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Human Society: Definition & Explanation

Instructor: Juli Yelnick

Juli has traveled the world engaging in cultural immersion experiences that bring her Master of Liberal Studies findings to light.

What makes societies unique? How do we categorize different types of societies? This lesson explains the distinct ways that humans structure their societies and how scientists label them.

What Is a Human Society?

Humans generally do not live alone, isolated from each other. Instead, individuals tend to live in communities with other people, related by ethnicity, nationality, religion, or some other cultural element. A human society is a group of people who share a common lifestyle and organization. Human societies can be classified in many different ways, depending on who is doing the categorizing.

Types of Societies

Masai Pastoralism
Masai Herding

For example, anthropologists generally use the groups' method of subsistence to define them. If members of the group survive by hunting animals and gathering plants to eat, then anthropologists classify their group as a hunter-gatherer society. If the people tend to raise animals for meat, blood, or milk, then the society is called pastoralist. More stationary societies who grow crops to harvest are named agriculturalist, and those societies can eventually evolve into industrialized agriculturalist with the advent and implementation of fossil-fuel based technologies.

Iranian Agriculture
Iran Tea Farm

By contrast, political scientists tend to categorize societies by their political structure--who's in charge matters! Bands have loose organization and informal leadership traditions, often defaulting to the elders to make decisions and guide the youngsters. Tribes have a more structured society, heavily based on kinship relationships. Larger and more complex societies, called chiefdoms, involve multiple extended families under the control of one relatively permanent leader. Finally, the most complex political organization is called a state, which began making its appearance around 10,000 years ago around the same time as the agricultural revolution.

Yanomami Hunter Gatherers
Yanomami Hunter

Societies According to Sociologists

Sociologists bring all of these elements together to examine the ways that different groups of people manage their technologies, natural resources, and man power. Thus, societies can be either pre-industrial, industrial, or post-industrial, depending on how they are organized, how they subsist, and how the resources are divided amongst the entire population.

Pre-industrial societies accounted for the majority of all human societies until the 18th century. Agriculturally based, theses rural societies tended to be fairly small and limited in their contact with other societies. There were a few social classes, and individuals were not socially mobile; if you were born to an artisan, then you became an artisan.

Industrial societies arose in Western Europe and then the United States beginning in the late 18th century as the Industrial Revolution spread the idea of - and the technology behind - mass production. Using fossil fuels to massively increase the rate and scale of production, industrial societies could increase the carrying capacity of their land. More food = more people! Specifically, more people were moving off of their farms and into new urban city centers. Closer to the factory jobs, people began experiencing the new lifestyle that urbanization afforded - poor living conditions, higher crime rates, and almost non-existent safety standards on the job.

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