Human societies: definition, characteristics and classification

Origins, definition and characteristics of human societies, a set of autonomous and organized individuals who interact to achieve common goals.


  1. The company: definition and characteristics
  2. The social structure
  3. Classification and models of society
  4. The mass society
  5. Key concepts


Famous phrase

“You must not lose faith in humanity. Humanity is an ocean; if a few drops of the ocean are dirty, the ocean does not become dirty.” Mahatma Gandhi

The company: definition and characteristics

Commuters in Hong Kong – Source:

Society: set of individuals in relation to each otherAlthough it is very complex to draw a univocal description of society , it can be understood as an organized collectivity of individuals united by interactions of various kinds .

Characteristics of the companyIt can be noted that:

  • the members of a society share the same territoryand interact to satisfy collective material and social needs ;
  • a society expresses a culture, although it is more correct to speak of cultures. The members of a society share rituals, customs, language, values ​​and behavioral norms, although not homogeneously ;
  • in societies there is some form of economic organizationand, in more complex situations, there are rules and institutions ;
  • an individualwho is part of a particular society is aware of his belonging to it and tends to identify with it ;
  • society is a structure that has a certain continuity over timeand guarantees its survival thanks to the recruitment of new members by means of immigration or generational continuity.

Culture: diffusion, acculturation, cultural hybridization, multiculturalism and interculture


Not all companies have these characteristicsIt should be noted that not all companies have these characteristics at the same time . For example, with respect to the first point, there are nomadic populations that cannot be identified starting from their stable presence in a territory. Even the concept of culture , connected to society, opens up many questions, precisely because there are societies that express a plurality of cultures and not all of them are shared by its members.

2 The social structure

Social change: process, stratification, mobility, deviance and social control


The social structure organizes the relationships between individualsEach society is characterized by a social structure that determines social actions and organizes relations between men according to a series of instances:

Status and social role1. status and social role : status corresponds to the social position held by an individual within the social structure . The statuses are: ascribed : determined by birth and by factors independent of man’s will (age, gender, place of birth); acquired : they depend on the actions and choices of the individual and therefore pertain, for example, to the type of profession carried out or to the economic position reached. Each status is the equivalent of a specific social role which corresponds to a series of expectations regarding behavior that an individual, of a certain social status, must follow.

The groups2. Groups : relationships between individuals determine the formation of groups within which members interact and share goals and values. The groups are primary (small groups characterized by very deep relationships; the main example can be identified in the family ) or secondary (limited and superficial interaction as can occur within an extended work group); formal (the rules of conduct and access to the group follow specific criteria; the interaction is aimed at achieving an external objective which is the very reason for forming the group) or informal (groups of friends are such: relationships do not have an instrumental value, the objectives of the group respond to the needs of the members themselves, the access criteria are not regulated).

The institutions3. Institutions : these are the forms of organization through which society responds to the needs of its members . For example, the school system is an institution.

3 Classification and models of society

Auguste Comte: biography, thought and works

Numerous intellectuals have proposed an analysis of society and its possible classifications .

Society and organizationDuring the nineteenth century, approaches that intend to explain society starting from its assimilation to a living organism spread , since both, society and organism, are composed of several parts that collaborate for the functioning of the whole. Among the main exponents of this interpretation are Auguste Comte and Herbert Spencer .

Comte and the law of the three stages of knowledgeThe positivist and one of the founders of sociology Auguste Comte interprets society starting from his law of the three stages of human knowledge . Each stage of knowledge corresponds to a type of society .

  1. theological stage: man interprets phenomena through imagination and by appealing to supernatural demands. The society is military and theological , the dominant figures are those of warriors and church representatives.
  2. metaphysical stage: man answers his own questions by resorting to abstract interpretations. The society of jurists corresponds to this stage , it is an era dominated by popular sovereignty.
  3. positive stage: man searches for the laws of phenomena by adopting a scientific approach. The company is of an industrial type ; at its top are the scientists; industrialists have the power and the task of directing industrial production.

Spencer and the evolutionary approachThe positivist philosopher Herbert Spencer takes an evolutionary approach . Society, like an organism, follows a natural development. He distinguishes between:

  • military society, not yet fully developed, strongly hierarchical and in which collaboration between individuals is constricting;
  • industrial society, more evolved and in which greater is the freedom of individuals

Émile Durkheim: biography, sociology and pedagogy

Durkheim: segmental societies and more complex societiesThe French sociologist, one of the fathers of sociology, Émile Durkheim distinguishes between:
– segmentary , simpler and more homogeneous societies , dominated by a mechanical solidarity : the members of this society have the same values ​​and recognize themselves as similar.
– more complex and advanced companies , such as industrial ones . Solidarity is organic and consensual in nature: each needs the others, since, with the division of labor and the specialization of functions, each participates in different moments of the production cycle.

Marx’s Capital: explanation and analysis

Marx: bourgeois class and proletariatThe philosopher and economist Karl Marx divides society into classes:
– bourgeois class , owner of the means of production;
– proletariat , owner exclusively of its own workforce.
The relationship between the classes is inevitably conflictual . However, capitalist society is destined to collapse: the communist revolution will lead to the abolition of private property and the dictatorship of the proletariat.

Tönnies: community and societySociologist Ferdinand Tönnies makes a distinction between community (Gemeinschaft) and society (Gesellschaft).

  • The communitiesare comparable to living organisms ; in them the family is the main organization; the bonds between individuals are deep and determined by affectivity; religious values ​​are the dominant ones and the objectives are collective.
  • The companysimilar to mechanical products , include the industry and the bureaucracy as a basic; relationships between individuals are connected to norms and are more indirect; secular values ​​and the pursuit of individual interests dominate.

Relationship life: kinship, marriage and kinship groups

Parsons and the preservation of society over timeSociologist Talcott Parsons identifies four criteria which, if met, allow a society to be preserved over time . At the same time, it identifies the subsets of society that must fulfill the criterion. In particular:

  1. The family and the education systemmust maintain the identity of a society;
  2. The lawshould address the need to integrate all components of a company;
  3. The policyshould set the goals to which the company must aim;
  4. The economic systemmust organize the tools functional to the achievement of the objectives of the company.

Lenski: hunting and gathering, horticultural, agricultural and industrial companiesSociologist Gerhard Lenski has classified societies according to the types of resources that they employ to guarantee the subsistence of its members. With an evolutionary approach , he distinguishes between:

  • Hunting and gathering societyfamily and kinship are the main institutions ; absent is the political organization of society. Ownership is extremely limited.
  • Horticultural societies, characterized by non-intensive cultivation , practiced with little technology and below the potential of the earth. Cultivation is able to guarantee the subsistence of the members of society. The company is divided into clans and families.
  • Agricultural societiescultivation techniques are refined , the land is cultivated in order to produce beyond the strict needs of individuals. Cities are formed and activities such as trade and crafts are established. Writing, state and money radically modify the relationships between individuals.
  • Industrial companies: with constant technological progress, production grows exponentially. Urbanization is accentuated . The state becomes more and more bureaucratized and its power is increasingly branched.

4 The mass society

Frankfurt School: Philosophical Thought and Exponents

An increasingly bureaucratized and centralized stateIn the field of social sciences, mass society has been the subject of numerous studies, in particular by the Frankfurt School . This type of society, linked to the phenomena of democratization, industrialization, demographic expansion, urbanization typical of the twentieth century, is characterized by an increasingly bureaucratized and centralized state , by the use of mass media , by the commodification of culture , by the homologation of cultural models. and from the atomization of individual consumers .

Key concepts

·                                 The company: definition and characteristics

  • Society is a set of individuals in relation to each other.
  • The members of a society share a territory, they interact to satisfy the needs of each one, they express a culture.
  • Economic organization, norms and institutions are present in societies according to their degree of complexity.

·                                 The social structure

  • The social structureis the framework within which social actions occur.
  • The behaviors of individuals are connected to status(ascribed or acquired), to social role , to belonging to one or more groups (primary / secondary and formal / informal). Society, through institutions , responds to the needs of its members.

·                                 Classification and models of society

  • Auguste Comteinterprets society, understood as an organism, starting from his law of the three stages of human knowledge : 1) theological stage / military and theological society 2) metaphysical stage / society of jurists 3) positive stage / industrial society.
  • Herbert Spenceradopts an evolutionary approach and distinguishes between a military society , not yet fully developed, and a more advanced industrial society .
  • Émile Durkheimdistinguishes between segmentary societies with mechanical solidarity and more complex societies characterized by organic solidarity .
  • Karl Marxdivides society into classes (bourgeoisie and proletariat) in conflictual relationship with each other.
  • Ferdinand Tönniesmakes a distinction between community ( Gemeinschaft ) and society ( Gesellschaft ).
  • Talcott Parsonsidentifies four criteria by means of which a society is able to preserve itself and each of them associates a part of the society to which the fulfillment of the criterion is entrusted: 1) maintaining the identity / family and educational system; 2) integration of components / right; 3) establish the objectives / policy; 4) organize the tools to achieve the objectives / economy.
  • Gerhard Lenskitraces an evolution of society, distinguishing between: hunting and gathering societies ; horticultural companies ; agricultural companies ; industrial companies .

·                                 The mass society

  • The subject of study by various social scientists and in particular by the Frankfurt School, mass society, the result of various historical phenomena of the twentieth century, is characterized by the use of mass media , the commodification of culture , the homologation of cultural models , from the atomization of individuals and from a bureaucratized and centralized state .


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