Herbert Spencer: Growth, Structure, and Differentiation
Growth, Structure, and Differentiation
Both organic and social aggregates are characterized by Spencer according to progressive increases in size. "Societies, like living bodies, begin as germs--originate from masses which are extremely minute in comparison with the masses some of them eventually reach." Societal growth may come about through two processes, "which go on sometimes separately, and sometimes together." It results either from an increase in population, "by simple multiplication of units," or from the joining of previously unrelated units by "union of groups, and again by union of groups of groups."
Increases in the size of units is invariably accompanied by an increase in the complexity of their structure. The process of growth, by definition, is to Spencer a process of integration. And integration in its turn must be accompanied by a progressive differentiation of structures and functions if the organism or the societal unit is to remain viable--that is, if it is to survive in the struggle for existence. Animals that are low on the evolutionary scale, just like embryos of those higher on that scale, have but few distinguishable parts; they are relatively homogeneous. So it is with society. "At first the unlikeness among its groups of units is inconspicuous in number and degree, but as population augments, divisions and subdivisions become more numerous and more decided."
Social aggregates, like organic ones, grow from relatively undifferentiated states in which the parts resemble one another into differentiated states in which these parts have become dissimilar. Moreover, once parts have become unlike, they are mutually dependent on each other; thus, with growing differentiation comes growing interdependence and hence integration. "While rudimentary, a society is all warrior, all hunter, all hut-builder, all tool-maker: every part fulfills for itself all needs."
As [society] grows, its parts become unlike: it exhibits increase of structure. The unlike parts simultaneously assume activities of unlike kinds. These activities are not simply different, but the differences are so related as to make one another possible. The reciprocal aid thus given causes mutual dependence of the parts. And the mutually dependent parts, living by and for another, form an aggregate constituted on the same general principle as is an individual organism.
"This division of labor, first dwelt on by political economists as a social phenomenon, and thereupon recognized by biologists as a phenomenon of living bodies, which they called the 'physiological division of labor,' is that which in the society, as in the animal, makes it a living whole."
In simple hunting tribes, specialization of functions is still only crudely developed. The same men are typically both hunters and warriors. But as settled agricultural societies arise, the roles of cultivator and warrior become more distinct. Similarly, small tribal groupings have but rudimentary political institutions, but as larger political units arise, increasing political complexity and differentiation appear with the emergence of chiefs, rulers, and kings. With further increases in size, "a differentiation analogous to that which originally produced a chief now produces a chief of chiefs."
As the parts of a social whole become more unlike and the roles individuals play become in consequence more differentiated, their mutual dependence increases. "The consensus of functions becomes closer as evolution advances. In low aggregates, both individual and social, the actions of the parts are but little dependent on one another, whereas in developed aggregates of both kinds that combination of actions which constitutes the life of the whole makes possible the component actions which constitute the lives of the parts." It follows as a corollary that, "where parts are little differentiated they can readily perform one another's functions very imperfectly, or not at all." In simple societies, where the parts are basically alike, they can be easily substituted for one another. But in complex societies, "the actions of one part which fails in its function cannot be assumed by other parts." Complex societies are therefore more vulnerable and more fragile in structure than their earlier and ruder predecessors. Contemporary examples come to mind when one thinks, for example, of the contrast between American society and a simple agrarian society such as that of Vietnam.
The increasing mutual dependence of unlike parts in complex societies, and the vulnerability it brings in its wake necessitate the emergence of a "regulating system" that controls the actions of the parts and insures their coordination. "It inevitably happens that in the body politic, as in the living body, there arises a regulating system. . . . As compound aggregates are formed . . . there arise supreme regulating centers and subordinate ones and the supreme centers begin to enlarge and complicate." Early in the process of social evolution, regulating centers are mainly required for dealing with the outside environment, with the "enemies and prey;" but later such regulating centers assume the burden of internal regulation and social control when complexity of functions no longer allows the entirely spontaneous adjustment of parts to one another.
The stringency and scope of internal regulation was to Spencer a major distinguishing mark between types of societies, and he attempted to classify them in terms of the scope of internal controls. At the same time he also used another criterion of classification--degrees of evolutionary complexity. These two ways of establishing social types were related, yet largely independent of each other and led to certain difficulties for Spencer's overall scheme.
From Coser, 1977:91-93.