Types of Societies

Learning Outcomes

  • Describe the difference between preindustrial, industrial, and postindustrial societies
An engineer wearing a large filtration mask and rubber gloves closes a door to a storage unit.

Figure 1. How does technology influence a society? Here, a NASA engineer is working with samples of a coating typically used in space flight, and which now may play a role in preserving artifacts and scientific specimens on earth. The space program is expensive, but throughout its history it has provided the U.S. significant advantages in scientific innovations. (Credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/flickr)

Hunting and gathering tribes, industrialized Japanese, suburban Americans—each of these groups constitutes a society. But what does this mean? Exactly what is a society? In sociological terms, society refers to a group of people who live in a definable community and share the same culture. On a broader scale, society consists of the people and institutions around us, our shared beliefs, and our cultural ideas. Typically, many societies also share a political authority.

Consider China and the United States. Both are technologically advanced, have dense networks of transportation and communications, rely on foreign trading partners for large portions of their economies, focus on education as a way to advance their citizens, and have large and expensive militaries. Both countries have citizens that may be largely satisfied with their governments and ways of life, while still holding some degree of distrust or discontent regarding their leaders. And both have a rural versus urban disparity that can cause tension and economic inequality among the population. An individual family or even a whole office full of people in one of the countries may look and act very similarly to families or offices in the other country.

But what is different? In China, a far greater percentage of people may be involved in manufacturing than America. Many of China’s cities didn’t evolve from ports, transit centers, or river confluences hundreds of years ago, but are newly created urban centers inhabited by recent transplants from other locations. While citizens in the U.S. can openly express their dissatisfaction with their government through social activism in person or, especially, online, Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube are banned in China, and the press is controlled by the government. Their appearance might be very similar, but the two countries are very different societies.

Differing Societal Norms

It was a school day, and Inayah woke up at 5:15 a.m, checked her phone, and began a few chores. Her aunt had gone to work, but had left a pile of vegetables for be cut for dinner. After taking care of that, Inayah gathered and organized the laundry, then woke up her younger cousin and sister. She led them in prayers, gave them breakfast, and dressed for school. Inayah was running late, so she didn’t have time to record a full video. Instead she took a few pictures and posted a good-morning clip, updated her status on another platform, and went to check on the younger girls.

Twenty minutes later, Inayah was fixing her sister’s uniform and calling to her cousin to hurry along. She loaded them up with their school bags and one sack of laundry each. The three girls walked the two kilometers to the bus station, dropping the laundry at the cleaner on the way. The ride to school took about thirty minutes.

Inayah had grown up about sixty kilometers away, where her parents still lived. She usually saw them on weekends. She had previously attended a boarding school, but those had become dangerous due to kidnappings or other trouble. Inayah’s new school was not quite as good old one, but she was still learning. She did particularly well in math and economics.

After school and the bus ride back, Inayah sent her sister and her cousin to the house while she stayed in town with some friends. The girls sat at the picnic tables near the basketball courts, where groups of other teenagers and some adults usually came to play. She didn’t talk to any of the boys there, but she had met several of them at her uncle’s store. The girls recorded a few videos together, started on their homework, and after about an hour, headed home to help with dinner.

How does Inayah’s day compare with yours? How does it compare to the days of teenagers you know? Inayah interacts with her family and friends based on individual relationships and personalities, but societal norms and acceptable behaviors shape those interactions. Someone from outside of her community might feel that her society’s expectations are too challenging, while others may feel they are too lenient. But Inayah may disagree with both perspectives. She might have taken those societal expectations as her own.

Sociologist Gerhard Lenski Jr. (1924–2015) defined societies in terms of their technological sophistication. As a society advances, so does its use of technology. Societies with rudimentary technology depend on the fluctuations of their environments, while industrialized societies have more control over the impact of their surroundings and thus develop different cultural features. This distinction is so important that sociologists generally classify societies along a spectrum of their level of industrialization—from preindustrial to industrial to postindustrial.

Pre-Industrial Societies

Before the Industrial Revolution and the widespread use of machines, societies were small, rural, and dependent largely on local resources. Economic production was limited to the amount of labor a human being could provide, and there were few specialized occupations. The very first occupation was that of hunter-gatherer.

Hunter-Gatherer

Hunter-gatherer societies demonstrate the strongest dependence on the environment of the various types of preindustrial societies. As the basic structure of human society until about 10,000–12,000 years ago, these groups were based around kinship or tribes. Hunter-gatherers relied on their surroundings for survival—they hunted wild animals and foraged for uncultivated plants for food. When resources became scarce, the group moved to a new area to find sustenance, meaning they were nomadic. These societies were common until several hundred years ago, but today only a few hundred remain in existence, such as indigenous Australian tribes referred to as “aborigines,” or the Bambuti, a group of pygmy hunter-gatherers in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Hunter-gatherer groups are quickly disappearing as the world’s population increases and fewer truly remote areas exist.

Pastoral

Changing conditions and adaptations led some societies to rely on the domestication of animals where circumstances permitted. Roughly 7,500 years ago, human societies began to recognize their ability to tame and breed animals and to grow and cultivate their own plants. Pastoral societies, such as the Maasai villagers of East Africa, rely on the domestication of animals as a resource for survival. Unlike earlier hunter-gatherers who depended entirely on existing resources to stay alive, pastoral groups were able to breed livestock for food, clothing, and transportation, and they created a surplus of goods. Herding, or pastoral, societies remained nomadic because they were forced to follow their animals to fresh feeding grounds. Around the time that pastoral societies emerged, specialized occupations began to develop, and societies commenced trading with each other.

Further Research

The Maasai are a modern pastoral society with an economy largely structured around herds of cattle. Read more about the Maasai people and see pictures of their daily lives.

Where Societies Meet—The Worst and the Best

When cultures meet, technology can help, hinder, and even destroy. The Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska nearly destroyed the local inhabitants’ entire way of life. Oil spills in the Nigerian Delta have forced many of the Ogoni tribe from their land and forced removal has meant that over 100,000 Ogoni have sought refuge in the country of Benin (University of Michigan, n.d.). And the massive Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2006 drew great attention as it occurred in an affluent, highly developed country, the United States. Environmental disasters continue as Western technology and its need for energy expands into less developed regions of the globe.

A photo of a family of villagers in Africa in front of a solar panel on top of a roof

Figure 2. Otherwise skeptic or hesitant villagers are more easily convinced of the value of the solar project when they realize that the “solar engineers” are their local grandmothers. (Photo courtesy of Abri le Roux/flickr)

Of course not all technology is destructive. We take electric light for granted in the United States, Europe, and the rest of the developed world. Such light extends the day and allows us to work, read, and travel at night. It makes us safer and more productive. But regions in India, Africa, and elsewhere are not so fortunate. Meeting the challenge, one particular organization, Barefoot College, located in District Ajmer, Rajasthan, India, works with numerous less-developed nations to increase access to solar electricity, clean water, and educational resources. The implementation of the solar projects falls to the village elders. They agree to select two grandmothers to be trained as solar engineers and then choose a village committee composed of men and women to help operate the solar program.

The program has brought light to over 450,000 people in 1,015 villages. The environmental rewards include a substantial reduction in the use of kerosene and thus in carbon dioxide emissions. Additionally, the fact that the villagers are operating the projects themselves helps minimize their sense of dependence.

Horticultural

Around the same time that pastoral societies were on the rise, another type of society developed, based on the newly developed capacity for people to grow and cultivate plants. Previously, the depletion of a region’s crops or water supply forced pastoral societies to relocate in search of food sources for their livestock. Horticultural societies formed in areas where rainfall and other conditions allowed them to grow stable crops. They were similar to hunter-gatherers in that they largely depended on the environment for survival, but since they didn’t have to abandon their location to follow resources, they were able to start permanent settlements. This created more stability and more material goods and became the basis for the first revolution in human survival.

Agricultural

While pastoral and horticultural societies used small, temporary tools such as digging sticks or hoes, agricultural societies relied on permanent tools for survival. Around 10,000 B.C.E. an explosion of new technology known as the Agricultural Revolution made farming possible—and profitable. Farmers learned to rotate the types of crops grown on their fields and to reuse waste products as fertilizer, which led to better harvests and greater surpluses of food. New tools for digging and harvesting were made of metal, and this made them more effective and longer lasting. Human settlements grew into towns and cities, and particularly bountiful regions became networked centers of trade and commerce.

This is also the age in which people had the time and comfort to engage in more contemplative and thoughtful activities, such as music, poetry, and philosophy. This period came to be known as the “dawn of civilization” by some because of the increase of leisure time and the development of the humanities. Craftspeople were able to support themselves through the production of creative, decorative, or thought-provoking aesthetic objects and writings.

As resources became more plentiful, social classes became more divisive. Those who had more resources could afford better standards of living and developed into a class of nobility. Differences in social standing between men and women increased. As cities expanded, ownership and preservation of resources became a pressing concern.

Feudal

The ninth century gave rise to feudal societies. These societies contained a strict hierarchical system of power based on land ownership and protection. The nobility, known as lords, placed vassals in charge of pieces of land. In return for the resources that the land provided, vassals promised to fight for their lords.

These individual pieces of land, known as fiefdoms, were cultivated by the lower class. In return for maintaining the land, peasants were guaranteed a place to live and protection from outside enemies. Power was handed down through family lines, with peasant families serving lords, often across many generations. Ultimately, the social and economic system of feudalism failed and was replaced by the more non-centralized and entrepreneurial system of capitalism, enabled by the technological advances of the industrial era.

Industrial Society

In the eighteenth century, Europe experienced a dramatic rise in technological invention, ushering in an era known as the Industrial Revolution. What made this period remarkable was the number of new inventions that influenced people’s daily lives. Within a generation, tasks that had until this point required months of labor became achievable in a matter of days. Before the Industrial Revolution, work was largely person or animal-based, and relied on human workers or horses to power mills and drive pumps. In 1782, James Watt and Matthew Boulton created a steam engine that could effectively do the work of twelve horses.

Steam power began appearing everywhere. Instead of paying artisans to painstakingly spin wool and weave it into cloth, people turned to textile mills that produced fabric quickly at a better price and often with better quality. Rather than planting and harvesting fields by hand, farmers were able to purchase mechanical seeders and threshing machines that caused agricultural productivity to soar. Products such as paper and glass became available to the average person, and the quality and accessibility of education and health care soared. Gas lights allowed increased visibility in the dark, and towns and cities developed both a nightlife and greater economic productivity.

One of the results of increased productivity and technology was the rise of urban centers. Workers flocked to factories for jobs, and the populations of cities became increasingly diverse. The new generation became less preoccupied with maintaining family land and traditions and more focused on acquiring wealth and achieving upward mobility. People wanted their children and their children’s children to continue to rise, and as capitalism expanded, so too did social mobility.

Black and white photo of John D. Rockefeller

Figure 3. John D. Rockefeller, cofounder of the Standard Oil Company, came from an unremarkable family of salesmen and menial laborers. By his death at age 98, he was worth $1.4 billion. In industrial societies, business owners such as Rockefeller hold the majority of the power. (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

It was during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries of the Industrial Revolution that sociology was born. Life was changing quickly and the long-established traditions of the agricultural eras did not apply to life in the larger cities. Masses of people were moving to new environments and often found themselves faced with horrendous conditions of filth, overcrowding, and poverty. Social scientists emerged to study the relationship between the individual members of society and society as a whole.

It was during this time that power moved from the hands of the aristocracy and “old money” to business-savvy newcomers who amassed fortunes in their lifetimes. Families such as the Rockefellers and the Vanderbilts became the new elites and used their influence in business to control aspects of government as well. Eventually, concerns over the exploitation of workers led to the formation of labor unions and consequently to laws that set mandatory working conditions for employees. Although the introduction of new technology at the end of the nineteenth century ended the industrial age, much of our social structure and many of our social ideas—like family, childhood, and time standardization—have a basis in industrial society.

Post-Industrial Society

Information societies, sometimes known as postindustrial or digital societies, are a recent development. Unlike industrial societies that are rooted in the production of material goods, information societies are based on the production of information and services.

Digital technology is the steam engine of information societies, and computer moguls such as Steve Jobs and Bill Gates are its John D. Rockefellers and Cornelius Vanderbilts. Since the economy of information societies is driven by knowledge and not material goods, power lies with those in charge of storing and distributing information. Members of a postindustrial society are likely to be employed as sellers of services—software programmers or business consultants, for example—instead of producers of goods. Social classes are divided by access to education, since without technical skills, people in an information society lack the means to achieve success.

Think It Over

  • In which type or types of societies do the benefits seem to outweigh the costs? Explain your answer, and cite social and economic reasons.
  • Is Gerhard Lenski right in classifying societies based on technological advances? What other criteria might be appropriate, based on what you have read?

Try It

Glossary

agricultural societies:
societies that rely on farming as a way of life
feudal societies:
societies that operate on a strict hierarchical system of power based around land ownership and protection
horticultural societies:
societies based around the cultivation of plants
hunter-gatherer societies:
societies that depend on hunting wild animals and gathering uncultivated plants for survival
industrial societies:
societies characterized by a reliance on mechanized labor to create material goods
information societies:
societies based on the production of nonmaterial goods and services
pastoral societies:
societies based around the domestication of animals
technology:
the application of science to address the problems of daily life

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