The term “superorganic” was probably first used by the early sociologist Herbert Spencer in the late 19th century, in contrast to “inorganic”or “organic.”To Spencer, and other cultural-determinist sociologists and philosophers like Emile Durkheim and Auguste Comte, human society is superorganic in that it exists at a higher level of complexity than physical things or biological organisms. Viewed through Spencer’s social evolutionary thought, superorganic refers to the claim that culture is an entity that exists over and beyond the individuals that make it up. That is, just as inorganic entities (such as rocks) and organic biological entities (such as plants) have real ontological existence, so does the super- or meta-force of culture.
The notion of the superorganic was brought into anthropological discourse in 1917 in a debate between two of the most influential figures of the time, Alfred Kroeber and Edward Sapir, in the American Anthropologist, the premier journal of the day. Both were students of Franz Boas who, as a literal founding father of American anthropology, spent much of his career wrestling to understand the relationship between the individual and culture. To Boas, it became clear that the individual—both as recipient and beneficiary of culture, but also as its carrier and creator—was primary.
Kroeber, as did all Boasians, rejected the notion that culture was biological, or something that humans inherited. Neither were there any superior or inferior cultures, either in intellectual potential or social advancement. He parted paths with Boas, however, when he argued that humans are trapped in the web of historical and cultural forces. As Kroeber said in his seminal article, it is tempting to leap from the individually mental to the culturally social, but are we justified in doing so? Every schoolchild today knows much more than Aristotle, but even a thou-sand of them cannot match his impact. This is because all knowledge is social, and “it is knowledge, not the greater development of one individual or another, that counts…. A super-Archimedes in the ice age would have invented neither firearms nor the telegraph.” This is obviously a recasting of the Great Man theory of history for an anthropological audience. But to Kroeber, the superorganic was actually what made anthropology a science—with its subject matter being the universals and regularities of human behavior as mediated, if not completely dictated, by the forces of history and culture. And it simplified anthropology’s task immensely, by eliminating human decision making from the analytical equation.
Sapir disagreed with this dismissal of the individual and questioned the whole superorganic premise. First, he considered the analogy of social phenomena to the development of inorganic to organic processes to be false. We what we call the social is only a selection of the phenomena that is reducible to inorganic or organic processes and is not some new abstract force. When we talk about culture we are only talking about an abstraction culled from the observations of individual behavior, after all. He also argued that the “laws” of history or sociology are only rarely generalizable and almost never predictive. And finally, he asks where the laws of the superorganic apply: at the level of the individual person, or the group? If it is at the group, which group: “a clan, a language, a priesthood?”
The superorganic is still actively debated in anthropology, though usually manifested in different discourse. Leslie White—with his evolutionary view of culture and notion of “culturalogy”—is just one notable example. And under the influence of postmodernist theories of culture, this dialogue will no doubt continue.
- Kroeber, A. L. (1917). The superorganic. American Anthropologist, 19(2), 163-213.
- Sapir, E. (1917). Do we need a “superorganic?” American Anthropologist, 19(3), 441-447.
- Spencer, H. (1988). The evolution of society. In P. Bohannan & M. Glazer (Eds.), High points in anthropology (2nd ed.). New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
- White, L. (1987). Ethnological essays. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.