Unit 2: Nature and Society

2.1 What is human nature?

  • What are human beings like, what kinds of animals are they?
  • How does human nature relate to history and society?
  • Are people naturally social or individualistic?

Readings on human nature; short excerpts from:

  • Plato, Republic
  • Hobbes, Leviathan
  • Locke, Second Treatise on Government
  • Kropotkin, Mutual Aid.

2.2 History and human nature?

  • Is people’s fundamental character fixed forever or does it develop over time as a result of historical processes?

Readings on human nature and history; excerpts from:

  • Rousseau, Discourse on Inequality
  • Marx, The German Ideology

2.3 What is society?

  • Different perspectives on the division of labour and social hierarchy in general as well as in relation to gender specifically.
  • We’ll first talk about the traditional, medieval view, which continues to resonate in conservative thought today and which endorses fixed hierarchies and views society as a single interdependent organism
  • Then we’ll explore a range of readings on the division of labour as it relates to economic productivity, gender, market society and pre-capitalist economics. This latter involves anthropological texts exploring the organisation of non-capitalistic, non-market societies.

Readings; excerpts from:

  • Aristotle’s Politics,
  • Christine de Pizan’s Book of the Body Politic.
  • Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations
  • Judith Brown, on the Division of Labour by Sex
  • Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation
  • Marshall Sahlins, Stone Age Economics

2.4 How does society work?

  • Introducing the ‘modern’ critique of traditional views, like those of Plato, Aristotle and Pizan and
  • And the related, also modern, idea of ‘revolution’, that society can be organised in a radically different way.
  • We’ll note the important continuity with ancient themes of virtue and the key idea that society shapes its participants in fundamental ways, which is especially prominent in more radical strands of modern thought, as we’ve already seen with Marx and Rousseau.

Reading: excerpts from:

  • Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Women

With this background in place we do a quick run through ‘materialist’ issues concerning how societies function, covering social reproduction, technology and ecology.

2.5 Social reproduction:

  • Societies must literally reproduce themselves; create new people, care for children and the infirm and tend to the psychological and other needs of its members.
  • This fundamental yet ‘unprofitable’ task has usually been ignored by theorists of social life and has been forcibly imposed upon women and marginalised populations.

Excerpts from:

  • Maria Mies, Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale – ‘On the Social Origins of the Sexual Division of Labour’
  • Silvia Federici, Wages Against Housework
  • Brenner and Laslett, ‘Gender, Social Reproduction, and Women’s Self-Organization: Considering the U.S. Welfare State’

2.6 Technology:

  • The creation and development of tools and machines is central to human sociality, influencing how society can be organised, what it can produce and what kinds of lifestyles it can facilitate.

Excerpts from:

  • Marx, Capital – including chapter on machines.
  • Richard Sclove, Democracy and Technology
  • Laurel Ptak, Wages for Facebook
  • Langdon Winner, Do Artifacts have Politics?’

2.7 Ecology:

  • Human society is embedded in the ecosystem of the Earth. This reality is ever more salient as the ecocidal impacts of anthropogenic climate change become ever more viscerally apparent.
  • The human relationship to nature has been understood in contrasting ways; as one of mastery, mutual dependence and reciprocal influence.


  • Book of Genesis, Chapter 1, Verses 20-26
  • Francis Bacon: short excerpts
  • Arne Naess and George Sessions, Basic Principles of Deep Ecology
  • Marx: short excerpt from the 1844 Manuscripts.
  • Barry Commoner, Laws of Ecology
  • Jan Zalasiewicz et. al., Introduction. The Anthropocene – A new epoch of geological time?
  • Lynn White. 1967, The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis
  • Inoue and Moreira, Many worlds, many nature(s), one planet: indigenous knowledge in the Anthropocene