A society is a group of individuals involved in persistent social
interaction, or a large social group sharing the same geographical or
social territory, typically subject to the same political authority
and dominant cultural expectations. Societies are characterized by
patterns of relationships (social relations) between individuals who
share a distinctive culture and institutions; a given society may be
described as the sum total of such relationships among its constituent
of members. In the social sciences, a larger society often evinces
stratification or dominance patterns in subgroups.
Insofar as it is collaborative, a society can enable its members to
benefit in ways that would not otherwise be possible on an individual
basis; both individual and social (common) benefits can thus be
distinguished, or in many cases found to overlap. A society can also
consist of like-minded people governed by their own norms and values
within a dominant, larger society. This is sometimes referred to as a
subculture, a term used extensively within criminology.
More broadly, and especially within structuralist thought, a society
may be illustrated as an economic, social, industrial or cultural
infrastructure, made up of, yet distinct from, a varied collection of
individuals. In this regard society can mean the objective
relationships people have with the material world and with other
people, rather than "other people" beyond the individual and their
familiar social environment.
1 Etymology and usage
2.1 In political science
2.2 In sociology
3.1.1 Hunting and gathering
4 Contemporary usage
4.4 Other uses
5 See also
7 Further reading
8 External links
Etymology and usage
A half-section of the 12th-century South Tang Dynasty version of Night
Revels of Han Xizai, original by Gu Hongzhong. The painting portrays
servants, musicians, monks, children, guests, and hosts all in a
single social environment. It serves as an in-depth look into the
Chinese social structure of the time.
The term "society" came from the
Latin word societas, which in turn
was derived from the noun socius ("comrade, friend, ally"; adjectival
form socialis) used to describe a bond or interaction between parties
that are friendly, or at least civil. Without an article, the term can
refer to the entirety of humanity (also: "society in general",
"society at large", etc.), although those who are unfriendly or
uncivil to the remainder of society in this sense may be deemed to be
"antisocial". However, the Scottish economist,
Adam Smith taught
instead that a society "may subsist among different men, as among
different merchants, from a sense of its utility without any mutual
love or affection, if only they refrain from doing injury to each
Used in the sense of an association, a society is a body of
individuals outlined by the bounds of functional interdependence,
possibly comprising characteristics such as national or cultural
identity, social solidarity, language, or hierarchical structure.
Society, in general, addresses the fact that an individual has rather
limited means as an autonomous unit. The great apes have always been
more (Bonobo, Homo, Pan) or less (Gorilla, Pongo) social animals, so
Robinson Crusoe-like situations are either fictions or unusual corner
cases to the ubiquity of social context for humans, who fall between
presocial and eusocial in the spectrum of animal ethology.
Cultural relativism as a widespread approach or ethic has largely
replaced notions of "primitive", better/worse, or "progress" in
relation to cultures (including their material culture/technology and
According to anthropologist Maurice Godelier, one critical novelty in
society, in contrast to humanity's closest biological relatives
(chimpanzees and bonobos), is the parental role assumed by the males,
which supposedly would be absent in our nearest relatives for whom
paternity is not generally determinable.
In political science
Societies may also be structured politically. In order of increasing
size and complexity, there are bands, tribes, chiefdoms, and state
societies. These structures may have varying degrees of political
power, depending on the cultural, geographical, and historical
environments that these societies must contend with. Thus, a more
isolated society with the same level of technology and culture as
other societies is more likely to survive than one in closer proximity
to others that may encroach on their resources. A society that is
unable to offer an effective response to other societies it competes
with will usually be subsumed into the culture of the competing
The social group enables its members to benefit in ways that would not
otherwise be possible on an individual basis. Both individual and
social (common) goals can thus be distinguished and considered. Ant
(formicidae) social ethology.
Peter L. Berger
Peter L. Berger defines society as "...a human product,
and nothing but a human product, that yet continuously acts upon its
producers." According to him, society was created by humans but this
creation turns back and creates or molds humans every day.
Canis lupus social ethology
Gerhard Lenski differentiates societies based on their
level of technology, communication, and economy: (1) hunters and
gatherers, (2) simple agricultural, (3) advanced agricultural, (4)
industrial, and (5) special (e.g. fishing societies or maritime
societies). This is similar to the system earlier developed by
anthropologists Morton H. Fried, a conflict theorist, and Elman
Service, an integration theorist, who have produced a system of
classification for societies in all human cultures based on the
evolution of social inequality and the role of the state. This system
of classification contains four categories:
Hunter-gatherer bands (categorization of duties and responsibilities).
Tribal societies in which there are some limited instances of social
rank and prestige.
Stratified structures led by chieftains.
Civilizations, with complex social hierarchies and organized,
In addition to this there are:
Humanity, mankind, upon which rest all the elements of society,
including society's beliefs.
Virtual society, a society based on online identity, which is evolving
in the information age.
Over time, some cultures have progressed toward more complex forms of
organization and control. This cultural evolution has a profound
effect on patterns of community.
Hunter-gatherer tribes settled around
seasonal food stocks to become agrarian villages.
Villages grew to
become towns and cities. Cities turned into city-states and
Many societies distribute largess at the behest of some individual or
some larger group of people. This type of generosity can be seen in
all known cultures; typically, prestige accrues to the generous
individual or group. Conversely, members of a society may also shun or
scapegoat members of the society who violate its norms. Mechanisms
such as gift-giving, joking relationships and scapegoating, which may
be seen in various types of human groupings, tend to be
institutionalized within a society. Social evolution as a phenomenon
carries with it certain elements that could be detrimental to the
population it serves.
Some societies bestow status on an individual or group of people when
that individual or group performs an admired or desired action. This
type of recognition is bestowed in the form of a name, title, manner
of dress, or monetary reward. In many societies, adult male or female
status is subject to a ritual or process of this type. Altruistic
action in the interests of the larger group is seen in virtually all
societies. The phenomena of community action, shunning, scapegoating,
generosity, shared risk, and reward are common to many forms of
Societies are social groups that differ according to subsistence
strategies, the ways that humans use technology to provide needs for
themselves. Although humans have established many types of societies
throughout history, anthropologists tend to classify different
societies according to the degree to which different groups within a
society have unequal access to advantages such as resources, prestige,
or power. Virtually all societies have developed some degree of
inequality among their people through the process of social
stratification, the division of members of a society into levels with
unequal wealth, prestige, or power. Sociologists place societies in
three broad categories: pre-industrial, industrial, and
In a pre-industrial society, food production, which is carried out
through the use of human and animal labor, is the main economic
activity. These societies can be subdivided according to their level
of technology and their method of producing food. These subdivisions
are hunting and gathering, pastoral, horticultural, agricultural, and
Hunting and gathering
San people in Botswana start a fire by hand.
The main form of food production in such societies is the daily
collection of wild plants and the hunting of wild animals.
Hunter-gatherers move around constantly in search of food. As a
result, they do not build permanent villages or create a wide variety
of artifacts, and usually only form small groups such as bands and
tribes. However, some hunting and gathering societies in areas with
abundant resources (such as people of tlingit) lived in larger groups
and formed complex hierarchical social structures such as chiefdom.
The need for mobility also limits the size of these societies. They
generally consist of fewer than 60 people and rarely exceed 100.
Statuses within the tribe are relatively equal, and decisions are
reached through general agreement. The ties that bind the tribe are
more complex than those of the bands.
personal—charismatic—and used for special purposes only in tribal
society. There are no political offices containing real power, and a
chief is merely a person of influence, a sort of adviser; therefore,
tribal consolidations for collective action are not governmental. The
family forms the main social unit, with most members being related by
birth or marriage. This type of organization requires the family to
carry out most social functions, including production and education.
Main article: Pastoral society
Pastoralism is a slightly more efficient form of subsistence. Rather
than searching for food on a daily basis, members of a pastoral
society rely on domesticated herd animals to meet their food needs.
Pastoralists live a nomadic life, moving their herds from one pasture
to another. Because their food supply is far more reliable, pastoral
societies can support larger populations. Since there are food
surpluses, fewer people are needed to produce food. As a result, the
division of labor (the specialization by individuals or groups in the
performance of specific economic activities) becomes more complex. For
example, some people become craftworkers, producing tools, weapons,
and jewelry. The production of goods encourages trade. This trade
helps to create inequality, as some families acquire more goods than
others do. These families often gain power through their increased
wealth. The passing on of property from one generation to another
helps to centralize wealth and power. Over time emerge hereditary
chieftainships, the typical form of government in pastoral societies.
Main article: Horticulturalist society
Fruits and vegetables grown in garden plots that have been cleared
from the jungle or forest provide the main source of food in a
horticultural society. These societies have a level of technology and
complexity similar to pastoral societies. Some horticultural groups
use the slash-and-burn method to raise crops. The wild vegetation is
cut and burned, and ashes are used as fertilizers. Horticulturists use
human labor and simple tools to cultivate the land for one or more
seasons. When the land becomes barren, horticulturists clear a new
plot and leave the old plot to revert to its natural state. They may
return to the original land several years later and begin the process
again. By rotating their garden plots, horticulturists can stay in one
area for a fairly long period of time. This allows them to build
semipermanent or permanent villages. The size of a village's
population depends on the amount of land available for farming; thus
villages can range from as few as 30 people to as many as 2000.
As with pastoral societies, surplus food leads to a more complex
division of labor. Specialized roles in horticultural societies
include craftspeople, shamans (religious leaders), and traders. This
role specialization allows people to create a wide variety of
artifacts. As in pastoral societies, surplus food can lead to
inequalities in wealth and power within horticultural political
systems, developed because of the settled nature of horticultural
Main article: Agrarian society
Ploughing with oxen in the 15th century
Agrarian societies use agricultural technological advances to
cultivate crops over a large area. Sociologists use the phrase
agricultural revolution to refer to the technological changes that
occurred as long as 8,500 years ago that led to cultivating crops and
raising farm animals. Increases in food supplies then led to larger
populations than in earlier communities. This meant a greater surplus,
which resulted in towns that became centers of trade supporting
various rulers, educators, craftspeople, merchants, and religious
leaders who did not have to worry about locating nourishment.
Greater degrees of social stratification appeared in agrarian
societies. For example, women previously had higher social status
because they shared labor more equally with men. In hunting and
gathering societies, women even gathered more food than men. However,
as food stores improved and women took on lesser roles in providing
food for the family, they increasingly became subordinate to men. As
villages and towns expanded into neighboring areas, conflicts with
other communities inevitably occurred. Farmers provided warriors with
food in exchange for protection against invasion by enemies. A system
of rulers with high social status also appeared. This nobility
organized warriors to protect the society from invasion. In this way,
the nobility managed to extract goods from “lesser” members of
Cleric, knight and peasant; an example of feudal societies
Main article: Feudal society
Feudalism was a form of society based on ownership of land. Unlike
today's farmers, vassals under feudalism were bound to cultivating
their lord's land. In exchange for military protection, the lords
exploited the peasants into providing food, crops, crafts, homage, and
other services to the landowner. The estates of the realm system of
feudalism was often multigenerational; the families of peasants may
have cultivated their lord's land for generations.
Main article: Industrial societies
Between the 15th and 16th centuries, a new economic system emerged
that began to replace feudalism.
Capitalism is marked by open
competition in a free market, in which the means of production are
privately owned. Europe's exploration of the Americas served as one
impetus for the development of capitalism. The introduction of foreign
metals, silks, and spices stimulated great commercial activity in
Industrial societies rely heavily on machines powered by fuels for the
production of goods. This produced further dramatic increases in
efficiency. The increased efficiency of production of the industrial
revolution produced an even greater surplus than before. Now the
surplus was not just agricultural goods, but also manufactured goods.
This larger surplus caused all of the changes discussed earlier in the
domestication revolution to become even more pronounced.
Once again, the population boomed. Increased productivity made more
goods available to everyone. However, inequality became even greater
than before. The breakup of agricultural-based feudal societies caused
many people to leave the land and seek employment in cities. This
created a great surplus of labor and gave capitalists plenty of
laborers who could be hired for extremely low wages.
Main article: Post-industrial society
Post-industrial societies are societies dominated by information,
services, and high technology more than the production of goods.
Advanced industrial societies are now seeing a shift toward an
increase in service sectors over manufacturing and production. The
United States is the first country to have over half of its work force
employed in service industries. Service industries include government,
research, education, health, sales, law, and banking.
The term "society" is currently used to cover both a number of
political and scientific connotations as well as a variety of
Main article: Western world
The development of the
Western world has brought with it the emerging
concepts of Western culture, politics, and ideas, often referred to
simply as "Western society". Geographically, it covers at the very
least the countries of Western Europe, North America, Australia, and
New Zealand. It sometimes also includes Eastern Europe, South America,
The cultures and lifestyles of all of these stem from Western Europe.
They all enjoy relatively strong economies and stable governments,
allow freedom of religion, have chosen democracy as a form of
governance, favor capitalism and international trade, are heavily
influenced by Judeo-Christian values, and have some form of political
and military alliance or cooperation.
World Summit on the Information Society, Geneva
Main article: Information society
Although the concept of information society has been under discussion
since the 1930s, in the modern world it is almost always applied to
the manner in which information technologies have impacted society and
culture. It therefore covers the effects of computers and
telecommunications on the home, the workplace, schools, government,
and various communities and organizations, as well as the emergence of
new social forms in cyberspace.
One of the European Union's areas of interest is the information
society. Here policies are directed towards promoting an open and
competitive digital economy, research into information and
communication technologies, as well as their application to improve
social inclusion, public services, and quality of life.
The International Telecommunications Union's World Summit on the
Society in Geneva and Tunis (2003 and 2005) has led to a
number of policy and application areas where action is envisaged.
Main article: Knowledge society
Cyworld control room
As access to electronic information resources increased at the
beginning of the 21st century, special attention was extended from the
information society to the knowledge society. An analysis by the Irish
government stated, "The capacity to manipulate, store and transmit
large quantities of information cheaply has increased at a staggering
rate over recent years. The digitisation of information and the
associated pervasiveness of the Internet are facilitating a new
intensity in the application of knowledge to economic activity, to the
extent that it has become the predominant factor in the creation of
wealth. As much as 70 to 80 percent of economic growth is now said to
be due to new and better knowledge."
The Second World Summit on the Knowledge Society, held in Chania,
Crete, in September 2009, gave special attention to the following
business and enterprise computing;
social and humanistic computing;
culture, tourism and technology;
e-government and e-democracy;
innovation, sustainable development, and strategic management;
service science, management and engineering;
intellectual and human capital development;
ICTs for ecology and the green economy;
future prospects for the knowledge society; and
technologies and business models for the creative industries.
Scheme of sustainable development:
at the confluence of three constituent parts. (2006)
People of many nations united by common political and cultural
traditions, beliefs, or values are sometimes also said to form a
society (such as Judeo-Christian, Eastern, and Western). When used in
this context, the term is employed as a means of contrasting two or
more "societies" whose members represent alternative conflicting and
Some academic, professional, and scientific associations describe
themselves as societies (for example, the American Mathematical
Society, the American
Society of Civil Engineers, or the Royal
In some countries, e.g. the United States, France, and
the term "society' is used in commerce to denote a partnership between
investors or the start of a business. In the United Kingdom,
partnerships are not called societies, but co-operatives or mutuals
are often known as societies (such as friendly societies and building
High society (group)
Outline of society
Structure and agency
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^ Maurice Godelier, Métamorphoses de la parenté, 2004
^ Jack Goody. "The Labyrinth of Kinship". New Left Review. Archived
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^ Berger, Peter L. (1967). The Scared Canopy: Elements of a
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^ Lenski, G. 1974. Human Societies: An Introduction to Macrosociology.
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Society Commission, Ireland Archived 21 November 2007 at
the Wayback Machine.. Retrieved 20 October 2009.
^ Second World Summit on the Knowledge Society. Retrieved 20 October
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Society in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.
Wikimedia Commons has media related to Society.
Society at Curlie (based on DMOZ)
Society from the OED.
Lecture notes on "Defining Society"[dead link] from East Carolina
History Sourcebook: Industrial Revolution
The Day the World Took Off Six-part video series from the University
of Cambridge tracing the question "Why did the Industrial Revolution
begin when and where it did."
History Home Page: Industrial Revolution
National Museum of Science and
Industry website: machines and
Revolution and the Standard of Living by Clark Nardinelli -
the debate over whether standards of living rose or fell.
Cliff Notes on Types of Societies
Perceptions of Knowledge, Knowledge Society, and Knowledge Management
Social and political philosophy
Feminist political theory
Mandate of Heaven
Philosophy and economics
Philosophy of education
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