Essay on the Organism Theory of Society

The organic theory considers society as a unity similar to that which characterises a biological organism. The union of individuals forming the society has been described as similar to the union between the several parts of an animal body, wherein all parts are functionally related. Just as the body has a natural unity, so has a social group.

The animal body is composed of cells, so is the society composed of individuals, and as is the “relation of the hand to the body or the leaf to the tree, so is the relation of man to society. He exists in it and it in him”.

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The ancient and medieval writers had merely drawn an analogy between the society and an organism. They held that the society resembled an organism. But the writers of the 19th century regarded the society as an organism. They tried to analyse the structure and function of society in comparison with those of an organism.

Views of Herbert Spencer:

The English social philosopher Herbert Spencer has been the chief exponent of this theory. He said that society is an organism and it does not differ in essential principle from the other biological organisms.

The attributes of an organism and the society, he maintained, are similar. Both exhibit the same process of development. The animal and social bodies, Spencer affirmed, begin as germs, all similar and simple in structure.

As they grow and develop, they become unlike and complex in structure. Their process of development is the same, both moving from similarity and simplicity to dissimilarity and complexity.

“As the lowest type of animal is all stomach, respiratory surface, or limb, so primitive society is all warriors, all hunters, all builders, or all tool-maker. As society grows in complexity, division of labour follows…”

In each case there is mutual dependence of parts. Just as the hand depends on the arm and the arm on the body and head, so do the parts of social organism depend on each other.

Every organism depends for its life and full performance of its functions on the proper co-ordination and interrela­tion of the units. As the diseased condition of one organ affects the health and proper functioning of other organs, similarly, individuals who form society are inseparably connected with one another for the realisation of their best self.

There is so much dependence of one on the other that the distress of one paralyses the rest of the society. The society and organism, it is pointed out are subject to wear and tear and then replacement.

(Just as cell tissues and blood corpuscles in the animal organism, wear out and are replaced by new ones, in the same manner, old, infirm, and diseased persons die giving place to newly born persons).

Spencer gives striking structural analogies between society and organism. He says, society, too, has three systems corresponding to the (1) sustaining system, (2) the distributaries system, and (3) the regulating system in an organism.

(1) The sustaining system in an organism consists of mouth, gullet, stomach and intestines. It is by means of this system that food is digested and the whole organic machine is sustained.

Society has its own sustaining system which refers to the productive system comprising the manufacturing districts and agricultural areas. The workers, i.e., the men who farm the soil, work the mines and factories and workshops are the alimentary organs of a society.

(2) The distributary system in an organism consists of the blood vessels, heart, arteries and veins and they carry blood to all parts of the body. Means of communication and transport and along with them the wholesalers, retailers, bankers, railway and steamship men and others may correspond to the distributary or vascular system of an organism.

Society’s Cells are individuals only. And what the arteries and veins mean to the human body, roads, railways, post and telegraph services, institu­tions and associations, mean to society.

(3) Finally, the regulating system is the nerve-motor mechanism which regulates the whole body. Government in society regulates and controls the activities of the individuals.

The profes­sional men-doctors, lawyers, engineers, rulers, priests, the thinkers, in short, perform the functions of the brain and the nervous system. Further, as Spencer opined society also passes through the organic processes of birth, youth, maturity, old age and death.

Murray sums up the points of resemblance between a society and an individual organism as noted by Spencer in the following ways:-

(i) Society as well as individual organism grows in size.

(ii) They grow from comparatively a simple structure to that of an increasingly complex one.

(iii) Increasing differentiation leads to increasing mutual dependence of the component parts. The life and normal functioning of each becomes dependent on the life of the whole.

(iv) The life of the whole becomes independent and lasts longer than the life of the component parts.

Spencer hence argued that society is a social organism. Individuals are the limbs of the society and behave as cells of the body whose activity and life are meant for the sake of the whole. Limbs separated from body have no life, and similarly individuals separated from society have no life. The individuals exist in and within society.


(i) The analogy used in the organic theory has, no doubt, a useful purpose to serve as it stresses the unity of society. The society is not a mere aggregation of individuals. It is a social

Unity Man cannot lead a life of isolation. Dependence is depending on one another and on society as a whole. The welfare of each is involved in the welfare of every individual has obligations to himself, to his family, to his neighbours, and to the society of which he is a unit. He cannot be separated from society, just as a hand or a leg, without losing its utility cannot be separated from the body.

(ii) The analogy used here to compare society with an organism, has its own limitations. Even Spencer was aware of these. He himself noted some of the defects of this analogy such as the follow­ing

A society has no specific form comparable to the body of an individual;

The units of a society, i.e., individuals are not fixed in their respective positions like those of an individual organism;

The units of a society are dispersed persons and are not physically continuous like cells of the individual;

Society has no ‘common sensorium’, no central organ of perception and thought as an indi­vidual has.

(iii) The proposition that society is like an organism is acceptable with some reservations. But the assertion that society is an organism is rather misleading.

At many points the comparison between society and an organism is exceedingly superficial. There is no similarity between the cells of an organism and the individuals who compose society.

The cells have no independent life of their own. Each cell is fixed in its place, “having no power of thought or will, and existing solely to support and perpetuate the life of the whole”.

The individuals, on the other hand, are independent, intellectual and moral human beings. They do not act like a machine. Each has a physical life independent of the whole.

It is true that man cannot be the best of himself independently of society, but he can live, if he so wishes, an independent life of his own. This is not possible in an organism.

(iv) It is true that the society has grown from similarity and simplicity to dissimilarity and complexity. But common-sense tells us that society is not subject to the same process of birth, growth and decay as an organism. An organism comes into existence by the union of two organisms. This is not the method of the birth of society.

The process of growth is also not similar. Organisms grow from within and internal adaptation. They grow “unconsciously independent of volition entirely dependent on its environment and the natural laws of the biological world”. Society grows largely due to the conscious efforts of the members and it is “to a great extent self-directed”.

An organism dies. But society is not liable to death. It is permanent, it endures. “Society does not originate or renew itself as a plant, or as an animal does”. The theory is pregnant of dangerous results. Some writers have gone to the extent of justifying the unity of society even at the cost of sacrificing individual interests.

The relation of man to society and the overemphasis on man’s obli­gation to society, the world witnessed it in Hitler’s. Germany, Mussolini’s Italy, Communist coun­tries like China and Russia repeat the same story. The theory has a little truth in it, but it has been exaggerated.

Limitations of the Theories:

Both the theories have their own limitations. No sociologist subscribes to them today. Histori­cally, the social contract theory seems to be a mere fiction. We have no evidence to prove that society came into being due to a deliberate contract or voluntary agreement among the early people.

The organism theory is equally imaginary. Society is like an organism, but is not an organism. Society has no specific form, no fixed organs, no central organ of perception comparable to the body of an organism. This organic analogy is well appreciated, but the theory is almost rejected.

The Inseparable Individual and the Society:

The relation or the type of unity between the part and the whole, between the individual and society is not merely a physical unity, or a functional unity, or organic or systematic unity, but it is something more than these. It is Sui generis peculiar; of its own kind.

It is simply social, that is, without the company of his fellowmen, the individual cannot live at all, nor develop his person­ality. Still, the individual has a life of his own; his autonomy and character which cannot be fused or confused with the lives of other men. Social values are in the ultimate analysis personal values.

Even quality or powers which belong to society as such are realised only in its members, present or future. The life of society has no meaning except as an expression of the lives of individuals.

The truth is that society is not and cannot be an-organism; it is like an organism. Society has no body; it is an organisation of minds for a common purpose. “Society is the sum of interacting indi­viduals, and this interaction is, what differentiates society from the mere aggregation of individu­als”.

Society is a reality of its own kind, itself unique, and different from every other natural object. Society gives us choices, inviting us to accept or decline, and in our selections we become ever more completely what we are.

Man in Society and Society in Man:

Everywhere and all the time we are members of groups. The isolated individual does not exist. The language we speak, the clothes we wear, the food that sustains us, the games we play, the goals we seek, and the ideals we cherish are all derived from our culture. Culture is a societal force.

Society surrounds us in our infancy arid follows us to our resting place. We depend upon society and its processes not only for our livelihood but for our very lives. “Society not only controls our move­ments, but shapes our identity, our thought and our emotions.

The structures of society become the structures of our own consciousness.”- Peter L. Berger. Society does not stop at the surface of our skins. Society penetrates us as much as it environs us. Our bondage to society is not simple but complex.

Sometimes, indeed, we are crushed into submission. Much more frequently we are en­trapped by our own social nature. As Peter L. Berger says, “The walls of our imprisonment were there before we appeared on the scene, but they are ever rebuilt by ourselves. We are betrayed into captivity with our own co-operation.”

As Durkheim says society confronts us as an objective fact city. It is there something that cannot be denied and that must be reckoned with. Society is external to us. It encompasses our entire life.

We are in society, located in specific sectors of the social system. Our wishes are not taken into consideration in this matter of social location. The institutions of society pattern our actions and even shape our expectations.

We are located in society not only in space but also in time. Our society is an historical entity that extends beyond the temporary life of any individual. “It was there before we were born and it will be there after we are dead. Our lives are but episodes in its majestic march through time. In sum, society is the walls of our imprisonment in history”.

Scope for Individuality:

We need society in order to become persons. But society is no great an engine of which we are merely a mechanical part. It is not a giant organism in which we are only a microscopic cell. Society is unique to itself. ‘From it we receive the gift of individuality and in it we express our personality.—Robert Bierstedt.

Even in society we are always, in some sense, alone. There is always a part of us that we never share, a thought that is excommunicated, a dream that stays in its private chamber. For it has also been written that ‘the heart knoweth its own bitterness and a stranger intermeddled not with its joy.’

The same society and the same culture which limit the activities of man also liberate his ener­gies and talents. No culture produces individuals who are like carbon copies. No two individuals are exactly alike.

The same culture may produce men of marvelous genius and men of matchless stu­pidity. The utterly selfish persons and the completely selfless individuals may be found in the same society. Not even the twins are alike.

Every individual is unique to himself and his society. Not only every society has a history of its own but every individual too has his own history. Different individuals may react to the same stimuli in different ways because of their individual­ity. This individuality is the gift of society. But individuals become individuals only in society.