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The Concept of Primary Society and Secondary Society

You-Sheng Li has recently introduced the concepts of the genetically coded primary society and the man-made secondary society, and explored their implications in anthropology and sociology. (You-Sheng Li, 2005)

(1) The Definition of the Primary and the Secondary society

The primary Society is genetically coded society, and it is based on our genetics. Human nature and instinct are enough to keep a primary society harmonious and functional. The primary society is the basic social organization of man immediately above families. The ideal number of people in this primary society is believed to be around 150. Bands and tribes are regarded as primary societies. Chiefdoms and states are not .The culture of primary societies is close to basic human nature, and has no power to modify human nature. Overextension of peripheral potentials of human nature is rarely institutionalized in the primary society.

The secondary society is man-made society. Since it is man-made, it has its purpose, namely the ideology or the value system, and the social structure to support the purpose. A secondary society is usually far larger than the primary society. The introduction of social stratification and other institutions that are against human nature is often necessary to keep a secondary society stable. The secondary society is created by human culture, and therefore, it has limitless possibilities with different value systems, and different directions while the primary society, dictated by human genetics, has only one type.

All animal societies are primary societies including those of apes. Most nonhuman primates are highly social, and live in a group throughout all or nearly all of their long lives. Living in a group is far more beneficial than living alone. People often refer to the hierarchal societies of primates as the explanation of why we humans have war and inequality in our society. In fact the current secondary society is not a large copy of the primary society but a deviation from it. The hierarchal society of primates is similar to our primary society but different from our secondary society. The latter is a pure invention of human culture. In the secondary society, hierarchy is the fixed social order that nobody is allowed to challenge though there may be some social ladders allowing people to climb and compete.

The social bond of primates is based on reciprocity rather than a fixed hierarchy. Primates continuously groom each other and help each other to solidify their social bond. Anthropologists believed that naked humans chat with each other instead of grooming of the primates. Physical strength is important but far from the decisive factor. Since members interact each other face-to-face, there is a psychological and emotional exchange and link among members of a primary society. Thus they are psychologically and emotionally a whole in a primary society. Members of a secondary society do not have such exchange and link but their unification relies on their uniform belief and sharing the same value system or the same ideology.

(2)Major Differences Between the Primary and the Secondary Society

The definition of and the distinction between the primary society and the secondary society can be refined by examining the way in which they are contrary to each other: One was man-made, the other, hereditary. It is thus not difficult at all delineating the major differences between the two by deduction from the definition with reference to ancient tribal and modern societies.

Those differences include: 1) the former primary society is based on genetics, and human nature and instinct are enough to keep it harmonious and functional while the latter secondary society is man-made to serve its goal, and has an ideology or value system with a social structure to support that goal. 2) Dictated by genetics, the former has only one type while the latter has limitless possible types. Social stratification and institutionalized violence such as police and army are often necessary to keep the latter stable in its present type and restrain its members from seeking other types of society. As a result, the former does not need a forceful authority while the latter does. 3) The former is a psychological/emotional whole because of the subconscious social bond related to face-to-face interaction while the latter relies on a uniform ideology and goal. The religious culture is animism and remains part of the former society while the latter often has organized religions with different belief systems. 4) Language is mainly for psychological/emotional exchange and carries aesthetic value in the former while language is mainly for communication or exchange of information, insights, opinion, and so on in the latter. 5) Subjective consciousness is present in both but only the latter allows its members to become men of their own making. 6) The philosophy of life or wor

The Concept of Primary Society and Secondary Society (2)


6) The philosophy of life or world
view is different: The former is able to view the physical world, the social world, and the inner world of human minds from a relaxed mind while dictated by the social ideology; the latter has a focused view. In fact, war and competition forced people to focus on each other. European visual artists created only human figures until the 17th and 18th centuries when Holland and Britain developed paintings of scenery and landscape. (Chi 1983) Navigation enabled them to escape from the grip of the continental military powers and therefore gave them a relaxed mind to see more of the world.

Such a list can be easily extended.

From the definition, we can draw the conclusion that a primary society will form automatically under the following conditions: 1). the population is less than a few hundred, and the population is free to divide when it is too large. 2).The population is engaged in face-to-face interaction; 3). There is no contact with and no ideological influence from a secondary society; 4). There is no outside force threatening their survival.

Ancient Mediterranean civilizations did not meet those conditions while Chinese civilization did. The ancient Chinese formed a super state to function as police to keep peace among local powers, and this relatively peaceful environment allowed the Chinese people to still live in primary societies until the Warring States Period (476-221 BC).

(For those who are interested in primary and secondary civilizations: There were six primary civilizations in the world, namely Mesopotamia, Egypt, India, China, Mexico, and Peru. There was no higher civilization among the neighbours of a primary civilization. Greek and Hebrew civilizations were secondary but became the philosophical foundation for Western civilization that dominates the world today. Of those eight ancient civilizations, Chinese civilization showed many characteristics that were lacking in the other seven civilizations.)

(3) The Two Levels of Society Fits Well Into the Multi-Level Operation of Our Universe

When all human societies are divided into genetically coded primary societies and man-made secondary societies, it is found that Chinese civilization started with primary societies while Western civilization started with secondary societies, which explains well their different cultural and philosophical traditions. Taoism is essentially a philosophy of life for the primary society. (Author 2005) It is enlightening to notice that the culturally complex Chinese empire was once stabilized on and operated by nothing but human nature: the ancient Chinese super state of primary societies.

Unlike other classifications of human societies that focus on cumulative gradual changes other than human nature, the division of human societies into two levels, genetically coded and man-made, focuses on the underlying transformation or a jump, which fits well into the multi-level operation of the universe (Table 1). [Place Table 1 here]

The Concept of Primary Society and Secondary Society (3)

Table 1. The Universal Evolutionary Pathways

1. Physical World 2. Life 2. Culture 4. Consciousness

Level 1

Level 2

Level 3
Elementary particles

Level 4
Atoms and electrons

Level 5
Molecules DNA

Level 6
Matters and objects Cells

Level 7
Stars and planets Tissues

Level 8
Galaxies Organs and limbs

Level 9
Universe Individuals

Level 10 Primary society Culture Subconscious or aesthetic

Level 11 Secondary society Civilization Conscious:
rational thinking systems and spirituality

The Concept of Primary Society and Secondary Society (4)

There are impassable gaps between those levels in Table 1. In a way, tissues are the primary society of cells and organs are the secondary society of cells. Normally, cells cannot leave their tissues to reach the organ level. Although humans build secondary societies, our history also suggests an impassable gap between the two levels of society.

From the unearthed skeletons, one may see how healthy the ancient people were by measuring their heights and the numbers of teeth they had lost. A study shows a clear decreasing trend of human health in history: On average, adults lost 2.2 teeth in 30,000 BC, 3.5 teeth in 6,500 BC, and 6.6 teeth during the Roman Period. The average height of adult males was 177 cm thirty thousand years ago, 165 cm ten thousand years ago, and 175 cm for American males in the 1960s. (Harris 1977) According to another study, the Chinese population suddenly dropped more than half for at least ten times between 221 BC and 1911 when the secondary society was established. A population of sixty million was recorded during the 2nd century BC but only 1.2 million remained at the beginning of the third century. (Chen 1979) There was no single such drop recorded from 2200 BC to 476 BC when this super state of primary societies was in place.

(4) The Primary Society and the Primary Group

Primary society has long been disintegrated in modern civilized society. Since the primary society is determined by genetics and human genetics has not been substantially changed, we can still see the shadow or ghost of primary society. It is the primary group.

Charles Horton Cooley (1864-1929) first saw the self as a social product that is formed in the process of interaction within the primary group. Cooley called this kind of self-conception the looking glass self, saying, “a person’s perception of himself is determined by the way he imagines he appears to others. Cooley was one of two theorists of the self who suggested that the me can be seen only through the eyes of others. The other theorist was G.H. Mead. (1863-1931)

Cooley identified the primary group as “those characterized by intimate face-to-face association and cooperation. They are primary in several senses but chiefly in that they are fundamental in forming the social nature and ideals of individuals. The result of intimate association, psychologically, is a certain fusion of individualities in a common whole, so that one’s very self, for many purposes at least, is the common life and purpose of the group. Perhaps the simplest way of describing this wholeness is by saying that it is a ‘we’”.

Thus Cooley’s primary group is based on modern society that forms the environment that nurtures the self. Modern primary groups have been penetrated by the peripheral desires and social power of modern society, and thus Cooley embraced competition and ambition.

The egalitarian primary society was the only society our ancestors lived in until some 100,000 years ago when agriculture appeared and the people began to settle down. Even with the agricultural era, the primary society, bands and tribes, was still the only society people knew until the chiefdoms of ranked society and the states of stratified society started to appear five or six thousand years ago. Once the first state structure appeared, it either assimilated or conquered its neighbour by force.

In modern cities the crowded tenements and the general economic and social confusion have seriously wounded the family and the neighbourhood. Everybody has to adapt himself to the laws and the way of life before he can survive in modern society. The primary society was the direct outgrowth of human nature but it had too to adapt to modern life and became Cooley’s primary group. In spite all of that, we can still clearly see the beauty of the primary group in the family and the neighbourhood surrounding the family. Such spirit was kept alive in the village community for the common people throughout the Middle Age Europe. In today’s Russia the self-governing village group is still the main theatre of life for some fifty millions peasants. Their high spirits are not dampened a bit by the national economic malaise.

The ancient face-to-face and heart-to-heart social interactions are still much alive in the primary group. The atmosphere is warm, passionate, and loving. It is a shelter against the inhumane elements of the secondary society and it is the hospital for the human heart where the wounded soul is healed. Only here a man is valued as a whole human being, no more and no less. Of course with the highly mobile nature of our society, people can easily form clubs, fraternal societies and the like that provide some congeniality and intimacy.


Chen, Ping 1979 Danyi xiaonong jingji jiegou shi woguo changqi dongluan

The Concept of Primary Society and Secondary Society (5)

Chen, Ping 1979 Danyi xiaonong jingji jiegou shi woguo changqi dongluan pinqiongde binggen [The single agriculture economy of peasants is the root cause of stagnant Chinese history of poverty and tumults].Guangmingridbao,1979 nian 11 yue 16 ri sanban.

Chi, Ke 1983 Xifang Meishu Shihua [Western art history]. Beijing: Zhongguoqingnianchubanshe.

Harris, Marvin, 1977, Cannibals and Kings. New York: Random House. P4-25.

Re: The Concept of Primary Society and Secondary Society (5)

A full version of this essay with a normal table is available at the following website, and the reader can read it by clicking the following title:

The Concept of Primary Society and Secondary Society

written by You-Sheng Li

Re: The Concept of Primary Society and Secondary Society (5)

Very impressive.

A new and clearer perspective to look at history, philosophy, society, and life.

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