Chapter 4. Society and Modern Life

Chapter 4 Resources and Activities

Key Terms

actuarialism: The use of historical data about social groups to calculate risk assessments about unknown individuals.algorithm: A set of instructions used to solve a problem or perform a task.

alienation: The condition in which an individual is isolated from their society, work, sense of self, and/or common humanity.

anomie: A situation of uncertain norms and regulations in which society no longer has the support of a firm collective consciousness.

anthropocene:  The geological epoch defined by the impact of human activities on the global ecosystem.

base and superstructure:  A historical materialist model of society in which the economic structure forms the base of a society, which shapes its culture and other social institutions, or superstructure.

bourgeoisie: The owners of the means of production in a society.

class consciousness: Awareness of one’s class position and interests.

collective conscience: The communal beliefs, morals, and attitudes of a society.

community of feeling: A collectivity based on shared emotional bonds, ambience, feeling, sensibility, or atmoshere.

data colonialism:  The transformation of social life into the raw material of data as a new stage of global colonization.

dialectics: A type of analysis that proposes that social contradiction, opposition, and struggle in society drive processes of social change and transformation.

dialectic of culture:  The way in which the creation of culture is both constrained by limits given by the environment, and a means to go beyond these natural limits.

digital divide: The gap between those who are able to access and make effective use of information technology and those who cannot.

disenchantment of the world: The replacement of magical thinking by technological rationality and calculation.

division of labour: The division of people into different occupations and specializations.

ethos:  A way of life or a way of conducting oneself in life.

false consciousness: When a person’s beliefs and ideology are in conflict with their best interests.

feudal societies: Agricultural societies that operate on a strict hierarchical system of power based around land ownership, protection, and mutual obligations.

flexible accumulation: A model of capital accumulation based on lean production, precarious employment, and niche market consumption.

Fordism: A model of capital accumulation based on mass production, cheap standardized products, high wages, and mass consumption.

global city: A city which has become a central node in a global economic network.

historical materialism: An approach to understanding society that explains social change, human ideas, and social organization in terms of underlying changes in the economic (or material) structure of society.

horticultural societies: Societies based around the cultivation of plants.

hunter-gatherer societies: Societies that depend on hunting wild animals and gathering uncultivated plants for survival.

industrial societies: Societies characterized by a reliance on mechanized labour to create material goods.

information societies: Societies based on the production of nonmaterial goods and services.

iron cage: A situation in which an individual is trapped by the rational and efficient processes of social institutions.

law of three stages: The three stages of evolution that societies develop through: theological, metaphysical, and positive.

lean production: Systems of production which reduce the time required to manufacture goods as well as response times from suppliers to customers.

means of production:  Anything that is used in economic production in a society to produce goods, satisfy needs and maintain existence (e.g., land, animals, crop production, technology, factories, etc.).

mechanical solidarity: Social solidarity or cohesion through a shared collective consciousness with harsh punishment for deviation from the norms.

metaphysical stage: A stage of social evolution in which people explain events in terms of abstract or speculative ideas.

mode of regulation: The ensemble of policies, rules, patterns of conduct, organizational forms and institutions which stabilize capitalist accumulation.

neoliberalism (neoliberal model): A set of policies in which the state reduces its role in providing public services, regulating industry, redistributing wealth, and protecting the commons while advocating the use of free market mechanisms to regulate society.

neolithic revolution:  The economic transition to sedentary, agriculture based societies beginning approximately 10,200 years.

neo-tribes: Groups of people bound together in communities of feeling who gather at particular times and places for specific reasons and then disband.

network enterprise: A linkage of autonomous companies, or segments of companies, often geographically disperse, organized temporarily for specific projects or tasks and characteristic of global information societies.

network society: A society whose social structure is made up of networks organized through digital information and communications technologies.

niche market consumption: A consumption model based on small batch production of specialized goods tailored for specific market segments or “niches.”

organic solidarity:  Social solidarity or cohesion through a complex division of labour, mutual interdependence, and restitutive law.

pastoral societies: Societies based around the domestication of animals.

post-industrial societies: See information societies.

postmodern society: A form of society characterized by irreducible social heterogeneity, contingent social relationships, and ephemeral organizational structures.

precarious employment: Insecure employment based on subcontracting, temporary contracts, outsourcing and involuntary part-time work.

proletariat: The wage labourers in capitalist society.

Protestant work ethic: The duty to work hard in one’s calling.

rationalization: The general tendency in modern society for all institutions and most areas of life to be transformed by the application of rationality and efficiency.

reflexive subjectivity: A practice of self-awareness, self-reflection, and self-monitoring in which people distance themselves from traditions and institutional roles to construct their own identities.

relations of production:  The division of society into economic classes (the social roles allotted to individuals by virtue of their position in an economic system of production).

siloization: The process by which groups become isolated in ways that hinder their communication and cooperation with others.

social class: A group defined by a distinct relationship to the means of production.

social integration: How strongly a person is connected to their social group.

social structure: General patterns of social behaviour and organization that persist through time.

surveillance capitalism: A form of capitalism based on surveilling, extracting, and commodifying digital information about people.

technopopulism: A political configuration that combines populist politics with governance by problem-solving technical elites.

theological stage: A stage of social evolution in which people explain events with respect to the will of God or gods.

welfare state: A system of social security whereby the government intervenes in the economy to redistribute resources and protect the health and well-being of its citizens.

Section Summary

4.1 Types of Societies
Societies are classified according to their social development and use of technology. A society’s technology provides a useful way to characterize the evolving nature of the relationship between humans and the natural world. For most of human history, people lived in preindustrial societies characterized by limited technology and low production of goods. After the Industrial Revolution, many societies based their economies around mechanized labour, leading to unprecedented levels of exploitation of natural resources, greater surpluses, and a class system based on the accumulation of privately owned capital. At the turn of the new millennium, a new type of society emerged. This postindustrial, or information, society is built on digital technology and nonmaterial goods. Postnatural societies are based on technologies that are capable of overcoming the limits imposed by nature.

4.2 Theoretical Perspectives on the Formation of Modern Society
Émile Durkheim believed that as societies advance, they make the transition from mechanical to organic solidarity. For Karl Marx, societal transformation occurs as a consequence of class conflict. With the rise of capitalism, workers become alienated from themselves and others in society. Sociologist Max Weber noted that the rationalization of society leads to a focus on efficiency in social organization that gradually marginalizes or eliminates other sources of value. Feminists note that the androcentric point of view of the classical theorists does not provide an adequate account of the difference in the way the genders experience modern society.

4.3 Living in Contemporary Society

The insights of the classical sociologists into the macro-level social processes that structure society can be updated to analyze the experiences common to living in the 21st century. Durkheim’s concepts of the increasing division of labour and anomie provide insight into the heterogeneity and fluidity of postmodern societies. Marx’s analysis of the dynamics of capitalism provide insight into the conditions of contemporary precarious employment and global neoliberalism. Weber’s theory of rationalization can be extended to describe the effects of algorithms on contemporary life.


Quiz: Society and Modern Life

4.1 Types of Societies

  1. Which of the following societies is an example of a pastoral society?
    1. Society A, who live in small tribes and base their economy on the production and trade of textiles.
    2. Society B, a small community of farmers who have lived on their family’s land for centuries.
    3. Society C, a wandering group of nomads who specialize in breeding and training horses.
    4. Society D, an extended family of warriors who serve a single noble family.
  2. Which of the following occupations is a core activity in an information society?
    1. Software engineer
    2. Sales clerk
    3. Librarian
    4. Stock broker
  3. Which of the following societies were the first to have permanent settlements?
    1. Industrial
    2. Hunter-gatherer
    3. Horticultural
    4. Feudal

4.2 Theoretical Perspectives on Society

  1. Organic solidarity is most likely to exist in which of the following types of societies?
    1. Hunter-gatherer
    2. Industrial
    3. Horticultural
    4. Feudal
  2. According to Marx, the                  own the means of production in a society.
    1. proletariat
    2. vassals
    3. bourgeoisie
    4. petit-bourgeoisie
  3. Which of the following best depicts Marx’s concept of alienation from the process of one’s labour?
    1. A supermarket cashier always scans store coupons before company coupons because she was taught to do it that way.
    2. A businessman feels that he deserves a raise, but is nervous to ask his manager for one; instead, he comforts himself with the idea that hard work is its own reward.
    3. An associate professor is afraid that she won’t be given tenure and starts spreading rumours about one of her associates to make herself look better.
    4. A construction worker is laid off and takes a job at a fast food restaurant temporarily, although he has never had an interest in preparing food before.
  4. The Protestant work ethic is based on the concept of predestination, which states that                 .
    1. Performing good deeds in life is the only way to secure a spot in Heaven.
    2. Salvation is only achievable through obedience to God.
    3. No person can be saved before they accept Jesus Christ as their saviour.
    4. God has already chosen those who will be saved and those who will be damned.
  5. The concept of the iron cage was popularized by which of the following sociological thinkers?
    1. Max Weber
    2. Karl Marx
    3. Émile Durkheim
    4. Friedrich Engels
  6. Émile Durkheim’s ideas about society can best be described as                 .
    1. Functionalist.
    2. Critical sociology.
    3. Symbolic interactionist.
    4. Postmodernist.

4.3 Living in Contemporary Society

  1. Postmodern society describes Durkheim’s concept of the division of labour without                 .
    1. Anomie.
    2. Solidarity.
    3. Tears.
    4. Industrialization.
  2. Flexible accumulation describes Marx’s concept of capitalism without                 .
    1. Capitalists.
    2. Labour.
    3. National borders.
    4. Niche marketing.
  3. The use of algorithms describes Weber’s concept of rationalization without                 .
    1. Digital technology.
    2. Humans.
    3. Technopopulists.
    4. Impersonal rules.

[Quiz answers at end of chapter]

Short Answer

4.1 Types of Societies

  1. How can the difference in the way societies relate to the environment be used to describe the different types of societies that have existed in world history?
  2. Is Gerhard Lenski right in classifying societies based on technological advances? What other criteria might be appropriate, based on what you have read?

4.2 Theoretical Perspectives on Society

  1. How might Durkheim, Marx, and Weber be used to explain a current social event such as the COVID-19 pandemic. Do their theories hold up under modern scrutiny? Are their theories necessarily androcentric?
  2. What are some reasons why people choose or are compelled to participate in social activities beyond their immediate milieu or family?  Are these sufficient to explain why societies hold together rather than fall apart?
  3. Think of the ways workers are alienated from the product and process of their jobs. How can these concepts be applied to students and their educations?
  4. People often say they feel better after working hard on a project or at their work than they do if they have too much time on their hands. Is this because of the Protestant Work Ethic? Are there other reasons? What motivates people to work hard today?

4.3 Living in Contemporary Society

  1. How do the concepts of postmodern society, neo-tribalism, and siloization update Durkheim’s analysis of modern society? Can you find examples of the impact of each on everyday life?
  2. How do the concepts of flexible accumulation and neoliberalism update Marx’s analysis of capitalism? Can you find examples of the impact of each on everyday life?
  3. How do the concepts of algorithmic reason and actuarialism update Weber’s analysis of rationalization? Can you find examples of the impact of each on everyday life?

Further Research

4.1 Types of Societies
The Maasai are a modern pastoral society with an economy largely structured around herds of cattle. Read more about the Maasai people and see pictures of their daily lives.

On the theme of the global networks of information society: Filmed in Nigeria, Benin, Tanzania, Brazil, and China, Handroid City, by artist Emo de Medeiros, is a facinationg visual documentary which investigates how mobile phone technology choreographs contemporary life. The film is a series of close-ups of human hands using, fixing, or selling mobile phones, déambulations in “digital districts,” as well as drone shots pointing at the homogenization of urban space triggered by technological capitalism.

4.2 Theoretical Perspectives on Society
One of the most influential pieces of writing in modern history was Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’ The Communist Manifesto. Visit this OpenStax site to read the original document that spurred revolutions around the world.

4.3 Living in Contemporary Society

Nick Couldry argues that the datafication of society not only brings about another iteration of capitalism, but also a new form of colonialism. The emergence of a new data colonialism, based on the appropriation of human life through data, will pave the way for a new capitalism. See his 2019 lecture: In a nutshell: Nick Couldry on Data colonialism.


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Solutions to Quiz: Society and Modern Life

1 C, | 2 A, | 3 C, | 4 B, | 5 C, | 6 A, | 7 D, | 8 A, | 9 A | 10 B | 11 C | 12 B | [Return to quiz]


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