The six types of society in sociology are hunter-gatherer, pastoral, horticultural, agricultural, industrial, and post-industrial.
These societies are listed in what appears to be a logical linear order – from least to most advanced. However, this is only in regards to the progress of economies. Indeed, some societies considered pre-industrial may be considered more advanced in regard to spirituality, environmental stewardship, or other metrics.
What is a Society?
A society is a group of individuals that are involved in persistent social interaction, or a large social group sharing the same territory.
Members of a society are usually subject to the same governing body and the same culture. Societies have their own norms about behavior.
Societies, tacitly or in an acknowledged way, deem certain actions and patterns of behavior as acceptable or unacceptable. Some see society as a human product that has the power to change its producers (Berger, 1967, p. 3).
Sociological Classification of Societies
There are different ways to classify societies. Gerhard Lenski differentiated five main types of societies (Lenski, 1974, p. 96), while Morton Fried and Elman Service differentiated six.
Contemporary sociologists tend to differentiate five types that are slightly different from those of Lenski (OpenStax, 2021, p. 99).
These five types fall into three broader categories:
- industrial, and
Pre-industrial societies can be further subdivided into four different types:
- hunter-gatherer societies,
- pastoral societies,
- horticultural societies, and
- agricultural societies. We can now define each type of society in turn.
1. Hunter-Gatherer Societies
Type: Pre-industrial Society
Hunter-gatherer societies were the norm until about 10,000-12,000 years ago. These societies were based on kinship or tribes and they relied heavily on the environment.
Hunter-gatherers hunted wild animals and gathered uncultivated plants for food. Since these societies were dependent on the environment for their food, they often had to move to new areas. Hunter-gatherer societies were, therefore, nomadic. They didn’t build permanent settlements.
The average size of a hunter-gatherer band is only around 15 to 50 people (Lee & Daly, 1999, p. 3) Only a few hundred hunter-gatherer societies remain in existence today.
These societies tend to be relatively democratic, in the sense that decisions are generally reached through mutual agreement. Leadership is often personal and restricted to special cases in tribal societies.
The chief of a tribe is the most influential person (Lenski, 1974, p. 146). Most members of a given tribe are related by birth or marriage. The average amount of time a member of a hunter-gatherer society spends each day is about 6.5 hours, which is why some people consider hunter-gatherer tribes the “original affluent societies” (Sahlins, 1968, pp. 85-89).
Hunter Gatherer Society Examples
Examples of hunter-gatherer societies include:
- Many Aboriginal Australian societies prior to 1788,
- Torres Strait Islanders prior to 1788, and
- Bambuti in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
2. Pastoral Societies
Type: Pre-industrial Society
A pastoral society is a type of preindustrial society whose way of life is based on pastoralism (that is, the domestication of animals).
Since the food supply of pastoral societies is far more reliable, they tend to have much larger populations than a hunter-gatherer culture could support.
Pastoral societies, like hunter-gatherer societies, are typically nomadic: they do not build permanent settlements such as villages. This is because pastoralists must constantly take their herds to new grazing lands.
Cultural artifacts of these societies, therefore, consist of easily transportable items such as tents, woven carpets, jewelry, and so on.
The first pastoral societies appeared when, around 10,000 years ago, humans began taming and breeding animals to grow and cultivate their plants. Pastoral societies found a more sustainable way to live because they could breed livestock for food, clothing, and transportation.
This allowed them to create a surplus of goods. This is also the time when specialized occupations and systematic trading first emerged. Over time, hereditary chieftainships emerged, which is the government structure typical of pastoral societies.
Pastoral Society Examples
Many pastoral societies still exist today, particularly in North Africa, Sub-Saharan Africa, and South Asia.
Examples from Africa include:
- The Afar people,
- The Bedouin people,
- The Beja people, and
- The Tigre people
In South Asia, some examples include:
- The Ahir people,
- The Bhutia people, and
- The Kurma people.
3. Horticultural Societies
Type: Pre-industrial Society
Around the same time as pastoral societies, there emerged another type of society: horticultural society. It was based on the newly developed capacity to grow and cultivate plants.
Horticulturists use human labor and simple instruments to cultivate the land. When a piece of land becomes barre, these societies move on to new plots.
They might return to the original plot years later and repeat the process.
This type of rotation of plots of land is what allows horticultural societies to stay in one area for a fairly long period. That’s why they could build permanent villages, in contrast to hunter-gatherer and pastoral societies (Lenski, 1974, p. 165).
Horticultural societies have specialized roles for different individuals. These roles include craftspeople, shamans, and traders.
The existence of a hierarchy, as in pastoral societies, creates inequalities in wealth and power within horticultural political systems.
Horticultural societies, because they relied on the environment, usually formed around areas where rainfall and other conditions allowed them to grow crops.
Horticultural Society Examples
Examples of horticultural societies include:
- Gururumba Tribe (New Guinea) – Growing sweet potato, yams, sugarcane, and taro.
- Maasai people (Kenya) – Growing rice, potatoes, and cabbage.
- Pre-historical Peru – About 10,000-6,000 years ago, the Indigenous tribes in Peru, starting with the Ñanchoc people, domesticated squash, peanuts, and cotton.
Many horticultural societies quickly moved into Agricultural era with the development of permanent tools.
4. Agricultural Societies
Type: Pre-industrial Society
Agricultural societies were those that relied on permanent tools for survival. They used agricultural technological advances to cultivate crops over a large piece of land.
Lenski (1974, p. 207) writes that the main thing that differentiated agricultural societies from horticultural ones was the use of the plow.
Farmers learned how to rotate the types of crops they grew on their lands. They learned how to use fertilizers.
New and better tools for digging and harvesting appeared. Improved technology led to an increase in the food supply, which in turn led to the formation of towns that became centers of trade.
Agricultural societies were even more socially stratified than horticultural or pastoral ones.
For example, the role of women became increasingly subordinate to that of men. Those who had more resources developed into a separate noble class. A system of rulers with high social status also appeared.
Agricultural Society Examples
Examples of agricultural societies include:
- Ancient Egyptians and Sumarians: Plows have been found from Ancient Egypt that date back to 4000BCE.
- Northern China: Metal bladed plows in China date back to about 3000BCE.
5. Industrial Societies
Type: Industrial Society
Industrial societies used external energy sources, such as fossil fuels, to increase the rate and scale of production. Human labor gets replaced by machinery, so workers tend to shift towards tertiary sector activities.
In eighteenth-century Europe, the Industrial Revolution made possible the replacement of horses and human workers by machines. Steam power was far more efficient than human or horse power, so societies became more and more reliant on machine power for producing goods.
This led to dramatic increases in efficiency, which, in turn, led to a greater surplus of goods than ever seen before. The population rose to unprecedented heights (as explained by the demographic transition model). Increased productivity made more goods available to everyone.
Textile mills replaced artisans, farmers started using mechanical seeders and threshing machines, and products such as paper and glass became readily available to the average citizen. More people had access to education and healthcare than ever before.
One of the consequences of increased productivity was the rise of urban centers. Workers preferred living close to factories, and the service industry had to provide labor to the workers, so city populations became larger and larger.
Industrial Society Examples
England is known to be one of the first large-scale industrial societies, enabling it to become a global superpower. As technology rapidly sped up, most of Europe and North America become industrialized.
Today, many developing societies continue to rely on industrial economies; and in those societies, there is often a mix of industrial and post-industrial regions.
6. Post-Industrial Societies
Type: Post-industrial Society
Post-industrial societies are those which are dominated by information, services, and high technology rather than the production of tangible goods.
So, the tertiary (service) sector of a post-industrial society tends to be stronger than its secondary (manufacturing) sector.
This is why they are often referred to as “information societies” or “digital societies” (OpenStax, 2021, p. 102).
Post-industrial societies have several characteristics that differentiate them from industrial ones. One is the shift from the production of goods to the provision of services. The second is the value these societies attach to knowledge.
The third characteristic is that in post-industrial societies, blue-collar work tends to decline in importance, whereas professional work tends to be highly valued.
One of the most vital characteristics of a post-industrial society is its high valuation of knowledge.
Since the service sector is of primary importance in such societies, knowledge becomes more and more powerful. Research institutes, think tanks, universities, and schools have a larger role to play. All this results in a general increase in expertise.
Examples of Post-Industrial Societies
Areas of most of the developed world in the 21st Century can be considered post-industrial. This includes, but is not limited to:
- The United States of America
- The United Kingdom
The study of societies is the central preoccupation of sociologists. It is, therefore, unsurprising that they conduct a lot of research on the classification of the different types of societies.
There are many different ways to do this. In this article, we analyzed and defined the six most commonly cited types of societies. These are (1) hunter-gatherer societies, (2) pastoral societies, (3) horticultural societies, (4) agricultural societies, (5) Industrial societies, and (6) post-industrial societies.
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Berger, P. L. (1967). The Scared Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion. Doubleday & Company.
Lee, R. B. & Daly, R. (1999). Introduction: Foragers & Others. In The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Hunters & Gatherers. Cambridge University Press.
Lenski, G. E. (1974). Human Societies: An Introduction to Macrosociology. McGraw-Hill.
OpenStax. (2021). Introduction to Sociology, 3rd edition. Rice University.
Sahlins, M. (1968). Notes on the Original Affluent Society. In Lee, R. B. & DeVore, I. Man the Hunter. Aldine Publishing Company.