If we think of each
individual as a regulated system, then the social group within
which that individual lives constitutes the servomechanism
(external control) that determines the various values of
that individual’s behaviour.
Most people contribute to the maintenance only of their
own sub-group, caste, or class, rather than opening themselves
up to the larger grouping at a higher level of organization:
that of the species. In other words, within every living
organism, each level of organization is open to the next
level up, but it seems very hard to achieve this same kind
of openness between individual human beings and the human
species as a whole.
Like all sets or groupings, a society is
defined by the relationships among its elements–in this case,
the individuals who compose it. However, these social relationships
are too complex for us to embrace them in their entirety. We can
apprehend only a subset of this social Structure (with a capital
S), and any social theory can therefore describe only a subset
of this kind (a social structure with a lowercase s).
When people are blinded by political ideologies,
or even by a certain narrow view of science, they tend to regard
their own particular conception of this subset as the actual Structure
of the complete set of relationships in the real world.
Too often, this mistaken belief in the universal
value of the partial structure that they perceive leads one group
of people to try to impose it on their contemporaries, sometimes
by persuasion, but often
We can never understand social reality completely.
But if we want to get closer, we should try to learn about as many
elements as possible within this set of relationships.
To understand a society, we must therefore
examine how it is influenced by physical environment, culture,
and interpersonal relationships–especially since each of
these determinants generates social values and institutions that
act on it in return. For example, industrialization pollutes the
environment, fashion and artistic trends transform the culture,
and social taboos shape our interpersonal relationships.
The following diagram shows these reciprocal
influences while stressing how society evolves over time, in ways
that are undeniable though not very perceptible in one human lifetime.
(For a brief definition of each underlined term, place your cursor
Some of our social values, such as those from
our families, we assimilate at a very early age and carry with us
for the rest of our lives–most often, unconsciously.
Cultures are not etched in stone. Not
only do they evolve according to their own logic, they are
also subject to all the events of history and the relationships
between these events and their ecological context. Some political,
religious, technical, and demographic factors can bring cultures
together, but they can also become sources of conflict and
In the past, profoundly inegalitarian systems of economic
and linguistic colonialism have caused the disappearance of
original, unique cultural heritages. Since the 15th century,
European expansion into North and South America, sub-Saharan
Africa, Asia, and the Pacific Islands has been in one sense
a massacre of cultures. The way that the whole world is currently
being “McDonaldized" is another sad example.