The preface to this chapter addresses the basic issues of what holds a society together and what are the forces that divide it. Canada is more than 130 years old, yet is still characterized by a fragile national unity.
The concept society refers to people who interact within a defined territory and who share a culture. In this chapter four separate visions of society are discussed; each addresses questions that concern forces that shape human life. The visions include (1) Gerhard and Jean Lenski's focus on the importance of technology, (2) Karl Marx's understanding of the key role social conflict plays in society, (3) Max Weber's illustration of the significance of human ideas, and (4) Emile Durkheim's notion of the different ways that traditional and modern societies hang together.
Until about 12 000 years ago the hunting and gathering type of society was the only one in existence. Comparing present day hunting and gathering societies with modern technologically "advanced" societies raises many interesting questions. Lenski analyzes human society using the sociocultural evolution approach, which focuses on the process of social change that results from gaining new cultural information, particularly technology. The greater the amount of technological information a society has, the more it can manipulate the physical environment and the faster it can change. Five general types of society are distinguished by using Lenski's work.
Hunting and gathering societies are defined as those that use simple technology to hunt animals and gather vegetation. Only a very small number of such societies are still in existence today. Typical characteristics of people using this subsistence strategy include small bands of people, a nomadic lifestyle over large territories, specialization based only on age and sex, and only a few positions of leadership. Social organization tends to be simple and equal, organized around the family. Life expectancy at birth is relatively low, however in environments with ample food supplies, the quality of life is good, with some leisure time.
Approximately 10 000 to 12 000 years ago plants began to be cultivated. Horticultural societies are those that use hand tools to cultivate crops. This strategy first appeared in the Middle East and later, Latin America and Asia, and through diffusion spread throughout the rest of the world. Some societies combine horticulture with hunting and gathering strategies.
In regions where horticulture was impractical, societies based on pastoralism emerged. These societies' livelihood was based on the domestication of animals. Both horticultural and pastoral societies tend to have a more complex social organization and have increased specialization. Material surpluses become possible with these lifestyles, and this is often linked to greater social inequality. These societies, given their increased technological development, are more productive than hunting and gathering societies. Instead of the many gods of hunter/gatherers, they tend to think of one God as Creator.
Agrarian societies emerged about 5000 years ago and are based on agriculture, or the technology of large-scale farming using ploughs powered by animals or more powerful sources of energy. Technological change during this period was so dramatic that Lenski has argued it was the era of the "dawn of civilization." The use of the plough increased soil fertility as well as made agriculture more efficient. This also greatly increased the surplus of food available. Increased task specialization made the barter system obsolete and money was developed as a standard of exchange. The power of the elite greatly increased, supported by religious beliefs and the expanding political power structure. Men gained dominance over women, unlike the previous horticultural period where women were primary providers of food.
Industrialism is the technology that powers sophisticated machinery with advanced sources of energy. The muscle power of humans and animals are no longer the basis of production and tools and machinery become more complex and efficient. A major shift occurred that moved production within families to production within factories. Occupational specialization became even more pronounced and cultural values became more heterogeneous.
In the twentieth century the automobile, the airplane, and electronic communications have made a large world seem small, while the computer has ushered in the Information Revolution, which threatens to change the way we relate to one another. Industrialism, in time, leads to prosperity and a decrease in political, social, and economic inequality.
An extension of Lenski's analysis can be applied to post-industrialism, where technology supports an information-based economy. Industrial work declines and workers who process information increase. The Summing Up Table (pp. 88-89) summarizes how changes in technology have had an impact on population size, settlement patterns, and social organization.
While technology has relieved many human problems, it has created others. Our sense of community has diminished while the fear of nuclear war has increased. As well, our appetite for resources and the way we use them is endangering the environment. The Thinking It Through Box (p. 91) shows one author's attempt to demonstrate how social science might improve society.
Marx's thinking focused on a fundamental contradiction of industrial society. How could vast social inequality exist given the new industrial technology with its phenomenal productive capability? The central focus of Marx's work was on the idea of social conflict, which means a struggle between segments of society over valued resources. For Marx, the most significant type of social conflict results from the manner in which society produces material goods.
Marx designated a very small part of the population as capitalists, or those who owned factories and other productive enterprises. Their goal was profit. The vast majority of people, however, were termed the proletariat, meaning those who provided the labour necessary for the operation of factories and other productive enterprises. Labour is exchanged by these people for wages. Fundamental conflict exists between the competing needs of these two groups who draw wages and profits from the same pool of funds.
Marx's analysis of society followed the philosophical doctrine of materialism in asserting that the system of producing material goods can shape all of society. He labelled the economic system the infrastructure and all other social institutions as the superstructure. Figure 4-1 (p. 92) illustrates this philosophical viewpoint.
Marx believed capitalism promoted false consciousness, or the belief that the shortcomings of individuals, rather than society, are responsible for many of the personal problems people have.
Marx understood historical change in society as operating in both gradual evolutionary and rapid revolutionary processes. He believed early hunting and gathering societies to be represented by communism, or the equal production of food and other material as a common effort shared more or less equally by everyone. He saw horticultural, pastoral, agrarian, and industrial societies as based on systems of inequality and exploitation. The concept bourgeoisie (French, meaning "of the town") is discussed further within the framework of social history during the period of industrialization. Industrialization also produced the proletariat who he thought might form a unified class across national boundaries, setting the stage for confrontation.
Marx viewed all social history as one of class conflict, or the struggle between social classes over the distribution of wealth and power in society. Social change involved workers first becoming aware of their shared oppression and then organizing and acting to address their problems. The process involved replacing false consciousness with class consciousness, or the recognition by workers of their unity as a class in opposition to capitalists and, ultimately, to capitalism itself.
For Marx, alienation meant the experience of isolation resulting from powerlessness. Workers themselves are a mere commodity. Four ways industrial capitalism alienates workers are identified: (1) alienation from the act of working, (2) alienation from the products of work, (3) alienation from other workers, and (4) alienation from human potential. These act as a barrier to social class unity.
Marx viewed revolution as the only way to change the nature of society. The type of system he saw as replacing industrial capitalism was socialism, which he believed was a more humane and egalitarian type of productive system.
Weber made many contributions to sociology, perhaps more than any other sociologist. One of the most significant was his understanding about how our social world differs from societies of early times. His work reflects the philosophical approach of idealism, which emphasizes the importance of human ideas in shaping society. New ways of thinking, not merely technology and materialistic relationships, were the major force in social change. A conceptual tool used by Weber in his research was the concept ideal type, defined as an abstract statement of the essential characteristics of any social phenomenon.
Weber differentiated between two types of societies in terms of how people thought. The first is characterized by tradition, or sentiments and beliefs about the world that are passed from generation to generation. The other is characterized by rationality, or deliberate, matter-of-fact calculation of the most efficient means to accomplish any particular goal. This process of change from tradition to rationality he termed the rationalization of society, denoting the change in the type of thinking characteristic of members of society. Industrialization was an expression of this process. The Window on the World Global Map (p. 96) shows that personal computers are utilized intensively in the high-income countries and infrequently in low-income countries.
Weber saw industrial capitalism as the essence of rationality, while Marx did not, citing its failure to meet basic human needs.
Weber points out that industrial capitalism developed where Calvinism was widespread. This is discussed as an example of how the power of ideas shapes human social development. A central doctrine of this religion was predestination, creating visions of either damnation or salvation, but in the hands of God, not the people. Anxious to know their fate, people looked for signs of God's favour. Some reassurance was to be found in personal success and achievement. This success was accelerated through the acceptance of technological innovation. As religious fervour weakened, a "work" ethic replaced the "religious" ethic.
Weber believed rationality shaped modern society in various ways. This included (1) creating distinctive social institutions, or major spheres of social life organized to meet basic human needs, (2) large-scale organizations, (3) specialized tasks, (4) personal discipline, (5) awareness of time, (6) technical competence, and (7) impersonality.
While traditional societies had large-scale organizations, they were not based on rationality. Modern-day society becomes characterized by a type of social organization called bureaucracy. Weber viewed this as the clearest expression of a rational world, especially within the capitalist market economy.
Weber, like Marx, was critical of modern society, but for different reasons. For Weber, economic inequality was not the major problem, rather dehumanization and alienation were what troubled society most. Weber saw individuality being constricted by modern rationality expressed through increasingly rigid rules.
Durkheim suggests that society is both beyond us and a part of us.
Central to the work of Durkheim is the concept of social fact, any part of society that is argued to have an objective existence apart from the individual and is therefore able to influence individual behaviour. Examples are the cultural values and norms of a society. Society is something more than the sum of its parts and it has the power to shape our thoughts and tug at our conceptions of morality.
Function is another concept important in the understanding of Durkheim's view of society. The significance of social facts is to be discovered in the functional contribution to the general life of society, not in the experience of individuals. His perspective leads us to consider the functional consequences of any social phenomenon, even crime for example.
According to Durkheim, society exists not only beyond us, having a life of its own, but also within us. Personalities are built through the internalization of social facts. Suicide, discussed in Chapter 1, illustrates this point. Individuals who are poorly regulated suffer the highest rates of suicide.
While modern society provides great personal freedom, the lack of regulation often leads to anomie, where little moral guidance is provided.
Durkheim differentiated between two types of solidarity that have characterized societies over history. For most of history, human societies were dominated by a collective conscience, or moral consensus. Durkheim termed this mechanical solidarity, meaning social bonds, common to pre-industrial societies, based on shared moral sentiments. Likeness was the rule in society. As this type declined it was replaced by organic solidarity, or social bonds, common to industrialized societies, based on specialization. So Durkheim saw history in terms of a growing division of labour, or specialized economic activity. Durkheim, like Weber and Marx, had concern about modern society and its effect on the individual. The dilemma for Durkheim was the fact that the positive benefits of modern society, such as technical advances and personal freedoms, were accompanied by diminishing morality and the danger of anomie.
The concluding section focuses on the questions raised at the beginning of this chapter using each of the four visions provided by Lenski, Marx, Weber, and Durkheim. These questions include the following:
Lenski would answer by focusing on cultural patterns. Marx argued that only through co-operative productive enterprise could a united society develop. Weber saw unity created through a society's distinctive world view. Durkheim focused on the factor of social integration.
The Thinking Critically Box (p. 101) asks if our society is getting better? Despite the progress Canada has experienced in improved education, huge technological change, increase in average income, and increase in life expectancy in the last century, the level of optimism by Canadians has been declining for the last twenty-five years. Objectively, family incomes have recently increased only slightly, divorce rates have increased, while marriage rates have declined. There is also a perception that the crime rate is increasing, even though it isn't. Despite these concerns, most Canadians claim to be happy. Perhaps a Canadian economy that has outperformed the U.S. economy and a soaring "loonie" are partly responsible. A recent poll, however, found that Canadians worry about high taxes, debt, postsecondary education for their children, and health care costs. While most believe in God, few attend weekly religious services. The theorists who have been examined in this chapter may provide some answers. Lenski suggested that technology was no panacea and Marx, Weber, and Durkheim decried in various ways the increase in individualism at the cost of a sense of community. Perhaps that is what Canadians are experiencing now.
The Applying Sociology Box (p. 102) offers us the opportunity to imagine what Durkheim, Weber and Marx would think of the information society. Durkheim would probably note the increased specialization in the division of labour while Weber might celebrate the decline of rigid bureaucratic rules as factories become less important. Marx would likely identify a new elite, those who possess symbolic skills, and a new underclass, those with few.
The sociocultural evolution model used by Lenski focuses on technology in answering this question. Marx's conflict approach focuses on historical differences in the productive system. And, while Weber focused on characteristics of human thought, Durkheim concentrated on how societies differ in terms of how they are bound together.
Lenski sees change occurring through technological innovation. Marx saw class struggles as the "engine of history." Weber's idealist approach focused on how ideas contribute to social change. Finally, Durkheim believed the expanding division of labour was the main force behind the increasing complexity of society.