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The Four Social Forces That Shape Our Actions

Written on 23 September 2019

Ruth Fisher, PhD. by Ruth Fisher, PhD

Our desire to fulfill our wants and needs motivates us to act.

A lot has been written about what, exactly, constitute our wants and needs as human beings. Examples include:

  • Food, clothing and shelter
  • Health, safety, and protection
  • Self-preservation, sex, and procreation
  • Social status, competition, acquisition, rivalry, power
  • Love, belonging, connection
  • Self-expression, creativity, contribution, independence

I tend to think of these needs as falling within two basic realms

  • Darwinian Needs are those involving self-interest and survival, along the lines of Darwin and evolutionary biology.
  • Maslowian Needs are those involving human connection, contribution, and fulfillment.

Overall, I think Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs does a good job of capturing what most scholars deem our wants and needs to commonly include. Maslow’s Hierarchy depicts our needs in the form of a pyramid. Our most basic physical needs form the bottom of the pyramid, psychological needs form the middle, and higher-order needs – self-actualization – form the top (see Figure 1).

Figure 1

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

1 maslow


Human wants and needs are internal drives, and they have remained largely unchanged over the millennia. What have changed, though, are our external expressions of those drives, that is, the actions we have taken to fulfill them. Suppose, for example, you’re hungry, and you want to get something to eat. What actions will you have taken in different environments to satisfy that same need for food?

If you lived before about 5000 BC, you lived in a hunter-gatherer society. To satisfy your hunger, you would probably have foraged for nuts and berries, or if you were more adventurous, you might have hunted for some animal to kill and eat.

The first cities were formed around 5000 BC with the advent of irrigation technology. If you had lived in one of these agricultural societies, you might have gone out into the fields and harvested some grains or vegetables to eat to satisfy your hunger.

In current times, you might go to the fridge and see what’s there to eat. If nothing there suits your fancy, you might go out to the grocery store and buy something to prepare, or better yet, use DoorDash or GrubHub to order prepared food to be delivered to you at home.

In all these cases, you have the same basic need for food. Yet differences in the social environment would have led you to take different actions to fulfill that same need. More generally, regardless of when people have lived, they have always had the same basic internal wants and needs: food, shelter, love and belonging, fulfillment. Yet, the specific actions they have taken to fulfill those wants and needs have differed, depending on their social environments. This concept then begs the question: what, exactly, constitutes the social environment, and how does this environment shape the actions we take to satisfy our wants and needs?

I claim societies comprise four sets of interdependent forces that shape the actions we take to fulfill our wants and needs: Community, Technology, Markets, and Government (see Figure 2). Furthermore, as people in society act, interact, and respond to one another, these four sets of forces — and thus society as a whole — evolve. Let’s discuss each of these forces in a bit more detail.

Figure 2

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Community is the social force that guides our social interactions. Community provides the basis for what’s acceptable for us to do in society. I use the term broadly include forces that provide guidance as to which behaviors are considered socially acceptable, normal, or expected:

  • Culture: The norms, customs, and values of the larger society in which we live.
  • Family and Friends: The norms, customs, and values of people in the more intimate environment in which a person lives.
  • Social Institutions: The non-market and non-government institutions that provide a framework for social activity, such as religious groups, sports groups, charities, non-profits, and social clubs.


Technology is the social force that guides our actions involving the research, development, and use of technology. Technology provides the basis for what’s possible for us to do in society. I use the term to include the collection of scientific and technological information, attitudes, and infrastructure available to members of society.

  • Information: The repository of know-how, skills, and tools available to members of society.
  • Attitudes: The attitudes of society toward scientific and technological development and use.
  • Infrastructure: The infrastructure available for enabling members of society to develop and use technology, such as availability of institutions promoting science and technology education, accessibility to repositories of information, and enforcement of property rights.


Markets are the social forces that guide our actions involving transfers and exchanges of goods and services. Markets provide the basis for what’s cost-effective for us to do in society. I use the term to include the resources and infrastructure available to producers and consumers in society.

  • Resources: The repository of raw materials, labor, and capital available to members of society.
  • Infrastructure: The structure and functioning of resource, labor, and capital markets, and the mechanisms available for distributing and exchanging goods and services in society.


Government is the social force that guides our actions involving civil, legal, and ethical activities and provides public works to enable social activities. Government provides the basis for what’s allowed in society. I use the term to include all laws and regulations, taxes and subsidies, and public infrastructure available to guide members of society in social and market activities.

  • Laws and Regulations: The repository and enforcement of laws and regulations guiding what’s considered to be civil and legal activities
  • Taxes and Subsidies: The repository and enforcement of taxes and subsidies guiding what’s considered to be ethical activities.
  • Public Infrastructure: The construction and maintenance of infrastructure enabling harmonious social activities. Public infrastructure includes, for example, infrastructure supporting the generation and distribution of water, sewers, transportation, communication, law enforcement, healthcare, and education systems.

Putting It All Together

The four sets of forces, Community, Technology, Markets, and Government, are interdependent and shape one another. At the same time, our actions are shaped by, and in turn shape, the four sets of forces. As forces shape actions and actions shape forces, society evolves (see Figure 3).

Figure 3

3 ctmg shaping

When we collect all the individual actions of people in society together, they create outcomes at the social level (see Figure 4). That's when we get interesting phenomena, such as social climate and other forms of emergence.

Figure 4

4 ctmg society

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