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Lao Mangkong family eats together.JPG
Caesio teres in Fiji by Nick Hobgood.jpg
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Left to right: a family in Savannakhet, Laos; a school of fish near Fiji; a military parade on a Spanish national holiday; a crowd shopping in Maharashtra, India.

A society is a group of individuals involved in persistent social interaction, or a large social group sharing the same spatial 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 exhibits stratification or dominance patterns in subgroups.


Societies construct patterns of behavior by deeming certain actions or concepts as acceptable or unacceptable. These patterns of behavior within a given society are known as societal norms. Societies, and their norms, undergo gradual and perpetual changes.

Insofar as it is collaborative, a society can enable its members to benefit in ways that would otherwise be difficult 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, and also applied to distinctive subsections of a larger society.

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.

Etymology and usage

The term "society" came from the 12th century French société (meaning 'company'). [1] This was in turn 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". In the 1630s it was used in reference to "people bound by neighborhood and intercourse aware of living together in an ordered community". [2] However, in the 18th century the Scottish economist, Adam Smith taught 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 other." [3]


Humans fall between presocial and eusocial in the spectrum of animal ethology. The great apes have always been more ( Bonobo , Homo , Pan ) or less ( Gorilla , Pongo ) social animals. 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. [4] [5]

In sociology

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. Ants' Social Ethology.jpg
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.

Sociologist Peter L. Berger defines society as "...a human product, and nothing but a human product, that yet continuously acts ... upon its producer[s]." According to him, society was created by humans, but this creation turns back and creates or molds humans every day. [6]

Canis lupus social ethology Canis lupus pack surrounding Bison.jpg
Canis lupus social ethology

Sociologist 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). [7] 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:

In addition to this there are:

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 nation-states. [8]


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 postindustrial. [9]


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, and agricultural. [7]

Hunting and gathering

San people in Botswana start a fire by hand. BushmenSan.jpg
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. [10] 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 the people of Tlingit in North America) lived in larger groups and formed complex hierarchical social structures such as chiefdom. The need for mobility also limits the size of these societies. [11] Bands consist of 15 to 50 people related by kinship. [12] 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. Leadership is 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. [13] The family forms the main social unit, with most members being related by birth or marriage. [14] The anthropologist Marshall Sahlins described hunter-gatherers as the "original affluent society" due to their extended leisure time: [15] adults in foraging and horticultural societies work, on average, about 6.5 hours a day, whereas people in agricultural and industrial societies work on average 8.8 hours a day. [16]


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. [17] 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. [9] For example, some people become craftworkers, producing tools, weapons, and jewelry, among other items of value. 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.


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. Historians use the phrase Agricultural Revolution to refer to the technological changes that occurred as long as 10,000 years ago that led to cultivating crops and raising farm animals. [18] Some horticultural groups use the slash-and-burn method to raise crops. [19] The wild vegetation is cut and burned, and ashes are used as fertilizers. [20] 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. [21] 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. [21] 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 life.


Ploughing with oxen in the 15th century Detail of Les tres riches heures - March.jpg
Ploughing with oxen in the 15th century

Agrarian societies use agricultural technological advances to cultivate crops over a large area. According to Lenski, the difference between horticultural and agrarian societies is the use of the plow. [22] Increases in food supplies due to improved technology 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 different roles in providing food for the family, men took an increasingly dominant role in society. 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 society.


Between the 15th and 16th centuries, a new economic system emerged. 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 European societies.

Industrial societies rely heavily on machines powered by fuels for the production of goods. [23] 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. [24] Increased productivity made more goods available to everyone. However, inequality became even greater than before. The breakup of agricultural-based societies caused many people to leave the land and seek employment in cities. [25] This created a great surplus of labor and gave capitalists plenty of laborers who could be hired for extremely low wages.


Post-industrial societies are societies dominated by information, services, and high technology more than the production of goods. [26] 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 workforce employed in service industries. Service industries include government, research, education, health, sales, law, and banking.



The division of humans into male and female gender roles has been marked culturally by a corresponding division of norms, practices, dress, behavior, rights, duties, privileges, status, and power. Cultural differences by gender have often been believed to have arisen naturally out of a division of reproductive labor; the biological fact that women give birth led to their further cultural responsibility for nurturing and caring for children. [27] Gender roles have varied historically, and challenges to predominant gender norms have recurred in many societies. [28] [29]


All human societies organize, recognize and classify types of social relationships based on relations between parents, children and other descendants (consanguinity), and relations through marriage (affinity). There is also a third type applied to godparents or adoptive children (fictive). These culturally defined relationships are referred to as kinship. In many societies, it is one of the most important social organizing principles and plays a role in transmitting status and inheritance. [30]  All societies have rules of incest taboo, according to which marriage between certain kinds of kin relations are prohibited and some also have rules of preferential marriage with certain kin relations. [31]


Human ethnic groups are a social category that identifies together as a group based on shared attributes that distinguish them from other groups. These can be a common set of traditions, ancestry, language, history, society, culture, nation, religion, or social treatment within their residing area. [32] [33] Ethnicity is separate from the concept of race, which is based on physical characteristics, although both are socially constructed. [34] Assigning ethnicity to a certain population is complicated, as even within common ethnic designations there can be a diverse range of subgroups, and the makeup of these ethnic groups can change over time at both the collective and individual level. [35] Also, there is no generally accepted definition of what constitutes an ethnic group. [36] Ethnic groupings can play a powerful role in the social identity and solidarity of ethnopolitical units. This has been closely tied to the rise of the nation state as the predominant form of political organization in the 19th and 20th centuries. [37] [38] [39]

Government and politics

The United Nations Headquarters in New York City, which houses one of the world's largest political organizations United Nations Headquarters in New York City, view from Roosevelt Island.jpg
The United Nations Headquarters in New York City, which houses one of the world's largest political organizations

The early distribution of political power was determined by the availability of fresh water, fertile soil, and temperate climate of different locations. [40] As farming populations gathered in larger and denser communities, interactions between these different groups increased. This led to the development of governance within and between the communities. [41] As communities got bigger the need for some form of governance increased, as all large societies without a government have struggled to function. [42] Humans have evolved the ability to change affiliation with various social groups relatively easily, including previously strong political alliances, if doing so is seen as providing personal advantages. [43] This cognitive flexibility allows individual humans to change their political ideologies, with those with higher flexibility less likely to support authoritarian and nationalistic stances. [44]

Governments create laws and policies that affect the citizens that they govern. There have been multiple forms of government throughout human history, each having various means of obtaining power and the ability to exert diverse controls on the population. [45] As of 2017, more than half of all national governments are democracies, with 13% being autocracies and 28% containing elements of both. [46] Many countries have formed international political organizations and alliances, the largest being the United Nations with 193 member states. [47]

Trade and economics

The Silk Road (red) and spice trade routes (blue) Silk route.jpg
The Silk Road (red) and spice trade routes (blue)

Trade, the voluntary exchange of goods and services, is seen as a characteristic that differentiates humans from other animals and has been cited as a practice that gave Homo sapiens a major advantage over other hominids. [48] Evidence suggests early H. sapiens made use of long-distance trade routes to exchange goods and ideas, leading to cultural explosions and providing additional food sources when hunting was sparse, while such trade networks did not exist for the now extinct Neanderthals. [49] [50] Early trade likely involved materials for creating tools like obsidian. [51] The first truly international trade routes were around the spice trade through the Roman and medieval periods. [52]

Early human economies were more likely to be based around gift giving instead of a bartering system. [53] Early money consisted of commodities; the oldest being in the form of cattle and the most widely used being cowrie shells. [54] Money has since evolved into governmental issued coins, paper and electronic money. [54] Human study of economics is a social science that looks at how societies distribute scarce resources among different people. [55] There are massive inequalities in the division of wealth among humans; the eight richest humans are worth the same monetary value as the poorest half of all the human population. [56]


Humans commit violence on other humans at a rate comparable to other primates, but kill adult humans at a high rate (with infanticide being more common among other animals). [57] It is predicted that 2% of early H. sapiens would be killed, rising to 12% during the medieval period, before dropping to below 2% in modern times. [58] There is great variation in violence between human populations with rates of homicide in societies that have legal systems and strong cultural attitudes against violence at about 0.01%. [59]

The willingness of humans to kill other members of their species en masse through organized conflict (i.e., war) has long been the subject of debate. One school of thought is that war evolved as a means to eliminate competitors, and has always been an innate human characteristic. Another suggests that war is a relatively recent phenomenon and appeared due to changing social conditions. [60] While not settled, the current evidence suggests warlike predispositions only became common about 10,000 years ago, and in many places much more recently than that. [60] War has had a high cost on human life; it is estimated that during the 20th century, between 167 million and 188 million people died as a result of war. [61]

Contemporary usage

The term "society" is currently used to cover both a number of political and scientific connotations as well as a variety of associations.


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, and Israel.

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. [62]


World Summit on the Information Society, Geneva ONU Geneva mainroom.jpg
World Summit on the Information Society, Geneva

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. [63]

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. [64]

The International Telecommunication Union's World Summit on the Information Society in Geneva and Tunis (2003 and 2005) has led to a number of policy and application areas where action is envisaged. [65]


The Seoul Cyworld control room Seoul-Cyworld control room.jpg
The Seoul Cyworld control room

As the 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." [66]

See also


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The term tribe is used in many different contexts to refer to a category of human social group. The predominant worldwide usage of the term in English is in the discipline of anthropology. This definition is contested, in part due to conflicting theoretical understandings of social and kinship structures, and also reflecting the problematic application of this concept to extremely diverse human societies. The concept is often contrasted by anthropologists with other social and kinship groups, being hierarchically larger than a lineage or clan, but smaller than a chiefdom, nation or state. These terms are equally disputed. In some cases tribes have legal recognition and some degree of political autonomy from national or federal government, but this legalistic usage of the term may conflict with anthropological definitions.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Globalization</span> Spread of world views, products, ideas, capital and labour

Globalization, or globalisation, is the process of interaction and integration among people, companies, and governments worldwide. The term globalization first appeared in the early 20th century, developed its current meaning some time in the second half of the 20th century, and came into popular use in the 1990s to describe the unprecedented international connectivity of the post-Cold War world. Its origins can be traced back to 18th and 19th centuries due to advances in transportation and communications technology. This increase in global interactions has caused a growth in international trade and the exchange of ideas, beliefs, and culture. Globalization is primarily an economic process of interaction and integration that is associated with social and cultural aspects. However, disputes and international diplomacy are also large parts of the history of globalization, and of modern globalization.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Nomad</span> Person without fixed habitat

A nomad is a member of a community without fixed habitation who regularly moves to and from the same areas. Such groups include hunter-gatherers, pastoral nomads, tinkers and trader nomads. In the twentieth century, the population of nomadic pastoral tribes slowly decreased, reaching an estimated 30–40 million nomads in the world as of 1995.

An ethnic group or an ethnicity is a grouping of people who identify with each other on the basis of shared attributes that distinguish them from other groups. Those attributes can include common sets of traditions, ancestry, language, history, society, culture, nation, religion, or social treatment within their residing area. Ethnicity is sometimes used interchangeably with the term nation, particularly in cases of ethnic nationalism, and is separate from the related concept of races.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Hunter-gatherer</span> Peoples who forage or hunt for most or all of their food

A traditional hunter-gatherer or forager is a human living an ancestrally derived lifestyle in which most or all food is obtained by foraging, that is, by gathering food from local sources, especially edible wild plants but also insects, fungi, honey, or anything safe to eat, and/or by hunting game, roughly as most animal omnivores do. Hunter-gatherer societies stand in contrast to the more sedentary agricultural societies, which rely mainly on cultivating crops and raising domesticated animals for food production, although the boundaries between the two ways of living are not completely distinct.

A subsistence economy is an economy directed to basic subsistence rather than to the market. Henceforth, "subsistence" is understood as supporting oneself at a minimum level. Often, the subsistence economy is moneyless and relies on natural resources to provide for basic needs through hunting, gathering, and agriculture. In a subsistence economy, economic surplus is minimal and only used to trade for basic goods, and there is no industrialization. In hunting and gathering societies, resources are often if not typically underused.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Social stratification</span> Concept in sociology

Social stratification refers to a society's categorization of its people into groups based on socioeconomic factors like wealth, income, race, education, ethnicity, gender, occupation, social status, or derived power. As such, stratification is the relative social position of persons within a social group, category, geographic region, or social unit.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Agrarian society</span> Community whose economy is based on crops and farmland

An agrarian society, or agricultural society, is any community whose economy is based on producing and maintaining crops and farmland. Another way to define an agrarian society is by seeing how much of a nation's total production is in agriculture. In an agrarian society, cultivating the land is the primary source of wealth. Such a society may acknowledge other means of livelihood and work habits but stresses the importance of agriculture and farming. Agrarian societies have existed in various parts of the world as far back as 10,000 years ago and continue to exist today. They have been the most common form of socio-economic organization for most of recorded human history.

Gerhard Emmanuel "Gerry" Lenski, Jr. was an American sociologist known for contributions to the sociology of religion, social inequality, and introducing the ecological-evolutionary theory. He spent much of his career as a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he served as chair of the Department of Sociology, 1969–72, and as chair of the Division of Social Sciences, 1976-78.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Surplus product</span>

Surplus product is an economic concept explicitly theorised by Karl Marx in his critique of political economy. Roughly speaking, it is the extra goods produced above the amount needed for a community of workers to survive at its current standard of living. Marx first began to work out his idea of surplus product in his 1844 notes on James Mill's Elements of political economy.

Neoevolutionism as a social theory attempts to explain the evolution of societies by drawing on Charles Darwin's theory of evolution while discarding some dogmas of the previous theories of social evolutionism. Neoevolutionism is concerned with long-term, directional, evolutionary social change and with the regular patterns of development that may be seen in unrelated, widely separated cultures.

Chambri are an ethnic group in the Chambri Lakes region in the East Sepik province of Papua New Guinea. The social structures of Chambri society have often been a subject in the study of gender roles. They speak the Chambri language.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Okiek people</span>

The Okiek, sometimes called the Ogiek or Akiek, are a Southern Nilotic ethnic group native to Tanzania and Southern Kenya, and Western Kenya. In 2019 the ethnic Okiek population was 52,596, although the number of those speaking the Akiek language was as low as 500.

Nutritional anthropology is the study of the interplay between human biology, economic systems, nutritional status and food security. If economic and environmental changes in a community affect access to food, food security, and dietary health, then this interplay between culture and biology is in turn connected to broader historical and economic trends associated with globalization. Nutritional status affects overall health status, work performance potential, and the overall potential for economic development for any given group of people.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Culture</span> Social behavior and norms of a society

Culture is an umbrella term which encompasses the social behavior, institutions, and norms found in human societies, as well as the knowledge, beliefs, arts, laws, customs, capabilities, and habits of the individuals in these groups. Culture is often originated from or attributed to a specific region or location.

Political economy in anthropology is the application of the theories and methods of historical materialism to the traditional concerns of anthropology, including but not limited to non-capitalist societies. Political economy introduced questions of history and colonialism to ahistorical anthropological theories of social structure and culture. Most anthropologists moved away from modes of production analysis typical of structural Marxism, and focused instead on the complex historical relations of class, culture and hegemony in regions undergoing complex colonial and capitalist transitions in the emerging world system.

Primitive communism is a way of describing the gift economies of hunter-gatherers throughout history, where resources and property hunted or gathered are shared with all members of a group in accordance with individual needs. In political sociology and anthropology, it is also a concept that describes hunter-gatherer societies as traditionally being based on egalitarian social relations and common ownership. A primary inspiration for both Marx and Engels were Lewis H. Morgan's descriptions of "communism in living" as practised by the Haudenosaunee of North America. In Marx's model of socioeconomic structures, societies with primitive communism had no hierarchical social class structures or capital accumulation.

A subsistence pattern – alternatively known as a subsistence strategy – is the means by which a society satisfies its basic needs for survival. This encompasses the attainment of nutrition, water, and shelter. The five broad categories of subsistence patterns are foraging, horticulture, pastoralism, agriculture, and industrial food production.


Further reading