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In this lesson, you will learn how Gerhard Lenski studied the amount of technology a society had and how such technology could allow a society to evolve and change. This lesson will also describe the various types of societies and their level of technology.

Sociocultural Evolution

The macrosociologist Gerhard Lenski

Gerhard Lenski is not a sociologist who studied society in order to understand human behavior. He took a very different path of viewing society and social structure. Lenski focused on the social and cultural elements of society, maintaining an evolutionary perspective on macrosociology.

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Macrosociology is the study of society as a whole, not just small segments of society. Lenski saw human society as something of a process of change involving a society’s level of innovation, transmissions and technological advances. He describes this process of changing as sociocultural evolution.To quote Gerhard Lenski regarding sociocultural evolution, ‘Societal survival has been largely a function of a society’s level of technological advance relative to the societies with which it has been in competition.’ This simply means that a society who uses its technology to further its survival will do so over a society that remains standing still.

Technology and Society’s Survival

In Lenski’s view, it is a society’s level of technology that is critical for its survival. Technology is defined as ‘information about how to use the material resources of a given society or culture to meet human needs and satisfy human desires.’ Lenski then viewed that through technology, societies will evolve, change and survive. When looking at the technology of a society, Lenski focused on information – the amount of information a society has and how it uses that information.

The more information (or knowledge) a society has, the more advanced it will become.

Types of Societies

He has broken the level of societies into five types:

  1. Hunters and gatherers
  2. Horticultural
  3. Pastoral
  4. Agricultural
  5. Industrial

Since Lenski’s description of societies in the 1960s, we have experienced also the post-industrial and postmodern societies. Let’s look at each of these societies.

In hunting and gathering societies, men typically hunt large game while women collect vegetation.
Hunter-Gatherer Society

Hunter-gatherers have been here since the beginning of human life.

They are nomadic and rely on readily available food and fiber from nature. In almost all hunting and gathering societies, the males hunt large game such as deer, elk, moose or whatever else is available in the climate in which they live, and females and children gather plant vegetation, berries and other small edible items.Horticultural societies began about 12,000 years ago. They are semi-sedentary (or semi-settled), which means they do not move around as often as hunter/gatherers. Horticultural societies engage in small-scale farming and the use of simple hand tools.

Pastoral societies began about 10,000 years ago. They are semi-sedentary, and their livelihood is dependent upon the domestication of animals. Basically, they are animal herders living off of the resources readily available from their animals. They also do small-scale trading and selling with other groups.Agricultural societies started about 5,000 years ago.

In agricultural societies, they have larger populations of people, are sedentary (which means completely settled) and use improved technology like fertilizer and irrigation systems for large-scale farming.Industrial societies began with the Industrial Revolution between the 1780s and 1850s. The production of goods using advanced sources of energy to drive large machinery is the main focus of this society. There is now a centralized workplace, economic interdependence, formal education and complex social systems such as economic, political and government. It is during the Industrial Revolution that we see people leaving the agricultural way of life for work in the factories.

In the postmodern society, people are preoccupied with consumer goods and media images.

Postmodern Society

The post-industrial society began in the 1960s with an economic system based primarily on the processing and controlling of information. It changed from a producing-type society to a more service-centered society, and the center of the production of information was computer technology.The postmodern society began in the latter 1970s and is a society preoccupied with consumer goods and media images. It has a high use of technology and also has newly emerging culture groups and patterns of social interaction.

It is the postmodern society which we are currently in today.

Lesson Summary

Gerhard Lenski is a macrosociologist who studied the evolution and change of a society. He was not a sociobiologist in that he related society to that of a living organism, but one who used the idea of evolution to describe how societies evolve and change. This term is known as sociocultural evolution.Lenski focused on the level of technology and information a society had and stated that the more information and technology a society had, the more advanced it would become. He believed that the level of technology of a society was crucial for the survival of that society. He believed that a society that did not use technology to change would eventually die out.

Lenski describes the types of societies by five major levels of development: hunting and gathering, horticultural, pastoral, agricultural and industrial. Since Lenski’s work in the early 1960s, we have experienced the postindustrial society, and we are currently in the postmodern society.

Learning Outcomes

After completing this lesson, you should be prepared to:

  • Define macrosociology and technology
  • Explain Gerhard Lenski’s theory of sociocultural evolution
  • Identify and describe Lenski’s five levels of societal development as well as the two levels that have since been added

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