Let's get social.
Sociology: where you learn that you can totally tell your teacher that you didn't do your homework because you've been systemically oppressed.
Okay, so maybe that wouldn't fly with your teacher. But this course will give you insight into all the ways society influences your attitudes, beliefs, values, and behavior.
Shmoop's introduction to sociology is a semester-long elective, aligned with Florida social studies standards, that covers the major topics in the field of sociology. From culture and socialization to the role of technology in connecting modern society, we'll explore the ways in which you're just one cog in the wheel of the educational machine. (That does not mean you can slack off in our course, by the way.)
By the end of this course you'll know
- what exactly makes up a culture. Hint: it has nothing to do with Picasso and Mozart.
- how you were socialized to think that girls like pink and boys like blue.
- the biggest social institutions at work in the United States.
- how power, authority, economies, and politics work. They're complicated.
- what makes us all different: race, religion, ethnicity, social class, age. They're also complicated.
- how the wheel of social change gets going.
And a lot more.
So for anyone who has ever wanted to stop class to debate gender in music videos, point out the difference between prison and jail, or finally share a chart that explains why bacon-covered mac and cheese can be high-culture, we welcome you.
Unit 1. Building a Foundation
Let's introduce ourselves to the field of sociology. Sociology, it's nice to meet you. During this intro class we'll be discussing the not-so-basics: the development of the field of sociology, research methods, its big boy founders Marx, Comte, and Durkheim, paradigms, the sociological imagination, and all that fun stuff.
Unit 2. Culture, Socialization, and Groups
What is "culture"? Well, it's not wearing a top hat and monocle to the opera—and this unit will expound upon that. Unit 2 is about the way people tick, especially when they're in groups. We'll dissect sub-cultures, group identity, socialization, cliques, primary and secondary groups, and if you're formed by your innate nature or the circumstances around you. At the end of this unit, not only will you be a culture know-it-all, but you'll be able to form a whole sub-culture of peers who've been nurtured to be interested in culture too. (...You'll understand this joke soon, don't worry.)
Unit 3. Race, Religion, and Gender
Have you ever felt exasperated while filling out forms or paperwork about all the categories you're arbitrarily stuffed into? Race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, religion...what do all these things even mean? In Unit 3, Shmoop will get to the bottom of some very tricky issues: the differences between major world religions, gender and sexuality, race and ethnicity, and prejudice and discrimination. What you'll find will shock you—mostly because so many of these things aren't biological; they're social constructions.
Unit 4. Social Structures and Social Control
Shmoop doesn't have any beef with dreaming, but Unit 4 is going to debunk a lot of the ideas about fairness and social mobility you hold dear. "Social stratification" is the way that societies tend to divide into systems of social standing, and this unit focuses on how inequality is perpetuated through de facto discrimination, economic stratification, and the way we sanction crime and deviance. Plus, we'll also discuss how you're basically trapped into the same fate your parents and grandparents had before you. Turns out the "American Dream" probably isn't any more real than that dream you had about a world of giant orange penguin-people.
Unit 5. Politics and Power
Let's look at Politics and Power as more than "What makes a Democrat and a Republican?" (Though don't worry—we'll address that.) The world is run on an ornate system of power and authority, and Shmoop is here to address that with you. We'll discuss the secret strategies of voting, systems of government and types of leaders, and global injustice, stratification, and poverty. You know—lightweight stuff.
Unit 6. Agents of Social Change: Technology, Social Networks, and Your Future
Facebook, television, Instagram: this unit is all about agents of social change, from urbanization and population growth to the miracles of the media and technology. We'll take those glorious insights about social groups, power, and stratification and see how those concepts combine in the case of collective action and social change. The course is capped off with the opportunity to research a social issue of your choice.
Sample Lesson - Introduction
Lesson 3: Types of Societies
In this lesson, we're going to take a tour, Magic School Bus-style, of the different kinds of societies that humans have come up with.
(The kinds we've come up with so far, anyway.)
Humans have transformed in mere thousands of years from fire-worshipping hunter-gatherer societies to Google Glasses-worshipping societies. We guess you can tell, then, that societies love to break the rules. They've taken on—and continue to take on—many forms in different times and places.
At this point you're probably asking the following:
- Why does this matter?
- BTW, can Shmoop get you a free pair of Google Glasses?
The answer to the second question is a straight-up no; the answer to the first is a little more complicated. If you recall from our glorious second lesson in this unit, society and culture need one another to exist. Society can't continue without a shared culture, but culture doesn't exist unless people create and share it. Pretty deep, right?
(Source 1; Source 2)
Oh, and speaking of non-existence…It's around this time that we should give you a sociology PSA (Public Society Announcement): Just because a society isn't around any more doesn't we shouldn't study it. Historical sociologists look at all kinds of data—from public records and super-secret diaries to archaeological relics—to understand the cultures of societies that no longer exist.
To be better than Dr. John Hammond in that not-quite-hidden Jurassic Park reference above, be a savvy societal sociologist. Be less interested in exactly what happened; instead, use modern sociological theory to understand how past societies worked. After all, despite all the trash we talked about cultural relativism, history can be best understood comparatively.
So let's get all our facts straight so we don't end up with a magical island overrun with past human (and dinosaur) societies.
Sample Lesson - Reading
Reading 2.3: A Historical Perspective on Societies
Let's start off, first by downloading a new notetaking worksheet and then by reminding ourselves one more time: Exactly what is a society?
We're glad you asked. A group of people who live in a definable community and share a common culture. Bam. Done. Now let's get into the juicy new stuff.
Being successful, somewhat smug Americans causes us to sometimes label societies as "first world," "third world," and "developing," but the truth of the matter is that there's no one path that all societies take. One form of society is not fundamentally superior to others; it's important to keep this in mind as we move through this lesson. Though in many ways new forms of societies arise from older forms (think of the finance bros of today's world blossoming from 1980s fancy-suited stock market jerks), there's no one "right" way or "most original society."
There is,however, a distinction to be made between societies based on how much technology they use, at least according to the sociologist Gerhard Lenski (1924-). Back in the day, Lenski defined societies in terms of their technological sophistication. He said that societies with rudimentary technology depend on the fluctuations of their environment, while industrialized societies have more control over the impact of their surroundings and thus develop different cultural features. Sociologists still classify societies along a spectrum of industrialization, from preindustrial to industrial to postindustrial.
On the Field
Before the development of agriculture, societies were small, rural, and dependent largely on local resources. These groups (we're talking 10,000-12,000 years ago, btw) were based around kinship, family, or tribes. Economic production was limited to the amount of labor a human being could provide (no machines), and there were few jobs besides "Hunter-Gatherer," "Log Collector B," and "Spear Chucker 25."
Hunter-gatherer societies demonstrate just how much pre-industrial societies depended on the environment. Hunter-gatherers relied on their surroundings for survival—they hunted wild animals and foraged for uncultivated plants for food. When resources became scarce, these nomadic groups just up and moved to new areas to find sustenance.
These societies were common until just about several hundred years ago, but today only a few hundred remain in existence. See: the Bambuti or Mbuti, who are pygmy hunter-gatherers living in eastern Africa. Hunter-gatherer groups are disappearing because—wouldn't you have guessed it—free, green spaces with sustainable supplies of animals and plants are disappearing.
Thanks, industrialized humans.
Changing conditions and adaptations led some societies to rely on the domestication (taming) of animals. Roughly 7,500 years ago, pastoral societies (think of cows grazing in the pasture to remember this one) started to rely on the animals as a resource for survival. Unlike earlier hunter-gatherers who depended entirely on existing resources to stay alive, pastoral groups were able to breed livestock for food, clothing, and transportation, creating a surplus of goods. Around the time that pastoral societies emerged, specialized occupations began to develop, like trade merchants, animal breeders, butchers, and "Yee Olde Butter Churning Wenches," and societies began to spread through trading with others nearby.
Around the same time that pastoral societies were on the rise, another type of society developed, based on new plant-growing developments and skillz. Previously, when societies used to "use up" an area's fruits, trees, and resources, they'd just get up and move on, like some sort of plant-pirate. But now, horticultural societies began to form in areas where rainfall and other weather conditions allowed stable crop growth.
Horticultural societies were similar to hunter-gatherers in that they largely depended on the environment for survival, but since they didn't have to abandon their location to follow resources, they were able to start permanent settlements. This created more stability and material goods and this, even more than pastoral influence, became the basis for the first revolution in human survival.
Let's up the ante, though.
While pastoral and horticultural societies used small, temporary tools such as digging sticks or hoes, agricultural societies relied on permanent tools for survival. Around 3000 B.C.E., an explosion of new technology known as the Agricultural Revolution made farming possible—and profitable. Farmers learned to rotate the types of crops grown on their fields in patterns, to make tools out of metal, and to reuse waste, leading to better harvests and larger surpluses of food. Who'd have thought?
And just like that, human settlements based out of agricultural societies grew into towns and cities, and the most super-awesome and super-conveniently-located by water (London, NYC, etc) flourished.
But before you start singing Jay-Z triumphantly to yourself, let's step back.
Having a consistent surplus of food is a pivotal change to any society, because it means that some members of society can get into activities that aren't directly related to
"food…now." This is basically how music, art, and poetry were invented.
At the same time, as resources became more plentiful, social differences became more obvious. Rather than a single small group working together toward a common goal—food and happiness—agricultural advances allowed societies to grow larger, and people to provide for themselves or their extended families rather than for the entire group. Jerks. Thus, the difference between rich and poor was born: Those who had more resources could afford better living and developed into a class of nobility.
Go figures: As cities expanded, owning and protecting resources became a more pressing concern than taming wild dogs.
The ninth century (or, as we say around the Shmoop offices, the "Roaring 800s") saw the birth of feudal societies. These societies were built around a strict system of power based around land ownership and protection.
- The rich nobility, known as lords, placed vassals in charge of pieces of land.
- In return for the resources that the land provided, vassals (aka awesome armor-wearing knights) promised to fight for their lords.
- Actual land, known as fiefdoms, was worked by members of the lower classes, who were called serfs.
- In return for maintaining the land, serfs were guaranteed a place to live and protection from outside enemies.
Power was handed down through family lines, with serfs serving vassals, and vassals serving lords, for generations and generations. Until capitalism, dollar bills, and industrial technology, this worked pretty well. Even though it was guaranteed that a serf could never rise up to nobility-level, at least they knew the vassals had their backs.
In the 18th century, Europe experienced a dramatic takeoff in technological invention, ushering in an era known as the Industrial Revolution and the rise of (shocking name alert) industrial societies. Within a whirlwind invention period of, like, forty years, tasks that had previously required months of labor became achievable in a matter of days.
Before the Industrial Revolution, work was constrained by how much a person or an animal was capable of doing—for example, mills and pumps powered by human workers or horses. Then in 1782, James Watt and Matthew Boulton created a steam engine that could do the work of 12 horses by itself. (Fact: when we talk about how much "horsepower" a car has, you're actually talking about how the car compares to pre-industrial horses!)
Steam power began to change how many kinds of goods were manufactured. Instead of paying artisans to painstakingly spin wool and weave it into pretty pretty princess cloth, mills produced fabric quickly at a better price, and often with better quality. Rather than planting and harvesting fields by hand, farmers were able to purchase mechanical seeders and threshing machines that caused agricultural productivity to soar. Paper and glass became available to the Average Alistair of yesteryear, and the quality and accessibility of education and health care soared. (Well, for rich people at least.) Gas lights allowed increased visibility in the dark, and towns and cities developed a "nightlife."
(We'll hold our judgment about the creepy and lowbrow puppet and freak shows people watched for fun back then, since Say Yes to the Dress isn't exactly fine literature.)
One of the results of increased productivity and technology was the rise of urban centers (callback: London, NYC, etc). Cities became increasingly diverse, and filled with people looking to get rich through industry. As capitalism became established as a way of life, social mobility rose. Instead of being stuck as an eternal serf, you could invent a fancy new machine and become a millionaire overnight.
Back to Society…
It was during the 18th and 19th centuries of the Industrial Revolution that sociology was born. Life was changing quickly, and the agricultural life didn't apply very well to cities. Try doing a rain dance in a crowded street with no plumbing, we just dare you—masses of people were moving to new environments and often found themselves faced with filth, overcrowding, and poverty.
In cities, people were also living among strangers, rather than the same kinfolk and neighbors that had made up their village for generations. Instead of making wacky sitcom material, this often resulted in conflict and ethnocentrism. So, social scientists began to study the relationships between the individual members of society and society as a whole.
Information societies, sometimes known as postindustrial or digital societies, are a recent development. Unlike industrial societies, that are rooted in the production of material goods, information societies are based on the production of information and services.
Digital technology is the steam engine of information societies, and computer moguls such as Steve Jobs and Bill Gates are, in a sense, the new mega-industrialists. Since the economies of information societies are driven by knowledge and not material goods, power lies with those in charge of storing and distributing information. If you look over the rest of our reading, this is a first. Members of a postindustrial society are likely to be employed as sellers of services—software programmers or Forever 21 salespeople, for example—instead of producers of goods.
And unlike the "have-horse, no-have-horse" divisions of the past, social classes and societies of today are divided by access to education. Without technical skills, people in an information society lack the means for success.
So you're very, very, very lucky to have Shmoop by your side.
Mixtures of Societies Today
Skim over this page about the Nomadic Bedouins. With your knowledge from the rest of the reading, consider the following:
- How is Bedouin society is structured?
- How do the types of technology they have play into their society type?
- How is Bedouin society different from modern American society?
- Think back on Lenski's classification of societies by technology. Is he right in classifying societies based on technological advances? What other criteria might be appropriate based on what you have read? What are the pros and cons of classifying societies based on technology?
The Bedouins may complicate Lenski's useful-but-limiting categories. The Bedouin example shows that perhaps things like government, family structure, environment, and lifestyle should also be considered when evaluating society types.
And this Bedouin complication will be very useful when gathering info in this lesson's activity.
Sample Lesson - Activity
Activity 2.3a: Comparing Societies
Did you take some notes as you were reading? We hope so, not only because we told you to, but because now we're going to make a quick chart to compare and contrast some of these different types of societies.
First, download our Comparing Societies Worksheet.
You'll see that we've given you three things to think about for each society.
First, their size. You don't have to give an exact number (since they can definitely vary)—instead, you can list them like t-shirt sizes (S, M, L, XXXL).
Next, think about their key technology. What do people in this kind of society use technology-wise to fulfill their needs?
Finally, what about this kind of society could you say changed the game for everyone? In other words, when people started living in this kind of society, what could they now do (or what now happened) that hadn't happened before?
Fill out the chart for each type of society using our readings as a guide. Then once you've gathered all of the information into your chart, compare and contrast the types of societies for us. Write a short paragraph, chart, or list comparing and contrasting these four types of societies. How are they alike? What do they have in common? How are they different and unique?
Once you've filled out the chart and written your paragraphs, upload your completed handout below. Then rejoice that you live in a post-industrial society where you have a flushable toilet.