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Lenski's Five Types of Society

Lenski's Five Types of Society

Author: Zach Lamb

Identify the characteristics of and relationships between Gerhard Lenski's five types of society.

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Source: Intro Music by Mark Hannan; Public Domain

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[MUSIC PLAYING] Hello and welcome to Sociological Studies. As always, thank you for taking the time out of your busy day to study society. In today's lesson, we're going to take a look at the work of sociologist Gerhard Lenski who theorized the relationship between technology, the environment, and human society.

Lenski's thought can be broken down into this triangle here. Lenski was interested in how technology related to the environment and culture and society. Lenski argued that technology is crucial for developing culture and society. The level of technology that a group of people have will then determine their cultural patterns and level and degree of social organization.

So we take our technology and respond to the environment. The environment gives us just a set of conditions to work with. And we have technologies that respond to that environment. And then this interplay then, cultural patterns, and social institutions result.

So then, how we wrench and pull our living from the earth. How our economy is structured. That really then profoundly shapes our world views, cultures, and society, Lenski maintained. Culture and society are always related to nature in this scheme via the medium of technology.

And in Lenski's time, when he was working, social theorists were fond of coming up with these total schemes for socio-cultural evolution. And Lenski chose technology then as his motor for evolution of society.

So what we're going to do then in this lesson is look at Lenski's four levels of social organization that Lenski theorized and the technologies in each one. And how he saw these technologies giving rise to particular forms of social organization and culture. So the first one of these is hunting and gathering.

In these societies, people will hunt wild animals and gather naturally occurring wild vegetables using simple tools. This is why this is the first level of technological advancement. Using simple tools such as a stone affixed to a spear that you throw or even just a wooden spear. You try to spear the animal.

These, since they're gathering wild plants and wild animals, these things are all over the environment. You can't control it. So if this is your primary mode of subsistence, you have to follow the plants and follow the animals wherever they happen to be in the environment at that particular season. And this is often all over.

So people will make seasonal rounds and follow these things. This means then that they can't really have a lot of possessions if they're primarily nomadic. Meaning they're moving around a lot. They don't establish permanent settlements, they can't accumulate a lot of possessions. So these people don't have that many because you can't carry them.

This way of living, we lived like this for many, many, many, many, many, many, many years. But it is primarily extinct today. We don't really see too many hunting and gathering societies anymore. Which isn't to say that if some great cataclysm happened we might not revert back to this way of living, but we have advanced technologically beyond it.

So let's look at Lenski's next stage. The next of Lenski's types of social organization or what could be called horticulturalism and pastoralism. Well, horticulturalism is the act of raising crops, tending crops with small hand tools. And pastoralism is the act of domesticating animals for subsistence processes.

Think of like the image of the sheep herder tending his flock of sheep. That's pastoralism. And think of the image of the man tending the rice paddies with his hand. That's an image you can look at for horticulturalism. This way of life really got going about 10,000 years ago when people learned to tend crops and domesticate animals.

So what this really did then was produce a larger food surplus. Which enabled population to grow. And when we became more sedentary and the population began to grow, we had a diversification of social roles. Some people were enabled to become leaders and religious practitioners. So this introduced an element of inequality to the society that was not there in the hunter gatherer level of organization.

The next of Lenski's type of social organization is agriculture. Agriculture is really defined by the use of plows driven by animals to support large scale cultivation. We really figured out how to do this about 5,000 years ago. And this was a huge boon to civilization.

I mean, think about then when you've got a plow attached to the back of an animal how much more land you can till and how many more crops you can plant. And how that reliefs a lot of human labor. You're not hacking the ground anymore. You're just tending the plow. It was still difficult, but it was a breakthrough in technology.

So what this did then was created a massive surplus and allowed the population to sky-rocket into the millions. And it freed a special class of people from labor. Inequality then becomes a way of life. And some people are forced into slavery and serfs, who are forced to work the land. While others are free to live then an intellectual life.

So we really start to see a diversification of social roles and more inequality as society becomes more technologically complex. So at the same time, cities emerge and they cluster around agricultural cultivation. Because people can form permanent settlements around where they're tending their crops.

Finally, Lenski theorized the industrial age or industry, which is the use of machines and advanced energy sources to produce a livelihood. This is a widely transformative technology that destroyed the way humans lived for the entirety of their existence. Prior to the Industrial Revolution in the late 1700s.

So what happened then as the Industrial Revolution occurred and we started bringing machines into factories, we have what's called the Enclosure Movement. Which is where all the feudal lords forced all their serfs off the land and then these people had to go work in factories. They had to find work with machines and they had to learn this new way of life.

And this is a primarily an urban phenomenon. All of these factories were located in cities. And so this caused urbanization to grow. Science became geared towards making better machines. Machines became more efficient. Progress, all of this was caught up in the Industrial Revolution.

It was a completely new way of life. It raised standards of living and gave us longer life expectancies. So in this way, it was great for society. But it also caused massive inequality and environmental degradation. So industrialization, we're dealing with the consequences of it now. With global warming and things like that.

So industrialization was really the grand experiment of human life. Who knows how this thing will go forward. But there's no doubt it was unquestionably a benefit for society.

And now finally the fifth stage, post-industrial society. Which is something that Lenski wasn't around to see develop after him. Really, post-industrial society is defined by computer technology aiding in the production. Aiding the production of goods, services, in the economy.

We're living in what's called the information society. This demands new skills of workers. As I have talked about in several tutorials, the manufacturing jobs in America are gone. And they're not going to come back. Well-paying jobs now reward brain power and ability to process information at a desk. You're not out getting dirty like you used to do in a manufacturing plant.

It's a mystery really what will happen with post-industrial society. The early emerging consensus is that post-industrial society has deepened the inequalities that began with industrialization. And some people are caught on the wrong side of the post-industrial divide don't know how to make the cross over to the new information economy.

It's possible then that we're headed for a dystopian scenario which is foreshadowed by Kurt Vonnegut in the 1950s in a book called Player Piano. Which is where we had an educated technical class that kind of was an elite that overlorded the massive society that was unemployed, that didn't have any jobs. I don't think we're headed there, but these are some of the early trends of post-industrialization.

Well, thank you very much for joining me. I hope you enjoyed this discussion of Lenski and his stages of technological evolution and socio-cultural evolution. Have a great rest of your day.

Terms to Know
Agricultural Society

Societies in which people procure their livelihood using animal driven plows and large-scale cultivation.

Horticultural and Pastoral Society

Societies in which people procure their livelihood using hand tools to cultivate crops and domesticated animals.

Hunting and Gathering Society

Societies in which people procure their livelihood through hunting animals with simple tools and gathering naturally occurring vegetation.

Industrial Society

Societies in which people procure their livelihood using machines and advanced sources of energy such as steam, coal, and water.

Post-Industrial Society

Societies in which people procure their livelihood using computer-aided-technology and advanced information processing.

People to Know
Gerhard Lenski

American sociologist who advanced the theory that technology is the most basic driving force in sociocultural evolution.