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Society or human society is the manner or condition in which the members of a community live together for their mutual benefit. By extension, society denotes the people of a region or country, sometimes even the world, taken as a whole.

Used in the sense of an associaton, a society is a body of individuals outlined by the bounds of functional interdependence, possibly comprising characteristics such as national or cultural identity, social solidarity, language or hierarchical organization. Human societies are characterized by patterns of relationships between individuals sharing a distinctive culture and institutions. Like other communities or groups, a society allows its members to achieve needs or wishes they could not fulfill alone.

A society, however, may be ontologically independent of, and utterly irreducible to, the qualities of constituent individuals; it may act to oppress. The urbanization and rationalization inherent in some, particularly Western capitalist, societies, has been associated with feelings of isolation and social "anomie".

More broadly, a society is an economic, social or industrial infrastructure, made up of a varied collection of individuals. Members of a society may be from different ethnic groups. A society may be a particular ethnic group, such as the Saxons; a nation state, such as Bhutanmarker; a broader cultural group, such as a Western society. The word society may also refer to an organized voluntary association of people for religious, benevolent, cultural, scientific, political, patriotic, or other purposes. A "society" may even, though more by means of metaphor, refer to a social organism such as an ant colony.

Origin and usage

Young people interacting within society.
The word society emerged in the 16th century, derived from the French société which stemmed from the Latin societas, a "friendly association with others," from socius meaning "companion, associate, comrade or business partner." The Latin word is probably related to the verb sequi, "to follow", and thus originally may have meant "follower".

In political science, the term is often used to mean the totality of human relationships, generally in contrast to the State, i.e., the apparatus of rule or government within a territory:

In the social sciences, a society has been used to mean a group of people that form a semi-closed social system, in which most interactions are with other individuals belonging to the group. Society is sometimes contrasted with culture. For example, Clifford Geertz has suggested that society is the actual arrangement of social relations while culture is made up of beliefs and symbolic forms.

According to sociologist Richard Jenkins, the term addresses a number of important existential issues facing people:

  1. How humans think and exchange information – the sensory world makes up only a fraction of human experience. To understand the world, we have to conceive of human interaction in the abstract (i.e., society).
  2. Many phenomena cannot be reduced to individual behavior.
  3. Collectives often endure beyond the lifespan of individual members.
  4. The human condition has always meant going beyond the evidence of our senses; every aspect of our lives is tied to the collective.


Plato: early commentator on society
The history of society can be traced back at least to the ancient Greeks. Its development is seen as evolving in incremental steps from the agrarian communities, through industrialization and on to the present day.


One of the earliest to comment on society was Plato, a Greek philosopher who lived in the 3rd century BC. In The Republic, he describes the structure of the State as consisting of three divisions: the rulers (preferably philosophers); the guardians (soldiers); and the farmers, merchants and other people. He then goes into a lengthy discussion of justice, a prerequisite for safeguarding society and culture.

Agrarian society

Agrarian society has been the main form of socio-economic organization for most of recorded human history. Originating in 3000 BC with the invention of the wheel and the plow, it led to organized farming in the Middle East and subsequently in the rest of the world. It quickly led to growth, especially in Mesopotamia and Egyptmarker with its favourable environment and natural defenses.

There were however increasingly cultural and social divisions in society resulting from the small governing class and the mass of people required not only to ensure the manual labor but to provide their leaders with the surplus they produced.

Industrial society

Cotton mill, Manchester, England, ca. 1820
Industrial society developed in Britainmarker in the late 18th century as a result of the industrial revolution. It brought about tremendous improvements in the manufacture of textiles, the production of iron and steel and the use of steam power. The trend quickly spread to the United States and the rest of Europe and from there to the rest of the world.

The use of external energy sources, such as fossil fuels, increased the rate and scale of production. With time, the production of food moved to large commercial farms where the products of industry, such as combine harvesters and petroleum based fertilizers, were used to decrease human labor while increasing production.

Industrial society makes urbanization desirable, in part so that workers can be closer to centers of production, and the service industry can provide labor to workers and those that benefit financially from them, leading to the rise of large cities and surrounding suburban areas.

Post-industrial society

Post-industrial society began to emerge in the Western world in the 1950s and 1960s as the part played by manufacturing industry in the economy diminished in favour of the service industries. This economic transition brought about a restructuring in society as a whole.

In his book The Coming of Post-Industrial Society, George Ritzer of the University of Marylandmarker lists a number of factors typical of post-industrial society.

These include:
  • a decline in the production of goods such as clothing and steel side-by-side with increased services in health, education, research, finance and government;
  • manual work declines while professional employment in law, technology and science increases;
  • theoretical knowledge paves the way to innovation, for example in the area of health;
  • new technologies such as genetic engineering and cybernetics are developed in response to the need for assessment and control;
  • there is a need for more universities and students in order to produce experts who can create and control dramatically changing technologies.

Evolution of societies

According to anthropologist Maurice Godelier, one critical novelty in human society, in contrast to humanity's closest biological relatives (chimpanzees and bonobo), is the parental role assumed by the males, which were unaware of their "father" connection .

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). This is somewhat 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:

  • Humanity, mankind, that upon which rest all the elements of society, including society's beliefs.
  • Virtual society is a society based on online identity, which is evolving in the information age.

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 foodstocks to become agrarian village. Villages grew to become towns and cities. Cities turned into city-states and nation-states.

Today, anthropologists and many social scientists vigorously oppose the notion of cultural evolution and rigid "stages" such as these. In fact, much anthropological data has suggested that complexity (civilization, population growth and density, specialization, etc.) does not always take the form of hierarchical social organization or stratification.

Also, cultural relativism as a widespread approach/ethic has largely replaced notions of "primitive," better/worse, or "progress" in relation to cultures (including their material culture/technology and social organization).

Organization of society

Human societies are often organized according to their primary means of subsistence. As noted in the section on "Evolution of societies", above, social scientists identify hunter-gatherer societies, nomadic pastoral societies, horticulturalist or simple farming societies, and intensive agricultural societies, also called civilizations. Some consider industrial and post-industrial societies to be qualitatively different from traditional agricultural societies.

One common theme for societies in general is that they serve to aid individuals in a time of crisis. Traditionally, when an individual requires aid, for example at birth, death, sickness, or disaster, members of that society will rally others to render aid, in some form—symbolic, linguistic, physical, mental, emotional, financial, medical, or religious. Many societies will distribute largess, at the behest of some individual or some larger group of people. This type of generosity can be seen in all known cultures; typically, prestige accrues to the generous individual or group. Conversely, members of a society may also shun or scapegoat members of the society who violate its norms. Mechanisms such as gift-giving and scapegoating, which may be seen in various types of human groupings, tend to be institutionalized within a society. Social evolution as a phenomenon carries with itself certain elements that could be detrimental to the population it serves.

Some societies will bestow status on an individual or group of people, when that individual or group performs an admired or desired action. This type of recognition is bestowed by members of that society on the individual or group in the form of a name, title, manner of dress, or monetary reward. Males, in many societies, are particularly susceptible to this type of action and subsequent reward, even at the risk of their lives. Action by an individual or larger group in behalf of some cultural ideal is seen in all societies. The phenomena of community action, shunning, scapegoating, generosity, and shared risk and reward occur in subsistence-based societies and in more technology-based civilizations.

Societies may also be organized according to their political structure. In order of increasing size and complexity, there are bands, tribes, chiefdoms, and state societies. These structures may have varying degrees of political power, depending on the cultural geographical, and historical environments that these societies must contend with. Thus, a more isolated society with the same level of technology and culture as other societies is more likely to survive than one in closer proximity to others that may encroach on their resources (see history for examples). A society that is unable to offer an effective response to other societies it competes with will usually be subsumed into the culture of the competing society (see technology for examples).

Shared belief or common goal

People of many nations united by common political and cultural traditions, beliefs, or values are sometimes also said to be a society (such as Judeo-Christian, Eastern, and Western). When used in this context, the term is employed as a means of contrasting two or more "societies" whose members represent alternative conflicting and competing worldviews (see Secret Societies).

Some academic, learned and scholarly associations describe themselves as societies (for example, the American Mathematical Society). More commonly, professional organizations often refer to themselves as societies (e.g., the American Society of Civil Engineers, American Chemical Society). In the United Kingdommarker and the United States, learned societies are normally nonprofit and have charitable status. In science, they range in size to include national scientific societies (i.e., the Royal Society) to regional natural history societies. Academic societies may have interest in a wide range of subjects, including the arts, humanities and science.

In some countries (for example the United Statesmarker and Francemarker), the term "society" is used in commerce to denote a partnership between investors or the start of a business. In the United Kingdommarker, partnerships are not called societies, but cooperatives or mutual are often known as societies (such as friendly societies and building societies). In Latin America, the term society may be used in commerce denoting a partnership between investors, or anonymous investors; for example: "Proveedor Industrial Anahuac S.A." where S.A. stands for Anonymous Society (Sociedad Anónima); however in Mexicomarker in other type of partnership it would be declared as S.A. de C.V. or S.A. de R.L., indicating the level of commitment of capital and the responsibilities from each member towards their own association and towards the society in general and supervised by the corresponding jurisdictional civil and judicial authorities.

Society today

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

Western society

Western society shown as dark blue
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 Zealandmarker and sometimes also includes South America and Israelmarker. 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.

Information society

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.

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.
World Summit on the Information Society, Geneva
The International Telecommunications Union's World Summit on the Information Society in Genevamarker and Tunismarker (2003/2005) has led to a number of policy and application areas where action is required. These include:
  • promotion of ICTs for development;
  • information and communication infrastructure;
  • access to information and knowledge;
  • capacity building;
  • building confidence and security in the use of ICTs;
  • enabling environment;
  • ICT applications in the areas of government, business, learning, health, employment, environment, agriculture and science;
  • cultural and linguistic diversity and local content;
  • media;
  • ethical dimensions of the Information Society;
  • international and regional cooperation.

Knowledge society

As 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.

In the words of an Irish governmental analysis, "The capacity to manipulate, store and transmitlarge 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."

The Second World Summit on the Knowledge Society, held in Chaniamarker, Cretemarker, in September 2009, gave special attention to the following topics:

Well-known societies

While there are literally thousands of societies representing virtually every interest, a number of them are widely recognized. A few examples demonstrating the variety of a society's scope and interests are given below.

The Royal Society

Illustration from Sprat's History of the Royal Society
The Royal Society, officially the Royal Society of London for the Improvement of Natural Knowledge, is a learned society for science that was founded in 1660 and is considered by most to be the oldest such society still in existence.

Fellowship, granted for life, is awarded to scientists after their election by existing fellows, and is considered a great honour. Fellows must be citizens or residents of a member of the Commonwealth of Nations or the Republic of Irelandmarker, while the smaller number of Foreign Members are drawn from other countries. Up to 44 new Fellows are elected each year. The Society's statutes state that candidates for election must have made "a substantial contribution to the improvement of natural knowledge, including mathematics, engineering science and medical science."

The Fabian Society

Britain's best-known socialist society is the Fabian Society, a membership organization affiliated with the Labour Party. It was founded in 1884, some years before the creation of the Labour Party itself. Although membership is relatively small (around 7,000), the society is very influential.

It is best known for its ground-breaking work from the late 19th century until World War I. The society laid many of the foundations of the Labour Party. Today, it is a vanguard "think tank" of the New Labour movement.

Famous members have included George Bernard Shaw, H. G. Wells, Virginia Woolf, Ramsay MacDonald, Tony Benn, Harold Wilson, and more recently Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.

Society of Friends

World Conference of Friends, London, 1920
The Society of Friends is a Christian organization whose members are commonly known as Quakers. It was founded in 17th century Englandmarker by George Fox who called for a radical, egalitarian, spirit-filled Christianity that would not be oppressive of people on account of race, sex, or class. Women and men were given equal status as all were children of God. A person should not set himself up with honors and distinctions as these were meaningless in the sight of God. From this came the Quaker practices of simple living, plain dress and plain speech.

Quakers maintain that the teaching of Jesus is a practical method for the guidance of the world today and that religion is concerned with the whole of life.

Friends World Committee for Consultation (FWCC) is the international Quaker organization which loosely unifies the diverse groups of Friends from around the world.

A number of leading charities today were founded with participation from Quakers, such as Oxfam and Amnesty International.

Societies for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals

Throughout the English-speaking world, there are a considerable number of societies for the prevention of cruelty to animals, often known as SPCAs. Their operations may include protecting and providing shelter to animals in danger, striving to relieve the suffering of animals and ensuring law enforcement for the protection of animals. They are non-profit organizations that campaign for animal welfare and take in abused or abandoned animals, and help them to get adopted.

Among the large national organizations are the American ASPCAmarker with over one million supporters across the United States and the British RSPCA with voluntary funding of over £80 million a year.

See also


  1. Wiktionary definition of society. Retrieved 18 October 2009.
  2. Online Etymology Dictionary - society/social. Retrieved 18 October 2009.
  3. Jenkins, R. 2002. Foundations of Sociology.
  4. Plato: The Republic 1-4. From Philosophy Pages. Retrieved 18 October 2009.
  5. Dr. Guillermo J. Grenier: Chapter 7, Agrarian Societies. Retrieved 18 October 2009.
  6. Lewis Mumford: The Natural History of Urbanization. Retrieved 20 October 2009.
  7. Ritzer, George. The Coming of Post-Industrial Society. Second Edition. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2007.
  8. Maurice Godelier, Métamorphoses de la parenté, 2004
  9. Lenski, G. 1974. Human Societies: An Introduction to Macrosociology.
  10. Effland, R. 1998. The Cultural Evolution of Civilizations.
  11. John P McKay, Bennett D Hill, John Buckler, Clare Haru Crowston and Merry E Wiesner-Hanks: Western Society: A Brief History. Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.
  12. The Information Society. Indiana University. Retrieved 20 October 2009.
  13. Information Society Policies at a Glance. From Retrieved 20 October 2009.
  14. WSIS Implementation by Action Line. From Retrieved 20 October 2009.
  15. Building the Knowledge Society. Report to Government, December 2002. Information Society Commission, Ireland. Retrieved 20 October 2009.
  16. Second World Summit on the Knowledge Society. Retrieved 20 October 2009.
  17. The Royal Society's website. Retrieved 21 October 2009.
  18. The Fabian Society website. Retrieved 22 October 2009.
  19. Facts about Friends. Retrieved 22 October 2009.
  20. Friends World Committee for Consultation website. Retrieved 22 October 2009.
  21. Cecil Jackson-Cole from Oxfordshire Blue Plaques Board. Retrieved 22 October 2009.
  22. Amnesty International Secretariat Archives at the International Institute of Social History. Retrieved 22 October 2009.
  23. "About the ASPCA" Retrieved 5 May 2009,
  24. RSPCA website. Retrieved 22 October 2009.


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