Technology & Societal Development
It has been convincingly argued that the development of societies rests at least in part on the developments of their technologies. For example, preindustrial societies developed from nomadic familial units to more extended villages and towns as they were enabled by technology to advance from hunting and gathering societies to horticultural and eventually to agrarian societies. With the advent of the Industrial Revolution, society experienced a more marked and less gradual change as jobs and populations became more centered around the artifacts of technology. As a result, a shift occurred from extended to nuclear families and the concomitant development of societal institutions to take the place of the extended family in many instances. Society continues to change and development as postindustrial technology requires society to rethink such basic concepts as gender roles. Sociologists today must take a multidisciplinary approach in order to better study and understand the processes and effects of the influence of postindustrial technology on globalization, and the way that society must develop and change in order to meet the needs of its members in the postindustrial age.
I remember as recently as the 1980s giving a speech at a convention regarding the use of technology and how it had changed our lives. As an example, I referred to a once-popular science-fiction franchise in which the crew of a spaceship boldly walked up to doors that automatically opened and put magical three-inch square plastic disks into their computer workstations to call up data from stored memory. Although these things had been science-fiction wonders in the 1960s when they were first introduced, I reminded my audience that although we might not be sailing through space, the doors to the convention center had automatically opened for us that morning, and we all put three-inch disks into our own computer workstations every day. Several decades later, we can add other common uses of technology to the list: computers that take dictation and even talk back to us, wireless communication devices, and electronic pads that can display books automatically downloaded from afar or take notes as we work in the field. These tools are more than toys, however. In many ways, they have changed the way that we do business and live our lives. Because of technological advances, our society has moved from one that is primarily industrial to one that is primarily postindustrial in nature. Jobs today increasingly require one to be able to use newer technologies, and growing numbers of jobs require one to be able to develop new technology. As technology advances, society changes and grows in response, adapting to and incorporating it.
It would be difficult to argue that technology does not shape the development of society. At its most basic, technology is the application of scientific methods and knowledge to the attainment of industrial or commercial objectives. Technology includes products, processes, and knowledge.
According to Gehard Lenski, societal development occurs along a continuum of sociocultural evolution, the process by which a society develops through the growth of its stores of cultural information. One of the catalysts for societal growth, in this theory, is the society's level of technology, a specially defined term referring to information about the ways in which material resources of the environment can be used to satisfy the needs and desires of human beings.
Stages of Sociocultural Evolution
In Lenski's theory, there are several stages of sociocultural evolution. The first stage, preindustrial, comprises several levels, starting with the hunting-and-gathering society. These societies have minimal technology (e.g., spears, gathering baskets), and their members rely on whatever food and fiber they can easily acquire. Hunting-and-gathering societies are typically organized into nomadic groups, often composed primarily of extended family members, to better help them sustain themselves without actually cultivating the land. To further aid in the endeavors of hunting and gathering, these groups are typically geographically widely dispersed so that each group can have the best possible range of environmental resources to sustain its members. Because hunting-and-gathering societies tend to be organized around blood ties, family is particularly important, issues of authority and influence revolve around kinship, and social differentiation is usually based on such variables as gender, age, and family background.
The next preindustrial stage of society is the horticultural society. These societies subsist not only on readily available foods, as in hunting-and-gathering societies, but also on plant seeds and crops. The advent of a horticultural society is enabled by the development of the appropriate technologies, including basic digging and cultivation tools, irrigation systems, and fertilization techniques. Horticultural societies are typically much less nomadic than hunting-and-gathering societies because of their need to cultivate the land, at least through one growing season. They place greater emphasis on producing technology in the shape of tools and household objects than do hunting -- and-gathering societies.
As the tools of the horticultural societies advance beyond the basics necessary to cultivate the land, they move into the final preindustrial stage of society: the agrarian society. Although agrarian societies are also engaged in the production of food from crops, technological innovations such as plows and irrigation allow them to do so much more efficiently. In addition, because of improvements in technology, agrarian societies tend to be larger than either hunting-and-gathering or horticultural societies. Technology also encourages the members of agrarian societies to become more specialized than in other types of preindustrial societies, as the wider use of technology combined with these societies' relative stability allows their members to focus on specialized tasks. This leads to higher degrees of specialization and even greater stability . Agrarian societies are marked by a greater permanence than hunting-and-gathering or horticultural societies, which allows them to store greater surpluses and create artifacts (e.g., statues, monuments) that can be passed from one generation to another.
Societies remained in one of the three preindustrial modes until the Industrial Revolution in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Industrialization brought with it new sources of power to perform tasks, a dependence on mechanization to produce goods and services, and new inventions to facilitate agricultural and industrial production. Because the technology associated with industrialization tended to be centralized, the populations of these societies became more centralized as well. This led to increasing urbanization and the creation of more and larger cities. For many societies, the concentration of technology and the jobs that it produced within urban centers resulted in an irrevocable transition from an agrarian economy to an industrial one. Due to the advances in technology and the...
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