Psychology Sociology

What is Social Health?

"Sickness in the individual must come ultimately from a sickness in society." —Abraham Maslow
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What does it mean to be healthy?

There are many perspectives on the topic: biological, psychological, and sociological. 

Usually, we equate the concept of health with physical health, and more recently, the concept of mental health has also gained traction.

As a sociologist, I’ve been interested in the concept of social health. By this I refer to the health of a social environment. Although the social realm is a distinct object of analysis, it is interrelated with physical and mental health.

Image result for bio psycho social

Healthy societies contribute to a healthy mind and healthy bodies. So what is a healthy society?

I define a healthy society as one that is socially integrated in a way that meets our basic physical and psychological needs, facilitating a sense of higher purpose. 

This is a sociological take on Abraham Maslow’s view:

The good or healthy society would then be defined as one that permitted man’s highest purposes to emerge by satisfying all his basic needs.

For Maslow, his famous hierarchy ranks these needs from the most basic to the most advanced. I don’t necessarily agree with his strict rank ordering and a 2011 study on the topic confirms this skepticism.

Throughout my research on suicide, I’ve come to see how social needs are as important as our biological need for food. Those whose social needs are not met may find themselves at risk of dying by suicide.

Although I agree with Maslow’s broader theory of human flourishing, I prefer to draw on more recent psychological research on our basic social needs.

According to Self determination theory, we have three basic social/psychological needs: competence, autonomy, and relatedness.

Competence consists of the sense that one has specific skills and is progressing in their abilities. Image result for competence

A healthy social environment provides worthy goals with clear guidelines that act as signposts to human action. Without socially sanctioned signposts regulating our actions, individuals may feel lost or purposeless. The classic sociologist, Émile Durkheim, writes:

All man’s pleasure in acting, moving and exerting himself implies the sense that his efforts are not in vain and that by walking he has advanced. However, one does not advance when one walks toward no goal, or—which is the same thing—when his goal is infinity.

Consider any worth-while goal or endeavor and you will quickly realize it is marked by the stamp of social values. Our goals are often regulated by what is deemed valuable to a particular social context.

Although we need social regulation to give us purpose and a sense of contribution, this does not mean we need to simply conform, bringing us to the next fundamental need:

Autonomy consists of feeling that one is in control of one’s own actions. Image result for research strategies by william badke

In sociological terms this means social regulations are not overbearing and fatalistic. Although autonomy is important, too much of it can produce individualistic social contexts where individuals no longer feel connected to a broader community. This brings us to the last fundamental need:

Relatedness consists of the sense that one can depend on a close circle of other individuals.

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In his classic sociological text, Suicide, Durkheim states:

“…when community becomes foreign to the individual, he becomes a mystery to himself, unable to escape the exasperating and agonizing question: to what purpose?”

Interdependence is the key to a healthy social context that balances individual needs with the needs of the group. Image result for interdependence

Interdependence requires goal alignment between the individual and the group. As stated in my article addressing the question, “What is a healthy identity?“:

…the military is a great example of institutionalized interdependence. Identities are built within a system of distinct, yet related, roles where one’s unique skills, abilities, preferences, and character, all contribute to an organization with functional capacities beyond the sum of its individual parts.

Unfortunately, interdependence is easily forgotten in modern individualistic social contexts: Image result for society

Interdependence works on many levels: organizationally, nationally, and globally.

Healthy societies are like living organisms, institutions and organizations are the organs, and individuals are the cells that compose the organs.

Societies interact with other societies, just as our bodies interact with other bodies; organizations interact with other organizations, just as our bodily organs interact; and individuals interact with other individuals, just as our cells interact.

My vision is a world of interdependent social relations. A world were social environments facilitate individual flourishing. A world where economies work to fulfill human needs, rather than a world where human needs are sidelined at the expense of economies.


What are your thoughts on social health? Feel free to share in the comments section.

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15 comments

  1. In the Urantia Book commenting on the many types of “Life Strands” that were introduced on the Earth……….Only those that cooperated and co-lived in relative peace survived for long periods of time…..Some died out for lack of adapting to the terrain, but in the end……what we now think of a the one main line of man that survived did it by all of the above information you have presented. The Professor

  2. Perhaps the Society of the Houston Region of Texas might be considered a great one to study under the microscope. The devastation, as horrendous as it appears, would be much worse if it had occurred in, let’s say, Haiti or Bangladesh. But, Houston will not be back on its feet–or anywhere near as large–for several years.

    Perhaps Hurricane Harvey has demonstrated that, when it come to survival, races, ethnicities, religions, sexual orientation, etc., don’t seem to matter. People are people! No one turns down the proverbial gift horse, when it comes to survival!

  3. My experience with Wounded Warrior Project is been supper positive. I know they had some negative publicity back a few years but even during that time the organization was great for me. They have a lot of red tape for some benefits but they have to protect themselves from the people out there that want to abuse the benefits. They have a lot of different programs, I’ve used just a few only the once I really need. They have Project Odyssey that is a 4 night retreat designed to help the warriors deal with PTSD. I participated in one and I was asked to come back to be a peer-mentor. That was great experience and the group reacted very positive. The have the Soldier Ride that is a three night event and it is more to create community. They also have local events like baseball games, football games, and paint ball outings. The have Project Odyssey for females and couples also. All the events are free the warrior has to pay for nothing. I think they are doing a great job, the problem lies when the participants think that they are “entitle” to the services and accommodations. I’ve being in outings where the warrior think they are better than everyone else. That doesn’t seat well with me and I always tell them that WWP doesn’t have to do what they are doing, they are doing in it out of the compassion of their heart. Someone thought it would be nice to create and organization to help out the warriors. That is my take. Yesterday WWP took a group of warrior to the Cincinnati Reds game including batting practice.

  4. I really like the article and learning about how to fight PTSD and see how other factors make the illness worth. But I can’t help to think about what would be in this case a way to better society or live with PTSD in this society without being mad about the lack of or what we veterans feel is the lack of honor, loyalty, and integrity. We feel like people around us are just looking where to make more money or save it to the expense of others human being. What can I tell my friends veterans suffering from PTSD that would help them when encountering the difference in values?

    1. Thanks for the comment! First off, I would recommend that anyone with PTSD seek treatment to deal with the symptoms leading to the anger, resentment, and cognitive distortions. Find an experienced therapist who specifically focuses on this issue and uses methods backed by research. CBT combined with mindfulness techniques are backed by quite a bit of strong research. Beyond cognitive distortions, there are still real issues that stem from the cultural gap between the communal culture of honor in the military and the individualistic commerce-centered civilian world. The veterans I spoke to regarding this issue seemed to find it useful to embrace the positive elements of their military identity (honor, loyalty, and integrity) and apply them to civilian roles. In addition, many found it useful to join veteran groups where they regained a sense of family and belonging. What was your experience with the Wounded Warrior Project? How did you find this helped you deal with the cultural gap?

  5. I find this article quite insightful. A great deal of societal ills do indeed come from our most ignored environmental factors. I love the graphics used mainly the one where the occupants of the little boat feel that because their side of the boat is not floated clearly assuming that they will not equally also drown. If the planet dies we all die.

    Our socially constructed reality, the nightmare of scarcity in a world of abundance we live under, is the byproduct of the powers that be, the hierarchical order. These powers do want “obedient workers” but nothing else as the late George Carlin once argued. One becomes an anomaly, a pariah, by just dissenting with the pathology within the artificial social construct we call our realm.

    Hierarchical order is the main and only cancer everywhere in our planet. We find these arbitrary hierarchies everywhere. Imperfect mortal having a higher rank over equally identical imperfect mortals, the ones above who John Nash Jr. refers to as the “lesser mortals.” Armies and the military are a clear example of this pathology; grown men taking orders and letting another corporate tool choose their enemy, friend, or foe…quite tragic. Even more so is the killing and massacring of others because someone else chose for the grown up person… veteran Ron Kovic makes a great argument against this issue of serving for any military force.

    Durkheim suicide argument does echo Marx’s argument on the worker’s alienation from society due to the hierarchical order within capital as argued in the communist manifesto.

    A great way to look at this is through the lens of the great philosopher Krishnamurti when he argued that, “…there is no one more mentally ill that a person well adapted to a profoundly sick society…”

    Looking at our primitive reality prior to the appearance of the hierarchical orders all over the planet we get to see human horizontal intrinsic governance in action, anarchy. Just reading it directly from Howard Zinn’s publishing the words of the colonizers as they describe a beautiful world which they came to pillage and plunder and to decimate to exhaustion of all human and natural resources, impunity.

    http://www.historyisaweapon.com/defcon1/zinncol1.html

      1. Steve, I had not noticed that you were a Durkheim geek, I am glad to know. I like Durkheim as well but I have not devoted as much time to him as you probably have.

        Durkheim did expand sociological theory with his Division of Labor in Society as well as the Mind of the Collective. The last topic is quite interesting from a philosophical (metaphysical) view point. I thank you for the book reference I will follow up on it.

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