Part 2

Society and Culture

Society is defined as “a collection of interacting individuals sharing the same way of life and living in the same territory (Thio, 2007).” Culture is what binds members of society together. Without language, we would not be able to communicate. If we had to no rules or social norms, life would be chaotic and unpredictable. Emile Durkheim pointed out the importance of social norms. He said that suicide rates were higher in societies where rapid changes were taking place. Durkheim used the term anomie to refer to a sense of normlessness that occurs in societies. This condition leads some individuals to feel disconnected from society. Durkheim also pointed out that every society has a collective consciousness that is created and maintained by formal and informal rules. A collective consciousness gives individuals a sense of belonging.  It makes us feel bonded to other members of society.

As industrialization began to occur, sociologists were concerned about how society would be affected by the revolutionary changes taking place. Many feared that individuals were beginning to feel alienated or disconnected from society.

Durkheim, however, pointed out that the social solidarity, or social bonds that hold society together, changes significantly in modern societies. He pointed out that traditional societies or pre-industrial societies had a different type of social solidarity than modern or industrial societies. In traditional societies, Durkheim pointed out that individuals were bonded together by mechanical solidarity. This type of solidarity is based on common sentiments and shared values. It is based on likeness and individuals are bound by traditions of the past.  With mechanical solidarity, if individuals do not conform, they are usually punished harshly, sometimes even being forced out of society.

Lillian Gish as Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Puritan heroine Hester Prynne.
When she bore a child out of wedlock, she was forced to wear the “A”
for adulterer and made to live on the outskirts of her town.
In traditional societies, individuals who do not conform to the norms
may be punished harshly and even forced out of society.

As societies modernize, however, tradition no longer serves as an adequate means of bonding members of society together. Social institutions are revolutionized and no longer rely on past traditions or uniformity. There is also an increasing division of labor where specialization within the economic sphere takes place. In agrarian societies, individuals usually performed the same job throughout most of their lives. In the industrial society, however, there are a growing number of specializations, and individuals often have more of a choice of what they will specialize in.

Instead of being bound by likeness, individuals in modern societies are bound by differences. Durkheim called this organic solidarity. This involves social bonds based on specialization and interdependence. Because there are so many different tasks performed by so many individuals, everyone in society must depend on one another, even if they are not a part of their extended family or primary group. These types of interactions were revolutionary because prior to industrialization, interaction between individuals in society usually took place in close-knit communities where everyone knew one another intimately. In modern societies, urbanization occurs and individuals interact in larger, less intimate groups.

Our text also mentions the different types of societies. According to some social scientists, culture is changed significantly as society acquires newer forms of technology. As technology becomes more complex, societies are able to produce more food and there is significant growth in the population. Ironically, as surpluses of food increase, so also do wealth and poverty. In the Agrarian society, social inequality is the greatest. In the Hunter/Gatherer society, it is the least.

The chart below explains the differences between each society.

Type of Society Time Period Technology Population Settlement Patterns Cultural Patterns
Hunter-Gatherer 3 million to 10,000 years ago Spears, hand tools 25-40 people Nomadic Family centered
Egalitarian
Gendered division of labor

Horticultural

10,000 to 5,000 years ago Hoes, digging sticks Settlements of several hundred; trading system established Small permanent settlements; Warrior nobility who dominate common people
Religious system established
Increased inequality
Pastoral 10,000 to 5,000 years ago Domestica-tion of animals Few dozen to several thousand people Nomadic Independent and warlike
Gender inequality
Religions reflect value of pastoralists’ animals
Agricultural 5,000 to 200 years ago Animal-drawn plow Millions of people Cities are more common Increasing specialization
Rulers are believed to have divine rule Many gods
Most social inequality
Political and economic systems established
Industrial 1750 to present Machinery; mass production Millions of people Huge urban cities Education system established Secularization
Less social inequality
Weakened social ties
Postindustrial 1970’s to present Computers; Information Technology; service-based economy Millions of people Population remains centered around urban cities Manufacturing is replaced by jobs in service sector
More gender equality
More specialization
Global economy

Does technology really have an impact on our culture? Let’s take a look at how the automobile has affected society in the United States. When the automobile was first introduced, only wealthy families could afford to buy one. It was more common for those individuals to live on the outskirts of town, and they would often take their cars for a cruise through town or on a joyride through the country. However, as with most forms of technology, the automobile became more affordable and by the 1940s more American families could afford a car of their own.

As mass production of the automobile took off, the petroleum, rubber, and steel industries also came to life. Many other industries were also created. Service stations sprung up on every corner, Hotels were more commonplace, and drive-ins became a favorite American hangout. Many point out that the fast food industry later became a spin-off of the drive-in which was ultimately a result of the widespread use of the automobile and the fast paced lifestyles Americans led.

By the 1950s we also begin to see the beginnings of a suburban society. Housing developments were being built outside of the central city. Middle class families moved to these new homes in search of quiet, safe neighborhoods far enough away from the city but close enough to commute to work each day. Prior to this, most families did their shopping in the downtown areas, often taking the bus into town. There was usually limited amount of parking due to the fact that fewer people drove cars. The widespread use of the automobile created a need for newer places to shop with lots of space for parking. Shopping centers and malls were established as a result of these needs.

The automobile has affected our society in negative ways. Some of the dysfunctions of the automobile include: pollution, automobile accidents, traffic congestion, road rage, energy shortages, and the list could go on. The fact that obesity has become such a widespread problem today can even be linked to automobiles. More people drive cars rather than walking or cycling to their destination, keeping us from getting the exercise we need. Once the use of the automobile becomes widespread throughout other nations such as China, pollution and oil shortages are likely to become even more of a problem in the near future. This important technological innovation has definitely impacted our society and continues to do so even today. Can you think of some other ways the automobile has affected society?