="http://www.w3.org/2000/svg" viewBox="0 0 512 512">

Chapter 4: Social Structure and Social Interaction

4.2 The Development of Modern Society

To help understand how modern society developed, sociologists find it useful to distinguish societies according to their type of economy and technology. One of the most useful schemes distinguishes the following types of societies: foraging, horticultural, pastoral, agricultural, industrial and postindustrial (Nolan & Lenski, 2009). We now outline the major features of each type in turn. Table 4.1 “Summary of Societal Development” summarizes these features.

Table 4.1 Summary of Societal Development

Type of Society

Key Characteristics


These are small, simple societies in which people hunt and gather food. Because all people in these societies have few possessions, the societies are fairly egalitarian, and the degree of inequality is very low.

Horticultural and Pastoral

Horticultural and pastoral societies are larger than hunting-and-gathering societies. Horticultural societies grow crops with simple tools, while pastoral societies raise livestock. Both types of societies are wealthier than hunting-and-gathering societies, and they also have more inequality and greater conflict than hunting-and-gathering societies.


These societies grow great numbers of crops, thanks to the use of plows, oxen, and other devices. Compared to horticultural and pastoral societies, they are wealthier and have a higher degree of conflict and of inequality.


Industrial societies feature factories and machines. They are wealthier than agricultural societies and have a greater sense of individualism and a somewhat lower degree of inequality that still remains substantial.


These societies feature information technology and service jobs. Higher education is especially important in these societies for economic success.

Foraging Societies

Beginning about 250,000 years ago, are the oldest ones we know of; few of them remain today, partly because modern societies have encroached on their existence. As the name hunting foraging implies, people in these societies forage for foods including meat, eggs, berries, nuts, tubers and other vegetation. They have few possessions other than some tools for harvesting or processing their food. To ensure their mutual survival, everyone is expected to help find food and also to share the food they find. To seek their food, foraging peoples often move from place to place. Because they are nomadic, their societies tend to be quite small, often consisting of only a few dozen people.

Beyond this summary of the type of life these societies lead, anthropologists have also charted the nature of social relationships in them. One of their most important findings is that foraging societies are fairly egalitarian. Although men do most of the hunting and scavenging of meat and women most of the gathering, perhaps reflecting the biological differences between the sexes discussed earlier, women and men in these societies are roughly equal. Because foraging societies have few possessions, their members are also fairly equal in terms of wealth and power, as virtually no wealth exists.

Horticultural and Pastoral Societies

Horticultural and pastoral societies both appear in the archaeological record about 10,000–12,000 years ago. In , people use hoes and other simple hand tools to raise crops. In , people raise and herd sheep, goats, camels, or other domesticated animals and use them as their major source of food and also, depending on the animal, as a means of transportation. Some societies are either primarily horticultural or pastoral, while other societies combine both forms. Pastoral societies tend to be at least somewhat nomadic, as they often have to move to find better grazing land for their animals. Horticultural societies, on the other hand, tend to be less nomadic, as they are able to keep growing their crops in the same location for some time. Both types of societies often manage to produce a surplus of food from vegetable or animal sources, respectively, and this surplus allows them to trade their extra food with other societies. It also allows them to have a larger population size than foraging societies that often reaches several hundred members.

Accompanying the greater complexity and wealth of horticultural and pastoral societies is greater inequality in terms of gender and wealth than is found in foraging societies. In pastoral societies, wealth stems from the number of animals a family owns, and families with more animals are wealthier and more powerful than families with fewer animals. In horticultural societies, wealth stems from the amount of land a family manages, and families with more land are wealthier and more powerful.


Horticultural societies often produce an excess of food that allows them to trade with other societies and also to have more members than hunting-and-gathering societies. Photo by Thanhhoa Tran from Pexels

One other side effect of the greater wealth of horticultural and pastoral societies is greater conflict. As just mentioned, sharing of food is a key norm in hunting-and-gathering societies. In horticultural and pastoral societies, however, wealth (and more specifically, the differences in wealth) leads to disputes and even fighting over land and animals. Whereas foraging peoples tend to be very peaceful, horticultural and pastoral peoples tend to be more aggressive.

Agricultural Societies

developed some 5,000 years ago in the Middle East, thanks to the invention of the plow. When pulled by oxen and other large animals, the plow allowed for much more cultivation of crops than the simple tools of horticultural societies permitted. The wheel was also invented about the same time, and written language and numbers began to be used. The development of agricultural societies thus marked a watershed in the development of human society. Ancient Egypt, China, Greece, and Rome were all agricultural societies, and India and many other large nations today remain primarily agricultural.

We have already seen that the greater food production of horticultural and pastoral societies led them to become larger than foraging societies and to have more trade and greater inequality and conflict. Agricultural societies continue all these trends. First, because they produce so much more food than horticultural and pastoral societies, they often become quite large, with their numbers sometimes reaching into the millions. Second, their huge food surpluses lead to extensive trade, both within the society itself and with other societies. Third, the surpluses and trade both lead to degrees of wealth unknown in the earlier types of societies and thus to unprecedented inequality, exemplified in the appearance for the first time of peasants, people who work on the land of rich landowners. Finally, agricultural societies’ greater size and inequality also produce more conflict. Some of this conflict is internal, as rich landowners struggle with each other for even greater wealth and power, and peasants sometimes engage in revolts. Other conflict is external, as the governments of these societies seek other markets for trade and greater wealth.

If gender inequality becomes somewhat greater in horticultural and pastoral societies than in foraging ones, it becomes very pronounced in agricultural societies. An important reason for this is the hard, physically taxing work in the fields, much of it using large plow animals, that characterizes these societies. Then, too, women are often pregnant in these societies, because large families provide more bodies to work in the fields and thus more income. Because men do more of the physical labor in agricultural societies—labor on which these societies depend—they have acquired greater power over women (Brettell & Sargent, 2009). In the Standard Cross-Cultural Sample, agricultural societies are much more likely than foraging ones to believe men should dominate women (see Figure 4.2 “Type of Society and Presence of Cultural Belief That Men Should Dominate Women”).

Figure 4.2 Type of Society and Presence of Cultural Belief That Men Should Dominate Women


Source: Data from Standard Cross-Cultural Sample.

Industrial Societies

emerged in the 1700s as the development of machines and then factories replaced the plow and other agricultural equipment as the primary mode of production. The first machines were steam-and water-powered, but eventually, of course, electricity became the main source of power. The growth of industrial societies marked such a great transformation in many of the world’s societies that we now call the period from about 1750 to the late 1800s the Industrial Revolution. This revolution has had enormous consequences in almost every aspect of society.

Industrialization brought about technological advances that improved people’s health and expanded their life spans. As noted earlier, there is also a greater emphasis in industrial societies on individualism, and people in these societies typically enjoy greater political and economic freedom than those in older societies. Compared to agricultural societies, industrial societies also have lowered economic and gender inequality. In industrialized societies, people do have a greater chance to achieve a higher social class than was true in earlier societies, and rags-to-riches stories continue to illustrate the opportunity available under industrialization. That said, we will see in later chapters that economic and gender inequality remains substantial in many industrial societies.

Industrialization has also meant the rise and growth of large cities and concentrated poverty and degrading conditions in these cities. This urbanization changed the character of social life by creating a more impersonal society. It also led to Riots and other urban violence that, among other things, helped fuel the rise of the modern police force and forced factory owners to improve workplace conditions. Today industrialized societies consume most of the world’s resources, pollute its environment to an unprecedented degree, and have compiled nuclear arsenals that could undo thousands of years of human society in an instant.

Postindustrial Societies

We are increasingly living in what has been called the information technology age (or just information age), as wireless technology vies with machines and factories as the basis for our economy. Compared to industrial economies, we now have many more service jobs, ranging from housecleaning to secretarial work to repairing computers. Societies in which this transition is happening are moving from an industrial to a postindustrial phase of development. In , then, information technology and service jobs have replaced machines and manufacturing jobs as the primary dimension of the economy (Bell, 1999). If the car was the sign of the economic and social times back in the 1920s, then the smartphone or laptop is the sign of the economic and social future in the early years of the 21st century. If the factory was the dominant workplace at the beginning of the 20th century, with workers standing at their positions by conveyor belts, then cell phone, computer, and software companies are dominant industries at the beginning of the 21st century, with workers, almost all of them much better educated than their earlier factory counterparts, huddled over their wireless technology at home, at work, or on the road. In short, the Industrial Revolution has been replaced by the Information Revolution, and we now have what has been called an information society (Hassan, 2008).

Theories on Societal Transformation

One of the most frequently asked questions in sociology is how and why do societies change? This is also one of the hardest questions to answer. We know that culture and, therefore, society are constantly changing. We know that the changes are comprehensive: societies now are built with ideas from previous societies. Some of the theories about how and why societies change are discussed below.

Most likely, you have heard of the biologist Charles Darwin who wrote The Origin of Species in 1859. In his book, Darwin explains in detail his theory of natural selection as one of the ways that organisms evolve, or change over time. The theory suggests that as populations reproduce, genetic mutations that produce advantageous traits will be ‘selected’; in other words, the individual organisms with this trait will successfully reproduce and pass this trait on to their offspring, which will cause an increase in the occurrence of this trait in the greater population. How does this relate to sociology? Herbert Spencer, a sociologist working at the same time as Darwin, theorized that societies evolved in the same way that organisms do. He argued that all societies moved along the same path of social evolution; early societies were unorganized and animalistic and, overtime, they would either die out or evolve into organized civilizations. This theory is known as . It was he who coined the phrase “the survival of the fittest” that Charles Darwin borrowed for his theory! Currently, the majority of social scientists would not accept Spencer’s theory because it overlooks and devalues the complexities that exist in preindustrial societies and ignores the political and economic forces of the dominant societies over the less powerful ones, something Conflict theorists are quick to point out.

A currently accepted replacement for the Unilinear model would be the proposed by Julian Steward in 1955. He uses cross-cultural evidence to suggest that there are in fact similar social and cultural features shared by many societies across the globe such as complex statehood. Steward, like Spencer, borrows the basic concepts of biological evolution to understand social evolution, however, he acknowledges that because no environment is the same, no evolutionary path will be the same. Each society creates technologies to survive within their environment and therefore no society is exactly the same although they might have similar technologies and forms of organization.

More recently, Talcott Parsons proposed a theory that partially echoes Spencer’s Unilinear Evolution model. He saw societal change over human history as a progression towards a more successful society. As you might expect, this part of the theory has been heavily criticized as ethnocentric. However, his has remained useful for current Functionalists because it helps to explain social change through the maintenance of social order. According to Parsons, if there are changes within one social institution, other social institutions will adapt through changes until order is restored. For example, think of how dramatically the invention of the Internet has impacted our culture. Information is available within seconds online, so manufacturing and even reading books are unnecessary. Our education institution is one social institution that has adapted to this change by providing lessons, textbooks and entire courses online. A more dangerous outcome of the Internet has been the theft of individuals’ identities. The government, our society’s political institution, regularly works to create policies that prevent this from happening. From this perspective, society is continually adapting to changes, and therefore never completely predictable, but it naturally moves towards equilibrium.

From the other macro viewpoint, the Conflict theorists find Parsons’ theory on social change to be naïve. Karl Marx and C.W. Mills among others would argue that Functionalists ignore the power of the dominant group and their justifications for maintaining order as a means of continued oppression. Instead of social change moving towards order, they would say that societies naturally move towards social change and not towards equilibrium. The force behind the social change is conflict, visible and invisible tension, between the ruling elite and the exploited working class. Marx theorizes that, over time, the group in power changes when the exploited population rises up enough to remove the ruling group. Interestingly, he acknowledged that this does not remove inequality but only replaces the ruling group with a new ruling group. The exception is if the result of the conflict is a classless state, of which he outlined in The Communist Manifesto.

Last but not least, William Ogburn’s theory looks to technology as the main driver of social change. According to his theory, society changes because of one of three things: discoveries, inventions or the diffusion of one these across societal boundaries. As most of you may know, occur when something completely new is observed or found. A famous example of this is the discovery of the Americas, which led to cultural and social changes across the globe. are when something new is created from things that already exist such as a smartphone. Smartphones combine computer software technology with telephone technology and yet they have dramatically shaped our cultural norms and societal boundaries. As recently as 15 years ago, it would have been viewed as deviant to not acknowledge people when walking down the sidewalk. Today this is the norm, at least in large urban areas. We often consider people who live in other countries as closer friends than those who live near us. Lastly, Ogburn argues that of inventions and discoveries across social boundaries causes social change. If people migrate from one society to another, they will introduce aspects of material and nonmaterial culture to a new group of people thereby initiating social changes there. As mentioned in Chapter 2, , or behavioral norms that have not yet adapted to new technological innovations, tells us that cultural change is imminent.

As you can see, there are many different ways of understanding how and why societies change over time. As a budding sociologist, it is important to be able to look from each of these perspectives and articulate what evidence there is that exists to support each one.


Key Terms

Agricultural society – relies on plow and wheel technologies to increase food production.

Cultural diffusion – the process of ideas, norms and values moving across cultural borders.

Cultural lag – when people’s behavior does not reflect the regular usage of the latest technologies.

Discoveries – when something completely new is observed or found.

Equilibrium Theory – theory of social change in which it is argued that changes within one social institution cause changes in other social institutions until order is restored.

Foraging society — acquires food mainly by foraging.

Horticultural society — uses hand tools to grow a few specific crops in one location until the soil nutrients is depleted.

Industrial society — uses machines and factories as the primary mode of production.

Inventions – when something new is created from things that already exist

Multilinear EvolutionTheory – a theory on societal transformation that recognizes that while societies share similar social and cultural features, no environment and no evolutionary path will be the same.

Pastoral society — herds a specific species of domesticated animal for the purpose of milk and meat as food sources.

Postindustrial society — relies on service jobs and information technology.

Unilinear Evolution Theory – a theory on societal transformation that theorizes that societies evolve in the same manner as organisms, moving from an unorganized animalistic state to organized civilizations.


Continue to 4.3 Social Interaction in Everyday Life


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

Exploring Our Social World: The Story of Us by Jean Ramirez; Rudy Hernandez; Aliza Robison; Pamela Smith; and Willie Davis is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book