What Is a Society?

  • A society is a group of people with shared territory, interaction, and culture. Some societies are made up of people who are united by friendship or common interests. Some societies are merely social groups, two or more people who interact and identify with one another.
  • Every society must have territory, or an area to call its own.
  • Members of a society must interact with one another on a regular basis.
  • Culture is a defining element of a society.
  • Some societies are pluralistic societies composed of many different kinds of people, some of whom belonged to other societies. The United States is a pluralistic society.
  • In a pluralistic society, members retain some ethnic traditions and beliefs from their old society. In order to fit into their new society, however, members must give up some of these original traditions. This process is called assimilation.
  • In a truly pluralistic society, no one group is officially considered more influential than another.

Types of Societies

  • Societies have evolved over many millennia. The different types of societies include hunting and gathering, horticultural, pastoral, agricultural or agrarian, industrial, and postindustrial.
  • In hunting and gathering societies, members survive by gathering plants and hunting for food.
  • Members of horticultural societies use hand tools to raise crops.
  • Members of pastoral societies rely on domestication and breeding of animals for food.
  • Members of agricultural or agrarian societies raise crops by harnessing an animal to a plow.
  • In industrial societies, members use machinery to replace human labor in the production of goods. As fewer people are needed for agriculture, societies become urbanized, which means that the majority of the population lives within commuting distance of a major city.
  • Postindustrial societies feature an economy based on services and technology rather than production.
  • A mass society is a large, impersonal society that values individual achievement over kinship ties.


  • Norms are guidelines, standards of behavior that change depending on context and location. The four types of norms are folkways, mores, laws, and taboos.
  • Deviance is the violation of a norm, whether for good or bad.
  • Societies discourage deviance with social controls, such as positive sanctions (rewards for approved behavior) and negative sanctions (punishments for disapproved behavior).

Status and Roles

  • We all occupy several statuses, or positions in particular settings, and play roles based on them.
  • A role is a set of norms, values, and behaviors attached to a status.
  • When we are expected to fulfill more than one role at the same time, we can experience role conflict.


  • Culture is everything made, learned, or shared by the members of a society.
  • Although cultures vary dramatically, they all are composed of material culture (physical things) and nonmaterial culture (intangible aspects such as beliefs and values).
  • A dominant culture is the culture held by the majority or the most powerful. It usually maintains economic, political, and cultural power.
  • A subculture is a culture within the dominant culture. The subculture does not oppose the dominant culture but does have its own material and nonmaterial cultures that the dominant culture does not share.
  • A counterculture actively opposes the dominant culture.
  • Ethnocentrism is the tendency to view other cultures by the standards of one’s own culture. Ethnocentrists often consider their cultures superior to other cultures.
  • The opposite of ethnocentrism, cultural relativism, means interpreting other cultures based on one’s own standards.
  • We experience culture shock when the practices of other cultures seem unfamiliar, scary, or shocking.
  • William Ogburn coined the term culture lag, which occurs when material and nonmaterial culture develop at different rates. For example, culture lag sometimes leaves us with technology we’re not yet sure how to use.
  • Cultural diffusion occurs when an item of culture spreads throughout a culture or from one culture to another.

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