The superorganic is another way of describing —— and understanding —— culture or the socio-cultural system. If we start with the inorganic, it is the physical universe, all the atoms of elements without life. We can call this the lowest level of complexity. The second level of complexity is composed of living things.
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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 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.
A super-Archimedes in the ice age would have invented neither firearms nor the telegraph. 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.
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. And finally, he asks where the laws of the superorganic apply: at the level of the individual person, or the group? And under the influence of postmodernist theories of culture, this dialogue will no doubt continue.
References: Kroeber, A. The superorganic. American Anthropologist, 19 2 , Sapir, E. Spencer, H. The evolution of society. Glazer Eds. New York: Alfred A. White, L. Ethnological essays.
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O Superorgânico (A. Kroeber)