Systems of social organization as an element of culture: An introduction
One characteristic of human societies as they advance along the continuum of civilization is that they become increasingly organized. Small-scale systems -- or "micro-systems" -- of organzation might include such units as the family, a system which, arguably, is present even in some non-human societies. Other micro-systems might include living groups, work teams (eg. hunting parties), or communal groups which share tasks and products among themselves.
As societies become larger and more advanced, large-scale systems -- or "macro-systems" -- of social organization are usually developed. Necessity, in this case, is indeed the mother of invention:
These are just a few examples of how human societies organize themselves. These systems of social organization grow out of the culture of which they are a part, and at the same time their emergence changes the culture by becoming a part of it. The systems a society devises (or has imposed on it) to organize itself become a part of the system of cultural meanings in which they operate. Thus, in a U.S. culture whose governmental premise is that all people are created equal and can advance according to their own merits, and whose economic system allots a certain value to each person's productive role, citizens are to some degree judged by the outward tokens of their advancement and value: material possessions like houses, cars, clothes, and leisure pursuits. The organizational systems are, in this sense, inseparable from the cultural meaning systems; one cannot fully understand one without understanding the other.
- As larger and larger groups of people cluster into small, centralized geographic spaces of cities, the relationship of a person to her neighbor becomes increasingly important. In order to live harmoniously in proximity, rules governing peoplešs conduct toward one another become important. This need, among others, helps to provide support for the institution of government -- even governments which are established by invasion and conquest can help to meet this need.
- The progress of human civilization, regardless of how that progress is defined, depends crucially upon advancement beyond subsistence-level activity. Such advancement involves a number of factors: development of agricultural techniques, the improvement of technology (typically, although not essentially, through the development of metallurgical technologies), the ability to record knowledge in writing (literacy), etc. All of these factors benefit from the specialization of human productive efforts -- from the fact that one person can specialize in the spinning of cloth, another can specialize in making soap, another can invest the energy and time in becoming literate and recording important information in writing. Specialization, however, means that most members of society are primarily producing for other members -- rather than meeting their own needs for subsistence, they are creating products meant to be exchanged with their peers. This increased emphasis on exchange typically leads to development of increasingly complex economic systems, systems governing the way products are exchanged between members of society.
- With specialization and the interdependence it entails, a society incurs upon itself the necessity to produce specialized skills to meet the needs of the group. If, for example, there is a tremendous societal need for metal products but too few metal workers to meet that need, society as a whole suffers from the dearth. In order to produce the specialized abilities it needs to keep its interdependent system functional, a human society will typically organize an educational system of some sort. While the "universal" education systems found in many countries today are a comparatively recent development in human societies, organized education (often in the shape of apprenticeships and long professional mentoring relationships) is an important aspect of cultural development and reproduction.
Press here to move on to the first (model) exhibit, an exploration of the relationship between cultural meaning systems and systems of social organization.
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