Sociocultural Systems

Cultural systems are a set of interrelated elements, both tangible and intangible, that form a way of seeing the world and a way of living for a group of people.

Sociocultural systems are as set of component parts fitting loosely together to form a coherent whole.1 The term is used to give a holistic approach to looking at both the non-material cultural constructs - such as faith, value systems, epistemology - and the social structures - such as political organizations, civil organizations, educational systems etc - and how the two interact. The term helps to communicate the inextricable linkage between the two and how sociopolitical structures and dynamics can only be fully contextualized in relation to their cultural system. In his work, Marvin Harris created a schema for modeling sociocultural systems in terms of what he called their infrastructure and superstructure. He referred to infrastructure as being related to material production and population, social structure as relating to social behavior, political organizations like corporations, and a superstructure; referring to faith, conceptual frameworks, values, norms etc.2


In asking what is culture or where does culture come from we can answer that it comes from the human condition. To be a rock, to be a tree or a cat is to be under a certain condition, likewise to be human is to be under a certain condition. Every person has a body, every person has emotions, every person formulates ideas and has desires. This condition is called the human condition, it is the state that all people are born into and none have any choice in this. As the philosopher Martin Heidegger described it, human existence is like “being thrown” into the world.3 It is this thing that we call the human condition that people get “thrown” into. This human condition we experience subjectively, but it is common to all humans, we were all born at some stage, we will all have the subjective experience in our lives at some time of death, of aging, of awe, of happiness, of hope, we all have to feed ourselves etc. These are things that we will all experience in a very personal subjective way that is different, however irrespective of their differences we will all experience them because they are part of the condition of being human. All sociocultural and political phenomena are confined within the scope of the human condition and this is the most fundamental thing we can say about culture; all of human being and its expression within culture will be based upon and in some way confined by the human condition. The human condition is the whole of what it is to be human, as one person defined it as “the characteristics, key events, and situations which compose the essentials of human existence, such as birth, growth, emotionality, aspiration, conflict, and mortality.”

All of culture is weaved out of the subjective, experience of the human condition. Cultures are first and foremost about the lived experience of people, making them inherently subjective in nature. Culture refers to society’s systems of beliefs, values, behaviour and material objects that constitute people’s way of life (Macionis, 2000) Or in the words of cultural anthropologist E.B. Tylor, culture is “that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.”A culture comes from the individual’s subjective experience of reality but it is shared by a community, thus it engenders two somewhat distinct aspects; those processes that are subjective to the individual and those that are objective and shared by the community. In sociocultural theory, culture is defined as being interpersonal and intrapersonal. Intrapersonal refers to the individual and their subjective experience, while interpersonal is objective in nature in that it deals with the exchange of the culture between people. Thus intrapersonal culture is the emotional experience and psychological frameworks of the individual. While interpersonal is the material expression of the culture, the language, artifacts, rituals, physical technologies etc.

Cultural Systems

Cultures may be understood as systems, where the term system refers to a set of interrelated elements that form a whole.5 The various parts of sociocultural systems are interrelated and interdependent; when one part of society changes, other parts must also change. This means that an institution, such as the family cannot be looked at in isolation from the political, economic, or religious institutions of a society. Cultures are likewise more than the sum of their parts and in many ways non-reducible to them. A culture is a complex system of many interacting beliefs, conceptual structures, social arrangements, material processes and rituals that all interact within a temporal and spatial context.6 Sociocultural systems coevolve over time and as a consequence specific aspects are adapted to fit together to create in some way a unifying whole. Different aspects of the culture only really have meaning within that overall context. We can take artifacts of a culture like, an Italian pizza, a Michael Jackson song or a specific Chinese character, but it is only in their context within the broader culture that they really have their proper significance, when you remove them from that context they become an icon; a symbol of the real thing.

Portrait of a Namibian Hunter Bushman. Cultural systems are composed of both intangible concepts and tangible artifacts as they encompass the expression of the whole of a society and its way of seeing the world

The anthropologist Marvin Harris attempted to outline a universal structure of sociocultural systems.7 He mentioned infrastructure (production and population), structure (which is social and behavioral, like political organizations, corporations, castes), and a superstructure (which is, values, concepts, beliefs, norms). A society’s infrastructure is its most basic component in the sense that without it physical survival is literally impossible. On their most basic material level cultures constitute material artifacts; that of production - referring to technologies - raw materials and energy sources, and demographics. All societies must live within the constraints of the natural environment and these physical constraints strongly shape a culture and society. The political economy consists of groups and technologies that perform the functions of regulating production, exchange, and consumption within and between groups.It is upon this environmental infrastructural foundation that the remaining parts of the social system are based. The social structure refers to actual patterns of interaction between people. Every society is composed of certain social institutions that maintain orderly relationships among its people and facilitate the coordination between members.7

Cultures form a coherent conception of reality for a given people; they form what is called a worldview. In order to have a coherent worldview and thus a culture a number of important conceptual elements must be defined, a culture is formed around an ontology, an epistemology, a teleology and an axiology.8 An ontology defines for the culture the basic categories of reality; how people should categories their experience of reality and the things they encounter in the world. An epistemology defines for the culture what are valid processes of reasoning; it defines on what one can base one’s belief on. An axiology is a value system, it defines for the culture what is of higher and lower value and from this derives naturally a teleology which is a purpose or direction that members of the culture should follow in striving for what the culture believes is of value. Beyond material means, social structures and conceptual frameworks, on their highest and most abstract level cultures engender and express the emotional dimension to the human condition.9 Through such cultural artifacts as music, painting, religious narrative, legends, films, novels, plays or clothing people express their emotional states. We create cultural artifacts that express and engage people in the emotional processes that people go through. For example, a film is a cultural experience in that it consists of a set of signs and signals that are designed in a specific way to simulate certain emotional experiences in the viewer as they go through the various highs and lows of the story, experiencing different emotional states such as fear, hope, joy etc.

Sociocultural System Dynamics

Sociocultural systems are a set of interacting parts, material artifacts, social structures and roles, concepts and emotional states that give rise to an overall way of being for a group of people. Like all systems, they change over time and being complex they develop on the macro level through a process of evolution. A culture being an interaction of many parts means that no one gets to choose how it changes over time; this is typically decided by an evolutionary process.10 This process of evolution as it plays out in culture has long since been noted - in the work of Herbert Spencer for example - but in the mid-1960s the American sociologist Gerhard Lenski developed a macro-level theory of sociocultural evolution that is broad in scope.11 Like Spencer before him, Lenski insisted that sociocultural evolution is but a special case of the general evolutionary process. Human populations, Lenski tries to illustrate, are subject to environmental and biological influences similar to ecosystems. Rather than relying on genetic change to adapt to changes in the external environment, however, human populations have evolved culture. The development of cultures involves a cumulative process of change where some parts change while others remain limited in their change. Thus, cumulative change is a process that combines elements of continuity with elements of change; many parts of the system are preserved for extended periods while new parts are added and other parts are either replaced or transformed.12

Whereas biological evolution depends upon the often random cross mixing of DNA, relying on random genetic variation to successfully adapt. Sociocultural evolution depends upon symbol-based cultural information, which is learned and can be transmitted across cultures. This means that it can be a far faster process. It also gives rise to inter-society selection, in which successful adaptations by individual societies become important factors in the competition between societies for resources thus causing the extinction of many sociocultural systems over time and the convergence of those cultures that persist.13 Culture is typically defined in contrast to nature. That is to say that it is seen as a learned capacity of humans as opposed to something that is biologically determined. The sociologist Marion Blute (2010) like Lenski emphasizes this, positing that social learning is the mechanism by which successful sociocultural adaptations are acquired by individuals in other cultures in an endless process of cultural adaptation in response to changing technological, social and economic conditions.14

Complex Structure

The process of sociocultural modernization that began some five hundred years ago in Western Europe has resulted in profound changes in people’s understanding of themselves and their place in the world

One of the most important distinctions that is often made in this process of cultural evolution is the distinction between premodern and modern societies; as in many ways, modern culture represents a radical departure from traditional sociocultural patterns of organization. This process of modernity plays out on many different levels having a systemic effect on the whole social, cultural and political dimensions of a society. Here we will draw upon the work of some of the primary theorist on this process of sociocultural modernization include Emile Durkheim, Friedrich Nietzsche, Max Weber and more recently Jürgen Habermas. Emile Durkheim introduced the idea of mechanical and organic solidarity as two paradigms that distinguished the structure of premodern and modern societies.15 In a society whose structure is defined by mechanical solidarity, its cohesion and integration comes from the homogeneity of individuals; people feel connected through similar occupations, educational training, shared religion, and lifestyle. Mechanical solidarity is seen to define sociocultural organization within “traditional” and small-scale societies. In more basic societies - such as tribes or chieftains - solidarity is usually based on kinship ties of familial networks. Traditional societies are often integrated around some religion or spiritual system that provides an overarching context and set of values. In this respect religion often works as the binding glue for a community. Religions provide a narrative that interprets reality as a whole, they situate humans within that reality and present a conception of what human flourishing is and thus how one should and should not live one’s life.16 This provides a unifying cultural infrastructure for many premodern societies; what Durkheim would call societies characterized by mechanical solidarity, where the sociocultural system is held together by this shared conception of reality and often their physical constraints within a particular geography, among other factors.

In contrast, the structure of modern societies is defined by what Durkheim called organic solidarity, which comes from the interdependence that arises from specialization of work and the complementarities between people. To understand Durkheim’s theory properly it is of value to understand how evolution works through a process involving stages of both differentiation and integration that over time creates greater complexity. Through differentiation, new variants are formed, but then selection is performed upon them based upon their contribution to the whole. For the whole system to operate successfully in its environment all the parts need to be reintegrated into a functioning whole for the system to persist over time, thus working to reintegrate the system. In this way, we get an ongoing process of differentiation and integration.17 Through evolution, systems become more complex meaning they come to have more differentiated parts but also they come to be more interdependent and interconnected into the whole, and this is the essence of Durkheim’s theory.

The organic solidarity found in modern sociocultural systems is a form of structure based upon the dependence different individuals have on each other in more advanced societies. Although individuals perform different tasks and often have different values and interests, the order and very solidarity of society depends on their reliance on each other to perform their specified tasks. Organic here is referring to the interdependence of the component parts.18 Thus, social solidarity is maintained in more complex societies through the interdependence of its component parts. For example, the baker makes bread that feeds the factory worker, that produces tractors, that enables the farmer to grow wheat, that goes to making flower for the baker to make bread. Modern societies are many complex networks of different units that are interdependent, this differentiation between the parts and their interconnections forms the basic structure to advanced sociocultural systems. This is seen to be in contrast to the religious and physical commonalities that held premodern societies together.


Modernity from this perspective then represents a certain level of sociocultural complexity, that goes beyond that of traditional societies. On a purely cultural level modernity is equated with the rise of reason and rationality as displacing religious narrative as the foundations to a modern culture. Unifying religious narratives become displaced within modern societies by a much more complex and specialized form of conceptual system based on reason and scientific inquiry.19 With the scientific revolution, the modern conception of the world became increasingly formulated based primarily on reason. Scientific inquiry came to search for abstract principles to derive the laws of nature based on logic and empirical data and this would over the course of centuries lead to a large body of knowledge that would form the heart of a modern person’s conception of the world around them. In a modern secular society truth, the nature of reality and meaning of life, are no longer given to the individual members through the revelations of prophet and scripture but through reason we see ourselves as discovering them and in so doing creating the fabric of our culture through the application of reason in a never ending process. This ongoing process of recreating culture is a key part of the dynamic nature of modern societies; where nothing is certain or written in stone but all is to be discovered or created.20

Hand in hand with the rise of reason comes rationality. Max Weber introduced the idea of rationalization to understand this process whereby rationality becomes a dominant cultural modality guiding our value system and socioeconomic organization.21 In sociology, rationalization refers to the replacement of traditions, values, and emotions as motivators for behavior in society with rational, reason-based, calculated ones. For example, the implementation of bureaucracies in government is a kind of rationalization, as is the construction of motorways for mobility, supermarkets to obtain one’s food or skyscrapers for workspaces. Rationalization refers to the process of replacing the current values, traditions, and emotions of a society, that motivate their current behaviors, with thoughts and actions that are based upon reason and are instrumental in achieving their ends.21
The social theorist Jürgen Habermas argues that the modern era or Enlightenment released several spheres of social life from their traditional, normative cultural regulations to pursue their own inner logic, as the regulation of these spheres would become increasingly internal.22 This has proven to be true of most spheres within a modern social system; law, economy, government, and education all become increasingly autonomous components within a complex whole. Political action was also released from tradition as it became democratic and rationalized. According to Habermas, this is what modernity does - and not just to money and power but also to art and science. Each of these spheres of life is set free from the older normative global cultural traditions to pursue its own internal logic.22


Man leading camels at the Pushkar camel fair in the northeastern Indian state of Rajasthan. Cultures form a whole self sustaining cosmos of meaning and thus translating the meaning and significance of ideas, words or activities between them can create many difficulties

Finally, it is important to note that cultures exist within some environment and are required to a greater or lesser extent to interact with other cultures. This inevitably raises many questions about how they interoperate - how one cosmos of meaning and social relations can interact with another that may have a very different conception of the world. In the study of political systems, we can be dealing with systems wherein people’s vision of the world is so radically different that it is virtually irreconcilable. Invariably cultures have evolved over prolonged periods of time adapting to their local context to create and integrated whole. Cultures are based on value systems and they create rankings and social structures out of them. These ranking systems often conflict, each ascribes different values to things, and this is a perennial challenge in creating a political community where all must find common ground.
The social theorist Niklas Luhmann noted that sociocultural systems are self-reproducing, self-organizing, self-directing systems that are “operationally closed,” essentially meaning that it is part of their function to selectively perceive their environment or “construct” it.23 Meaning is an internal product of the system. Any impact on one cultural system by another has a meaning determined by the internal rules of that affected system. Any system’s internal representation of the real world or its environment is constructed by itself for internal reasons. The input is filtered and rewritten into the culture according to its internal logic. This holds for, all sociocultural systems small and big, an individual a nation or a business. This also means that we cannot evaluate a society’s or a social system’s representation of the world as true or false because we ourselves have no representation of reality that is not internally constituted by our own social system. The implications of this recognition for normative political theory are of course troubling, to say the least.24
The political theorist Michael Walzer in his book, Thick and Thin: Moral Argument at Home and Abroad (1994) argued that there are two levels of moral argument: the thin and the thick. By thin, he means the use of terms across multiple cultures, where the terms are independent of the particularities of the cultures of the people using them. But as a consequence, thin terms and arguments are vague. Thick is the level of discourse that presumes the full cultural particularity of a term; the term’s meaning is dependent on, and intertwined with, a host of cultural practices and other cultural constructs. The point is that there is a culturally relative level of political discourse - the thick - and a universal, nonrelative level -the thin. These both play roles in political discourse between groups and within groups. To apply and create social changes, one must inevitably get to the thick level, where there is cultural relativity, but thin standards can be used cross-culturally.25
We can say and mean that something like equality is of value, and this statement can have some foundations. But we must recognize that what equality looks like practically in a given society may differ; we will have to adapt everything we say to a local culture. In the same way that a word will mean different things to different people, it is required that we have some common understanding of it to enable effective interoperability. This is to a certain extent one of the challenges to a sociopolitical system to develop these systems of interoperability that enable collective coordination in a way that is balanced.

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