How We Got Here: Crash Course Sociology #12

How We Got Here: Crash Course Sociology #12

November 7, 2019 100 By Kody Olson


Until about 12,000 years ago, the largest group of people
ever assembled, the most humans ever gathered in one
place, was probably a crowd of about 100, tops. And there were somewhere between one and ten
million people on the entire planet back then. Today, we have football stadiums that can
fit a hundred people a thousand times over. The city of Shanghai has a population of over
24 million. And there are almost 7.5 billion people on
Earth! How the heck did we get from there to here? That might sound like a history question,
and it is, partly. But it’s also a sociology question. Because, if we want to understand
how we got from small groups huddled
around a fire to cities of millions, we need to understand what society is and
how societies change as their populations grow. And we need to understand how different kinds
of societies shape the people who live in them. Pretty much any question you can ask about
society, you can answer with the help of sociology. [Theme Music] As long as there have been humans, there have
been societies. We’re social animals, and even when there
were mere handfuls of us, we grouped together,
forming the first societies. Now, society can mean lots of different things:
A few families who spend all their time hunting
deer and picking mushrooms can be a society. But so were the 70 million people of the Roman
Empire. And so are the 1.2 billion people living in
India today. So we need a definition that’s going to include
all of these things. And conveniently enough, we have one: a society
is simply a group of people who share a culture
and a territory. That’s a good definition, but it doesn’t really
tell us much about the different kinds of societies,
or how we get from one kind to another. For that, we turn to the work of American
sociologist Gerhard Lenski. Lenski focused on technology as the main source
of societal change, through a process he called
sociocultural evolution: the changes that occur as a society gains new technology. Lenski then broke up human history into
five different types of societies, defined by the technology they used and
the social organizations that the technology
helped create and sustain. If you look back to early human history, say about
30-40 thousand years ago, you find a lot of what
Lenski called hunting and gathering societies. In these societies, people made use of
extremely basic tools to help them hunt animals
and gather wild plants for food. Now, if you think about how much you eat in a day,
and imagine trying to gather up that much food every
day, it should be pretty clear that this is no easy task. So food was the major concern in these societies,
and they still exist today. People in hunting and gathering societies
spend almost all their time trying to make
sure they have enough food. And they’re nomadic, following migrating
animals and wild harvests, so they don’t
build permanent settlements. So, by their very nature, these societies tend to
be small; hunting and gathering can’t support a group
of more than 25 to 40 people effectively. And in order for hunting and gathering to
support even that, everyone has to work to
find food, and everyone has to share their
resources in order to ensure the survival
of the group. This means that these societies have very
low inequality. For the vast majority of human history, every single
person lived in hunting and gathering societies, up until about 12,000 years ago, when the
domestication of plants and animals led to new kinds
of society: horticultural and pastoral societies. Pastoral societies are based around the
domestication of animals and are also nomadic, moving
from place to place to keep their herds fed. Horticultural societies, on the other hand
are based on cultivating plants. So, with horticultural societies we see the first
human settlements, as groups began to stay put,
to remain close to reliable sources of food. And we also see, for the first time, the
accumulation of material surplus – that is, more
resources than are needed to feed the population. This is incredibly important because, having
a surplus allows a society to grow. And it also means that not everyone needs
to work on getting food and simply surviving. This, in turn, leads to the first real instances
of specialization in society, with separate political,
religious, and military roles coming about. We also get real social inequality for the
first time. And this same dynamic accelerates as we move
into agrarian society, as permanent settlements
emerge based around agricultural production. Starting about 5,000 years ago – with better
farming techniques like the animal-drawn plow – we get more food production and an even
bigger material surplus. From this came larger populations and larger
settlements, with even more specialization
and even more inequality. Remember serfs and nobles? Feudalism was an agrarian society. And you know what else happens when societies
reach this point? The family starts to become less important. In other kinds of societies, things like education
are handled almost entirely by the family. But as societies grow and become more complex,
those functions start to be taken up by larger
social institutions, like the church or schools. And now we finally start approaching present
day America, with industrial societies. These societies get their start with the industrial
revolution around 1750, as production began to shift
from human and animal power to machine power. This had a massive impact on food production,
with new technologies like the tractor and the combine producing huge surpluses that
could support even larger populations with
even more specialization. But the industrial revolution also marked
a fundamental change in the organization of
society itself. Societies far larger than anything seen before
meant a greater need to assert centralized
control over everything – from the production of goods, to transportation,
to agricultural production – in order to keep
things running smoothly. For the first time, human society moved away
from a subsistence-based economy. As mass production became possible, a capital-based
economy emerged. As the surplus grew and specialization increased,
so did inequality, with factory workers spending
12 hour days on one end, and incredibly wealthy “captains of industry”
making enormous profits on the other. It’s no coincidence that, soon after the
industrial revolution, Marxism and conflict
theory emerged. And the decreasing importance of the family
continued as well, as more institutions stepped
into traditional family roles. Industrial societies were the first to have
universal public education, for instance. And, for the first time, the majority of health
care and caregiving were institutionalized,
done outside the home in hospitals. The need to keep production organized also
meant an increasingly urbanized population. Because, it’s easier to control the resources
you need if they’re centralized. So people moved from the countryside to urban
centers, where the industrial jobs were. And all of this keeps going in Lenski’s
scheme of things, with specialization and
technological innovation continuing, until the development of the computer, a technology
that gave rise to the postindustrial society. In postindustrial societies, we still see
specialization, increased urbanization, and
technological advances. But the defining change is that postindustrial
societies shift away from an economy based on
raw materials and manufacturing, to an economy based based on information,
services, and technology. This is how we got here. If you look at the most dynamic sectors of the US economy, you see massive wealth being created in tech, finance, and service industries, but a steady decline in manufacturing. That said, it’s not as though Americans don’t
buy stuff. Apps can do a lot of things, but they can’t
(yet) conjure a car out of the ether for you. So this is a good chance to point out that
these different types of society aren’t isolated
from each other. You can’t have a postindustrial society without
having industrial societies elsewhere to supply
it with goods. This points again to increasing inequality –
not just within one society, but across societies. So, in Lenski’s understanding, societal change
is driven by technological change. But, it’s worth pointing out that not all
of these changes are beneficial. Pollution, global warming, and large-scale
warfare are new problems that technology has
brought us. And, technology doesn’t solve fundamental
societal problems. It has the potential to reorganize society,
but technology can’t tell us how to have
peaceful or just societies. In fact, just looking at Lenski’s classifications,
you can see that advancing technology also advances
inequality in society, making it increasingly unequal. So, we can’t limit our discussion of society
to just looking at technology. But that’s okay, because the sociocultural changes that
Lenski talks about can also be understood using the
work of some old friends: Marx, Weber, and Durkheim. Marx, for example, might seem pretty
similar to Lenski at first: If you think back to his theory of historical materialism,
he certainly seems to put a strong focus on technology
and the economy as the driving forces of history. Remember? He saw that changes in the forces of
production are important in pushing the change from
one mode of production to another. But for Marx, you only get large-scale social
change through class struggle, which culminates
in a revolution, overthrowing the old relations of production
and replacing them with an entirely new set. So in Marx’s view, the transition between
Lenski’s stages requires technological change,
but it also requires revolution. And we can also use Marx’s understanding
of conflict to compare Lenski’s stages with
each other. In hunting and gathering societies, for example,
conflict and inequality are leveled by the lack of
surplus and the need to share resources. But that’s not the case in postindustrial
society. Max Weber, for his part, seems further away
from Lenski than Marx, focusing not on technology
or revolution, but on ideas. The major transition that Weber talked about
was the shift from traditional to modern society, which he argued was really a matter of rationalization. Now, it’s not that Weber didn’t appreciate
the importance of technology. But he argued that the transition from
agrarian to industrial society, for instance,
began with a shift in ideas – like new techniques in accounting and
ways of approaching social organization. And it was these ideas, combined with advances
in technology, that produced the overall change. So in this view, both ideas and technology
were crucial for the emergence of modern capitalism. And Durkheim, finally, took a different tack
from either Marx or Weber. He approached the transitions that Lenski
talked about from the perspective of a society’s
underlying social structure. Specifically, Durkheim saw the history of
society as a long term change in solidarity,
a change in what held societies together. He argued that hunting and gathering
societies were held together by similarity,
what he called mechanical solidarity. Durkheim argued that everyone in these
societies had the same skills and lived in
basically the same way. But that changed as society developed and
specialization increased. With more specialization, people became more
differentiated, taking on different jobs, learning
different skills, and living in different ways. But, Durkheim argued, people also became more
tightly integrated, because they became more
interdependent. Factory workers needed farmers to make food so
that they could eat, and farmers needed factory
workers to make their tools and other goods. Durkheim called this interdependence organic
solidarity. And so Lenski’s sociocultural evolution
is, for Durkheim, the story of a long transition
from mechanical to organic solidarity. Ultimately, all of these ways of looking at society
and its changes, from the point of view of technology,
or conflict and revolution, or ideas, or underlying social structure, are important
for understanding what society is and how it works. Each one of these perspectives sees things
that the others miss, and each one is important
for the discipline of sociology. Today we learned about the society, what it
is and how it changes. We talked about Gerhard Lenski’s classification
of societies into five types, and the technological
changes that turn one into another. We returned to Marx and Weber, and talked
about how they understood societal change. And we also talked about Durkheim’s
understanding of society and how social
solidarity can be mechanical or organic. Crash Course Sociology is filmed in the Dr.
Cheryl C. Kinney Studio in Missoula, MT, and
it’s made with the help of all these nice people. Our Animation Team is Thought Cafe and Crash
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