How can we link people’s behaviour, talking and thinking to the large societal contexts?

We start with people needing the resources to survive and prosper. If there is any basis for life, resources are the basis for everything that follows.  There must be ways of producing or getting resources.  But this is not meant as a chronological progression; it all happened at the same time.

Resources and reproduction have always come through people, which means that hand-in-hand with resources we have needed to have social relationships and therefore ways of organizing groups of people for resource production and distribution.

This leads to economics, which is just how the resources are distributed (through people and groups).

How has this been done through the history of humans? There are many ways of doing this, depending on the environment and how easily the resources are available.  Social anthropologists give many detailed examples of the smaller groups, leading into larger groups.

There are very different social properties (which therefore control our behaviours) when living in:

  • Small groups
  • Bigger groups

(Try Johnson, A., W., & Earle, T. (1987). The evolution of human society. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press. There are many similar books)

In general though:

  • Resources depend on environmental availability or the artificial production of resources through working with groups and with inventions
  • Social relationships are partly shaped by how we can get resources in groups and how we can distribute them

But there are two other key properties which goes through everything in human history and current life.  They look very different in different types of societies.

  • Our social relationships can then also be used to shape if they can lead to the relationships maintaining in new ways, rather than just from the provision of direct resources (that is, there are ways of strengthening social relationships without necessarily involving resources)
    • Rituals, joking, entertainment, chatting, telling stories, doing even trivial things together
  • Some of our resources and our resource distribution can become important only for keeping the social relationships going (that is, there are some things and events that look like resources but function to keep relationships going really)
    • Shells (Malinowski), bling, dress style, honour, badges

These last two are mostly called cultural practices, and include the use of language as a key learned behaviour for achieving them.  So social relationships become resources in themselves and some ‘resources’ can be used for social relationships despite having no real resource value.  We are still subject to these four in contemporary life but our contexts are hugely different now.

Now come the ‘societal systems’ because of larger and larger groups (population increases)

The bigger ‘systems’ were not invented overnight by a group of people, even if they get advantages from them: the rich did not all get together and invent capitalism; males did not get together and invent patriarchy. These all came about gradually; some changes were brought about maybe with good intentions originally, some with bad or selfish intentions, but probably most came from inaction and not thinking ahead or not thinking in terms of the bigger picture.  Someone got an advantage (the rich, males, colonists) and they did not think about what this was going to do to other people, although sometimes in history they did know but went ahead anyway (like colonization). We do not know the details, basically.  There were many previous empires in which large systems of resource distribution were developed and some specific groups became advantaged through this being done (Romans, Ottomans, Mongolian, etc.). If you want to read about it, the Chinese centuries ago had an amazing system of bureaucracy (still closely tied to large families unlike our ‘stranger bureaucracy’) and special national exams for bureaucrats.

What are our current life societal contexts which shape our behaviours, talking and thinking?

It is difficult to tell which came first, or both together, but our distribution of resources and our social relationships have both hugely changed from bygone eras. They are both nothing like they were, and now consist predominantly of strangers and money.  This is 90% of our contemporary lives—strangers and money.  These are still just resources and social relationships, but very, very different.

Our resource distribution no longer works through either people we know or in locations which we know.  Our resources get moved long distances and via people we will never know.  Resource distribution is also huge because of the large population of the earth, and there are major issues for both where the future resources will come from and what damage will be done to people and to the world in trying to get these and distribute them.  We can do this, as Marx and other pointed out, because ‘resources’ get concentrated into the single resource of ‘money’, although this has bad effects as well (see below).

Our social relationships have now hugely changed so that most people we deal with in life (especially for resources) are not kin and in most cases, we do not know them at all.  Many of these people we will never meet (who grows your bananas? Who processed your bank form?) and others in the system we might know only loosely as strangers or as stranger/ acquaintances (do you know personally the people who sell you bananas?). For other parts of our lives, we have close friends (non-kin) and our immediate nuclear family.  In these modern societal systems, larger kin-based families (and communities) are very difficult to maintain so, sadly, many have disappeared.  They are struggling to keep going when their young people are shaped by money, bureaucracies, strangers, etc., and many are looking for alternative societal systems.

What brought this about? First, this mostly arose from the population increases and therefore from having to deal with so many people and from resources getting more and more difficult to obtain for larger numbers of people.  Second, this arose also from the gradual increase in the use of money (with all its social properties) and the gradual placement of a capitalist scaffold on our resource distribution, which arose in part because these are very useful in organizing resource distribution with large populations.  Third, from the increase in using word- or rule-based systems which were also thought necessary to organize larger social groups and the resources distribution chains, where words backed up by force are used to organize the systems which had already been in place and the new ones which emerged; the systems could no longer be organized through family structures and obligations.  Fourth, and it is unclear which of the above or all of them led to this, but our social relationships in life naturally became more focused on the strangers who were now distributing necessary resources (like jobs) and less on the family who were no longer involved in any of this.

So what?  What are the effects of this? All the different forms of life and relationships have different social properties, and these all began to change with the new societal systems arising.  This was not just for the society as a whole but for individuals within those societies and how they behave, talk and think.  These affect our very ‘personal’ behaviours.

  • Changes in social relationships necessitate large changes in what people can and cannot do anymore (you cannot trust most people in your life like you would a family member because you do not have the same reciprocity, obligations or counter control with them).
  • Capitalist systems of resource distribution (and social relationships) control a lot of our behaviour.
  • Inequality of resource distribution from having large populations affects many people.
  • The modern patriarchal systems of male advantages are built into many parts of life, now stemming from male strangers rather than from male family members, which again has changed the story for us all.
  • Colonization systems affect us because descendants of colonizers have advantages built into many parts of life without even knowing perhaps.
  • Bureaucratic systems and all the traces called modernity or neo-liberalism (word-based or rule-based organising of populations) affect us.

Once these bigger systems were in place they had many social properties which determine, through resources or limitations of opportunities, all of our ‘individual’ behaviours, talking and thinking. We act within these systems through provisions and limitations.  These societal systems determine most of our ‘individual’ behaviour now.

So, this is how you might like to think about the larger systems determining ‘individual’ behaviour, talking and thought.  These are a major part of understanding our ‘personal psychology’ although the term ‘psychology’ is becoming more and more unnecessary and meaningless… Let me rephrase that. If you DO NOT have all this in your theories of ‘psychology’, you are missing the point of life…


Below are some examples I have given in the past of the social properties of these large societal systems which control or determine our ‘individual’ behaviours, talk and thinking.  These are a start, but a lot more needs to be listed.



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