Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Four Ways to Organize Society

I've been interested for a long time in the ways in which societies are organized. Lately, I've been playing with a theory that there are four kinds of forces which account for most social organization. I define each type of force according to the human need the force gains its power to organize society through:


Military forces draw their influence from two interrelated sources: the human need for security and the constant possibility of resort to physical force. That is, they can either organize people with the promise of protection or the threat of retribution.


People have material needs. Any organization that can provide for these material needs better than individuals can on their own can use that power to organize elements of society.


People need some sense of meaning as much as they need food or water. For purposes of this model, any attempt to organize people by providing meaning counts as religious whether it involves an idea of God or not.


People also need to feel that they belong to some group. For purposes of this model, any attempt to organize people by providing that deep feeling of belonging counts as mimicking family.

Most institutions are centered in one of these forces, although the strongest institutions seem to tap into more than one. Most modern governments, for example, are grounded in military force but also operate as businesses in organizing their countries. Nationalism is the idea that such governments should also be organized around an ethnic group, tapping into the force of family. The United States government, never able to make its citizens see themselves as a family for long, taps into religion instead, rallying its citizens around core ideologies like freedom and democracy which are presented as giving life special meaning.

Governments aren't the only military forces, of course: organized crime taps into military and business forces to organize its members and sometimes whole communities. And Islamic insurgencies today aren't terribly different than other religions of the past in organizing people first by their shared desire for meaning, then diversifying into the use of physical force (typically first for protection and only later for expansion).

Business organizations include not only corporations, but also unions, professional associations, old-school guilds, mutual improvement associations, and charities. Business-based organizations need security to succeed and therefore often exist in symbiotic relationships with military organizations--whether that means a government or the local mafia.

Religious organizations are typically more resilient than military and business organizations. The high levels of commitment and deep bonds between people who share a sense of how to make meaning out of the world provide secondary layers of social organization in times of transition: that's one reason why it isn't surprising to see religious conflict in regions where social organizations are failing or undergoing major transitions: religious group keep things from sliding into pure anarchy, but often also end up butting heads with one another.

Family organizations can include the nuclear family (which seems to run fairly weak on its own), the extended family, the tribe, the ethnic group, or the nation. In some cases, a military unit might try to organize itself more tightly by using the family force to bind its soldiers together: history is full of examples of troops encouraged to see each other as brothers, sometimes by being stripped of biological family. Religions, of course, often also tap into the familial force, trying to simulate family in the body of believers. And in some cases businesses attempt to create familial bonds to solidify themselves: this was certainly common in history, when business was often literally a family affair and long-term contracts might be sealed with an engagement.

While the strategies of a given institution (especially over time) are often more complex than meets the casual eye, I think my four forces model might be useful in understanding how people are organized, and how social organizations change across place, time, and even person-to-person.

Is this a fair way of thinking about things? If so, is it useful?

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

"Ground Zero Mosque"

There been quite a debate going on over the proposed construction of an Islamic Center two blocks from Ground Zero. Since this is America, relatively few people are willing to come right out and say that Congress should legally stop the building from happening. Instead, they say that the project's planners should be discouraged from placing a center there. It's a matter of sensitivity, most critics explain. A Muslim religious presence so close to the attacks would be hurtful to the families of the victims.

The families of the victims. Here's a question: does their pain put their feelings beyond question?

I think about Balbir Singh Sodhi. It really hurt Frank Roque's feelings that even after 9/11, this bearded, turbaned man could be allowed to run a gas station in the middle of the neighborhood. The presence of Balbir at the Chevron station and a Lebanese-American clerk at the Mobil one, of a family of Afghan immigrants in the very apartment Frank used to live in, that must have torn him up inside. And hadn't we all been attacked? Wasn't Frank, too, a sort of victim? Absolutely, Balbir had a right to work in his Arizona gas station--but out of sensitivity for Americans like Frank, a Sikh like Balbir (who looked awfully Muslim) probably should have kept a low profile, or else gone back to Mexico, or Iraq, or wherever it was he came from, right?

After Frank killed Balbir, people from their Mesa neighborhood, people whose children Balbir used to give free pieces of candy to while their parents paid for gas, questioned the assumption that the presence of bearded men with turbans should offend us. They mourned with Balbir's family--a family who should also be counted among the victims of 9/11, their husband/brother/father/uncle murdered by an American terrorist who called himself a patriot. People in that part of Mesa learned the hard way that pain and prejudice are a dangerous combination, and need to be fought with constant vigilance.

A sign put up outside Sodhi's gas station

This isn't the first time America has heard these stories, though. Newt Gingrich argued against the planned center by saying, among other things, that "we would never accept the Japanese putting up a site next to Pearl Harbor." It's interesting that he uses "Japanese" rather than "Japanese-Americans," which would be the more apt comparison, since the Muslims planning this center are based in New York and consider America their home. What Mr. Gingrich has perhaps forgotten is that we're more than a little embarrassed today that during World War Two, Japanese-Americans were rounded up and sent to internment camps by people who couldn't distinguish between neighbors and enemies, who felt the pain of attack justified bending standard protections on civil rights, openness, and trust.

Let's stand together as Americans now. Let's stand with Orrin Hatch, who followed up the question of whether the project is insensitive to those who lost loved ones by saying "We know that there were Muslims killed on 9/11, too." Let's tell the Sarah Palins, Newt Gingriches, and others who turned this building project into a national issue that we appreciate their concern, but we want to be led by people who can move beyond raw emotion into long-term wisdom.

And above all, let's not allow an atmosphere to develop in which pain and prejudice lead to anti-Muslim violence, and create still more victims in the long shadow of 9/11.
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