October 23, 2017

Social disintegration: causes

This is Chapter 20 of the book Can Britain Survive?, published by Tom Stacey, London, 1971, and Sphere Books, London, 1971 (paperback).

Another version of this article was published in The Ecologist, Vol. 1 No. 13, July 1971.

When social systems (or any other systems) join together to form a larger one, they are said to integrate. When the opposite occurs, the larger system must be regarded as disintegrating – in other words, its order is being reduced; the bonds holding it together are being weakened until eventually they can hold it no longer. At this point it breaks up into smaller systems.

This process can occur at all levels of organization. A modern state is often an unstable system held together externally by a vast bureaucracy. It may be made up of different territorially based ethnic groups, each with its own culture and traditions that will furnish it with stronger and more lasting bonds than those linking it to the other groups in the national state. It is not difficult for such a state to disintegrate into such ethnic groups. Austria in the 1930s and Spain during the Republic are particularly striking examples.

It may also disintegrate into ethnic groups that are not territorially based, but that, before disintegration set in, lived symbiotically with each other as did the whites and the Negroes in the United States when the latter worked on plantations in the Southern states and more spectacularly as do the different castes in India.

When this occurs, then the natural state ceases to be a self-regulating unit of behaviour; it becomes unstable and has to be run externally by a bureaucracy and an autocrat.

In such cases, the new social units into which the original society disintegrates can become viable, self-regulating societies if conditions are right, though in the latter case it would require granting each group its separate territory.

If a society disintegrates beyond the clan or village level, it ceases to be a viable social unit. Such disintegration can qualify as pathological. The peasant societies described by Banfield are pathological. The largest unit of organization is the family and above this, no effective co-operation is possible. According to Banfield, such a society will display a number of related characteristics. For instance,

“no-one will further the interest of the group or the community except as it is to his private advantage to do so. In other words, the hope of material gain in the short run will be the only motive for concern of public affairs . . . the law will be disregarded when there is no reason to fear punishment . . . an office holder will take bribes when he can . . . but whether he takes bribes or not, it will be assumed by society that he does.”

Clearly such a society will not be capable of running itself, i.e. of constituting a self-regulating system. Rather, it will require a bureaucracy and other external controls to keep it together.

Similarly, a society in which the families themselves have disintegrated and in which the largest unit of effective organization is the individual or the incomplete, single-parent, family, is even more clearly pathological. An example is that found in certain urban slums. According to Oscar Lewis, the main social and psychological features of such a society

“include living in crowded quarters, a lack of privacy, gregariousness, a high incidence of alcoholism, frequent resort to violence in the settlement of quarrels, frequent use of physical violence in the teaching of children, wife-beating, early initiation into sex, free unions or consensual marriages, a relatively high incidence of the abandonment of mothers and children, a trend towards mother centred families and a much greater knowledge of maternal relations, the predominance of the nuclear family, a strong predisposition to authoritarianism, and a great emphasis upon family solidarity – an ideal only rarely achieved. Other traits include a strong present and time orientation with relatively little ability to defer gratification and plan for the future, a sense of resignation and fatalism based upon the realities of their difficult life situation, a belief in male superiority which reaches its crystallization in machismo or the cult of masculinity, a correspondingly martyr complex among women, and finally, a high tolerance for psychological pathology of all sorts.”

He regards this related set of behavioural traits as a culture all of its own which he refers to as “the culture of poverty”.

It is to be found not only in the slums of Mexican cities, in which Lewis carried out most of his work but also in a large number of other urban societies. “It seems to me that the culture of poverty has some universal characteristics which transcend the regional, rural, urban and even national differences”. The ‘culture of poverty’ is thus a behavioural response that occurs spontaneously when environmental conditions are propitious.

The main features of such a culture is that it is very rudimentary. As Lewis says, “Poverty of culture is one of the crucial traits of the culture of poverty”.

It is thereby incapable of ensuring self-regulatory behaviour at the level of a community or even of a family, and appears to be exclusively associated with the lowest possible level of social integration; that in which the unit of behaviour is the individual or the incomplete nuclear family.

To predict its behaviour, probably the most important thing to know of a society, is the extent to which it is integrated, i.e. its degree or order. Unfortunately, no terminology is available to classify societies in this way. One is thus forced to coin one’s own. I suggest using the prefixes ethno- (a nation), oikio- (a family or hearth from which eco- as in economics and ecology is u corruption) and ego- (the self) together with a suffix – telic (from telos, an end or goal), which would give one the terms ethnotelic, oikiotelic and egotelic to designate these three degrees of integration.

These terms are, needless to say, crude ones, as there are clearly different degrees of ethnotely, oikiotely and egotely.

Thus extreme egotely or social entropy would be temporarily achieved by putting together on an island a mass of heterogeneous people of different race and culture and speaking different languages, i.e. with nothing; whatsoever in common. Before long, they would start organizing themselves into couples, families and eventually small communities, so as to be able to meet environmental challenges – at the same time developing the basis of a common culture. Indeed, as Whyte has shown, the members of even the worst slums, are linked together in some way; there is some sort of community life, however rudimentary. That is why slum-clearance schemes usually increase egotely rather than decrease it.

It is important to realize that social systems exist in time as well as in space. They are 4-dimensional. Disintegration is not only spatial but also temporal. As pathological disintegration sets in, so one must expect to see a corresponding decrease in their temporal organization.

An individual in a stable, ordered society considers himself one stage in a long process, of which his ancestors were the previous stages and his descendants the subsequent ones. That is why there is little fear of death and little concern with the after-life in such societies. A man considers that he will simply live on in his children. This is particularly well illustrated by Hsu with regard to traditional Chinese society.

As a society disintegrates, a man tends to regard himself more as isolated temporarily as well as spatially. That is why he is over-concerned with his own petty interests to the detriment of those of his community, and with the present and short term to the exclusion of the long term. As a result, there is nothing to hold together the larger 4-dimensional social system, save a set of precarious external controls which is unlikely to prevent further disintegration both in space and in time.

Causes of disintegration

A society can be subjected to many modifications that will adversely affect its capacity for self-regulation, and hence adaptation. Apart from those that that are to all practical extents unpredictable, modifications are most likely to occur during periods of rapid growth. As such they can be regarded as feedback controls, preventing growth beyond the optimum point.

How they operate is best studied at the level of a simple tribal society which often displays a very high degree of order.

Ordered societies do not require any external controls in the shape of formal institutions. This in itself makes for greater stability. If a society is controlled by one man, his demise leads to a vacuum which often cannot be filled very easily. If, on the other hand, it is achieved by the society as a whole, there is no way of upsetting its organization save by extermination.

It also means that the society behaves in a way that favours its own interests as opposed to those of one of its parts. In other words, the controls are themselves subjected to the control of the system as a whole.

As Lowie writes,

“It should be noted that the legislative function in most primitive communities seems strangely curtailed when compared with that exercised in the more complex civilizations. All the exigencies of normal social intercourse are covered by customary law, and the business of such governmental machinery as exists is rather to exact obedience to traditional usage than to create new products.”

This essential principle is clearly established by Lucy Mair in her book, Primitive Government.

The function of government is assumed by the citizens as a whole. The most important influence is tradition, any deviation from which is severely frowned upon. The ancestral spirits, the council of elders and public opinion in general combine to oppose and chastise any unnecessary departure from the traditions and customary law that is handed down from generation to generation. Even where there is a king, the latter’s authority is still strictly limited. Thus, among the Ashanti and other West African people, he can be de-stooled by a mere show of hands.

The same was true of the Hellenic kings of Homeric times.

The real power did not reside in them but in the demouphemos or public opinion. Later this was institutionalized into the demoukratos. The latter without the former, as we find in most modern states, is of no value save to provide a facade behind which powerful individuals and groups will vie with each other for the real control of the society.

On the other hand, once the society has totally disintegrated, its capacity for self-regulation breaks down.

As Fortes and Evans-Pritchard write,

“The evidence at our disposal suggests that cultural and economic heterogeneity is associated with a state-like political structure. Centralized authority and an administrative organization seems to be necessary to accommodate culturally diverse groups within a single political system, especially if they have different modes of livelihood.”

Indeed only an elaborate bureaucracy run by a shameless autocrat can hope to control a heterogeneous mass of people deprived of a common culture and a sense of duty towards their society.

It is customary today to criticize certain autocratic governments such as that of the colonels in Greece. Little do people realize that the choice in such a society is not between dictatorship and democracy but between dictatorship and chaos. Democracy in the sense of self-government only becomes possible once the people become bound together by a common culture, and once a strong public opinion develops to sanction any deviation from the established code of behaviour.

What is likely to happen during rapid growth of a society that can lead to disintegration, and hence a breakdown in the process of self-regulation?

Let us seek examples among simple self-regulating societies. In Fiji, a tyranny was possible when a chief with limited authority over his people allotted land to refugees fleeing from another locality. These formed a minority that did not belong to the body politic, and who therefore developed personal allegiance to the king, greatly enhancing his prestige and authority and hence his ability to tyrannize his subjects.

The rise of the Kazak and Mongul Khans can be attributed in the same way to the attachment to their court of Nokod or soldiers of fortune, who being outside the body politic and owing personal allegiance to the Khans, served as a core to his organization for future conquest. Similarly the Emperor Frederick II, hampered by the obedience owed to the Pope by his subjects, transferred 16,000 conquered Moslems from Sicily to Apulia where they founded a colony, forming a troop directly responsible to him and immune to excommunication.

If a society embarks on a career of conquest and establishes hegemony over alien peoples, the would-be tyrant is then in a position to use any of these alien peoples against his own citizens. In addition to this, in order to maintain sway over heterogeneous peoples held together by no social bonds, a personality cult is likely to develop. The king or leader becomes the principle bond holding them together, which will make possible the most autocratic behaviour on his part. To maintain control over these people, an army will probably be required; the bigger his empire, the greater the necessity for such an army and the greater the probability that it will degenerate from being a citizen army that owes allegiance to the community as a whole, to a professional one with allegiance to its leaders only.

This is precisely what happened during the latter part of the Roman Republic and the subsequent Empire. It was this that rendered possible the civil wars between Marius and Sulla and later between Pompey and Caesar.

The most common cause of social disintegration and the emergence of an autocracy is the development of a proletariat. In a sense, this is an unsatisfactory term. It tends to be identified with the working class, which is wrong. The latter includes trained people with a definite role and place in society. The proletariat should really be used to designate the unintegrated members of a society – those parts of a social system that have come into being by multiplication as opposed to differentiation; what Homer called “the tribeless, clanless, hearthless ones”.

Plato described the proletariat of a Hellenic city as

“he who dwells within the city without falling into any of the categories of the city, whom one can call neither trader, nor artisan, neither knight nor hoplite, but only poor or indigent.”

The Plebeians originally fell into this category. The history of the Roman Republic is to a great extent the history of the slow absorption of the Plebeians, of their transformation into citizens capable of participating in the government of the city. How little they were integrated to begin with is well illustrated by the story of their mass departure from Rome and voluntary exile to the Sacred Mountain. They left,

“since the Patricians wish to possess the city for themselves, let them do so at their leisure. For us Rome is nothing. We have neither hearth nor sacrifices nor fatherland. We are leaving but a foreign city. No hereditary religion attaches us to this site. All lands are the same to us.”

However, their voluntary exile was short-lived. This structureless mass of people was incapable of creating a city on the model of that which it had left and which was the only one it had known. Consequently the Plebeians returned to Rome and after many struggles established themselves as citizens of the Republic.

They were absorbed, but Rome never succeeded in absorbing the vast mass of slaves and foreigners who thronged to Rome towards the end of the Republic, and throughout the period of the Empire, and which undoubtedly caused the disintegration of this great civilization.

It is the main theme of Aristotle’s Politics that tyrannies in the ancient world invariably arose as a result of the alliance between the king, or ruler, and the proletariat against the citizens. This was so in the case of Pisistratus at Athens, Theagenes at Megara and Dionysius at Syracuse.

A proletariat tends to develop once a city becomes prosperous. It can thus be regarded as a feedback mechanism preventing the development of excessive wealth rather than too high a population.

The mechanism is simple. With prosperity, food can be bought from abroad to feed more people than previously. Starvation no longer exerts a control over population. People come from the surrounding country to take advantage of the prosperity. Even if a different culture, they are welcome, as the developing economy requires cheap and abundant labour. They may come as slaves as they did to Rome, as peasants from the surrounding countryside to the developing cities of Flanders, Bohemia and Southern Germany during the late Middle Ages, or as foreign immigrants to the industrialized countries of Northern Europe at the present time.

Rome fell not as the result of the Barbarian invasions but as the victim of internal disintegration, due to the urbanization of the yeomanry, and the vast population of liberated slaves and their transformation into the structureless and depressed proletariat entirely dependant upon state welfare for its livelihood and entertainment: free corn and the public games. Chelhod describes the fall of Mecca in very similar terms.

Norman Cohn traces the growth of a proletariat in North European cities of the Middle Ages, and the Messianic movements that arose to reintegrate the alienated masses into a new society by providing them with a separatist culture of their own. Kornhauser shows that totalitarian movements are only possible in societies that have lost their basic structure, mass societies as he calls them.

It is one of Durkheim’s principal themes that a vast centralized bureaucratic machine destroys a society’s essential structure and renders it so unstable that it loses its capacity for self-government. He writes,

“The social forms that used to serve as a framework for individuals and a skeleton for the society, either no longer exist or are in course of being effaced, and no new forms are taking their place. So that nothing remains but the fluid mass of individuals. For the State itself has been reabsorbed by them. Only the administrative machine has kept its stability and goes on operating with the same automatic regularity.”

This must be so as it destroys the spirit of self-reliance, the sense of duty to the community and all the associated cultural traits that together permit social self-regulation.

Societies that, over a long period, have been governed by an autocracy or a vast bureaucracy, lose the habit of self-government and are thereby condemned to be governed by a succession of tyrannies from which they become incapable of extracting themselves.

The principle involved is the law of economy. A society like any other system will display the minimum size and also the minimum organization or order necessary to face a given environmental challenge. Autocratic government reduces the need on the part of a society to furnish any effort. So it simply loses the capacity to furnish this effort.

Welfare does exactly the same thing. Peasant society as Banfield shows can only exist because the state provides it with all sorts of services that it would normally have to provide for itself, being forced to organize itself into larger units to do so. He writes

“Amoral familism [or oikioletic society as I have referred to it] is not a normal state of culture. It could not exist for long if there were not an outside agency – the state – to maintain order and in other respects mitigate its effects. Except for the intervention of the state, the war of all against all would sooner or later erupt into open violence, and the local society would either perish or produce cultural forms – perhaps a religion of great authority . . . Because the larger society has prevented indigenous adaptation of this kind without making possible the full assimilation to itself of the local culture, the Montegrano ethos (named after the village in which he conducted his study) exists as something transitional and in this sense, unnatural.”

If welfare is pushed further to usurp functions that should be fulfilled at a family level, as well as those that should be fulfilled at a communal one, then the family unit itself will tend to disintegrate, and the society will become egotelic.

The extended family as Murdock has shown (which may be bilateral, matrilineal or patrilineal) is a feature of all simple stable societies so far studied by anthropologists.

The nuclear family made up of two parents and their children is unstable. Thus if one parent dies, the remaining one is incapable of fulfilling all the necessary functions required to bring up the children. Whereas in the extended family, countless relations are available for this purpose.

The nuclear family is usually a feature of a disintegrating society. A fortiori, the one parent family, and the isolate, can only survive in an environment which does not display sufficient challenges to justify the existence of the larger family group – such as the modern welfare state. Free education, a free health service and family allowances make it quite unnecessary for a father to struggle so as to be able to cater for the basic requirements of his children. The effect of behaving in a less fatherly manner will be to lead his children to behave in a less filial one.

Crèches and nursery schools are available for the mother who wishes to forgo the satisfaction and duty of bringing up her own children, while if she wishes to abandon them altogether, there are institutions to which they can be consigned. A highly developed pension scheme means that people do not have to depend on their children to provide for them in their old age.

It is a serious error to suppose that poverty is the main cause of social disintegration. One of the most apparent features of oikiotelic society in Southern Italy is the gloom and general feeling of hopelessness. The Italian peasants refer to it as ‘la miseria’.

Banfield writes

La miseria arises as much, or more, from social as from biological deprivations. This being the case, there is no reason to expect that a moderate increase in income (if by some miracle that could be brought about) would make the atmosphere of the village less heavy with melancholy. On the contrary, unless there were accompanying changes in social structure and culture, increasing incomes would probably bring with them increasing discontent.”

The same is true of an egotelic society.

A slum is a slum, not because its inhabitants are poor nor because its housing facilities are bad, though these may be contributing factors. It cannot be turned into a sound and stable community by pumping money into it, nor by lodging its inhabitants in brand-new blocks of flats. These measures, by reducing social bonds, are in fact likely to do more harm than good.

This tends to be confirmed by the fact that the squatter communities that have appeared in many towns of South America, and who live in far worse physical conditions than the conventional slum communities, display few egotelic symptoms.

According to Mangin, the squatters establish themselves by taking over empty lots on the periphery of the big cities. If this were done in a haphazard way, they would be driven off by the police, so a sort of military operation is required whereby some thousand squatters take over the lot in one fell swoop under cover of darkness so that when the morning dawns a new shantytown has appeared, too big to be demolished by the police without causing a serious popular outcry.

The city authorities react by refusing to recognize the very existence of the new shanty-town. As a result, its inhabitants have to fend for themselves, organize their waste disposal system, police, schools, etc. For this purpose they form neighbourhood committees in which all participants elect their own leaders and soon develop relatively sound communities that contrast only too sharply with the conventional welfare-maintained slums. As Mangin writes, “Although poor, they do not live the life of squalor and hopelessness characteristic of the ‘culture of poverty’ depicted by Oscar Lewis.”

Welfare is clearly not the only factor tending to reduce the challenges that justify the survival of such essential social structures such as the small community and the family in a stable, ordered society. Modern industry is another. The family in a stable, ordered society is an economic unit. People get married because they want children but also because the co-operation of the different members of the family is required for the fulfilment of those tasks necessary for survival.

With the development of modern industry there has been a radical reduction in the number of tasks that have to be fulfilled at the communal level and even more so at that of the family. The wife no longer has to bake the bread, or tend to the vegetable garden nor gather faggots for the fire. Bread, vegetables and any other food, can be bought at the supermarket, and the home will probably be central heated.

With the proliferation of tinned and frozen foods, she no longer even has to do much cooking, an activity which until the last generation, took up most of the time, skill and ingenuity of the average housewife in countries as advanced as France and Italy. Men can open tins and thaw out meat as well as women and the economic necessity for a family unit has correspondingly decreased.

The modern dogma that men and women are psychologically, if not physically, fit to perform the same tasks and the development of an educational system in which women acquire the same information and are provided with the same social and economic aspirations as the men, has led to a further disintegration of the family. What bonds are there to hold together two people who both have similar jobs, earn the same amount of money and live in a household in which all the household chores are done for them by big corporations?

Sexual attraction is about all that is left, and in this respect it is interesting to note that of all the 3,000 or so societies so far examined by anthropologists, ours is the first in which sexual attraction is regarded as a reason for marriage. It is undoubtedly the most unstable of links; too much so to serve as the principal, let alone the only, bond to a union on whose duration must depend the stability and mental health of the children born of it.

The modern industrial state also favours the disintegration of the family because of the proliferation of communications media which increase the influence of random sources of information (to the detriment of the familial ones) in determining a child’s moral and intellectual development. Increased mobility, principally as a result of affluence, also reduces the parents’ influence.

One of the most powerful disintegrative forces, however, is the rapid changes to which our society is being subjected. It is basically ‘experience’ that the elders communicate to youth, and this is of little value in a changing situation. To maintain social stability, environmental changes must simply be kept within certain limits.

This brings us to another consideration. A culture develops as an adaptive response to a specific environment. If the latter undergoes a radical transformation, then the culture is no longer adaptive – and it must itself be transformed. However, for a new one to develop, the original one must first of all disintegrate. Thus religious conversions are usually of a purely ‘terminological’ nature, unless the culture of the society to be converted is first of all destroyed. The same is true of a human personality.

As Sargant shows, a nervous breakdown is adaptive in that it ensures the breakdown of a behaviour pattern, that in changed environmental conditions may no longer be adaptive. Similarly, during historical times, many societies have disintegrated because changed economic conditions removed their very raison d’etre. This was probably the case of the cities of South Arabia after the main trade routes shifted to the Mediterranean – also of the Mediterranean maritime cities such as Genoa, Pisa and Venice when trade shifted to the North Sea and the Atlantic.

Our culture developed to adapt our society to economic, and in particular industrial, growth, which is becoming increasingly less viable, and it may have to disintegrate before a new post-industrial society can hope to emerge. It remains to determine how social, and in particular family, disintegration affects the individual, hence the society of which he is part.

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1. Banfield, Edward C. 1958. The Moral Basis of a Backward Society. New York: The Free Press.
2. Barth, Frederick. 1968. “Ecological relations of ethnic groups in Swat”, North Pakistan. In Manners, Robert and David Kaplan, Theory in Anthropology. Chicago: Aldine.
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9. Lowie, Robert. 1921. Primitive Society. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
10. Mair, Lucy. 1962. Primitive Government. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.
11. Malinowski, Bronislaw. 1927. Sex and Repression in Savage Society. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
12. Mangin, William. 1967. “Squatter settlements”. In Scientific American 217(4).
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14. Sargant, William. 1957. Battle for the Mind. London: Heinemann.
15. Whyte, William Foote. 1943. Street Corner Society. Chicago: Chicago Press.
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