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What Is The Pre Modern Society?

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Sociology
Wordcount: 1526 words Published: 10th May 2017

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Human history can be divided into three phases: pre-modern, modern and post modern. There is no definite beginning or end to each of these phases; rather they merge into one another, as not all societies moved forward at the same time.

Sociology and modernity have been described as closely intertwined, but it has also been argued that sociology is a product of modernity. Sociology came out of something described by Polanyi (1973) as the Great Transformation, a term which refers to social, economic, political and cultural changes, which were the cause of new forms of social life.

During this piece I will discuss pre- modern society, the impact industrialisation had on society and why the study of this era is important for sociology.

What is Pre- modern Society?

In pre-modern society, work was not highly specialised and the number of roles necessary to produce things were relatively small, therefore the division of labour was simple when compared to modern societies. Most of the labour forces engaged in agricultural activity and produced food through subsistence farming. The majority of pre-industrial groups had standards of living not much above survival, meaning most of the population were focused on producing only enough goods for means of survival.

The term ‘pre- modern’, covers a number of different societal forms: hunter-gatherer, agrarian, horticultural, pastoral and non-industrial. Pre-modern social forms have now virtually disappeared, although they are still in existence in some of today’s societies.

An example of a hunter- gatherer society that exists today is the Inuit people, who inhabit northern Alaska, Canada, and Greenland. Due to the lack of vegetation in these areas of the world, most Inuit people live on a diet of meat. Many Arctic people are extremely mobile like the feudal societies of pre- modern times, and travel around the land, often moving with the seasons, in pursuit of migratory animals.

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Hunting and gathering societies hunt animals and gather vegetation in order to survive. All humans were hunters and gatherers up until around 12,000 years ago, and although, these societies still exist today in some parts of the world, they are in fast decline as they are being taken over by the advance of industrial society (Macionis J. & Plummer K, 2005, p.75).

Hunting and gathering societies began to turn into horticultural and pastoral societies after new technology was introduced. People began to use hand tools to help them to farm the land and to work the soil in order to sow seeds. Societies living in mountainous or parched regions turned to pastoralism which is based on the domestication of animals. Some societies combined the two technologies so they could produce a variety of foods.

Agrarian societies came about with the discovery of large scale farming, which involved using ploughs which were harnessed to animals. Farmers could work larger plots of land unlike the horticulturists who worked garden sized plots of land. Agrarian societies began to permanently settle and created large food surplus, which they could now transport using animal powered wagons. Increased food production provided societies with surplus materials, which meant the build up of storable produce. This represented a cultural advance for civilisation. With the development of storage, in some rare cases came some social unrest, as what could be stored could also be stolen, although is thought that in pre- modern times there was very little deviance, as communities were extremely close knit and everybody knew each other. This new technology could have also created social inequality as some families produced more goods than others. The families producing more food may have assumed positions of authority and privilege.

Industrialisation and the making of Modern Society:

In order to understand why the study of pre- modern times is vital to sociology, it is important to look to the Industrial Revolution, as this was a time of great change for European society, and the crossing over from pre- modern to modern society.

Industrialisation is the process whereby social and economic change transforms a pre- industrial society into an industrial one. Until industrialism the main source of energy was humans and animals, where as mills and factories now used water, and later steam, to power machinery. “Industrialism is technology that powers sophisticated machinery with advanced sources of energy” (Macionis J. & Plummer K, 2005, p.79).

During the Industrial revolution, an economy based on manual labour was replaced by one taken over by industry and the manufacture of machinery. Rapid industrialisation cost many craft workers their jobs and scores of weavers also found themselves unemployed as they could not compete with machinery. Many unemployed workers turned their anger towards the machines that had taken their jobs and began destroying factories and machinery. These activists became known as Luddites and became extremely popular. The British government took drastic measures against the Luddites using the army to protect the factories.

The Industrial Revolution also saw the emergence of class, urbanisation and the bad conditions in which people had to live and work. Marxism essentially began as a reaction to the Industrial Revolution. As the Industrial Revolution progressed so did the gap between class structures. According to Karl Marx, industrialisation polarised society into the bourgeoisie, and the much larger proletariat.

Ordinary working people found increased opportunity for employment in the mills and factories and in some cases had no choice but to move to the towns and cities in search of work. By the early 1900’s up to eighty per cent of the population of Britain lived in urban centres (Kumar, 1978, cited in Bilton et al, p.28).

Using the clock to time one’s self, as a basis of social organisation, was an indicator of the emergence of a modern society. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries both agricultural and manufacturing labour became set by the clock in a way that was very different to pre-modern production. In pre-modern times factors such as hours of daylight set work rhythms, whereas the factories were regulated by the clock, labour was synchronised and took place for a certain number of hours each day and on particular days of the week. For the factory owners and their employees, time now equalled money. The working conditions were often strict with long working hours and a pace that was set by machinery and production.

With the Industrial Revolution came an increase in population. Education was still limited and therefore children were expected to work. Child labour was appealing to employers as it was cheaper than employing an adult yet productivity was similar. The machines did not require strength to operate and there were no experienced adult labourers as the system was completely new.

The majority of ordinary people were greatly affected by capitalism and industrial production. By the late 1900’s England’s Black Country was one of the most industrialised parts of the United Kingdom and in the 1830’s was described in the following way;

“The earth seems to have turned inside out…. The coal…. is blazing on the surface… by day and by night the country is flowing with fire, and the smoke of the ironworks hangs over it. There is a rumbling and clanking of iron forges and rolling mills. Workmen covered in smut, and with fierce white eyes, are seen moving amongst the glowing iron and dull thud of the forge-hammers.”

(Jennings,1985 p.165)

Societies were changing faster than they had ever done before and industrial societies had transformed themselves more in a century than societies had for thousands of years before. In the 19th century the invention of the railway and steamships revolutionised transport and made the world feel much smaller than it had previously. The invention of Sociology was created out of concern for a rapidly changing industrial world (Macionis J. & Plummer K, 2005).


The transition from pre- modernity into modernity was important for sociology as people began to see that society was something important to study. Some argue that this was when sociology began as the emergence of modern societies created a new intellectual world aware of its surroundings and concerned with acquisition of knowledge.

As modernity came about, changes in social attitudes within society occurred making society itself interesting to others. Unlike the static pre- modern society, modern societies appear to have created many different groups, causing new and interesting communications and interactions between people. In the pre- modern era, relationships between people in society were extremely similar and perhaps uneventful and society had been static, therefore sociology was not required.


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