children are characterized by inability to accept any social constraints. They are unable to concentrate on their work and are only interested in things which are of apparent immediate advantage to them. Regardless of their intelligence level, they are thus extremely difficult to educate. They are particularly concerned with the present, and the short-term, and are predisposed to all pathological forms of behaviour such as delinquency, drug addiction, alcoholism and schizophrenia.

What is worse, when they grow up, they are unlikely to be capable of fulfilling their normal family functions; their children consequently also deprived of a normal family environment, will in turn tend to be emotionally unstable.

John Bowlby went so far as to compare a delinquent with a typhoid carrier. [4] He is as much a carrier of disease as the latter – of a disease of the personality, which affect his family and his community for generations, until his descendants are eliminated by natural selection.

Socially deprived, emotionally disturbed youths are a feature of disintegrating societies. In the black ghettoes of New York and other large American cities, they are the rule rather than the exception. The low standard of achievement and the high rate of crime, and various forms of retreatism that characterize such societies, is mainly attributable to family deprivation.

If a child is seriously affected by being deprived of a satisfactory family environment, an adult is also adversely affected by being deprived of a satisfactory communal environment. In an ordered society a man is a differentiated part of a family or of a community which is made up of a large number of interwoven groups of different kinds. In a typical tribal society he belongs to a paternal and a maternal kinship group. He may also be a member of an age group, of an economic association, of a secret society, of a military group, etc. It is his position as a member of each of these groups which provides him with his status or identity as a differentiated member of his social system.

In a disintegrating society, he loses his identity. He is lost in an anonymous mass of humanity. It is this lack of identity which is normally referred to as alienation or anomie. It is that terrible feeling of loneliness when surrounded by a vast number of people that is so much worse than loneliness in a desert. In an ordered society, a cultural pattern provides an individual with a complete goal structure and an environment within which these goals can be satisfied.

In a stable society the principal goal appears to be the acquisition of prestige, to be looked up to by one’s family and community. In each society this is achieved in a different way. In a hunting society it requires skill in the hunt, while in a society earning its livelihood from agriculture, it must be skill in husbandry.

But this is not sufficient. Such skill is nearly always regarded as associated with what the Polynesians call ‘mana’, a special sort of power which can be acquired by performing the rituals and observing the ethical code which together make up society’s culture. [5a,5b] At the same time an individual’s personal stock of this power can be reduced by breaking any of the society’s many taboos. In our industrial society, prestige is achieved in a variety of ways, including the right education, entering a socially acceptable profession and perhaps most important of all, making money.

The proletariat, as well as members of different ethnic groups, may for various reasons, find these avenues of success barred to them. In such conditions they have no alternative but to develop a substitute set of goals. Cloward and Ohlin [6] interpret the development of a criminal sub-culture in the slums of a big city in these terms. It provides people with a new set of goals which they can achieve. Once crime becomes big business, and requires the same sort of qualities that permit success in the mainstream culture, then a further substitute outlet is required.

It is in these terms that Cloward and Ohlin interpret the ‘violent gang’ subculture which also has its own ethic and goal structure, so different from the mainstream culture. However, those who have not succeeded in shedding the latter’s values find themselves incapable of participating in it. They are forced to indulge in one or other form of retreatism – to isolate themselves psychologically from an environment which not only fails to provide them with an essential goal structure but also denies the setting for it.

Merton [7] describes a retreatist in the following way:

“. . . Defeatism, quietism and resignation are manifested in escape mechanisms which ultimately lead him to “escape” from the requirements of the society. It is thus an expedient which arises from the continued failure to near the goal by legitimate measures and from an inability to use the illegitimate route because of internalized prohibitions, this process occurring while the supreme value of the success-goal has not yet been renounced. The conflict is resolved by abandoning both precipitating elements, the goals and the means. The escape is complete, the conflict is eliminated and the individual is associalised.”

In a disintegrating society one would tend to find sub-cultures developing along all these different lines in varying degrees, i.e. there will be an increase in delinquency, violence and all the various forms of retreatism, such as drugs, drink, strange religious cults, etc., and mental disease. Such a society will be characterized by a general feeling of aimlessness, a frantic, almost pathetic search for originality, over-preoccupation with anything capable of providing short-term entertainment, and beneath it all a feeling of hopelessness of the futility of all effort.

Margaret Mead [8] writes,

“Juveniles who affect aberrant dress and modified transvestism . . . are a group who see life as a blind alley. They are in an economic situation which offers them no hope of a kind to satisfy social identity.”

A student from Mason City, Iowa, could not put it more clearly when he writes in Time Magazine,

“I am a student at the University of Northern Iowa, and from the present state of the college I can see a direct relationship, almost a reflection of the entire world situation. On the campus one can find a small percentage of social drop-outs, another small percentage of dedicated students, while the vast majority are lost in a maze of non-purposeful lives.”


Crime is very rare in a really stable and ordered society. Social constraints prevent all deviations from the cultural norm. Often these appear to the outside to be of a very mild nature. Ridicule, for instance, is often quite sufficient to prevent anti-social behaviour. As Linton [9] writes,

“The Eskimos say that if a man is a thief no-one will do anything about it, but the people will laugh when his name is mentioned. This does not sound like a severe penalty, but it suffices to make theft almost unknown.”

In societies like that of the Comoro Islands, where feasts play a big part in people’s lives, those given by people who have committed anti-social acts will be boycotted. This is a terrible insult and a most powerful deterrent. If it does not suffice, then there is the ultimate punishment: exclusion from the tribe or village.

Such a fate is considered worse than death. The victim is thereby deprived of his essential social environment and goal structure. He is lost in a hostile world to which he is not adapted culturally. He is condemned to the life of an isolate.

It must follow that in a stable society there is no need for a police force, nor for lawyers, tribunals, prisons, burglar-alarms, etc, that vast and elaborate superstructure required to control crime in a disintegrating society. It is interesting that in a modern industrial state, those areas where life most closely approximates that of a primitive society are precisely those where crime is the lowest, while it is where social structures have most conspicuously broken down – in big cities – that it is most frequent.

In the United States, according to Mr John Mitchell, Attorney-General, crime in cities of more than 250,000 inhabitants is two and a half times that of the suburbs, which in turn is twice that of rural areas. Crime, needless to say, is on the increase. In the United States it has doubled in the last 10 years. In 1969 there were 2,471 crimes per 100,000 inhabitants. There were 655,000 violent crimes and 4,334,000 crimes against property, 14,590 murders, 36,470 rapes and 306,420 aggravated assaults.

This reports an increase of 12 percent over the previous year. In the United Kingdom, crime is increasing at a similar rate. In 1970, according to a Newsnight investigation, there were 1.1 million indictable crimes, 300,000 in London alone, an increase of about 10 percent over 1969.

Crimes of violence and burglary and battery in particular are increasing at the fastest rate, at more than 15 percent per annum. These are at present 66 crimes of violence per 100,000 people in the United Kingdom as opposed to 324 per 100,000 in the United States. At the present doubling rate of 5 years it will take approximately 12 years to achieve the us rate of 324 per 100,000, which is so bad that life in cities has become intolerable and economic activity seriously menaced.

Professor Michael Banton of the Department of Sociology, Bristol University, told the British Association for the Advancement of Science that “increased disorder is part of the price we pay for the adaptation of our social arrangements to an economic system which brings us such great material benefits”.

Crime is part of the price of affluence, or more precisely, of the egotely that affluence creates.

Perhaps the most damning indictment of our industrial society is the behaviour of people when the elaborate mechanisms of the law are for some technical reason put temporarily out of action. In Montreal, during a 24-hour police strike, shops were pillaged, women raped and houses burgled. In London a power strike, theft increased to such an extent in shops and department stores that many had to close until the light came on again.

Nothing better illustrates what can happen when the self-regulating mechanisms which normally ensure the orderly behaviour of the members of a stable society, break down and are replaced by a precarious set of external controls.

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As the family unit breaks down, it is not surprising to find that illegitimacy, another symptom of social disintegration, increases. Nor is it surprising to find that it is closely linked with other systems of social disintegration. According to W. R. Lyster, an Australian statistician,

“Crime and illegitimacy rates are simultaneous in their incidence. The illegitimacy rate in England and Wales per hundred of all births has increased since 1955 from 4-7 to 7-8; crime has increased from about 45 per 10,000 to 120 per 10,000; thus, both have more than doubled.”

Illegitimacy is costing the government £52 million per year. In industrial slums and other societies that have reached the more advanced stages of disintegration it is not unusual to find that up to 70 percent of children are illegitimate.

W. A. W. Freeman, President of the Children’s Officers Association, has recently reported a startling increase in the number of women who are simply abandoning their children, something which would not occur in a stable and ordered society.

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As a society disintegrates, there is a general reduction in discipline. It is surprising just how disciplined people are in simple, ordered societies. The Hellenes, who prided themselves on their liberty, were in fact subjected to laws that we would consider the most shameful infringements of personal liberty.

Many Greek cities made it illegal for men to remain bachelors after a certain age. At Locrai, at Miletus and at Marseilles, women were forbidden to drink wine. In Sparta there were strict laws on women’s hairstyles, and in Athens, the law forbade women to take with them on a journey more than three dresses. In Rhodes the law prescribed shaving. In Sparta moustaches were forbidden. In Byzantium, the mere possession of a razor incurred a fine. [10]

The laws concerning involvement in public issues were strict. Neutrality, or indifference, to the politics of the city was punished by the loss of civil rights.

As society disintegrates, every rule and convention is questioned and discipline increasingly relaxed. We eventually find a situation in which everyone can do precisely what he pleases, and any attempt to enforce any discipline in the interests of the society is opposed.

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The correlation of alcoholism, another form of retreatism, with anomie or egotely occurring as a result of the breakdown of social order, is well established.

This thesis is well presented by Field [11] who shows that it is universally proportionate to the cohesiveness of the family, clan and tribal groupings. It is significant that in the disintegrating society in which we live, alcoholism is increasing, and this despite alternative forms of retreatism, such as drugs, being more readily available.

William Madsen [12] examines the cause of the alcoholism among the semi-acculturated Mexican Americans along the Mexican-Texan border.

The gringo, or semi-acculturated Mexican, finds himself alienated from his normal family and communal social structures, without having succeeded in becoming integrated in Anglo-American society. He is thus a marginal man. “Alone among two cultural worlds, the Agringado frequently finds alcohol the only mechanism available for anxiety relief.”

Madsen concludes,

“Although the specific etiology of alcohol is unknown, the cultural setting involving value concepts resulting in loss of identity with community seem to be conducive to alcoholism particularly. When the individual has been exposed to the tradition that alcohol may function as an escape mechanism or as a prop to some core value.”

Clearly all drinking is not associated with egotely. Among other things, it is known to have a definite integrative effect on society. It provides a cathartic outlet for the tension and anxiety that exist in any society.

For each specific cultural pattern there must exist an optimum degree of alcohol consumption. It is likely that increases over and above this level will be in direct proportion to the development of disorder within the society itself. The number of offences of drunkenness proved in England and Wales for the year 1967 is greater than the number of offences proved in previous years. The increase as expected occurred in the large cities, the City of London having 47,643 offences for each 10,000 of its population. The Home Office with characteristic ignorance of basic sociological matters writes,

“No reason for the increase can be adduced. There was no significant change in the liquor licensing laws.”

According to the National Council on Alcoholism, alcoholism is costing the country about £250 million a year, mainly by absenteeism from work. About seven workers out of every thousand have drinking problems, and there are about 400,000 alcoholics in the country, a figure which is increasing annually.

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