October 23, 2017

The family basis of social structure

Pages:  1   2   3   4   ALL 

The family in its various forms is the universal basis of all human societies and social structures. However the institution of the family has decayed in modern times, so converting society into an alienated agglomeration of disconnected individuals, susceptible to arbitrary, remote and authoritarian governance.

This article was published as Chapter 2 of The Stable Society, The Wadebridge Press 1978. It was originally published in two parts in The Ecologist, Vol. 6 No. 1 and Vol. 6 No. 2, 1976.

The family: a definition

Until recently, it has been fashionable to maintain that other forms of human social organisation are more fundamental than the family. The original unit of human organisation was taken to be the primaeval horde, like that of the baboons. This is one of Freud’s assumptions [19], and also one of Trotter’s [20], and is implicit in his theory of man’s social development, which began when the sexually deprived bachelors rose against their overbearing Pasha-like fathers. This myth was exploded* by Malinowski, who writes:

“Very often it is assumed by anthropologists that humanity developed from a gregarious simian species and that man inherited from his animal ancestors the so-called ‘herd-instincts’. Now this hypothesis is entirely incompatible with the view here taken that common sociability develops by extension of the family bonds and from no other sources.” [21]

(* – The Oedipus complex, to which Freud attaches so much importance, only makes sense in a patrilineal society. About 40 percent of known societies are matrilineal. In such a society, there is no father figure who both exerts authority over the child and sleeps with the child’s mother. The individual who behaves in a ‘fatherly’ manner towards the child and is head of the household is the senior male in the mother’s lineage group (usually her brother, sometimes her father) and therefore has no sexual relations with her. Hence the Oedipus complex cannot arise. Malinowski had a long controversy with Ernest Jones on this subject.)

Murdock also regards this principle as fundamental:

“Unlike the ants and bees, man is not biologically a social animal equipped by heredity with prepotent capacities for complex associative life, but in every individual case must be bent and broken to group living through the arduous process of socialisation and be kept in the paths of conformity through the imposition of social controls. The first anthropologist fully to appreciate this basic fact was Malinowski with his emphasis upon the factor of ‘reciprocity’ in the maintenance of norms of interaction.” [22]

Tinbergen comes to the same conclusion looking at the problem from a very different point of view. He writes:

“Contrary to current thought, there is not in my opinion a social instinct in the sense in which we normally understand it. There are no special activities which we can call social and which do not already form part of some other instinct. There is nothing to make us believe that there is at work a system of centres controlling social activities.” [23]

In other words, the information and corresponding instructions that will make man a family animal are transmitted from one generation to the next; while those that will make of him a social animal must be developed during the process of socialisation. That is what education is for – a fact our educationalists have long lost sight of. [24] The information necessary for man to become a social animal is thus of a cultural nature, rather than of a genetic one.

However, since the total information pattern that will determine the behaviour of a social system constitutes a single whole, organised hierarchically from the general to the particular (the latter information having developed from the former by the process of differentiation), it follows that the general instructions that have made of man a social animal must he derived from those that made of him a family animal.

What is more, by virtue of the rules of behavioural development, one must also assume that these instructions will provide serious constraints on his range of possible adaptations. It is for this reason that we find the same cultural strategies exploited over and over again in parts of the world that have had no contact with each other, just as is the case with biological strategies – hence, cultural convergence.

Back to top

The universality of the human family

Before we follow this line of argument any further, we must establish that the family is universal among stable societies; otherwise, in terms of the basic principles of development stated above, no society would be possible. The universality of the family was established by Murdock on the basis of a sample of 250 cultures, figuring in the Yale Cross-Cultural Index. This assumes his definition of the family as satisfying “sexual or reproductive, educational and economic requirements”. [25]

Are there any exceptions to this principle? A number have been proposed. The first is from Melford Spiro who considers that the family has largely been dispensed with in the Israeli kibbutzim. [26] This does not appear to be a serious objection. Firstly, the kibbutz is probably a transient form of social organisation. There is no evidence that it is stable. It is in any case a contrived one, in the sense that it has not developed by what might be called a ‘cultural evolution’, but has simply been established as an experimental social form.

Also, it is by no means certain that the family has in fact entirely been dispensed with. The kibbutz has undoubtedly taken over a number of the roles normally fulfilled by the family, such as the educative one (which in our own society has been taken over by the State), but the family still provides, to a certain extent at least, the protective environment within which the earlier phases of the socialisation process must occur. There is a more interesting exception, however, namely the Nayars of the Malabar coast, in what is now the Indian state of Kerala. [27]

The Nayars are a matrilineal and matrilocal people. They live in extended matrilineal families run by the oldest male (‘karanavan’). These extended families are organised into lineages. In the old days, every two years, these lineages would hold a grand ceremony at which all the girls who had reached puberty would be ritually married with men drawn from specific lineages with which theirs were linked. At these ceremonies the girls were presented with certain ritual gifts including a gold necklace referred to as a tali.

Following the ceremony, the girls were isolated with their husbands and deflowered, though this was apparently not a necessary part of the ceremony. Thenceforward the girl’s status changed. She was called Amma, meaning mother, and allowed to have children – not by the ritual husband who need have no further contact with either her or her children but by her lovers. These were referred to as ‘sambadham’. She could have as many as she liked though they had to be of the appropriate sub-caste and outside her lineage.

When she became pregnant it was essential that one of them should acknowledge probable paternity, which was done by providing a fee of a cloth and some vegetables to the midwife. If no such acknowledgement was forthcoming, it was assumed that the girl had had relations with a man of lower caste or with a Christian or a Moslem. This meant her expulsion from her society.

The duties of the sambadham from then onwards were limited to providing his mistress with gifts at festivities. He had nothing to do with the maintenance of the mother or the upbringing of the child, which was the duty of the karanavan, the chief male matrilineal relative. The children’s duties to the tali husband were limited to mourning at his death. The sambadham – whether the progenitor or not – were addressed as ‘accahan’ or Lord, but no kinship terms extended to their family and no mourning was observed at their death.

This organisation has defied customary classification. Many have maintained that it provides an exception to the principle of the universality of the family. Others (Murdock included) doubt whether this account of Nayar organisation is authentic.

The reason why it presents a classificatory problem is that our method of classification is wrong. We are accustomed to think of the family as consisting of a father, a mother, and some children, with possibly one or two grandparents attached. Instead we should think of it in terms of the functions it fulfils. The family would then be present if the family functions were fulfilled by individuals biologically and culturally adapted to do so. The community as a whole or a specialised institution would not qualify, for a family is a differentiated system at a particular level of organisation. Its functions must be fulfilled by individuals – and specific ones at that. The point is, however, that they need not all be fulfilled by the members of what we regard to be the family.

For each different function, in fact, the family system (seen functionally) can consist of a different set of individuals. Thus the first family function is to engender the child. Associated with this is that of satisfying sexual needs. Among the Nayars, the family system whose normal functioning achieved these ends was composed of a girl and the sambadham. The role of parents is to bestow upon the children the parental care and affection they require and to undertake the task of instilling in them the basic cultural values and of teaching them the fundamentals of the tasks they will have to fulfil in later life.

Among the Nayars, this function was fulfilled by the mother and her matrilineal lineage headed by the karanavan. Last but not least, a child requires an identity or a social status, the basis of which the family can alone provide – a point neglected by Murdock in his definition of the family. This was achieved by yet a third social system, that composed of the girl and her tali husband. Thus, the essential family functions were fulfilled in the case of the Nayar by three different social groupings. If we regard this as abnormal, it is only that in our Western society they tend to be fulfilled (in so far as they are fulfilled at all) by a single social grouping which we call the family.

What is more, it can be shown that the same principle holds for larger groups than the family. Thus, after reviewing the different criteria for determining what constitutes a political unit, Lucy Mair writes, “there are some societies of which it is difficult to say that there is one political community for all purposes.” [5]

Thus a tribe, which is often endogamous and hence the unit of behaviour for marital purposes, is divided into different lineages which are often the effective units of political life, which may themselves be paired off into moieties. These may or may not correspond with the village, which will be the unit of behaviour for a large number of social and economic functions, etc.

In addition, the men in particular will be divided into age groups, each with a particular function, which in turn may form part of wider age classes – the young, the adolescents and the elders. Furthermore, there will tend to be secret societies which are units of behaviour for magical and ritualistic purposes and working groups which will be the units of behaviour for various economic functions.

Back to top

How is the family held together?

The functions fulfilled within the family are designed to satisfy the needs of all the parties concerned. Thus, a father needs to behave in a fatherly way as much as a child requires that his father should do so (see the Hierarchical Co-operation Principle). The members of the family are thereby dependent on each other. It is this dependence which provides the bonds that hold the family together.

There are a number of different family bonds, such as those that hold together a father with his daughter, a mother with her son, a mother with her daughter, a man with his younger brother, a girl with her younger sister, a brother with his sister. These bonds are all different and also asymmetrical. The relationship of a father to his daughter, for instance, is very different from that of a daughter to her father. [22] The relationship of a father to his children differs even more noticeably from the mother 5 relationship with her children. According to Fromm:

“The love of a mother for her child, antecedent to that of the father, appears to be an unconditional love, whereas that of the father is conditional to the child’s ‘good’ behaviour or achievements.” [28]

This is reflected in the different relationships between a society and the gods it worships. As Fromm notes, it is no coincidence that most undisciplined and self-indulgent cultures have turned to a mother goddess, whereas more virile peoples, wishing to be judged according to their moral worth and their achievements, have chosen a paternal symbol as their chief deity.

What is important is that the basic differences between these bonds are exploited to determine culturally differentiated behaviour. It is only by maintaining this differentiation that co-operation is possible and that the society can display order or negative entropy.

Back to top

The exploitation of the family bonds

The fact that we tend to classify our social and physical environment in terms of the classificatory system applied to the different members of the family should be evident from our personal experience.

Tinbergen shows that we view our domestic pets in this way. Dogs with snub noses and high foreheads are particularly popular among women requiring a child surrogate. [23] Similarly, behaviour towards political leaders can only be understood if the latter are interpreted as fathers husbands, lovers, sons, grandsons, brothers, etc. One whose image does not permit such classification has little political future, indeed.

Even consumer products are regarded in this way. A camera with a huge telescopic lens dangling over the belly of a dashing young photographer is clearly regarded as an extension to his penis by admiring girls. In this connection, I remember a cartoon of a dapper little man with pince-nez hesitating at the motor-show between a staid family model and a fast sports car. The salesman was saying, “Well, Sir, it all depends whether you want a wife or a mistress.”

We have already noted that we regard the gods we worship as fathers, mothers, and children; what is not generally recognised, however, is that subconsciously we see the individual members of our community in much the same way.

Back to top

Kinship terminology

The fact that the family bonds are extended to embrace the members of the community is reflected in the elaborate kinship terminology developed by tribal societies, and in terms of which the whole community is classified. In this way a classificatory system, as Radcliffe Brown points out,

“may be applied over a wide range of relationships. Thus a first cousin of the father, being his father’s brother’s son, whom he therefore calls ‘brother’, is classified with the father and the same term ‘father’ is applied to him. His son in turn, a second cousin, is called ‘brother’. By this process of extension of the principle of classification, nearer and more distant collateral relatives are arranged into a few categories and a person has many relatives to whom he applies the term ‘father’ or ‘mother’ or ‘brother’ or ‘sister’.” [29]

The most important feature of these classificatory terminologies was pointed out long ago by Sir Henry Maine:

“The effect of the system is in general to bring within your mental grasp a much greater number of your kindred than is possible under a system to which we are accustomed. In other words, the classificatory terminology is primarily a mechanism which facilitates the establishment of wide-range systems of kinship.” [30]

What is more, as Radcliffe Brown observes,

“the attitude and behaviour of a person towards a particular person, is affected not only by the category to which he belongs but also by the degree of nearness or distance of the relationship. In classificatory systems there are many women whom a particular man calls ‘sister’. In some systems he will be prohibited from marrying these women. In some others he may not marry any ‘near sister’, i.e., any one of these women who is related to him within a certain degree of cognatic relationship, but may marry a more distant ‘sister’.” [29]

The important thing is that if people are referred to by different names there is a reason for it, and the reason appears to be that different names reflect expected differences in behaviour towards the people they refer to. Likewise, if two people are given the same name, it implies that the sort of behaviour due to both of them is the same. This is also the conclusion of Radcliffe Brown:

“I hold that all over the world there are important correspondences between kinship nomenclature and social practices.” [29]

In other words the elaborate kinship terminology used by tribal peoples reflects the fact that a tribal society is a highly differentiated system in which each individual has a specific identity and a specific role in terms of which it is only possible to understand the complex set of relationships between him and all the other members of his society.

Back to top

The community

If the family is universal, so is the community. [22] This is basically a group of families living together. It occurs in every known human society (even among the Eskimos, who, though they live in family groups throughout the summer, gather together with other family groups during the winter months). [31]

Communities have gone under various names. Among nomadic hunter-gatherers, who have made up probably more than 90 percent of the people who have ever lived on this planet, they tend to be referred to as bands. They differ from the communities of sedentary peoples, in that they tend to be less permanent.

Communities can be made up of anything from 50 to a 1,000 or so people. The upper limit is set, in the words of Linton, by:

“the practical impossibility of establishing close contacts with and developing habitual attitudes towards any greater number of people.” [32]

How are the family bonds exploited to hold together the community, and to give rise to still larger units?

Back to top

The clan

One device for exploiting the family bonds is to divide the society into clans which transcend other groupings. According to Murdock, the clan appears to be present in at least half of the traditional societies examined:

“Whereas the community is made up of consanguinal and affinal relatives, the clan will be made up of consanguinal ones, either traced on the mother’s side (matriclan), on the father’s side (patriclan), or very occasionally via the uncle (avuncuclan).” [22]

Both groupings will be made up of people of different sexes and of different age groups held together by a complete set of family bonds. It is not surprising that they will simply be replicas of the family unit on a larger scale.

In patrilineal and patrilocal societies, there will be a tendency towards an ‘atomistic’ organisation of society, with the creation of more clearly defined social units; thus each tribesman or citizen will belong to his father’s kinship group and will also reside among his father’s kinsmen. Lowie [4] quotes the case of the Australian Den, among whom descent is matrilineal but whose marriage is patrilocal. In this case the territorial unit exists with and is independent of the kinship unit.

It is clear that as a result of this institution the different clans are closely linked to each other. Indeed, as a result of this, the Deri constitute a nation and have a paramount chief. This is not the case, however, of the Kanera, who are in other respects a similar people, but are patrilineal and patrilocal. The divisions between the clans in their case are much greater, there is no paramount chief, and in fact the Kanera do not constitute a political unit of any kind.

This provides an interesting illustration of the variety of different social systems which can be built up by exploiting the basic family bonds in the appropriate way.

What is important is that, whenever a full set of family bonds is exploited to create a social unit other than a family, the larger unit will invariably reflect the family’s structure, since the family provides the only model for holding it together.

Back to top

Larger society reflects basic communal structure

In traditional tribal and supra-tribal groupings, when the social unit is larger than the local community, secondary groupings clearly reflect the basic ones of family, clan and tribe. In Athens, the army was originally organised in exactly the same way. In The Iliad, we find Nestor reminding Agamemnon of the rule to dispose of his men by tribes and phatries:

“That phatry may assist phatry, and tribe may assist tribe.” [33]

According to Glotz,

“all the public services, whether one considers the army, the navy, and what one may call the exchequer, respected the natural groupings, without which the city could not exist.” [34]

Basic social structure was also reflected in the structure and form of tribal and supra-tribal groupings, as pointed out by Linton. [32] Thus the Iroquois had a single basic pattern of formal control which extended from the household through clan, village and tribe to the League itself. They themselves recognised this continuity, referring to the League as the ‘Long House’ and emphasising its similarity to a household. Again, the confederations of the Tuareg, with their noble and servile tribes, were a direct projection of the tribal organisation with its noble and serf families. Linton writes:

“The transformations of such alliances into organised political units seems to require special conditions. The patterns of confederate governments are, almost without exception, projections of those of the tribal governments with which their members are familiar. While these patterns always have to be somewhat modified to meet the new conditions, there is a clearly recognisable continuity.” [32]

Back to top

Settlement patterns

A traditional society’s social structure is also reflected in its very well defined laws of residence. These will largely determine the nature of the bonds linking one person to another and, thereby, the character of the community. Whatever be these rules, the members of the community will be related to each other, or at least, and this is more important, they will regard themselves as related to each other.

The arrangement of the houses in a traditional village also reflects its social structure. [35] That is why transforming a local village so that it conforms to the Western model and forcing the inhabitants to live in modern housing estates or townships causes such terrible social disruption. This is pointed out by Levi-Strauss [36] with reference to the Bororo of Brazil and also by Robert Jaulin [37] with reference to the Motilone Indians on the frontier between British Guiana and Brazil.

Back to top

Land tenure

The same principle applies to land tenure. A man has a right to a specific piece of land because of his specific position within the social group. In ideal conditions the pattern of land tenure reflects the society’s social structure. [38]

In all cases, as Sir Henry Maine pointed out, the land is an aspect of the group, but not the basis of grouping. [30] A man does not derive his status from the ownership of a piece of land, but rather obtains ownership of a piece of land by virtue of his status. Land tenure, in fact, is based on status not on contract. Since this status reflects a man’s exact position in his society’s social structure, the latter must be faithfully reflected in its principles of land tenure.

Back to top

Economic and social units coincide

Not surprisingly, in a traditional society, the units of economic activity tend to coincide with those into which man is organised for all other social requirements, i.e., the family and the community. With us, a man’s social position is to a certain extent, and possibly increasingly determined by his economic position. In a traditional society it is the other way around:

“He tends to hold his economic position in virtue of his social position. Hence to displace him economically means a social disturbance.” [39]

We have described how, in general, the basic social structure underlying the organisation of the traditional community is reflected in all its activities. This was undoubtedly the case in Rome until late in its history. In the classical world, however, changes occurred which made survival of traditional social forms increasingly difficult. Societies became bigger, empires were established, mobility increased, and certain activities, such as warfare, trade, and industry, began to play so important a role that the natural balance within a traditional society became seriously impaired.

As this occurred, normal rules of residence determining the social structure of communities and their relationship with other key groupings, such as the clan, were subordinated to new, usually economic, considerations. Social order gave way to social randomness or entropy. The basic units of society ceased to be highly differentiated and self-regulating natural systems and increasingly became random groups of individuals held together by what bond is afforded by sheer contiguity and via the agency of governmental institutions, i.e. asystemic controls.

In Athens, this situation led to the famous reforms of Cleisthenes in 409 B.C. by which the deme became the basic administrative unit of the Athenian State. In the same way the Roman gens, originally a kinship group, eventually became a territorial unit, in spite of which the fiction of common ancestry was for a long time maintained.

Among the ancient Jews the same reforms were made by King Solomon. [40] The country was divided into territorial units which did not in fact coincide with the ancient tribal territories. It seems that some of the tribes actually came into existence in this way, since they appear to have been named after the district which they occupied, (Gillead, Benjamin, Ephraim). Lods writes,

“The early groupings, based originally on consanguinity (natural or artificial), tended to become territorial aggregations. The clan finally became synonymous with the population of a town . . . Membership of a tribe consisted not in descent to a particular individual but in belonging by birth to a particular territory.” [40]

Once settled in Canaan, the Israelites soon reached the stage of the peasants of Khorassan, of whom the Arabs say contemptuously: “their villages are their pedigrees”. Calif Omar urged his Arabs to preserve their pedigree and not to become like the peasants of Iraq, who, to the question, “Whence art thou?” (i.e. from what tribe?), were wont to reply, “from such-and-such a village.”

Thus, Lods tells us that among the Jews, even after the establishment of the tribes as geographical units,

“the tribes also retained their faith in genealogies, however fictitious these might be, and in their rival claims to pre-eminence, as exemplified for instance in the arrangement of the sons of Jacob in the official genealogy and in the jibes directed against various tribes in certain early poems.” [40]

As Lods points out, rather than accept the facts of new social groupings, they

“imposed their own social framework upon the population of the country.” [40]

Among the Mexicans, according to Thompson,

“at the time of the Aztec collapse, the clans or calpulli functioned more as geographic units than as units based on kinship.” [41]

It is probable that, as these territorial associations ceased to reflect the basic family structure, they also ceased to constitute viable social units, for it meant that the complex set of bonds capable of holding them together had become seriously eroded.

Back to top

Secondary groupings

The extension of the family bonds to link together all the members of a stable community requires the exploitation of still more subtle cultural devices. Most notably, the community is bound together by a veritable cobweb of secondary associations of different sorts.

Durkheim fully realised that a society could only be held together if organised hierarchically into groups and subgroups; that a society, in fact, could only be built up by associating smaller units among which effective bonds could be created, and that these bonds were necessary not only to create the societies, but to satisfy the special requirements of their individual members (the Hierarchical Co-operation Principle). Thus, he writes:

“A nation can be maintained only if, between the State and the individual, there is intercalated a whole series of secondary groups near enough to the individuals to attract them strongly in their sphere of action and drag them, in this way, into the general torrent of social life.” [42]

The absence of these “secondary groupings”, according to Durkheim, is one of the principle reasons for the instability of the modern Nation State.

Durkheim was particularly impressed with the structure of Roman and later Medieval trade associations. Indeed, Roman trade guilds were formed on the same model as the family and the gens, with a religious centre and a patron deity. They were referred to as collegia dedicated to Minerva, the goddess of handiwork. Their development is traced very carefully by Durkheim. [42]

According to Waltzing, the guilds were primarily religious organisations.

“Each one had its particular god whose cult was celebrated in a special temple when the means were available. In the same way as each family had its lar and familiaris, each city its genius publicus, each organisation had its protective god, genius collegii. Naturally, this occupational cult did not dispense with celebrations, with sacrifices and banquets in common . . . As corollary to this religious character, the organisation of workmen was, at the same time, a burial society. United in a cult during their lives, like the Gentiles, the members of these populations also wished to rest together after death.” [43]

Durkheim then asks:

“A common cult, common banquets, a common cemetery, all united together – are these not all the distinctive characteristics of the domestic organisation at the time of the Romans? Thus it has been said that the Roman population was a great family. The community of interests took the place of a community of blood.” [42]

This view is shared by Waltzing who notes that:

“The members looked upon themselves as brothers even to the extent of calling themselves by that name . . . The protectors of the organisation often took the names of father and mother.” [43]

Other secondary groupings that we may consider include age grades and military organisations.

Back to top

Age grades

The division of a society into age grades is common to most traditional societies. This division plays an essential role in education, since in proceeding from one age grade to the next the child is subjected to that ordered sequence of different influences that will ensure its socialisation or education (see the Sequential Principle).

At the same time, and by the same token, the different age grades provide the basis for the most fundamental specialisation of functions within a traditional society. Also, membership of a common age grade creates one of the most powerful social bonds. As Lowie writes:

“Simultaneous initiation creates ties transcending the bonds due to equal status.” [4]

Among the Masai warriors and pastoralists of East Africa, according to Lowie, the boys and immature girls are separated from the rest of the community. During the period of the initiation to enable a boy to rank as a warrior, he is a neophyte. For the first two years following this, he is an apprentice (shaved one); then he figures as a fully-fledged Brave, until he is about 29, when he marries, leaves the bachelor’s kraal, and assumes for the remainder of his life the dignity of an Elder.

Special clothes and emblems distinguish certain periods. Each age class must assert itself by its prowess in war, and to this end there is a great deal of competition with the other age classes. The bonds exploited to hold together age grades can only be those which hold together brothers of the same family. Indeed, as could be expected, their members refer to each other as brothers.

Back to top

Military organisations

Among warlike societies a strong social bond is that existing between different members of the same military clubs. Among the Crow Indians, it is said that there were originally eight of these. The number dwindled to four: the muddy hands; the big dog; the foxes; and the lumpwoods. From the 1970s onwards, only the last two were in full vigour. Each society had its dance and song and distinctive badges. Membership was independent of clan and entry was informal. The organisation was extremely complicated and involved much ritual.

The ‘foxes’ club is described in detail by Lowie. [4] It is clear from his description how important was the role played in the life of the Crow by these clubs. Their ambitions and motivations were influenced by them to an enormous extent, whereas ordinary egoistic preoccupations or family ones were submerged by the desire for success or prestige in these associations.

Back to top

Criss-cross linkages

In this way every member of the tribe is closely associated in some way with every other member, for if a person is not associated with another by being a member of the same family or clan, he is certain to be associated with him by belonging to the same military group, economic unit, secret society, etc. The members of a traditional society are thereby linked in a veritable cobweb of relationships in which all must be caught up in some way.

A man has a status in each of the groupings to which he belongs and in any society his total status is, as Linton writes, “the sum total of all the statuses which he occupies. It represents his position with relation to the total society”. [32] As a result of this particular structure of society, a man has a very definite status, which he lacks in a mass society such as ours.

This lack of status from which man suffers in mass society is what Durkheim calls ‘anomie’. Marx and others have referred to the same phenomenon as ‘alienation’ – or loneliness in a crowd, which is so much worse than loneliness in a desert.

Each individual in a tribal society is a highly differentiated member of the society and, as a result, it functions as a highly differentiated system. Modern mass societies, by contrast, are merely assemblies of undifferentiated individuals held together by common institutions.

Back to top

The role of religion

In our irreligious age, the importance of religion as a means of maintaining a society’s social structure, and thereby assuring stable government, is grossly underrated.

We forget that, in a traditional society, religion is very much part of a society’s culture, so much so as to be indissociable from it. Indicative of this is the fact that there is no word for ‘religion’ in the language of traditional societies. The reason is that there is simply no need for it. ‘religio’ meant simply ‘matters of state’ – and it never occurred to anyone that these could be dealt with on any basis but that which we would refer to as religious.

Why is religion so important? One of the answers is that the elaborate social structure of a traditional society, if it is to be maintained, must be sanctified, i.e. provided with a divine or supernatural protection. Empirically, this can be verified, since there is no instance of anything approaching a stable society among people who were not deeply religious, and whose religion was not an integral part of their culture, serving to regulate their behaviour towards their social and physical environment. In order to sanctify a society’s social structure, the gods must be organised in such a way that they faithfully reflect it.

On this subject, Francis L. K. Hsu shows that among the Chinese “the world of the spirits is approximately a copy of, and strictly a supplement to, the world of the living”. [44] The same is true of all traditional societies. The family, the tribe, and other groupings are thereby religious units as well as social ones.

The important role of the father in most traditional societies is largely due to his position as head of the family cult, just as the importance of the tribal chief lay in his position as high priest of the tribe, and that of the king as high priest of the association of tribes, as in the ancient City State.

The religion of a traditional society also plays an important part in ensuring the continuity of the society. The gods are identified with the society’s ancestors, and they are organised according to the same plan as the living, for they are considered to have retained their social identity even in death. A tribal society is said to be made up of the living, the dead, and the yet to be born – i.e. it has total continuity.

Back to top

Religion in a disintegrating society

Since the organisation of the gods reflects a society’s structure, it is not surprising that the disintegration of a society is accompanied by a change in the structure of its pantheon. The principal god finds himself isolated. Instead of being but primus inter pares, he is now alone and reigns supreme.

Also, with the disintegration of its culture, the society loses precisely those features that distinguish it from its neighbours, and, as a result, the realm of the principal god slowly spreads. From being a tribal god, he gradually develops into a universal one. As this occurs, so religion loses its social functions. Slowly it becomes simply an institution for providing solace to increasingly alienated individuals.

Robertson Smith traces the beginning of the idea of a universal God among the Semites to a phenomenon he refers to as “clienthood to God”, which slowly arose with the breakdown of social structures and the increased promiscuity of people that followed the development of trade. He writes,

“Hereditary priesthoods of Arabian sanctuaries were often in the hands of families that did not belong to the tribe of worshippers but were apparently descended from older inhabitants, and in such cases the modern worshippers were only clients of a foreign god.” [45]

The same tendency is seen in the development of the practice of pilgrimage to foreign shrines.

“Almost all Arabia met at Mecca, and the shrine of Hierapolis drew visitors from the whole Semitic world.” [45]

Unlike the family gods of tribal society, these foreign gods were too remote to have a permanent and pervading influence upon the daily life of society. The gods had become distinct from the social structure; they could no longer serve to sanctify the family as a unit, nor the moral behaviour of the Islamic people.

In this respect, the Islamic state offers a perfect contrast to the ancient Hellenic city. The Hellenic city was made up of families. The original pre-Solonic and pre-Lycurgan legal codes reflected the importance of the family; crimes committed by an individual were considered the responsibility of his family and compensation had to be paid to the family of the victims. In this respect, Hellenic law was similar to that of primitive man. In neither case did the individual have any specific existence except as a member of a family and of a clan.

The clans were organised as the tribes which in turn were organised into the city state. Theseus, who was considered the founder of Athens, was in fact the king responsible for unifying the tribes. The notion of duty was all-dominating. Duty was due to the family, to the clan, to the tribe, and to the city. The duty to the gods was important because the gods too were members of the same social units.

Von Grunebaum points to the essential characteristic of Islamic society, i.e., the substitution of religious affiliation for kinship as a rationale of social organisation. [46] Apart from economic considerations, the inhabitants had in common the fact that they shared a common religion. The result of this was that they had no duty towards their fellow men and hence their community.

Whereas the Hellenic state was characterised by a high level of honesty and integrity, there was nothing in the Islamic state to prevent each man from exploiting his neighbour. So stable was the Hellenic State in its hey-day that the mechanisms of government were reduced to the minimum, and there was nothing to correspond to the modern police force, which is required to maintain precarious order in heterotelic communities.

The Hellenes prided themselves on the fact that their cities were run by the citizens. In the Islamic State the citizens had no hand in government. In the Hellenic State public opinion was the sovereign power. Demoukratos was not an empty phrase nor a legalistic fiction, but the institutionalisation of demouphemos, i.e. public opinion. In the Islamic State, public opinion was of no account; the public was broken up into a mass of individuals and did not form a homeotelic unit capable of expressing itself.

In the Hellenic state there was, as a result, a tradition of self-government. Tyrants were infrequent and their advent to power was considered the worst fate that could overcome a city. In the Islamic state, on the other hand, tyranny has always been the only known form of government.

In the Hellenic state the centre of the city was the Agora; a city without an Agora was inconceivable to the Greeks. In the Islamic state the Agora was replaced by the Mosque. This clearly symbolises how duty to the community was replaced by duty to God. In fact, the Moslem town was not a body politic at all, any more than is a modern Nation State. As von Grunebaum writes,

“A given town may at a given moment enjoy independence or self-government, in the sense that it is not subjected to an outside power of whose territory it forms but one part. Sovereignty and freedom may fall to it accidentally, as it were; self-government with executive officials designated by the full citizens there never could be, for the city constituted not a closed corporation, a share in which defines the citizen, but merely a functionally unified, administrative entity with a more or less stable complement of settlers or inhabitants. To such cities Plato’s characterisation of certain states as ‘merely aggregations of men dwelling in cities who are the subjects and servants of a part of their own state’ could fittingly be applied. There were no qualifications to be met to obtain admission to citizenship in the Moslem town for the simple reason that there was no body of town dwellers in whom political or civic authority was seen to reside.” [46]

Back to top

The social structure of the physical environment

If a society is to function as a natural self-regulating system, it must be able to respond to its environment with a behaviour pattern that constitutes a single integrated whole. Such a behaviour pattern will only be possible if the society has at its disposal a single integrated model of its relationship with the environment, a model which is to be achieved by classifying the total environment in terms of the same basic classificatory system.

If we look at our modern States, we see that the different aspects of their behaviour are almost entirely unconnected with each other. Although there are other factors involved, the situation is made inevitable by the division of science into separate watertight compartments, between which there is only the most superficial contact.

Tribal man does not turn to a compartmentalised science for an understanding of his physical environment; instead, he classifies its constituent parts in terms of the classificatory system which he uses for the members of his society and the gods that make up his pantheon. Because of the fundamental importance which he attaches to the structure of his society, he cannot conceive of any part of his environment as not organised in a similar fashion.

Durkheim and Mauss surveyed the systems used by the Australian aborigines, the Zuni and Sioux Indians, and the Chinese to classify the natural world. Noting the common belief that man began to conceive things by relating them to himself, they argue that the schemes they have considered are characterised not so much by anthropocentricity as by sociocentricity:

“The centre of the first schemes of nature is not the individual: it is society. Nothing shows this more clearly than the way in which the Sioux retain the whole universe, in a way, within the limits of tribal space, and we have seen how universal space itself is nothing more than the site occupied by the tribe, only indefinitely extended beyond its real limits. It is by virtue of the same mental disposition that so many peoples have placed the centre of the world, ‘the navel of the earth’, in their own political or religious capital, i.e. at the place which is the centre of their moral life. Similarly, but in another order of ideas, the creative force of the universe and everything in it was first conceived as a mythical ancestor, the generator of the society.” [47]

The Zuni system of classifying the natural environment is an excellent illustration of sociocentricity. According to Durkheim and Mauss,

“what we find among the Zuni is a veritable arrangement of the universe. All beings and facts in nature, ‘the sun, moon and stars, the sky, earth and sea, in all their phenomena and elements; and all inanimate objects, as well as plants, animals and men, are classified, labelled and assigned to fixed places in a unique and integrated system’, in which all the parts are co-ordinated and subordinated one to another by ‘degrees of resemblance’. In the form in which we now find it, the principle of this system is a division of space into seven regions.’ north, south, west, east, zenith, nadir, and the centre. Everything in the universe is assigned to one or other of these seven regions.” [47]

These regions appear to coincide with the main divisions of Zuni society. In the words of Durkheim and Mauss, “this division of the world is exactly the same as that of the clans within the pueblo”.

In industrial societies, sociocentricity has given way to egocentricity: the physical environment is no longer classified in terms of social structures that have largely disintegrated, but rather in terms of the experience of their alienated individual members, and the society is no longer under control.

Back to top

Conclusion and implications

To understand the true function and importance of the family, it is necessary to view it cross-culturally and cross-behaviourally, and in terms of the basic theoretical principles underlying the behaviour of natural systems at all levels of organisation – i.e. in terms of a General Model of Behaviour, embryonic though it may be at the present time. In doing this it becomes clear that the family is the basic unit of social behaviour.

This means that its development constitutes the earliest, most general, and most important phase of the process leading to the development of a society and its renewal with each generation – a process we have referred to as ‘sociosynthesis’. This stage will colour all subsequent ones (the Generality Principle). If it does not occur, then the process as a whole will not occur – or more precisely, it will not constitute an integral whole, which is required if it is to be adaptive, i.e. if it is to tend towards stability (the Sequential Principle).

Seen slightly differently, as sociosynthesis proceeds, so new levels of organisation are achieved. As in phylogeny, a higher level cannot be achieved without first passing through the intermediary ones. Thus, if there is no cell there can be no biological organism. In the same way, if there is no family, there can be no community.

By examining the process whereby families are associated to form a community, we see why this must be so.

  • Firstly, it is only by exploiting that set of asymmetrical bonds which link together the different members of the family that the members of a community can be associated with each other to form an effective community.
  • Secondly, it is only in terms of that classificatory system applied to the different members of the family that members of the community can be classified, and that, as a result, the community can be viewed as a differentiated system displaying a high degree of order or negative-entropy.

It is also in terms of the same classificatory system that a society’s gods, and also, to a certain extent, its physical environment are classified. Only in this way can a society’s world-view provide it with a single integrated model of its relationship with its total environment.

With the breakdown of the extended family, the classificatory system based upon it, inevitably, breaks down. As this occurs, the society comes increasingly to be regarded as consisting of largely independent individuals. There is progressive erosion of those constraints which must be imposed on the individual’s behaviour if it is to be compatible with the survival of the family and the community.

As attitudes change, the physical environment is no longer seen sociocentrically, but comes to be regarded egocentrically in terms of its capacity to satisfy individual (heterotelic) needs. At the same time, the gods are called upon increasingly to provide catharsis for socially deprived individuals and lose their socially and ecologically stabilising functions.

The result is that the society is deprived of continuity, both with regard to its own past experience and in its relationship with the environment. In fact the society finally ceases to constitute a system at all – it is simply a mass of socially unrelated individuals among whom a semblance of order, however superficial, can only be maintained by means of increasingly powerful external or asystemic controls: bureaucracies, dictators, etc. These are no substitute for the internal or systemic controls which alone can maintain social stability.

In the absence of systemic controls, those who dominate the society increase its instability by adopting expedients that favour their own short term interests at the expense of the long-term interests of the society as a whole. These expedients are likely to be increasingly destructive as the problems that arise become more serious and as the technology available for their implementation becomes more sophisticated. Furthermore, as the world is drawn into the orbit of the industrial system, social and ecological instabilities increase on a global scale – and are likely to continue until they lead to socio-economic collapse.


Back to top


4. Robert Lowie, “Primitive Society” Routledge and Kegan Paul, London 1963.
19. Sigmund Freud, Totem and Taboo. Routledge and Kegan Paul, London 1950.
20. W Trotter, The instinct of the herd in Peace and War. Fisher Unwin, London 1916.
21. Bronislaw Malinowski, Sex and Repression in Savage Society, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London 1961.
22. George Peter Murdock, Social Structure, The Free Press, New York 1965.
23. N. Tinbergen, The Study of lnstinct. The Clarendon Press, Oxford 1951.
24. Edward Goldsmith, “Education: what for?” The Ecologist Vol. 4 No. 1, January 1974.
25. George Peter Murdock, “Changing emphasis in social structure”. In G. P. Murdock (ed.) Culture and Society. University of Pittsburg Press, Pittsburg 1965.
26. Melford E. Spiro, “Is the family universal? The Israeli case”. In Norman W. Bell and Ezra F. Vogel (eds.), A Modern Introduction to the Family. The Free Press, New York 1960.
27. E. Kathleen Gough, “Is the family universal? The Nayar case”. In Norman W. Bell and Ezra F. Vogel (eds.), A Modern Introduction to the Family. The Free Press, New York 1960.
28. Erich Fromm, The Art of Loving, Unwin, London 1957.
29. A. R. Radcliffe Brown, Structure and Function in Primitive Society. Cohen and West, London 1965.
30. Sir Henry Maine, Ancient Law. London 1861.
31. Jeannette Mirsky, “The Eskimos of Greenland”. In Margaret Mead (ed.), Cooperation and Competition among Primitive Peoples. Beacon Press, Boston 1961.
32. Ralph Linton, The Study of Man. Peter Owen, London 1965.
33. Homer, The Iliad 2/362.
34. G. Gloz, The Greek City. Routledge and Kegan Paul, London 1950.
35. Amos Rappoport, “The Ecology of Housing”, The Ecologist Vol. 3 No. 1, January 1973.
36. Claude Levi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques’. Plon, Paris 1955,
37. Robert Jaulin, “Ethnocide”, The Ecologist Vol. 1 No. 18, December 1971.
38. Paul Bohannon, “Africa’s Land”. The Centennial Review Vol. LV, 1960.
39. Raymond Firth, The Flements of Social Organisation. C.A. Watts & Co, London 1951.
40. Adolphe Lods, Israel: From its Beginnings to the Middle of the Eighth Century. Routledge and Kegan Paul, London 1932.
41. J. E. S. Thompson, Mexico Before Cortez. New York 1932.
42. Emile Durkheim, “The solidarity of occupational groups”. In Talcott Parsons (ed.), Theories of Society. The Free Press, New York 1970.
43. J. P. Waltzing, Etude Historique sur les Corporations Professionelles chez les Romains’ (4 volumes). Memoir of the Royal Academy of Belgium, Charles Peeters, Louvain 1895-1900.
44. Francis L. K. Hsu, Under the Ancestor’s Shadow. Routledge and Kegan Paul, London 1949.
45. W. Robertson Smith, Essays on the Religion of the Semites. Adams and Charles Black, Lotidoit 1914.
46. G. E. Von Grunebaum, Islam: Essays on the Nature and Growth of a Cultural Tradition. Routledge and Kegan Paul, London 1955.
47. Emile Durkheim and Marcel Mauss, Primitive Classification. University of Chicago Press, Chicago 1963.
  • Twitter
  • Facebook
  • Digg
  • Reddit
  • StumbleUpon
  • Diaspora
  • Identi.ca
  • email
  • Add to favorites
Back to top