Levels of A Society
A hunter-gatherer society has one social level that we call the “foundation level.” More complex societies have two. Every society has a foundation level but more complex societies have an overlapping level created through the need for government.
A hunter-gatherer society does not have an organized governmental structure. Hunter-gatherer populations are small because of their limited knowledge and skills. They know a great deal more about the natural world than people living in complex societies. But other aspects of the world that are known today are mysteries to them.
The foundation hunter-gatherer society is based on traditional beliefs and behavioral expectations that evolved over thousands of years. Children are taught from an early age the importance of group uniformity of beliefs and actions. To do otherwise can mean death for individuals and the group.
A hunter-gatherer group does not have a governmental structure or an executive, leadership role such as a head of state or head of government. Beliefs and proper behavior expectations are engrained into children’s minds from early childhood. There is little crime and conflict among hunter-gatherers.
If a tradition does not dictate behavior, decisions are made by the group through discussion and consensus building. A person that might be identified as a “chief” functions as a discussion leader, not a decider. Another aspect of decision making involves leadership in short-term activities. For example, if a warrior desires to conduct a raid on an enemy his capability to do so is based on the number of warriors that will voluntarily follow him as a leader.
Difficulties experienced when the U.S. government attempted to negotiate treaties with Native Americans on the plains were based on a lack of understanding of social levels. The hunter-gatherer tribal societies did not have a second level of society. Their “chiefs” were not decision makers. If a chief signed a treaty the only people that would honor it were those willing to follow their “chief” as their leader. Those that did not agree with the treaty were free to ignore it, which is what happened.
The two levels of a complex society can be demonstrated by discussing the realities associated with the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the U. S. Constitution. These were enacted into the Constitution following the American Civil War. The 13th prohibited slavery and other kinds of involuntary servitude. The 14th provided equal protections of the law for all people. The 15th provided the right for all males to vote.
But when I was a child in the 1940’s all three of these amendments were being violated in most areas of the country. Various financial and contractional gimmicks were used such as share cropping to get around the 13th Amendment. A U. S. Supreme Court decision known as “separate but equal” was used to get around the 14th Amendment. Other equal rights violations included development of a financial practice known as “red lining” that was enacted by FDR’s New Deal during the Great Depression. In some areas of the nation, voting rights were being violated through requiring potential voters to pass tests on the U.S. Constitution that were not administrated equally.
We have much to learn about foundation societies and their relationship with the second level that is based on government and laws. For example, enacting a law does not change the foundation level. Changing the foundation level requires building a consensus among the people to think and act differently. Some of our greatest social challenges today are related to our lack of knowledge and understanding of the relationships between the two levels of a society.
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© Joseph L. Bass, EdD, August 2020