On Structural and Functional Status of Culture in the Social System


Nadejda Stahovski

It is well known that the contents of a series of fundamental concepts handled by social- human sciences is quite controversial in the works of reference. Any dictionary of sociology or cultural anthropology would offer us the picture of the “semantic pluralism” of such basic concepts as social structure, institute, culture and, more recently, that of globalisation. Thus, the term social structure is defined in both social anthropology and sociology by the term institute, whose semantic field is not clear- cut even within one and the same school. In ethology, the term social structure is used to designate the relationships among individuals, animals, or groups using biological (age and sex) criteria.

Culture – a concept of utmost importance in both understanding the motivation of human behaviour and making out how does the social whole function is “too amorphous, hazy and, purely and simply contradictory” (Veselkin, E. A., 1991). There are several main causes to that:

  1. Terms bearing on one and the same phenomenon have been formed in different fields of knowledge over different historical times to meet different theoretical and practical needs. Therefore, these same terms have drifted over social-cultural times and space, from one investigation field to another, where they acquired different connotations, according to school and discipline. Such semantic syncretism was made easier by the lack of a theoretical model of the social whole integrating the object of research, of a model acknowledged by all those working in the field of the social-human sciences. An example is the term institute adopted by modern lawyers from Roman law and used in the philosophy of law (Willms B., 1971). Hence it has migrated into sociology and ethnology, adding new connotations;
  2. The complexity of social-human phenomena, allowing their tackling from different perspectives; causes the delusion that “actual research” would not really call for a theoretical model of the whole, and that “contextual theories” would suffice – namely, they would be adequate to the object. The lack of a theoretical model of the social whole as a reference system acknowledged in various social-human sciences has caused differences in the languages describing the same phenomena1 .

As for the culture concept, it has two main semantic fields, either of them having its own scope of origin, own history and language. One of them is fed by ethnology, by social and cultural anthropology, while the other has been developed by theorists and historians of arts, religion, philosophy of science; by culturologists. The first one generates many definitions (Kroeber A.L. & Kluckhon C., 1963), while the other is based upon the general view on culture as a field of creative spiritual activity. Yet, either field shares the tacit assumption that there are, within the social whole, a number of phenomena having certain functions even though the sphere they are manifest in, which is culture, is quite controversial. However, there are some standpoints denying the existence of such a sphere where culture might distinguish itself. They identify it with the social whole, as a result of human activity (Gehlen A. 1971), or with creativity.

We believe that a deideologized operational theoretical model 2 of the social whole is needed, one applicable to the analysis of both complex contemporary societies and the archaic, tribal ones, since both of them belong to the same class of systems – the class of social systems. Such a model would allow specifying the contents of a series of concepts (e.g., those of social structure, institute, culture). It would create a unitary criterial reference system operational in all social-human sciences, as well as a basis for unifying, to some extent, the language. In short, all that is necessary for effective communication between different schools. Such a model would offer the possibility of outlining the content of the culture concept and the objective structural and functional status of culture. This present study is an attempt in that direction.

On the Theoretical Model of the System Analysis

The best in this approach is, in our opinion, to start from the system theoretical model that S. Optner, the American systemist (S.L. Optner 1965), worked out to solve economic and organisational problems, to optimise the functioning of institutions and companies. There are many attempts at using the system concepts in building up the theoretical model of the social macrosystem (Zamfir C., 1987). The versions offered by this author need certain comments called for by the developments in system approaches.

From the `60 to the`80s, the system approaches of society were based upon the generally abstract definition of the system in terms of the theory. As it was too abstract, the latter proved, in time, insufficient for the investigation of structural and functional aspects of supra-complex nonlinear, multilevel and unstable systems, including the social macrosystem and its subsystems. Namely, they proved ineffective in current research, to say nothing about the investigation of the diachronic section of those systems. System approaches, structuralist approaches (but, then, the structure concept is meaningless without the system one) in sociology stirred up violent criticism by the “humanitarians, ” while the very possibility and effectiveness of global system approach of society, as well as the social reality’s system character, were denied (Schelsky H., 1970). Criticism of the kind was rooted both in the poor knowledge of the achievements of system approaches at the time, and in the limitations of the model applied. The level of the system representations in the social-human sciences also caused disputes between the structuralist (“structuralism”) and functionalist (“functionalism”) descriptions of the social system. The present-day level of theoretical developments in the study of nonlinear dynamic unstable systems sets this issue in different terms. J. von Neuman’s view on the complexity threshold (acc. to Jablonsky A.I., 1984) distinguishes between two states of a complex system, which are qualitatively different from a structural and functional viewpoint, but also between two possible ways of describing it. The works of mathematicians Kolmogorov and Gödel come as a proof to von Neuman’s conclusion as to the choice criterion and content value of such descriptions. As far as simple systems are concerned, the functional approach is more effective (i.e., direct description in terms of functionalism), while for the behaviour of complex systems, indirect, mediated description by describing the structure carrying out that behaviour, is more effective. This is a major methodological fact built upon the equivalence of the fullness of both ways of description and upon the non-equivalence of the length (simplicity) of description (Jablonsky A.I., 1984). Both ways of description must, however, rely upon an explicit theoretical model of the system, of the social one in our case.

Developments in the field of nonlinear complex systems have defined more accurately the structure concept that had been defined, in most cases, also in terms of the set theory, as an invariant relation between the elements of the system. This specification brings together, and operationalizes, the structural and functional approaches; from that perspective, structure is viewed as a “characteristic of the inner organisation of the system which lays down its ways of behaviour (i.e., its functions – n. N.S.) under different conditions at different times” (Vasiliev P.V., 1994). On the other hand, complex systems, both living and social ones, keep developing, and their organisation undergoes changes. What does a tribe of hunters (reapers) from the Amazon basin and the post-industrial society have in common in point of view of structure, if we were to consider Vasiliev’s definition? The description of the structural specific features of the class of systems that the system under consideration belongs to, is of critical importance in rendering its theoretical model operational.

The qualitative conceptual model of system analysis, as developed by S. Optner, enables a more accurate definition of the very fundamental structureinvariantof the dynamic system, generally. The change of such fundamental structure can give birth to a new class of systems. Thus, the change in the biological system’s fundamental structure has brought about a new class of systems – the class of social ones. The structure concept usually associates with the stability idea of the system’s organisation and behaviour over a fixed time interval. The term fundamental structure is meant to designate an internal relation, invariant through all the changes of the given system’s organisation. The identification of the mechanism and limitations of the changes in system’s organisation (i.e., development) considering the invariance of its fundamental structure, is an implicit issue that calls for a special approach.

Optner’S System Model

Optner’s System Model has a number of assets from this paper’s viewpoint:

  1. It has been worked out from the study of the functioning of some social macrosystem subsystems that can be viewed as belonging to the social systems class. The author defines her model considering its purpose of building up a truthful representation of the real world;
  2. It is an example of a structural description of a functional system. But, then, functional systems can be system-defined here as based upon the principle of the input stimuli from the outer environment changing into output sequences enhanced by the feedback structure. Such systems are not “composed” of elements; they correspond to the integrality in the system paradigm (Vasiliev P.V., 1994).
  3. The system is defined from a dynamic perspective: the fundamental category of the model is the process. The main process also stands for the criterion to single out a system of its environment (or, of its hierarchically higher system), and to identify both inner and outer structural relationships of the system. Implicitly, it stands for a criterion necessary in research for the “natural decomposition” of the complex research object, of the system into subsystems.
  4. All the terms of the model are rigourously defined in terms of systems, i.e., related to a reference set of criteria of content.
  5. As specified by S. Optner, the model is instrumental in solving “major qualitative” ill-structured problems. Such problems are likely to occur in a system when its structure and elements (structural components, to be more precise), conditions and finalities (goals) are but partly known. But then, that is true of the culture “problem.” For such problems, Optner’s method has a set of techniques that facilitates structure detection (Optner S.L., 1965 – N.S.).
  6. Finally, it is very important that “the one and same set of terms can be used to describe both very large, complex systems and the very small and simple ones” (idem). It is logical for us to infer that the “set of terms” of such a theoretical model is also applicable to the “detection” of the social macrosystem’s structure.

The Particularity of the Social Systems

For want of the space necessary for a demonstration, we are postulating that the social system is characterised by an ensemble of supra-individual and supra-population 3 material and spiritual systems (tools, institutes, settlements, language, behavioural patterns, sciences, arts, philosophy, etc.) that are processed by the human population. They are human-made and supra-individual, meaning that humans have created them and they are transmitted down from generation to generation. They have appeared as having been developed as a means of survival of the Homo Sapiens species. The systems in this ensemble are directly or indirectly instrumental in the production of those material and spiritual goods that are necessary as a minimum to the species’ reproduction in numbers that would ensure its survival. (We leave aside, here, other finalities and functions of the said ensemble, acquired and developed along history).

We shall consider the population’s production and reproduction integrated process as the main process of the social system. Unlike the physical reproduction of the individuals in biological systems, reproduction in the social system is ultimately aimed at socialisation; namely, forming in human individuals, skills enabling them to perform their processor function in different subsystems of the social macrosystem, within the non- biological relationships. We think it useful to insist upon the main function, upon the “role” of the human individual in the social system. In a dynamic perspective on the social system, humanity is not an “element” thereof. Leaving aside, here, other functions and activities of humanity and its purposes, as well, as humanity performs processor functions in the social system. According to S. Optner, the processor is ” the transformer of the space-time distribution of energy” (S. Optner, quoted works). In the social system, it is humanity (the population) that performs that function. Moreover, in the social system, he is the source of that “free energy” that Prigogine is speaking about and that generates destabilising and restructuring of a nonlinear dynamic system. The processor activates the input, changing it into output. In manufacturing that role is also performed by machines. S. Optner is using somewhere the phrase “human processor” for a particular case of the human-machine relation.

At a closer look, however, humanity reveals its role as universal processor, as a “processor of processors, ” since machines are specialised processors, created to transform particular types of energy. Their functioning depends on the energy of humanity. The processor-individual can be viewed as a multifunctional bio-social system with several purposes that it is growing aware of (but also creates). The number of “programs” of its activity, though subject to objective and subjective restrictions, is large enough. The individual can intervene in the activity and behaviour program prescribed by the controlling instances, can swerve from it, or can act on its own program. Therefore, it does have a certain range of freedom. But, then, the functioning of the social macrosystem and all its subsystems (technical ones included) fully depends on the human activity. And the motivation of the human behaviour is conditioned not only by the particular features of its personality, including its physiological parameters and psychological trends as S. Optner holds, but also by individual and group interests, and by cultural models as well.

The Structural-Functional Quality Model Of The Social Macrosystem

Further in this paper, there is an attempt at applying S. Optner’s model in order to specify the structure of the social macrosystem that has developed all its structural components. It goes without saying, that such specification can be but an approximate and schematic one, yet sufficient for achieving the purpose of the present approach. For his conceptual model, the American systemist resorted to categories of cybernetics: input, output, feedback; the “black box” is replaced by the process concept, on which there is certain information available, even if incomplete. For social systems, the structure of the feedback control process is materialized by bringing in notions like output model, real output, restriction, intervention model. The process term is specified as main process.

Further on, we are attempting at organising and interpreting at a very abstract level, the information available to us from the fields of history, sociology, and social and cultural anthropology based upon the system analysis, in order to detect the structure of the social macrosystem. For want of the space necessary for an extensive coverage, we will focus upon the fundamental categories, such as the main process and feedback control. Such an approach has yielded (Diagram No. 1) bearing on a society that has differentiated its structural components. As seen below, it is also applicable to the smallest (tribal) archaic societies.


We have postulated that the main process is an integrated process of population’s production and reproduction (Subsystem A, Diagram 1). The production of the mass of items necessary to meet the ever more diversified necessities of the population is a collective process. Even in its simplest form it generates division of labour, i.e., the contribution of direct and indirect participants differing by quality and quantity. In its turn, division of labour is system- generating not only in the sense that human relationships are stratifying and restructuring according to the former’s own needs, but also in that while generating the problem of the distribution (and its criteria) of the product, it is differentiating the main process itself.

The “solution” to this new problem consisted, therefore, in the emergence of the third integrated sub-process (subsystem) of the main process ( a2 in Diagram 1), which distributes the product. The actual historical forms of this subsystem are varied, and so is its inner organisation, yet its function in the ensemble of the macrosystem is invariant. The ethnologists and anthropologists describe in their works the profusion of the forms of products distribution and redistribution in the archaic societies, where there have never been either “market, ” or money, or any other objects with equivalent function in products exchange. Forms of ritualized distribution are described also by B. Malinowsky (Malinowsky B., 1929) and M. Herskovits (Herskovits M., 1965). Trade, as well as the tax system, etc., are intricate forms of product distribution in societies with developed forms of private or state ownership of the means of production. The structuring potential of the distribution criteria (the issue needs actual historical investigation) increases along with the number of the population categories that do not participate directly as “labour power” or managers in the production process, and with the development of the forms of ownership.

Diagram 1 shows the main process structure (S) of the social macrosystem (A), where three integrated sub-processes, three major subsystems, are singled out. Each subsystem is very intricate in the literate societies and is being studied by special disciplines. The “normal” course of the main process should result in maintaining the population at a level numerically sufficient for it to perform its processor function, i.e. to survive. Obviously, the relation between these components, which undoubtedly have certain quality and quantity indices for each type of society at their different development stages, mainly accounts for the social system’s state of balance. And the state of balance can be viewed as the “goal” of any dynamic system’s functioning, as its objective finality, if we were to use an anthropomorphic term.

In complex enough macro-social systems, such a trend towards a balanced state is ensured by the differentiation of a control subsystem called, as far as society is concerned, the form of power, or government. In the systems for which S. Optner created his conceptual model, it is a question of control by means of feedback. It is described by terms defined to the system theory, namely:

  1. Output – an actual result of system’s functioning; the state of the system is also considered as an output (3 in Diagram 1);
  2. System’s output model (c1) – the desired result or planned finality of system’s functioning. Here the aims are meant as formulated by people-processors of the control subsystem. The output model is being built according to the constraints;
  3. Test of consistency – the comparison between c1 and 3 by applying the system’s functioning criteria or standards ( c2);
  4. Establishing and assessing – interpreting – the quantity and/or quality difference between c1 and 3;
  5. From this assessment the intervention model is developed, i.e., the model of “action taken, ” of the changes in the main process or system parameters.

This coherent feedback process controlled by sequence is aimed, as it is the case of the systems analysed by S. Optner, at changing the process under way in order to remove its malfunctions and preserve or improve its output indices. Each structural component – first degree subsystem of the macrosystem – has its own control subsystem, therefore its criteria and standards should be correlated with those of other subsystems and with criteria of the macrosystem’s control subsystem. Otherwise, says S. Optner, the system will function under conflicting conditions, which may lead to the destruction of structural connections. It seems that “conflicting state” is rather normal of the social systems, as it expresses their unstable character. More problems are caused by a conflicting context and some of the major achievements of the humans have ensued from impossible situations (S.L. Optner, 1965).

To all structural components of this model corresponding realities can be emphasised in the society. However, they appear in a very specific way there, not always coherent, often functionally distorted and conflicting. This particular feature is one of the indices of social systems’ instability (therefore, of their evolution), and is directly related to man’s specific position as a processor in the social system.

Before outlining, approximately, the feedback sequences of a super-complex, hierarchically organised system, in the empirical reality of the social life, it is necessary, however, to specify an aspect that is important to the social macrosystem. This aspect is tackled by the American scientist only as far as control of the technological process and of the technical processor (the machine) is concerned: it is a question of two types of feedback control existing in the living and social systems. As to the living systems, the differentiation between the inner and outer control is done by the American biologist T. Waterman in his analysis of the living cells biochemical processes. Essentially, it is a matter of relation between the control mechanisms of different hierarchical levels of a system’s main process (Waterman T., 1968). Despite all the differences between a living and a social system, not only the existence of two types of control, but also their functions stand for their common characteristic: inner control activates, maximises the process, while the outer one imposes limitations – restrictions – to it.

The Social Macrosystem Control System

In the developed social system, the outer control functions ( C in Diagram 1) are performed by the control over the society’s functioning, through encoded normative acts (subordinating particular normative acts), through laws, respectively. They settle power prerogatives, the rights and duties of various social categories towards the political power and political and social institutes (and vice versa), proprietorship relationships, etc. To a large extent, this control is strict and is exercised through constraint, as it is accompanied by the sanction system. One can say that outer control ensures a rather strict coherence to the functioning of the structural components of the social system, and control over the societal–over the relationships among various social categories (of processors). It works out the “output model, ” and formulates the aims according to the power politics among classes. It seems that the outer control has differentiated itself out of the only existing control – the inner one – performed through ritual, into a relatively independent system, private property over the means of production emerged.

In social systems, the humans, the processors, the motivation of their behaviour makes the object of the inner control. Thus, inner control used to be the first form of coordination of the tactical behaviour of the beings that can – and do – make decisions as to the meanings and ultimate goals of their activities, namely, they benefit by a potential of freedom. In fact, the issue of the inner control is the issue of actual mechanisms in rendering the concept of freedom operational. Inner control connects the goal of an individuality’s dynamics to the dynamics of the supra-individual’s system, affecting, from within, the motivation of the human behaviour. In the social macrosystem, such types of control are interconnected, but they can get “out of tune” at times of system’s instability. Each of them are functionally specific and they undergo changes at a different pace.

Outer control is related to the forms of governing and way of production, while the structure of the inner control mechanisms outlines the structural and functional status of culture.

Therefore, what does the feedback look like in the empirical reality of the society? What S. Optner calls output model is, in the social macrosystem a complex, heterogeneous phenomenon somewhat historically determined, but also with some aspects of permanence. At least three types of constraint connections participate in its formation: 1) the resultant of the power relationship among various social categories, their economical and political interests; 2) material and human resources of the society, its geopolitical position, foreign conjunctures – economical, political and military – etc. The importance of those factors varies according to the actually-historical period in a society’s evolution; 3) cultural models expressing the given society’s representations about itself, about its mission and place among other peoples, about the role of the power structures and their relationship with “the people,” about ethical norms, values and ideals, etc.

It is about whatever relates to the aspect of permanence of the output model of an actual type of society with very deep-going historical roots and having ideological functions in the broadest sense of the word. Quantitative criteria hold a significant place in the totality of criteria active in the control subsystem. A major part of criteria cannot, however, be expressed in amounts, and is very difficult to materialize in concepts and more often than not has unpredictable effects as the economic, political and military developments of the very twentieth century revealed.

Optner defines the output model as the operationalised goal of the governing structures. One of the important particular features of the output model’s shaping itself in the social macrosystem, as compared to S. Optner’s description, consists in the possibility of . gap between the “goals” of the systems – the immanent trend towards balance – and the goals of the control subsystem’s processors, of power structures. This gap seems to be rather a rule in history and is an essential source of the social system’s instability. The dynamic balance of a system means that it functions under conditions of consistency between output model parameters and the indices of intermediate inputs and outputs. However, the output models as worked out by the “power” people both for the macrosystem and its systems often come into conflict with the set of output models that are actually possible and which can secure the dynamic balance for the given system under given circumstances.

Such inconsistencies are caused – apart from the class or group interest – by the extreme complexity of the social system: a series of constraints not perceived by the power, or assessed according to their importance. Moreover, the output model of the social system has too general a character, although it holds the quantity data in its actually historical component. But, then, according to Optner, the higher the degree of generality of the output model, and, hence, the failure of the latter in operating in intermediate processes, the higher the risk that an intervention should prove wrong. For this reason, the intervention that is expected to produce an effect of the feedback, often proves to be the cause of the direct connection, resulting in an increase of dysfunction and increased instability.

The complexity and non-homogeneity of the consistency criteria, as well as all sorts of assessment systems, add in to the destabilising characteristics of the social system’s output model – i.e., the causes of its instability. In real society, at the macrosystem level, an operation of complete test of consistency, coherent and logically organised, exists, rather, as an ideal goal. The system’s dysfunction shows at the different levels of the system to a larger or lesser extent, while the results of the guided intervention – often unpredictable or undesired – occur where they are expected least of all.

The condition of a fully controlled social system (where real output indices coincide with those of the output model, while dysfunction is neutralized so that the indices revert to their initial state) is generally called stagnation. It is in this condition that archaic societies functioned for a long time; it seems that almost all societies experienced such a condition over certain periods of time. In the traditional stream of European thinking, the term stagnation has a deprecatory semantic implication, axiologically speaking, although the criteria of progress allegedly keeping abreast of the social system development, are quite controversial.

It follows from above that the main factor of instability of the social systems is the human processor, as the population is characterised by an extreme and increasing variety of personality types. The simplest proto-human union could not survive unless it would secure itself with a special mechanism controlling the behaviour of the species members towards cohesion, a non- instinctual mechanism, more flexible than the instinctual one, respectively, which would impose self-restrictions on the behaviour of the human individual. This is the mechanism of inner control, which is aimed at preserving the system’s functionality and, implicitly, at the survival of the population.

The Structural (Ontological) Status and Functions of Culture

The very mechanism of inner control is the one that outlines the structural and functional status of culture. In ethnology, in social and cultural anthropology, the content of the culture concept usually covers traditions, language, art, religion, moral norms, customs, behavioural patterns, rituals and science; according to certain authors, thinking styles are also added in (see Kroeber A.L. & Kluckhohn C., 1963). All these characteristics are descriptive, empirical and redundant. Thus, if the behavioural pattern stands for . structural diagram of a behavioural act, then customs and rituals are but a dynamic ensemble of such acts: movements, verbal formulae, bodily positions, gestures, mimicry, etc., having a very actual, well-defined finality. Their complex configurations are preserved in the memory of a special category of people, or they are encoded in the sign systems. Tradition is, in that case, the transmission through generations of such acts and aggregates of acts. The meanings of those three terms can be expressed in one only -that of behavioural model. It encompasses all behavioural acts of people – both in the field of human relationships, and in the use of tools and objects, in a broad sense.

By the end of the twentieth century, the terms model, modelling, have acquired meanings changing them into a specific instrument of investigation within the system approaches, generally, and within the system analysis, particularly. With such investigations, the model, as it is known, stands for a construct, namely, an artefact, an analogue imitating, from the perspective chosen by the researcher, the organisation or/and functioning of a category of objects or processes and is used in research, to represent them. The models are reconstituted from their phenomenological existence as a result of some complex abstraction procedures. We mention that the model proper has such functions as: a standard to which the modelled phenomenon is being reproduced; norm, i.e. the range-space, within whose limits the modelled phenomenon parameters can vary without having its identity affected (its fundamental structure); a specific way of encoding information. The cultural model also has another major function – that of axiological criterion in assessing human deeds and works. The cultural model is a concept increasingly used in anthropology, culturology, etc., while its cognitive virtues have not been appreciated to their true value. From the angle of this work, the cultural model term brings together all the semantic fields of the culture concept. From the structural viewpoint, the cultural model stands for a link (a subsystem) in the inner control of the human behaviour by feed-back, namely, a sort of output model for the processor-man viewed as a system. Moreover, cultural models are part of the subsystem of the macrosystem control mechanism’s criteria. This is what structural status of culture seems to be in the social macrosystem.

The cultural model concept has a corresponding actually historical reality, heterogeneous, yet having two main invariant functions: one bears upon storing and transmitting social information on the form of a material or spiritual activity, as well as on the human relationships in various fields of the social life. Along this line, the ensemble of cultural models stands for . system of social information codes impregnating both the consciousness and the unconscious of a given population’s individuals. The second function of the ensemble of models is to act, on one hand, as a system of criteria, whereby the deflections from the “institutionalise” behaviour are corrected (by various mechanisms), whenever the limits of the variability range admitted by the given society are exceeded. Therefore, it is a matter of a control function. The ensemble of cultural models covers as follows:

  1. The set of behavioural models controlling the human relationships in all the subsystems of the macrosystem (age, sex, profession, group, among representatives of various social categories, etc.);
  2. The ensemble of models of the objects manufactured by people, as well as that of the tools and production processes (“technologies”).
  3. Language as a means of communication, of information transmission, can be called, in a certain sense, “the model of models”;
  4. The models of perception, generally, the one of the aesthetic perception, particularly. The form of perception varies from ethnos to ethnos, within the ethnos, over different historical times and it is the common factor of the different artistic styles of every people.
  5. Even people’s emotions, feelings are mediated by certain models: the medieval knights’ love, romantic love in modern times, the obsession with sex in the post-modernist society, hatred (vendetta ) etc.
  6. The existence of various styles of thinking in different ages, as well as the content’s structural unity of the concepts and ideas in use makes it possible for us to speak about cognitive models, generally speaking, about the thinking ones, particularly.

The paradigm notion developed by epistemology is, in fact, tangent to the cognitive model, and to the model of thinking, as well, as it was built upon the history of scientific cognition. The issue of the symbols and symbolic behaviour is not covered above, as they belong to the cultural models and are related to their inner structure, functioning and change. The ensemble of cultural models is assimilated, appropriated by the humans along the socialisation process. From the moment of birth, it pervades, “models” all the manifestations of their vital activities. A certain part of this ensemble “descends” into the subconscious, and, possibly, enters the genetic heritage of man, as it is considered by the representatives of the social- biology current. It accounts for what A. Leroi-Gourhan (1964) called “stylistic impregnation” of the human being, his life and activity. It is apparent that models do not exist outside the actual phenomena they are merged with, other than as an abstraction ensued from the analysis of such phenomena by the humans. It is the only way to consider the cultural models as a construct.

Culture, however, cannot be viewed as an “ensemble,” only, of cultural models. It is necessary for us to look at the ensemble of cultural models as an integrated whole. A special examination would reveal here system attributes. Apart from the inner stylistic unity of the cultural models of an ensemble, models of integrating character can be singled out, such as models of cosmic, natural and social being of man (mythological, religious, philosophical models). They are followed by representations as to the meaning, purpose and value of human life. Traditionally, they are called outlook on the world (Weltanschauung) and are studied by religion and philosophy today. In the social realities, cultural models exist as material, spiritual and psychological phenomena and acts and they shape all kind of manifestation. This is the reason why it is so hard to define the concept of culture starting from an utterly heterogeneous reality, where culture is ubiquitous.

The systems analysis makes it easier to grasp the structural and functional status of culture as a dynamic whole of models integrated in the social macrosystem (the control subsystem), such as: behavioural, technical and technological, cognitive, communicational, informational, models of perception and feeling – all integrated in representations – models of the natural, social, human universe as a whole. Therefore, as a certain component of the control subsystem, respectively, as an objective and supra-individual reality, culture preserves and transmits the ensemble of the social information controlling the human behaviour. It has, therefore, a stabilising function as it is modelling the vital activity of the human processor in the social macrosystem. In such capacity it possibly needs a special type of system approach to be developed, one liable to bring together synchronic and diachronic analysis. The culture of archaic societies is more homogeneous, since the status differences between the individuals are not related to a different way of living, but to a system of taboos and privileges of a ritualistic type. Along the historical process, differentiation and “variations on a theme” of some categories of cultural models appear as the population gets differentiated after its way of living.

The development of the social system also implies the inner differentiation of the cultural models ensemble: some of them disappear (the faster to disappear and change are technical and technological models), some change, grow intricate (the models of the universe, aesthetic models, etc.), others “descend” into the subconscious. As it is well known, the longest to live are cultural models bearing on structuring the cycle of life, as they are related to the perpetuation of the species and welfare; models of life perception, of the world and perception of the self. Which means, models underlying the ethnic identity. It is also here that we find the most archaic remnants of cultural models bearing on the rituals of passage: birth, marriage, death. Contemporary cultures are non-homogeneous and syncretic and, as a rule, they bring together conflicting models.

Emotionally Experienced Culture

The complexity of the cultural phenomenon mostly consists in that it has two aspects, two “forms of being”: the objective one, touched upon above, but also the subjective one, at the level of the consciousness and the unconscious of the human processor. The assimilation of cultural models is by no means a uniform permeation of homogeneous psyches by some “neutral forms. ” They are full of vivid and touching meanings selectively assimilated by different psycho-physical types of human individuality; hence the personality is formed, and they are influenced by its emotional dominant. This subjective emotional embodiment of culture – experience – is connected with the specific role that emotions play in the motivation of the human behaviour. Emotional experience causes, under certain conditions of social instability, the interpretation of the meanings and signification of cultural models as a feature specific to the human psyche. Its tremendous role in social life, on the whole, and in the socialisation process, particularly, has been recorded by the keenest minds among ethnologists and ethnographists. What G.I. Maltsev deemed as essential in traditional culture, is true of any type of culture: the ensemble of “traditional schemes and standards”, in fact, of expression, is “directed through another of its aspects – an essential one – towards complex ensembles of latent popular representations, that do not surface always at the level of consciousness, as they belong to the unconscious and subconscious. Updating of the model stirs up those deep layers and is experienced at the level of emotions” (Maltsev G.I., 1989). The emotional facet that imparts life and activates the cultural models feeds upon the complex of individualized, modelled meanings. The meanings (signification) are connected with the general integrating representations, too, but also with the personal experience. As it is known, the information encoded into the system of cultural signs and models is polysemantic, namely, it is interpretable in essence. In small, archaic societies, the specific form of socialisation and social-cultural control restricts or even blocks the urge to interpret models. In large societies whose class structure is more complex, particularly those undergoing a stage of instability (therefore, with a relaxed control over cultural motivation) the models are increasingly interpretable.

Emotional experiencing of cultural models deepens, on one hand, the impregnation of the human psyche, and strengthens the function whereby their meanings are preserved. On the other hand, whenever social conditions are threatening human life itself, it is emotional experience, again, the one that causes swerving from the existing models, and their meanings reinterpreting. Therefore, experienced culture shows another dimension and function in the social macrosystem – a destabilising function. The deviation may affect a certain subsystem (economic, of the family, artistic, scientific, etc.) of the social macrosystem or the macrosystem itself. Under the latter circumstances, almost all cultural models undergo changes. Models underlying whatever is called ethnic identity have proved to be the most resistant to the destabilising impact of the experienced culture. A considerable number (historically determined) of degrees of freedom in choosing the behaviour, the activity, on the whole, which is characteristic to the human processor determines, therefore, his potential and actual capacity of swerving from cultural models. It is here, in the emotionally experienced culture, that the creation potential, generally, is to be found: any creation act is based upon a lesser or higher deviation of emotional experiencing, of the activity, from the assimilated model. Therefore, it is “the ultimate cause” of social system development. Thus, the function of the cultural model, i.e. to store and transmit information, is merged with that of creating new information4 .

On Social Structure

A clearly specified ontological status of culture and function thereof in the social system is implicit to the social structure concept. Both in sociology and social and cultural anthropology, social structure is more often defined by the social institute concept. This latter term is sometimes interpreted as an ensemble of rules (norms) of social control over human behaviour, sometimes as stable organisational forms of human activity, built up in course of history. The various definitions of the institute start from the meaning of the Latin word institutum. It is worth mentioning that its semantics is based upon the theory of the social contract, and, implicitly, upon the alleged existence of a “natural state” free of laws, of “culture”, establishment, custom, organisation, etc. In actual fact, however, as it is known, such a state has never existed. Since there is not, and has never been any human activity that would not belong, directly or indirectly, to an “organisation, ” or, would not be, in one way or another, “organised” by people, the term “institute” is applicable to all processes and activities organised within the social system. If we were to view the social structure as a system of relationships among institutes, then it is not clear what kind of relationships and what kind of institutes can be viewed as invariant, i.e., structural.

The conceptual model of the system analysis enables the approach of this issue from a different perspective. It provides the possibility of materializing the general representation of structure for the class of social systems. In Diagram No. 1 we are dealing, actually, with subsystems that can be called main structural components of the social system with invariant main functions and relationships, subordinated to the stable functioning (provided some given values of the system), and to the dynamic balance. Each structural component is characterised by:

  1. the type of its own main process organisation;
  2. the special organizations controlling this process;
  3. the aggregate of processor-people (the “social category”);
  4. the system of rules, instructions, standards and laws regulating the technological aspect (in a broad sense) of the process, as well as the relationships among people, both within the given component, and with other structural components (outer control);
  5. a system of cultural models making the texture of the meanings whereby humanity is interpreting its experience and is guiding its activity (Turner V.W, 1983).

It would be logical that functional relationships among structural components aimed at the dynamic balance of the macrosystem should be viewed as structural links of the social macrosystem. In the reference system chosen by the author, in order to operationalise it in the scientific research, the institute category can be assigned to the organizations in structural components of different hierarchical levels of the system that controls their main processes. The general-abstract meaning ensuing from the word’s etymology is valid in general-culturalistic discourses, rather than in the analytical ones, particularly in the system one.

The modern use of the concept of institute rather has a metaphoric meaning in the light of this present study.

Each subsystem – structural component of the macrosystem – is, in its turn, a complex system having its own process and own organisation of the control mechanisms. Along history, the organisation of each component undergoes changes – starting with the main process and ending with the control subsystem. Still, their main functions stay invariant. They ensure the integrity and identity of the social system along the ongoing process of change.

The population’s stratification depends on the concrete role played by its categories as processors in various structural components (and in their subsystems). Consequently, social structure – or social system structure – can be defined as an ensemble of invariant functional relationships among the main structural components of the system, ultimately aimed at preserving, or restoring, the dynamic balance of the macrosystem. The variety of organisational types of societies is a result of multiple “crises,” of destabilising and restoring the dynamic balance of the macrosystem at a different level of organisation. Destabilising is caused, as mentioned before, by the activity of human processors having a given range of freedom. The destabilising activity is a response of the dynamic element (the processors) to the pressure exerted by some social or natural factors. That response consists, in its kind, in the deviation from the existing models stabilizing the main process. Should the control factors fail to restore the existing balance, the society changes over to a different state, . different type of society emerges. That does not mean that its fundamental structure changes. Its structural components grow differentiated, the organisation of processes, of their components and interconnections undergo changes, but its functional relationships do not change. The main structure stays invariant, detectable in all types of societies. Destabilising of the social system can be triggered both by natural causes (natural cataclysms, devastating infectious diseases, etc.), and social-economical, even “human” (psychological) causes. Characteristics of the social system that were later expressed in the theory of unstable nonlinear systems have been seized by the system analysis model.

In light of the above approach of the social macrosystem, it is possible to specify the meaning of the term institute as a constitutive part of the structural component: institutes can be called the organizations controlling various processes in the structural components of the macrosystem. Such specification enables the operationalization of the term institute, makes it “work” in actual research.

The Social Structure Of Archaic Societies

Diagram No. 1 shows the conceptual model of a social system that has developed its main structural components. Can it hold true for simpler, archaic societies? Such societies, described so far by ethnologists and anthropologists, are societies of a different degree of complexity. Generally, they are singled out by the little differentiated character and more simple organisation of their structural components. At the given abstraction level, the structural diagram of the archaic (tribal) society would look as follows:


The main integrated process is little differentiated, and less differentiated is also the control system. In exchange, it is multifunctional: the ritual performs the function of all the subsystems in the control subsystem – both outer and inner one – in societies with a well-developed main structure. The “output model” is given by totemic or mythological representations. The ensemble of cultural models also performing criteria functions is assimilated, too, through ritual. V.W. Turner shows that impregnation, collective assimilation of models through ritual is stronger, as it is merged with a strong common emotion (Turner V.W., idem). It is the ritual again, he says, the one that carries out the intervention – the action meant to restore the behaviour which is prone to deviate from the existent models. The stability of small, archaic societies (until meeting the European civilization) seems to be determined, among other things, by this type of control, too.

The works of the ethnologists and anthropologists can profusely illustrate the fact that two structural components have performed in archaic societies all the functions of a developed society’s components. Also, that the development of the social system consisted in differentiation – formation of specialized organization configurations meant to perform one function each from a functional bunch of an undifferentiated structural component. An illustration to this effect would go beyond the scope and purpose of this approach.

The specification of the ontological (structural) status and functions of culture provides the starting point in specifying the content of a number of other terms. The interpretation of the culture concept and its function in the social structure can have methodological applicability. First, it brings together different semantic fields of the term and outlines the ontological status of culture. Second, the specification of culture function in the social structure can be a basis in developing the methodology for the actually interdisciplinary (not multidisciplinary) research, in order to solve concrete social problems, particularly in post-communist societies. The model of the social macrosystem – possibly improved – can be operationalized in order to provide a basis in developing average theories, and, further on, in organizing the research of the actual phenomenon, both in its synchronic section, and in the diachronic one. It enables the “natural” decomposition of the research complex object, thus avoiding that the latter should be split off its structural context (as it is done in sociology, economy, social psychology). Such a methodology would provide the unitary theoretical basis for pooling the efforts of various social-human sciences, with a view to reaching the desideratum implied in R. Linton’s assertion at the middle of our century: “… the individual, society and culture are so close integrated, and their action is so continuous, that the researcher endeavouring to tackle one of these issues without referring to the other two, soon comes to a deadlock.”(Linton R., 1968).


1. Bertalanffy L., von, General System Theory, Foundations, Development, Applications, New York, 1968

2. Geodakian V.A. Sistemnyj podkhod i zakonomernosti v biologhii, in “Sistemnyje issledovanija”, 1984, “Nauka”, M. 1984.

3. Gehlen A. Der Mensch, “Athenäum”, Frankfurt am Mein, 1971.

4. Le Goff J. Civiliza¡ia Occidentului medieval, Ed. Stiin¡ificà, Bucuresti, 1970

5. Herscovits M.J. Economic Anthropology. The Economic Life of Primitive Peoples, New York, 1968.

6. Iablonsky A.I. Metodologhitcheskije voprosy analiza slozhnykh sistem, in “Sistemnyje issledovanija” 1984, “Nauka”, M.1984

7. Kroeber A.L. and Kluckhohn C. Culture, New York, 1963.

8. Leroi-Gourhan A. Le geste et la parole, vol II, Ed. Albin Michel, Paris, 1964

9. Linton R. Fundamentul cultural al personalità¡ii, Ed. Stiin¡ificà, Bucure¿ti, 1968

10. Lotman Ju. M. Simvol v sisteme kultury, in Trudy po znakovym sistemam XXI, Tartu, 1987.

11. Malinowsky B. Tribal Economics in the Trobriand, in Tribal and Peasant Economics, The Natural History Press, N.J., 1965

12. Maltsev G.I. Traditsionnyije formuly russkoj narodnoj neobrjadovoj liriki, “Nauka”, L., 1989.

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1. In sociology, the role term has become traditional in designating the variation of human behaviour under different institutional circumstances. Unfortunately, the term hints at something intentional, with a tinge of artificial, of “play. ” At the same time, in cultural anthropology, the term behavioural pattern is used, which is, in our opinion, more organically related with the social nature of man.

2. The pervasion of the social-human sciences, too, by the methods of mathematical modelling does not do away with the following question: “the use of formal methods only becomes effective when clear, explicit notions are chosen, during the formalization process, as main concepts and also as concepts indicating rules of complex constructions formation” (Vasiliev P.V., 1994). There is a current opinion, according to which the more complex a system, the larger the gap between the emergence of the quality concept and the mathematical model.

3. Supra-individual – i.e., they have not been created by an individual or a population to a preset plan, but they have been formed in a long historical process by the contribution of several generations. Every man born into the world (and into a generation) finds them “ready-made.”

4. Theory of culture as a generator of new information, as outlined here, is crossing the semiotic concept of culture described by Ju. Lotman and his fellow researchers. In our opinion, however, the understanding of culture as a semiosis, as a system of texts belonging to different languages, is narrowing to a certain extent the scope of being of culture. It is but logical that such a vision should lead to the definition of culture as a “collective intellect.” We believe that the emergence of “new information” (creativity, in traditional language), conceived as interaction of texts, as the “translation” of texts from a language into anthers related with the interpretation of cultural models transposed in art, religion, science. “Emotionally experienced culture” (emotionally interpreted, experienced models) is, in fact, the generator of new information. But, then, that level of “subjective” culture cannot be expressed in terms of the semiotic concept. The attempts at interpreting the image as a sign are not convincing, yet. Besides, the “experiencing” of the models is not confined to the image dynamics. Apart from the semiotic model there still remains also the subconscious level of the “collective intellect, ” without which there can be no understanding of any massive tier of culture.

Copyright 1999 Electronic Journal of Sociology