Human Nature and The Way Societies are Organise

By John BristowNo Comments

Humans have evolved both to cooperate and to compete, to do things on behalf of others and for themselves. Both can contribute to a sense of self-worth. Experiments involving games around sharing money between pairs (proposer and responder) show that concern about how others are treated is high.

Relationships have been described in terms of two dimensions that reflect the needs for inclusion and affiliation on the one hand, and control and autonomy on the other – see Lorna Benjamin’s revision of earlier versions in her structural analysis of social behaviour:

(1) hostility at one extreme to friendliness on the other, and

(2) control and dependency at one end to autonomy and freedom on the other

And for human social needs, see for example the work of Bill Schultz

Societies of both human and non-human primates are found to be primarily organised either around affiliation, egalitarian reciprocity and co-operation or around power and dominance, and competition for it (and primates have ways of resolving such competition).This varies with cultural differences and historical periodsThe more egalitarian harks back to the core values of the French revolution in 1789: Equality, Fraternity and Liberty.

People need to learn to survive in both types of society, to be able both to establish trust and make friends and to be self-reliant, assertive and handle conflict. In societies organized more around dominance people learn how to attain and express status, and discriminate between status conflicts that they can win and those they cannot. With an aversion to low status some people can seek to be superior in status to more vulnerable people or groups If they feel downtrodden – or avoid being looked down on as a group by segregating and living in their own area.

These two ways of organizing society of course co-exist in varying amounts in different parts of a society (as in different states in the USA as studied by Wilkinson) and they vary also according to the sphere of life, type of organisation and the individual. Studies of cultural differences over the last 60 or so years have identified a number of bi-polar dimensions on which country cultures differ. A useful summary is provided by the Romanian authors Sergiu Balani and Lucia Ovidia Vreja

Many of the same dimensions appear in most of these studies. Three are relevant here: (1) power distance (the degree of equality, or inequality between people in society, reflecting the way the social structure is organised); (2) individualism vs. collectivism (the degree to which people of a society understand themselves as individuals, as apart from the group to which they primarily belong, governing the relationship between the individual and the group); (3) mastery versus harmony (concerning peoples’ relations to natural and social environment).

Some societies with developed economies have ways of countering dominance in their culture, and maintaining an optimum level of equality (the highest 20% in income being 3.7 – 4 times higher the lowest 20% in this study), just as hunter-gather groups did with food sharing, gifts etc. Fairness is needed for social cohesion, and a sense of indebtedness encourages reciprocity.

Inequality grew first as agriculture developed, and there was more division of labour. Different countries have different histories and paths to greater or less equality.


Culture, Economics, Governance & Organising, Quality of Life, Rich and Poor Gap, Views of Human Nature
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