Like all living organisms humans must obtain energy from their environment. The principal interface between a sociocultural system and its environment is termed the "infrastructure."  The infrastructure is divided into two parts:
the mode of production, consisting of behaviors aimed at satisfying requirements for subsistence; and
the mode of reproduction, consisting of behaviors aimed at avoiding destructive increases or decreases in population size.
The modes of production and reproduction are attempts to strike a balance between reproduction and the consumption of energy from a finite environment.  It is upon this infrastructural foundation that the remaining parts of the social system are based.


The structural components of sociocultural systems arise from the necessity of maintaining secure, predictable, and orderly relationships between individuals.  The threat of disorder arises primarily from the allocation of labor and the distribution of goods and services to individuals and groups. Social organization regulates the allocation and distribution process.  Although human organizations exist on a continuum, the structure can be divided along primary-secondary lines:
primary groups, consisting of small groups like the family, that regulate production, reproduction, exchange, and consumption within domestic settings; and
secondary organizations, impersonal groups such as government and industry, which regulate production, reproduction, exchange, and consumption within and between groups and sociocultural systems.
The primary-secondary dichotomy encompasses all human organizations responsible for the allocation and distribution of all biopsychological need satisfaction.

Primary groups tend to be informal in nature and dominate the structures of traditional societies. Often organized around kinship ties, these groups regulate the activities of their members through informal norms and folkways of the the culture.

Secondary organizations are much more formal in structure and are usually coordinated through bureaucracy. In order to study these organizations, both historically and in contemporary society, Max Weber (1921) developed an "ideal-type" bureaucracy. An ideal type provides one of the basic methods for historical-comparative study.  There can be an ideal type whore house of religious sect, ideal type dictatorship or an ideal democracy (none of which may be "ideal" in the colloquial sense of the term). According to Weber, bureaucracies are goal-oriented organizations designed according to rational principles in order to efficiently attain their goal. Offices within a bureaucracy are ranked in hierarchical order. Information flows up the chain of command, directives flow down the chain. Operations of the organization are characterized by impersonal rules that explicitly state duties, responsibilities, procedures, authority and conduct of the office holders. The division of labor is highly specialized, appointment to these offices are made according to specialized qualifications rather than ascribed characteristics, promotion and other rewards are given for achievement. All of these "ideal" characteristics have one goal, to promote the efficient attainment of the organization's goals--whether that goal is to produce cars, educate students, or to administer social security benefits. The characteristics of an "ideal-type" bureaucracy can be summarized as:

Written rules of conduct
Employment and promotion based on achievement
Specialized division of labor
Weber was well aware that the ideal type never corresponds to concrete reality. It involves describing the logically consistent features of a social institution to which we can compare reality. All bureaucracies deviate from the ideal--there are many "human" factors, for example, that go into a university's decision to grant or deny tenure. But the goal of the bureaucracy is to minimize these "human factors" (which do not contribute to the efficiency of the organization, or may even hinder the attainment of goals) through the further refinement of written rules and procedures. Bureaucracy should not be considered a static thing. Bureaucracy is a process--it is constantly reevaluating rules and procedures to insure greater efficiency in the attainment of its goals. Weber developed the ideal type in order to more more accurately describe the growth in the power and scope of bureaucracy in the modern world. His studies of bureaucracy still form the core of organizational sociology.

The bureaucratic coordination of the action of large numbers of people has become the dominant structural feature of modern societies. It is only through this organizational device that large-scale planning and coordination, both for the modern state and economy, become possible. The consequence of the growth in the power and scope of these organizations is key in understanding our world.


    The last component of sociocultural systems is the cultural superstructure. The term culture in sociology and anthropology is used to refer to the values, norms, traditions and material goods characteristic of a given group. Goldschmidt (1990) writes of the origins of culture: "As interdependency increased, as sociality became more important, as communication became increasingly an essential ingredient of this sociality, a threshold was passed into language, into a systematic treatment of information. An unanticipated consequence of this evolutionary development was the creation of a symbolic world: a shared perception of the reality within which the community existed. In this symbolic world the individual is no longer merely a biological entity but is also a social entity. The self was born" (pp. 2-3). In line with Goldschmidt the focus here is on culture as a symbolic world of (mostly) shared perceptions of reality of a particular group. While it exists within the minds of individuals, it is the product of consensus, changing in the process of social interaction. Human individuals exist within both a physical and symbolic world. They are motivated toward satisfying both biological and psychological (or symbolic) needs. Physical needs can be satisfied by a person's contribution to the production and reproduction necessary for the community. The symbolic need for affection (or social honor) can be satisfied by engaging in these and other activities that are valued by the existing social order.

Harris (1979) divides the superstructure along two lines. The behavioral superstructure consists of such activities as art, dance, literature, rituals, sports, and games. The mental superstructure refers to the conscious and unconscious goals, values, rules, philosophies, and beliefs that guide human behavior in the satisfaction of their biopsychological needs. In this category Harris lists such diverse components as magic, religion, taboos, subsistence lore, ideologies, myths, aethetic standards and philosophies. Although Harris explicitly states that these elements are in interaction with structural and infrastructural parts of the social system, the thrust of his anthropology is on explaining these cultural elements in terms of ecological-infrastructural relationships.

The focus here, however, is on the systemic character of sociocultural systems.  For this purpose it is useful to conceptualize the mental superstructure as a typology of human motivation. Max Weber (1921) based his sociology on individuals as motivated actors in sociocultural systems. He identified four such motivators (or "ideal types")of social action:

zweckrational, or rational action in relation to a goal;
wertrational, or rational action in relation to a value;
affective or emotional action; and
traditional action, which is dictated by custom or habit.
Zweckrational can be roughly translated as "technocratic thinking." It can be defined as action in which the means to attain a particular goal are rationally chosen. It is often exemplified in the literature by an engineer who builds a bridge as the most efficient way to cross a river. Perhaps a more relevant example would be the modern goal of material success sought after by many young people today. Many recognize that the most efficient way to attain that success is through higher education, and so they flock to the universities in order to get a good job.

Wertrational, or value oriented rationality, is characterized by striving for a goal, which in itself may not be rational, but which is pursued through rational means. The values come from within an ethical, religious, philosophical, or even holistic context--they are not rationally "chosen." The traditional example in the literature is of an individual seeking salvation through following the teachings of a prophet. Perhaps a more relevant example would be a person who attends the university because they value the life of the mind--a value that was instilled in them by parents, previous teachers, or chance encounter.

Affective action is anchored in the emotional state of the person rather than the rational weighing of means and ends. Sentiments are powerful forces in motivating human behavior. Attending university for the community life of the fraternity, or following your boyfriend to school would be an example.

Finally, traditional action is guided by customary habits of thought, by reliance on what Weber called "the eternal yesterday." Many students attend university because it is traditional for their social class and family to attend--the expectation was always there, it was never questioned.

Weber's typology is intended to be a comprehensive list of the types of meaning men and women give to their conduct across sociocultural systems. As an advocate of a multiple causation of human behavior Weber was well aware that most behavior is caused by a mix of these motivations--university students, even today, have a variety of reasons for attending. In marketing themselves to students, university advertising attempts to address (and encourage) all of these motivations (a look at some university brochures, however, would indicate a clear attempt to focus their appeal on career aspirations).

But Weber went further than a mere classification scheme. He developed the typology because he was primarily concerned with modern society and and how it differs from societies of the past. He proposed that the basic distinguishing feature of modern society was a characteristic shift in the motivation of individuals. His classification of types of action provides a basis for his investigation of the social evolutionary process in which behavior had come to be increasingly dominated by goal-oriented rationality (zweckrational). He believed that more and more of our behavior was being guided by zweckrational, less and less by tradition, values or emotions. Because of this focus he is often thought of as an "idealist," one who believes that ideas and beliefs mold social structure and other material conditions. But he committed himself to no such narrow interpretation of sociocultural causation. He believed that this shift in human motivation is one of both cause and effect occuring in interaction with changes in the structural organization of society. The major thrust of his work attempts to identify the factors that have brought about this "rationalization" of the West.

Return to Cultural Ecology