Sociologists mostly study contemporary societies. However, an understanding of preindustrial societies is important in sociology, because it helps to give a broad picture of the different ways that societies and cultures can be organized. A preindustrial society is characterized by the use of machines powered by human or animal labor, the use of resources available in the immediate environment, and social structure based on kinship ties (family-based ties). These types of societies were widespread before the Industrial Revolution and operated without the use of major machinery. Societies tended to be made up of small, rural groups and depended on the local community for resources. Economies were based mostly on human labor, and specialized occupations were limited to the various groups making up these societies. All of these factors shaped the cultures of preindustrial societies. Kinship ties and labor patterns were important elements of these cultures.
Sociologists and anthropologists define several types of preindustrial societies. A hunter-gatherer society is tribally based, relying on immediate surroundings to collect food and resources for survival. When food becomes scarce, these groups typically move to new areas. These types of societies emerged roughly 10,000–12,000 years ago. A pastoral society is defined by the ability to farm and breed animals and by specialized occupations. These types of societies began to appear about 8,000 years ago. In addition to farming and raising animals, they use animals for food and clothing and train them to be used for transportation. Different members of society have specialized occupations, such as trading with other groups, herding animals, and cultivating vegetation. Horticultural societies developed at about the same time as pastoral groups. A horticultural society has a tribal organization that relies on the immediate environment but has stabilized crops and permanent settlements. The development of permanent settlements eventually created stability for societies and longer periods of survival.
An agricultural society uses farming technology, enabling the massive harvesting of crops. Agricultural societies are distinguished by the use of fertilizer, the ability to craft metal, the building of cities, and the development of commence. These types of societies appeared around 3000 BCE. The concept of landownership began to emerge, as groups turned away from nomadic lifestyles and settled in particular areas. Another key marker of this period is its association with the production of arts and crafts, leisure, and poetry and other literary activities. Of concern to sociologists is the development of social classes during this time. Those with resources developed into an upper, or noble, class. Differences in social standings between genders also increased. Many of these societies developed into feudal societies, characterized by strictly defined social hierarchies. A feudal society has a strictly defined system of power based on landownership and the protection of resources. The landowners share their resources with vassals (workers) who provide labor and security. With the advent of the Industrial Revolution, feudalism gave way to industry and capitalism. Social and economic change also brought cultural change. Practices, beliefs, and symbols changed as new types of work and new social relations emerged.
Industrial Societies and the Industrial Revolution
An industrial society uses engines to power machines, facilitating manufacturing and mass production. Industrial societies developed alongside the technological innovations of the Industrial Revolution. They are characterized by the use factories, urbanization, and modern capitalism. The Industrial Revolution occured in several phases. The first phases occurred from roughly the late-18th century through the 19th century, when massive technological inventions dramatically changed society and culture. It began in Europe, with the development of the steam engine, and quickly spread to North America and around the world. Steam power impacted nearly everything from producing fabric to harvesting seeds. Inventors rapidly developed new machines and technologies based on steam power. The sheer number of these new technologies significantly changed daily life. These changes decreased the time it took to farm, build, cultivate livestock, and produce goods. The Industrial Revolution ushered in a new way of life, changing the ways people worked, where people lived, and the power structure of society.
As factories based on new technology began to proliferate, masses of people migrated to cities in pursuit of work. While cities were growing, the population of agricultural societies was waning. This fundamentally changed culture, with new cultural patterns emerging in urban settings and the patterns and norms of rural culture shifting as well. New opportunities for social mobility arose for some people. Those with money to invest in factories or technology had a new path to wealth, which also led to new opportunities for social status. At the same time, concerns over the exploitation of the laboring classes led some workers and reformers to push for change that would benefit those at the bottom of the socioeconomic hierarchy. This led to the development of unions and to passing new kinds of laws dealing with safety conditions for workers in dangerous factories. Social and cultural ideas about family, childhood, child labor, and most of the social structures we see today in mainstream Western society can be traced back to the industrial period.