I'm interested in what shapes society?

Yes, individuals shape society and society shapes the individual, but I want more detailed analysis.

My humble take is: Culture is the most important thing that shapes society. Even if the rules are strict if the Culture is tolerant this won't matter much. The opposite stands as well, lax rules but intolerant society won't provide as much freedom.

I am interested in all philosophical thoughts on this subject and I am sure there is a lot of them. But, I'm not ready to read 1000 pages for one train of thought. I would like these thoughts summarized.

Should I examine different Ideologies and which ones?

I've tried google without any meaningful yields. Sorry if it's the wrong place to ask this question and if it is, please tell me where to post it.


2 Answers 2


Sociology has three main theories, which do not refute each other but compensate for the lackluster parts of each other:

  1. Structural functionalism, in which society is proposed to have structures which have certain functions, which has a methodology that is akin to natural sciences. (Comte, Spencer)
  2. Conflict theory, which argues social action can be explained in terms of class conflict. (Marx)
  3. Symbolic interactionism, which explain sociological concepts through the idea of interactions between symbols formed by society, i.e. it explains society w.r.t communication. (Mead, Blumer)

Your approach seems to follow the third one. After all, culture can be considered as a structured collection of symbols which can result in social actions, it also can even shape our economy, in turn our social classes. However, culture itself also happens to be a result of our more pragmatic values. Many concepts in our society can be traced back to our pragmatic needs, e.g. the structure of a core family for example. Larger families were the norm before the industrial revolution as farms needed many people to function. That is, larger families were a part of our culture. Now the size of a family shrinks, as we cannot deal with more members, which in turn becomes our culture.

My point is not that pragmatic needs cause cultural changes, but that they have an effect on each other.

If I try to dilute the points of these three perspective in sociology, I come to find that what shapes our society is not a single matter or a single process, but mainly a simple concept. That is, our society is shaped on the mode of interdependence we have with each other.

I don't live with my family solely because of practical needs. I also need emotional support, for example. I am not a functional member not only if I don't get money or housing, but if I lose emotional support as well. These factors (emotional support, pragmatical needs, need for cooperation and whatever you can name from Maslow's hierarchy of needs) also applies to everyone. That is why, in my opinion, we form a coherent whole, a society. There has to be a structure which balances the interdependence of most of individuals of the society.

That is, if pragmatic needs come to a point where individuals simply cannot survive, at that point culture has little to no effect. Likewise, as you put it, cultural values can shape how we satisfy our practical needs.

Ultimately, what I find to shape our society is that our interdependence with each other as our nature as a single individual cannot be able to make us survive.


I'd start with an evolutionary account. AO Wilson, the leading biologist on social insects, developed and extended the idea of eusociality, to account using multi-level selection for the emergence of hive organisms. And his account also applies to some extent to prairie dogs, wolf packs, naked mole rats, and human tribes through the majority of our evolution (whether we have group-regulation of childbearing now is disputable, so it could be argued we are no longer eusocial). Crucially language capacities developed during a eusocial era, and we can look to Dunbar's Number for evidence, and to understand how it's driven our late-developing neocortex, which we essentially 'program' to inhibit impulses societally.

Then, how did morality evolve. The case of why humans, almost uniquely among species have sex in private, has insights. I gave my views here How do ethicists tackle the question "Is it immoral to have sex in public places?" Is it possible to use rational and empirical ideas to answer? The takeaway for me, is evolved shame, disgust & pride, have been progressively hijacked to alter social behaviour unconsciously, and increasingly, consciously.

I think humour is an interesting example case. The closest analogue we have to human laughter is the chimpanzee pant hoot. We see tickling in chimpanzees, rats and humans. We see play in many animals, especially when young. And we have the self-domestication theory of humans having extended childhoods and neuroplasticity, and keeping some features of juvenileness like playfulness, as supporting our intelligence. In a social context, I see the role of humour as easing social tensions (like sex in private also does). Humour allows competing concerns, and boundary enforcements, to be done in playful ways that don't threaten status. We have taken these evolved behaviours for infant play, already hijacked for bonding through (infectious, like yawning) laughter, and hijacked it further to allow space to play with serious subjects that isn't threatening.

Next, sociology. Durkheim has a great account of religious practice, that it's about binding communities together through holding things sacred, beyond question, and enacting, celebrating, and enforcing that. This perspective allows us to see habeus corpus, and free speech, as defining of communities as having an altar, or an ark of the covenant. Challenge habeus corpus, and you challenge the basis of coherence of the community bound by it (see Hong Kong as a live test case). Durkheim links social decoherence from loss of shared binding values, to personal anomie.

My favourite anthropologist is David Graeber, and his book Debt: The First 5,000 Years gives a compelling account of the emergence of trade networks and currency, from mutual obligations and trust-building.

Then I think we need Nietzsche, and the post-modern challenge to society-wide metanarratives. The best famous example being 'god is dead'. For most of human history, conformity to religious verities, like say the literal truth of the transubstantiation, was enforced by threat of death. We can see why, using Durkheim's framing - challenge cultural truths, & you challenge cultural cohesion. I'd say strongly correlated to the printing press, that approach of threats largely doesn't work any more - you can't just force a society to take up views any more, to, essentially, bind it to one book (which historically tended to happen when the monarch converted). But this disputing about how to live, what values to hold, challenges social coherence. We have a certain set of 'enlightenment values' that a good chunk of the world hold, and celebrate, and try to enforce, and that underpins the global community. The challenge to that social hegemony of values, is a challenge to that communities binding power, as the global communities values are a challenge to what binds China who's government largely does not share them. When we make a cultures metanarrative intelligible, reasoned, it can reach beyond borders - like the scientific community. We need challenge, rethinking, reform, improvement, of sets of metanarratives, but we also need their binding power, so it's crucial to find the right pace of change, or a bloody revolution gets followed by collapse & chaos.

It's interesting to look at how the picture of 'human nature' affects a person's view of society. Rousseau pictured a 'noble savage', saw civilisation as corrupting, and saw the social contract as between mature intelligent people. Hobbes saw the state of nature as 'the war of all against all', and the pact of society as forged out of fire and blood, and being to submit to the lineage of the strongest, the monarch, to avoid more fire and blood - he lived through the English Civil War, and the beginning of witch panics, so we can have some sympathy. Jonathan Haidt has some interesting insights with his moral foundations theory, on how feeling threatened through our key development age (under 25, neocortex still developing) shapes our political outlook by suppressing tolerance of ambiguities. Also herder 'honour cultures', vs the ethics of rice & wheat growers who must plant and harvest together. I see the Left as arising out of eras of prosperity and security, and motivated by what they move towards. The Right as arising out of eras or regions with turmoil, collapse, and motivated by what they move away from.

Permaculture, is a modern school of thought, properly called a design methodology, rather than a philosophy. It aims towards generating 'permanently sustainable culture', so is premised on recognising a lot of what we do can't last, like if everyone on Earth lived like in x country it would take y times the Earth's resources. So, it becomes about conscious culture design. It isn't a set of answers to how to design cultures, but an approach towards how to do it. I take inspiration from The Arts And Crafts Movement, and Japanese tea culture & wabi sabi concept, to see tgat consciously chosen aesthetics and a kind of design manifesto, can do more to shape how we actually live, than a lot of the disputing about what is true. Rudolf Steiner wanted to abolish squares, rectangles & regular circles & triangles in architecture, to challenge the cubes of cubes in grids aesthetic of the then industrialising world. Gaudi's approach to architecture used catenary arches, and much else inspired by nature, which we can see feeding into the idea of 'biophilia', being brought to bear now on urban design, like closing many streets in Barcelona's street-grid to fill them with trees.

Some tools for a toolbox there, on thinking about shaping society, and what culture is, and why it matters.

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    I like your answer, but accepted the other as its more focused. Your answer made me think and question more tho... Just wanted to clear things up. Thank you for your answer! Commented Feb 17, 2021 at 14:14

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