The Three Layers of All Human Societies

My goal with this post is to show the reader that what goes on in current political, social, and economic matters right now in 2013 cannot be understood well without a basic knowledge of the first social-institutional components that are true of all human societies, and must be understood as ever-changing, ever fluid, ever active–naturally–lest the society reach a static state which would mean the culture has died (its institutions no longer function or function so poorly that they fail to provide its intended benefits to less than half its people). All healthy, living cultures (societies of every type) are in a state of constant flux, even having reached something people might identify as a period of “stability.” There is no other way because all things, even human culture has a life span, it changes in quality or quantity over time. Culture change is an inevitable, boundless, and spontaneous process that no one, but no one, truly controls, not even so-called “social engineers.” But that is a topic for future discussions.

Three Layers

From this point, I would like to discuss the layers of all human social institutions starting with the first one. This layer is always first, always the foundation/bedrock of all human societies. This layer is the Economy, or defined here as “The way people make a living.” Let’s look at it from its more naked form of existence. A society’s first institution is the Economy because before we need to fire up a computer, or create a masterpiece work of art, or figure out how to make pottery for water vessels, we need to eat and tend to our other bodily needs–probably within the hour. With nothing more than our bare hands, with no form of technology whatsoever, on a basic, subsistence level, we can pick an apple off a tree, pick berries, pull up root vegetables from the ground to eat, or even trap a fish in a shallow pool with our hands if we’re quick enough. We can crawl inside a cave or into a hole in the ground to escape weather conditions. Across time, the Economy includes hunting gathering, pastoralism, agriculturalists, industrialists, and the super sophisticated “info tech” economies today of pluralistic modern societies of London, New York City, Los Angeles, Rome, Munich, etc.

The Economy depends, at least initially, on the constraints of the immediate environment. I do not mean to imply that geographic determinism operates as a defining factor in the ultimate expression of a culture’s economy, but it does pose different limitations and opportunities. For example, the most fertile agricultural areas of the world that therefore could support sedentary lifestyles and large accumulations of human populations was first in the Fertile Crescent in the Euphrates and Tigris River valleys of present day Iraq, and the farm belt of Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, etc. of the United States. The point is, human survival at first requires an economy, whether that is eating insects and small birds in jungle rainforests, snake eggs and lizards in the desert, fish and vegetables in more moderate environs, or operating an IT system for a complex health care system across the United States.

The next layer of all human societies is technology. Let’s say you were able to pick enough apples, root vegetables, and leaves to survive. The moment you pick up a stick from the ground to help dig up tubers, or club a fish over the head, you are using technology. If you weave together enough palm leaves, you add an improved cover to your tree branch shelter. Imagine the complexity of technology today! From stones and sticks for clubs, molding and firing clay pots, forging iron, to later inventions including the wheel, steam engines, steel girders, computers, and NASA space shuttles iPods, cell phones and satellites. It’s important to remember that with each of these inventions, they all progress from simple first versions and grow more complex over time (Donkey Kong to Grand Theft Auto; abacus, slide rules, and pocket calculators to computers that control electrical grids for an entire region of the country or space flights).

The final layer of all human societies is the justification for the first two. By “justification” I mean the attitudes, values, and beliefs about the economy and technology that are adopted to accept, sanctify, and formally approve the behaviors that develop from them. A key thing to remember about a society’s attitude, values, and beliefs is that they always follow the behavior. In other words, when a society chooses to legitimize a particular behavior, that behavior is already in practice. It is approved or not approved through formal codification of laws, or in the form of established social mores. It is about not deciding whether to adopt these behaviors, but rather to “legitimize” or accept them because they already exist. For example, two current controversies among Americans involves the use of marijuana, and equal rights for gays. The legislation that is being considered, or passed as formal law, is not whether to BEGIN acquiring these behaviors, but whether or not to accept them, to formally condone them, because these behaviors already exist. The other forms of justification include religious beliefs, social norms, custom and other informal, yet powerful, social behavioral controls such as gossip.


I’ll end this post with this very general outline of the three layers of all human societies, the economy, technology, and the justification for them in the form of religion, formal laws, and social mores and custom. Keeping the dynamics of culture change in mind as well, I will move on to the complexities of social institutions that came to be from small bands of people to clans, moieities, villages, tribes, and later on nation-states and the current modern political systems of today. I hope to show that one needs a basic understanding of how human societies are created and develop over time into the various forms of cultures all over the word that we have today. Eventually I hope to move into contemporary issues. My motivation is the observation that people today vote, form conclusions about current social and political issues, while having no clue how these institutions came to be, what the dynamics of them are, what they can and cannot accomplish, and what this means in terms of our understanding of them in order to be better informed regarding todays issues. These discussions, I caution, are broad generalities at this point, but this to give the reader a basic foundation of concepts to keep in mind at once when we arrive at discussions about current sociopolitical issues in the United States in 2013/2014. The diversity of ideas, and more importantly the ways in which attitudes, beliefs, and opinions form, is fascinating. It can also be disheartening, perplexing, and even maddening, but this is up next in my future post. Thanks so much for reading this. I will be back soon.


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