05 December 2010

Society, Social System and Social Groups

Q: What is society?
A: Society is a group of people living together.
(This is the simplest/crudest possible definition)

How did society begin? What was society like in the beginning?

Initially man was a hunter-gatherer. He lived in small groups and always kept moving around, looking for food. So initially there was only one task or role: hunting and gathering (or at most two: men hunters and women gatherers). This situation continued for most of man's 2,00,000 years of existence.

Then, 12000 years ago (in 10,000 BC) man invented agriculture. He could now produce food. This brought about three revolutionary changes. One, he could now produce food in one place, instead of moving around all the time. So he started living in one place. Thus villages were born. Two, he could now produce food in a large quantity. So the group no longer needed to be small; it could now be big. Thus the size of the group (that is, village) increased. Three, the new system of food production was efficient. That is, if n people needed to be fed (the size of the group), all the n people did not need to work in food production. Only m (<n) people needed to produce food. The remaining n–m people could do other work. Thus other work (non-food-production) became possible. It also became necessary.

Because, as the size of the group increased, other tasks/roles became necessary. The group had to be defended from the attacks of other groups. The people also had to settle disputes that arose within the group. Meanwhile, man was at the mercy of the forces of nature, and he tried to placate these forces. He started seeing these forces as living beings (that is, gods) and worshipping them. Thus religion was born. These religious activities had to be carried out. Also, as man gained knowledge about the world, this knowledge had to be given to the next generation. Thus two new tasks – defence-law&order and religion-education – were born. The people who handled these tasks were the warriors and priests respectively.

So society now consisted of three groups: priests, warriors and the common people (engaged in food production). Even food production became split into two tasks: owning the land and running the activity, and actually doing the work. So the common people were now split into two groups: farmers and labourers. Thus society now consisted of four groups: priests, warriors, farmers and labourers.

Other things than food also needed to be produced: clothing, houses, tools, etc. The people who made these – the artisans – were manual workers, like the farm labourers. Thus non-food-production activities increased, and the people engaged in these activities also increased. For the sake of efficiency, these non-food-producers started concentrating in a few villages, which became larger. Thus were cities born. And also civilisation (from Latin 'civitas' = "city"). A region now consisted of many villages and a few cities. The different cities and villages started producing different goods, and exchanging them with the goods produced by other cities and villages. Thus was trade born. The people who carried out this activity – the merchants – were wealth creators, like the farmers.

Thus society was now divided into four groups: priests-scholars, warriors-rulers, farmers-merchants and labourers-artisans. (In ancient India they were called Brahmanas, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras respectively.)


1. As society became more complex, the number of tasks/roles increased.

2. Efficiency can be achieved by division of labour and specialisation.

3. So each task/role was assigned to a different group, and each group performed its own task/role.

4. Thus society was divided into different functional groups, and these functional groups made up society.

Therefore society can be seen as a system that consists of different (functional) groups. And these groups form the units of the social system.

Thus 'society' is not a single homogeneous entity. Society (and civilisation) is all about complexity, division of labour and specialisation. Society is made up of social groups. Wishing that these different groups did not exist is as good as wishing that society itself (that is, civilisation) did not exist.

My earlier post on the Varna system had talked about this in brief.

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