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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 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
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.
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.
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, these 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 and the technology of 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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Post-industrial societies have retained their size and production capabilities, but have begun shifting their focus from the manual labor skills to the professional fields. 'Knowledge is power' became a mantra as previously isolated societies entered the global village, competing for far-flung markets and relying on new ideas to grow the economy. The service sector surpasses the manufacturing industry in the post-industrial society. People themselves, rather than the labor he or she can provide, are seen as inherently valuable assets.
Today's Human Societies
So, which type of societies do we see today? According to anthropologists, we can label the Yanomami people of South America as 'hunter-gatherers', the Masai people of East Africa as 'pastoralists', and the Iranians today as 'agriculturalists'. Political scientists call the Yanomami a 'tribe' and the United States a 'state'. Sociologists might label the Yanomami 'pre-industrial', the Iranians as 'industrial', and the United States as 'post-industrial'. Social scientists today generally agree that the United States and other post-industrialized nations are actually moving into a new category - an 'information society' - that is defined by the reliance on computer technology and the Internet.
Although some of the categorizations overlap between the social sciences, there is one common element amongst all human societies. A human society is a group of people who are related in some way, usually through family lineage but more modernly through commerce as well. The members of a society usually - but, in modern times, not always - share the same culture or ethnicity. The borders of a society can shift as the population intermarries with surrounding groups or as a new market opens in a neighboring nation. If people are engaging together, or at least tolerating each other, then they exist as a human society.
Let's review. A human society is a group of people who share a common lifestyle and organization.
Anthropologists split societies into four types - hunter-gatherer, pastoralist, agriculturalist, and industrialized agriculturalist - based on their method of subsistence.
Political scientists categorize societies based on political structure into bands, tribes, chiefdoms, and states.
Finally, sociologists categorize societies based on how they use their natural resources into pre-industrial, industrial, and post-industrial.
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