Reflections on the teaching of social structure in two ancient cultures pt. 1

The “first” attainment goals in H&P are:

  • compare social structures and the conditions of natural surroundings from two ancient cultures, and discuss the ideas that typify these societies
  • elaborate on and discuss how human beings in ancient cultures understood time, sought after meaning and transferred knowledge between generations
  • reflect on how myths can influence the understanding of reality and stories, and discuss how myths attempt to provide answers to fundamental questions within ancient cultures
The first thing I want to do here, is to break this goal down into bits. From thence, I will look out for sources on the Internet that can help me understand the various aspects of the goal. Furthermore, I want you to help me find additional sources for this specific goal. Naturally, I cannot use all the sources, since this is but one of many attainment goals that my students have to “pass” before Christmas.
The students are to know how to compare social structures and the conditions of natural surroundings of two ancient cultures. In order to do that, we need first to understand what is meant by “social structures” and “natural surroundings.” Second, we need to identify two ancient cultures.
Social structures
Wikipedia defines social structures thus:

In the social sciencessocial structure is the patterned social arrangements in society that are both emergent from and determinant of the actions of the individuals. On the macro scale, social structure is the system of socioeconomic stratification (e.g., the class structure), social institutions, or, other patterned relations between large social groups. On the meso scale, it is the structure of social network ties between individuals or organizations. On the micro scale, it can be the way norms shape the behavior of actors within the social system.

Social structure. (2015, July 2). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 19:12, July 21, 2015, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Social_structure&oldid=669605745

The key questions my students needs to understand here will therefore be:

  • Who has the power in  the given society?
  • Who gave him the power?
  • What kind of story is told about when he obtained the power?
  • What is the relationship between power and religion in this society?
  • What kind of economy does this society have?
  • Who is rich and who is poor? 
  • What kinds of possibilities does an individual have in this society? What is the place of the individual given in this society?
I do not know if this will suffice as a template for analyzing the social structures in the two cultures the students are supposed to study.
Here it appears to me that I need to explain about how for instance Marx understands how a society is arranged. His  economic concepts seems to me to be useful to introduce at this point.
Also, Weber will naturally be useful to introduce here. Can somebody also give me feedback on other theories relevant here?

It is vital to recognize the role of religion in the various societies students are to look closer at. Religion directed all aspects of the lives of the people living at the time we are studying. It helped humans understand the way nature and their societies were organized. Sometimes, cities fought against each other and the strife was fought between the people on the behalf of the humans living in the various cities. The tales about the activities of the gods were often written down as myths. Humans were but pawns in the great game that the gods played. They had to obey the gods orders. It was impossible for kings to decide upon some great affairs without the consent of the gods. And the kings made their power known to all the people. They ordered the building of vast structures like the Ziggurats and the pyramids. These edifices were of course symbols of the power of the kings, but they also was so much more. They were also symbols of the economic structure of the systems.

The first civilizations were founded along the banks of huge rivers like the euphrates and the Nile. Life here was filled with uncertainties. The water could break the dikes something that would directly cost lives. Sometimes the fields could be flooded. This meant the loss of income for one or many years. The relationship between the individual and nature was precarious. In addition, it is important to note that:

“[c]ontributing to this sense of insecurity was the belief that the gods had little love for humanity. they had created a “savage, ‘man’ shall be his name … [who] shall be charged with the service of the gods that they might be at ease.” Toward humans the gods behaved capriciously, maliciously and vindictively, and it was difficult to please them.”

Marvin Perry, Myrna Chase, James R. Jacob, Margaret C. Jacob, Theodore H. Von Laue:  Western Civilization: Ideas, Politics, and Society, Volume 1: To 1789, Tenth Edition. Boston, 2013, p. 12f.

The gods nonetheless represented important ideals for humans to follow. The myths explained why life was filled with toil. Creation myths explained how time began and how it changed to become what it is like today. Myths explaiend how the stars became fixed to heaven, the trajectory of the Sun and why there are four seasons. What is perhaps most important when it comes to the significance of myths is what they tell us about how society is arranged, the cosmogony. This is a compound of the words kosmos (the world order) and genesis (creation).

(This is just my humble definition of the word. Wikipedia has one definition that is certainly more precise: The word comes from the Koine Greek κοσμογονία (from κόσμος “cosmos, the world”) and the root of γί(γ)νομαι / γέγονα (“come into a new state of being”).[3]In astronomy, cosmogony refers to the study of the origin of particular astrophysical objects or systems, and is most commonly used in reference to the origin of the universe, the solar system, or the earth-moon system.[1][2] Cosmogony. (2015, June 9). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 20:14, July 21, 2015, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Cosmogony&oldid=666151784)

It is common to divide cosmogenic myths into six parts:

  1. Creation from nothing
  2. Creation from chaos
  3. Creation from a cosmic egg
  4. Creation from a previous generation of parents
  5. Creation through a series of unexpected events
  6. Creation through a diver that dives into the primordial waters and who picks up the world
So why is it relevant to have an open and critical relationship to the concept of myths? I think this is because myths are still very much with us today. They provoke strong feelings in humans to this day. Religions are based upon myths and myths guide peoples lives.
Even though we have scientific explanations about how the universe was created, we still cannot grasp the magnitude of this event. The big bang was an event that took place 13.82 billion years ago. Today, we have technology that can help us understand how this event took place. We can actually look back in time.
Still, human lives are lived from day to day. We grow up, we fall in love, we find a suitable job and some of us establish a family. As humans we tend to reflect upon these events. Why did they happen? What could be done otherwise?
Today, we are faced with extreme violence based upon myths. That this should be something that takes place today, is very strange to me. Do we not have access to all kinds of information? Are we not able to converse and discuss all the problems in the world? Why is not dialogue an option?
I think it  would be useful to reflect upon the meaning of myths in relation to the individual. Today, we face the opportunity to make an independent choice of wether we want to adhere to one myth or the other. Adherence gives meaning to the individual. Sadly, the choice of some have led to tragic events in the past and continue to do so in the present. Here, I am thinking about terrorism and recruitment to anti-democratic organizations. Students needs to understand that every person has a responsibility both to themselves and the society they live in to reflect upon their choices and what it in essence means to be a human. What is it that makes us who we are?
At this point, I’d say, that the ability to think is what makes us humans. It separate us from other creatures and it gives us a responsibility.

What questions needs to be asked?

The obvious question to ask students here is: why did the people let this happen? Why did they no revolt? If they were angered with the “system” did they nonetheless subscribe to the way it was arranged? What were the alternatives? Is revolt a modern notion?

Another important question to reflect upon is of course: Why have politics and religion always been connected? Is there any natural relationship between those two? Why are humans led to believe in an “alternative” to reality?

Here, we have come back to the definition of a social structure and the way Marx sees it. It is important here to understand that there is, in fact, a relationship between those two. Also relevant in this context is it to introduce Durkheim and his definition of culture.

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2 Comments Add yours

  1. What you propose concerns me. It is misleading to frame understanding around the frameworks of nineteenth century attempts to understand the recent path that led to their own time – which is what Marx and Emile Durkheim were – and use their period conceits of universality as an analytical lens to interpret the ancient world, a very different sociocultural concept and society. I recommend stepping back a little from that analytical viewpoint. There are many philosophical masters. I was fortunate enough to study post-grad under a student of both Wittgenstein and Popper. The lessons have always stood me in good stead. Hope that is of assistance.

    Like

    1. olekrisa says:

      Absolutely! This is exactly the kind of feedback I am looking for, and this is an excellent challenge for how to plan the course.

      Like

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