Definition & Characteristics of Society

At learning this topic, youshould be able to:

  • Define the concept of society;
  • Describe the basic characteristics of a society;
  • Conceptualize society as having different levels;
  • Describe the different types of society on the basisof various parameters;
  • Explain how society functions as a system;

Definition of society

The term society asmentioned earlier is derived from a Latin word socius. The term directlymeans association, togetherness, gregariousness, or simplygroup life. The concept of society refers to a relatively large groupingor collectivity of people who share more or less common and distinct culture,occupying a certain geographical locality, with the feeling of identity orbelongingness, having all the necessary social arrangements or insinuations tosustain itself.

We may add a more revealingdefinition of society as defined by Calhoun et al (1994): “Asociety is an autonomous grouping of people who inhabit a common territory,have a common culture (shared set of values, beliefs, customs and so forth) andare linked to one another through routinized social interactions andinterdependent statuses and roles.” Society also may mean a certainpopulation group, a community

The common tendency in sociologyhas been to conceptualize society as a system, focusing on the bounded andintegrated nature of society. Great founders of sociology had also focused onthe dynamic aspect of society. Such early sociologists as Comte,

Marx and Spencer grasped theconcept of society as a dynamic system evolving historically and inevitablytowards complex industrial structures (Swingwood, 1991:313).

The common tendency in sociologyhas been to conceptualize society as a system, focusing on the bounded andintegrated nature of society. But in recent years such an approach has beencriticized.

Contemporary sociologists nowfrequently use the network conception of society. This approachviews society as overlapping, dynamic and fluid network of economic, political,cultural and other relations at various levels. Such a conception isanalytically more powerful and reflects the reality especially in the contextof modern, globalizing world. (Personal communication: Dr TeketelAbebe, Addis Ababa University, Department of Sociology and SocialAnthropology)

Basic Features/characteristics of aSociety

  1. First, asociety is usually a relatively large grouping of people in terms of size. In avery important sense, thus, society may be regarded as the largest and the mostcomplex social group that sociologists study.
  2. Second, as theabove definition shows, the most important thing about a society is that itsmembers share common and distinct culture. This sets it apart from the otherpopulation groups.
  3. Third, asociety also has a definite, limited space or territory. The populations thatmake up a given society are thus locatable in a definite geographical area. Thepeople consider that area as their own.
  4. Fourth, thepeople who make up a society have the feeling of identity and belongingness.There is also the feeling of oneness. Such identity felling emanates from theroutinized pattern of social interaction that exists among the people and thevarious groups that make up the society. (Henslin and Nelson, 1995; Giddens,1996; Calhoun et al., 1994)
  5. Fifth, membersof a society are considered to have a common origin and common historicalexperience. They feel that they have also common destiny.
  6. Sixth, membersof a society may also speak a common mother tongue or a major language that mayserve as a national heritage.
  7. Seventh, asociety is autonomous and independent in the sense that it has all thenecessary social institutions and organizational arrangements to sustain thesystem.

However, a society is not an island,in the sense that societies are interdependent. There has always been inter–societal relations. People interact socially, economically and politically.

It is important to note that theabove features of a society are by no means exhaustive and they may not applyto all societies. The level of a society’s economic and technological development,the type of economic or livelihood system a society is engaged in, etc may createsome variations among societies in terms of these basic features.

Conceptualizing Society at VariousLevels

As indicated above, in a generalsense and at an abstract level, all people of the earth may be considered as asociety. The earth is a common territory for the whole world’s people. Allpeople of the earth share common origin; inhabit common planet; have common biopsychological unity; and exhibit similar basic interests, desires and fears;and are heading towards common destiny (Calhoun, et al., 1994).

At another level, every continentmay be considered as a society. Thus, we may speak of the European society, theAfrican society, the Asian society, the Latin American society, etc. This maybe because, each of these continents share its own territory, historical experiences,shared culture, and so on.

At a more practical level, eachnation-state or country is regarded as a society. For example, the people of Ethiopiaor Kenya, Japan are considered as a society.

Going far farther still, anotherlevel of society is that within each nation-state, there may be ethno-linguisticallydistinct groups of people having a territory that they consider as their own.They are thus societies in their own right. Some Such society may extend beyondthe boundaries of nation-states. Example, the Borana Oromo inhabit in bothEthiopia and Kenya.

Types or Categories of Societies

Sociologists classify societiesinto various categories depending on certain criteria. One such criterion islevel of economic and technological development attained by countries. Thus,the countries of the world are classified as First World, Second World, andThird World; First World Countries are those which are highly industrially advancedand economically rich, such as the USA, China, Japan, Britain, France, Italy,Germany, and Canada and so on. The Second World Countries are also industriallyadvanced but not as much as the first category. The

Third World societies are thuswhich are least developed, or in the process of developing. Some writers add afourth category, namely, Fourth World countries. These countries may beregarded as the “poorest of the poor” (Giddens, 1996).

Another important criterion forclassifying societies may be that which takes into account temporal succession andthe major source of economic organization (Lensiki and Lensiki, 1995). Whensocieties modernize they transform from one form to another. The simplest typeof society that is in existence today and that may be regarded the oldest isthat whose economic organization is based on hunting and gathering. They arecalled hunting and gathering societies. This society depends on huntingand gathering for its survival. The second types are referred to as pastoraland horticultural societies. Pastoral societies are those whose livelihood isbased on pasturing of animals, such as cattle, camels, sheep and goats. Horticulturalsocieties are those whose economy is based on cultivating plants by the use ofsimple tools, such as digging sticks, hoes, axes, etc.

The third types are agriculturalsocieties. This society, which still is dominant in most parts of the world, is basedon large-scale agriculture, which largely depends on ploughs using animal labor.The Industrial Revolution which began in Great Britain during 18th century,gave rise to the emergence of a fourth type of society called the IndustrialSociety. An industrial society is one in which goods are produced by machinespowered by fuels instead of by animal and human energy (Ibid.).

Sociologists also have come upwith a fifth emerging type of society called post-industrial society. This is a societybased on information, services and high technology, rather than on rawmaterials and manufacturing. The highly industrialized which have now passed tothe post-industrial level include the USA, Canada, Japan, and Western Europe.


  1. Define theterm “society”.
  2. “In abroader perspective, the people of the planet earth maybe regarded as asociety.” Explain.
  3. Mention thecriteria for classifying societies into different categories. Where would youput Nigeria as a society according to both criteria? Why?

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