History of societies

The discovery and development of societies is a never-ending story. There are more than 6,500 languages existing in the world, meaning, that we could expect to find a similar number of existing societies. It is a lot! But are those communities connected? Is there something in between? And why it is not one, not two but almost seven thousand societies exist in today’s world?

We are going to give a glance at the history of societies – how and why they develop and what they have in common. For this purpose, we will use brothers Lenkski’s approach to sociocultural evolution. When sociologists or anthropologists (both commonly known for studying societies) they basically refer to five possible types of them, every one defined by the state of technology that particular society has. Namely, today we will speak about hunting and gathering, horticultural and pastoral, agrarian, industrial and post-industrial societies and its specifications.

Some background information – theorists

In general the concept of “society” refers to the people who interact in such a way as to share a common culture and a defined space (meaning, that societies change depending on the time). So in this sense, the United States of America or individual states as California could be treated as societies. As well those societies are in one way today but was in an absolutely different way 100 or 150 years ago. However, in this article, let us go back through history, trying to describe the changing character of human society over the last 10,000 – 12,000 years.

Before starting I should mention that it is essential to understand that different philosophical thinkers explained the development of societies and the reasons behind in different ways, for example:

  1. Karl MARX thought that human history is a long and complicated process always followed by an economic conflict. He was interested in how the economy creates conflicts and inequalities around the production of certain material goods that are needed to survive and at the same time how these conflicts were the main engine for a change.
  2. Max WEBER understood the importance of production, but he as well wanted to demonstrate the power of human ideas’ on shaping the society. Weber believed in rationality and said that it describes the modern society and at the same time promotes change.
  3. Emile DURKHEIM investigated the patterns of social solidarity, underlying that the bonds that united traditional societies are very much different from the modern ones. 

Generally speaking, all of these thinkers were concerned with the drastic changes in European societies during their lifetimes and were interested in how the future could develop. We are going to give a better look at every one of these philosophers in the separate articles. 

Changing patterns of society

As mentioned before, today we are speaking about the brother’s Gerhard Lenski and Jean Lenski that chronicled the significant differences among societies that have flourished and declined throughout human history. The work of these researches helps us better understand how we live today and where we came from. If we think better, it is clear that different accesible technologies provides us with different organisation of everyday life, work, leisure time and so on.

Lenski’s research’s main point is the sociocultural evolution, the process of change that results from a society’s gaining new information, particularly technology. Or to put it simply: societies by acquiring new technology in a form of information go through evolution and reaching a new, different stage of societal organisation. 

The more technological information a society has access to, the faster it will change, says brothers Lenski’s. A good example could be our nowadays societies – by holding and gaining an enormous amount of technological information, in the last 30 or 40 years we changed our lives dramatically. It is a phenomenon, that now societies changes in our lifetime, what was most of the cases not possible in the generations before us. Most of the technologies and traditions that we have today, just a few decades ago, were even not imaginable. 

On the other hand, as society expands its technological knowledge and possibilities, the effects are being seen as well through the cultural system and it generates many changes in and outcomes in our lives. Drawing on Lenski’s work, we will describe five general types of societies distinguished by their technology.

Hunting and gathering societies

Hunting and gathering societies

Let us start with hunting and gathering societies that refers to simple technology for hunting animals and gathering vegetation. From the emergence of our species until about 12,000 years ago, all humans were hunters and gatherers. It is interesting that hunting and gathering societies remained common up to several centuries back, even though if today we live in a sharp decline of these communities.

Most members of these societies looked continually for animals meat and edible plants. Moreover, foraging for food demands a large amount of land, so hunting and gathering societies comprise small bands of a few dozen people living at some distance from one another. These groups were also nomadic, moving on as they depleted vegetation in one area or pursuit of migratory animals.

Hunting and gathering societies are based on kinship and family centred. The family is responsible for collecting and distributing food, protecting its members, and teaching necessary for survival skills to the children. On the other hand most activities are familiar to every member of the family, but there is some kind of specialisation of work: the very young and very old will was contributing what they can, while healthy adults secured most of the food.

An interesting fact is that in these societies (12,000 years ago!) women were taking the most important role in surviving, they were responsible for the gathering of vegetation – the most reliable food source. In the meanwhile, males were taking less specific job of hunting. Even if the two genders have somewhat different responsibilities, both – males and females – had comparable social importance.

When speaking about the leadership of these societies – they had a few formal leaders. The most of them recognised a shaman, or spiritual leader, who enjoyed high prestige but received no more significant material rewards. So as we can understand, the organisation of hunters and gatherers is relatively simple and egalitarian (equal). Hunters and gatherers recognise numerous spirits inhabiting the world

Finally, these societies rarely use their weapons – the spear, the bow and arrow, and stone knife – to wage war. It just doesn’t make sense to try to go to war when they were most of the cases fighting against natural forces, that was a real danger for their for supply! That is why they were sharing – this way of living together increased everyone’s chance to survive longer and by longer I don’t mean very long in our terms – many of people die in childhood, and perhaps half of them before the age of 20.

Horticultural and pastoral societies

Horticultural and pastoral societies

A few thousand years later, new technology arrived and started to change many hunting and gathering societies. Horticulture is technology based on using hand tools to cultivate plans. The hoe’s essential tools are the hoe to work the soil and the digging stick to punch holes in the ground for seeds. 

But it was not a fit for everyone – people in particularly arid regions (such as the Middle East) or mountainous areas (such as in the Alps) found horticulture to be of little value. These people turned to a different strategy for survival, pastoralism, which is technology based on animals’ domestication. Finally, others combined the best of both worlds – horticulture and pastoralism to produce a variety of foods. 

These new technologies significantly increased food production, enabling communities to support not tens but hundreds of people living together. Pastoralists remained nomadic, leading their herds to new grazing lands. However, horticulturalists in comparison settled down, moving on only when they fully depleted the soil. These settlements, joined by trade, comprised multi-centred societies with overall populations reaching often thousands of people living together. But it is not the only reasons!

Domesticating plants and animals generates a material surplus – more resources than are necessary to sustain day-to-day living (I would say that this was the point where things started turning in a bad direction). A surplus let some people get away from the job and daily work of securing food, and let them to create crafts, engage in trade or serve as priests. All of this created, in comparison to hunters and gatherers, way much more complicated and specialised social arrangements in the society.

When it comes to moral leadership, horticulturalists practice ancestor worship and conceive God as creator. Pastoral societies carry this belief even further viewing God as directly involved in the well-being of the entire world. 

The new technology intensified social inequalities. As now some families produced more food than others, they took positions of relative power and privilege. As well they created alliances with other elite families to ensure that social advantages continue over generations, and here is a crucial point where a formal system of social inequality emerges

Along with this newly arrived social hierarchy, rudimentary government – backed by military force – is formed to shore up elites’ power.

Even if the domestication of plants and animals made societies more productive, we have to not forget that advancing technology is never brings only advantages. Compared to hunters and gatherers, horticulturalists and pastoralists display more social inequality and, in many cases, engage in slavery, protracted warfare and even cannibalism. 

Agrarian societies

Agrarian societies

About 5,000 years ago another technological revolution came starting in the Middle East that in the end will transform most of the world. This was the discovery of agriculture, the technology of large-scale farming using ploughs harnessed to animals or more powerful energy sources. The social significance of the animal-drawn plough and other technological innovations of the period clearly indicated the arrival of a new kind of society.

While horticulturalists spend their days working small-sized plots, agriculturalists with animal-drawn ploughs were already able to cultivate way much bigger areas. This kind of new technology encouraged agrarian societies to farm the same land for decades, which led to humanity’s first permanent settlements

As we already saw before, increasing production meant greater specialisation. Tasks that were performed in the past by everyone now became distinct occupations. Here it was the time where the invention of money exchange came into the play and replaced barter trade system. This appearance of money facilitated trade, helped cities to grow as economic centres with populations reaching millions of people.

As we already saw, the increasing specialization and ability to keep surplus materials sparked the fire of inequalities. Agrarian societies are no exception – people lived in dramatic social inequality. In many cases, peasants or slaves constitute a significant share of the population and labour for elites. Freed from manual work, elites can then devote their time to studying philosophy, art and literature

When it comes to gender equality – among the hunters and gatherers, and horticulturists, women were the primary food providers. The development of agriculture, however, has put men into a position of social dominance

Religion was used to reinforce the power of agricultural elites. Religious doctrine typically propounds the idea that people are morally obligated to perform whatever tasks correspond to their place in the social order. 

Industrial societies

Industrial societies

Until industrialism, the main source of energy used in everyday activities was human and animals power. At the beginning of the Industrial Revolution around the 1750s, mills and factories started to rely on an absolutely new technology – flowing water and later – steam to power the ever-larger machinery that was never seen before. Industrialism is technology that powers sophisticated machinery with advanced sources of energy.

When this technology spread and became available, societies began to change extremely fast. Industrial societies transformed themselves more in one century than they had in thousands of years before. During the 19th century, railways and steamships revolutionised transportation, and steel-framed skyscrapers recast the urban landscape, dwarfing the cathedrals that symbolised an earlier age. 

As the 20th century began, the internal combustion engine further reshaped Western societies, and electricity was fast becoming the basis for countless ‘modern conveniences’. Electronic communication, including the telephone, radio and television, was mass-producing cultural patterns and gradually making a big world seem smaller and smaller. More recently, transportation technology has given humanity the capacity to fly faster than sound and even break the bonds of earth. Nuclear power has also changed the world forever. And, during the last generation, computers have ushered in the Information Revolution, dramatically increasing humanity’s capacity to process words and numbers. 

As it could be deducted – work, too, has changed. In agrarian societies, most men and women work in the home and on the land. Industrialisation, however, creates factories near centralised machinery and energy sources. Lost in the process are close working relationships and strong kinship ties and many of the traditional beliefs that guide agrarian life. 

Even though if health in Europe and North America’s new industrial cities was poor in the beginning, a rising standard of living and advancing health-related technology gradually helped to put infectious diseases under control. As a consequence, life expectancy increased causing a rapid population growth. Industrialisation also pushed people from the countryside to the cities where the factories were built. This is a topic worth an individual piece – how bourgeoisie (owners of the capital) managed to create “free labour” needed for their production and forced people out of the rural areas to the cities.

Occupational specialisation became more distinctive than ever before. Industrial people often size up one another in terms of their jobs, rather than according to their kinship ties as agrarian people do. Rapid change and movement from place to place also generate anonymity and cultural diversity, sparking numerous subcultures and countercultures.

Industrial technology recasts the family relations, too, diminishing its traditional importance as the centre of social life. No longer does the family serve as the primary setting for economic production, learning and religious worship. Technological change also underlies the trend away from so-called traditional families to many single people, divorced people, single-parent families, lesbian and gay couples and stepfamilies

Important to mention, that early industrialisation concentrated the benefits of advancing technology on a small population segment, with the majority living in poverty. There is a shocking amount of homeless people or people with mental disorders, due to the rapid change of social relations, drop of the family ties or religious importance.

While most people in agrarian societies are illiterate, industrial societies provide state-funded schooling and confer numerous political rights on virtually everyone. Industrialisation, in fact, intensifies demands for political participation, as seen recently in South Korea, Taiwan, the People’s Republic of China, the former Soviet Union, and the societies of eastern Europe. 

Post-industrial societies

Post-industrialism societies

Finally, many industrial societies now appear to be entering yet another phase of technological development. In the early 1970s, Daniel Bell (1976) invented the term post-industrialism to refer to computer-linked technology supporting an information-based economy. While production in industrial societies focuses on factories and machinery that generate material goods, post-industrial production focuses on computers and other electronics that create, process, store and apply information.

It is the information society, the network society, the cyber-society, the postmodern society. At the individual level, industrial societies members concentrate on learning mechanical skills. People in post-industrial societies, however, work on gaining information-based skills for work involving computers, facsimile machines, satellites, and other communication forms technology.

Post-industrialism’s emergence dramatically changes a society’s occupational structure. Post-industrial society utilises less and less of its labour force for industrial production. Simultaneously, the ranks of clerical worker, managers and other people who process information (in fields ranging from academia and advertising to marketing and public relations) swell rapidly. New skills – often less physical and more mental – are needed to handle fragmented work, multi-tasking and non-linear patterns of work. We are facing the new challenges as well – the cognitive pressure for us and our brain is higher than ever before in the sociocultural development of our societies.

The Information Revolution is, of course, most pronounced in industrial, high-income societies, yet the reach of this new technology is so great that it is affecting the entire world. The unprecedented worldwide flow of information originating in wealthy nations has the predictable effect of tying far-flung societies together and fostering common global culture patterns.

This extends the process of globalisation and brings a society that some peak of postmodernism (postmodernism is the ways of thinking that stress a plurality of perspectives as opposed to a unified, single-core). It is a world where change is significantly speeding up, where classical boundaries across societies break down, and a new sense of society is in the making. 

Beware: technological determinism

While different kinds of technology may well create preconditions of different types of society, four cautions need to be given:

  1. The technology does not determine societies. There is no automatic connection between the kinds of technology a society has available and the form of that society. It takes people to decide how to use technologies – and they may use them in very different ways, developing various skills and meanings. In Nazi Germany, for example, modern technology’s weight was used to exterminate millions of people. The technologies of the Incas or Egyptians were very sophisticated but also involved systems of domination and slavery. Current information or computer societies need actions from people to use them – and they may be used for good or bad. Technology is neutral: it is people who shape the technology. 
  2. We must be very wary of saying that these five societies evolve from one to the next as if there is some automatic progress. In fact, in the 21st century, all of these societies may be said to coexist. Many indigenous peoples may have hunting, pastoral or agrarian societies with highly evolved technologies of their own. It is often a ‘Eurocentric’ view that wants to see them as before or simpler than European culture. 
  3. We must recognise the limits of technology. While technology remedies many humans problems by raising productivity, eliminating disease and sometimes relieving boredom provides no ‘quick fix’ for deeply rooted social issues. Poverty remains the plight of billions of people worldwide. Moreover, with the capacity to reshape the world, technology has created new problems that our ancestors could hardly have imagined. Industrial societies provide more personal freedom, often at the cost of community that characterised agrarian life. Further, although today’s world’s most powerful societies infrequently engage in all-out warfare, international conflict now poses unimaginable horrors. 
  4. Another stubborn social problem linked to technology involves humanity’s relation to the physical environment. Each stage in sociocultural evolution has introduced more powerful sources of energy and accelerated our appetite for the earth’s resources at a rate even faster than the population is growing. We now face an issue of vital concern: can humanity continue to pursue material prosperity without subjecting the planet to damage and strains from which it will never recover? 

In some respects, then, technological advances have improved life and brought the world’s people closer together within a ‘global village’. Yet, in technology’s wake are daunting problems of establishing peace, ensuring justice, and sustaining a safe environment – problems that technology alone can never solve.

Subscribe today

Join the mailing list in which, from time to time, I will send updates on what is happening here. Don’t miss the latest content!