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Society and Culture

Types of Societies

What Is a Society?


The society we live in did not spring up overnight; human societies have evolved slowly over many millennia. However, throughout history, technological developments have sometimes brought about dramatic change that has propelled human society into its next age.

Hunting and Gathering Societies

Hunting and gathering societies survive by hunting game and gathering edible plants. Until about 12,000 years ago, all societies were hunting and gathering societies.

There are five basic characteristics of hunting and gathering societies: 

  1. The primary institution is the family, which decides how food is to be shared and how children are to be socialized, and which provides for the protection of its members.
  2. They tend to be small, with fewer than fifty members.
  3. They tend to be nomadic, moving to new areas when the current food supply in a given area has been exhausted.
  4. Members display a high level of interdependence.
  5. Labor division is based on sex: men hunt, and women gather.

The first social revolution—the domestication of plants and animals—led to the birth of the horticultural and pastoral societies.

Horticultural Societies

In a horticultural society, hand tools are used to tend crops. The first horticultural societies sprang up about 10,000–12,000 years ago in the most fertile areas of the Middle East, Latin America, and Asia. The tools they used were simple: sticks or hoe-like instruments used to punch holes in the ground so that crops could be planted. With the advent of horticultural machinery, people no longer had to depend on the gathering of edible plants—they could now grow their own food. They no longer had to leave an area when the food supply was exhausted, as they could stay in one place until the soil was depleted.

Pastoral Societies

A pastoral society relies on the domestication and breeding of animals for food. Some geographic regions, such as the desert regions of North Africa, cannot support crops, so these societies learned how to domesticate and breed animals. The members of a pastoral society must move only when the grazing land ceases to be usable. Many pastoral societies still exist in Africa, Latin America, and parts of Asia.

Agricultural Societies

The invention of the plow during the horticultural and pastoral societies is considered the second social revolution, and it led to the establishment of agricultural societies approximately five thousand to six thousand years ago. Members of an agricultural or agrarian society tend crops with an animal harnessed to a plow. The use of animals to pull a plow eventually led to the creation of cities and formed the basic structure of most modern societies.

The development of agricultural societies followed this general sequence:

  • Animals are used to pull plows.
  • Larger areas of land can then be cultivated.
  • As the soil is aerated during plowing, it yields more crops for longer periods of time.
  • Productivity increases, and as long as there is plenty of food, people do not have to move.
  • Towns form, and then cities.
  • As crop yields are high, it is no longer necessary for every member of the society to engage in some form of farming, so some people begin developing other skills. Job specialization increases.
  • Fewer people are directly involved with the production of food, and the economy becomes more complex.

Around this same time, the wheel was invented, along with writing, numbers, and what we would today call the arts. However, the invention of the steam engine—the third social revolution—was what took humans from agricultural to industrial society.

Industrial Societies

An industrial society uses advanced sources of energy, rather than humans and animals, to run large machinery. Industrialization began in the mid-1700s, when the steam engine was first used in Great Britain as a means of running other machines. By the twentieth century, industrialized societies had changed dramatically:

  • People and goods traversed much longer distances because of innovations in transportation, such as the train and the steamship.
  • Rural areas lost population because more and more people were engaged in factory work and had to move to the cities.
  • Fewer people were needed in agriculture, and societies became urbanized, which means that the majority of the population lived within commuting distance of a major city.
  • Suburbs grew up around cities to provide city-dwellers with alternative places to live.

The twentieth century also saw the invention of the automobile and the harnessing of electricity, leading to faster and easier transportation, better food storage, mass communication, and much more. Occupational specialization became even more pronounced, and a person’s vocation became more of an identifier than his or her family ties, as was common in nonindustrial societies.

Postindustrial Societies

The Industrial Revolution transformed Western societies in many unexpected ways. All the machines and inventions for producing and transporting goods reduced the need for human labor so much that the economy transformed again, from an industrial to a postindustrial economy.

A postindustrial society, the type of society that has developed over the past few decades, features an economy based on services and technology, not production. There are three major characteristics of a postindustrial economy:

  1. Focus on ideas: Tangible goods no longer drive the economy.
  2. Need for higher education: Factory work does not require advanced training, and the new focus on information and technology means that people must pursue greater education.
  3. Shift in workplace from cities to homes: New communications technology allows work to be performed from a variety of locations.

Mass Society

As industrialized societies grow and develop, they become increasingly different from their less industrialized counterparts. As they become larger, they evolve into large, impersonal mass societies. In a mass society, individual achievement is valued over kinship ties, and people often feel isolated from one another. Personal incomes are generally high, and there is great diversity among people.

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