You are on page 1of 4

Excerpts from Sanderson, S. K. (1999). Macrosociology: An Introduction to Human Societies, 4th ed., NY: Addison Wesley Longman, Inc.

The material infrastructure consists of the basic raw materials and social forms pertinent to human survival and adaptation. A societys infrastructure is its most basic component in the sense that without it physical survival is literally impossible. The infrastructure is itself composed of four fundamental subunits (p. 43): Technology [and artifacts] consists of the information, tools, and techniques with which human adapt to their physical environment. It consists not merely of physical or concrete tools or objects, but also of knowledge that humans can apply in particular ways. Economy the organized system whereby goods and services are produced, distributed, and exchanged among individuals and groups. Production refers to such things as what goods are produced, who produces them, what tools or techniques are used in their production, and who owns the basic materials that enter into the process of production. Distribution involves the manner in which the items produced are allocated to various individuals and groups within the society. Exchange is carried out when individuals and groups transfer valuables to one another in return for other valuables. A societys means of distributing goods and services is generally dependent upon the means by which they are produced. Ecology includes the totality of the physical environment to which humans must adapt. It involves such things as types of soils, the nature of climates, patterns of rainfall, the nature of plant and animal life, and the availability of natural resources. In a strict sense, ecology is not a part of a sociocultural system; it is the external environment to which sociocultural systems must adjust. However, since ecological factors are frequently crucial determinants of various aspects of social life, ecology is here treated as a fundamental component of sociocultural systems. Demography. Demographic factors are those involving the nature and dynamics of human populations. The size and density of the population; its growth, decline, or stability; and its age and sex composition are important things to know in studying any society. Demographic factors also include techniques of population regulation or birth control and the intensity with which these are applied. Social Structure consists of the organized patterns of social life carried out among the members of a society, excluding those social patterns that belong to the infrastructure. It is imperative to note that the social structures always refers to actual behavioral patterns, as opposed to images or mental conceptions that people have bout those patterns. In other worlds, the social structure consists of what people actually do, not what they say they do, think they do, or think they ought to do. For present purposes, the social structure consists of six subunits (pp. 43-45): Social stratification (or its absence) refers to the existence within a society of groups of unequal wealth and power. Not all societies have social stratification [in terms of wealth and power] Racial and ethnic stratification (or their absence). This refers to whether or not there exist within a society groups that may be distinguished by racial or ethnic characteristics, and if so, whether or not such groups occupy unequal positions with respect to each other. (Racial groups are those that are distinguishable on the basis of observable physical characteristics; ethnic groups are those that exhibit a cultural distinctiveness.) Many societies in human history have not had racial or ethnic stratification. In the past several hundred years, however, racial/ethnic stratification has been a prominent feature of numerous complex societies. Polity. This refers to a societys organized means of maintaining internal law and order, as well as to its means of regulating or conducting intersocietal relationships. All societies have political systems, although the nature of such systems varies greatly from one society to another.

Gender divison of labor and gender inequality. This involves the way in which men and women are allocated to specific tasks or roles within the social division of labor. It also includes the ways in which and the degree to which men and women occupy positions of unequal rank, power, and privilege within a society. Although the gender division of labor and gender inequality are universal, there is a great variation among societies in terms of the specific forms these phenomena take. Family and kinship. All societies have family and kinship systems, or organized sociocultural patterns devoted to mating and reproduction the specific nature of these systems varies greatly from one society to another. Furthermore, different subcultures within a society often reveal different family and kinship patterns. Education is any formalized or semiformalized system of cultural or intellectual instruction. Most societies have lacked highly formalized educational systems, but not society has failed to develop some sort of procedure for transmitting knowledge, skills, or values to the next generation. Ideological superstructure involves the patterned ways in which the members of a society think, conceptualize, evaluate, and feel, as opposed to what they actually do. Whereas the structure refers to behavior, the superstructure refers to thought. The superstructure includes the following subcomponents (p. 45): General Ideology. This refers to the predominant beliefs, values, and norms characteristic of a society or some segment of a society. Beliefs are shared cognitive assumptions about what is true and what is false. They concern such things as the nature of the universe, what child-training techniques produce children with healthy personalities, what differences exist between men and women, and literally thousands of other things. Values are socially defined conceptions of worth. They order our experience of what is god and bad, right and wrong, beautiful and ugly, desirable and undesirable, and so on. Norms represent shared standards or rules regarding proper and improper social conduct. They are the dos and donts that societies attempt to instill in their members. All societies create beliefs, values, and norms, but the diversity of these phenomena is extraordinary. Religion consists of shared beliefs and values pertaining to the postulation of supernatural beings, powers, or forces. Such beings, powers, or forces are generally held to intervene directly in the operation of society, or at least to have some indirect connection with it. Like many of the other components of sociocultural systems, religion is a universal feature of human social life. Science is a set of techniques for the acquisition of knowledge relying upon observation and experience (i.e., collection of factual evidence, demonstration, proof, etc.). It includes not only the techniques and procedures for producing knowledge, but also the accumulated body of knowledge itself. Conceived in this way, science is not a cultural universal, but has flourished only in certain places at certain times. Art is a universal component of sociocultural systems. It consists of the symbolic images or representations having esthetic, emotional, or intellectual value for the members of a society or segment of a society. The symbolic images or representations in question are of a physical nature. Literature also consists of symbolic images or representations having esthetic, emotional, or intellectual value. However, in this case the images or representations are verbal (oral or written) rather than physical in nature. Conceived in this way, myth, legend, and the plays of Shakespeare all account as literature. Ethnocentrism A universal social doctrine holding that ones own culture or society is superior to all others. Literally, my group is the center. (p. 412) To a very substantial degree, we are products of our own culture, and virtually all of us are inclined to think of our own way of life as the most desirable and other cultures as representing various gradations of less desirable lifestyles. Ethnocentrism is a universal human phenomenon (p. 34).

Cultural relativism the doctrine that no culture is inherently superior or inferior to others, but that, since every culture represents an adaptive solution to fundamental human problems, all cultures are equally valid. Cultural relativists believe that the standards of one culture cannot be used to evaluate another, and therefore that the standards for the evaluation of a culture can only be those of that culture itself (p. 34). [Criticisms] It leads to the approval of practices that are patently inhumane (Hatch quoted in Sanderson, 1999, p. 35) In addition, cultural relativism seems to perpetuate a kind of tyranny of custom by leaving little or no room for the autonomy of the individual (ibid). Elvin Hatch (1983) has suggested a way around cultural relativism that overcomes its basic deficiencies while at the same time retaining what seems to be of value in it: its general plea for tolerance. Hatch propose what he calls a humanistic principle as a means of judging other cultures. This principle holds that cultures can be evaluated in terms of whether or not they harm persons by such means as torture, sacrifice, war, political repression, exploitation, and so on. It also judges them in terms of how well they provide for the material existence of their members, that is, the extent to which people are free from poverty, malnutrition, disease, and the like. Beyond this consideration, cultures cannot really be meaningfully evaluated (Hatch, 1983, p. 138):
Relativism prevails in relation to the institutions that fall outside the orbit of the humanistic principle, for here a genuine diversity of values is found and there are no suitable cross-cultural standards for evaluating them. The finest reasoning that we or anyone else can achieve will not point decisively to the superiority of Western marriage patterns, eating habits, legal institutions, and the like. We ought to show tolerance with respect to these institutions in other societies on the grounds that people ought to be free to live as they choose.

While Hatchs proposal does seem to improve considerable on cultural relativism, such complex ethical questions unfortunately cannot be settled quite so easily. It is highly doubtful that even Hatchs strongly modified version of cultural relativism can be taken as a truly acceptable ethical philosophy. Yet despite our objections to either of these versions of relativism, we must recognize that cultural relativism is useful and necessary as a sort of practical guiding premise in exploring the nature of sociocultural systems. It therefore has methodological, if not ethical, value. It has methodological value because it compels the examination of cultural patterns in terms of their adaptive character. Without cultural relativism as a methodological tool, we would confront other cultures wearing a set of cultural blinders, the result of which would undoubtedly be the perpetuation of ignorance rather than the illumination of the basic workings of sociocultural systems (pp. 3536). Subculture a smaller culture existing within the framework of a larger culture. The members of a subculture share specific cultural patterns that are in some way different from those that prevail in the larger culture, while at the same time generally accepting and sharing in the patterns of the larger culture [Many] subcultures exist in complex societies, of course, with such factors as race, religion, regionalism, and social class serving as important criteria for subcultural distinctions (p. 36). Counter culture [is a subculture, but unlike the latter, its members] do not share in the dominant cultural patterns. Instead, countercultures tend to be based on hostility to, and rejection of, such dominant patterns. Some countercultures are genuinely revolutionary in that they are predicated upon an attempt to make a fundamental alteration in the dominant culture. Most countercultures, however, are not imbued with such revolutionary intentions; instead, they are generally organized around a withdrawal from the mainstream of cultural life (p. 36).

The Logical Priority of Infrastructure (pp. 53-54)

A materialist approach is unable to explain all relevant sociocultural phenomena, but an approach that could do so does not exist Materialists hold that infrastructural variables take priority because they constitute the fundamental means whereby human beings solve the most basic problems of human existence. Before humans can formulate marriage rules, organize political systems, and construct abstract religion concepts, the

must organize the means whereby they will survive. Marx and Engels clearly understood this elementary fact. As Engels put it in his famous eulogy at Marxs graveside (Engels, 1963, pp. 188-189):
Just as Darwin discovered the law of evolution in organic nature, so Marx discovered the law of evolution in human history; he discovered the simple fact, hitherto concealed by an overgrowth of ideology, that mankind must first of all eat and drink, have shelter and clothing, before it can pursue politics, science, religion, art, etc., and that therefore the production of the immediate material means of subsistence and consequently the degree of economic development attained by a given people or during a given epoch, form the foundation upon which the state institutions, the legal conceptions, the art and even the religion ideas of the people concerned have been evolved, and in the light of which these things must therefore be explained, instead of vice versa as had hitherto been the case.

Marvin Harris has argued for the logical priority of infrastructure along similar lines (1979, p. 57):
Infrastructure is the principal interface between culture and nature, the boundary across which the ecological, chemical, and physical restraints to which human action is subject interact with the principal sociocultural practices aimed at overcoming or modifying those restraints. The order of cultural materialist priorities from infrastructure to the remaining behavioral components and finally to the mental superstructure reflects the increasing remoteness of these components from the culture/nature interface Priority for theory building logically settles upon those sectors under the greatest direct restraints from the givens of nature. To endow the mental superstructure with strategic priority, as the cultural idealists advocate, is a bad bet. Nature is indifferent to whether god is a loving father or a bloodthirsty cannibal. But nature is not indifferent to whether the fallow period in a swidden field is one year or ten. We know that powerful restraints exist on the infrastructural level; hence it is a good bet that these restraints are passed on to the structural and superstructural components.