The etymology of the word is that it is linked to cultivation. It is useful to rediscover this overlay of meaning since the implication that we can cultivate society in order to make our culture is empowering and something that this site advocates.
The Cambridge English Dictionary states that culture is "the way of life, especially the general customs and beliefs, of a particular group of people at a particular time." In the schematic of the human system all individuals with overlapping group memberships would feel some affinity for the whole represented by the larger grouping of society. Systems are never static, within the human systems cultures vary and are never static; at any point in time is both the interplay of our artefacts combined with our valuers, beliefs and norms of behaviour which in turn is influenced by the groups we form and the interplay of many minds and the knowledge we have built up and all of these things over time - the playing out of history. In systems thinking terms culture could also be emergent from this interplay of individuals and groups acting and reacting with/against each other. Up to now all of this may be described as accidental or contingent.
As noted in Our Natural Selves we have groups because we are primates, we have groups as part of our culture.
Groups occur in nature, think of herds, flocks and shoals. Groups within culture range through the full gamut of sophistication from the informal and familial to the formal from companies to chambers of trade, trade unions, armed forces and state bureaucracies. At the most basic level we all congregate together and easily fall to talking about the other.
We are all member of many overlapping groups. Different types of groups exert different influences on the individuals that make them up. Norms of behaviour are specified or emerge, some things are acceptable and others not. Some groups are strongly binding others merely associations. The study of groups is a massive part of social science. Those who study society can put us in groups we are barely aware of – political science and advertising both share this habit.
It does not take much time to create a very long list of groups;
- Family (nuclear, extended (tribe), single parent….)
- Neighbours (close, good/bad, overlapping with friends)
- Workplace (team, department, project…)
- Belief (church, political party…)
- Interest (hobbies, profession, occupation, all sorts of clubs, lobby groups…)
- Education (school, class, year, alumnus, attainment…)
- Social networks (reflecting any all of the above)
Norms of behaviour
It does not take long for groups to work out sets of acceptable behaviours which are enforces in may ways ranging from peer group pressure through to simple co-coercion. However the level of self-awareness and thinking power we have – rational (abstract) thought enables us to argue and disagree.
Values, Ethics and Beliefs are discussed in The Products of Mind
All groups are hierarchical (Note: Some Hierarchy is Inevitable). It is part of the argument here that hierarchy comes with our ape-ness – that means we cannot avoid it or wish it away. A central question of society and politics is therefore how to organise in ways that make the hierarchy reasonable - by which I mean to find the goldilocks spot where it is not too idealistic (no hierarchy at at all) or too high and steep (where it can be turned into a powerful force for coercion and social control).
There are many ways of looking at groups but if we step right back and consider the whole of society (bounded say, as a nation state) we could see it as a massive collection groups, all being more or less hierarchies, those at the top of the most powerful & influential groups could be said to make up the ruling/influential elite – we could refer to this as the ruling class. However class a category rather than a group.
Class considers hierarchy and stratifies it. It has a long history. It is problematic to treat class as a group. What is the group association for the ruling class when there is infighting (maybe even coups and assassinations) within it? What are the consequences of being of the ‘middling sort’ as it used to be referred to, when one is a Judge and the other and Stockbroker? What is the group association between members of the working class when one is a train driver and one is bricklayer? It’s not surprising that the idea of the aristocracy of labour had to be envisaged. The language is a minefield - we say “lower down” the hierarchy when we just mean less well off; when we refer to the working class we exclude those who don’t work. How is the notion of lumpen-prolateriat so much different from chavs, let alone unter-menchen. A recent contribution to the debate refers to the precariat (Standing) – this works as a pun on proletariat, avoids pejorative baggage and brings to the fore the difficulties that they face; but how and in what way is the Uber driver linked to a Sport Direct warehouse worker? (Note; An Explanation Using Class)
A recent alternative view is the use of caste. Instead of stratification society is said to divide vertically in castes that compete with one other in a constant battle for supremacy (Priestland). Whilst this has some explanatory power it did not answer some fairly basic questions; are we born into castes, is it just a propensity or can we chose them? Are the ‘lower orders’ of society open to recruitment from the top, are they just a big recruitment pool – as Lenin observed the doers and the done to.
It is my contention that both class and caste whilst providing some useful and powerful are inadequate when it comes to thinking about how do we best organise society, and the reason is simple – it is too coarse and does not give enough weight to human agency. In the following diagram I illustrate the problems with both class and caste;
Groups vs categories
The acid test of being in a group is the agency one has. I would suggest that if we are allocated to a category by someone else that is very different from being in a group, which we chose to join and may chose to leave. Confusion and conflation of groups and categories is one of the ill's which besets our popular culture.
Inspired by the five tests for democracy I suggest that there are simple tests to see if you are in a group or a category Note: Five Tests for Democracy. You can ask;
- What groups am I in?
- How did I join them?
- What does membership signify?
- What say do I have?
- How can I leave?
If you answer that you were put into it, don't agree with what it signifies, have no say and cannot leave you may well be in a category. When you don't know you are a member it must be a category, which is precisely what happens with the data captured about us online.
Categories are fundamental to both marketing and some aspects of social science. They may be useful when it comes to knowing how much of a product to sell and who it may appeal to. They may be useful in understanding aggregate behaviour. However when these categories become conflated with groups we are easily seduced into othering people and treating them all the same. We can be incensed to hatred with dire, ultimately genocidal consequences. One thing to ponder is when a self appointed group claims to speak for a category. Both the RAC and AA claim to speak for drivers, I have never been consulted by the AA in all the time I have been a member. Many (but not all) charities fall into this category. The reformed Trades Unions are groups which consult their members on policy - they speak for their members not the working class. My Financial Advisor asks for my attitude to risk but non of the funds I am invested in asks me how they should vote at share holder meetings. Even direct share owning is more like being in a category, it does not necessarily bring the rights and obligations we would associate with ownership.
So what do we conclude from this;
Thinking back to our animal origins its is surely the case that groups form the basis for human society – humans started out in extended family groups and grew to tribes. Survival being a driver the purpose of the group was essentially to collaborate and derive a living. In fact I argue that this is all we need to come up with a useful model and that is the Human System as I describe it. See Behaviour as an emergent property
What this means for holistic political economy is discussed in The Weight of Culture - Implications