Patterns of society through production

Wherever we find a community, however primitive, however complex, we find more than an association of individuals, each pursuing his own life and possessing his own ideas; we find a social pattern, a coherent body of customs and ideas, an integrated unity or system in which each element has a definite function in relation to the whole environment, physical, biological and social.

But what determines the pattern? It is, says the anthropologist Radcliffe-Brown, 'the necessary conditions of existence of the social organism'. To this the social institutions must correspond. In turn, the necessary conditions of existence, at any stage of social development, depend on the geographical situation and the level of technology. This is true from the Stone Age to the present age of industrialism.

Basic to every form of social organization is the method of obtaining those items essential for human survival. In other words, how do the people of a particular society exploit natural resources to produce their food, clothing, tools, and other items that they need in order to live as human beings ?
These 'necessary conditions of existence' shape the relationship of people to each other and their command of natural resources. Individuals utilise nature, directly or indirectly, to produce the necessities of life, not in isolation from each other, not as separate individuals, but in common groups and societies with shared or conflicting cultural norms.

Economics
Taking the environment as a whole, the rate of formation of the biological inputs as energy underpins all human production. Biological productivity is therefore of vital importance as a focus of human affairs. It is a consistent feature of human adaptations to environment that cultures have to strike a balance between their command of natural resources as inputs to communities (natural economy), and the primary production of biological materials and energy that is driven by planetary and solar forces (planetary economy). The social rules relating inputs to outcomes in goods and services are set by the organisation of human relations for production (political economy).

Human relations
The nineteenth century in Britain was a period of social mutation, which has since involved every continent, and disintegrated a pattern of life which had predominated since the beginning of settled communities. From the Neolithic Revolution, which started somewhere in the Near East ten thousand years ago, till the end of the eighteenth century, the prevailing mode of production common to successive civilizations was domestic. The home was not merely a unit of self-propagation. It was a unit of production, alike for generating food and for making manufactured commodities. To be sure, the day's work in the Homeland of two hundred years ago was not all homework. There were mines. There was navigation. There was commerce, mining, and navigation and commerce but these were well-established human activities in the earliest civilization of which we have a written record. The tempo at which the home relinquished its hold on the daily work of humankind during the last two centuries eclipses that of any large- scale social innovation during the two preceding milIennia.

This rapid spread of the factory system was the offspring of technical innovations which threatened the home as a unit of social organization in several ways. It coincided with vast improvements of human communications of all kinds. Human life was becoming increasinly mobile. With this gain of mobility consequent on the invasion of daily life by unprecedented facilities for rapid transport, social ties which bound the individual to the home and the home to the locality were in process of dissolution. Such loosening of social ties itself synchronized with circumstances which cast aside pre-existing social barriers, promoting new solidarities and new groups within the community.

One phenomenon which impressed itself inescapably on the imagination of the onlooker, from Adam Smith to Karl Marx, was increasing division of labour, seemingly tending to the disappearance of specialisation, though, as we now see, generating a mighty array of new specialities. Another, equally characteristic of the impact of the factory system on human relations, was rapid urbanisation with concomitant emergence of a new awareness of common needs and common dangers transcending traditional obstacles to human co- operation.

When Chaucer's pilgrims made their way to Canterbury and Piers Plowman contemplated the rural scene from the Malvern Hills, the class structure of England was comparatively simple. English society consisted of lords and commons, of gentlemen and labourers. The barons held their land of the King in return for services. Below them were lesser people - freemen, villeins and cottars, whose lot in life was fixed by the inexorable accident of birth; and this stratification of society was accepted as inevitable and desirable.

"God has ordained," says Chaucer's Parson, "that some folk be more high in estate and in degree, and some folk more low, and that everyone should be served in his estate and in his degree."

Thus society was made up of two major classes, one small, select and wealthy - the lords of land whether. lay or clerical - and the other large - the ordinary folk of the countryside and the towns. It was an axiom that these classes were divinely ordained, each with its privileges, each with its responsibilities. The landlord was privileged in holding land and in having some say in the government of his country, but he also had responsibilities. It was his ostensible duty to protect the common folk of his estate from violence, to dispense justice and to maintain order.

It remains broadly a truism that there was little movement from class to class throughout the period. The villein might become a copyholder or a freeman. He might move into a town and become a craftsman, but he moved within a very limited range, recognising the social and political superiority of the landed aristocracy and accepting their view that it was their function to govern.

Such a conception of society persisted for many centuries. Though the function of kingship in maintaining order and of dispensing justice has long since passed into the hands of county councils, the local police force and law courts. Nevertheless, there are traces of patronage alive to this day in Britain, especially in country districts where landed families still occupy a unique position in social organization.

These changes in human relationships went along with an ever increasing exploitation of natural resources reflecting attitudes to fundamental needs for land, homes, health, food, dress, work, communications. leisure and government. Any one of these topics may be taken as a window on cultural ecology to illustrate the historical shifting balance between people and natural resources.