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Another name for culture or society

by Phil Bartle, PhD

Training Handout

Compare with inorganic and organic

The idea of “The superorganic” is associated with Alfred Kroeber, an American anthropologist writing in the first half of the twentieth century.

The superorganic is another way of describing –– and understanding –– culture or the socio-cultural system.

If we start with the inorganic, it is the physical universe, all the atoms of elements without life.

We can call this the lowest level of complexity.

The second level of complexity is composed of living things.

All living things, plants and animals, are built up of inorganic elements, mainly hydrogen, oxygen and carbon, plus some trace elements.

Here we use an interesting phrase, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”

The collection of inorganic elements which we call, for example, a tree, or a dog, is living.

If you analyse all those parts, in themselves, or even as a collection, they are not living.

The arrangement makes them alive.

If you separate the dog or tree into its separate elements, it dies.

Knowing the dynamics of how carbon atoms operate, or that combining hydrogen and oxygen can result in a rapid combustion if not an explosion, does not explain how the tree works, with its leaves converting sunlight into energy to change water and carbon dioxide into oxygen and carbon, channels to transfer sap from leaves to root, and so on.

Similarly, the dog, if seen as a biological system, operates at a higher complexity than the inorganic elements which comprise it.

A living entity transcends its inorganic parts.

Looking at the relationship between living things and their inorganic components in this way helps us to understand the relationship between culture and persons.

Culture and society comprise the third level.

Human beings are animals, and as such are organic systems.

They have developed communications between themselves to an elaborate degree, much more sophisticated than other animals.

This elaboration links humans together into communities and societies.

The links are symbolic, not genetic as in biological systems.

The socio-cultural level, culture or society, therefore is carried by humans and transcends humans.

A culture has a “life of its own” which is symbolic rather than genetic.  In this way it is a “living” thing.

It operates at a higher level of complexity than the organic.  It is superorganic.

There is a parallel, therefore, in the relations between the inorganic and the organic, as between the organic and the superorganic.

The concept developed by Durkheim, a “social fact,” is expressed in this understanding.

Humans have thoughts and behaviour.

Those are carried by individuals.

They behave, however, in concert with each other, as a system external to individuals –– society.

Do not think of a dog as a carbon atom or a hydrocarbon molecule.

Similarly, do not think of a community, an institution, a society as a human being.

Do not anthropomorphise culture.

It may have a life of its own, but its life more resembles an amoeba than a human.

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Last update: 2012.06.29

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