Hunting and gathering tribes, imperial Japan, suburban America — each is 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 geographic space and share the same or similar culture.
Sociologist Gerhard Lenski (1924–) defined societies in terms of their technological sophistication. As a society advances, so does its use of technology, which is defined as the application of science to address the problems of daily life.
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 based on their degree of industrialization—from preindustrial to industrial to postindustrial.
If you've ever watched a group of talented musicians jamming together, you've seen how a common goal—making great music—can unite all different kinds of people. In fact, effective collaboration is the secret sauce of great performances and great accomplishments of any kind. Collaborating gives you extra ears, hands, and brains to work with. And by bringing people together to think, brainstorm, and offer diverse perspectives, you can utilize the knowledge, experience, and skills of everyone involved. Such group efforts lead to faster, better solutions; they’re what makes a team, a company, or a society function and thrive. By studying societies, you'll strengthen your relationship building, problem solving, and self and social awareness skills by learning how collaborative approaches can be used to make decisions, alleviate conflict, and strengthen relationships across society.
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.
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 divided. 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.
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.
Up to this point we have discussed these stages of societies' development as universal stages. We will now move to speaking specifically of the industrial development of Europe. Industrialization in Asia, Africa, Latin America, and other regions followed a different timeline and trajectory.
Beginning 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.
EXAMPLESteam 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.
Digital technology is the steam engine of information societies, and computer moguls such as Steve Jobs and Bill Gates are its Rockefellers and 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.
As a functionalist, Émile Durkheim’s (1858–1917) perspective on society stressed the necessary interconnectivity of all of its elements. To him, society was greater than the sum of its parts. He asserted that individual behavior was not the same as collective behavior and that studying collective behavior was quite different from studying an individual’s actions. Durkheim called the communal beliefs, morals, and attitudes of society the collective conscience.
In his quest to understand what causes individuals to act in similar and predictable ways, he wrote, “If I do not submit to the conventions of society, if in my dress I do not conform to the customs observed in my country and in my class, the ridicule I provoke, the social isolation in which I am kept, produce, although in an attenuated form, the same effects as punishment." This is what we know as peer pressure, and is an illustrative example of how something that seems like common sense can be studied empirically.
Following the ideas of Auguste Comte and Herbert Spencer, Durkheim likened society to that of a living organism, in which each organism plays a necessary role in keeping the being alive. Durkheim asserted that members of societies who violate social norms are necessary to the well-being of society because punishment for deviance affirms the collective conscience. “A crime is a crime because we condemn it,” Durkheim wrote in 1893. “An act offends the common consciousness not because it is criminal, but it is criminal because it offends that consciousness." Durkheim’s unique perspective on crime provides one example of societal elements that are social facts, or social forces, that were to be considered real in their effects and which existed beyond the individual.
As an observer of his social world, Durkheim was not entirely satisfied with the direction of society in his day. His primary concern was that the cultural glue that held society together was failing, and people were becoming more divided. In his book The Division of Labor in Society, Durkheim argued that as society grew more complex, social order made the transition from mechanical solidarity to organic solidarity.
Preindustrial societies, Durkheim explained, were held together by mechanical solidarity, a type of social order maintained by the collective consciousness of a culture. Societies with mechanical solidarity act in an automatic fashion; things are done mostly because they have always been done that way. This type of thinking was common in preindustrial societies, where strong bonds of kinship and a low division and differentiation of labor created shared morals and values among people, such as those in hunter-gatherer groups. When people tend to do the same type of work, Durkheim argued, they tend to think and act alike. Here we see that labor and communal self-preservation are fundamental.
In industrial societies, mechanical solidarity is replaced with organic solidarity, which is social order based around an acceptance of economic and social differences. In capitalist societies, Durkheim wrote, division of labor becomes so specialized that everyone is doing different things. Instead of punishing members of a society for failure to assimilate to common values, organic solidarity allows people with differing values to coexist. Laws exist as formalized morals and are based on restitution and justice rather than revenge.
While the transition from mechanical to organic solidarity is, in the long run, advantageous for a society, Durkheim noted that it can be a time of chaos and “normlessness.” One of the outcomes of the transition is something he called social anomie. Anomie—literally, “without law”—is a situation in which society no longer has the support of a firm collective consciousness, and wherein established norms are weakened. People, though more necessarily interdependent as they attempt to solve complex problems in these advanced societies, are also more alienated from each other. Anomie is experienced in times of social uncertainty, such as during war or amidst a great upturn or downturn in the economy. As societies reach an advanced stage of organic solidarity, they avoid anomie by reestablishing an adapted set of shared norms. According to Durkheim, once a society achieves organic solidarity, it has finished its development.