The Social World


Like the economic world in economics, we can construct a social world – a world were all people are social, in the negative as well as in the positive sense. There is no natural scarcity and every person is perfectly rational. What can we expect to happen?


As we have seen in the fourth chapter human persons are motivated to survive and to manifest their self. For survival it is necessary to possess enough scarce resources; it implies that humans are driven by an economic force maximising utilities by consuming goods. In psychology the manifestation of the person to the self is at the centre of analysis. In this manifestation approach sociology should focus on the manifestation to other humans. Social behaviour must be defined as the constant flow of signals to other persons and groups about the position in the hierarchical ranking, reflecting the status of the actor. It makes sociology to an aspect-science, in the same way as we made psychology to an aspect-science.

To explain the concept ‘social’ more extensively we first sketch an original state of mankind, so as to find a basic starting point of human social relationships. This sketch is meant to give us a general ontology, from which we can derive a typical social ontology. The original state is a core family, consisting of a father, a mother and a number of children. This core-family lives in the context of their extended family. The task of the father is to protect the family against external threat and to hunt for food. The task of the mother is to take care of the children and to protect them against other sorts of threat. Children must learn how to live their life from the surrounding adults, primarily the father and the mother. It is love and fear that keeps family members together; love to prevent loneliness, fear for not finding food, drink and shelter, fear for the threats of nature (wild animals, poisonous plants, dangerous landscapes and rivers), and fear for other groups of humans. In this world humans try to survive and are inclined to manifest themselves in particular ways, and in the social world especially to relevant other groups of humans who might be enemies. This social manifestation aims at the acquisition of recognition or status. As economics is explaining human behaviour by focussing on the economic aspect, and is modelling the human drive in terms of maximisation of utilities through the consumption of goods, so is sociology focussing on the social aspect, and must model the human drive in terms of maximisation of status.

In the chapter on orthodox economics we have explained the meaning of the research strategy of isolated abstraction. We distinguish between three worlds, namely the economic, the psychic and the social world. The economic world is based on the idea of an economic, rational and non-social actor. The psychic world is based on the idea of a non-economic, non-social and imperfectly rational actor. In this chapter we discuss the characteristics of the social world, which is based on the idea of the non-economic, non-rational and social actor.

The basic axioms of the social world

Our construction of the so-called social world is meant to model the operation of the social force[1]. Therefore we must exclude the other two primary forces, namely the economic force and the psychic force. Therefore, we assume that all actors have solved their economic problem and live in affluence. Increase in the amount of resources does not lead to an increase in economic utilities anymore. In other words, it is not economically efficient to put more effort into productive activities. We also assume that all actors have solved their psychic problem, and act perfectly rational. A different construction, which might be a better one, is the assumption of the absence of the ratio, which is the capacity to be rational. Then we are just driven by forces, and behave accordingly, without any intervention of an entity or authority inside the human mind, that says: ‘wait a minute’, is this action in my long-term interest?’ We choose to sketch a primitive model of the social world, in which actors have not developed their rational capacity. Then we introduce the idea of growing rationality as the outcome of a social learning process[2]. By abstracting from the economic and the psychic problem, we isolate the social problem, and our analysis will be focussed completely on the operation of the social force.

The technique of producing status in the social world

In our sketch of the original state we see that humans are just social beings. They live group-wise, and identify themselves as member of groups. The basic group is the core family, living in the context of an extended family. It is here that a child tries to get his recognition; first from the mother-figure, and later from the father-figure. When it becomes an adolescent, it tries to get recognition increasingly from friends and from teachers and other adults, who play an important role in his or her life. In this way social patterns emerge: horizontal and vertical relationships. In this pattern of groups we distinguish between people of the same group having the same level of status, and people of a higher and lower group, having a higher and lower level of status respectively.

As long as the groups are small the status cannot be very high, and people who are highly esteemed in a large group are ranked higher relative to people who are highly esteemed in a relatively small group[3]. This is the social reason why there is an inherent tendency towards the formation of ever-larger groups. If a couple of families live in one and the same area, there are two social tendencies. On the one hand there is rivalry between the groups in terms of status. Regularly there is a clash between the two groups, to see which group is the better one, and requires more recognition and status. On the other hand, there is a tendency of the stronger one, to take over authority of the other group, and to unite both groups under the own leadership[4]. History shows a development from family to tribe to nation to supra-national bodies. This is the outcome of a continuing process of grouping and ranking of people.

The process of grouping is meant to make persons uniform and homogeneous in a particular respect. This homogeneity is necessary to identify the group towards relevant others, and to acquire the respect and status from the other group(s). This acquisition refers to the process of ranking: social status cannot be given to a group by the group itself; it must be given by the opponent! We will illustrate this by means of an example from the world of science. A few private universities in the USA have become very rich and famous. The various faculties profit from this, irrespective the scientific quality of their output. These universities are famous because scientists from other universities, also from Europe, attach prestige to these universities. So, if, for instance, the Economics Faculty of Harvard University is changing its research policy, other Economics Faculties in the world are imitating this change, irrespective the question whether it increases the quality of the output or not.

Us versus them

Behaviour is social behaviour, which means that all actions are meant to communicate to relevant others that the communicator is prestigious. Politically relevant distinctions are the rivalry between males and females, between seniors and youngsters, and between ethnically or religiously different groups. In the rivalry between countries differences in wealth, size of the population and military strength are important indicators of difference in status. On the micro level of the small groups cloth and other products are effective means of identification. Experts in advertising know exactly the sensitivities of the different generations and different classes: the yuppies, the aristocrats, the punkers and the rappers, for instance.

Some memberships are natural, like the membership of a groups based on race, age and sex. Other memberships, like that of a political party or golf club are more voluntary, although social pressure can be strong. But every member of every group has an interest in a certain degree of homogeneity of the group. A group can only be socially powerful, if it can be identified quite easily. Cohesion of the group is maintained by a strong sense of internal solidarity. It means that it is costly for the group to have many deviants. To avoid deviation a well-functioning group has strong social control. Those who do not exactly underscore the axioms of the group culture are forced to adjust. If deviant behaviour appears persistent, the sinner is exorcised in the end. He is blamed for all the problems the group has to face. By excommunicating the deviant, the group tries to restore control and becomes powerful again. This method of purification is called the scapegoat-mechanism, where the person who is thrown out is considered as the scapegoat. Quite often the only sin of the scapegoat is his being different. This social mechanism is a selection mechanism, such as the price mechanism in the economic world. If goods become more expensive they become a threat to the survival of a person, and through substitution by another and cheaper good, the optimal situation is restored. In the social world persons who are a threat to the identity of the group and its social power, must make room for others.

History shows many important examples of this social mechanism. Jesus was the scapegoat in the eyes of the Jewish people, and was sentenced to hanging. In Europe quite often the Jewish are the scapegoats, and during the Second World War 6 million of them were killed. In the nineties of the 20th century the Hutu’s slaughtered many Tutsi’s in Rwanda. But the scapegoat-mechanism does not only take place in big social divides on a national level. On every level, there is social divide. In every family, in every organisation, and in every neighbourhood scapegoats are exorcised in particular ways. A child who grows up in a strictly religious family, but increasingly express his doubts about the dogmas that rule the families’ culture, will be pressed to adjust. If not, he will be exorcised. Other examples are: a member of a marketing department of a particular firm, who protests against particular practices, in which customers are fooled – the DSB-case is illustrative in this respect; a Post-Keynesian economist in an Economics department, who is surrounded by econometricians, and is constantly ignored – the financial crisis 2008 is illustrative in this case.

While groups maintain internal solidarity, they also maintain external rivalry. The rival is necessary, because status reflects a relationship: the status battle needs two or more groups who are enemies of each other. For instance, Barcelona and Real Madrid need each other in their process of identification, and so with Amsterdam versus Rotterdam, and Thessaloniki versus Athens. The ongoing rivalry keeps them going: panta rei[5]. If a particular rivalry ends for whatever reason, this is a threat to the unity of the group who survives. All the energy necessary in the status battle must be directed in another direction. Internal divides are fuelled. When the Soviet Union broke apart, the USA needed a new rival, and the Pentagon, the CIA and the FBI were strong interest groups to find a new one. About 10 years later the Muslim world, at least the more radical parts, became the next enemy. China also became a new rival, especially because of its impressive economic growth and population growth. At the moment (2012) there is rivalry – more than competition – with respect to the relative price of their currencies. Although the global economy needs currency price stability, and China has linked the renminbi to the dollar, the Western world, under the leadership of the USA, is constantly blaming China for its destabilising policies.

The moral constraint

In the beginning were primitive tribes. They were ruled by big men, who had the authority to distribute resources among the members, so as to guarantee some equality (Sanderson, 1999). With respect to culture priests and medicine men maintained their tradition, reflecting the wisdom of the ancestors. Through the telling of myths and the application of rituals they took care of the transmission of their tradition to next generations. The main message of primitive traditions was the idea of gods, who want to be beseeched by regular sacrifices. Other tribes were ruled by rivalling gods; they were devils. The own god could be pleased maximally by attacking other tribes. This idea is the beginning of human rivalry, and in many religions, even today this message is an essential part.

The ongoing rivalry is a major source of anxiety and existential fear. Many myths can only be understood by assuming that in earlier times massacres have taken place regularly (Girard, 1978).

In Mesopotamia lived a man, named Abram. He did not believe that there were many gods, who were constantly rivalling with each other. According to him there must be one god, who has created our reality on the basis of the principle of love, not rivalry. He moved to another area, namely Palestine, in order to make a new start. He appeared the beginning of Jewish religion and philosophy. A few thousands years later the Jew Jesus told his people that the Jewish message of love was not only meant for Jews, but for all people. He claimed to be the Christ, who liberates people from the idea of rivalry, and introduced the idea of love, interpreted as mutual sympathy, and promised social peace and prosperity for all for those who applied this principle. Later humanists adopted the same idea, but stripped it from its religious element.

So, Western civilisation became humanisation according to the Christian and Humanist belief. It meant the introduction of a different view on human life, implying a new morality. In the primitive world the moral imperative was to maximally serve the interest of the own group at the cost of the interests of the rivalling group. Western civilisation implies a morality that aims at ending the rivalry.

Of course the introduction of a new philosophy of life, including a new morality does not take place in a few days or a few years. It might take another few centuries to enlighten the people in the world. It is still a thin layer, which disappears as soon as important interests are at stake. In that sense history can be interpreted as a slow process – a few steps forward followed by a few steps backward – of increasing reasonability.

Actually there are many ethnic groups and nations, each with their own culture; all mixes of primitive and humane elements. Globalisation means that there is growing interaction between these groups. As long as the cultures differ significantly, conflicts might increase in number and strength. But increasing interaction might also lead to more mutual understanding.

Immanuel Kant has deliberately thought about the idea of a universal morality.

He developed an ethical theory on the basis of human reason. His approach consists of two ideas. The first is the idea that human beings have the capacity to be rational. It refers to the capacity to analyse a situation, to deliberately set goals and choose instruments to reach these goals. The second idea is the assumption that human beings have the capacity to be moral. It concerns the capacity to acknowledge that essentially all individuals are equal.

This notion has a number of important implications. In the first place, one must accept that other people may be willing the same – the universality condition. In the second place, one must accept that each person is an end in himself. In other words, respect each other as a human being. This is not the same as accepting all goals of each other. One must be impersonal, but not impartial. If Peter wants to kill John, a third person must support John in his attempt to prevent Peter from killing him. But the morally necessary support of John is not because it is John, but because John is the person who is threatened! So, individual persons are limited in their choice of ends. But within these moral limitations persons are autonomous in choosing their goals.

Now a basic assumption is that persons with a capacity to be rational and moral – that is having the capacity to be reasonable – ought to act rationally and morally. Kant’s moral law is: act morally – do your duty. The U.N. Golden Rule is a nice expression of Kantian reasonability: “Do Unto Others, As You Would Have Them Do Unto You”[6].

Although humans are equal in terms of essence or substance, in terms of properties there are many differences between the various persons. So it makes sense to see how we can specify the inalienable human rights and duties.

Rawls and others have analysed moral problems on a Kantian basis in a (hypothetical) contract framework. Rawls assumes a society with many persons who are all completely ignorant with respect to their economic and social position (Rawls, 1970). These persons are asked for their opinion with respect to the fairness of distribution of scarce resources. He assumes that people are risk averters and opt for the “maximin”-distribution, which is the distribution where the lowest income or wealth is maximised. In other words, inequality is accepted only so far as it leads to a higher minimum level of income or wealth.

Social desire versus economic need

Orthodox economics assumes that social relationships do not exist. In mainstream economics the orthodox analysis is straightforwardly applied to the real world. All activities are interpreted as economic utility maximising behaviour. Preferences are given, and expressed by means of a utility function. Economics is considered to be neutral between ends. So it’s up to the individual or organisation what is the content of this function. In this way the discussion about the character of the motives behind human behaviour is avoided; every action is considered as an economic action. Whether a person buys a car to impress his neighbour, or that he simply likes the car, has become an irrelevant question. If a chief executive of a large firm receives a salary of 5 million euro, the explanation is: ‘ it’s the market”. If a landless peasant in Latin America receives a wage of 1 dollar per hour worked, the explanation is the same: “it’s the market”. In reality, however, some market transactions are generally accepted, but others arouse strong moral resentments.

In the case of the landlord all people involved in the matter know that the land is very unequally distributed, and concentrated in the hands of a few families. Poor peasants cannot buy a piece of land, and are dependent on the landlord, who is willing to rent a piece for a very low rent. Because the rent is too low to give the family of the peasant a decent living moral resentments arise. Peasants group together and feel ranked lowly. Landlords feel challenged by aggressive peasant movements. They approach an individual peasant not as an individual human anymore, for whom he is responsible to a certain degree, but as member of the enemy. This status battle makes it difficult to solve the problem of poverty. A different land distribution might lead to more prosperity for all; unfortunately both groups are caught in the social conflict, which is a negative-sum game in the end.

This example shows that an analytical distinction between the economic and the social aspect of human behaviour makes sense when trying to understand the real world.

Girard has analysed the social aspect thoroughly and illustrated with many examples from classical and modern literature (Girard, 1961). Where the economic analysis of transactions present it as a direct relationship between subject and object, presents the social analysis the relationship as a triangle: two subjects or groups of subjects and the object. Suppose that subject 1 needs object A. Subject 2 notices this need, and from then on he desires object A. He desires it, because for him object A has become an interesting instrument to rival with subject 1. He can show the rival his superiority by buying a copy of object A with a higher quality, for instance.  This copying behaviour is called mimesis. In this way other people are not just sources of information about needs and the way they can be satisfied. Others are the opponents in an endless rivalry game.

In traditional societies the problem of rivalry and of mimesis reduced by the development of castes and classes. At the top was the aristocracy, which was supposed to run society in a virtuous way. Rights and duties were more or less clear. And so with the lower classes, which had to obey the rules as implemented by the elite. In the public space it was immediately clear who was member of which class. Since it was nearly impossible to move from one class to another, there was no rivalry. Social peace was guaranteed as long as all classes accepted the rules of the game. Only severe economic inequality or disrespectful behaviour were reasons for the lower classes to protest; not the unequal distribution in power and status per se. The rivalry between different societies, however, was extreme. History shows an almost permanent flow of conflicts; one war after the other.

With the emergence of modern society this idea of natural inequality of classes was increasingly questioned. In Western Europe the Renaissance brought a more secular view on our reality, and Enlightenment stressed the idea of the autonomous individual, whose intrinsic value is independent of his behaviour. In this emerging modern cultural environment, individuals were increasingly allowed to strive for self-enhancement. Over the last few centuries it has led to an ongoing improvement in techniques of production, resulting in ever-growing economic prosperity.

Modern production methods are based on new insights in technical and economic-organisational processes. Adam Smith saw specialisation as a very important source of productivity increase. Emile Durkheim, however, saw also disadvantages: specialisation creates new opportunities to rival with each other (Durkheim, 1894). According to him modernisation leads to differentiation, which is a threat to organisations and societies to fall apart. To maintain or restore communication between the different functions in society explicit organisation of the important functions is necessary. Only then communication between groups can be organised. The meaning of this corporatist way of organising society is not only keeping the different parties informed about important societal matters, but especially to dampen rivalry and get to solutions which are socially accepted. Today communitarians advocate more democratic platforms of consultation, but, again, especially meant to maintain or restore an integrated society. Only then it can be efficient and fair.

Irrational persons and irrational societies

In chapter 4 the concept of irrationality is discussed in a psychological context. An irrational person is defined as a person who is protecting his self against information that is experienced as a threat for the self-respect of the person. As far as it is impossible to ignore this information, an irrational person lacks the willpower to behave according the requirements of the true self as experienced by the person.

This concept can also be applied to groups and to societies at large. The social world is characterised by an ongoing status battle, where the more prestigious group permanently shows the other group(s) their inferiority. Groups who are able to ignore all information that shows that members of the other group are not that inferior, are perfectly irrational. Note that the superiority and inferiority has to do with a valuation of persons and of groups on the level of substance, not on the level of properties. Suppose that a person earns a salary of 1 million euro per year, and another person earns a salary of 10,000 euro per year. In terms of properties it is obvious that the first person earns more money than the second, but does it mean that the first person is a better human person and deserves more prestige in terms of human dignity. In the social world the valuation has to do with basic respect, irrespective the various properties that play a role in life[7].

Besides the principal difference between substance and property, people with high grades and high salaries, functioning in the top of society regularly forget why they are successful. They tend to explain it by referring to their personal efforts rather than by referring to the rules of the societal game, which are determined by the elite itself. If Ajax wins from Feijenoord, while the referee is systematically benefitting Ajax, there is no reason for Ajax-fans to feel superior to Feijenoord-fans. So with the leading figures in the financial world: they became filthy rich at the cost of the mass of the people, simply because they have the power to decide upon their own remuneration[8].

How can groups become more rational? Two reasons play a role in this respect, an endogenous and an exogenous one. In the first place, the status battle can turn into complete massacres, which is so frightening that people involved might think of methods to avoid a next clash. Theoretically it is possible that there is nol interaction between the two groups at all, except the signals expressing superiority and inferiority. In practice, however, there are always members of each of the two groups who are not perfectly adjusted to their own group; they are imperfectly socialised and have developed feelings of sympathy for members of the other group. Smith’s concept of sympathy is a moral emotion, which functions as an incentive for the deviants to morally persuade others: “guys, we should stop rivalling”. In the second place, in real life the social world is embedded psychic-economically. Suppose two rivals live close to each other, and have a common economic problem. The rivalry prevents an efficient economic solution. The costs of the rivalry can become so high, that some peace talks are organised.

Some areas are more successful than others in their attempt to get the status battle under control. Western Europe has shown some success in dampening the rivalry between France and Germany, and between England and France, and so with the battle between Protestants and Roman-Catholics and between Christians and Humanists. In North-Western Europe even the relationship between young and old, and between men and women has changed over time in the direction of less rivalry and more solidarity.

Can we detect a structural decline in rivalry over time? Progressive philosophy answers this question positively; at least they expect harmony between the different classes in the end. It defends the idea of substantial equality between people (Kant, Hegel, Habermas, Rawls, for instance), and expects increasing awareness among people of this fundamental fact. Dialectical philosophers describe a dialectic process. Applied to the social world, it means that adherents to the idea of equality will be able to convince more people of this idea than the conservative adherents to the idea of fundamental inequality. Fukuyama (1992) is an example in this respect; he considered the liberal-democratic structure of society as the winner. Democratically elected politicians run countries, chosen by liberally oriented people, who favour a free- market economy, including a safety net for those who are really unable to serve the own interests sufficiently. Habermas (1987) developed ideas about how to organise communication between rivalling groups in such a way that they increasingly learn to understand each other: communicative-rational action, as it is called. There is a striking parallel with discussions in philosophy of science about the necessary discourse between different research programmes, who aim at explaining the same phenomena. Differences in views are caused by the choice of a different paradigm, which makes different programmes incommensurable. Ongoing conversation, including moral persuasion must lead to inter-subjective agreement in the end. If harmony appears to be impossible, more mutual understanding and tolerance with respect to remaining differences might be the result. This tolerance is exactly what is needed for at least ending the social rivalry. What is left is a healthy economic competition between two strategies – in search of a rational society.

Now we have defined a rational person and a rational society. A rational person has overcome his cognitive dissonance, and a rational society has overcome his social dissonance, which is the primitive status battle. Only in a rational society people can learn to trust each other; we are all member of one and the same club: the human race. The trust that connects ‘us’, while there is no ‘them’ is founded in a trust of a person in his self. This is the perfectly reasonable person, who has discovered and learned to respect his true self, and lives in a perfectly reasonable society.


Bauman, Zygmunt, Thinking Sociologically, Blackwell Publishers, Oxford, 1990.

Durkheim, Emile, The Division of Labor in Society, New York, Free Press, 1893.

Fukuyama, Francis, The End of History and the Last Man, Free Press, New York, 1992.

Girard, René, Messonge romantiques et verité romanesque, Paris, 1961.

Girard, René, Des Choses caches depuis la fondation du monde, édition Grasset et Fasquelle, 1978.

Habermas, Juergen, Theory of Communicative Action, vol.2, Cambridge Polity Press, 1987.

Kant, Immanuel, Critique of practical reason, 1788. republished by ‘Forgottenbooks’ in 2008.

Keizer, P.K., Capitalism, rivalry and solidarity, International Journal of Social Economics, 26, 6, 1999, p.752-762.

Keizer, P.K., Can Economics Contribute to Moral Life, Working Paper, University of Stirling, Scotland, 2007; also:

Keizer, Piet, Psychology for Economists,

Lascaris, André, Uitzicht voor een oude wereld: West-Europa op een keerpunt, Kok Agora, Kampen, 1987.

Rawls, John, The theory of justice, HarvardCollege, 1971.

Sanderson, Steven K., Macrosociology, An Introduction to Human Societies, Fourth Edition, Longman, 1999.

Sidanius, Jim, Felicia Prato, Social Dominance, CambridgeUniversity Press, 1999.



[1] Evidence of the social force being strong is given by Sidanius, Pratto (1999).

[2] Max Weber interpreted history as a process of rationalization. In his interpretation rationality is not only linked to persons, but also to social systems, including society as a whole.

[3] In the real world the size of the group is just one of the determinants of the level of status. Economic importance of the activities of the group is another very important one.

[4] If groups are firms our analysis is basically the sociology of external organisation, and explains the processes of mergers and acquisitions as well as rivalling rivals out of the arena (where economic analysis is about competing competitors out of the market).

[5] Panta rei is an expression from the Greek philosopher Herakleitos, and he referred to this human rivalry that keeps human societies going.

[6] Kant was a Protestant Christian and founded his ideas of morality on biblical notions. Kant(1788) is about the essence or substance of morality, not about its properties.

[7] in practice large differences in properties trigger emotions leading to differences in terms of substance, as experienced by people. The leader of the Dutch political party PVV, Geert Wilders, expresses his views about the properties of the Islam in such a way, that many people experience this as very disrespectful, and actually suggesting that there is a social difference too (“c’est le ton qui fait la musique”).

[8] As soon as we integrate the social world with the economic world individual economic performance induces more or less prestige, of course. But in this integrated approach there is also an effect of social prestige on economic performance: discrimination in segmented labour markets, for instance.

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