Society

 

"Man was formed for society"

William Blackstone (1723 - 1780)
British jurist.
Commentaries on the Laws of England

Society refers to a group of people who share a defined territory and a culture. Society is often understood as the basic structure and interactions of a group of people or the network of relationships between entities. A distinction is made between society and culture in sociology. Culture refers to the meanings given to symbols or the process of meaning-making that takes place in a society. Culture is distinct from society in that it adds meanings to relationships (i.e., 'father' means more than 'other'). All human societies have a culture and culture can only exist where there is a society. Distinguishing between these two components of human social life is primarily for analytical purposes - for example, so sociologists can study the transmission of cultural elements or artifacts within a society.

This chapter will present a brief overview of some of the types of human societies that have existed and continue to exist. It will then present some classic approaches to understanding society and what changing social structure can mean for individuals.

Societal Development

The sociological understanding of societal development relies heavily upon the work of Gerhard Lenski (Lenski, Nolan, and Lenski 1995). Lenski outlined some of the more commonly seen organizational structures in human societies. Classifications of human societies can be based on two factors:

(1) the primary means of subsistence and

(2) the political structure. This chapter focuses on the subsistence systems of societies rather than their political structures.

While it is a bit far-reaching to argue that all societies will develop through the stages outlined below, it does appear that most societies follow such a route. Human groups begin as huntergatherers, move toward pastoralism and/or horticulturalism, develop toward an agrarian society, and ultimately end up undergoing a period of industrialization (with the potential for developing a service industry following industrialization). The reason this is presented as a model is because not all societies pass through every stage. Some societies have stopped at the pastoral or horticultural stage, though these may be temporary pauses due to economic niches that will likely disappear in time. Some societies may also jump stages as a result of the introduction of technology from alien societies and culture. Another reason for hesitancy in presenting these categories as distinct groups is that there is often overlap in the subsistence systems used in a society. Some pastoralist societies also engage in some measure of horticultural food production. Industrial societies have agrarian components.

Hunter-Gatherer

The hunter-gatherer way of life is based on the exploitation of wild plants and animals. Consequently, hunter-gatherers are relatively mobile, and groups of hunter-gatherers have fluid boundaries and composition. Typically in hunter-gatherer societies men hunt larger wild animals and women gather and hunt smaller animals. Hunter-gatherers use materials available in the wild to construct shelters or rely on naturally occurring shelters like overhangs. Their
shelters give them protection from predators and the elements.

Ancient hunter

Figure 1: Ancient hunter

The majority of hunter-gatherer societies are nomadic. It is difficult to be settled under such a subsistence system as the resources of one region can quickly become exhausted. Huntergatherer societies also tend to have very low population densities as a result of their subsistence system. Agricultural subsistence systems can support population densities 60 to 100 times greater than land left uncultivated, resulting in denser populations.

Hunter-gatherer societies also tend to have non-hierarchical social structures, though this is not always the case. Because hunter-gatherers tend to be nomadic, they generally do not have the possibility to store surplus food. As a result, full-time leaders, bureaucrats, or artisans are rarely supported by hunter-gatherer societies. The hierarchical egalitarianism in hunter-gatherer societies tends to extend to gender-based egalitarianism as well. Although disputed, many anthropologists believe gender egalitarianism in hunter-gatherer societies stems from the lack of control over food production, lack of food surplus - which can be used for control, and an equal gender contribution to kin and cultural survival.

Archeological evidence to date suggests that prior to twelve thousand years ago, all human beings were hunter-gatherers (see the Neolithic revolution for more information on this transition). While declining in number, there are still some hunter-gatherer groups in existence today. Such groups are found in the Arctic, tropical rainforests, and deserts where other forms of subsistence production are impossible or too costly. In most cases these groups do not have a continuous history of hunting and gathering; in many cases their ancestors were agriculturalists who were pushed into marginal areas as a result of migrations and wars. Examples of huntergatherer groups still in existence include:

  • the Haida of British Columbia

  • Bushmen of South Africa

The line between agricultural and hunter-gatherer societies is not clear cut. Many huntergatherers consciously manipulate the landscape through cutting or burning unuseful plants to encourage the growth and success of those they consume. Most agricultural people also tend to do some hunting and gathering. Some agricultural groups farm during the temperate months and then hunt during the winter.

Pastoralist

A pastoralist society is a society in which the primary means of subsistence is domesticated livestock. It is often the case that, like hunter-gatherers, pastoralists are nomadic, moving seasonally in search of fresh pastures and water for their animals. Employment of a pastoralist subsistence system often results in greater population densities and the development of both social hierarchies and divisions in labor as it is more likely there will be a surplus of food.

A Turkmen with a camel

Figure 2: A Turkmen with a camel

Pastoralist societies still exist. For instance, in Australia, the vast semi-arid areas in the interior of the country contain pastoral runs called sheep stations. These areas may be thousands of square kilometers in size. The number of livestock allowed in these areas is regulated in order to reliably sustain them, providing enough feed and water for the stock. Other examples of pastoralists societies still in existence include:

  • the Maasai of Kenya

  • the Boran

  • the Turkana of Kenya

  • the Bedouin of Northern Africa

Horticulturalist

Horticulturalist societies are societies in which the primary means of subsistence is the cultivation of crops using hand tools. Like pastoral societies, the cultivation of crops increases population densities and, as a result of food surpluses, allows for a division of labor in society. Horticulture differs from agriculture in that agriculture employs animals, machinery, or some other non-human means to facilitate the cultivation of crops while horticulture relies solely on humans for crop cultivation.

Agrarian

Agrarian societies are societies in which the primary means of subsistence is the cultivation of crops using a mixture of human and non-human means (i.e., animals and/or machinery). Agriculture is the process of producing food, feed, fiber, and other desired products by the cultivation of plants and the raising of domesticated animals (livestock). Agriculture can refer to subsistence agriculture or industrial agriculture.

A tractor ploughing an alfalfa field

Figure 3: A tractor ploughing an alfalfa field

Subsistence agriculture is agriculture carried out for the production of enough food to meet just the needs of the agriculturalist and his/her family. Subsistence agriculture is a simple, often organic, system using saved seed native to the ecoregion combined with crop rotation or other relatively simple techniques to maximize yield. Historically most farmers were engaged in subsistence agriculture and this is still the case in many developing nations.

In developed nations a person using such simple techniques on small patches of land would generally be referred to as a gardener; activity of this type would be seen more as a hobby than a profession. Some people in developed nations are driven into such primitive methods by poverty. It is also worth noting that large scale organic farming is on the rise as a result of a renewed interest in non-genetically modified and pesticide free foods.

In developed nations, a farmer or industrial agriculturalist is usually defined as someone with an ownership interest in crops or livestock, and who provides labor or management in their production. Farmers obtain their financial income from the cultivation of land to yield crops or the commercial raising of animals (animal husbandry), or both. Those who provide only labor but not management and do not have ownership are often called farmhands, or, if they supervise a leased strip of land growing only one crop, as sharecroppers.

A pineapple farmer in Ghana

Figure 4: A pineapple farmer in Ghana

Agriculture allows a much greater density of population than can be supported by hunting and gathering and allows for the accumulation of excess product to keep for winter use or to sell for profit. The ability of farmers to feed large numbers of people whose activities have nothing to do with material production was the crucial factor in the rise of standing armies. The agriculturalism of the Sumerians allowed them to embark on an unprecedented territorial expansion, making them the first empire builders. Not long after, the Egyptians, powered by effective farming of the Nile valley, achieved a population density from which enough warriors could be drawn for a territorial expansion more than tripling the Sumerian empire in area.

Development of Horticulture and Agriculture

Horticulture and agriculture as types of subsistence developed among humans somewhere between 10,000 and 80,000 B.C.E. in the Fertile Crescent region of the Middle East (for more information see agriculture and Price 2000 and Harris 1996). The reasons for the development of horticulture and agriculture are debated but may have included climate change and the accumulation of food surplus for competitive gift-giving. Most certainly there was a gradual transition from hunter-gatherer to agricultural economies after a lengthy period when some crops were deliberately planted and other foods were gathered from the wild. In addition to the emergence of farming in the Fertile Crescent, agriculture appeared by at least 6,800 B.C.E. in East Asia (rice) and, later, in Central and South America (maize and squash). Small scale agriculture also likely arose independently in early Neolithic contexts in India (rice) and Southeast Asia (taro).

Full dependency on domestic crops and animals (i.e. when wild resources contributed a nutritionally insignificant component to the diet) was not until the Bronze Age. If the operative definition of agriculture includes large scale intensive cultivation of land, mono-cropping, organised irrigation, and use of a specialized labor force, the title "inventors of agriculture" would fall to the Sumerians, starting ca. 5,500 B.C.E.

By the early 1800s agricultural practices, particularly careful selection of hardy strains and cultivars, had so improved that yield per land unit was many times that seen in the Middle Ages and before, especially in the largely virgin lands of North and South America.

Agriculture Today

In the Western world, the use of gene manipulation, better management of soil nutrients, and improved weed control have greatly increased yields per unit area. At the same time, the use of mechanization has decreased labor requirements. The developing world generally produces lower yields, having less of the latest science, capital, and technology base. More people in the world are involved in agriculture as their primary economic activity than in any other, yet it only accounts for four percent of the world's GDP. The rapid rise of mechanization in the 20th century, especially in the form of the tractor, reduced the necessity of humans performing the demanding tasks of sowing, harvesting, and threshing. With mechanization, these tasks could be performed with a speed and on a scale barely imaginable before. These advances have led to efficiencies enabling certain modern farms in the United States, Argentina, Israel, Germany and a few other nations to output volumes of high quality produce per land unit at what may be the practical limit.

An example of the influence of technology can be seen in terms of output per farmer. In the early 1900s, one American farmer produced food for 2.5 people; today, a single farmer can feed over 130 people.

Industrial

An industrial society is a society in which the primary means of subsistence is industry. Industry is a system of production focused on mechanized manufacturing of goods. Like agrarian societies, industrial societies increase food surpluses, resulting in more developed hierarchies and significantly more division of labor.

The division of labor in industrial societies is often one of the most notable elements of the society and can even function to re-organize the development of relationships. Whereas relationships in pre-industrial societies were more likely to develop through contact at one's place of worship or through proximity of housing, industrial society brings people with similar occupations together, often leading to the formation of friendships through one's work.

When capitalised, Industrial Revolution refers to the first known industrial revolution, which took place in Europe during the 18th and 19th centuries. What is some times referred to as The Second Industrial Revolution describes later, somewhat less dramatic changes resulting from the widespread availability of electric power and the internal-combustion engine. Many developing nations began industrialisation under the influence of either the United States or the USSR during the Cold War.

Post-Industrial

A post-industrial society is a society in which the primary means of subsistence is derived from service-oriented work, as opposed to agriculture or industry. It is important to note here that the term post-industrial is still debated in part because it is the current state of society; it is difficult to name a phenomenon while it is occurring.

Post-industrial societies are often marked by:

  • an increase in the size of the service sector or jobs that perform services rather than creating goods (industry)

  • either the outsourcing of or extensive use of mechanization in manufacturing

  • an increase in the amount of information technology, often leading to an Information Age

  • information, knowledge, and creativity are seen as the new raw materials of the economy

Post-industrial society is occasionally used critically by individuals seeking to restore or return to industrial development. Increasingly, however, individuals and communities are viewing abandoned factories as sites for new housing and shopping. Capitalists are also realizing the recreational and commercial development opportunities such locations offer. For more information on post-industrial society see the work of Daniel Bell.

Classical Views on Social Change

As Western societies transitioned from pre-industrial economies based primarily on agriculture to industrialized societies in the 19th century, some people worried about the impacts such changes would have on society and individuals. Three early sociologists, Weber, Marx, and Durkheim, perceived different impacts of the Industrial Revolution on the individual and society and described those impacts in their work.

Weber and Rationalization

Max Weber was particularly concerned about the rationalization and bureaucritization of society stemming from the Industrial Revolution and how these two changes would affect humanity's agency and happiness. As Weber understood society, particularly during the industrial revolution of the late 19th century in which he lived, he believed society was being driven by the passage of rational ideas into culture which, in turn, transformed society into an increasingly bureaucratic entity. Bureaucracy is a type of organizational or institutional management that is, as Weber understood it, rooted legal-rational authority. Weber did believe bureaucracy was the most rational form of societal management, but because Weber viewed rationalization as the driving force of society, he believed bureaucracy would increase until it ruled society. Society, for Weber, would become almost synonymous with bureaucracy.

As Weber did not see any alternative to bureaucracy, he believed it would ultimately lead to an iron cage; society would bureaucratize and there would be no way to get out of it. Weber viewed this as a bleak outcome that would affect individuals' happiness as they would be forced to function in a highly rational society with rigid rules and norms without the possibility to change it. Because Weber could not envision other forces influencing the ultimate direction of society - the exception being temporary lapses into non-bureaucracy spurred by charismatic leaders - he saw no cure for the iron cage of rationality. Society would become a large bureaucracy that would govern people's lives. Weber was unable to envision a solution to his iron cage of bureaucracy dilemma; since a completely rational society was inevitable and bureaucracy was the most rational form of societal management, the iron cage, according to Weber, does not have a solution.

Marx and Alienation

Karl Marx took a different perspective on the impact of the Industrial Revolution on society and the individual. In order to understand Marx's perspective, however, it is necessary to understand how Marx perceived happiness. According to Marx, species being (or happiness) is the pinnacle of human nature. Species being is understood to be a type of self-realization or self-actualization brought about by meaningful work. But in addition to engaging in meaningful work, self-actualized individuals must also own the products of their labors and have the option of doing what they will with those products. In a capitalist society, which was co-developing with industry, rather than owning the fruits of their labors, the proletariat or working class owns only their labor power, not the fruits of their labors (i.e., the results of production). The capitalists or bourgeoisie employ the proletariat for a living wage, but then keep the products of the labor. As a result, the proletariat is alienated from the fruits of its labor â€" they do not own the products they produce, only their labor power. Because Marx believed species being to be the goal and ideal of human nature and that species being could only be realized when individuals owned the results of their labors, Marx saw capitalism as leading toward increasingly unhappy individuals; they would be alienated from the results of their production and therefore would not be self-realized.

But the alienation from the results of their production is just one component of the alienation Marx proposed. In addition to the alienation from the results of production, the proletariat is also alienated from each other under capitalism. Capitalists alienate the proletariat from each other by forcing them to compete for limited job opportunities. Job opportunities are limited under capitalism in order for capitalists to keep wages down; without a pool of extraneous workers, capitalists would have to meet the wage demands of their workers. Because they are forced to compete with other members of the proletariat, workers are alienated from each other, compounding the unhappiness of the proletariat.

While Marx did have a solution to the problem of alienation, he seldom discussed it in detail. Marx's proposed solution was for the proletariat to unite and through protests or revolution (or legislation in democratic nations) overthrow the bourgeoisie and institute a new form of government â€" communism. This form of government would be based on communally owned and highly developed means of production and self-governance. The means of production would be developed â€" through capitalism â€" to the point that everyone in society would have sufficient 'free' time to allow them to participate in whatever governmental decisions needed to be made for the community as a whole. By re-connecting the individual with the fruits of their labor and empowering them toward true self-governance, species being would be realized and happiness would be returned.

Two additional comments are in order here. First, the communism that developed in The Soviet Union and China - as well as other parts of the world - was not the communism envisioned by Marx. These forms of communism still had stratified hierarchies with two groups: a ruling elite and everybody else. Second, Marx believed capitalism, while harmful to species being, was necessary to advance the means of production to a stage where communism (as he envisioned it) could be realized. Thus, while Marx was highly critical of capitalism, he also recognized its utility in developing the means of production.

Durkheim and Solidarity

Durkheim's view of society and the changes it was undergoing as a result of industrialization also led him to believe unhappiness was a possible outcome. Durkheim believed that an important component of social life was social solidarity, which is understood as a sense of community. In his classic study, Suicide, Durkheim argued that one of the root causes of suicide was a decrease in social solidarity â€" termed anomie (French for chaos) by Durkheim. Durkheim also argued that the increasing emphasis on individualism found in Protestant religions â€" in contrast to Catholicism â€" contributed to an increase in anomie, which resulted in higher suicide rates among Protestants.

In another work, The Division of Labor in Society, Durkheim proposed that pre-industrial societies maintained their social solidarity through a mechanistic sense of community and through their religious affiliations. Most people were generalists in their work â€" they farmed and created their own tools and clothing. Because they were alike in their generality, they were also more likely to share a sense of community, which Durkheim saw as an important component of happiness. In addition to their similarity in occupations, many individuals belonged to the same religious groups, which also fostered a sense of solidarity.

In industrializing societies, Durkheim recognized the inevitability of specialization. By definition, specialization means that individuals are going to have dissimilar occupations. This specialization would also affect religion. In industrial societies, religion would become just one aspect of lives that were increasingly divided into compartments â€" home, family, work, recreation, religion, etc.

Durkheim believed there were two components that would alleviate the decreasing social solidarity in industrializing societies: organic solidarity and conscientious attempts to find camaraderie through one's place of employ. Whereas social solidarity was maintained in preindustrial societies through a mechanistic sense of similarity and dependence along with communal religious affiliations, in industrialized societies, social solidarity would be maintained by the interdependence of specialists on one another. If one individual specialized in treating the injured or ill, they would not have time to raise crops or otherwise produce food. Doctors would become dependent on farmers for their food while farmers would become dependent on doctors for their healthcare. This would force a type of organic solidarity â€" organic in the sense that the parts were interdependent like the organs of an animal are interdependent for their survival.

In addition to the inevitable interdependence a specialized society would warrant, Durkheim believed that a conscientious effort to develop and foster friendships would transition from a religious brotherhood to friendships developed at one's place of employment. Specialized individuals would have a great deal in common with their co-workers and, like members of the same religious congregations in pre-industrial societies, co-workers would be able to develop strong bonds of social solidarity through their occupations. Thus, for Durkheim, the answer to the decrease in mechanistic solidarity and the increasing anomie was organic solidarity and solidarity pursued within one's specialty occupation.

Notes

The origin of the word society comes from the Latin societas, a "friendly association with others." Societas is derived from socius meaning "companion" and thus the meaning of society is closely related to "what is social." Implicit in the meaning of society is that its members share some mutual concern or interest in a common objective.

Society can have different meanings than the predominant meaning employed in this chapter. For instance, people united by common political and cultural traditions, beliefs, or values are sometimes also said to be a society (e.g., Judeo-Christian, Eastern, Western, etc). When used in this context, the term is being used as a means of contrasting two or more societies whose representative members represent alternative conflicting and competing worldviews.

Another use of society can be in reference to smaller groups like academic learned and scholarly societies or associations, such as the American Society of Mathematics.

It should also be noted that there is an ongoing debate in sociological and anthropological circles if there exists an entity we can call society. Some Marxist theorists, like Louis Althusser, Ernesto Laclau and Slavoj Zizek, argue that society is nothing more than an effect of the ruling ideology of a certain class system and should not be be understood as a sociological concept.

Societies can also be organized according to their political structure: in order of increasing size and complexity, there are band societies, tribes, chiefdoms, and state societies.

There are some modern variations of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle:

  • freeganism is the practice of gathering discarded food in the context of an urban environment

  • gleaning is the practice of gathering food traditional farmers leave behind in their fields

  • sport hunting and sport fishing are recreational activities practiced by people who get the majority of their food by modern means

  • primitivism is a movement striving for the return to a pre-industrial and pre-agricultural society

Related Links

RYAN T. CRAGUN
PhD student at the University of Cincinnati

DEBORUH CRAGUN
MS Human Genetics; employed as a genetic counselor at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center

-Introduction to Sociology (Wikibook)-

 

 
 
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