What Does Synergy Mean?

By Celia Coates

In the headlines this week it was reported that a negotiator for Russia had offered to make a deal with the 2016 Presidential campaign, a deal to create something they called “political synergy.”  Originally synergy was a medical term and meant that the combined action of the physiological components – muscles, nerves, organs, the mental processes, and the treatments or remedies – was greater than the sum result of their separate actions.

I was startled to hear the new Russian use of the word. Many years ago I learned about the work of Ruth Benedict who had used the term to introduce a new approach in anthropology. In 1941 she presented the concept of synergy in a lecture at Bryn Mawr College. For some time she had been concerned with the need to see the forest of the overall nature of cultures and not just focus on the trees of separate societal characteristics. With the added new perspective cultures could be seen as greater than the sum of their collected specific structures, behaviors, and traits.

Benedict had been interested in the differences among cultures and began to systematize them. She formed pairs of cultures in which one of the pair could be characterized as anxious and one not anxious, one surly (her own description) and one nice, one with low morals and one with high, one characterized by hatred and aggression and one by affection. Initially she described these different kinds of cultures as either secure or insecure. At first she analyzed the pairs in terms of social organization and customs as she looked for a way to find the origin of the surliness or niceness. She found no consistent correlation between specific behaviors and the overall societal attitude. No explanation lay, for example, in contrasting cultures that were patrilineal nomadic hunters with ones that were matrilineal settled farmers. Secure and insecure, surly and nice cultures were found in both groups.

Psychologist Abraham Maslow, a great innovator himself, said that Benedict’s next approach was a revolutionary conceptual jump. She looked not only at the specific cultural behavior but the function of that behavior. Suicide, for example can be an act of honor as it once was in old Japan when a defeated warrior took his own life, or as an act of revenge as it was in some tribes when someone killed themselves on the doorstep of an enemy.

Benedict developed the concept of synergy as a way to look at the role or purpose of a behavior such as suicide: she wanted to know about the overall forest of what it meant and how it functioned in a society. She found out that there was a difference in the life philosophy and values between the surly and nice cultures.
She concluded that,
“From all comparative material the conclusion that emerges is that societies where non-aggression is conspicuous have social orders in which the individual by the same act and at the same time serves his own advantage and that of the group. The problem is one of social engineering and depends upon how large the areas of mutual advantage are in any society. Non-aggression occurs not because people are unselfish and put social obligations above personal desires but because social arrangements make these two identical.” *

 She saw a continuum in this and gave this continuum the name synergy: at one pole any act or skill which is to the advantage of the individual is also to the advantage of the group (high synergy) to the other pole where every act that is to the advantage of the individual is at the expense of the group (low synergy).

It’s not a question of “Scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” as the Russian term political synergy suggested. It’s a profound approach to sharing life as part of a group. One of my favorite examples is a story told about a member of a tribe, a man who had been given a car, the only car owned by anyone in the tribe. It immediately became the tribe’s car available to anyone who needed it, used and taken care of by everyone. He was surprised when an outsider asked him why he didn’t keep the keys to himself. In our larger American culture a car is just the opposite – it’s most often just mine, a mark of individual status and power. If you watch the ads on TV, you see bright and shiny cars alone, driving fast, taking turns at speed in eye-catching settings. It’s not about sharing, it’s about winning the individual race.

It’s harder to be a nice, not surly, individual if we live in a society where it’s necessary to fill our needs by winning the struggle for our share of the resources even if it’s at the expense of others. In a high synergy society people can deal with mutual trust and cooperation to fill their own needs while supporting those of others at the same time. Just as a simple parallel – maybe we don’t need to keep the car keys only in our own hands.

This has been a wordy post about something that is of deep interest to me (and central in WINN) – the common good of being kind. It’s hard to be kind if you’re in a constant battle to provide for yourself in a highly competitive environment. There is a great deal more to say about synergy and about finding a balance between generosity and setting limits in our lives and in our societies, but for this week I wanted to rescue the concept of synergy from too narrow a definition.

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* This quote is from an article by Abraham Maslow and John Honigman, “Synergy: Some Notes of Ruth Benedict, published in AMERICAN ANTHROPOLOGIST, vol.72, 1970.





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2 Comments Add yours

  1. Trudy Summers says:

    Extremely interesting.

  2. Lisbeth Bagnold says:

    The business world has for a long time co-opted the word “synergy” to mean and collaborative partnership or mutually beneficial arrangement. It is often used by sales to demonstrate to a client the positive outcome of using the sellers services to achieve some overarching goal. Interesting to know the proper origins.

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