(with Joseph C. Bentley)


It is a truism of the social sciences that, however varied they may appear, the cultures of all human societies are rooted in human nature, reflecting both individual and collective human needs. What those needs are is well illustrated by a humorous incident from World War II.

A number of American Marines who fought on Okinawa in 1944 came home telling a curious story. At various times during the fighting, shouts would suddenly drift over from the Japanese lines to the Marine foxholes. "To hell with Babe Ruth!" the Japanese voices would shout in English. "To hell with Lou Gehrig!" The Marines would be amused. But then the Japanese would shout "To hell with Moe Berg!" and the Marines would become puzzled and perplexed.

As it turned out, the Japanese believed that by insulting cherished American heroes they would lower the Marines' morale and diminish their will to fight. On their list of American heroes the Japanese included the famous baseball players Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig...and Moe Berg. But who the hell was Moe Berg? The Marines had never heard of Moe Berg.

However, to the Japanese, who had zealously adopted baseball from America, Moe Berg was a baseball hero equal in stature to Ruth and Gehrig. A journeyman American catcher, Moe Berg had emigrated to Japan early in the century and had become a national idol because of his ability to speak Japanese, his knowledge of the culture, and his willingness to teach the subtleties of this new American game throughout the country.

The Japanese tactic of shouting "To hell with Moe Berg" was based on several core cultural beliefs: that heroes are sacred and cannot be insulted by one's enemies without bringing about a serious loss in morale; that Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Moe Berg were all Japanese baseball heroes; and that Japanese baseball heroes would be American baseball heroes--after all, hadn't Americans invented the game to begin with?

This story highlights the three dimensions that delineate every society and culture: order, membership, and meaning. But while these dimensions are the same, their content differs widely. The mistake the Japanese made was to assume that the content along these three dimensions was substantively the same for the Americans. They assumed that the American sense of order operated as it did for the Japanese: insult the enemy's heroes, and he will be thrown into disarray. They assumed that heroes that belonged to the Japanese--especially baseball heroes--would belong equally to the baseball-playing Americans. And they assumed that when they shouted out the names of these heroes they would be immediately known and identified by those who heard them--the Americans would know what their names meant and the connotations they carried.

But the Americans had a different sense of order, membership, and meaning. Americans not too infrequently insult their own heroes; to do so certainly does not disrupt society or cause it to break down. Americans had not seen Moe Berg traveling around the countryside teaching kids to play baseball; he did not occupy any role in their common memory. Even though he had been a baseball player, he had not played on any of their teams. And finally, Americans didn't know what the words "Moe Berg" signified; in their frame of reference the name identified nobody in particular and therefore carried no special meaning.

Our research suggests that these dimensions of order, membership, and meaning together comprise an especially effective paradigm for analyzing and understanding human behavior. We have found these three themes repeatedly alluded to and remarked upon across a body of literature that would otherwise seem highly disparate, ranging from the fiction of Fyodor Dostoyevski, to the theology of Paul Tillich, to an ad hoc simulation of Nazi Germany conducted by a high school teacher in California. 2

Based on our reading of this extensive and constantly expanding commentary on the human situation we have draw the following conclusion: As human beings negotiate life, they struggle with three fundamental needs, each with its accompanying anxiety. These are the need for order against the frightening possibility of chaos and confusion, the need for membership as a counter to isolation and loneliness, and the need for meaning in the face of incoherence and meaninglessness.3

Every society helps its members meet these needs in the face of their individual and collective struggles by providing them with stable frames of reference (order), feelings of belonging (membership), and the sense of purpose (meaning). Individuals thus both experience and assuage their anxieties along the dimensions of order, membership, and meaning; their struggles along these three dimensions shape and texture human life.

Early in The March of Folly, historian Barbara Tuchman comments that "disorder is the least tolerable of social conditions" (1984, p. 16). Fellow historian Eric Voegelin echoes a similar note: "Every society is burdened with the task, under its concrete conditions, of creating an order that will endow the fact of its existence with meaning..." (1956, p. ix). This fundamental need is well dramatized in Genesis, where God's initial act is to create order out of chaos by dividing things into categories counterpoised to one another--night and day, the firmament and the heavens, the land and the waters. Such ordering is, in fact, how we as humans come to know things--by contrast and comparison. And knowledge--knowing both what things are and what to do or how to behave in regard to them--is by definition and necessity a group affair. This suggests a sequence in which all three elements occur together: order first, enabling membership, both in turn sustaining meaning. In concert, these three effectively guarantee that there is some arrangement to the world and that together we shall make sense of it. Although these three elements always occur simultaneously, order does seem prerequisite, the "primordial" dimension. As Alexander Pope remarked, "Order is Heav'n's first law."

One way that order establishes its primacy is in being so difficult to define. Sociologist Peter Berger, calling the propensity for order a "fundamental human trait", offers a description that ineluctably includes the other two elements as well:

Any historical society is an order, a protective structure of meaning, erected in the face of chaos. Within this order the life of the group as well as the life of the individual makes sense. Deprived of such order, both group and individual are threatened with the most fundamental terror, the terror of chaos that Emile Durkheim called anomie (literally, a state of being "order-less") (1970, p. 53).

Noting that men have believed in a created order of society "throughout most of human history," Berger identifies an even more basic element:

This is the human faith in order as such, a faith closely related to man's fundamental trust in reality....Man's propensity for order is grounded in a faith or trust that, ultimately, reality is "in order," "all right," "as it should be"....(T)his is an experience that is absolutely essential to the process of becoming a human person. Put differently, at the very center of the process of becoming fully human, at the core of humanitas, we find an experience of trust in the order of reality" (1970, pp. 54-56).

In comparison with order, the element of membership may seem far easier to explain: A person simply is a member of a group. That is, there are others like oneself in certain basic ways, and everyone who is one of these people ("one of us") knows and feels that they all belong together. Anthropologists, psychologists, and sociologists deal with group memberships all the time, although seldom at this elemental level. But there are memberships that one holds in an almost ontological sense. To be an adult, for example, means to occupy a category below which it is almost impossible to go without becoming reductionist, i.e., without ending up with something not fully human. Another such category is sex; whatever cultural variations there may be, ultimately one is either male or female.4

In actuality, these categories are socially created and maintained; their ontological status is a reflection of their social efficacy. That is, they exist because they work. Social realities (including the reality of membership itself) are defined for members by the very fact of their social membership. (It is in this way that membership precedes meaning and might even be considered as precedent to order.)

Although we believe that order is the most essential element of the three, an illuminating argument for the primacy of membership is found in the work of French sociologist Emile Durkheim. Durkheim (1965) reverses what is often seen as the usual--and therefore the natural--order(!) of relationship between individual and group. Given the centrality of individualism to U.S. history, resistance to this perspective is understandable. The American predilection, eloquently sacralized in the Declaration of Independence, is to see a social group as an assemblage of individuals who have given up some of their "inalienable rights" in order to create and become members of that group. It is assumed that individuals have an existential priority, while groups are derivative, coming into being only if a majority of individuals agree to make one.

Throughout his work, Durkheim effectively argues, that groups exist first; only then are members allowed the degree of individualism a particular group believes appropriate. Durkheim would thus explain the American emphasis on individualism as an outcome of social dynamics rather than of individual choice.

Like all the other animals, human beings have to act in the world in order to survive. But unlike all the other animals, human beings lack the genetic instructions for specific behaviors provided by instinct. The dilemma of having to behave but not knowing what to do5 is resolved through the most basic of all social inventions--rules. Not rules in some simple sense, but rules both credible and binding enough to guarantee coordinated activity among this most interdependent of all living creatures.6

It is not enough that such rules are physically enforced and warrant their compliance through fear; it is much more important that the rules are emotionally embraced and accomplish their conformity through desire.

We might ask with Durkheim, What leads people to embrace rules so passionately? One broad answer lies in the vague sense that humans have of their own "open-endedness", a constant but seldom conscious awareness of the prospect of becoming lost, of drifting on a vast sea of human possibility with no means of charting a proper course or choosing an appropriate destination. But a more immediate answer lies in the concrete realization that certain rules--the "right here and right now" rules of everyday life--are believed in and are being followed by those others who are very much like ourselves.7

It is this almost visceral commitment to internalized rules that manages the dilemma of the human situation. As Sartre remarked, the human animal is "condemned to freedom". And yet, as Otto Rank noted, people inevitably create "out of freedom a prison". And so we are left with Rousseau's troubling observation, that "while man is born free he is everywhere in chains".

Yet these apparent chains are the very rules which ally us together. The tension between the individual and the social--between the desire for individual autonomy and the need for group participation--remains a human dilemma for which there is no complete or final resolution.

Meaning appears to be the last and most derivative of these three elements. Clearly, membership makes meaning both possible and available. Meaning, by definition (that is, by common consent!) is something which is shared. But it is not as simple as that.

Meaning becomes established when something tied to previous human experience carries some implication for future behavior. Both philosophers and social scientists have amply demonstrated that meaning does not reside in things themselves but comes into being through convention. Thus the making of meaning is a group process; while invention is often individual, "convention" is always social. Because of this distinctively human capacity, convention brings into being a fantastic array of "things", from the imaginary existence of the square root of -1, to the complexity of the tax laws, to the symbolism of a rainbow--all of which exist only at the social level.

Of all the embodiments of social convention, language is both the most elaborate and the most instructive. Language is often considered the sine qua non of humanness. Language exists only at the social level, since there is no such thing as a language understood by only one person. But more significant is the fact that only through language can individuals transcend their ultimate isolation from one another. It is essentially through language, especially the ordinary language of everyday conversation, that humans create and maintain their mutually shared conventions. Such jointly produced realities offer humans the only possibility of a viable existence.

Both order and membership seem required for meaning to emerge, although it would perhaps be more accurate to recognize meaning as the medium within which humans operate, the dimension in which they are most situated. Where order and membership might be seen as the parameters and context of the human gestalt, meaning looms actively in the foreground as the medium of consciousness itself. Humans think and act in terms of meanings; shared meanings define membership; established meanings comprise order.

While necessity may be the mother of invention, order, membership and meaning are the invention--and the inventions--of necessity. The truth is that human beings have no alternative but to invent the things they then necessarily have to do. Order, membership, and meaning--whatever their form and sequence --are the dimensions of the socially invented world that are necessary to constrain, and so to enable, human action.

We thus create and inhabit the world that we share with one another. Our different but complimentary perspectives--sociological and psychological--strongly suggest that the strategic setting where collective and individual activities intersect with the dimensions of order, membership, and meaning is that of the modern organization. Where in an earlier period in history we might have looked to families, tribes, villages, or religious gatherings to provide these needs, in the modern societies of today we look to the structure and activities of more formal and often bureaucratic organizations.

Clyde Kluckholm once observed that all human beings are like no others, like some others, and like all others. Thus, in his simple model, we can identify the individual, the family and other significant groups, as well as humanity itself. The existence of three basic and pervasive social categories--order, membership, and meaning--is one way to describe how we are like all others: we share psychological needs for order that are so powerful that we will create it; we have not only psychological needs for membership--for the close bonds with others--but through such membership is transmitted the essence of culture; and we create and share meaning through the use of language. Through these universal experiences we become equipped to face the complexities of physical and social life and, if successful, not only survive but flourish.

1 Although membership is also a candidate for primacy, we feel more comfortable placing order first. One reason is that, both affectively (viz. Erikson's "basic trust") and cognitively (viz. Piaget's "categories"), individual development seems to proceed in such a way that needs for order emerge first and are then utilized in later stages of development. A second reason is that human groups go to great lengths to root their social order in extra-human realms of absoluteness or ultimacy; as Peter Berger (1967, pp. 25-28) says, societies ground their nomos in a cosmos, e.g., "the city of man" reflects "the City of God". This is especially obvious for religion, but it is equally true for other ideologies as well. A final reason is more philosophical: order seems to be intimately related to the ontological ground of being itself. Sartre, for example, speaks of "being vs. nothingness", in which to be is, at base, to take on some shape, some configuration. The Old Testament speaks of the world being created out of the Void, a void in which the antithesis of order, Chaos, held sway. A state of orderliness thus seems to be the condition which makes all other conditions and categories possible. This philosophical argument reinforces those of a psychological and sociological nature; taken together, they seem to outweigh the argument for membership presented later in the article.

2 Once pointed out, this centrality of order, membership, and meaning seems readily and widely apparent, lending an immediate popular credence to our model. Descriptions of the paradigm have prompted reactions of instantaneous recognition with such frequency that it seems almost intuitively obvious. But our development of the paradigm has been moved by other considerations as well. In fact, the paradigm draws its principle support from the large number of scholars, scientists, and writers who have identified, alluded to, or implied the existence of these three particular features of the human situation, although often in strikingly different ways. Illustrations of this kind of divergent support (provided by David Riesman, Abraham Maslow, Theodore White, Thomas Peters and Robert Waterman, and Fyodor Dostoyevski) can be found in Toth and Bentley (1987). We believe that the substantial number of students of human behavior who have referenced the same three dimensions argues strongly in behalf of the paradigm. Taken as a whole, this congruence among such divergent observers argues for both veracity and pertinence.

3 Children experience these anxieties intensely, demanding to know where they came from, where they are going, and why they are here. Such universal concerns found philosophical expression in the work of Immanuel Kant, who identified what he believed to be the four essential questions regarding human existence: What should I believe? What may I hope for? Why am I here? What ought I to do? From the perspective offered here the very asking of these questions implies meaning; that they are directed to others implies membership; that they can be answered at all implies order. Viable cultures provide workable answers to these questions; truly successful ones provide answers so immediate, complete, and reassuring that the questions themselves never intrude upon awareness. The irony of Western civilization is that the increasing clarity of the questions has been accompanied by a corresponding haziness of the answers.

4 Whenever these "ultimate categories" are breached a pervasive confusion results, a reaction readily seen in response to persons who go through "gender reassignment" (e.g., via a sex change operation). These instances are, in effect, the exceptions which give the rule. Relevant discussions can be found in Goffman(1959), Matza (1969), and Toth (1988).

5 Eric Fromm identifies this dilemma simply and eloquently: "Man is the only animal who finds his own existence a problem which he has to solve and from which he cannot escape" (1955, p. 24). Ernest Becker (1975, pp. 52-54) incorporates anthropologist A. M. Hocart's term "prosperity" to explain how human survival is qualitatively different and more problematical than that of other species.

6 Becker writes: "Action has to be dependable and predictable. And the area of least dependability in social life is, naturally, people. After all, each person is working out the peculiar scenario of his self-esteem needs, and we never really know what he is about. As Sartre so bitingly puts it: `Hell is other people'. The problem of `What will the next person be like' is at the core of human adaptation, because self-preservation may depend on it." Yet "person-objects"..."powerful and capricious"..."massively unpredictable"..."are always beyond control" (1964, pp. 83-84).

7 In his memoirs, Goodbye, Darkness, William Manchester provides a moving example of this universal behavior. As a young Marine in the South Pacific during World War II, Manchester was wounded in action and transferred to a field hospital. He immediately sneaked out and rejoined his unit, still fighting on Okinawa. Standing on the same mountain where he and his fellow Marines were dug in 35 years earlier--when anyone standing there "would have had a life expectancy of seven seconds"--Manchester understands at last, "in one of those great thundering jolts in which a man's real motives are revealed to him...why I jumped hospital [and]... returned to the front and almost certain death.... Men, I now knew, do not fight for flag or country, for the Marine Corps or glory or any other abstraction. They fight for one another" (1979, p. 391). Especially in time of war men seem particularly cognizant of and compelled by their membership in groups. The literary tradition of war is replete with stories like Manchester's. Yet seen on a larger scale, such noble sentiments are not without a horrible irony. As Arnold Toynbee once remarked "Nationalism is the Achilles heel of the 20th Century."


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Becker, E. (1975). Escape from Evil. New York: The Free Press.

Berger, P. L. (1970). A Rumor of Angels: Modern Society and The Rediscovery of the Supernatural. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Books.

Berger, P. L. (1967). The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Co.

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Fromm, E. (1955). The Sane Society. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Goffman, E. (1959). The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday.

Manchester, W. (1979). Goodbye, Darkness. Boston: Little, Brown and Co.

Matza, D. (1969). Becoming Deviant. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.

Toth, M. A. (1988, April). What is There to Guide Us? The Argument for Gender [Unpublished Paper]. Las Vegas, NV.

Toth, M.A. & Bentley, J.C. (1987). Discovering the Obvious: A Master Paradigm for the Social Sciences. Social Science Perspectives, (1), 1-22.

Tuchman, B. W. (1984). The March of Folly. New York: Ballentine Books.

Voegelin, E. (1956). Order and History (Vol. I). Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University.

* Subsequently published in Encyclia, Journal of the Utah Academy of Sciences, Arts, and Letters, Vol. 67, Spring, 1991.