October 23, 2017

The social structure of the environment

From Towards a Unified Science, The Ecologist Vol. 2 No. 3, March 1972. Reproduced in Society, the magazine of the Social Studies Association, July 1972.

The fundamental importance primitive man attaches to the structure of his society is reflected in his tendency to attribute to it some sort of ‘absolute reality’. He cannot conceive of any part of his environment as not being organised in a similar fashion. The natural world is therefore made to reflect this structure.

Durkheim and Mauss survey the classificatory system of the Australian aborigines, the Zuni and Sioux Indians, and the Chinese. They conclude that socio-centricity is perhaps even more pronounced than anthropocentricity:

“It has quite often been said that man began to conceive things by relating them to himself. The above allows us to see more precisely what this anthropocentrism which might better be called sociocentricism, consists of. 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.” [1]

The Zuni system of classifying the natural environment is so illustrative of this principle that I shall quote Mauss and Durkheim in full

“Indeed, 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 or these seven regions. To mention only the seasons and the elements, the wind, breeze or air, and the winter season, are attributed to the north; water the spring, and its damp breezes, to the west; fire and summer to the south; the earth, seeds and the frosts which bring the seeds to maturity at the end of the year, to the east. The pelican, crane, grouse, sagecock, the evergreen, oak, etc., are things of the north; the bear, coyote, and spring grass are things of the west. With the east are classed the deer, antelope, turkey, etc. Not only things, but social functions also are distributed in this way. The north is the region of force and destruction; war and destruction belong to it; to the west, peace (as we render the word ‘war cure’ which we do not quite understand), and hunting; to the south, the region of heat, agriculture and medicine; to the east, the region of the sun, magic and religion; to the upper world and the lower world are assigned diverse combinations of these functions.

“A particular colour is attributed to each region and characterises it. The north is yellow because, it is said, the light is yellow when the sun rises and sets; the west is blue because of the blue light that is seen at sunset. The south is red because it is the region of’ summer and fire, which is red. The east is white because it is the colour of the day. The upper regions are streaked with colours like the play of light among the clouds; the lower regions are black like the depths or the earth. As for the centre, the navel of the world, representative of all the regions it is all the colours simultaneously.

“So far, it seems that we are in the presence of a classification which is quite different from those which we have first examined. But there is something which allows us to suppose that there is a close link between the two Systems, viz. that this division of the world is exactly the same as that of the clans within the pueblo. This also is ‘divided’, not always very clearly to the eye but very clearly in the estimation of the people themselves, into seven parts, corresponding, not perhaps in arrangement topographically, but in sequence to their sub-divisions of the ‘worlds’ . . . Thus, one division of the town is supposed to be related to the north . . . another division represents the west, another the south, etc. The relationship is so close that each of the quarters of the pueblo has its characteristic colour, as do the regions: and this colour is that of the corresponding region.” [1]

In ‘advanced societies’ the physical environment is no longer classified it terms of social structures that have largely disintegrated but rather in of the experience of their individual members.

In other words, as society disintegrates, sociocentricity gives way to egocentricity.

The sociocentric view of the gods

The same principle is illustrated by the tendency for primitive societies to view their gods as reflecting their own social organisation.

Thus the Alorese [2] live on an island and thereby are isolated from any potential enemies. This has permitted the development of an extremely loose society. Few constraints are applied at a level higher than that of the family, and even this unit is very weak, the average Alorese being undisciplined, self-indulgent, and having little regard for any authority of any kind. Their pantheon appears to reflect this social organisation very closely. Thus: they have a culture hero and a supreme deity but they play a very small part in their thoughts. Ancestral spirits are more important but behaviour to them is loose and undisciplined, just as it is towards their parents.

“So slight is the tendency to idealise the parental image that the effigies by which the Alorese represent these ancestral spirits are made in the most careless and slipshod manner, and are used in the most perfunctory way and then forthwith discarded. There is no tendency to give the deity permanent housing or idealised forms. The dead are merely pressing and insistent predators who can enforce their demands through supernatural powers. This is precisely the experience of the child with his parents. Hence he obeys reluctantly and grudgingly.” [2]

Goode [3] shows how the religious system of the Manus, a small nation of traders and fishermen, who also have a loose social organisation, regard their gods as organised in the same way. Their religious system, according to Goode,

“. . . is highly individualistic, in that the sacred entity worshipped is the spirit of one person, usually the father, though sometimes it may be the son or brother, or one who stood in the mother’s brother-sister’s relationship.” [3]

The Swazi have developed a cohesive and hierarchically organised society, and, according to Hilda Kuper [4] they regard their gods as organised in exactly the same way:

“In the ancestral cult, the world of the living is projected into a world of spirits (emadloti). Men and women, old and young, aristocrats and commoners, continue the patterns of superiority and inferiority established by earthly experiences. Paternal and maternal spirits exercise complementary roles, similar to those operating in daily life on earth; the paternal role reinforces legal and economic obligations; the maternal exercises a less formalised protective influence. Although the cult is set in a kinship framework, it is extended to the nation through the king, who is regarded as the father of all Swazi; his ancestors are the most powerful of all the spirits.” [4]

In Dahomey, a centralised kingdom was developed at an early stage in their history. According to Herskovits [5]

“the organisation of the Dahomean gods is a reflection of the organisation of the society, though in a somewhat rough fashion. This includes the idea of reigning over a kingdom and of a hierarchy of organisation influencing all aspects of the social and economic life.” [5]

Francis L. K. Hsu shows that

“the world of spirits is approximately a copy of, and strictly a supplement to, the world of the living.” [6]

It is interesting to note that as a society disintegrates so does 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, since the society as its culture disintegrates, loses precisely those features that distinguish it from its neighbours, so the realm of the principal god slowly spreads. From being a tribal god, so he slowly ends up as a universal one.

Robertson Smith traces the beginning of the idea of a universal god among the Semites to a phenomenon he referred 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 eases the modern worshippers were only clients of a foreign god. So in fact at the great Sabaean Shrine of Riyam, the god T’liav is adored as patron and his worshippers are called his clients.

“This same tendency is seen in the development of the practice of pilgrimage to distant shrines. ‘Almost all Arabia met at Mecca, as the shrine of Hierapolis drew visitors from the whole semitic world’ …

These pilgrims were the guests of the gods . . . they approached the gods as strangers, not with the old joyous confidence of national confidence but with atoning ceremonies and rites of self mortification and then acts of worship were then carefully prescribed for them by qualified instructors, the prototypes of the modern Meccan motan wif. The progress of heathenism towards universalism, as it is displayed in these usages, seemed only to widen the gulf between the Deity and man; to destroy the naive trustfulness of the old religion without substituting a better way for man to be as one with his god; to weaken the moral ideas of nationality without bringing in a higher morality of universal obligation. To transform the divine kingship into a mere court pageant of priestly ceremonies without permanent influences on the order of society and daily life.” [7]

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1. E. Durkheim and M. Mauss, Primitive Classification, pp. 43-44. University of Chicago Press 1963.
2. A. Kardiner, The Psychological Frontiers of Society, p. 167. Columbia University Press, New York 1945.
3. W. Goode, Religion Among the Primitives, p. 64. Free Press of Glencoe: Collier-Macmillan, London, 1964.
4. H. Kuper, The Swazi: A South African Kingdom, p.58. Holt, Rhinehart, Winston, New York, 1963.
5. M. J. Herskovits, Dahomey, 1938. Quoted by Goode, op.cit. p. 56.
6. F. L. K. Hsu, Under the Ancestors Shadow, pp. 241-242. Routledge and Kegan Paul, London, 1949.
7. W. Robertson Smith, Essays on the Religion of the Semites, p. 30. Adams and Charles Black, London, 1914.
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