Social Research Glossary


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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012-17, Social Research Glossary, Quality Research International,

This is a dynamic glossary and the author would welcome any e-mail suggestions for additions or amendments. Page updated 2 January, 2017 , © Lee Harvey 2012–2017.


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Organic view of society

core definition

The organic view of society used the analogy of an organism (often the human body) as the organising principle for social cohesion.

explanatory context

The organic society view suggests that society grows rather than being constructed and as an evolving organism it ought not to be subjected to sudden and drastic changes, which may weaken or destroy it. The parts of an organism are mutually dependent.


Charles Horton Cooley for example, was of the view that the ideal society must be an organic whole. When he speaks of society as anorganism, he does not want to make an analogy with biology in the mannerof Spencer, but means to stress the systemic interrelations between all socialprocesses. "If . . . we say that society is an organism, we mean . . . that it is acomplex of forms of processes each of which is living and growing by inter-action with the others, the whole being so unified that what takes place in onepart affects all the rest. It is a vast tissue of reciprocal activity.'' (Coser, 1977, p. 307)


Harvey Rosen (2001) explains that the organic view of government involves the conception of society as a natural organism. Individuals are part of this organism and government is at the heart. What is good for the individual is good for the whole community and vice versa. The goals of the society are set by the state, which leads society toward fulfiling those goals.

analytical review

International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences (1968) explored the roots of the organic view of society:

In the latter part of the eighteenth century, and especially in the period after the French Revolution, many social theorists became disillusioned with individual reason and the reductive methods of the analytical philosophers. As the philosophy of romanticism became more influential, a conservative theory of society developed which stressed the unity of the integrated whole. Society came to be viewed as an organic growth, embodying the practical and profound wisdom of convention and tradition. Being a cumulative organic product, society has an organic unity. Abstract analytical segments cannot be separated from the whole and arbitrarily changed; to do so is to destroy the complex interdependence of the web of social life....

The organismic conception sharpened the concept of society as a set of interdependent functions (which was already implicit in the philosophy of the Enlightenment) and drew attention to a new element, cultural tradition, as a functionally necessary part of a society. The idea of a cultural order as a constituent element of a society was developed further by August Comte in the early nineteenth century. Comte sought to synthesize Enlightened and Romantic modes of thought. Accordingly, he incorporated into his sociological system elements of classic liberal thought, such as the idea of a level of order arising from man’s natural economic interdependence, and the concept of a larger society from which government derives its legitimacy. At the same time he refused to derive the larger society from individual reason and the concurrence of interests. Drawing on organismic conservatism, he found in cultural tradition the specifically collective factor in society. For Comte, the formation of any society presupposed a system of common opinions about nature and man. The Enlightenment philosophers, by destroying the normative order of the religiously based society, had loosed anarchy upon the world. Comte argued that the reformation of society required the creation of a new, scientifically based moral order. ...

Comte’s plans for the reconstitution of society revolved about ideas for the reconstruction of religious, familial, educational, and political institutions. Embedded in his program is a contribution to the conceptual elaboraton of the idea of society. Comte did not believe that a bare consensus is a sufficient condition for organized collective life. The consensus must be organized in an institutional order that symbolizes, teaches, enforces, and implements moral ideas and rules.

The belief that society is an institutional order which embodies a fundamental set of cultural ideas was prominent in another branch of romantic thought which might be termed “idealism.” Idealism, which was especially prominent in nineteenth-century German thought, stresses the cultural distinctiveness of each society. A society reflects a peculiar Geist or spirit that is embodied in its distinctive traditions and institutions. The spirit of a society progressively unfolds in history.

Page (1997) used an organic model to compare Canada and The Unitted States:

Canadian society today retains that organic characteristic that distinguishes a social democracy from the liberal American model where the individual is held to be supreme and independent. This fundamental difference between Canada and the United States explains the distinctive characteristics that Americans notice about Canada--the relative absence of crime, the higher respect for governmental authority which makes possible the enforcement of gun-control laws and the like--and the expectation of a social role for government in aspects of life such as the health care system with the provision of Medicare for everyone. This organic quality in a social democracy is due to the imbedded sense of being a collective--or extended family. There is a resulting sense of government as "us", in contrast to the "they" that appears to characterize the American attitude to government.



associated issues


related areas

See also

August Comte

structural functionalism


Coser, L., 1977, Masters of Sociological Thought: Ideas in historical and social context. Wadsworth Publishing.

Page, D., 'Why Are We So Different? A Canadian View', North American Committee for Humanism, available at, accessed 18 March 2013, page not available 24 December 2016.

Rosen, H., 2001, Public Finance, 6th edition, McGraw-Hill/Irwin;

International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, 1968, 'Society', available at, accessed 18 March 2013, still available 24 December 2016.

copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2017

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