Health and the Social Body

Health of the Social Body

“If someone wants to see and experience the world as it ‘really’ is, he can do so only by understanding it as something that is shared by many people, lies between them, separates them, showing itself differently to each and comprehensible only to the extent that many people can talk about it and exchange their opinions and perspectives with one another, over against one another.”
~ Hannah 
Arendt

Is it possible to examine the health of a society or group? Indeed, I believe it is possible, using an ecological, non-Darwinian evolutionary model, systems theory, anthropology, and depth and group psychology. I will provide a brief outline of this unified approach and how to assess the health of the social body in terms of these principles and theories. 

First, let’s take a critical look at the concept of health. Health is commonly conceived as the absence of disease and mental suffering. I take a broader, dynamic view of health, that includes flexibility, adaptability, and the capacity for self-regulation. For example, a person might be physically in shape but struggle emotionally and avoid relationships. What is “healthy,” therefore, depends on the individual, context, and the assumptions we make. What we consider healthy in one context may not be in another. For example, someone may work a lot and be highly productive, providing financial benefits for their family. However, this person might not spend enough time with his family, causing his physical health and personal relationships to suffer. 

Here is another example: many individuals identified with autism have above average skills in math and computer languages. People identified with dyslexia, frequently possess above average visual-spatial abilities and an exceptional capacity to integrate contradictory information, coming up with creative solutions. From an anthropological perspective, many of these skills were highly adaptive in hunter-gather cultures, but are less so in contemporary societies. 

It makes more sense to replace “disorders” and pathologies with a spectrum model of health. However, evaluating what is healthy or not does not need to be strictly subjective. The approach I take here is not based on the conventional biomedical model of body and disease or the biologically and psychological model of the mind as a singular, brain-generated phenomenon. Instead, I adopt a non-brain-based definition of mind—as a cybernetic organization of living systems, ranging from non-human systems, ecosystems, single cells organisms to complex animals, humans and social groups. 

The systemic model1 applied to biological and ecological systems is equally applicable to society and all organizations. Thus, we can assess the relative health of a social body in same way we evaluate the health of a human body or ecosystem. A systemic model provides a framework that does not separate the individual subject (the psychological) from the social group and cultural context. The biomedical model does not look at the behavior of “whole systems” but separates the body from the mind, and analyzes (through reduction) the body smaller interacting parts. Mainstream psychology typically also separates the mind from the body, viewing it as brain-generated and as a unitary entity, rather than an organized multiplicity and subpersonalities. 

Conventional medicine and psychology would greatly benefit from adopting an evolutionary framework to explain why and how the body-mind complex takes its current form and the key role that environment and ecosystems play in evolution. Most importantly, for our purposes, the prevailing dominant biomedical approach does not model or explain the transformational potential inherent in the body-mind and all living systems. 

Like all living systems, the human body is a self-organizing, self-regulating system. Cells are the smallest, most fundamental, independent unity of organic life. They contain the genetic material (DNA) and primary codes required for reproduction, maintaining intracellular order, and extracellular communication and cooperation. Cells can differentiate, become specialized, and create multicellular groups, tissues, organs, and larger body systems. At its most fundamental level, if cells do not function and cooperate, the integrity and functionality of organs and eventually the body as a whole will become disorganized. Impaired cellular function can effect reproduction, lead to various disorders, compromise tissues and organs, and effect overall integrity of the entire system. 

In addition to providing structure to the body, cells are energy factories which must take in nutrition and expel waste byproducts to produce energy in the form of adenosine triphosphate molecules (ATP). Without this process, cells cannot perform their job as the metabolic source of energy for the body. The less functional cells are, the more they begin to disconnect from their surroundings and other cells. Lack of cellular integrity and connections to other cells leads to dysfunctions, such as cancer, and if left unchecked, can eventually disrupt of the entire body. Non-functional cells create a toxic environment/terrain for other cells and organ systems. Dysfunction is the symptom—not the cause—of ill health and disease. When cells and organ systems can no longer communicate and regulate themselves, autoimmune disorders develop. Autoimmune disorders are examples of the body at war with itself and are among the fastest-growing health conditions.

The stages of cellular breakdown and bodily dysfunction are also observable in groups and societies. Individuals, like cells, are the building blocks of social groups and the key to healthy social systems. Just as cellular differentiation and connections to other cells and the environment are vital for their function and survival, so too are the differentiation and connections of individuals within their social and environmental contexts. However, humans are much more complex than cells! 

For the body to self-identify as a subject, it requires an internal division and a self-reflective social mind, which depends on a second-order coding system (genetics is the first)—the capacity for symbolic communication and language. The symbolic function is the basis upon which cultural systems and personal identities are constructed. To participate in a cultural system, a human subject must be able to identify itself in order to differentiate itself in relation to others. I use the concept of “social mind” because the intrapsychic system is a collective or multiplicity of parts and subpersonalities with its own dynamics, and not just a unitary identity. 

The social mind is inseparable from the body, encompassing impulses, desires, needs, and emotions—collectively referred to as the body-mind complex. Regardless of a person’s beliefs and ideology, if people do not feel connected, differentiated, and represented, and if their basic social and biological needs are not met, disconnection between individuals and the social body increases, leading to greater polarization and disorder. 

The more participation, self-expression, and identities are excluded or repressed, the more “toxic” the socio-cultural and political environment becomes. A healthy socio-cultural system is promoted not through suppressing identities, ideas, groups and subcultures, but by transforming it out of its disorganized and polarized condition. “Deep democracy” is inclusive of more participation and self-expression. 

The social body is a collective of individuals, self-organizing as a socio-cultural system governed by the same cybernetic processes as all living (organic and non-organic) systems. It is a higher order of complexity. The variety of cultures and societies around the world are a living testimony to the inherent creativity, adaptive capacity, and diversity that is life itself. Like each individual, societies have their uniqueness and function similarly to all living systems—self-organization. Because of internal and external environmental pressures, societies, like any organism or physical body, sometimes must transform in order to persist and thrive. Demographic and economic pressures, cultural changes, and environmental necessities sometimes require difficult systemic changes. History is filled with examples of societies that failed because they were unable to transform themselves. Cultural exchanges, migration, global economic integration, and especially the Internet, are forces that are globally transforming society and cultures, disrupting the way people relate to themselves and each other. From infancy onward, humans naturally desire self-recognition and self-identification, which over time tends towards diversity. Old cultures, social structures and traditions cannot always sustain that kind of pressure, causing discord and increased conflict. Real democracy isn’t a preordained, ready-made order that can be imposed from above; to be effective, it can only come from the bottom-up. And this “bottom” must be open up to the internal world to of human subjects, which can change over time. In other words, we cannot ignore the social mind and subjectivities, which also have the potential to change and evolve. It requires a certain degree of tolerance, cooperation, and consensus for what is possible as a collective organization from the bottom up. 

Politics is how people position themselves in a group, a community, or even a “non-community.” Small-scale tribal egalitarian cultures maintain a balanced internal organization by self-limiting the population and preventing individuals and groups from gaining power over others. Cultural diversity did not occur in these social groups. However, complex societies possess quite different social structures, and you find a variety of world-views, political systems, and ideologies used to govern, from monarchies to militaristic dictatorships to grassroots participatory democracies. No matter the form of social organization and government, diversity and differences can threaten unity if individuals or groups are not differentiated and represented. When the differences between groups, subcultures, the majority, and the minority become too great, polarization increases and conflict can escalate to the point of violence. Increasingly around the world, minorities and subcultures, whole populations, are rising up and asserting their identities (“difference”) and desire for representation. Long-established governments and power structures that historically suppressed freedom and diversity are being challenged. Exposure to other societies gives people the opportunity to see what is possible, and they are willing to risk their lives for change. Inevitably, in an information-driven global economy, the free flow of ideas will be used to challenge systems and those who seek to control populations and diversity. Deep democracy allows us all to speak and to be heard and can facilitate creative solutions to societal problems, which in turn promote both individual and social health.

Diversity gives us options to adapt creatively to both internal and environmental changes. However, the more diversity and differences in the population, the more difficult it is to agree on what to do and how to transform in order to survive and thrive. This is precisely why we need more tolerance and creativity. The suppression of diversity, speech and ideas only limits society and exacerbates internal polarization. Lack of representation and participation are the seeds of disruption. The more disempowered people feel, the more potential conflict arises. The more disunity in a group, the more conflict increases and the more likely scapegoating will occur—hence bigotry and racism increase. Scapegoating is a deeply ingrained human ritual activity, a way of temporarily unifying a particular group and its identity by placing the blame on a specific individual or group. This universal human response creates division, increases polarization and disconnection within a society, and prevents creative solutions and cooperation.

The increased polarization we see in American and European politics is what happens when a system no longer serves an increasingly diverse society under internal and external pressure. The United States and Europe are becoming increasingly diverse from the inside, recognizing previously rejected identities like LGBTQ, minorities, and new immigrants. In the United States, for example, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are ideologically very different, yet are similar in their opposition to the status quo and established power structures. Most of their support comes from those who feel disenfranchised. Their popularity is an inevitable consequence of a lack of representation in a system that does not respond to people’s needs. The same forces that created Le Pen in France and elected dictators like Mussolini and Hitler in the 1930s are at play now. If a way of bridging the polarization in society is not found—by increasing representation and cooperation and recognizing a common overarching propose in overcoming the evolutionary pressures, like climate change, for example—then conflict and even violence are inevitable.

The best solution for creating a healthy social body is to increase internal cooperation. This requires increasing participation and communication between human beings. Unfortunately, it is easier to ignore these connections and base our actions on emotions and self-interest. This is why politicians and leaders, who appeal to emotions and engage in demagoguery and pandering garner support—even if people don’t fully agree with them! Facts are ignored; emotions and scapegoating take over, and cult-like groups form, disconnecting from the rest of the social body. The solution is not to discourage, suppress, or shut down opinions, speech, and civil discourse, even if we don’t agree with what’s being said, but to open up communication and freedom of expression. Tolerance helps create a non-toxic environment where people feel they can be heard and represented. In this way, we can find creative solutions to the intractable problems we face today.

1) Defining characteristics of systems include the whole exhibiting unique behaviors and characteristics that cannot be reduced to or explained only in terms of its parts. These systems are cybernetic, meaning they self-regulate and self-organize to maintain integrity, boundaries, and perpetuation. Systems theory is fundamentally different from analytical thinking and scientific models, which reduce the behavior of objects, phenomena, and organisms to smaller units, parts, and their interactions. This model also separates objects and organisms from their environment and context, while ignoring evolutionary forces. 

2021 © Keyvan Golestaneh